Monday, 16 January 2012

Presence through absence: The Sight Below's 'Stagger'

I'm always interested in how artists portray their performance space, as it were, in their tracks. People often think this becomes irrelevant when you're writing electronic music – it's all inside the laptop, right? – but if anything the opposite is true. Experimental electronic artists often, intentionally or not, create imaginary performance spaces when they write a track, irrespective or whether they think their track doesn't really have a 'performer', as in a human being playing the instruments. Western listeners hear what sound like instruments and attach a certain agency to those sounds. At that point, the track stops being just a bunch of sounds, and becomes a landscape with someone in it.

Once that 'performer' of sound is located, tracks can develop narratives based around the question of the performer's presence in the track. One of the tracks I've noticed this most clearly in is the beautiful 'Stagger' by The Sight Below. The first two minutes allow the pad synths to fade into hissing, clicking surroundings. After this fade-in we start to hear an ever-so-slightly out-of-tune, long low bowed string. It plays a long note on the 2nd of the key, occasionally sliding up a tone. What's significant about this string sound is it sounds so different from the surrounding synths: it's front-and-centre, focused, imperfect in its intonation. It also doesn't sound continuously; while the synths go on unbroken, the 'performer' of the string sound pauses for a few seconds at regular intervals.

What I'm interested in is the pause between 'bowings' (in inverted commas since we don't really know what's making the noise). The pause doesn't herald silence; for one thing, we've got those continuous synths going on. But the string sound itself has slowly been faded into the crackling vinyl hiss that the synths too entered. In fact the synths are the odd ones out since they seem to be 'in the background', heavily fogged in reverb. The vinyl crackle is as up-close as the bowed string is (although the string is quieter); when it pauses there's no resultant reverb or echo.

But if you focus on the string as it's played over and over, you get the feeling that when it stops sounding the string hasn't really left the track. We don't experience the string as a sample that's simply dropped in & out of the mix. Instead, when the string stops, it continues to embody the space of the vinyl crackle. It's as if the performer is sitting there by his/her cello waiting to start playing again. Maybe the vinyl sounds themselves contribute to this experience, since such a vinyl recording would continue recording even when no-one was playing.

The presence of the sound remains, in other words, even when it's not sounding. This presence is substantially different from the presence of a real performer in, say, a chamber music recording. The space that's developed here trades on its 'artificiality' (of course, all space in music recordings is artificial, but electronic music relies on making this apparent). The sounds of a vinyl player directly invoke a level of remove from any actual performance. But the spaces of the main synths & the string sound seem themselves quite removed from eachother. I think this creates tension in the track: when the string stops sounding, we're unsure if it will continue because we're unsure where it is! OK, it's at the front of the mix, but in relation to the synths it doesn't coherently seem to be anywhere; it's much more related to the vinyl sounds, but they don't indicate anything about the narrative of the 'performance'. The string, then, sounds like it could start & stop of its own accord no matter what the synths do. That's an interesting tension that arises from us presuming that sounds have their own agency.

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