Medea Electronique gets into conversation with two emblematic figures of the art of sound and contemporary music who, with tenderness and passion partake in the history and developments of the international and domestic stages as well as in the theoretical discourse, paving the way, proposing methods, projects, collaborations. The musician and sound dramaturge, Dimitris Kamarotos, and the Executive Director of the Onassis Foundation and Director of the Music Department, Christos Karras, answer our questions about sound as a public good, about collective dramaturgy, and about the need for narration. Enjoy! ***
Medea Electronique: To start the discussion, I was thinking in the morning about the issue of sound dramaturgy and art in the public space. Can sound be considered a public good? Because many times we go to a public place and say that we will create an installation. And we define public space as a park, a public building, a lake, but we have never considered the soundscape as an actual space. If an artist creates a work in a public space, what is their responsibility towards this space and soundspace nowadays, is soundspace an actual space or not?
Christos Karras: The question has several levels and one of them is related to the community, in a way. That is, it concerns whether the sound is a public good and how people manage it. Indeed, we have not often thought of sound as something related to public goods, associating them with resources or spaces. While in fact there exists a history and a contemporary reality, the sound produced by the community, by communities, is regulated, limited, and so on. So, we can definitely talk about issues of the sound of the community. An example that I like very much comes from England, from the time when landowners started the so-called ‘fencing’ policy of areas that were previously common areas exploited by the villages. So, there was a sound custom in the villages then, which was in fact a public trial, a sound trial in a way, during which you would follow someone and make a lot of noise. Now, I don’t really explain it well, but there are actual studies that show how, gradually, this public court began to be regulated and limited. So, we see that the attempt to regulate public sound –which of course often makes sense and we see it today with the rules for noise pollution– can, at certain times and regimes, act as a constraint, oppression, suppression of noise, a sound set or a noise set, considering it a threat to a regime, whether proprietary or political. So yes, I think that sound is part of the community and when you intervene in a public space in any way, you definitely have the responsibility of managing or interfering with something and sound by nature is of course something that is diffused, not limited, so it concerns many people besides those you are targeting, you may influence or speak to or be heard by. You have a responsibility to manage this public audio space, that’s clear. Of course, this is also the meaning of intervention in public space, that is, it must, in a way, bring out exactly this characteristic of sound, which is not considered a common good, it must highlight sound as an element that conveys information and powers and conflicting forces, interests, and so on. So, precisely because there is this relationship, public intervention in sound also makes sense because you have to consciously play, to process exactly those forces that are usually in the background. I’ll leave it here for now.
Dimitris Kamarotos: Christos, you are laying a very good foundation, on which I also rely. I add to the discussion a relationship I take for granted: the relationship between sound and music. In what we say, for my part, I constantly consider music to be a subset of sound, something that to some will seem obvious. In our daily lives, however, we usually say ‘these are sounds, these are music’, we categorize. It is often good, when we use them creatively, to understand their relationship and in this respect, the well known to all of us, that typical music can be sound or noise for someone and vice versa.
Now, the main thing for me, to go back to what you said Manolis, firstly I find a very important relationship with architecture and not with architecture as a finished architecture, but with the basic science of architecture, ‘architectural acoustics’, the use of sound purely within architecture. What always interests me and I talk to architects on a common understanding basis is that in architecture, as in sound, one has to design, to imagine things, to pre-mediate them responsibly, because one cannot easily build a building and then say ‘wow its sound is miserable, it has no light, it has no air’, then add patches. By the same token, when designing something for soundscapes, either on a small scale, which is a performance, an indoors narrative and an environment, or on a large scale, which is a public space, there is, for example, the architect’s gesture, a similar gesture which means that you must first imagine things, think about the materials, and simulate them effectively so that when the time comes things can happen. Another element that seems important to me to add to what Christos said, is that I personally find that in the use of sound dramaturgy in a performance or a film but also in the artistic intervention in public spaces, there is the dimension of narration. The sound enters there, not momentarily, like a flash. On the contrary, sound has, by its very nature, to narrate something. For instance, the first rudimentary relationship I had with this dimension and without even having any awareness of what I was doing, was in 1985, I had graduated from university, I was working at IRCAM, I was invited to Creteil, outside Paris, for a sound intervention in a place of the old city centre, and there I suggested that an abandoned fountain should get sound again, a proposal that the Municipality implemented. So, this rudimentary thing, again even in this minimal form, was a narrative. Listen to this sound as it was, so stand there for ten minutes and think if you want to hear it again and have, for example, this function of narration through the medium of sound.
