What remains of music when one looks beyond its usual contexts of geography or identity? In their new series Untraining the Ear, co-presented by Norient, the Berlin based gallery, Savvy Contemporary, invited the musician Tara Transitory to demand the listener let go of the obligation to put every sound in a context.
Reigning the Technique
Context has become the key in music reception, whether in science or in everyday consumption. On the most basic level, music is separated as intentional from (random) sound, and from there on the diversion goes on: Music on the radio will always be and expected to be «radio friendly», while in a club, we will be sure to hear club music, just as so-called classical music has its place in subsidised concert halls. Exchange between these contexts only emphasizes the importance of context for our understanding and judging of music in terms of function, distinction and market value. At the same time, artists from the periphery of the market, often find themselves caged in unwanted contexts when entering the international touring circuit. If it doesn’t sound identifiably «ethnic» enough for the Western or Euro-US-American ear, artists and DJs have a more difficult time to get recognition than bands catering to the world music market. For any artist setting out to challenge hierarchical postcolonial boundaries, context has become a burden, and ultimately, something worth questioning.
The first guest of the «listening sessions» was Tara Transitory aka One Man Nation. Her work includes sound, as well as video and spatial concepts and experiments in gender, noise and ritual, as well as criticism of capitalist culture. For her, it’s a challenge to put things into context such as her own Western education as a reoccurring factor in her involvement in queer subculture in South East Asia. When booked in commercial events as club nights or electronic music festivals, the technical framework of the production put severe limits on her performance. At the Savvy gallery, she said, she was instead «allowed free reign over the space and the technical means».
The main room of the basement was occupied by a multi screen video installation. The depicted multiple frames show the artist topless, without makeup or dress. After everyone had gathered, Tara Transitory began with hissing and droning layers as well as shuffling feet and camera shutters. The soundscape was building up slowly. Transitory, in makeup, dress, bangs, and hip trainers, kept deadpan and focused. Then, suddenly breaking pose, with an unreadable look on her face, she left the center of attention and briefly disappeared to switch off the light. Moments later, the darkness and the now medium loud drone everyone had time to get comfortable with, disrupted with an infernal bang – a merger of a hard kick drum and a gunshot.
The sound physically pierced the room and hit heavy on the eardrums … and, when the shock was still fresh, again, repeatedly but not synched to the flashes of the stroboscopic light that now barely lit the crammed scene. As the loud shots started to lose their violent novelty and found themselves embedded as an element of structure within an otherwise still swelling, non-rhythmical soundscape, disruption turned into a groove. Still stunned, people started to move away from another, partly in order to let their own bodies move and resonate with the frequencies.
Everyone is Different
In the following conversation it turned out that people had very different subjective memories about the actual duration of the performance, ranging between estimations of 15 and 45 minutes. Everyone agreed that the «Bang» was the turning point. But it should be admitted that performer and curators found a striking solution to the oxymoronic task of creating a non-contextual context. The session dealt with basic principles of sound and performance.
Harsh light and transparency transformed to an almost mind-altering play of darkness and strobe vision, floating sound made way to structure and groove, while the audience response shifted between spectatorship and immersion, individual and collective body experience, thus covering the whole spectrum of the artist’s own experiences between art galleries and techno temples. All that in the environment of a mere backstage tunnel, which was never intended to host a performance. Smart.