This one-question mini-interview with Dr Katy Price (Anglia Ruskin University) is a follow-up on the interview I did with Aleks Kolkowski. Katy has collaborated with Kolkowski on the old sound machine remediations, and has herself done various projects on sound and word art – as well as being a researcher interested in the interchanges between science and literature. I find her take on materialities, appropriation of science and tech, and experimental, playful and inventive take on these themes fascinating. I asked Katy to elaborate a bit how she sees working with obsolete technologies, and how does her word art intertwine with media archaeological themes and Kolkowski’s work with old recording tech:
Katy, you have recently collaborated with Aleks Kolkowski on a project that involves working with old media, appropriating old recording technologies such as Edison wax cylinder discs for creative practice, creative writing. Already before you have been interested in your word art (see for instance here) in working with sound, and creative music technologies, but what specifically makes working with these kinds of “obsolete” technologies interesting? Could you elaborate a bit on your artistic methodologies and interest in these themes (old media, co-curation with audiences as the project now with Science Museum, etc)?
Dr Katy Price: Thanks for asking about this Jussi. For me it is all about the relationship between our use of the latest consumer items and our making through history. A heightened awareness of this relationship – and ways to share this as entertainment.
The past informs how we use and think about our bodies and their companions or additions or substitutes. One way to experience this is through reading about the past and receiving inspiration from historians. Somebody like Paul Fussell points out that memory of the First World War – mud, wire, slaughter and filling in surreal forms – shapes everyone’s identities, even if we weren’t born yet. Or Paul Théberge traces how we assumed the identity and practices of consumers: not just of music but consumers in the act of music-making. All the way from the pianola to MIDI and sampling.
Those are both stories that begin around the start of the twentieth century and there is a great appeal for me in this period because you can almost see, taste, hear the past and the future washing up against each other on the street and in people’s homes: bowler hats and horse-drawn carriages collide with illuminated advertising, cinema, ‘noiseless’ typewriters. I think we would laugh so hard if we suddenly found ourselves on Piccadilly in 1925. And instantly want one of everything. People had a lot of hopes and vision – you could dream about inventing anything, from a new type of escalator to a new society. At the same time there was a lot holding people back – no such thing as maternity leave; lots of brothers, fathers, lovers, left behind in the mud in France or falling apart at home. Under those circumstances, dreaming about the future is both necessary and tough, even impossible. I think we could do with knowing how to be a bit like that now.
The audience for academic books is quite restricted and also the mode of experiencing messages from / about the past is limited to reading the book and perhaps making images in your mind or writing some notes. I found a different angle from the experience of musical artefacts on display and in performance. At the Science Museum in London there is a brilliant case in the Making the Modern World gallery. It is a jumble of items (actually organised by inspiration from a curious thinker called Patrick Geddes) and in one corner you have a Stroh violin next to an ammoniaphone – for use by opera singers and the clergy, to improve their voice before performance with a gust of ammonia – phew! Nearby there is a prosthetic arm. Because the case isn’t directly telling me how to relate these items or how to think of their place in history, I feel almost the privilege of having come across them in a curiosity shop.
But you can’t play with the items in the museum case, or see them in use.
Aleks Kolkowski has collected and restored the only working Stroh quartet: two violins, viola and cello. Instead of wooden bodies they have a metal horn (enormous on the cello). Completely mechanical: no electricity! The horn is attached to a diaphragm which picks up the sound – you play it with the bow as normal, but it sounds almost reedy, and much louder in the direction of the horn. It was used until the 1920s to make the strings audible on early gramophone recordings, before microphones. The group Apartment House played a concert on the Strohs in Cambridge a few years ago, including a piece by Aleks which incorporated two cylinder phonographs. They were all attached together with plastic tubes, which struck me as a mechanical parody of electronic connectivity. It got me thinking about how artefacts in performance can give the audience a chance to think about today’s technology in our lives by seeing an amusing or strange performance with obsolete items.
The next thing I saw was a concerto for Pianola and iPhone composed by Julio d’Escriván, which he performed with Rex Lawson. Rex is a great showman and he is happy to show the audience how the pianola works. Julio is interested in how audiences perceive the minimal gestures of laptop musicans, and he works with the iPhone in ways that make us aware of our own need for a correlation between gesture and output sound. The combination made me think that performances like this can invite us to see the new gadgets as artefacts for a moment.
I am now working a little bit with the Science Museum on how to use creative writing as part of the process of co-curation / co-creation. This means that audience groups are invited to select objects and tell stories about or through them, for display in an exhibition. So far we spent 2 days with a group of young people. Aleks showed them his phonographs and gramophones, and talked about these mechanical objects. I got them to write monologues and poems. For example: what the gramophone said to the ipod and the other way round. Then we recorded these works onto wax cylinders and gramophone discs. They were captivated by the items from Aleks’ collection: the look and feel, the sound of themselves coming back in this ghostly form. They found the mechanical process mysterious and intriguing – which it is. How can sound be captured and played back without electricity?They learned a bit about the history of sound recording and we had a lot of fun. Their writing was amazing and I think there is a lot more we could do with speaking through these artefacts: unlike other forms of object writing, you have the opportunity for double voicing when it is recorded and played back using this item.
