QUIES


25. FIRST PUBLIC SHOWING @ WORKING TITLE #5 (documentation)


About the lecture-performance:

Peter Lenaerts invites the audience into a cosy living room setting. In the center of the room, two flat screen televisions, back to back, covered by a black cloth. Comfortable couches are placed in a half circle in front of the televisions. There’s four speakers, one in each corner of the room, and two subs speakers in line with the tv’s. The lights are dimmed. The performance starts with a text about failure (see below). As the lights slowly fade to black, the only light that remains in the room is the screen of Peter’s tablet as he reads the text. When the text has been read, he closes the tablet and plunges the room into complete darkness. The sound piece that has been playing in the background now comes to the foreground. After about 10 minutes, the cloth is removed from the televisions and the documentary Ezra made starts playing.

 

Quies @ WT 1 Quies @ WT 2 Quies @ WT 3 Quies @ WT 4 Quies @ WT 5 Quies @ WT 6

Images © Giannina Urmeneta Ottiker

 

 

Quies & Failure
1.
The biggest failure of them all. I shouldn’t have used the word silence when I first started this project almost 3 years ago. Silence makes people think of yoga retreats, or churches, or John Cage or Simon & Gartfunkel, and obviously there’s nothing wrong with that, it just doesn’t fit Quies. So rather than writing “I want to work on silence. And absence. And nothing” I should have written “I want to work on Quies. And absence. And nothing. The lack of. Just space. And air. That moment when the last note has rung. Just before the audience breaks out in applause or boos. That moment of anticipation. Of holding your breath. Your senses, exalted and wired. All ears. That moment. Exactly that moment.

What do we hear when there’s nothing to listen to?

What do we listen to when there’s nothing to hear?

2.
This is also a pretty big one. Slightly tongue in cheek, but still.

When you decide to fly to Sydney at the far end of the world (24 hours or 16736km), then get another plane to Adelaide (1,5 hours or 1400km) then get into a hire landcruiser and spent 2 whole days or 1000km driving to what is technically not even a desert yet; when you decide to do all that because you’re curious how empty and desolate and devoid of both human and animal presence this place will be because you want to try and record this emptiness. If you want to do all that, then do not take a film maker. Because filmmakers are noisy. If you’re afraid to travel alone or you’re afraid to go desert mad, take a friend, but do not take a film maker. Because they make a lot of sound. And because they are busy making a film, they don’t listen. Even though film is 50% image and 50% sound, they just stand there and make squares with their hands and then look around, turning left, turning right, crouching down until suddenly they see what they want to capture and then they come racing with all their gear, and set it up amidst a flurry of sonic activity. And when they are finally ready to start filming, they ask you to stay in that uncomfortable position a bit longer.

And to add insult to injury: a year later, they have a film to show here whereas silly old me is still trying to make sense of all his recordings.

3.
A smaller failure but still. Number one golden rule on filmsets? Don’t count on the weather.

Don’t think oh, I’m going to the desert and the desert is hot. And I’m specifically going in Summer because it’s so hot that there will be less people. And when I went the first time, it was constanly between 36 and 43 and I didn’t meet anyone besides the freaks and misfits in petrol stations.

No, you cannot count on the weather and I should have know this. So this time it was barely 30 degrees. On top of that, there had been massive amounts of rain. Yes, rain, in one of the most arid regions on earth. So much rain that Lake Eyre, which is usually a dried out salt lake, flooded over. So much rain, that the desert didn’t look yellow and red and white, but green. Green with little bushes and grass and greenery. And for the ears it’s even worse because really hot weather creates the illusion of sonic emptiness. It’s an acoustic phenomenon that when it’s really hot and there’s lots of wind and then suddenly the wind settles, and it’s like there’s no sound left in the world. I had experienced that before. But not this time of course. Not when the camera was rolling.

So bad weather. Barely 30 degrees and the constant threat of a freak rain storm coming. And stories from the locals about how the last time it rained properly, the town you’re in  got cut off for 6 weeks. No people, no supplies, nothing coming in or going out.

