for percussion and electronics
In March 2015, Zero Crossing was invited to spend a week in the small Germany city of Pirmasens. In that time, they were to construct a new work to be premiered at the end of the residency. There was one stipulation: the work must be based on the sounds of the host city. Pirmansens is located in southwestern Germany, near Saarland. The French border is less that a 30-minute drive away. Pirmasens is not a large city, but it is renowned in the region for, of all things, its shoes. It is something that many citizens consider an important part of the city's history. Still to this day, Peter Kaiser, a shoe manufacturer, maintains a factory in the city. In many ways, Pirmasens is a typical small German city. There is the ubiquitous Fußgängerzone, or pedestrian zone, in the center. Situated in this pedestrian zone is the town hall with bells tolling the hours and a carillon that plays Wenn alle Brünnlein fließen (If all the fountains flow), a very famous German folksong. The city is also proud of its science center, called Dynamikum, recognized in the region for its quality.
These aspects of the city's history and layout informed our recordings. We made field recordings of the pedestrian zone, including the carillon playing Wenn alle Brünnlein fleißen. We also visited the Peter Kaiser shoe factory and Joseph Bayer's cobbler shop to record various shoe making and shoe repair machines. We scheduled a trip to Dynamikum Science Centre and recorded many of the exhibits, all with unique sound qualities. Finally, we visited the home of Vilja Steckel who is a recognized piano instructor in the town. The Steckels are recognized within Pirmasens as excellent arts educators - they trained 3 children for successful careers in major European orchestras - as well as patrons. At the Steckel home, we recorded a piano lesson that Vilja Steckel conducted with an 11 year old student on Mozart's Fantasy in D minor.
We recorded these particular dimensions of Pirmasens life for different reasons. Some of them can be classified as soundmarks, a term coined by R. Murray Schaffer in his Tuning of the World. Schaffer is a founder of the acoustic ecology movement, a composer, and an educator. He is particularly concerned with the transforming landscape of urban environments. Tuning of the World lays out an approach to studying soundscapes, offering a wealth of new terminology, often derived from existing words, for instance, earwitness rather than eyewitness or schizophonia (the separation of sound from its source) rather than schizophrenia. A soundmark, rather than a landmark, is a sound that people from that community associate to a specific place or memory. The community that shares this soundmark is called an acoustic community. Schaffer's argues in Tuning of the World that effort should be made to identify soundmarks and design environments to preserve them. The pedestrian zone, the town hall carillon, the Peter Kaiser shoe factory, and even the Joseph Bayer cobbler shop are important soundmarks for the Pirmasens community. They yield memories of life in Pirmasens.
The other recordings - the piano lesson and the Dynamikum Science Centre - capture nooks within a larger landscape. They are portraits of life within the city rather than the life of the city. This is an important distinction, particularly in relation to the history of urban soundscape and music, which probably started in 1913, with Luigi Russolo's Futurist manifesto entitled The Art of Noises. Russolo's main argument is that machines fill our landscapes today and the resulting noises are to be embraced. He proposed an orchestra of noisemaking instruments that are, in his opinion, much more varied in timbre than our tired old fiddles. His families of noises devised for the Futurist orchestra are a list of percussive instruments. In fact, Russolo's work can be seen as a precursor to modern percussion repertoire, which only got its first ensemble piece in the 1930s and first solo pieces in the 1950s. Hence, urban soundscape arguably created the potential for Varese's Ionisation for 13 percussionists from 1931, Cage's prepared piano works from the 1940s, as well as Zero Crossing's adventures in Pirmasens in 2015. Still, it's significant to note that Russolo's rumbles, gurgles, and scrapes are undifferentiated, generic sounds that represent the anonymous, undifferentiated urban world. Similarly, when Pierre Schaeffer made his works with manipulated recordings of train whistles, he treated them as just train whistles, not those of the Gare du Nord. In our Pirmasens project, we generally avoided undifferentiated sounds of the city such as highway traffic or construction sites. These sounds are like cicadas in the jungle, an ever-present drone over which all else frequently struggles to be heard. Their ubiquity makes them an anonymous extra in the urban theater. They are the sounds not just of Pirmasens but almost all European cities.
Zero Crossing neither creates an artificial representation of a city nor masks sources completely via signal processing. Instead, the recorded source is a reference, recognizable by its acoustic community and placed in an arena for our creative engagement with it via editing and signal processing. Some sounds are left untouched, as can be heard in the opening 4 minutes of the work. Others are sliced up and used in virtual instruments. The opening is followed by an improvised duo between percussion and a virtual instrument of shoe repair machines. Still other sounds are transposed, layered, glitched, frozen, distorted and move in and out between recognizability and obfuscation. This is where Zero Crossing carries out its dialogue with the Pirmasens soundscape, shifting attention from representation to imagination. This approach isn't just philosophical, it is practical, necessary because the work is not just built from recordings, but from the creative incorporation of those recordings with live percussion. Through this work, the creative stimulus derived from the intersection between sound sources, sonic potential via signal processing, and percussion instruments yields a working method that guided the development of the creative framework, used in the creation of Trompong for 3 Balinese gongs and electronics.