Why are songs so short?
by Michelle Y. Hyun
Attention Patterns: Eliane Radigue / Pauline Oliveros / Yoshi Wada / Sun Circle
Double LP + 48 page booklet
Black Pollen Press / Important Records co-release, 2010
As the score for Horse Sings From Cloud (Encore Section) (1977), a live performance produced for French radio, Pauline Oliveros instructs us and herself to “Sustain a tone or sound until any desire to change it disappears. When there is no longer any desire to change the tone or sound, then change it (Sonic Meditations, 1975).” Long drawn out drones emanate from Oliveros’ throat and accordion. Like a pendulum without an arc, simultaneous low tones swing back and forth with each breath. Or perhaps these lengthy exhalations are the legs of a slow, percussive beat stretched to measures that belong in a twenty-minute long piece—short by minimalist composition standards. Though we enter in at 00:00 and depart at 19:27, our ears witness what seems to be an excerpt cut out of an infinite aural brooding. The tone is still being sustained somewhere beyond our privy. On the verso of this LP, Eliane Radigue processes the heartbeats of her pregnant daughter, her son, and yet to be born grandchild through an ARP synthesizer. Biogenesis (1973) similarly glimpses a durational flux of pulsing—though at a more sympathetic human pace, all the while reinforced by an underlying vibration, shimmering low and dark, throughout a paltry twenty-one minutes and six seconds.
The second LP features artists of a slightly younger generation and recordings from just last year. For Reed Modulations (2010), Yoshi Wada, in collaboration with his son Tashi, endeavor constancy through extensions of the body in the form of reed instruments. A high-pitched bagpipe wavers alongside a deep chord for over twenty minutes—still trying to sustain that tone. Low frequency vibrations phase in and out of audibility throughout as questionable, haunting focused attention lines. Here Oliveros’ other sonic meditations surface: “Focus your attention on an external source of constant sound. Imagine alternative sounds while remaining aware of the external source (Sonic Meditation XXIV).” Distinction between interior and exterior spaces of attention are further lessened by Sun Circle’s dedication For Yoshi Wada (2010). We attempt to follow the nasal tone that slides and wheezes glissando to a frenetic pace, multiplied as sirens brought to a foreground without climax. Yet, within the spaces of breath, a solid heavy thud plods and lifts into liquid, marking another slow, displaced percussion that implies continuous duration.
Strained throat strings, blood, amniotic fluid and bodily extensions notwithstanding, each artist’s compositions undulate through time in a corporeal manner and consequently demand space for these bodies—perhaps more than the place provided by headphones or a home stereo system. Though a thoughtfully curated anthology of minimalist music critiquing spatialized, measured time and challenging our modes of perception, Attention Patterns is nevertheless intended for individual playback and circulation in the realm of experimental music. One might object to its critical inclusion in a journal primarily dedicated to visual art, corralled into “sound art.” Certain sound artists have distinguished their practice from music as “that of removing sound from time, and setting it, instead, in place.”1 However, the space versus time dichotomy that defines sound art in contrast to music should not apply. Although the works compiled in Attention Patterns are concerned with time, it is not the time of “music”—discrete time that is subject to space and measurement; instead, they paradoxically attempt to document a dedifferentiated time of duration. Any aesthetic venture that questions and disrupts dominant conceptions of space and/or time deserve our critical attention. Perhaps we should dutifully follow Pauline’s instructions? Having recognized and accepted this challenge to aesthetic temporality, should we now move on and change our tone?2
Attention Patterns is available at: www.blackpollenpress.com.
Michelle Y. Hyun is an independent curator based in Chicago. Her introduction to sound began with a recent research exhibition-as-experiment on the critical potential of sound art, Dear Pratella, what do you hear?
1 Max Neuhaus, introduction to Max Neuhaus: Sound Works, vol. 3, Place (Osfildern: Catnz, 1994). See also Max Neuhaus. Alan Licht also attempts to make this distinction in Sound Art: Beyond Music, Between Categories (New York: Rizzoli, 2007).
2 Without the space here to expound upon aesthetic notions of temporality in sound art, I’ll defer to a more rigorous examination of this by Christoph Cox in “Installing Duration: Time in the Sound Works of Max Neuhaus,” in Max Neuhaus, ed. Lynn Cooke (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009).