So anyhow. Don’t count on the weather.

4.
Technology is dumb, our ears are clever. I knew this but was still disappointed and frustrated when confronted with it.

Simply put, and without getting lost in technicalities: each microphone makes sound. It’s called self-noise. It’s comparable to the warm hiss of a record player. Some of you here might still remember that sound.

Even more simply put, the cheaper the microphone, the more self-noise or hiss. And finally, the smaller the microphone the more self-noise.

Now, most microphones for outdoor use are rather small, whether they’re cheap or expensive. And the big and quiet microphones are almost all indoor microphones.

For outdoor microphones you need wind protection. Serious wind protection, especially in the desert. If not, it just sounds like the very first sound you’ll hear in the film. Make sound.

And wind protection is only made for outdoor or smaller microphones. It’s not made for big, indoor microphones.

Now, before we left, I decided on the following guidelines:

I would start recording with small, inexpensive microphones and wear them on my head. They have good wind protection and create a very realistic surround sound – uh – image. As long as there’s actual sound to record, these microphone work really nicely. The moment there’s little to record, you start hearing these microphones.
At which point I would switch to a hand held stereo microphone. With even better wind protection. And less realistic surround -uh- image, but still stereo.

Eventually this microphone would also become too loud, at which point I would switch to an indoor microphone. A studio microphone and one of the quietest microphones around. It has barely any self-noise or hiss. Problem though: no wind protection available.

But I was only gonna use this microphone when there was no wind. But there is almost always wind in the desert. Maybe not to our ears, but to a very sensitive microphone there is always air movement.

So, conclusion: I came across quite a few extremely quiet places. Some I would even call virtually silent, but I shouldn’t use that word.

But technology failed me almost always in these places. Whenever there’s was no wind, or no flies (cos it’s usually either/or in the desert), and whenever the filmmaker was quiet, the landscape would sound eerily and scarily quiet. A sensation, just so you know, that is far from pleasant. Real quiet is freaky. Real quiet is unnatural. It’s the primordial sign for danger. When nature goes quiet, something dangerous is lurking somewhere. When babies are born, they are freaked out by the quiet. When babies have a hard time sleeping the first couple of weeks, it’s because the room is too quiet. They are used to sound levels similar to a busy underground metro station during peak hour. That’s what the world sounds like in the womb. Loud, throbbing, thumping, droney.
When all of that disappears, it’s freaky. Because we’re not used to it AND because we start hearing ourselves. The brain is hardwired for sound perception. It there’s nothing to hear, the brain and ears will zoom until it hears something. Neurological fact.

Anyhow, where am I going with this: to my final point of failure

5.
I have nothing to make something with.

I have lots of nothing to make something with.

An album. A sound piece. An installation.

What I cannot make or share with you, is quies though.

I wrote all those years ago:

I do know that silence does not exist. Or that, if it does, it cannot be recorded. Or that, if it could be, it cannot be played back, or heard or re-experienced in the same way.

I now know that silence does exist. Or rather, such empty quiet that it sounds like there’s nothing there but my own sounds. It does exist. I can give you the address, but you’ll still need a lot of luck, because when I revisited the place for the film, it wasn’t quiet at all.

I now know that it can be recorded. Because of wind, flies, filmmaker and lack of proper wind protection, I could not capture a lot of it. But it’s there, in smalls bits and pieces.

But but but, can it be played back and heard and re-experienced in the same way?

Yes and no. I will play you something in a while that is as good as empty. Not for long, but for a little while, there’s virtually nothing.

But I am terribly sorry that I won’t be able to make you hear or re-experience it.

And that is the ultimate failure of quies. It can’t be shared.

Or, as Graham Greene says: When you escape to a desert, the silence screams in your ear.

Or, as I say: When you try to record nothing, you have nothing to share.

I can’t think of anything more exciting than that.

Enjoy the film.

