Peter Bogers’s “Untamed Choir”

July 25, 2013 § 3 Comments

The past couple of weeks in Østre (the Lydgalleriet’s new space for sound art and electronic music in Bergen, Norway), Dutch artist Peter Bogers has been working on the installation and fine tuning of Untamed Choir, a new work that he produced for RESONANCE, and which will premiere as part of a short summer-exposition at Østre (from July 25th until August 11th, 2013), also featuring The Beaters, by Jitske Blom and Thomas Rutgers.

Peter Bogers’s new work is a spatial composition that uses 30 vocal tracks, played back through a set of 40 small loudspeakers that are hanging from the ceiling of the room into which the piece is projected. 20 of these are positioned on a large circle, with their cones pointing inwards. The others are spread over the rest of the projection space.

The following picture shows a sketch of a possible positioning of the loudspeakers, but the precise distribution of the speakers will obviously depend on the properties and dimensions of the room in which Untamed Choir is presented.

“Up until now the installations that I made, were more like sculptures; visual things; things that are,” Peter said. “The visitors might contemplate them and listen to them for as long as they liked. This is sort of a first time that I present a work that actually has a definite beginning and a definite end. Untamed Choir is a composition, a thing with a fixed duration. Of fifteen minutes.”

“The installation nevertheless does have a strong visual component. It consists in a projection of images of noise, moving between white dots on a black background and black dots on a white background, that illuminate the space into which the piece is projected. These images are of a ‘positive’ and of a ‘negative’ kind, just like one might consider ‘screaming’ to be the ‘sonic negative’ of ‘singing’ or ‘chanting’. The projection thus reflects the transformations: from ‘screaming’ and ‘crying’ to ‘chanting’ and ‘singing’ to ‘screaming’ and ‘crying’.”

How did you go about collecting the vocal material that you needed for the work?

“Much of the material consists in samples. Of singing, of choirs… I took anything that I could get hold of and that I thought might be useful. And then there are parts that I sung myself, and parts that I asked friends and acquaintances to sing. Originally I had planned to do a lot of the necessary vocal recordings in Bergen, in cooperation with a number of students here. But unfortunately, due to several changes in the work schedules, that has not been possible. So I ended up doing most of the recording and collecting of the sound in Amsterdam.”

“The things that I recorded myself were primarily related to the many transitions that I needed, in various tonal pitches, between the crying/screaming and chanting/singing. Often such transitions had to be very, very gradual. So gradual, that it becomes impossible to pinpoint the precise moment of change… In the singing parts I aimed at a very stylized… eh… well, yes, I may indeed just say: at a kind of ‘beauty’. I wanted it to be the sort of thing capable to seduce the listeners.”

Many of the fragments that I heard, in your preview video (which you will find embedded at the end of this article), struck me as almost Wagnerian in atmosphere…

“The singing had to be beautiful. Parts of it – including the end – are indeed kind of ‘dark’, kind of ‘heavy’. And some parts get kind of ‘psychedelic’… The piece has been conceived as a single, continuous, expiration. I removed all the breathing from the samples and the recordings. And I distribute the 30 vocal tracks over the 40 loudspeakers. This allows me to actually move sounds in the space. I can make them go round in a circle; and I can freeze them, keep them in one specific spot. Most of the singing is located everywhere in the space, including the circle; but the screaming is concentrated within the circle. When the chanting turns into screaming, the transformation initially takes places within all of the channels. But then gradually it is pulled towards the center. Until the scream occupies nothing but the middle of the room, where it literally is running around in circles. At varying speeds. So it is a pretty … yes … physical work.”

And with the extensive spatial configuration, the listener, when moving around, will experience a continuously changing perspective?

“The idea indeed is that one moves through the space, and that one will encounter changes in the sound on, say, every square meter. But these changes and these shifts are very subtle. They do ask for some concentration, so it may help if one closes one’s eyes… I am actually very happy with the acoustic conditions that I have been given here in Østre. My studio in Amsterdam is a bare space, with a lot of reflections. Here the sound is muted. And that is what this piece needs, because it allows for a far more precise localization of each of the sounds.”

Along with the noisy images that illuminate the space, also a running time code is projected. What do the numbers refer to?

“The numbers actually do not refer to anything specific. It is just a counter that is running, all through the piece.”

