Peter Adriaansz’s Environments
On 26 March 2021 we release Ensemble Klang’s latest album. Here you can enjoy a sneak preview of the album, and read the liner notes essay by Emile Frankel. Info, credits and pre-sales can be found on EnsembleKlangRecords.com.
Gesture and Hum
The oldest recorded Sumerian words have been interpreted as an almanac of agriculture. Engraved in a tablet from ancient Sumer is content of early empire: one crop, one tool, one hand to harvest. This is writing which counts, not with numbers, but with descriptions of motion. Words were perhaps invented here, to help a civilisation prosper over its environment through repeated movements. Sequences: picking, planting, watering, tilling, in a cycle with the geological world. But what destruction and invention (sequence-like) is foretold in the memorialisation of control over the environment? In Peter Adriaansz’s Environments, the deep thematic scope of his composition implores the analyser to start from ominous historical beginnings. Tight-knit musical logic is combined with an extra layer of conceptual meaning spoken through words selected from Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, a 1970s radio broadcast by Alan Watts, and an embellished excerpt from the hermetic tome, The Kybalion, dealing with its fourth teaching: ‘The Principle of Polarity’. While this isn’t the first work by Adriaansz to include a language other than music, words are spoken in this piece, written into your ear if you like, with the express and significant intention of providing ‘context’ to the music. The focus of this short essay is to look at Environments from the perspective of ‘gesture’, as a musical grounding in the world, and to ask if gesture can be understood as a representational parameter of composition. In what follows, Environments will be treated as a piece which musically demonstrates that which it ‘says’. The analogy to the development of the written word sees the combination of music and text as a process experientially akin to the ideogrammatic transformation of pictures, shrunk down, abstracted, sequentialised and combined to become understood as ‘words’.
In Mono, the first movement of Environments, as with all three movements of this combined work, the spoken word enters after the instrumental music has established the boundaries of its central gesture. André Leroi-Gourhan, the French archaeologist and technologist famous for his structuralist analysis of prehistoric cave painting, writes in Gesture and Speech of a concept of ‘material action’ (movement), that is foreign to most understandings of the historical development of language and culture. For Leroi-Gourhan gesture parallels speech as a form of expression of mind and language. Gesture is argued to be a foundation of (artistic) representation akin to the word, or the image, or the spoken sound. For the non-musician, ‘gesture’ and its ‘movement’ might seem like overly abstract components in the development of written language. But for the musician who spends their life with one wood or metal or skin instrument, gesture is of course inseparable from language and it is just one parameter of performance to master. Much has been written about the representational quality of melody, harmony, rhythm and texture (in De Harmonia Mundi Totius of spiritualised internal mathematical relationships, or in classicism, in the melody which sounds representationally like ‘great victory’ or a ‘bumble bee’), but what could be said of the shadow beneath these parameters of composition? What could be said to be represented by a listener’s gesturalised sense of the movement of a sequence?
Mono, which Adriaansz describes as a movement demonstrating ‘linearity’, lines, is accompanied by words from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. In Zen, Robert Pirsig seems to suggest that the world itself should be read and appreciated as a kind of gesture. The environment of that endless metaphorical road, where there is a supposed ‘non-Euclidean’ geometry to nature, of landscapes passing by which simply come and go, is in many ways a definition of communication built from gesture and movement rather than formalised semantics. “Meadows must have rain”, Pirsig says, “and these now have flowers in them”. They simply ‘have’. You may look deeper and deeper into how those flowers mechanically came to be in this meadow, but a ‘reason’ wouldn’t change the simple gratification that a flower grants the passer-by. In other words, the geometry of a gesture, like nature, is not entirely one that can be mapped to a grid, and yet it moves us causally as if we were a motor or a machine. This dichotomy, the first of many in Environments, is introduced through Pirsig’s philosophy of the balance between understanding the world in great depth (like a mechanic) versus a worldview lived entirely in the present moment in appreciation of simple Dionysian transitory emotion.
“On the one hand, music of this exquisite calibre asks us to understand its construction, but on the other hand, it allows us to simply sit and listen and appreciate each moment for it brings a new surprise in every bar.”
If you were to rationally and abstractly look at the mathematics of Adriaansz’s central rhythmic gesture in Mono (repeated in Watts and found extrapolated in Stereo), as if it were the practical mechanisms of a motor (which musically it is), you could easily become rationally lost in its subtle and never identically repeating changes. After painstakingly mapping each rhythmic duration to a number, and finding that the culmination of rhythm, barring, and stringing (6 guitar strings tuned to non-identical B naturals) indeed change according to a carefully planned out generating logic, what would remain in the music left to enchant us? Pirsig might argue that in the act of listening entirely through examining reason (listening with too much reason perhaps) that a gesture like the one Adriaansz has constructed might lose its magic. This music could easily become de-enchanted by pure over-analysis. And yet the gesture has a logic to it regardless. If we were to sit back and just listen and feel, without comprehending that there was a logic to this gestural motor, we would also lose out. Herein lies the balance explored in Environments. On the one hand, music of this exquisite calibre asks us to understand its construction, but on the other hand, it allows us to simply sit and listen and appreciate each moment for it brings a new surprise in every bar.
