Tag Archives: recording

The City Sounded

1 Oct

Lisbon StoryA number of themes covered in Fado and the Place of Longing are also explored in Wim Wenders’s film Lisbon Story (1994): the city as museum, tourist destination and object of navigation by its citizens; the importance of recording; stylization and the city’s style; the sound of the city; fate and deliberation. The film also allows us to focus on the role of technology in the processes of recollection, witnessing and representation, playing out the double nature of technology as recording and creative tool. Wenders’s film itself contains a film-within-the-film in which one of the characters, Friedrich Monroe, is attempting to document the city and to record the notable.

Lisbon Story began life as a commission from the city of Lisbon for Wenders to produce a promotional film in the year that the city was European Capital of Culture (1994). At some point Wenders decided to add a fictitious narrative to give the film more dynamism. The storyline allows his protagonist, Phillip Winter (a character Wenders would use in other films), to embark on various quests: for his friend Monroe, for a sense of identity, for love and for perfect sounds (Winter is a sound recordist).

Monroe has contacted Winter to ask him to join him in Lisbon, where he has been shooting film of the city and to add sounds to his footage that will bring his visual images to life. From the outset, sound is the medium through which the technological era is explored. The opening scene in Winter’s car as he drives from Germany to Portugal is accompanied by an ever-shifting radio soundtrack that acts as both travelogue and as an example of the web of broadcast sound which had come to dominance in the twentieth century. Winter carries with him the tools of his trade, a variety of recording devices and objects with which to emulate natural sounds. As we discover on his first meeting with the children who follow him around recording him on video, Winter is an illusionist, conjuring sound from the simplest of objects via the magic of technology.

Philip Winter

Monroe, meanwhile, is revealed as a psychogeographer, wandering the city reciting lines from Fernando Pessoa between ruminations on the cityscape; a figure resembling Pessoa is also spotted on a couple of occasions in the street. In the time between Monroe’s original invitation and Winters’s arrival, the filmmaker has become disillusioned; at one point he declares, ‘Images are no longer what they used to be. They can’t be trusted anymore.’

Music is a central component in the film, especially that provided by the group Madredeus, who had already had a prominent recording career prior to the film but gained even greater exposure after soundtracking it and appearing in it. Outside of Portugal, the group became one of the first Portuguese acts – and certainly the first ‘non-traditional’ act – to be included in the newly-formed ‘world music’ category, gaining them further exposure via the emerging world music media. Although there are elements of fado practice and style in the group’s music, theirs is not fado music. It does, however, provide a good example of the ways in which recording technology would be used in the subsequent promotion of ‘new fado’ artists of the 1990s and 2000s.

A notable aspect would be the use of what we might think of as the ‘sacred silence’ of world music recording. By this, I mean the use of recording technology to attain a crisp, digital silence around the voice and instruments and to single out individual sounds (Teresa Salgueiro’s voice, Pedro Ayres Magalhães’s guitar, or the accordion of Gabriel Gomes in the recordings leading up to Lisbon Story). This stylization of the group’s sound is extended into a visual stylization in Wenders’s film in what seems, at times, to be a promotional video for Madredeus.

The group are seen first playing the song ‘Guitarra’, bathed in light in a heavily stylized setting which Winter stumbles upon as an ‘accidental’ witness. The sound attains the clarity we have come to expect from modern studio recordings. These isolated sounds and visuals are contrasted with the ‘mishmash of life’ and ‘sea stew’ of background noises Winter witnesses as he wanders around the city with his microphone. These field recordings are opposed to the clarity of the rehearsal and studio spaces in a manner analogous to the contrast between ‘ethnomusicological’ and ‘world music’ recordings.