Aleks is building up a phonograph archive of wax cylinder recordings of contemporary artists and musicians. I won’t say too much about this for now but prepare to be amazed when it is launched… I have heard some of the cylinders and the effects are stunning. They will be digitised and online soon. For the archive I wrote a poem in two voices: Thomas Edison and Charles Cros, who had the idea for the phonograph at the same time but Edison got it on the market first. We recorded one voice on the cylinder and the other one over the top, so that they weave in and out of each other. When Aleks told me about Cros, his interest in language and plans for communication with extra-terrestrials, I recognised him as one of those hopeful impossible figures of his time. He clearly deserved to be reincarnated on a wax cylinder, interfering with Edison’s confidence.
“Sonic Alchemy” – an interview with Aleks Kolkowski on his media archaeologically tuned sonic art methods
London-based musician and composer Aleksander Kolkowski occupies himself with the sound of the obsolete. This means working both with techniques and technologies of sound recording from past times, as well as investigating the nature of sound cultures through creative clashes between the old and the new. He has a long and extensive career as musician and performer, and has recently in his performances engaged with such technologies as Stroh instruments, wind-up Gramophones, shellac discs and wax-cylinder Phonographs. Aleksander Kolkowski also ran workshops at the Science Museum as part of the Museum’s Oramics-project.
The interview (March 2011) w as conducted to elaborate Kolkowski’s artistic methods and interests, especially in relation to “media archaeology” as a creative form of crossbreeding and producing hybrids from old and new media innovations and artistic experiments. Juss i Parikka was affiliated with the Science Museum early this year as a short term research fellow, working on his new book on media archaeological theory and methods.
Jussi Parikka: Aleks, a big thank you for having the time to this interview. I am fascinated in how your work is very much embedded in old media – an inventive engagement with old recording technologies from wax-cylinders to gramophones and with instruments such as the Stroh violin. Why engage with old media? Can you tell a bit more about your “artistic methodology”?
Aleksander Kolkowski: Thank you for asking. I’m reminded of a quote by David Tudor, the New York avant-garde musician and John Cage’s muse, who in response to being asked about the then late ’80s electronic music scene said ” if you look at the background of the analog technology, there are marvellous things from two centuries ago that are worthy of being investigated.” For creative musicians, old recording technologies and related instruments are rich veins from which to draw from, but this has as much to do with current artistic practices and handling of modern technology as it has to do with an interest in the past.
In today’s culture, computers, turntables, electronic devises and smartphones can all be considered as ‘instruments’ for music-making, that’s to say they are being played with or manipulated, rather than passively emitting or processing sounds. Additionally, the noises produced by altered or malfunctioning media, be it hacked electronics, feedback, scratched records or skipping CDs, have been used as material by artists for sometime now. It’s in this same spirit of actively engaging and interfering with media technology and re-purposing it, rather than merely consuming it, that we can re-examine the media technology from the distant past and use it creatively. I’ll add that this has nothing to do with nostalgia, but with a belief that we can use these bygone technologies to offer an alternative perspective in our digital media-fixated society – to listen to the present through the pioneering audio technologies from well over a hundred years ago.
While there is a delight in playing with old machines and instruments, bringing them ‘back to life’ and engaging with the past through a mixture of research and practical experience, there is a feeling that this somehow challenges the very notion of their obsolescence. It has something to do with a reaction to consumerism and to the disposable nature of current media technology, its intangibility and limited shelf-life.
I began this work twelve years ago and I suppose it started as a personal response to the techno-fetishism that was prevalent in much of the experimental music-making at the time. Instead of electronic interfaces, I performed with wind-up gramophones, phonographs, and a mechanically amplified violin in unusual ways to make what sounded like contemporary electronic music, but using no electricity whatsoever. Since then I’ve been incorporating modern digital as well vintage analogue electronics in my work. Software programs have become important tools in my recent compositions and installation work where the historic and the modern are combined.
In a way, you work as a creative researcher, a historian, or an archaeologist, then?
Research played a part from the very beginning, investigating the origins of the Stroh violin is what really got me started on this journey. So histories to do with sound recording and its reproduction and early recordings became integrated in the fabric of the work I’ve produced at every level, from the concept stage, as narratives to provide structure right to the actual content itself, be it treating the first ever recordings of music as the basis for acoustic and electronic explorations or using the first morse code telegraph message to create rhythmic structures in a composition.
