BLOG 1: COVE PARK SPRING RESIDENCY 2019

posted: 09.03.19

After an open call process that culminated at the end of last year, I was fortunate enough to become associated with Glasgow based producing art house, Cryptic. Since moving to Glasgow in 2014, I’ve been able to experience a fair amount of the work they’ve produced and supported. The concerts and installations that they showcase usually exhibit an innovative employment of new technologies, integral to the creative expression of the works, and provide audiences with a multi-sensory feast. Personal favourites of mine (which will hopefully give you a flavour of the sorts of things that they programme / produce) include Martin Messier’s ‘Field’, Mathis Nitschke’s short opera ‘Viola’, and the ‘Full Dome’ triple bill at Glasgow’s Science Centre, featuring Maotik’s ‘OMNI’, The Macula’s ‘Hidden Towers’ and Jonny Knox and Darien Brito’s ‘Remote Sense’ (all presented at Sonica Festival 2017). It’s hopefully evident how excited I was to be supported by Cryptic through their International Artist Residency Programme in partnership with Cove Park. The residency was part of the development process for a new audiovisual collaboration with visual artist Andy Sowerby, which is likely to be showcased in 2020. In this blog I will share a brief summation of what I got up to during the week at Cove Park, and some background about the project.

07.30am by Loch Long 

Brief summary of the project:

 

Our work–in-progress,‘The Spectrum of Abstraction’ is a triptych of closely connected audiovisual works. Accumulatively the works will last approximately thirty minutes when played as one cycle and will be dispersed over three progressively interactive formats. Current plans include the first piece, 'Eye of the Storm' starting on a small screen with individual sets of headphones for audience members; the second, 'Scratch' adopts a simple stereo speaker setup in tandem with distorted projections through glass prisms; and our current venture, which concludes the triptych will use 3 custom projection screens; prepared, amplified violin (performed by Glasgow based violinist Harry Gorski-Brown); multi-channel, live electronics; and audio-reactive video amongst fixed-media elements. Some of the primary shared enquiries of the work include blurring the hierarchical nature of how we process sensory information and the creation of a space where music provides an altered, ephemeral lens through which to interpret varying degrees of visual abstraction and vice-versa.

Still from 'Scratch' - https://vimeo.com/214408149

Still from 'Eye of the Storm' - https://vimeo.com/214408423

Preparation for the residency and initial ideas:

 

Our work-in-progress, CON-TACT (working title) will explore the different layers of our skin (epidermis, dermis and subcutaneous layer) as a mediator between our bodies / minds and the world around us.  

 

With Andy and I living at opposite ends of the UK, the early stages of planning for the final part of the triptych involved some playful exercises in experimentation. These included physically posting each other ideas, tasks (including Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies Cards), and things we’d made, giving the other a tight turn-around to post back a response, thus creating a discursive chain of materials. This allowed me to step away from my usual tools of production (manuscript, instruments and computer software), and to turn to some PVA glue and badly framed images captured on my phone; lo-fi recordings of my voice / body responding to Andy’s illustrations; and scrawls of instructions and tasks for Andy to action. There were certainly tangible benefits to this kind of sharing in that it facilitated a spontaneous creative space where I wasn’t necessarily worried about how the processual steps were directly connected to the finished product, which can often be a source of productivity-anxiety when I’m starting out with a new project. Nuggets of these experiments really helped to distil some of the conceptual ideas that I’d go on to research and work with on the residency, and largely informed some of the exploratory practices I utilised during my time at Cove Park.

 

Loaded with research materials, hours of recorded audio source material from a studio session with Harry (violinist / performer for the project), and nine minutes of Andy’s test visual material (which I deliberately refrained from opening until my arrival), I headed to the Contemporary Centre of Arts in Glasgow. I was picked up and transported to Cove along with two other resident artists, Glasgow-based Kian McEvoy who works in video, sound and performs primarily on modular synthesizers, and Ghana-based Hakeem Adam whose work spans photography, poetry, video, sound and installation. In the conclusion of the blog I’ll share some details about the other artists who were resident at Cove Park during my visit, as one of the predominant contributing factors towards making the residency such a rich experience was my access to this small community of wonderful people and ideas.

