Just what is it that makes incidental sound so stimulating, so compelling?…

We were killing time at the Hammer Museum on Wilshire before going to a movie. Alongside the permanent displays of the collections there were some temporary exhibitions. One of these was being shown under the umbrella of ‘Hammer Projects’ and was by the artist Lucy Ryan. The main exhibit was a film piece (called ‘RP31’) based around test strips used by projectionists to focus projectors prior to showing films. 31 of these still images are edited together into a near-stroboscopic animation shown on a 35mm projector in a continuous loop. This occupies a darkened space with a few seats like many other museum film installations – though the physical presence of that big piece of projection equipment is striking. ‘RP31’ is labeled ‘silent’ but the projector’s movement conspires in creating a multi-media environment of sound and image. Raven has an interest in the archive and the way that the lives of various media are prolonged – tracking down the material for this film has meant speaking to projectionists, film processors and manufacturers. The test strip piece also shows a concern with the marginal…the mundane stuff that is usually pushed to the edge and, often, forgotten.

The other piece in the show is called 21Hz. This is sited in a carpeted lobby off the walkway around the museum’s courtyard. Three armchairs mark the space as an installation. The piece is played on 4 speakers and comprises audio samples from optical and magnetic film soundtrack test material. These are short bursts of sound most of which are rather indistinct but sometimes the flow of static and buzz is interrupted by, for example, piano music. This being Los Angeles it is perfectly comfortable to sit in this indoor/outdoor space and let these sounds bounce around mingling with the not-too-distant sounds of the adjacent street. It makes for compelling listening but as if to emphasize the incidental nature of the work people traverse the room on their way to the restrooms. In fact the randomly organized sounds in the piece seem at times to be a supplement to the environmental noise though it is unlikely that this is the artist’s intent. I say ‘unlikely’ as nowhere have I been able to find the artist discussing this work. The leaflet that is given out at the Hammer has an essay by the exhibition’s curator Corrina Peipon that mentions 21Hz in passing but dwells on the film piece. In the current issue of Bomb (Number 121/Fall 2012) there is a lengthy discussion between the artist and Jason Simon that makes no mention of the audio work. Even the artist’s website only provides the short description I have quoted above without expanding on the work except with a visual depiction of a test strip still. It is interesting that work that deals with the marginal and even the fugitive should in itself be marginalized within the record of the artist’s practice. So on websites (both Lucy Raven’s and Bomb’s) there is some indication of what the film works are like (with stills and moving images) there is no sense of this for the sound piece.

It seems that this work is a kind of by-product of the visual. This marginalization is, of course, both a problem and a pleasure. The other question that springs to mind is about why it is a pleasure to listen to these overlooked (sic) sounds. I am reminded of Markus Popp/Oval’s record ‘O’ where 70 short abstract compositions are spread over 2 discs – each a beautiful, if often hard to grasp, slither of sound. And ‘The Conet Project’ also comes to mind. Maybe it is in their suggested state of neglect and in their uncanny detachment that these sounds are so rewarding.

Los Angeles. 31st October. London 7th November.

Imitation of Life, Los Angeles. 31. x. 12

So a couple of days ago  I steeled myself and drove to Amoeba Records on Sunset and Cahuenga in Hollywood. I had been told that Amoeba would ‘blow my mind’ but I thought this was just a bit of Cailfornian hyperbole and I was sceptical. The underground car park below the store allowed for 1 hour free parking and I thought that would be plenty. In fact I have not seen so much vinyl in one place since the Oxford Street Virgin Megastore before the advent of the CD. There were two huge rooms on the ground floor full of new and second-hand CDs and records. Mostly pop and dance in the front with jazz and classical in the back. Faced with so much stuff I suffered the usual indecision and ended by buying what seems like a random selection of things:

‘Jazz Jam 4’ on vinyl for the beautiful cover by David Stone Martin. (With Count Basie, Benny Carter and many others)

‘The World of Harry Partch’ on vinyl to represent ‘weird’ America.

‘Heart Failed in the Back of a Taxi’ mixes CD single by Saint Etienne because I am a fan.

Three 7″ singles plus a CD as a package by the Nels Cline Trio called ‘Ground’ – for some local colour.

‘Imitation of Life/Double Indemnity’ on CD by Steve Beresford and Tristan Honsinger (with David Toop and Toshinori Kondo) because I thought it would be great.

Peter Brotzmann Clarinet Project, ‘Berlin Djungle’ for the same reason.

Heinner Goebbels and Heiner Muller, ‘Der Mann im Fahrstul’ because I thought ‘Stifters Dinge’ was wonderful.

Two Luciano Berio albums – ‘Epifanie/Folk Songs’ and ‘Laborintus 2’ because I love them both.

Then when I took everything to the counter I spotted a copy of Talikng Heads ‘Speaking in Tongues’ in the Robert Rauschenberg cover. On the plastic sleeve was written ‘Clean Sealed Orig! No yellowing!’ so I succumbed and bought that too.

My one hour time limit was probably useful as I might have just gone on and on juggling possibilities and ultimatley buying far too much. (There are still a couple of things that I wonder if I should have not put back.)

I thought that the perfect follow-up to this spree would be to go and look at the metaphorical stack of platters that is the Capitol Records Building on Vine. (‘Take me down to Vine Street. Stop when you hear that Bad Beat…’). Looks like just the number of records for a 12-stacker…this is Los Angeles after all.

Capitol Records Tower. Welton Becket Associates, 1954-6.

I have been having some difficulty finding things to listen to on the radio in the car in LA. Mexican and Korean pop (the seemingly ubiquitous ‘Gagnam Style’) are ok for a while. I’ve bumped into very sober and patchy classical stations too but none have seemed to fit my driving in LA mood. I thought that on the way back from the record store I would play some of the new CDs I had bought. First I played the Saint Etienne single and that was fine…mixes of a song that I already knew well with some added bad beats. The Nels Cline CD was sealed into a bag with the 7 inches so that left the Beresford or the Brotzmann. I thought the latter might be a little too ‘full-on’ for driving so I put on ‘Imitation of Life’. It begins in quite polite mode with something like a chamber ensemble then slowly begins to fall apart. At some point as I was driving I realised I was probably breaking the law in the US by driving without carrying my license with me. I am fairly new to the roads of LA so these factors added together made me feel a bit anxious. As the music developed so did my anxiety and when there was a sudden crash followed by whistles I was momentarily confused only to discover that these were on the CD and not on the street. Soon after there was a man shouting his innocence (‘I didn’t do it!’) followed by the sound of sirens and my paranoia returned in spades but I made it home safe just as the music ended.

Then yesterday at LACMA I saw this image in a small exhibition on Expressionist cinema:

Otto Dix. ‘Larm der Strasse’ (Street Noise) from the portfolio ‘Neun Holzschnitte’, 1922.

A perfect evocation of the urban sound field made in Berlin in the 1920s; just as relevant to the streets of Los Angeles in 2012.