Sound Art 37.1 – The Degeneration Issue

Feb 27, 2011Archive, Feature

Issue 37.1: The Degeneration Issue

Welcome to the sound art component of Black Warrior Review‘s latest feature – Degeneration. Below you’ll find an interpretation of degenerative music by critic Brendan Finney as well as original tracks from some of our favorite sound artists: Giuseppe Ielasi, Stephan Mathieu, Lawrence English, Margareth Kammerer and Claudio Rocchetti, Jon Mueller, and Zane Trow. Each artist’s composition was designed for The Degeneration Feature and is available exclusively on our website.


On Degenerative Music

by Brendan Finney

As physical matter degenerates, the surrounding vital bodies absorb and appropriate it. When asked to understand a variety of music under the terms of degeneration, one must consider the sonic matter that is degenerating. What essential elements of music does a composer degenerate? And what is the role, the responsibility, of the listener?

At its most basic, music seems to be structured sound, built up into various harmonies and dissonances in order to house, signify, and express particular relationships, emotions, and experiences introduced by the composers and the players. When a composer expressly disaggregates these elements from each other and lets them degenerate, what is the import of the music? On what grounds does the listener engage with such material?

Typically, music is a sticky thing for us. It comes to us laden with overt meaning integral to its structure. To this we easily adhere our own memories and experiences. The composer uses melodies, rhythms, and harmonies in order to dramatically represent ideas and experiences that–despite their generalized claims–seem personal to the listener.

Music is memory. It is a general representation of experience that is rendered through sonic structure so that we may understand it on our own terms, through our own personal experiences. These general memories conveyed and aroused by sound can help us to better understand a degenerated music.

When we are presented with a degenerated music, we can only reassemble it in hopes of understanding it. Lacking a familiar structure of song, we restructure the piece for ourselves, using our own associative abilities, our raw memories of experience. That is to say, we re-member it. The ostensible narrative structure of the piece is no longer the composer’s dramatized score, but instead what we selectively associate with the decayed framework through a kind of reconstructive understanding. The new assemblage, this re-membered music, is built by us as listeners within the provocative spaces–the fields of possible meaning–arranged by the composer.

Our memories are not the precise events that we are recalling. They are remembrances, impressions, emotions, and concepts that we developed during these events, and we reassemble them in an act of selective self-development. Remembering is a way we reconstitute the physical and temporal events of our pasts into the definitive characters that we are in the present. When we remember, we use the past to reconstruct our present. It is how we comprehend degenerated matters such as our memories and arrange them into a recognizable self. As listeners of degenerated music, we make what is fragmented or dissolving whole again not only by relating to what is presented, but by allowing our reactions and associations to literally shape and structure the music we listen to through a process of re-membrance.

Degenerated music can be a challenging environment. As we are constantly remembering the disintegrated edifice presented to us, we are both emotionally and structurally responsible for the aural materials at hand. If the listener rejects this responsibility, or if the composer fails to provide a sufficiently engaging and provocative environment, the composition will fade out of recognition and be dismissed as background noise, shut off, or simply allowed to die. In this way, with degenerated music, the listener becomes as vital to the composition as the composer, a co-creative, constructive force that complements and counterbalances the degenerative cycle.

1: Giuseppe Ielasi

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1630 is a live reworking of an anonymous baroque composition from approximately 1630, where the complex arrangements and orchestration of the original become a minimal study in pulses, accents and phasing.


2: Stephan Mathieu

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A Gentle Tapping: A text converted to binary code, used to generate tonal values and durations which are played by a chest of viols, recorded and then cut onto four 78rpm dubplates, played back by four mechanical-acoustic gramophones and re-recorded with a customized stereo set of large diaphragm microphones.


3: Lawrence English

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Graded To Gray: Oscillating lines of diminished signal. Shapes cut through fogged audio, soft exposures, the gentle reduction to hazy shades…


4: Margareth Kammerer & Claudio Rocchetti

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Not I: Margareth chose three poems from Anne Carson’s “The Life of Towns” (“Love Town,” “Bride Town,” and “Judas Town”) and made a song where the poems express a process of degeneration in three acts: 1.) movement and energy, 2.) standstill or stagnancy, and 3.) negation.

Claudio’s remix of the song begins with a knocking fog that eventually lifts, revealing a clean acoustic expanse.


5: Jon Mueller

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Gospel is inspired by Reverend Louis Overstreet’s “Holiness Dance” and the ferocious energy in that recording. In this work, I attempt to use the rhythm and frequencies of gongs and loud drums to mimic the level of human energy found in Overstreet’s piece. Though the complexity of loud frequencies can be fascinating, it is not equal to that of the human spirit.


6: Zane Trow

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Disquiet Degenerated was developed as a response to the rainforest of Mount Glorious. The daytime silence of the rainforest is in marked contrast to expectations, and to the cacophony of birdsong, insects and frogs at night. This daytime silence was a disquiet punctuated by wind, mist and rain. So, I searched for some kind of resonance that lingered in that space.