Analogue Landscapes and Digital Ecologies

I was invited to contribute some thoughts about landscape while working on the Landscape Too exhibition (AirSpace Projects, Marrickville, Sydney), in collaboration with visual artists Hayley Megan French and Kate Beckingham

Landscape is a paradox for me. The word ‘landscape’ always betrays more than it defines. I don’t think we consider, and therefore do not talk of something as ‘landscape’ until it has already become more than just landscape. It is not, until it is more than it is. The act of naming becomes part of an act of exaltation. Landscape, is landscape already once transformed; transformed by human imaginative interrogation, or emotional investment, and so any discussion is at once a discussion of the thing before the word, (the physical?) and everything which makes the word inadequate (the metaphysical?).

This means that every landscape is both imaginative and physical, not one or the other, or one without the other. We cannot speak of ‘loci’ without the ‘genius loci,’ because to speak of Place is to bring life to the Spirit of Place. Any self-abnegating approach to the contemplation of landscape must partially destroy that which it attempts to discover. There is, literally and metaphorically, no landscape in which ‘we’ are not indelibly present.

And so we are forced from a perspective on landscape to a broader idea of an ‘ecological perspective.’ Ecology can acknowledge that the viewed is incomplete without the viewer for it concerns itself with organisms in relation to their environment(s), taking seriously the contribution of both. Rather than the possible ‘distancing effect’ of landscape, we could speak of the ‘inhabiting effect’ of ecology. It puts landscape into a helpful framework for discussing our meaningful participation ‘in landscape.’

I have recently had two powerful, if different, experiences which I understand ‘ecologically’. I have returned to Australia after a long period away and moved – near beach and bushland – to the ‘Central Coast’ [of New South Wales]. I am also learning to program sound, creating work within the max/msp/jitter environment. In both cases I have been confronted with new landscapes: physical and metaphysical.

Musically, there are two powerful discoveries I have come to in exploring programming. The first is it allows me to be both bound to and unbounded by the theory of sound; to refigure my sonic thinking from first principles in a very practical way. In some senses programming can be quite abstract for me, though ironically it makes the properties of sound far less abstract. Further, while the principles of sound ground the programming, the realities of sound as we know and can experience it in the analogue world are removed. If you can imagine a sonic behaviour you can turn it in to a real sound, even if it doesn’t – shouldn’t – exist in the ‘real world.’ More tantalising still, it doesn’t even need to be a sonic behaviour. In the digital world we play directly with 1s and 0s, like atoms, and the components of a program have infinite possibilities for appropriation and re-appropriation. There is something almost evolutionary in the way that the parts of programs may move from one program to another across disciplines. New species emerge in different environments, bound by their phylogeny, but distinguished by their form and function.

In this environment imagination literally builds physical entities from scratch, and out of as good as nothing. My trepidation about the inadequacy of the word landscape has no traction here. The blur between what is real and what is not dissolves, or becomes an arbitrary and uncomfortable imposition. The separation of physical and metaphysical is so close that it becomes negligible as the two intermingle.

Once you have built something which is not ‘real’, it is returned to the ‘real world.’ In the case of working to image, deciding what an image might ‘mean’ in sound is an exciting task, particularly because the sound comes to ‘mean,’ in image too. While the sound might be conceived separately, and may be controlled or restricted by different aspects of the image, they both make and unmake one another in the moment of performance, with no hint of this separation and hierarchy.

The other discovery has been the power of understanding sound and music as ‘behaviours’ rather than fixed sonic events. In composing with pen and paper (the ‘analogue’ way) I am, ideally, attempting to create definite and immutable sounds whose form can be reproduced within a tolerable range of variation from performance to performance. ‘Form’ is a classical compositional principle. Implicit in this classical idea, however, is fixed form, and while there are ways to avoid this, it is a strong paradigm, which has less practical necessity and historic imperative in a digital ecology. Form can be considered something much deeper, more structural, and need not be a superficial identifier as it has often been.

In writing a program for sound, I develop some sort of algorithmic idea, then I ‘watch, with my ears’ how it behaves when I leave it alone. I refine the behaviour of the algorithm according to what I hear, and what I don’t. In one sense I have complete control, but in a much more satisfying way I am also at the mercy of this imaginary landscape of my own invention. I imagine standing in a small secluded part of a beach to the south of where I live. The headlands create a very particular acoustic there, which deliberately or not is exploited by different choruses of cicadas, sounding in waves – how apt – in the summer months. Slightly moving your head will reconfigure the performance, and focussing your attention on different parts of this ecstatic cacophony will change the song being sung. There are also two songs. The first is the song itself, and the other is the image of that song, distorted and enhanced by the space it inhabits.

I have long felt that listening can meaningfully be a much broader and deeper activity than seems intuitive, and as a musician it certainly is for me. While it might seem obvious that first and foremost we are seeing a landscape, I am invariably more interested in listening to it. I don’t mean this exactly as I do in the previous example, where the cicada song is literally the environmental sound, but rather in how the qualities of a given landscape, physical and metaphysical, might be heard. I have also already suggested that we don’t really ever know landscape in the uncomplicated way implied by just seeing or just listening. We are more deeply invested in it than any approach which limits itself to sensory perception, or constrains sensory perception to the purely real and physical.

The question ‘how might a landscape sound’ might not seem very odd, but ‘what music does the movement of the planets make’ begins to seem more esoteric for some, and yet different discussions of ‘The Harmony of the Spheres’ have recurred since Ancient Greece, through Medieval Europe and Sufic Mysticism to name but two traditions. Of course scientific rationalism has changed the purpose of the question, but also offered new ways of answering it, and new questions worth asking.

The Harmony of the Spheres is a cosmological approach to listening, and while this might seem a difficult stance to propose in the here and now, if the earth has a song, our landscapes must have songs too and there is now, more than ever, an environmental imperative to consider how we might, or if we choose to listen, transcribe and invent them. If landscape attempts impossibly to remove us from what it presents, then an ecology, even a digital ecology, might be a new way of re-inventing our analogue landscapes.

The video work created for this exhibition can be viewed here

Analogue Landscapes and Digital Ecologies

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