Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Spaces of encounter: artists, conversations and meaning-making

Presentation from the North East Scotland visual arts research doctoral summer school at RGU in Aberdeen.

Sunday, August 08, 2010

The Cave: Chamber Music

This is an old project, but as the links have now disappeared from the BBC SSO blog, and I quite like this bit of writing and filmmaking, and I'm probably going to talk about it next Tuesday up in Aberdeen, I thought I would post it here.

Watch The Cave on Vimeo

There are a few places in the world which lodge themselves so powerfully in the psyche that it is impossible ever to be quite the same again when one has visited them. Durness in Sutherland, on the furthermost tip of the Scottish mainland, is one such place. 

In July 2007, members of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra spent a week in residence in Durness. The project had two parts. The first was a public concert of electroacoustic music for trumpet and composed sound which took place in the chamber of Smoo Cave as part of the Highland 2007 festival. The second was a six day residency, a collaborative project between four musicians from the orchestra and three visual artists who live in and around Durness. 

The residency was framed in part as 'professional development' for the participants; as a space to reflect and consider what could be achieved through small-scale collaboration between visual artists and musicians. It was intended to enable us to consider how we could extend our ways of thinking and making, through encounters beyond the usual orthodoxies of our artistic practice. Through the six intensive working days that we spent together, the other character that loomed large over us in the rugged and ever-changing landscape of Durness was Smoo Cave. The cave became the crucible for the work that we made, a physical and imaginary theatre which reflected and refracted sounds, images and ideas. 

Collaboration is never easy, particularly when a new group of people are meeting for the first time. Each participant was an accomplished artist in their own right. The four musicians, drawn from different sections of the orchestra, accustomed to the constant demands of a precisely arranged touring and performing schedule, had to adjust to the relatively open brief of a project in which the work had to be generated without notated scores or pre-determined outcomes. The work of the three visual artists has a powerful connection with the landscape, their experience forged out of the struggle to survive as an independent practitioner in the beautiful, but at times harsh, cultural ecology of north-west Scotland. 

So the material circumstances of the participants, and the places and spaces in which they were accustomed to making their work, was very different, as well as the media through which their creative practice was usually expressed. Entering into dialogue, finding was of communicating with people from outside one's usual community of practice can be stimulating, but also tough and challenging. Musicians who are used to the collective experience of the orchestra, with its precise demarcation of roles and parts, have to draw on slightly different skills when faced with the freedom and responsibility of making work through dialogue with others. Visual artists who are used to an intense and solitary exploration of their own experience may also have to adjust their expectations of a creative process. And for some there can be a nervousness about straying across the boundaries of one's finely honed competence into a territory where 'technique' is less about polished delivery and more rough, raw and experimental. But being a 'musician' or an 'artist' is not a fixed or immutable category. The boundaries between different kinds of artistic practice can be challenged and crossed. 

What followed was an extraordinary experience. Five days of intense discussion, occasional conflicts and arguments, walks in the windswept landscape, climbing the hills above Loch Eriboll and tracking along the rocky shoreline; an exploration of the ever-changing terrain in and around Durness which assaulted all the senses. We documented this process through drawing, photography, listening and writing, gathering objects and leaving marks, recording and recalling sound, installing a makeshift exhibition of 'finds' in the Village Hall, and sometimes immersing our bodies in the sea and the burns. We played, sang and made sound with all sorts of instruments - stones, wood and metal found on the shoreline, clay bowls and pipes - and the instruments we had brought with us. Like the weather, the atmosphere of the project changed from hour to hour. We sat up into the midnight blue midsummer night eating and drinking and talking. We visited homes and studios, looking at and listening to each others' work.

The process was complex and interwoven, with some uncertain and difficult moments - but when else was a process of art-making not like that? The generosity and patience of each person involved in the process ensured that we managed to hold together in spite of the risks and challenges of working through a collectively conceived structure. The process raised some important issues, about the importance of keeping a place for solitude and individual reflection even when one is being asked to 'collaborate creatively'; about the extent to which creativity is ever just simply a matter of developing individual 'talent' or 'expression'; about the roles that artists and musicians perform within institutions, sometimes out of economic necessity; and the ways in which the conventions and cultures of these institutions may enable or inhibit creativity. 

