Before, during and after the deluge: Sounding Kortrijk

May 8, 2012 § 2 Comments

In the beautiful, peaceful garden of the Broelmuseum in the Belgium city of Kortrijk, 4 loudspeakers projected the soundscape that renowned British wild life sound recordist Chris Watson composed for this year’s edition of Kortrijk’s Sounding City.

Watson’s piece/installation was inspired by one of the paintings in the museum’s collection: After the Deluge (Na de Zondvloed), an oil-on-panel, relatively small (the painting measures 53 by 91 centimeters), by Kortrijk’s Golden Age master Roelandt Savery (1576-1639).

In view of the image’s scenery, I readily imagined a little Chris Watson wearing top-notch headphones, holding a pricey microphone and carrying state-of-the-art digital sound recording equipment, hidden somewhere behind one of the rocks or trees in Savery’s delicous & fantastic ‘wildscape’. It is a scene that looks ‘unnaturally natural’, not unlike the way in which Watson’s filmic collages of bigger-than-nature recordings sound ‘unnaturally natural’. Linking them, then, is obvious. But it is too much so. Paintings like Savery’s are full of implicit, unhear-able, sound (as David Toop pointed out in a lecture, also in Kortrijk, after having visited last year’s Savery exhibition in the Broelmuseum). But that what is unheard I prefer to imagine, in a non-sequential, in a time-less, way. The imposed explicitation in a sequential soundscape, that re-starts every 30 minutes or so, actually annoys me. On Saturday April 28th, in the Broelmuseum’s garden, during the opening of Sounding City, the sound of Watson’s exotic 4-channel ‘Savery’ nature-scape faded in the presence of the far more modest natural soundscape given by the mere fact of being out in the open, in public space, in the small city of Kortrijk. It was a subtle but forceful pointer to the simple beauty of what this work might have been, without loudspeakers and without exotic wild life sounds: just (a copy of) Savery’s painting installed in the middle of the garden’s lawn together with a small bench to sit on and listen. Nothing more.

Chris Watson’s installation is one of the 11 sound/art works that, as part of the Festival of Flanders in Kortrijk’s Sounding City (Klinkende Stad), can be found at 11 different spots in the old Belgian town. All of them out in the open. Each one of them in ‘public space’. That’s pretty exciting. Though some of the works mainly keep their sounds ‘in a box’, the majority, like Watson’s Savery piece, are sounding out in the open. And whether they were meant to or not: the ‘art(ificial)’ sounds merge with the continuous flux of the ‘real’ small-town-sounds. As for Chris Watson’s installation, these proved to be stiff competition indeed. I was surprised at just how much the sound of each one of the Sounding City pieces made me more aware of the many other, contingent, sounds, that sur/s/ounded them.

David Helbich‘s work Public Sounds from Kortrijk and Jeruzalem thereof made explicit use: two loudspeakers, unobtrusively mounted at the top of the gate of the Begijnhof, played back recordings he made in 2011 in Nablus and Jerusalem, thus combining the sounds from these far away cities with the daily soundings at that particular spot in Belgium. A simple idea, and maybe not overly original, but I found it to be highly effective. A pity, however, that the Palestine city soundscape consisted in static, fixed recordings, repeating, over and over again. I actually had imagined the work to make use of a semi-direct transmission of sound (time-shifted, in order to account for the difference in time zones) from a corresponding spot in Jerusalem…

Helbich Helbich

The best among the ‘outside a box’ pieces at Sounding City, each on their own terms and in their own manner, managed to include & subtly transform the Kortrijk soundscape that they were being inserted in. Like David Helbich’s Kortrijk + Jerusalem piece, like Patricia Portela and Christophe De Boekck’s Hortus or Dawn Scarfe’s Tree Music. And like Evelina Deicmane‘s Becoming a Tree, one of the two Resonance contributions to Sounding City, a sequel to her earlier Resonance piece, A Long Day (that premiered in Kunsthaus Meinblau in Berlin in August 2011, and then went to Riga and Maastricht).

evelina joost

Also for Becoming a Tree Evelina found inspiration in an ancient Latvian tale, that she visually abstracted as three simple, clean, wooden constructions, surrounding three trees on the Vandaele plein, in which from a number of tiny loudspeakers various wood-y sounds, based upon documentary recordings of her father’s working in the woods, un-loudly sprang back and forth between the buildings surrounding the square.

evelina tree

evelina tree

A second Resonance contribution to Sounding City was Stefan Rummel‘s Articulated Chambers, who installed his intricate and solid construction on and off the river traversing Kortrijk, the Leie. Stefan’s work could be found on the other side of the river right opposite the Broelmuseum, where a nice stone stair case invited passers-by to step inside.

evelina tree

evelina tree

Even though the Articulated Chambers are, obviously, boxes, and the visitor, in a way, has to step out of the city to hear the soundscape that Stephan composed for it, once inside, through the open-ness of its construction, the city’s sound naturally mingles with the played back city sounds.