 


24. CLAIMING THE QUIET: INTERVIEW


The following interview appears in the Working Title Festival Catalogue.

Read below or view as pdf catalogue excerpt here

Claiming the quiet

An interview with Peter Lenaerts by Marnix Rummens

Sometimes inaudible, at other times extremely loud. Sound artist Peter Lenaerts has created sound scores for countless performances. The outer limit of the audible he found in the Australian desert. We can relive this experience in the experimental documentary QUIES. For it is only in extreme silence that we are able to hear ourselves listen. A conversation about the elements of our auditory experience.

You are described as composer, musician, sound designer and sound artist. Did you always have this broad interest in sound? I did. As a teenager I of course played in rock bands, but ever since the first projects I created with friends while studying, I have always taken on this versatile role of maker, researcher, and musician. Nowadays I mostly describe myself as a composer. For what I do does come down to composing with sound and music. The term sound artist fits too: like a visual artist who makes connections between materials, colours and shapes to evoke a new view on a specific theme, I work with tonalities, rhythm and acoustics. I am as interested in the physical effect of sound as in the psychological effect of music.

Did this interest bring you into contact with performance?

Through film I met contemporary dancers like Salva Sanchis, David Hernandez and Mette Ingvartsen and was immediately fascinated by performance. I found what happened there exciting and relevant. The fleeting and ephemeral character of performance appealed to me. This led to several collaborations in film, dance, and performance installations. I really like to work collectively. But also apart from these collaborations I constantly create music or sound. That is probably the only influence left from university, this notion of research. I am constantly working on things, often without a specific end product in mind, but these experiments always turn out to be the basis for new projects. These more intuitive lines often lead the furthest.

Did QUIES come about in the same way?

Yes, exactly. QUIES came about in a sabbatical year, during which I decided to go to Australia. From day one I was overwhelmed by that continent’s completely different sound world. It is a country filled with auditory extremes. In Sydney you are part of a raging dynamic amidst skyscrapers and all kinds of traffic. At the same time you are just 20 minutes away from the ocean, where you can experience a roughness of nature we no longer know in Europe. I wanted to go deeper into these contrasts so I decided to drive into the desert, towards Broken Hill, about 1500 km west of Sydney. The arid, searing, and endless plain with its exceptional quietness was a different extreme. I had never heard something like that before. It was astonishing: a natural environment where there is no sound whatsoever. When I was offered a residency in Critical Path, a small workspace in Sydney, I decided to go back to the desert, but this time completely on my own and for a longer period of time.

What does this kind of experience do to you?

You are confronted with yourself in these places. Silence is often seen as something soothing, but it is also frightening. It feels unnatural, especially for modern man. We constantly produce sound. In the desert there is no auditory or visual distraction. It is 40

degrees, day in day out. There is no one to talk to. You are hundreds of kilometres away from the nearest village or gas station. There is nothing romantic or idyllic about such an environment. After three days I was suffering from desert madness. You realise that the quietness you hear means that there is really nobody or nothing out there. And for a needy creature like man this confrontation feels dangerous. But it also teaches you a lot about yourself.

Why were you, as a sound artist, intrigued by this kind of silence?

It’s the paradox that intrigued me, because absolute silence does not exist. And even if it would exist, you would not be able to record it. And even if you were able to record it, how would you replay it? I went to places where you couldn’t hear a single sound. It was like being in a vacuum. At the same time something strange happens within this silence. As if there are different layers and you discover a new sound that was always there, but you just never heard before. You also start hearing yourself: the streaming of your blood, the sound of your stomach, a far, low drone or a very high sizzling sound. And then you experience how much silence depends on your own frame of reference. It is by looking for these extreme situations that you learn how to listen.

Your research is more about listening than it is about silence?

Exactly. Looking for silence was never the goal. For me it is more about the sound of the world around me, and the experiences it evokes. About developing awareness for it. We live in a world that is dominated by the visual. We are barely conscious of our own auditory perception. For me it is not about the sound of nature, but about the experience you can have in these circumstances. That is why I always chose to carry the microphone myself, on my head or in my hand, rather than leaving behind small microphones in the landscape. And that is what turns it into performance. You don’t just push your own boundaries, but you also have to behave in a certain way when making these recordings.