Philip Winter

Another way in which Lisbon Story is related to late twentieth century musical aesthetics is in its deliberate (some might say ‘postmodern’) use of glitch. Just as his character Monroe wishes to recreate the early days of cinema by becoming like Buster Keaton’s cameraman, so Wenders pays homage to early film by including deliberate glitches in some of his footage of Lisbon. Early film and early sound recording, of course, achieved their aesthetic due to the limits of the technology; what is notable about much film and music recorded at the turn of the millennium is that the loss of these limits evokes the desire to recreate them, not because it is necessary but because it is possible. Moreover, Monroe knows (because Wenders knows) that there is no one way to approach or capture the city; it must be ‘taken’ from as many angles as possible. Monroe realized the destructive force that can come with the representation of space: ‘pointing a camera is like pointing a gun. And each time I pointed it, it felt like life was drained out of things … With each turn of the handle, the city was fading further and further.’

Monroe’s radical solution is to assemble an archive of unseen footage, filmed automatically and not viewed but stored away for future viewings. His goal is to record the city ‘as it is, not as how we want it to be’. He here enacts a commitment, like Henri Lefebvre, to a politics connected to representational spaces and lived experience. He seeks restrictions that will allow him to remove himself from the controlling centre of representation, believing that an escape from perfection and a moving toward randomness and luck will help to bring the human back into the city.

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Phonography (II)

28 May

Krapp’s Last Tape suggests an updating of relationships between the Proustian ‘involuntary memory’ and Proust’s project of refinding time and place via the act of consciously recording memory; the evocative power of the petite madeleine and the conscious act of recollection of time and place become one in A la recherche du temps perdu. Proust often plays out these different kinds of memory via references to music, such as the episode of Vinteuil’s sonata. Proust’s character M. Swann is initially affected by the music a year before the events being narrated but does not recognize it and has no way of finding out what it is. The following year, at a soiree, Swann rediscovers the music and is this time affected not by the immediate perception of it, but by the memory of it.

Yet, even on the first listen, memory was at work. As Proust describes the impossibility of capturing music due to its fleetingness, he describes memory, in a manner that utilizes an understanding of memory as place, as ‘a labourer working to put down lasting foundations in the midst of the waves, by fabricating for us facsimiles of these fleeting phrases’.  On Swann’s rediscovery of the music, however, he is furnished with a better way of keeping hold of it: ‘now he could ask the name of his stranger … he possessed it, he could have it in his house as often as he liked, try to learn its language and its secret.’  Proust here combines music, place and memory in a number of ways: firstly, Swann’s initial exposure to the music is described in terms of the fleetingness of spatial perception; secondly, his mind attempts to hold onto the music via the swift erection of memory places; thirdly, he is now able have the music ‘in his house’ where he can guard it and visit it as often as he likes.

An example of this process from the world of fado is provided in the figure of Alfredo Marceneiro. Marceneiro did not record extensively, preferring to sing live in the casas de fado in which he was a legendary figure. The contrast between this ‘authentic’ but undocumented world of fado performance and the promise of reproducibility are hymned in the liner notes to the 1960 album The Fabulous Marceneiro:

Here is, at last in high-fidelity, his husky voice, plaintive to the point of near-disintegration, singing fados, tilting melodies that intoxicate like wine. All this we can hear on record for the first time; and those who had the privilege of actually seeing him (a privilege he is jealous of granting) will recall the small figure, the wrinkled face contrasting with the surprisingly black, wavy hair, the swaying body accompanying the inflections of the voice, the silk neckerchief significantly protecting his throat from the outrages of time and weather: the true ‘fadista’, the living legend … For years and years we had been trying to get him to grant us a recording session in high-fidelity. When at last he bowed to our entreaties and could bring himself to come to our studio he was disgusted. He hates machines and things to ‘interfere’ with his fado (he hates ‘progress’ anyway). So he tried to sing with closed eyes not to see the outrage. And when that proved insufficient he grabbed his neckerchief, tied it round his eyes and started to sing all over again in complete darkness. Yet, it is to high-fidelity that we owe this rare joy: the fabulous, reluctant Marceneiro singing for us, in our homes, as many times as we please.

