Sleppet was a project which brought 6 artists to the Norwegian west coast to create new works based on their experiences and documentation from the ten days' trip.
Sleppet was part of the commemoration of the 100th anniversary of Edvard Grieg’s death.
As part of the Sleppet programme, 6 artists was invited to tour western Norway in April and May 2007, to experience and record its nature and rural culture. The artists were: Steve Roden, Chris Watson, Marc Behrens, Natasha Barrett, Jana Winderen and Bjarne Kvinnsland. The itinerary included Sandane, Jostedalbreen (the Jostedal glacier), Utvær (Norway’s westernmost point) and Bergen in all its drizzly spring glory. Spring offers a wealth of tonal and conceptual inspiration, in nature, towns and cities. The works resulting from the tour was put together into an exhibition that opened in Bergen in September. The exhibition was also shown in Oslo as part of the Ultima festival.
Sleppet – The Sound of Norwegian Spring
“…in my art I could not help but search for a way to express the wild music of the ocean’s roar, – but alas, in vain. I felt most deeply the impossibility of conveying that mighty chord in music. There was in that rushing and roaring something so infinite that it seemed presumptuous to dwell even for a moment on the idea of being able to reproduce it. Nonetheless I found some comfort in that it is the artist’s responsibility not to convey its material effect, but the reflection of the emotions it awakens; if this is done with genius then the impression can be equally divine despite the lack of the mass effect which is nature’s own.”
This exhibition takes as its point of departure Edvard Grieg’s interest in sounds he discovered in his encounters with nature and folk traditions. We find them in his use of folk music elements and in tone painting that imitates and adapts impressions of the Norwegian countryside. Birdsong, waterfalls, rain and mountains all have a place in his compositions, and listeners have had genuine experiences of nature in Grieg’s music. Grieg was a gatherer of the sound of Norwegian nature – a sound-gatherer.
Field recording as nature-inspired romanticism
Adaptations of impressions of nature have been a vital element in the development of western art; the return to nature we experience today can be seen as a movement towards a new nature-inspired romanticism. Field recording is a widely-used method in electronic music and modern sound art, whereby the artists use recordings from nature and culture. Sometimes the material is presented to the audience as it is, a “sound-bite in time”; in other cases it may have been reworked beyond recognition.
Heidegger writes the following in The Origin of the Work of Art:
“…we hear the storm whistling in the chimney, we hear the three-engine aeroplane, we hear the Mercedes in immediate distinction from the Volkswagen. Much closer to us than any
sensations are the things themselves. We hear the door slam in the house, and
never hear acoustic sensations or mere sounds.”
Is the sound alone abstraction or illusion? Do we hear the sound itself, or the meaning of the sound? In this border zone between placement and movement, material and dematerialization the artists operate with their field recordings. The degree of recontextualization and treatment are important issues in this area of art. Some artists nurture a desire to recreate or develop expanded sonic experiences of nature, in which the work becomes “larger than life”. New technology enables composers and artists working with sound to give their audience an experience of being present, a sense of a spatial dimension in the audio image which previously was only possible in very expensive forms of presentation. The interplay between advanced modern technology and the naked complexity of nature thus becomes yet another key to the reading of these works.
The development of this technology is closely linked with our modern way of life, a level of society which costs our environment dearly. It is an apparent paradox that the same development that threatens the existence of these unique sonic environments allows us access to the technology with which we are able to document it for posterity. Catalogues of sounds from threatened species and nature reserves will be an important resource when mankind some time in the future wishes to examine our acoustic history. This perspective gives quite a different understanding of nature-inspired romanticism than that which we find in Grieg’s music. In a post-modern perspective experiencing nature becomes more than silent reflection in an encounter with the overwhelming magnificence of our natural environment.
While our consumerism is characterized by our desire to throw away and buy new, the expressive culture of our time is based on a conglomeration of recycling and reusing. Grieg himself has become a part of the world’s soundtrack. His music is today just as much a part of the background noise in a restaurant or shopping mall as it is of the concert hall. The circle is completed, or the spiral has completed another circuit now that the remix culture that Lawrence Lessig writes about has become part of our acoustic ecology.
The Spring Thaw
For the Sleppet project I invited artists who represent both of these, and related, positions. We left on a ten-day tour of Norway’s western coast during the spring thaw to let the artists make recordings and experience the same natural environment that inspired Grieg. It was quite a trip. Several of the artists were quite astonished when they were handed ice axes and crampons at the foot of the Brenndal glacier. But when we got up there and saw the Jostedal glacier calving over an 800-metre drop down onto the Brenndal glacier with the accompanying thunderous noise, they wanted to get their microphones assembled as quickly as possible. We stretched our own limits in order to give the artists spectacular and deep experiences which we hope will be conveyed in the resulting works. Discussion and conversations were also an important aspect of the trip. Field recording is usually a very lonely affair. During the Sleppet tour the artists were placed in an unfamiliar situation which shed light on many important issues regarding field recording and sound art. What is it that differentiates one recording from another? What considerations inform the artists’ choice of equipment, and how do they see their role in the recording situation?
