Jim Denley and Nick Ashwood interview Amanda Stewart. Recorded 24/03/2019, Hobart.
Photo: Kevin Purdy
Part 4: The Antipathy of Experimental Music to Words, Enough’s Enough and Tuning Systems.
JD: But why is there this weird problem about the voice and words in experimental music? Like with the Splinter Orchestra, if there’s one thing that’s gonna disrupt it’s somebody coming in with clear language signals. And so many experimental festivals that i go to — like Soundout 2019 in Canberra this year — over a whole weekend of experimental and improvised music — no vocalists, nobody using words. It’s a stand-out when there’s a performance with words and you sorta go ‘Is that one of the strangest things that’s ever occurred where music and words seem to be repulsive to each other.’ Can you explain that? If it’s such a natural thing and we all have the ability, why is there this antipathy.
AS: I think ‘words and music’ can be very complicated and problematic. In the way popular music often works — you’ll see a good mixture of words and vocals often tailored to each other in quite specific ways. Say the way Dylan uses words and music, that’s a highly honed approach which unites the two. In so-called experimental contexts, certain modes of listening will be established and as soon as you bring in audible words, they can dominate — the semantic can destroy the ambiguity and richness of the listening field. And the other thing — if you’re gonna bring words in they have to function in an interesting way, they can’t just be ‘Oh i’ve picked up that stick’ — well they can be, i guess. I’ve got strong opinions about what i like in this area which are highly subjective.
NA: How have you built those strong opinions? So if you heard someone say ‘Pick up a stick’ What are your negativities about it?
AS: If it’s just the banal, it’d have to be really banal and used in a clever way to be interesting — there needs to be conceptual rationale. And if ever one brings in ‘straight language’, like if somebody’s playing softly and you bring in language, that’s a sledge hammer. It’s such a powerful gesture that’s going to recontextualise and potentially subjugate everybody else’s gestures, because the brain is going to go to a semantic universe.
JD: Even worse it can become a commentary on music, especially in an improvised setting. Suddenly the vocalist decides to use language, and then it can be read by the audience as comment on the music
NA: so you haven’t got the words ‘Pick up a stick’ in your sheets, but you may have the word ‘pick’
AS: i wouldn’t do that, if i use words or word fragments, they’re all related to specific sets of ideas that i’ve been developing or particular lines that i’ve written — what’s on my sheets is quite complicated to talk about as it’s really diverse and very particular — i have all these different strategies that i’ve developed over the years. I can’t use my poetry on the whole because it’s an inflexible form and not usually very useful in improvised gigs — but in one way, what you say is right — one strategy i sometimes employ is to use fragments of ideas or lines that i then have to reconfigure on-the-spot, live and which are modulated by what’s happening in the music
JD: they can’t really be read as commentary on what’s happening in the room at that time
AS: oh God no
JD: although sometimes that has happened
AS: that’s naughty though
JD: there was that thing with Machine when we sometimes used a random shuffle backing CD in performance, it could just interject. There was a track of you going ‘Enough’s enough’
AS: ‘Enough’s enough’ and ‘everybody on and sitting down’ (laughs) — you or Rik made that track, of course, to shock us — and it worked! I don’t know where you even got that
JD: it could be that we were in the middle of a very precious moment, like a flute solo, and then suddenly this signal would come in from the CD which was on random shuffle with Amanda Stewart’s voice going ‘Enough’s enough!’ Which could be read as commentary
AS: but it was a randomised sample so it wasn’t the vocalist, and Machine was partially about language so that’s a really different thing
JD: but i would never have thought you would do that
AS: no i would never do that
JD: although Rik would
AS: Rik would
AS: But Machine was one of the few groups where you could actually get away with that sort of thing. But it has to be sorta salient or right to the point. Yeah-no that’s true [laughs] so it’s very context based isn’t it.
But when i write, and particularly in the case of writing poetry, it’s a very tightly constructed thing and it takes a long time to come up with good lines and structures and forms. Sometimes they just come out spontaneously but most of the time i have to work away for hours with a field of ideas that i’m exploring. I usually do quite a bit of research. A lot of my writing is more philosophically or conceptually based, although some of it can be quite simple but none of my writing’s ever ‘Oh the stick’. Whereas people who do that sort of stuff can do that really well — the everyday. But on the whole i felt that i couldn’t guarantee that, live, i would come up with a good line. I also find that when my head goes into a semantic space, time slows down, you’re into a wordy universe and i’m not listening as carefully to what’s going on in the room, whereas when i’m not thinking semantically i’m far more alert to sonic complexity — when i do just the noise thing or abstract vocals i don’t put text in my mind at all, i’m just very much there in the moment with the sound, but if i’m in a group that is open to the idea of some sort of textual substratum, before the gig i purposely choose some bodies of ideas or texts that i’ve written that i can have stored in the back of my brain, or on my sheets, which i might reference, or not.
NA: So how are you choosing those texts, is that based off the space, the type of performance or the group you’re playing with or things that have happened that day?
AS: It’s usually coming from a certain philosophical or cultural interest that i’ve been developing in my writing (i had a big obsession with science and also notions of subjectivity in language, for example). So, for instance, i’ve got these different types of what i think of as ‘impro texts’ which i still sometimes use which can be related fields of lines or ideas, parallel and contrasting texts that i’ve written, one-liners, concept fields, notations, sketches — as i said, i find that, on the whole, i can’t use my poems as they are compositions, in effect, which are fixed in time and space already. It’s great when new approaches spontaneously spring from one’s shared explorations with other artists. Like i remember developing an approach with Jean-Luc Guionnet one time where we had a possibility that i could go into an improvised, linear rave and so i’d just talk for a minute or so, running parallel with Jean-Luc. I could choose how semantic or abstracted it would be. I might talk about how a lot of the notions of C20th physics haven’t permeated into our language structures, or about genetics or historical amnesia or something like that. But often i try and make self contained lines that won’t reflect off the music, that won’t imply an ongoing narrative and I usually use a lot of abstraction.
JD: but sometimes you do reflect on the music. There’ll be a section which is clearly interested in pitch and tuning systems and you’ll highlight that with a little phrase, ‘tuning systems’.
AS: As a metaphor not just for music but for cultural, what’s the word? Not indoctrination, but, for example. in our culture with the proliferation of the well tempered system of tonal organisation — like you were saying before — when some people hear microtones they may sound unfamiliar, that applies to all sorts of cultural stuff. So in genetics we’ve focussed on coding DNA for years, so that’s a bit like a tuning system. I like the idea of drawing attention to all these systems. They’re like grammatical systems that we’re engaging with. When we’re using systems we can forget about the structural antecedents that we’re embodying and reproducing and that’s why we don’t hear certain things because we’re just hearing that tuning system, a structure that we’ve internalised — that stops us from being able to hear other things. That happens to us all the time…