There is much to note here. Most of the points are based around the opposition between Marceneiro as an authentic, and somehow primitive, fadista and the producers and consumers involved in the recording process, who, while perhaps inauthentic, at least have ‘progress’ on their side. The ‘disintegration’ associated with Marceneiro’s voice is not only an aesthetic statement (although as an aesthetic statement it works quite well at pinning down the unsettling nature of his vocal style), but also a comment on a kind of loss that is extra to the loss of saudade being hymned by the singer: the fact that we might lose this voice to the ‘outrages of time and weather’. Without ‘high-fidelity’ recording we would have to rely on memory, just as those who ‘had the privilege of actually seeing him’ have had to do until now. But the recording promises to do more than just fix the voice; on hearing it, we will be able to recall the man himself.

Writing is as important as audio recording here in at least two ways that may not immediately be obvious and which are not stated explicitly. Those behind the recording, along with its consumers, are associated with writing while Marceneiro is associated with speech and the oral tradition. Those of us who have not been fortunate enough to witness Marceneiro in the flesh have been able to read a description of him penned by C. B. Carvalho, meaning that we now possess an image to accompany our listening. Marceneiro, meanwhile, can sing in complete darkness and without the help of a lyric sheet, summoning up the verses from somewhere deep inside him (no mean feat with a lengthy song like ‘Lembro-Me de Ti’. In this sense he is, as Paul Ricoeur says of musicians, an ‘athlete of memory’, set apart from the everyday person even as he lives his authenticity.  Finally, of course, there is the resonant echo of Proust in the closing declaration that we may now possess this elusive moment and relive it ‘as many times as we please’.

Recording (i)

7 May

When Badiou speaks of the theatre-idea as a possibility that only emerges from the theatrical event, he puts in mind the absolute precedence of this event. If anything can come after it to recall it and keep it within knowledge, it can only be a transcription. As Certeau and Lefebvre point out, this scriptural process can only be a reduction of lived experience. And yet we cannot deny the desirability of such transcriptions, a desirability born from a need to revisit these evental sites. We need, therefore, to distinguish between the event and the knowledge of the event which can only come after. This realm of knowledge is where recording resides, a thing we can go back to, a sonic space we can tame and revisit and a fantasy we can enter.

Recording may reduce the complexity of the sonic space just as knowledge is always a reduction of what just is. The danger for Lefebvre is that this knowledge can become the basis for a dominant ideology. The solution is not to get rid of the representation of space (Lefebvre knows this is not possible) but to recognize how it works in conjunction with spatial practice and spaces of representation. As Victor Burgin suggests, ‘The city in our actual experience is at the same time an actually existing physical environment, and a city in a novel, a film, a photograph, a city seen on television, a city in a comic strip, a city in a pie chart, and so on.’ (Victor Burgin, In/Different Spaces: Place and Memory in Visual Culture (Berkeley and London: University of California Press, 1996), p. 28). This ‘and so on’ must include music, for the city is also a city in a song. Our knowledge is gained both from lived experience and from the representations of our and others’ experience. Sylviane Agacinski recognizes this in her account of Walter Benjamin, the archetypal flâneur, pointing out that he is never innocent of the city through which he strolls:

What Francis Bacon called ‘lettered experience’ (experience transmitted through books) interferes here with a reading of the city that comes about through walking. Thus the walker’s lived experience is traversed by a ‘second existence,’ the result of books, in such a way that the different types of experience merge and fade into one another.

(Sylviane Agacinski, Time Passing: Modernity and Nostalgia, tr. Jody Gladding (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003 [2000]), p. 56.)

Music has an important role to play in these processes, as George Lipsitz notes:

Through music we learn about place and about displacement. Laments for lost places and narratives of exile and return often inform, inspire, and incite the production of popular music. Songs build engagement among audiences at least in part through references that tap memories and hopes about particular places. Intentionally and unintentionally, musicians use lyrics, musical forms, and specific styles of performance that evoke attachment to or alienation from particular places.

(George Lipsitz, Dangerous Crossroads: Popular Music, Postmodernism and the Poetics of Place (London and New York: Verso, 1994), p. 4.)

Memory is both the unexpected and the desired revisiting of the past. It is both voluntary and involuntary: we can choose to (re)visit places via deliberate musical choices, or we can be taken unaware by musical madeleines.