Long-form musique concrete. I didn't know either before hearing it.
I knew Jed Speare for a brief period of seven weeks in early 1999, having landed an internship at Mobius, “Boston’s Artist-Run Center for Experimental Work in All Media”, where Speare was the director, as part of my college requirements. I traveled two hours each way to the gallery/performance space/office via car, train, subway, and finally by foot to have my 20-year-old mind blown by performance art work about breast cancer and multimedia tributes to Syd Barrett. Green as I was to visual and performance art, musique concrete, pretty much anything remotely avant-garde, I struggled to process what I encountered, or ask very many questions either of myself or the talented artists and creators to whom I had access. Nine years later, though still relatively unversed, my curiosity was piqued to investigate the Family Vineyard label’s two disc release of Speare’s Sound Works 1982 – 1987, to learn, to test myself, and to experience something new.
For most of us, I imagine, though none of the five pieces collected here is younger than 21 years old, they are most definitely something new. This is not casual music; if you are going to listen to the 35-plus-minute “At the Falls”, for example, you must commit, read Speare’s liner notes, poet George Quasha’s dense preface (“Uncategorizable sound proposes aberrant hypotheses, world-managing thought-strays”), think, work, and hopefully remain open and curious through the work’s challenge. Musique concrete, as a cursory glance at a certain online encyclopedia suggests, is an attempt to invert the process of musical composition. Instead of abstract ideas of notes, chords, and melodies being transferred to audible instruments, found analogue sound and field recordings are spliced and combined, “abstracted” back into music. In that respect it is ironic that the form is so daunting, when the elements which it manipulates form the clattering modern soundtrack of our lives to as much if not more an extant than say, I don’t know, “Fergalicious” (let’s hope).
“Sleep Tight” is the score to a 1983 collaboration with artist Barbara Duifjes of the same name, and is composed of the sounds of encephalograph pens, and a dry water faucet in the basement of the Franklin Furnace in New York City, where the work originally premiered. The twittering, beeping, bleating, and rumbling textures aren’t “pretty”, but they’re not inherently ugly either, and prove to be just as evocative and image-inducing as popular music forms, though in much different ways. Rather than suggesting a traditional narrative, a piece such as “Sleep Tight” offers the mind the chance to make sometimes bizarre connections and substitutions. The amplified squeak of the faucet immediately reminded me of a chickadee, coincidentally a bird that often frequents my dreams. Gong-like metallic reverberations, like stretched-out traffic or compressed white noise, and choppy, skipping recorded text are the background sound we live with everyday brought to the forefront, spun and arranged. “At the Falls” (1982) was an attempt to recreate the auditory experience of a waterfall, but without any water sounds, (among its elements are vocals recorded at a psychiatric hospital in Mirecourt, France). I’d defy anyone to crank such a composition on their iPod, or during their morning commute, but in the proper context and with the right focus, the work is remarkably intriguing.
The remaining pieces, “Taboo Death”, “Love Object”, and “Wayside”, offer more in the way of traditional musical sounds such as castanets and other rhythmic percussion, voice, piano, cello, even guitar, but nowhere near exclusively. Bells ring out into fuzz, pigeons flutter, and mix with sounds from the Bay Area Rapid Transit, and “tone generating oscillators” fed through “speakers mounted on copper rods in a white cylindrical vase.” I find now that what was initially imposing and inscrutable about work like Speare’s, has much to offer those of us positioned squarely outside of the experimental sound and art realm, if we are willing. Spinning wheels, distorted machine coughs and crackles, like the sound of blood coursing through our veins in rare moments of otherwise silence, or the grinding of a train carrying one down toward the Boston’s South End artists’ district, Speare’s work is worth the investment in time and consideration.