Esther Marie Pauw
Meryl van Noie
Jacques van Zyl
When a recording of a score-based classical composition is made by a musician, the recording is the product of a composer’s score, realised into sound by the musician. The recording is potentially available to listeners who are usually interested in hearing an accurate performance of the composer’s script. However, when the same recording becomes a sonic impulse for a new composition, aspects of product, process and context are rearranged into a longer-term process of creation and reception. Various factors influence decisions about and outcomes of the new product, and several questions arise. Questions may reflect curiosity about the contexts that inaugurate such a project and the material processes that realise the new sonic work. Questions may also explore ideological notions that underscore projects that include sonic impulse and sonic response. By presenting five new sonic creations in audio and by reflecting on processes involved, Esther Marie Pauw, Garth Erasmus, Pierre-Henri Wicomb, Aragorn Eloff, Meryl van Noie and Jacques van Zyl exhibit the Blavet-Varèse project.
Esther Marie Pauw: In 2020 I made home recordings of unaccompanied solo flute pieces that I have played in concert and busking scenarios, with repertoire from the 18th, 20th and 21st centuries. Included amongst these were the Gigue, and Rondeau by Michel Blavet (composed 1744, Broekmans&Van Poppel edition) and Density 21.5 by Edgard Varèse (composed 1936, revised 1946, Colfranc edition).
Although I delighted in documenting these pieces that sit familiarly under my fingers through training and decades of exploration as a classical flautist, I was also, at the time, part of an improvisatory duo exchange with Garth Erasmus. Our exchange relied on music-making as impulse and response. In our exchange spanning six weeks during pandemic lockdown and distance work, I picked up my flute every few days and (on impulse) improvised briefly on a motif after which I sent a recording of my playing to Garth. Garth played along with my recording in his own time and place, recorded our combined music-making and sent me the new piece as ‘something in return’, which also became our project title. I also made Garth a recording of the Blavet piece, standing at a window in warm afternoon sunshine, hearing garden birds outside.
When Garth made a response to my playing of Blavet by unsettling the tonality of Blavet with microtonal inflections on the zahn, and by disturbing the controlled emission of my sonic delivery through surging waves of proximity and distance, I was intrigued by the capacity of sonic response to signal ideas from a new environment, in a different place, different time, and in a different sonic creator’s voice, with individual aesthetic and political sensing. Inspired by the new piece that had emerged, I became curious as to how different approaches and media could work with the Blavet material as impulse to create responses. I asked Aragorn Eloff and Pierre-Henri Wicomb to respond to the Blavet recording. I used the phrase ‘infecting Blavet’ in writing to them to indicate sonic invading, replacing and collaging-over to the extent that my flute sounds could be obliterated or morphed into something new. However, the brief to Eloff and Wicomb was extended as an open invitation for any sonic response to Blavet.
Concurrent with the Blavet project, I launched a similar project from the Varèse recording I had made. I approached Meryl van Noie and Jacques van Zyl to work with the Varèse piece as impulse. My suggestion included mention of the phrase ‘affecting Varèse’, with ‘affecting’ to indicate sonic impacting, changing or adapting. Again, however, the brief was open, and launched as a sonic impulse awaiting a sonic response.
In this discussion, a reflection on the originating circumstances of this project led to contributions in sound and writing by participating sonic artists. Material processes that had been used to realise new compositions were presented and insights on the ideas that underscored creative work were articulated. I was intrigued by the varied ways in which each response piece approached tensions that were inherent to the brief, namely problems of adapting something new from, alongside, and through, already-existing work.
To my understanding, Erasmus approached the tension of adaptation as an opening into making ‘decolonial’ music that decentres classical music’s adherence to notions of ‘mastery’ and spiritual control upheld in colonial settings.
Wicomb worked through the tension of creating innovatively despite the hovering ghost of ‘a complete recording’ by responding playfully with iterations of ‘bla-bla-bla […]’, taking the first few notes of the Blavet Gigue as a cue to processes of adaptation.
For Van Zyl, the preservation of ‘something’ remained, articulated as further questions, perhaps directing listener attention less to preservation and more to tensions of control and unpredictability that emerge amidst human-machine device pairing.
