April 08, 2011

molto semplice e cantabile

In 2009 during the Bury Art Gallery exhibition "Not at this address", the UK sound artist Ben Gwilliam performed a new work using ice casts of Beethoven's molto semplice e cantabile. Today, we received the conceptual conclusion of that work with delivery of a limited edition of the disc cast in transparent vinyl. Ben will be performing at the Green Room on 15 April with Phil Davenport as the opening gig of the Text Festival. molto will be available for sale at the Festival shop (£15) - I would suggest that your art collection is incomplete without a copy of this work.
In molto semplice e cantabile Ben Gwilliam taps into the traditions of harmonic music of the classical period, the Cagean rejection of what Beethoven stands for, sound artist turntablism, the physics of the anomalous expansion of water, the metaphysics of time, the counter-continuous diagram of creation through entropy, the very ontology of the listener. The plenary space fills with more than the sound of ice melting. molto semplice e cantabile is a recursive and dynamic inflation of musical parameters.

A mould of a vinyl disc of Beethoven's Sonata No 32 was taken to create ice casts of the record. Taking the ice discs from a fridge located in the space, Gwilliam places them on turntables and mixes two or more records - technology integral to contemporary aural experience that stores and channels original vibrations without depletion or transformation due to interaction with surfaces, densities of medium, of other frozen vibrations. Gwilliam goes beyond the technical. The discs are played by him, hands-on as it were, he is improvising; he develops an intimate knowledge of how ice melts – the humidity in the playing space, the differences in the original water consistency, the room temperature, all effect the way the work materialises. He is not simply in the hands of the physics of water’s anomalies, he adds fine spray as the records play, subtly lubricating the disc, the grooves refreeze the new droplets creating microscopic intervention. Suddenly the ice grooves give up and the 'instrumentation' becomes harsher, more mechanical, urban and then it slowly fades to a recording akin to applause, like ice being swept away or paper torn; melting unevenly the discs undulated to become more like crashing massive waves. A new disc was added, a re-invigorated orchestration, this time sounding more like series of explosions offered as variations. Abstract and swirling, rotation and undulation, the rhythm created by spinning discs is hypnotic and relentless, the energy of vague drumming culture intensity, or Reichian appropriation. But while molto semplice e cantabile shares the interminable repetition of these sonic traditions, through the mechanics of rotation, melting creates an extraordinary counterpoint, constantly moving to a different place with different turntable pick-ups subtly altering the pace and nuances and meaning of sound.

Fundamentally the work operates at the margins of physics – the phase transitional point of ice to water states. Phase boundaries between phases of solid, liquid, gas are characterised by the free energy of non-analyticity. The phase boundary between solid and liquid does not continue indefinitely. Instead, it terminates at what is called the critical point. At temperatures and pressure above the critical point, the physical property differences that differentiate the solid phase from the liquid phase become less defineable. It is in these unstable liminal spaces that Gwilliam conducts his sounds.

It is a remarkable flow feature of molto semplice e cantabile own phase boundaries that it is both a continuous function, discontinuous and, in its inversion of decay and creation, bicontinuous at the same time. In the wave ripples of mechanical thirty three and a third rhythm, shifting from utterance to audition, Beethoven’s contributory material is a decaying monolith, superseded, from the start distant from us even as it recedes. In this way, although the equipment of turntables and sampling gesture, discs spinning, pick-ups tweaked, that the work only nods at the intertextuality of analog-digital cut and paste. The whole is such a plenary concept that its amplification saturates the acoustic space: the microscopic crashes of the stylus in crumbling ice grooves become explosive glaciers - we listen to the sounds in listening inside sounds.
We are forced to address ourselves to the question of time through the work. Intellectually there is a cultural time-line, with the work carrying the history of music from harmony to modernist musicalising sound; but as we experience the ice record, a physical time-space thickness, we face the ontology of listening to our time as also melting. Ben Gwilliam pulls the sounds into time. Is there a mathematics of this, an equation of melting which extrapolates a rule? Could we apply a science to measure how long we have left? No. Physics dissolves culture (paradoxically modelling it into a sonic (cultural) act). Reality has too many micro-macro variables: the anomalous expansion of water becomes an uncertainty principle for our continued experience.

What does it mean for the ice to be represented by the vinyl?
An original vinyl is transformed to ice and now the ice is transformed back to vinyl, transparent, and shot through with the phased transitions from start to finish. But it could be argued that the production of a clear vinyl is illustrative, almost a decorative outcome, a product rather than the original process. The melting performances were located in time and places (Bury and Wolfsburg), but the disc is no longer site specific. Moreover, with this disc, circles are closed vinyl-ice-vinyl, harmony-melting-silence; the monolithic presence of Beethoven recording is engaged with the physical repeatable presence of its fading away, the transparency counter-changeable to the blackness of a traditional vinyl, symbolic again of the death of distance measured as time. The Gwilliam disc is the instrument, the sound emitting body, the necessary part of an ensemble which creates artistic meaning.


Jared Wells said...

Very interesting post. I'm unable to attend the festival; is there a way to get a copy of Gwilliam's work online?

Tony Trehy said...

There used to be a utube film of him performing it but at the moment I can't locate it to point you to it. The disc can be posted to you if you contact the art gallery.