Taken at Peaton Hill Nature Reserve

Arrival / general thoughts on my surroundings:

 

It’s easy to forget how affecting beautiful topography can be when you’re deep into your work / life routine, living in a city. The drive up to the Rosneath Peninsula, located on Scotland’s West Coast, coupled with my first moments on site at Cove Park were all but a gentle reminder of this. I actually felt pretty overwhelmed by the stunning views of Loch Long, and the almost Technicolor nature of the wild grasses that cover the site.

After being given a brief tour, and chatting with the other residents, I headed to my home and workspace for the week, ‘Taransay Pod’. The first night was spent generally planning for the week ahead. On the evening walk to the Pod from the Artist’s Centre, I was met by an obstacle course of literally hundreds of small frogs covering the pathway (read on for some more frog-related adventures). It was also difficult to ignore the sound of a donkey screaming their head off, which quickly became a regular occurrence during the week.

 

Work wise, my general itinerary for each day involved field recording with a focus on capturing my skin interacting with different terrains, materials and weathers; research / reading about the skin as a material and philosophical subject in art, and about audiovisual theory, aesthetics and practices; and working with my source materials and Andy’s visual tests to create the first sketches of the project. I feel it’s important to note that it wasn’t all work. I spent most evenings with the other residents and made time to run and walk extensively, not only to keep my body and mind feeling focused and energised, but also in a bid to be actively mindful of my surroundings and make the most of this unique opportunity to develop a creative project away from the four walls of my bedroom studio in Dennistoun.

A view from Taransay Pod

An amphibious acquaintance 

Sketching and making:

 

In an effort to keep this blog on the shorter side (which will almost definitely fail), I’ll just focus on snippets of my time at Cove Park rather than presenting the chronological details of each day.

 

Part of my first full day of the residency was spent familiarising myself with Andy’s visual tests. Within the 9 minutes of video clips, the huge variety of aesthetic processes and outcomes ranging from the visceral results of burning super 8 film, to some immersive macro photography of sweat, hair and skin immediately stimulated ideas for textures / soundworlds, structural devices and both sonic and performative ways to emphasise the presence and physicality of Harry’s body and skin in the performance space.

 

I then deliberately chose to start composing without referring to any visual stimuli as to avoid falling into the trap of just Mickey Mousing the images or relegating the music’s importance to a subsidiary strand of support for the visual material. The first sketches that I spent time developing takes layers of recordings of Harry bowing open strings very slowly with various applied preparations including tin foil, bubble wrap and paperclips. I then time stretched them (which also altered their pitch) to create dense but airy microtonal networks of pre-composed, high frequency chords that phase in and out of each other, in an attempt to create an intimate, suspended strata. This material will occur simultaneously to Harry bowing as quietly and slowly as possible, directly onto tin foil wrapped around the open strings. This restraint is offset by very severe amplification (almost to the point of feedback) to highlight any tiny resultant imperfections and microrhythms. The exploration of this performance practice is something I’ve been drawn to in the work of a few composers, particularly Oliver Thurley, who I had the pleasure of meeting last Summer at Darmstadt (German music festival / summer course), and whose music I thoroughly recommend exploring.

 

Intermittent mid-frequency percussive scrapes and cracks punctuate the slowly oscillating harmonic material, and regardless of the density of layers, I still feel there’s a sparseness left (likely due to the absence of any noticeably low frequencies). This allows Harry’s vulnerable live offering to occasionally permeate the pre-recorded audio.

 

Here is a very short excerpt of this material with some of Andy’s test visuals and a recorded mockup of what Harry’s live violin part may sound like (it’s quite quiet, so it’s advisable to turn it up!)