Medea Electronique: How would you define sound dramaturgy?
Dimitris: The simplest description I can give for sound dramaturgy is the following: sound dramaturgy is the telling of a story with a sequence of sounds. Beyond that, there is the collective in various ways, the collective of persons but also of media, that is, when you tell this story not only with sounds but there are images, speech, there is a city, anything that is combined with sounds. Then, a more complex language begins to break in, but again in a way, sometimes even an opposing or reinforcing one, they all tend to create a narrative, that is a sequence which leads somewhere, which creates the identity of a narrative, whether this has a specific title and refers to a myth or a work, or it is a simpler narrative, which does not belong to a particular myth or story but is nevertheless a rudimentary narrative.
This issue of collective dramaturgy is a key one, from many points of view. On a daily basis the dramaturgy of our lives is characterized by the fact that we constantly receive and transmit information, emotions, images, sounds. We must distinguish the person within this grid.
Medea Electronique: Would we say that art in public space requires another type of dramaturgy, a ‘collective’ one, which is not a product of one but is created in situ by and with communities?
Christos: This issue of collective dramaturgy is a key one, from many points of view. I now think that on a daily basis the dramaturgy of our lives is characterized by the fact that we constantly receive and transmit information, emotions, images, sounds. Ιn a grid of sounds, images, information, emotions we must distinguish the person within it. It is a strange framework, in which the concept of participation has emerged a lot, in how ideas, tendencies, and so on develop, that is we have left a very point-directed idea of how a community, a movement or anything is formed, for a much more diffuse and collective existence. Centres of power certainly haven’t ceased to exist, on the contrary, and this is the paradox of our time, we have the greatest concentration of power in the media ever, in terms of wealth and elsewhere. At the same time, though, there is this pervasive trend. So surely this transfers to both our perception and intervention in public space. I think it gives us tools to understand the idea of a collective dramaturgy, that is of how users of the space are already creating dynamics that are basically ‘collective’, multi-personal, multi-subjective, polyphonic. It’s an intense multi-microphonic situation.
The concept of the individual masterpiece has lost its glamour and feasibility nowadays, I’m not sure what a masterpiece would look like today. In the 20th century and up until today, one of the dominant demands has been to remove the distance between art and reality, a fact that also has risks, since reality is also symbolically constructed, just as art, and it does not stand opposite to art by itself.
The existence of multiple sources of dramaturgy in a common environment, whether it is called an installation, or a performance, or a film, creates resistance to the flow of things, a process that enriches the final work.
Medea Electronique: What is the role of the dramaturge in the production of a work of contemporary art?
Dimitris: It is a lot and on a case-by-case basis, that is, this issue is definitely not answered uniquely, but we definitely want the dramaturges. It is up to everyone to find the way. I think that the existence of multiple sources of dramaturgy in a common environment, whether it is called an installation, or a performance, or a film, creates resistance to the flow of things, a process that enriches the final work. Being part of a production, and broadcasting a dramaturgy of sound and collaborating with a director who reinforces or uses it and a dramaturge who opposes it, is something that enriches everyone’s language. Provided, however, that there is someone who narrates, whether that is the director or me, or someone else. A story must be told. This necessity, that a story has to be told and adjusted, if one doesn’t accept it, the whole path –the collective, the open, the abrupt changes– can be prevented from coming to the surface and the result will be multiple sounds that may have no reason to exist.
Christos: I think it’s what we said before, that there is an imaginary concept of collectivity, composed in some way by individuals or even computers. Just as humans are complex beings, so this collectiveness that they compose by doing something as a group, is not made up of equal, separate, completely unconnected individuals. Τherefore you compose something through forces, competition, common goals and spaces, through all these together. Thus, the role of the dramaturge is to participate in the multifaceted creation of a work, in the composition of different voices, in connecting contrasting, collective elements and qualities.