Phonographs from Western Norway
It has become usual to compare field recordings to photographs, and many use the term ‘phonograph’. Even though one should be careful not to carry the comparison too far, there are a number of perspectives regarding the artist’s role that are very similar. How different are not Chris Watson and Steve Roden’s recording methods? Whereas Watson carries out preparations, recordings and post-production worthy of the BBC archives, Roden sets up his miniature equipment and sits down to wait, without even using headphones. Where Watson notes the very second at which a certain bird can be heard on a recording, Roden divides his experience into several phases where the listening process in the studio afterwards is new and he must use his imagination to determine what he is actually listening to.
Microphones can be compared to magnifying glasses. Bjarne Kvinnsland refers to his activities in the field as hunting for sounds. The microphone then becomes an object the artist actively uses to focus on what interests him. This flexibility and hunting can develop to become an integrated part of the process and the material. Natasha Barrett experiments in allowing the movement of the microphones themselves to provide the listener with spatial information. Jana Winderens microphone improvisations support Stockhausen’s idea of he microphone as an instrument with expressive qualities far beyond the merely documentary.
Even though Marc Behrens brought recording equipment with him and made as many recordings as the others, he has nonetheless chosen to bring the sound source into the gallery for his work. Some three tons of rock from Våtedalen in Gloppen are laid out on a surface in the exhibition hall. As though refuting Erasmus Montanus’ famous doctrine the pieces of rock, which are normally silent objects, are set in motion by motors beneath the surface on which they rest, producing small, subtle sounds.
For artists recording in the field the equipment they use is not simply a tool to collect sounds with, it is a vital part of their artistic method, full of artistic choices and strategies.
When Grieg was out with his manuscript paper collecting melodies from folk musicians, he made a number of artistic choices there and then. He chose which tunes to write down and focused on what he found interesting in a particular situation. A lot of research has later gone into determining the basis of his transcriptions of folk music. There are several instances of ‘mistakes’ having been found in Grieg’s transcriptions – time signatures that have been misunderstood, upbeats incorrectly interpreted, or keys different from the original. If one turns the situation around, however, we see that Grieg was already making clear artistic choices while out in the field. He was not passively receiving the music and passing it on, he was displaying an active artistic will which even at that early stage of the process showed direction and determination. Artists cannot be required to demonstrate the same level of compliance as documentary makers or historians.
Open ears, open mind
Today the level of sound around us is high and constant. The acoustic environments in which we live are demanding; from early childhood we learn to shut out any acoustic information which does not interest us at that particular moment. Even though we do not realize it, this shutting out of sound takes considerable effort. The result is that we as Chris Watson puts it “hear sounds all the time but rarely listen.” In the same way that it is important for the human mind to rest the eye once in a while by looking at something very distant, so it is with sound that sometimes we need to be able to listen to something very distant. We need open spaces and the opportunity to perceive those spaces with all of our senses.
Therefore we must be grateful for our natural environment here in the north. Most people on the earth do not have the chance of being surrounded by nature just an hour’s drive from their home. There is an overwhelming consensus that we have to protect this. Not as a national picture-postcard, but as a rare element of our planet’s environment. One of our clearest observations in the course of the project has been that it is not only the visual landscape which needs protection, but also the acoustic landscape. At Utvær we experienced one of the worst examples of how wrong things can go. When the electrical mains supply cable to the island of Utvær was damaged in 1994 there were, formally speaking, no permanent inhabitants there, and the company who supplied the electricity was therefore exempt from being required to repair the damage. The matter reached the Norwegian government, but the Minister of Transport and Communications at the time, Kjell Opseth, would not grant the million kroner it would have cost to restore electricity to the island. Practically every household has its own generator to produce electricity, and the sound pervades the entire island. Even under water the noise is unbearable. Whereas authorities responsible for the preservation of culture are very strict regarding extensions and new buildings on the island, the acoustic landscape of this eccentric idyll is completed ruined by noise pollution.
When we are exposed to that kind of unwanted noise it affects all our senses, not just our hearing. The opportunity to listen deep into an acoustic landscape does not only open our ears, it opens our whole mind. If you spend a moment in Grieg’s composer’s hut, you realize how nature was constantly present while Grieg worked. He would have been appalled had he known how poorly the sound of our natural environment has been looked after. I hope that the Sleppet project can help bring also this matter into the open.
Grieg 07 – Jørgen Larsson
English translation: Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affair/Andrew Smith
Sleppet is supported by the Arts Council Norway, Norsk Komponistfond and The Grieg Foundation.