It thus was far less of a retreat than the little wooden garden shed that one discovered when entering, through what looked like a ‘secret corridor’, a most wonderful ancient garden in de Kleine Leiestraat. The cabin was part of and home to Gardening with John (2005), a piece by Alvin Curran, an American composer who has been living and working in Rome since 1965.

curran

This year, 2012, being John Cage’s centenary, it is difficult to avoid the inclusion, in whatever major sound art exhibition, of a tribute to the composer whose work and ideas have proven to be so very influential. Curran’s garden shed, though, is more than ‘an hommage’. The (too little) time I spent, on Saturday April 28th and Sunday April 29th inside this small cabin, looking at the old gardening tools, a couple of browned score pages, and listening to the pretty peculiar, secular & musical, sounds, that every now and then gave way to John Cage’s laughing and yodeling, was definitely among my this year’s most pleasant experiences. (Click here to listen to a short sound impression from inside Alvin Curran’s Gardening with John.)

curran

It were the touches of sudden ‘strangeness’, of slight – sonic, but also visual – alienation, that made strolling through Sounding Kortrijk such an interesting and agreeable experience: suddenly stumbling upon Evelina Deicmane’s brand new wooden packing of the three small trees; Alvin Curran’s garden shed, looking a bit silly and misplaced in the old stately garden; Stefan Rummel’s Articulated Chambers, that also in Kortrijk gave the impression of having been installed at the side of the river for some, practical, industrial reason or other; but it’s just impossible to make up one’s mind as to what precisely that ‘industrial’ reason would be.

Arguably the strangest, as well as the most unobtrusive of them all, were the some couple of tens of meters of long brass ribbon that could be seen dangling across the Tacktoren lawn near the Korte Kapucijnenstraat. Here, there was little or no sound to be heard, other than that of the rustling of the trees’ leaves, birds whistling, footsteps, far-away voices and the occasional car passing…

Leif Brush is a, by now 80 years old, sound art pioneer, living in Duluth, Minnesota, where he transformed his spacious garden into an artist’s studio. The long brass ribbon is one of his terrain instruments: the Wind Ribbon. The long brass ribbon is supplied with contact microphones. To hear the sounds captured, we had to step inside the space on the ground floor of the Budascoop building, where Guy de Bièvre and Sofia von Bustorff (who went to Duluth, to meet up with the artist) furnished a room dedicated to Brush’s work, including (an inside version of) another of his terrain instruments: the Insect Recording Studio.

brush

For the duration of Sounding City, the sounds of Leif Brush’s Wind Ribbon in Kortrijk are streamed live on the web, where you can listen to them continuously. And though Alvin Curran’s Cage piece is a good runner-up, you will probably find, like I did, that few or none of the sound-parts (mostly loop-ing) of the other pieces at Sounding City are able to match the endless variety, sonic wealth and at times – yes – sheer musicality of the Wind Ribbon. The stream’s URL is http://icecast01.v2.nl:8000/windribbon

Here are a 13 minutes and 23 seconds of the sounds that I recorded from the ribbon’s ongoing live stream, around 20h on Tuesday, May 8th, while finishing writing this article, catching, as if by magic, the Sounding City’s ribbon at a particularly tumultuous moment in time…

At the end of our rainy inaugurating tour of Sounding Kortrijk on Saturday April 28th, Leif’s story as recounted by Guy and Sofia, felt so wonderfully weird, that Touch label‘s Mike Harding’s suggestion, the next day in the Handboogstraat, where we had a coffee in the Hoochie Coochie cafe, that this ‘Brush artist’ had to be a fiction, ingeniously made up by Guy and Sofia as their Sound City project, for a while seemed plausible enough. We had quite a bit of fun later that Sunday afternoon, in the train from Kortrijk to Lille, making up the possible biography and the possible oeuvre of a female sound art pioneer, eager to cooperate with the fictional Leif on future fictional projects. But, well, also in sound art some truths are stranger than fiction. For, believe me, no one – no one, could ever ‘simply make up’ a web site like Leif Brush’s weblackwhole.net

The following vimeo clip gives an overview of the opening of the Sounding City: Public Sound sound art exhibition at this year’s Festival of Flanders in Kortrijk, Belgium, followed by an impression of the evening concert, with sound projections by Jana Winderen and Mike Harding, who stood in for Chris Watson. It all sadly will no longer be part of Kortrijk’s Public Sounding space again too soon. The complete set of installations can be viewed and heard in its entirety only two more days, over the coming weekend, on the afternoons of Saturday May 12th and Sunday May 13th.

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