Is there a big difference between experiencing silence and recording it?

Absolutely. In that sense, QUIES is mostly an absurd battle between man, technology and nature. There you are in a hot, seemingly infinite environment where you try to capture silence, while the wind constantly produces noise in the microphone. Even the most sophisticated technology cannot filter it out. Our ears are much better equipped. It seems absurd that the medium with which you experience the world also determines it significantly. We are incredibly good at focusing, listening selectively, and making abstractions. I am interested in the forces that guide our senses and our media: the fact that we can shift the frames of perception, but also that we are totally unaware of it. That is what I look for in the performances I work on.

Do you also use silence in your performances to make the functioning of our senses tangible? On some level, yes. I often work with, what I call, invisible sounds: sounds you don’t hear until they disappear. For Knockout, a performance by Rebecca September, I cut out all the silent parts of an old film noir movie and pieced these together into a warm, analogue noise that was already playing very softly when the audience entered the theatre. They accepted it as part of the space. When this sound disappears halfway through the piece, you experience this as a devastating and dramatic silence. The acoustics of the space change completely, as if your ears are reset. At that moment you feel very intensively how

your ears function, because the unconscious selection or framing suddenly becomes conscious. You realise how intelligent, but also how subjective human perception can be.

The way we perceive things determines sound significantly.

Indeed. In The Artificial Nature Project, Mette Ingvartsen’s new performance, I am doing something very similar with synthetic sounds. The sound is dependent on the position of the spectator, because the sound source is set up in different places. You can hear a different sound by simply turning your head. It makes you aware of the fact that as a spectator you are also somehow a musician. And in Welcome to the Jungle, the new performance installation by Andros Zins-Browne, the sound becomes inaudible and the different senses get mixed up. These inaudible frequencies make a labyrinth of mirrored walls tremble like a big speaker. You get visually lost and physically disoriented. In this installation you don’t really hear the sound, but you see it. Even inaudible sounds can really determine our experience, in both a visual and haptic way. In that sense, every separation of the senses is always artificial.

How did you get to work with the recordings for QUIES?

QUIES will have a number of different outcomes. I released the first recordings from the desert as an album, Stills and postcards from the centre. Ezra Eeman made an experimental documentary about my quest in the desert. It starts from the visual vastness of the landscape and then focuses on the absurd impossibility of recording silence. Ezra and me are also investigating how we can use the all the recorded material in different ways, for example in a performative or installation context. This provides us with lots of other possibilities, because we can determine the length and focus of the experience much more than in a film screening, where people can walk in and out. I’m interested in the CD format mainly as a curiosity. I do not expect people to listen to it in its entirety, just like that is not the case with the work of for example Morton Feldman either. I do find it powerful in a utopian way. The sound of these recordings evokes a vastness that triggers your imagination, and appeals to your inner experience. Listening to something that is barely audible can evoke a huge space.

Does this flirting with the limit of silence have a permanent effect on your experience? Yes, absolutely. I look and listen differently because of this experience. My focus is more directed. I can shut things out more easily. There’s a new threshold that has broadened my experience. I tend to spare my ears now because everything sounds more intensely. It completely broadens your understanding of the impact of sound on our senses. And it’s that I hope to pass on to the audience, the notion that every attempt at capturing reality is biased and that no zero degree is ever final or objective. Every experience of reality is subjective, and dependant on your measuring tools. And of course you also need this exchange with an audience in order to grow and evolve.

Interview done on Friday the 16th of November 2012 on the occasion of the presentation of QUIES at Working Title Platform #05

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23. FIRST PUBLIC SHOWING @ WORKING TITLE #5


The first public showing of Quies is happening this weekend in the Kaaistudios as part of the Working Title festival.

More info about the shows here.

And about the festival here.

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