Like the transitioning noise images, they seem to suggest, though, that there is also something rather formal about the piece; in contrast maybe with the expressionistic – the untamed – ‘romanticism’ of the singing; ánd of the shouting…

“Maybe… I have to confess that I still have my doubts about the use of the counter. It will be part of the show here in Bergen, but I have not yet made up my mind as to whether I will also include it in the subsequent renderings of the piece… But there is a system to the numbers. When screaming transits into singing, the noisy projection simultaneously transits from positive to negative. So if at first the images are very light (white noise on a black background), then during a transformation from screaming to singing the picture will gradually turn into something very dark (black noise on a white backgrond). And the tipping point will correspond to the counter’s transition from plus to minus. Via zero. The counter also indicates the beginning and the end. When the work begins, the noisy image will just show you the dots, standing still. The dots do not move. And the counter is at 0. Untamed Choir then starts with a scream. And at the same time the counter starts running. The piece ends fifteen minutes later with a transition from low singing to very low screaming, which eventually turns into a kind of sigh, while the counter runs to 0. There it stops, in a still image of noise…”

“So there is a beginning. Then there is an end. And in between it is a cycle.
Like a life cycle.”

“My earliest fascination, in the 1970’s, was for performance art, with its very challenging physicality and direct confrontation with the audience. Around that same time, the first handy video cameras became available, and I realized that I actually preferred this use of technology, as an intermediary, between myself and the audience. I specifically remember one of these early works, of which no documentation has survived, but which was crucial in my development. I was sitting on a chair, surrounded by lights, making sounds with my mouth directly in front of a camera. The close up image of the lighted inside of my mouth then was shown on a monitor above my head, along with the amplified sounds – I started with baby like gurgling and vocal noises – that I was producing. That was how I began apply technology as a means to put up a separation between myself and the onlookers.”

It also shows a very early fascination for the human voice.

“I did an awful lot of recording of the vocal sounds of my first born son. Babies just begin to make noises. It’s a very free form of vocal experimentation, something that I find absolutely admirable, really. And then language starts sneaking in. This transition I find extremely fascinating. I made a work in which I imitate the sounds he made. There are two images, on two monitors. One showing his sounds, and on the one above there’s me. And the alternation of the two produced this very strong rhythmicity… So, yes, the human voice has continued to be a focal point.”

Your background is quite obviously in the visual arts, but do you consider yourself to be, nevertheless, in some sense, a composer?

“Actually I think that music is the best there is. So, to be honest, I really would have liked to be a musician…”

Do you play an instrument?

“Ah, well, a little bit of everything, one might say. I have a pretty good sense for rhythm, so I can do some drumming, play a bit of mouth organ. Nothing properly, though. But sound always had a strong presence in my work. It is only now though, with this work, that some sort of composing is involved. That I find myself being concerned with decisions about pitch, frequencies, timing, the combination of voices, and so on. With real musical components. Before, my point of departure always were the images. But when you turn on a camera to capture images, you also get the sounds. And I always have used this immediate link between image and sound. I would never add a soundtrack to images just to create a certain atmosphere. Sound that is being used to manipulate the viewer into a certain mood while looking at images usually makes me feel pretty uncomfortable. There has to be a connection between the two, a natural link.”

There is quite a long tradition within music and sound art of works that quite specifically address the distribution of sound sources and musicians within a space. Is this something that you have looked into?

“No, not really. I have to admit that my historical knowledge is pretty limited. Especially when it comes to this field of ‘sound art’, which as a matter of fact is sort of new to me. Even though some of my works, in hindsight, actually might very well be labelled as such. ‘Heaven’, for example, a work from 1995, installed in a little working-class house in the center of Utrecht. I had a great many of these old, small black and white surveillance video monitors, which were scattered around the three rooms. And each of the monitors showed an image lasting no more than one second, playing forwards and then backwards. With the corresponding sound, playing forward one second, and then in reverse for one second, on and on and on, in endless repetition. These were all sorts of images of small things, that you might see happen in such a house. Someone’s neck that is turning this way, one second, and then back the other second. And the second hand of a clock, going one tick forward and then one tick backwards again. A baby sucking milk from his mother’s breast. All the time there’s this repetition, this back and forth, and it becomes like a machine, something very rhythmic, going… ta-duh ta-duh… ta-duh ta-duh… which makes it, in a way, highly oppressive. So like ‘Untamed Choir’ this was a piece in which the spatial distribution was central, and the visitors had to walk through the piece.”

“The title ‘Heaven’ is that of a Talking Heads song. Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens. That’s a wonderful image. When this kiss is over it will start again. It will not be any different, it will be exactly the same. Heaven is a place where events do not devalue. Here on earth, for us, that is not the case. And maybe that is indeed our problem.
Things continue and repeat.
But they will hardly remain fun.”

Peter Bogers – Untamed Choir | Thomas Rutgers & Jitske Blom – The Beaters. Two RESONANCE sound art installations presented by Lydgalleriet at Østre, Skostredet 3, Bergen (Norway). From July 25th until August 11th, 2013.

The following YouTube clip gives you a 4’50” preview / walk-through in stereo, of Peter Bogers’s Untamed Choir.

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