Several other themes came to the surface: how sound changes spaces and how spaces change sound - in other words, the acoustic ecology of places. Words, stories and metaphors emerged: powerful archetypal images of the cave as a womb, or a mind, or a giant ear chamber - as a kind of 'underworld' of the mind, an inner world which made a different kind of performative art-making possible. The psychologist Carl Jung describes the archetype of the cave as the primordial 'interior' space - a dark place which might trigger self-reflection and exploration of those dark recesses of the mind that fuel both creativity and uncertainty. In The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious, Jung refers to the story of the young men who slept in the cave in the 18th Sura of the Koran: "the cave is a place of rebirth, that secret cavity in which one is shut up in order to be incubated and renewed...Anyone who gets into...the cave which everyone has in himself, or into the darkness that lies behind consciousness, will find himself involved in an - at first - unconscious process of transformation..."

What resulted was not a quest to arrive at a single unified piece, but rather like the ways in which the salt water of the incoming sea meets the freshwater of the burn flowing out of the cave, a dissolving of clear boundaries between different kinds of artistic practice took place. 

What transpired in the end was an evening performance for an audience of ourselves, the rocks and the birds. What was produced was akin to some of the life processes of the cave itself - with its overlapping cycles of seasons, of death and birth. Iris Wallace, who usually works with enamels from her studio at the nearby Balnakiel Craft Village, had spent several nights labouring over a text that spoke of the cave as a place of refuge, of fear and of safety, of food, of danger, of battles, of the past and the futures - as somehow 'full of time' and time-less at the same time. Her spoken and sung text provided a narrative backbone for the event and transformed moments into a kind of music theatre. Lotte Glob had made clay bowls and pipes to be blown, hit, filled with water and sung through, and these invented instruments combined improvised composition with the flute, violin, double bass and clarinet. 

Sound always changes and mutates in relation to the spaces and places that it occupies and the cave made a kind of 'unrehearsed music' possible, supplying sounds of its own from its non-human inhabitants, and a constantly shifting store of acoustic conditions, as the performers moved around the space. Ishbel Macdonald, a painter and printmaker, had become fascinated with the flow of the burn through the cave from the waterfall at its back, and embarked on an ambitious plan to make prints from the flow of the water over large sheets of heavy paper. The water washed over the pigment and became a form of 'automatic printing', capturing the marks left by the fast-flowing stream leaping over its stony bed. 

Simon Butterworth, as well as providing energetic bass clarinet textures, at times reminscent of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, took time away from music to capture specific moments in the performance in still photographs. A series of impromptu duets, trios and quartets emerged from the movement of players around the space, with Ewan Robertson's flute and Barbara Downie's violin, supplemented by sticks, stones and singing, weaving lines around the bedrock provided by Iain Crawford's double bass. Barbara and Ishbel moved from their instruments inside the cave to make sound with the rusting winch on the shore, and, along with Jennifer Martin, the BBC SSO's Learning Manager, took turns under headphones and behind the microphone to record what was happening. 

As the light slowly faded we alternated between filming, singing, playing, recording, mark-making or sometimes just standing still, absorbing what was happening. 

At high tide, after what seemed like hours of playing, after the moment when the sun had dropped away out of sight, one by one we lit candles in floating holders made by Lotte and let the stream carry them out of the cave and into the sea. Stone, water, air and fire combined in a ritual ending. And we quietly made our way out of the cave and back up the cliffside. 

The film we have made is a distillation of fragments of this process. It is intended to capture something of the quality of experience created by the event - visual and auditory, drawing on sonic and visual elements from the work generated within the residency. At the heart of the process was the cave, which as it did for the hundreds of generations it has outlived before us, became a kind of living laboratory for our experiment. All we did in that single week was to make some briefly audible and visible marks, and as surely as light gives way to the dark, sound to silence, the cave returned to its previous state. 

The learning that came from the project is hard to write about, partly because, like music and the visual arts, it was about exploring ideas that are not easily expressed in words, and partly because it was different for everyone. We look forward to hearing what you make of it.