To turn to the spoken word, if we were to listen to Mono for the first time, as if it were an early pictorial drawing on a wall, of say agriculture, or of a flat beauty in nature, which Pirsig’s words here seem to describe, or of a season, or of landscape etched like a graphite fleck, the music would arguably communicate to us in a unified, singular and pictorial sense. But if we were to listen from the opposite direction, having heard the piece already, as if we were looking back at a history of the development of its communication, we would of course see how a big picture can become transformed into small little pictures through the introduction of spoken words; miniaturised, simplified, smudged and delineated to become single rhythmic characters. Listening again with hindsight, we might discover a process whereby communication has become highly efficient, like a Latin alphabet, like a letter ‘K’ not looking like anything in nature but still being really efficient at describing nature in its abstract combinations. In this way, spoken words which are simply jammed atop instrumental music often force efficient communication onto the listener. But if one is clever about the combination of word and music, as Adriaansz is, and furthermore, if the combination of words and music somehow reflect and make comment upon each other’s structure, the dynamic that emerges encourages a beautiful agency within the listener, leaving us to decide what level of communication in which to participate. Should the listener decide to tune into the spoken word like an instrument painting a picture with its timbre, rhythm and pitch, or should the listener instead focus on the meaning of the said word, and think of a meadow when the word meadow is said? The ability to move between these two listening environments freely, and the freedom to combine and blend them, is a special and crafted phenomenon.
Early graphism, from which the musical score has evolved, “did not begin with naive representations of reality but with abstraction.”¹ Hunting tallies, lists, time-keeping and reality-keeping via pictorial representation came much later. The earliest forms of graphism dealt instead with a timeless moment-to-moment place. The inefficiency² of music by itself, ergo, the fact that a plucked guitar string can conjure many indistinct and indeterminate images, or none at all, is a testament to its graphic roots. Perhaps the same part of the brain lights up when making a smudge and when making a sound. The ability to, in a movement like Mono, tune out of semantic meaning and let the words just wash over you, timelessly, is a huge luxury and an experience which is extremely difficult to sit down and rationally compose. Linearity arguably allows for this particular comfort. In music of linear logics, the listener quickly understands that the piece will hold firm to its line, and thus the listener is granted the security to drift off knowingly and freely. Appreciation can wander, we can allow ourselves to be held safely and embracingly in the order of each sound. Here we listen as Pirsig might have wished, moment-to-moment, but with a guided understanding of the processes of the structures around us. Music and its gesture is perhaps one of the only mediums of communication that has the potential to guide us in such a balanced way.
“Listen carefully now”, Adriaansz would often say to me. In Watts, the second movement of Environments, the teachings of quietude and focus from philosopher Alan Watts describe a speculative modern-condition free from the rule of the watch and clock. Now expressed over a broken chord, the same ever minutely changing rhythmic pattern of Mono reappears like a second hand that unexpectedly skips a tick, made newly cyclical in the prettiness of its harmony, a slow and metronomic count gently undermined by the nearly but not quite predictable shortenings and elongations of a quaver. In this rhythm, one which seems to be constructed so as to echo the piecemeal changes of the natural world, we enter into a private and naturalistic space constructed entirely within the confines of the music. Watts is contrasted by the qualities of its text, and through the accompanied counterpoint of sine waves, attack instruments and sustaining winds. Its broken chord however is its greatest new invention. What was once linear has become a circle. We reach the top of the pattern and know that the bottom will follow. What was previously a ‘neutral’ rhythm now has been given an affirmative character, a kindness, a context even. Beneath is the nearly inaudible sound of simple electricity. Here an element of tension is added, and released, via what could be described as the general ‘hum’ which works to enforce a cyclical feeling within the construction of the music. Alan Watts too speaks in such a cycle, introducing tension by describing the pressures of modern work and the shrinking and killing of space inspired by the clock. When Watts releases his tension, by describing a world free from such modern constraints, Adriaansz too allows the music to hang, and hum, for a moment. And when Watts talks of a ‘continuum’ the circle of Adriaansz’s own counterpoint becomes exaggerated to the listener, brought to the foreground from its former place in the background.