Van Noie created polyphony out of a solo line to draw attention to sound as a vehicle that relates to past, present and future. In the spirit of Pauline Oliveros, Van Noie’s reflection ended by evoking ‘deep listening’, thereby privileging listening habits that access ‘ideas, feelings and memories’ with an openness to ‘environment’.
Eloff found sonic processes of breaking down and re-combining, using chaotic systems, to be lucrative procedures—thus opening classical music’s apparent insularities from the inside-out. Eloff’s reference to [Lucier’s] ‘sitting in a room’ potentially situates Blavet for dual granular synthesisers and chaotic analogue circuitry as reactive outcome of performance, but also as trace of ongoing processes of flux as ‘the room sits within an ever-differing world’ where listener habits morph continually and critically.
As an initiator of the project, it is my final position in the role of listener, and not as player, that also catches my attention.
Much like Alvin Lucier’s 1969 composition titled, I am sitting in a room, a process piece in which his recording of his speaking voice was put through numerous phases of play-back and re-recording to arrive at a new piece (that sounded singular tones apparently emitting from the walls of his room), the recordings of my ‘flautist voice’ morphed into new pieces, in various responses made by Erasmus, Eloff, Wicomb, Van Noie and Van Zyl.
Like Lucier, who is recording an evident stutter in his speaking voice, and for whom listening directions perhaps transform from inwards (hearing his own stutter) to listening outwards (to the sounds emitting from his environment), my listening potentially becomes directed outwards, away from my flute-familiar sounds, to hearing other creative voices’ sounds. Listening habits of openness, porousness and sonic curiosity come into play. My listening, outwards, becomes sensitive to the articulations by surrounding creative voices who operate in sonic environments that include aesthetic-cultural and socio-political emancipatory practices amidst ecologies of flux. Listening outwards may thus be transformed from ‘hungry listening’ (Dylan Robinson, 2020) that listens from within the familiar and listens with an intent to control, to ‘listening from below’ (Brandon LaBelle, 2018) that listens from the margins to find systems of dominance renegotiated and borders unsettled.
The Blavet-Varèse impulse and response project grew out of the surprise and delight that emerged from an improvisatory duo exchange project with Garth Erasmus. Our initial collection of 24 pieces was published on an online curation by Greg de Cuir, Jnr., under his discursive topic, Radical Acts of Care, Act IV. Now, looking back, and reminding myself that the Blavet-Varèse project had emanated from notions also of radical care, conditions of communality that enable creation were called into existence.
Something in Return, Act II: The Blavet-Varèse project is an article compilation that lends an ear to processes of sonic migration, adaptation, reinvention and reimagination. The exhibition presents and celebrates the release of new work by five contemporary composers. The curation invites critical reader reflection and sonic curiosity.
Michel Blavet: Gigue en Rondeau, and Rondeau for solo flute. Composed in 1744, France. Published: Amsterdam: Broekmans & Van Poppel. Flute: Esther Marie Pauw. Recording: EM Pauw, using a Zoom Handy6 recording device, Stellenbosch, 2020.
Complete recording, Blavet, Gigue and Rondeau, Pauw (flute, unedited)
Edgard Varèse: Density 21.5 for solo flute. Composed in 1936, revised in 1946, USA. Published: New York: Colfranc Music Publishing. Flute: Esther Marie Pauw. Recording: EM Pauw, using a Zoom Handy6 recording device, Stellenbosch, 2020.
Complete recording, Varèse, Density 21.5, Pauw (flute, unedited)
Bonnet, Francois. 2016. The Order of Sounds: A Sonorous Archipelago. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
LaBelle, Brandon. 2018. Sonic Agency: Sound and Emergent Forms of Resistance. London: Goldsmiths Press.
Oliveros, Pauline. 2005. Deep Listening: A Composer’s Sound Practice. New York: iUniverse Inc. (p xxv).
Robinson, Dylan. 2020. Hungry Listening: Resonant Theory for Indigenous Sound Studies. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Varèse, Edgard and Choi Wen-chung. 1966. The Liberation of Sound, Perspectives of New Music, 5:1 pp.11-19.