Sounding public formations
Shortly after the audience had settled, Yoshi and Tashi Wada arrived into the concert space of the Graham Foundation and walked behind a table prearranged with emergency bells, sirens, a mixer, electronic equipment, and a reed organ. Yoshi Wada checked to make sure everything was in place, signaled to his son with a timer in his hand and without looking at the audience, announced, “Ok, we will begin now.”
Not signaling any grand gestures or formal beginnings, Yoshi Wada triggered the sound of an emergency alarm bell that pierced through the quiet murmur of the audience. A startling contrast to what we had heard in his voice, the sharp, repetitive pings cut through the room with violent, almost dangerous force. Irregular and jarring, each sonic event left me uneasy, partially in terror from their seemingly random occurrences and incessantly high amplitude. Oscillating between alarms and bells of various sizes, Yoshi juxtaposed these sonic events with the grinding sounds of sirens nearly at the threshold of fully sounding. It was hard to discern if the ringing in my ears was the residual effect of the resonance of the bells or if my ears were still adjusting; I had no way of knowing if it would ever stop.
Cleverly playing with this lack of perceptual identification, Tashi Wada carefully amplified the resonance of the alarms, feeding it back into the space as a ghost upon which other violent events could occur. Playing with the echo, I am reminded of Brandon LaBelle’s invocation of Michel Chion in which he writes “sound, as the result of a series of material frictions or vibrations, arises from a given object or body to propagate and leave behind the original source – it brings the original source from there to here [sic].”[i] Through an act of sonic displacement, Yoshi’s echoes were transformed through Tashi’s mixer, feeding into the hall as the recurring resonance of alarm. As LaBelle continues, “the echo brings back the original event, though, reshaped or refigured, thereby returning sound and rendering it into a spatial object: the echo turns sound into sculpture, making material and dimensional its reverberating presence.”[ii] The resonance of the bells thus becomes a transfiguration of power, an echo that displaces control into a four-channel diffusion of the speaker system. A remediated call to attention, the reverb is trapped sound that regenerates itself, propelled through the space and into my body. It both holds and remakes its source, regenerated as a prosthetic sonic experience that surrounds and engulfs me. In Tashi’s hands, resonance became the spectral echo of Yoshi’s sonic acts, a consequence that enabled the frequencies of bells to sustain and remain in the room.
In this vein, I am interested in the notion of the sonic echo and am drawn to objects as materials that contain a particular past. Though they are objects triggered to articulate a sonic space within Yoshi and Tashi Wada’s performance, they function as relics of their former life. Abstracted and decontextualized from their origin, these objects echo the environments from which they came and offer a material imprint of their cultural function outside of the performative moment. As objects used for alarm, the siren and emergency bell were designed to cut through noise and large distances of public space, pushing sound through the air in an effort to cover large areas to mass amounts of people. Looking historically, as Katherine Shera writes in an essay for The Anthropology of Sound, the modern siren emerged from the French engineer and physicist Baron Charles Cagniard de la Tour who reconfigured an earlier model of Scottish physicist John Robison. In his improved invention, Cagniard de la Tour named his vox mechanica a Syren after the seductresses who “lure[d] sailors to their death with their song” in Homer’s Odysseus. (It is interesting to note here that Robison’s first siren was fabricated to allow an organ to function more efficiently, further inserting the musical foundations of these instruments.[iii]) While the Syren lost its musical function by the late 1800’s, it became a tool for issuing signals and warnings as an integral part of emergency alarm systems and militarized functions worldwide.[iv] Reconsidering these objects, they enabled a sounding prosthetic of the voice – a series of technologies that called to one another.
Yoshi Wada, accompanied by Scott McCawly, paraded back into the performance area with bagpipes. Cutting through and above the sound of a droning organ, the sounds of bagpipes flooded the room in a jolting and unexpected way. “Possibly the only priest to ever grace the Lampo lineup”, McCawly and Yoshi filled the space with constant, impenetrable flushes of sound that oscillated between drones and fluid material, occasionally pulsating against the sustained material in the organ. Reaching euphoric moments, the shroud of aerophonic sounds pushed into and through my body, confining me to a space where I was left to contend with my environment. As these sounds permeated my body, as Shera wrote that they would, my mind began to wander in an attempt to make sense of what I was hearing and what these sounds were doing. Though the layered gestures of sound materialized in constantly shifting and nuanced ways, they maintained their aura as continuous and constructed in their longevity. It was in these moments that I began to contemplate their relation, their connections, and their impact.
Over the course of the next hour or so, the three performers engulfed the performance hall with long stretches of sound that were equally composed and improvised. Occasionally articulating the long form composition with shifts of timbral or registral fluctuations, the arch of the performance embodied the actions of the material objects themselves. Penetrating with sharp articulations, the sections of the work pronounced themselves as the entrances of the bagpipes or the bells. Had it not been for the recurring reverb and echo provided by the electronics, the musical shape and continuity would have ruptured entirely. But through these articulations, the cohesion of visual, sonic and conceptual material began to take shape.
Returning to Shera’s sirens, she articulates the ways in which sirens have historically been considered “centripetal sounds, unifying and regulating the community.” For her, the siren offered a voice of a community that played an essential role in the very creation of that community, and even “in the very formation of a public identity.”[v] In those moments of knotted and overlapped sounds, the bagpipe, reed organ, and the resonances they created began to formulate as sirens in and of themselves. In the room, their command of my aural field left me no escape, where a boisterous call to attention endured in the residual traces of their instruments.
As containers of histories from militarized, commercial, and identificatory pasts, Yoshi and Tashi Wada’s choice of instrumental and sonic material thus gestured to the ways public formation has been constructed historically. Through their looped and recurring streams of sonic swells, continuous drones, and soaring runs that nearly exhausted the limits of my audition, I began to trace the layers of history and affect that would re-sound and echo through history and memory, even days after the hour-long performance. Considering these histories, it became evident that each object enabled a remediated prosthetic version of each other: the bellows of the bagpipe became the organ that became the siren and finally the bell. And though each technology utilized onstage possessed the ability to organize bodies in a single sonic instance, it seemed Yoshi’s initial focus of attention was the most poignant. Within this performative context, his announcement signaled the sonic gesture of human connectivity that preceded the invention of any of the instruments on stage. With a simple speech act casually uttered, he gestured to the beginning of community and public formation, (dare I say) the sonic cue that resounded clearly through the materials of their performance.
Yoshi and Tashi Wada performed Saturday October 22, 2016 at the Graham Foundation as part of Lampo, a series that promotes and supports artists working in experimental music and intermedia by commissioning, producing, and presenting special projects and performances.
[i] LaBelle, Brandon. Acoustic Territories: Sound Culture and Everyday Life. London: Continuum, 2010.
[iii] Rosen, William. The Most Powerful Idea in the World: A Story of Steam, Industry, and Invention. Chicago: University Of Chicago Press, 2012.
[iv] Shera, Katherine, quoted in Stefan Helmreich. 21A.360J The Anthropology of Sound. Spring 2008. Massachusetts Institute of Technology: MIT OpenCourseWare, https://ocw.mit.edu.