To my mind, the paradox of this movement comes from Alan Watts’ assertion that nature functions without a sense of time, a timelessness. By contrasting the ‘rhythms’ of tides, stars and biological process to those instigated by the social convention of clock-time (along with language, numbers measurements, deadlines, alarms and the like) Watts sets up a dichotomy between natural and unnatural forms of counting. Natural and unnatural conventions are also here distinguished, the unnatural of the pair described to measure ‘motion’ with clock-time and cyclical ruling devices like the degrees of a compass. If we were to follow Watts, this division places music and composition in an uneasy place. Is there such a thing as an unnatural sound? Is composition with its metronomic requirements unnatural? In the movement from Watts on to the finale of Environments, Stereo, the loudspeaker is introduced more heavily as doublings up in the score filter in almost indistinguishably through pre-recorded music. Of course, hearing and seeing Environments performed live would present a deeply tangible difference between something ‘played’ and something pre-recorded. However, this is not the distinction between ‘unnatural’ and ‘natural’ I would like to focus on, for do we not now listen and hold in our hands a recording of Environments, something already and forevermore artificial? I would argue that the real distinction, between artificial and natural lies in the perception of rhythmic gesture. The naturalism of counting patterns, counting a ‘hum’, will thus be the culminating focus of this essay.
"nature naturalises us, and expresses its influence through the rhythms which comfort all of us"
One way of describing a rhythmic gesture abstractly is to consider it the concretisation of a memory of what came before. Like a written word, to understand rhythm we need to remember a time of no words (silence), a time of many words (sound), and a cycle between the two (silence into sound into silence). What becomes evident is that ‘measuring’ a rhythm is an entirely different process than ‘remembering’ or ‘experiencing’ a rhythm. One could even argue that measuring a rhythm is a social convention, while remembering a rhythm is not. Is it social to remember the metronomic ebb of a tide? Is it social to look at the moon and remember that it was in the sky last-night and the night before that? Watts documents and describes what he considers ought to exist, an “entirely new religion”, a non-hierarchical, “hum”. Although esoteric, the sentiment is clear. Beneath the modern pressure to measure life, of likes and clicks and swipes and sequences of numbers, there is a background timeless place we all have access to but to experience it we have to make it hum! The argument that this hum, that this zen, is disguised by our modern condition, is not difficult to believe. We can all agree that to find time to experience the background to our conscious lives is less and less possible. Watts seems to suggest that for those who have lost access to this ‘background’, music can facilitate ‘hum’. But what Watts calls music is perhaps simply the moment-to-moment memory and perception of sound, not necessarily the rational composition of music. Adriaansz obviously understands this, and that to sit down and ‘compose’, to sit and measure out something which needs to function as a world which holds and transports us, paradoxically also involves the very pressures of modern life and its social conventions that seem to defile us. Measuring a rhythm rationally and counting it, doesn’t seem like the right way to produce an experience of hum or zen. And yet, for a listener, it is this exact modern labour of counting and measuring that produces something as profound and as transportive as a piece like Environments.
Pirsig’s appreciation of a meadow comes to mind again. The balance between a Dionysian hum and a meticulous understanding of its compositional construction is contradictory. The poles and polarity between the two aren’t really poles. In another essay one could detail how Watts’ hum draws us in, through Adriaansz’s careful placement of crescendos and diminuendos, of unstable and unpredictable and yet still cyclical patterns of sustaining sound, of a background which filters in and out at the edge of our perception, like a receding memory, like a double helix structure which reappears in Stereo reinforcing the perception that two strands can become one. However, in multiple senses this mechanical analysis would fall short. ‘Hum’ in many ways needs to be described more broadly. Hum is a call to hold groups of people, not individuals, in one listening environment, in one sound, precisely without the pressure to count and delineate. In hum, we are denied instrumentalised measurement, yet at the same time we are provided sociality. We share the hum when we listen to it in one place. That’s what an environment is, after all.
Describing an environment with spoken and written language only goes so far. If we want art to grant us the ability to inhabit a closed world, an environment all to its own, then sound and music are prerequisites. No other medium can communicate on so many levels at once. The closed world of Environments is a demonstration of this principle, where music and words together aren’t examples of different poles, but examples of a unified form of communication. Clearly we artificialise nature by measuring it, by turning it into pictures and words and concrete rhythms. But surely the opposite also happens. Nature naturalises us, and expresses its influence through the rhythms which comfort all of us (sequences like tides on a shore, sequences and gestures like lullabies) and through the physics of vibrating objects like strings and speaker cones composition is itself naturalised. The principle of polarity, the duality of a piece that is actually and simultaneously singular, to my mind is between the naturalisation of the artifice – Adriaansz’s sound supplied by the physics of the motion of a string and of a sine wave – and the artificialisation of nature – to create a piece of music, to facilitate a hum, to create an environment and establish it for all who listen, as a shared world of our own to inhabit.
Emile Frankel is a writer and composer researching the changing conditions of online listening. Author of Hearing the Cloud (Zero Books), the political interactions between technology and culture are set against dystopian fantasies and the ecological crises of the near future. In addition to internationally performed videogame pieces and orchestral works, Emile has lectured at Unsound and Norberg Festival, and can be found on community radio.
1. André Leroi-Gourhan, Gesture and Speech, trans. Anna Bostock Berger (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1993) 188.
2. I say ‘inefficiency’ to advance a critique of this exact language of efficient and inefficient communication advanced by the pressures of modern labour. The fact that music is inefficient is precisely its charm.