Ghostly reincarnations: an interview with Katy Price
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.