So, it's been a busy couple of months, with the completion of - and then two performances of - The Velvet Rage my new piece for Trio Atem (for flute(s), voice (with talkbox unit), cello and electronics). It was my absolute pleasure and delight to receive and accept a commission from the trio back in the Autumn to help them celebrate their tenth anniversary. I've followed the group for many years and (full disclosure) I'm lucky enough to count the three of them amongst my friends.
I thought I'd pen a few words about the piece and its conception and development here. Partly because it might be interesting and partly because I'm the process of preparing a conference paper on the piece and I'm trying to get my head around exactly what to say...
The title is usually a good place to start. My piece for the trio takes its title from Alan Downs's 2005 famous self-help book, The Velvet Rage: Overcoming the pain of growing up gay in a straight man's world, which is primarily a book about relationships (healthy and unhealthy) and an anecdotal discussion - from the author's perspective as a practicing clinical psychologist - concerning the prevalence of anxiety, depression and issues of self-fulfilment amongst gay men.
That said, the piece probably has more to do with the ideas emerging from Sarah Ahmed's 2006 book Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, objects, others than it does with the above text.
Although Ahmed's book is oft-cited as the first critical discussion of notions of orientation in sexual orientation, she spends quite some considerable time in it talking about the number of tables that appear in classic philosophical texts (noting, in particular, the tables of Heidegger, Husserl and Marx). I also remember having to undertake a lengthy analysis of Bertrand Russell's comments on his table when studying that philosopher's The Problems of Philosophy as an A-Level student. And, many years ago, the subject of desks and tables also came up in my PPE interview at Oxford, although exactly what I was doing in that situation will remain shrouded in mystery for the time being...
Though Ahmed's ideas are elegant and intricate, essentially she is talking critically about the sociality of space (and the influence such sociality has had on phenomenology). Her thing-for-tables is actually a very elegant device. That a philosopher has a table - or that the table is proximate to the philosopher - says a lot about the sociality of space. It implies that the philosopher is privileged enough to have a space to write. And, as Ahmed goes on points out, Husserl even mentions his ability to hear his children playing in the summer house, out of sight. Again, that he is able to sit at his desk suggests that he is not the primary child carer - and gender-politics enters the scene. I wish I had a summer house...
With this pointed out, Ahmed makes her primary claim.
A queer phenomenology, I wonder, might be one that faces the back, which looks “behind” phenomenology, which hesitates at the sight of the philosopher’s back. (Ahmed 2006 p.29)
In my piece - The Velvet Rage - I was drawn to think about how such a queer phenomenology might manifest in the spatial, conceptual, indeed social relations between human performers and non-human instruments. I've mentioned in previous writings how I consider instruments to have a degree of agency in the making of sound, distinct and (often, in my case) in conflict with the agency of the performer.
I wanted to devise a set of materials that would draw the hierarchical model of human-over-non-human into question - to queer it. The opening of the piece is perhaps as good an example as any...
The cellist opens the piece with a simple series of long bow strokes on an open fourth string - only it's not quite that simple. The passage is played with extreme over-pressure - oh, and the fourth string is severely detuned to the point of complete pitch instability. As a result, despite there being 'not very much' in the score, the sonic result of this passage is full of pitch-distortion and rhythmic stammers. The detuned string recoils against the action of the bow, which itself is conflating extreme downward pressure with the perpendicular slip-start motion required to undertake the stroke. In essence, details of the sound (i.e. what micro-event happen where) is handed back to the agency of the non-human instrument. The cellist, to a certain extent, is placed in a position of quasi non-control. She is 'behind the desk' to use Ahmed's words.
In contrast, the voice reads out a spoken text (my first use of speaking in a piece, thank you Sara Ahmed). Here, the situation is sort of reversed (although there is a wry play going on here as well that I'm going to leave to talk about until the conference paper proper) - the larynx (her instrument) is more subservient to the performer's will.
These two states form a space of operation for the piece. Medium and larger-scale structures are built from superimposing, juxtaposing and transitioning the states through and across oneanother. And some situations are specifically devised to problematise what would be an uncomfortably axial/binary model to use (the vocalist spends some considerable time working with a talkbox, which sends realtime generated electronic sound into her mouth via a tube for filtration and biomechanical manipualtion). But, again, I'll leave that for the paper proper.
So it is primarily a book about relationships - between bodies and instruments, between performers and performers. So maybe it does have more of a link to Alan Downs's text than I originally let on... That's probably enough for now. I'll post a link to the final paper here when I've written/delivered/edited it.
In the meantime, I really want to thank Trio Atem for what has been an amazing few months. Joyous and productive. The piece has not been easy to get their heads around (for anyone to get their heads around) and their patience, support and commitment has made it an extremely prudent environment to take some artistic risks. Thanks gang.
If you missed The Velvet Rage last time, you'll be able to catch it again in Leeds this November. More details to come!