September 17, 2015

Finding Form

Platform hanging off of a cliff on Pico, looking out at São Jorge
It's rare that I ever start working on a piece with a predetermined form in mind. That almost never happens. Instead, I usually begin with a vague notion of what the piece is "about," and start collecting bits and pieces that seem relevant. I accumulate piles of material, and then I begin hacking away at it, playing around with the bits and hoping they'll eventually coalesce into something resembling what I was originally thinking about. (In fact, I'm doing it right now; I know what I want to write about in general, but mostly I'm just making it up as I go along.) I suspect this process is familiar to many artists in all disciplines.

So it's always a surprise to see what the thing I'm making actually turns out to be. I may have my own ideas, but each piece has a life of its own, its own agenda. At certain points in the process, tensions arise between what the piece is wanting to become and what I think I want it to be. Sometimes it wants to be something I think I don't like, or don't recognize. Struggles ensue, compromises are made, fits are pitched. I have to discern when to let the work guide me, and when to push back and impose my will. At the same time, I know from experience that if I set out to make something with a clear concept in mind and it turns out exactly as I envisioned it, the results are usually pretty boring. And if all goes well, the piece may lead to something that is new to me. I truly do want to trust the work, but it isn't always so easy. I have to learn this again every time.

Making this piece has been a classic example of that process. Four years ago I began formulating what this project would be about. I went to the Azores with some solid ideas about what I hoped to record, and how those sounds might fit together. But some of that did not materialize, mainly due to the relatively brief time I was there. I returned home with many hours of recordings, a large percentage of which were not what I had anticipated. It was easy enough to log and edit them, discarding some and saving others. But assembling the good ones into a form that is meaningful and beautiful and interesting has been considerably more challenging.

It would have been nice to have a compelling pre-determined structure in mind that could act as an organizing principle. But of course I didn't, and I quickly understood that I could wait a long time for some sort of revelation to come along. In the absence of that, the only way forward was to simply begin: start with a sound, then add another and another, and keep moving forward one step at a time, adjusting along the way and remaining open to any possibilities that arise until it becomes whatever it needs to be. In this case it became something I hadn't exactly anticipated: a surprisingly linear narrative arc with documentary elements, and some occasional odd moments that are more characteristic of my work.

I don't typically think of my work in narrative terms. It's usually amorphous and abstract and doesn't necessarily "go anywhere" or resolve in a tidy conclusion; it certainly doesn't tell a story that moves from A to B to C and ends at a logical destination. Even when I use speaking voices, they don't function in such a linear, literal way. And yet…

The piece begins with the primal, formative sounds of bubbling geothermal pits and sea water gurgling in lava tubes, an allusion to the islands' volcanic origins. This "creation" scene quickly evolves (sorry) into the sounds of the local wildlife, establishing the environmental setting. The sounds of domesticated animals act as a transition from the natural world to human culture in the form of of religious ritual, community celebration, and music. The sounds of the festa and of the past are left behind as we move out to sea on the long voyage to a new land, following the sounds of sperm whales and eventually coming ashore in the present, where the culture has taken root and continued, a little different but still clearly recognizable. And it concludes (of course) in the cemetery where my immigrant ancestors are buried, memory hanging in the air, the local birds mixing with the birds from home.

It's clear that this piece wants to tell a story. Who am I to refuse? Honestly, I could not have devised a more classic linear narrative structure if I'd tried. And thinking back to what I've written about it in the past, I now see that it could hardly have been otherwise. The narrative threads were there all along, waiting to be woven together.