First rough sketches on manuscript of the layered string material

Still from Andy's first tests for 'CON-TACT'

Still from Andy's first tests for 'CON-TACT'

Audiovisual test 1 for 'CON-TACT'

I primarily worked on this material and one other contrasting idea, which takes the idea of fluid, gradual but drastic tempo changes to a constant pulsing as an exploration of the elasticity of skin (facilitated by the second layer, the dermis). For my first tests of this, I automated tempo information in ProTools, whilst using a gate to chop up sustained chunks of audio into consistent rhythmic divisions. I then applied and automated filtering to this (cutoff and resonance) controlled by an LFO. The nature of the plugin I was working with meant that it was impossible to automate fluid changes to the rate of divisions without using preset metric rates (e.g. 16th note, 16th note triplet). ProTools annoyingly seems not to have any easy way to map plugin parameters to a MIDI controllable device (which is a basic function called ‘MIDI learn’ in most Digital Audio Workstations). This would allow the user an intuitive, even performative interface for plugin automation that could be recorded in real time. My method ended up being far clunkier. I kept the rate of the gate consistent but drew masses of automation points in the session’s tempo track and applied filtering and panning separately. Here is a short audio example of this process in practice (as I don’t want to give too much of our piece away by sharing too many sketches):

'Filter gate' example one - Matthew Grouse
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After chatting to Kian (another Cove resident mentioned earlier) about my work on this section and my frustration with ProTools, he revealed that this would be far easier and more instinctive in Max (a visual programming language for music and multimedia), which is how I think I’ll choose to proceed with the material. Kian spent time explaining these ideas and actually built a simple patch with me that fulfils the same function but condenses my hours and hours of work into a few minutes.

 

Effectively, I’ll input extremely time-stretched audio of Harry’s string sounds and recordings of contact mics scraping various surfaces and materials through the patch (processed in an Open-Source programme by Paul Nasca, ‘Paulstretch’), record this back in to ProTools and then continue editing and processing in the ways that I usually would. I’m really happy with my first tests of this material, and interestingly (at least to me) they are far more abstract and almost ‘synthetic’ sounding than the earlier extract. This ties in nicely to the title of the triptych. In essence, during the week the further below the surface of the skin I began to investigate, the more abstract, processed and less recognisable my writing became.

Research:

 

During the week, my reading on general audiovisual practices and aesthetics was definitely useful for contextualising my interest in audiovisual counterpoint and dissonance. I was particularly taken by Michel Chion’s ‘Audiovision’, which (despite being primarily about audio in film) elaborates on many different approaches to assessing the role of sound in relation to the image. Here’s a nice quote of Robert Bresson on audiovisual relationships taken from Walter Murch’s foreword to ‘Audiovision’: “Images and sounds, like strangers who make acquaintance on a journey and afterwards cannot separate”.

 

For anyone new to or with a general interest in audiovisual work, I hugely recommend checking out the huge amount of literature authored by Dr. Holly Rodgers (which made up quite a large percentage of my reading over the course of the residency). I was lucky enough to hear her present a paper called “The Clashing Sensorium: Audiovisual dissonance in film” at Sound-Image 2017 in London, where she was a keynote speaker. This also happened to be one of the first festivals / conferences to screen the first two parts of ‘The Spectrum of Abstraction’, ‘Scratch’ and ‘Eye of the Storm’.

 

Research focusing on the topic of the skin, which is the conceptual focus for ‘CON-TACT’, led me to Amy Kathryn Watson's Master’s thesis (University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg) titled “COMPLEXION: SKIN, SURFACE AND DEPTH IN CONTEMPORARY ART PRACTICE”. This has been an absolute gold mine for giving further context to elements of what we’re trying to say with the work. Watson describes skin as “a protective container that houses the body and serves as its most visible surface. […] it is also the surface through which the body makes contact with and mediates the world, relaying stimuli and impulses both from within and without. […] skin is also the very site at which we encounter and communicate with others and our environment. It is the ‘performative’ surface by which we come to know and recognise ourselves, and through which, we are identified by others.”

