Wednesday, August 1, 2007

The Empty Howl of Chimes in the Wind; An Exemplary Game of “Who’s the Artist?”

Important critical dialogues often become engaged at the most unassuming moments, from the most undirected of thoughts. This, I believe, is a fairly solid indication of their relevance and the very level of their importance itself.

On a brisk and breezy early-summer afternoon while on vacation home to New England, I sat on my father’s porch, reading and listening to the birds and wind chimes, enjoying the weather and some down-time. After a few such moments, it struck me, rather suddenly, that I had begun to compose a piece of music in my head around the soundscape that the wind chimes were creating. My mind began to run with this, and I found myself soon staring blankly into the woods that the porch faced, attempting to untangle a perplexing game of “Who’s the Artist?” that I had spun around myself. As a sort of allegory for some of my current preoccupations with artistic endeavors in general, I am attempting to recreate this sticky string of perplexions in retrospect.

In my mind, I could picture what it would sound like to microphone and record the sound of the breeze blowing through the chimes. I imagined what techniques I would use, what sonic textures I would attempt and struggle to capture, if recording equipment had have been at my disposal (which it was not; in fact, part of the reason that my mind was roving for sounds in this way in general was my complete isolation from any sort of instruments or recording tools at all on this trip.). From there, I could imagine what minor and subtle sounds I would utilize in the studio in order to sculpt the echoes of the chimes into the textural soundscapes that they potentially became in my mind (a bit of a broken, dissonant-sounding toy piano? Jaw-harp with a ton of reverb? The sound of a slide clinking and shrieking on a guitar-neck without any notes from the strings? A repetitive, go-go-pulsing, crackly bass-line?). Next, a sparse but dirty big-beat, and a banshee-like bellowing psycho-sexual vocal delivery, somewhere between Birthday Party-era Nick Cave and Lux Interior from The Cramps. The tone of the piece, and the overwhelming majority of the noises that would make it up, would be decidedly accomplished by the sounds of the recorded chimes. As nearly every song is built around a single certain part (a killer guitar-riff, an intoxicatingly danceable drum-beat or jumping bass-line, an attention-grabbing vocal melody that just has to be used) this one would most definitely be built from the texture of those chimes.

If, then, a recording artist must often think in terms of liner-notes, who was the “musician” that “composed” and “played” that part? To whom would the royalties be rendered? In a broader, more encompassing sense, who was the artist responsible for the creation of the work of art? Was it the producer (hypothetically, me), who captured the sound on tape, placed the mics at the right angles, thought it necessary in the first place to render such an otherwise-fleeting sound permanent? Or was it the artisan who made the chimes themselves, who chose and deliberately sculpted which notes and chords would be played when the wind blew in various directions, and which timbres would be created by using which materials to construct the chimes? Or was it, even, the wind itself, the force that physically acted on the chimes (the “fingers” that “played” the “instrument”…)? Was it the musical influences that I was associating this sort of dissonant sound with, in order to, by association, translate the random and somewhat chaotic striking of hollow sustaining notes into a rock song of a particular sub-genre (yet with extremely different instrumentation; a deconstruction and subsequent reconstruction of the influences that come to my mind)? The list could go on.

I realized that, for answers to these questions, there were countless options, only the least of which was the current (singular) “artist” taking credit for the work and idea. None of the other potential answers would be any less correct or partial than the singular credited “artist,” whichever option may have been chosen as the final “solution” to who this “artist” “was” most “truthfully.” “The Artist,” in this case, must therefore always remain an ambiguously uncertain appellation.

What seems all the more perplexing, of course, is the thought that naturally followed… That, to one extent or another, all artistic endeavors can be approached with the same (if, at times, a tad less blatant) scrutiny of basic ideas such as “truth” and “integrity” that seem at times so integral to perpetually shifting definitions of the fleeting term “Art.” What, then, is the idea of “Artistic Integrity,” without even a firm ground on which to secure an idea of even who or what is responsible for an idea or a work of art?

Therefore, this is my challenge. “Artists,” take your most recent piece of art, or idea for a piece of your future. Ask yourself these sort of questions, examine your mediums. Play the game of “Who’s the Artist?”. Revel, as I am trying to, in the idea that there very well may be no suitable answers. Try to come to terms with the limits to your own singularity. Ideas such as these are helping me toward that goal… I’m thinking about finding myself a couple of sets of well-crafted wind chimes, and, with the help of the artisans who made the chimes, the wind, and the music already made that has influenced me, “compose” the track that came into my head that afternoon on my father’s porch. I think that the liner notes to that record would be strange (but more honest than most), to say the least.

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