Archive: Issue No. 84, August 2004

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Warrick Sony

Warrick Sony

Sonic Mysticism
by Warrick Sony

Limitations of Technique
In his book; The Mysticism Of Sound and Music, Hazrat Inayat Khan says, 'Music loses its freedom by being subject to the laws of technique, but the mystics in their sacred music.... free both composition and improvisation from the limitations of technicality.' Being a bit of an amateur mystic myself I found this quote useful to justify my own compositional methodology, which I've developed over many years � primarily to circumnavigate the issue of a lack of musical instrument proficiency.

I do consider myself an okay musician in some areas though: I play passable guitar, good dub-dope bass and drums, a bit of keyboard where needed and a host of exotic instruments like sitar, tabla, mridangam, trombone, marimba and mbira. All these are performed in the privacy of my studio and enhanced to achieve the desired effect.

The studio is my main instrument. I have worked and practiced it the longest. I know all the tricks to getting huge atmospheres, fat drums, shredded voices, realistic virtual orchestras, and most importantly, unique palettes of original sound samples. My interest, as a composer, is the total work, its structure, its form and its content.

'Recording is the memory of sound'
Recording onto hard drive or tape allows me to capture a performance. A recorded performance becomes a 'thing' � I can repeat it, manipulate it, analyse it and organise it. The organisation of sounds and instruments, free from the limitations of technique, is the basis of my work. This is the core of much African music too � many players performing small, simple things that connect together to form an exciting and cohesive whole.

Interestingly enough, where African sensibility and technology imprinted itself on the world was the work done in Jamaican studios in the 70s. Reggae music and its 'Dub' spin-off pushed the envelope in new ways to use a studio. I studied the dubmasters: Scientist, Lee Perry, King Tubby, etc. and brought those techniques into my own work. I still rest at least a quarter of my creativity in the Jamaican studio discoveries of the 1970s.

The pre-computer years were all analogue tape wizardry and a good portion of my first album Own Affairs was made up of tape splices. I loved tape and the sound manipulations that could be done with it. Composers like Edgar Varese, Pierre Schaeffer, Pierre Henri, and Stockhausen had created new sound horizons with electronics and tape, and people like Zappa and Eno were bringing these into the art/pop world.

During this time, I worked as a film sound recordist on documentaries and dramas. I recorded everything I found of interest. These found sounds would often work their way into my compositions.

This archive still comes in handy. Whilst working on the Handspring/William Kentridge production 'Ubu and the Truth Commission', I made use of many recordings done at the time of the great South African horror whilst working for foreign news networks. I have heaps of tapes, which I carry around from home to home. My art still revolves around a lot of the audio garbage, which has now made its way safely onto various hard drives. Thank God for computers.

Through the London label, Recommended Records, I found myself part of the global post-punk-art-music scene. After the release of my third album, it was deemed necessary to recreate the work with a live band and tour Europe.

In 1986 we played every nook and cranny in Germany and Holland as well as some good concerts in Russia and East Germany. But the loss of control over the sounds was always a huge compromise for me. Musicians (proper ones) bring their own histories with them and I always felt that this material needed less proficiency and more attention to the sounds. DJ culture is the right way to present one's studio projects. You get to play your work loud to an unsuspecting audience, who're often out there on complementary chemical enhancers and no one can escape.

Recently I was reading some essays by Chris Cutler, in his book File Under Popular and came across some interesting observations on The Residents (a two man San Francisco art-music success story). I list below a number of points Cutler makes about them and their music, which, though very dated, I think apply pretty well to my own fictional group, The Kalahari Surfers.

1) Notes are less important than sounds.
2) Notes and harmonies are considered to be only a particular sound.
3) They play dozens of instruments but not in a technical way, not properly and not trying to convince anyone that they can actually play them.
4) An instrument is a source of sound for sonority.
5) Through a studio any sound can be organised into music.
6) The studio is the central instrument of the work.

He goes further to say that the art of recording liberates music from the realm of the eye (notation) and brings it back to the ear (actual sound).

The Residents were important in that they were, perhaps, the first art-music group to actually make money. They were astute business and marketing men and propelled their multi-media operation into the mainstream. They set the stage for many of the 90s art-into-money electronic bands to follow. The avant-garde had moved into the mainstream. (Aphex Twin and Warp Records have similarities to the early days of Ralph Records).

Today we are experiencing a situation where we are all artists. Everybody composes music and has a studio on their PC. Everybody is a DJ. We are experiencing an overload of media, and culture is becoming homogenised. Those who can guide us through these murky waters are the new gurus of the future. They are the ones who can make sense of the overload, the triumph of the numerate over the literate.

Warrick Sony, founder of The Kalahari Surfers, is a contemporary South African electro-acoustic composer. His latest album Muti-Media is out on African Dope Records.