 

Most importantly, what I have taken from reading Watson’s thesis amongst other literature on the skin is the idea of exploring the ‘haptic’ in our collaborative work. In relation to skin, Watson defines this as “a way of thinking through the separation between object and viewer, whilst highlighting the significance of the embodied experience, which offers a kind of counter-point between visuality and tactility”. Thinking about how we can communicate what the visual and sonic elements of the piece might feel like is starting to sit at the centre of our enquiry. This is largely going to be explored by the way we showcase Harry’s body in the performance space, accentuating his skin interacting with various objects. Ultimately, we hope that we can communicate something of a search for intimacy and a greater tactile relationship to the people and entities (living or inanimate) that surround us in our daily lives.

Recording and experimenting with capturing the skin:

 

As previously mentioned, I did a fair bit of recording whilst on residency. I took my trusty Zoom H5 portable recorder with me but also managed to borrow a hydrophone and contact mic to experiment with.

 

I’m writing another piece for Harry as a soloist in which he’s accompanied by field recordings and is surrounded by 4 or 5 performers wielding objects capable of making quite a racket. The performers intermittently distract Harry from a focused, quiet succession of scordatura harmonics. While in Cove I took the opportunity to try and find places to record that were sonically free from any significant human presence (traffic, agricultural work, distant speech etc.) to use for this piece. I thought this would be far easier than it was it in reality, but eventually my search took me to a few very still spots. I was wary of capturing the sounds of my breath or any other noticeable signs of my presence, so I tried lodging the recorder in various nooks and crannies while I wandered off for a bit to let the Zoom do its job. This was successful to varying degrees with the chosen photo showing the least successful attempt. On this occasion, the recorder became dislodged and ended up in a ditch. I think I’ll just invest in a mic stand next time.

 

I also experimented with taping contact mics to my skin and other surfaces and then interacting with various materials and terrains. The photo below shows one experiment where I tried using a simple max patch to apply granular synthesis and various other processes to the sounds of me scratching at my skin. The thickness of the plastic backing covering the transducer really dulled the intimacy of sound that I’m looking to capture, so I will try some similar experiments with bare Piezoelectric discs against the skin or perhaps some cardioid capsules.

 

I also collected some very useful sustained scraping sounds by dragging a hydrophone across various terrains adjacent to water (e.g the loch shore). The bizarre highlight of my recording with hydrophones however was completely unrelated to the project. As discussed earlier, there were a lot of frogs about. Here is a recording that probably seems weirdly voyeuristic, but it was only after showing it to some of the other residents that I was informed of the slightly private nature of what I’d captured.

Hydrophone recordings of frogs - 01.03.19 - Matthew Grouse
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Conclusion:

 

On the last day, I got to experience an early version of a beautiful installation by Katie Anderson. Ethereal tones emanate from a 6 channel speaker setup, interceded by the metal ‘sound-horns’, which vibrate and begin sounding incredibly high harmonics (truly gorgeous).

 

Other residents not previously mentioned who I had the pleasure of spending time with and learning from include Marta Noone (one half of Silent Chaos, whose meditative show ‘Origins’ was just showcased at Glasgow’s CCA as part of Cryptic Nights); Penny Boxall (winner of the 2018 Women’s Poetry Competition, the 2016 Edwin Morgan Poetry Award, and a fiendish competitor in ‘Ace Trumps: Dinosaurs’ and ‘Set’); and Mark Venon (a Glasgow-based sound artist whose practice touches on sonic archaeology and radiophonic voices, he’s also one half of the team behind Radiophrenia).

 

My week at Cove Park provided me with an absolutely invaluable start to the process of developing the last portion of the triptych. This was the first time I’ve been afforded this kind of uninterrupted space for reflection, with no pressure to showcase an outcome by the end of the timeframe.

 

I feel as if a great deal of the ground work has been established, and I’m very excited to welcome Andy to Glasgow for the first time this weekend to move forward with the work together and capitalise on the efforts we’ve both put in remotely.

Filtering in Max controlled by an LFO

A find in Cove Park's library - 'Between Thought and Sound: Graphic Notation in Contemporary Music'  published by The Kitchen, 2007

ZOOM recorder lodged between tree branches

Experimenting with contact mics on my skin and live processing in Max

2 'sound horns' from a test install of a work by Katie Anderson

© 2015 Matthew Grouse. 

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