These creatively inspired explorations have actually led, in recent years, to more conventional, academic research (at Brunel University) into little known forms of mechanical amplification and an involvement with artefacts from museum collections in the UK and abroad.
You do not only tinker with old technologies but perform music with them live as well. How do people react to your work and instruments?
The reaction of audiences has had quite an important effect on my work. I found that people would marvel not only at the sight of these splendid old instruments and machines, but where captivated by the sound in interesting ways. Playing back a newly recorded wax cylinder on a phonograph to a modern audience is taken by many as a kind of sonic alchemy, and it requires a very different kind of listening than what we’ve all become used to. Rather than hearing a virtual copy, it’s closer to a memory of something. So it seemed possible to work with the relationship of sound and temporality by ‘ageing’ sounds using old technology, to be transported back in time, then forward to the present through the sound recording media of the past.
Do you think there is currently a wider artistic and sonic interest in going back to the pre-electronic age?
Probably not to the same extent as in literature, film or fashion, that’s to say the Steam Punk movement which has more to do with fantasy and science fiction. There are musicians releasing limited edition cylinder records, artists building machines, and composers utilising the pianola, but I’d mention the sound art of Paul DeMarinis to do with ‘orphaned technologies’ from the pre- and early electronic era as being the most significant example I can think of in this field. He is a true scientist of sound who has delved into seemingly obscure forms of communications technology and created some highly interesting and accessible works.
Certainly a lot has been published over the past few years concerning 19th century science, histories and theories of technology and communication, especially with regard to sound and the history of recording, which must be indicative of something, so yes, there is a wider interest, but then artists have always foraged the past. What’s special at this point in time, is the speed and severity at which digital media is replacing the analogue and which is conversely breathing new life into all forms older physical media, be it film, chemical photography, the cassette tape and even the wax cylinder.
I saw you recently (February 2011) do a workshop with the Science Museum together with Katy Price (Anglia Ruskin University). The workshop was part of a Science Museum Youth and Public Engagement to support their Oramics (Daphne Oram) project. Could you tell a bit more about this and the workshop where you recorded short pieces of creative fiction written by the students onto Edison cylinders and other old media?
In this case it was to show that the origins of Daphne Oram’s sound painting can be traced back to 19th century advances in capturing, visualising and reproducing sound through the phonoautograph and subsequently the phonograph and gramophone. We were also treating groove-based sound recording as a form of inscription, as sound-writing. It seemed fitting that the creative writing resulting from Katy’s sessions around the Oramics Machine and related artefacts in the Science Museum collection should be rendered onto physical storage media in this way. They could then be played back on the same cylinder phonographs and gramophones the participants had written about and even become objects that furnish an exhibition.
The fundamentals and science of sound recording are vividly demonstrated through mechanical devices, through objects you can touch and sound inscriptions you can see and hear played back via styli, vibrating diaphragms and horns. As well as showing how our forefathers experienced recorded music, it also offers us a different kind of listening experience as I’ve mentioned before. It helps us to examine our relationship to recorded sound, the antiquated sound-engraving processes add distance to the newly recorded voices, allowing us to reflect more profoundly on what we hear.
At the moment, I am trying to blog most of my media archaeology related notes and images on Cartographies of Media Archaeology (the work blog for my in-progress Media Archaeology and Digital Culture-book that I am writing for Polity Press). However, could not resist putting this up here – a short story and image from Illustrated London News, 19 December 1846.
“London Street Music” features the street musician as a performing artist, giving a glimpse both to the 19th century worlds of entertainment and performance of street life, but also the pre-post-fordist emphasis on performance and affect. What writers such as Paolo Virno have identified as the mode of production in aesthetizised regimes of work: the virtuoso, the performing artist, was already his focus in A Grammar of Multitude. As Raunig puts Virno’s position in a summarizing fashion, while also pointing towards the problematic of relience on language by Virno:
“In post-Fordist capitalism, labor increasingly develops into a virtuosic performance that does not objectify itself into an end product; at the same time, this virtuosic form of labor demands a space that is structured like the public sphere.”
In the 1846 short article, the almost dangerous powers of the street musician are described in how they can capture the affect life of the listeners in public sphere: “How many suicides have been committed under his melancholy has not yet been clearly ascertained; but the effects of the orgue de Barbarie on the nervous system have been well known since Hogarth gave to the world his ‘Enraged Musician’.”
The worlds of technology (the new special street organ that differentiates this new brand of talent from “amateurs and artists”) and the worlds of music, the ability to bring operatic cultures of Rossinian and Bellinian spheres to the wider public, make up this special brand of economies of cultural industry of affect. Naturally this reminds that the contagious force of affect has a longer history – in terms of the affect theories in music (baroque and the early 18th century for instance) as well as in social theory that emerged in the late 19th century where it was discussed in terms of public space, contagion, imitation and crowds.