Pulsars (Amsterdam: Attacca Productions, The Netherlands, 2010) is the second full-length portrait CD of Rozalie Hirs (*1965). It contains three electroacoustic compositions based on own texts. All compositions feature spoken voice.
Pulsars (2006-07) 30’22”
elektroacoustic composition, based on own text
Rozalie Hirs (voice)
In LA (2003, English version 2010) 18’30”
elektroacoustic composition, based on own text
Arnold Marinissen (voice)
Bridge of Babel (2009) 7’55”
elektroacoustic composition, based on own text
Rozalie Hirs (voice)
Birds, words, and stars – Rozalie Hirs and the composition of inner life
‘what is inside? / inside a word you mean?’, ask the opening lines of Rozalie Hirs’ text for her electronic composition, Pulsars. Apt words for a composer whose work shows a marked interest in the inner workings of sound and language, on the physical level of acoustics and perception as well as on the level of expression and meaning. In fact, for Hirs, “meaning” itself is a physical phenomenon, always being produced and received by the neurology of our bodies. That makes words physical entities, not only because they are, as sounds, subject to the laws of acoustics, but also because meaning itself is a process that happens within the body, and is therefore produced by nature. Thus it is nature that we can find at work “inside” words.
At the same time, of course, meanings are cultural – they are the means by which we communicate. That aspect, too, can be found within the lines quoted: the questions are addressed to a ‘you’. This ‘you’, however, appears only after the main question: what is inside, inside a word? Which might suggest that culture follows nature: the nature of our bodies and our neurology makes it possible for us to have words and meanings, and on the basis of that, culture.
However, the situation is a little more complicated than that. We might hear the text as dialogue: a second speaker responding to the first line with a question, ‘inside a word, you mean?’; but also as monologue: a speaker following up on her own first line with ‘inside a word you mean?’, with ‘you’ not referring to a specific person but indicating a generic ‘you’. In this second case the nature of the word itself becomes dependent on this ‘you’s’ act of meaning, and suddenly nature shows itself to depend on culture as much as culture depends on nature. In fact, it is this very feedback-loop between nature and culture happening within words – words as natural, acoustic and neurological phenomena, and words as cultural meanings and communications, the two levels being inextricably entwined – that makes for their rich and dynamic inner life. It is an inner life beyond the difference between nature and culture, and even beyond the difference between monologue and dialogue, between one voice and two voices, between a specific and a generic address.
The present CD is a document of the profundity of engagement in Rozalie Hirs’ work with the inner life of sounds, words, physical reality and meaning. Or, one might say, with inner life as such. This engagement gives the works featured on this disc an unusual sense of intimacy, or closeness. These works invite the listener to let himself or herself be embraced by their presence, their intricate sound worlds, their processes and the play of their meanings. Ideally, they would minimize the distance between listener and sound, so as to take place within the listener’s own head – indeed, the composer has suggested that these pieces might best be listened to through headphones.
This closeness puts these works right at the heart of Hirs’ artistic practice, at the meeting point of the two disciplines within which she has chosen to work – composition and poetry. Besides being the author of four books of poetry, Hirs is an acclaimed composer of concert music including chamber works, pieces for ensemble and orchestral music. In those works, too, we encounter a composer fascinated by the acoustic and psychoacoustic properties of sound, timbre and harmony. But the immediacy of the electronic medium itself sets the pieces on this disc apart from the concert works. In a concert setting, there is a distance between listener and performer, but with electronic music, certainly when listened to within the comfort of one’s own home or using headphones, such distance can be minimized and the relationship between music and listener become immediate. It is a more intimate, private situation, akin to reading a book – that deeply private form of artistic enjoyment, taking place entirely between the reader’s head and his or her hands.
In poetry in particular, such closeness can play an important role. If narrative prose projects the presence of a virtual person, the narrator, in poetry it is not always so clear who is speaking. In general there will not be an identifiable narrator. Instead, the words are enacted within the reader’s mind, becoming the reader’s as much as the book’s, and the reader will experience the language by identifying with it. As a result the lines separating reader, speaker and text are not always so clear-cut.
A notable feature of Hirs’ electronic pieces on this CD is her poetic use of text. Three pieces feature words in multiple, simultaneously spoken layers – a form that is reminiscent of polyphonic poetic forms such as were explored by experimental poet Jackson Mac Low or composer Robert Ashley, among others. But if those works were generally geared towards performance in public by a group, with the individual layers spoken by different voices, in Hirs’ pieces the text is always spoken by the same voice, using multiple recordings mixed together.
It is striking how this mode of recitation enables a far-reaching disembodiment of the text. The use of a single layer would have established a speaker identity, and use of different voices would have established multiple speaker identities; but here, one voice is at the same time multiple voices, so that the identity of the layer or ‘voice’ that an individual word belongs to becomes ambiguous. As a result, voice as such recedes into pure medium, becoming the space for every word to function as an entity on its own within a multi-dimensional stream. Resultant ‘diagonal’ texts may emerge from the combination of layers, and words may function in multiple ways at the same time. The words show their intrinsic dynamic potential for combination and meaning. Thus Hirs’ single-voice counterpoint leads to an insight into the inner life of words.
Indeed, the text that appears in Pulsars‘ spoken section presents a contrapuntal meditation on words, meaning, and how words act physically, emerging from breath and acting on the ear and the neural system, and in the end, the mind. In one line, the firing of neurons involved in language is compared to the activity of pulsars – a class of very quickly rotating neutron stars that emit strong beams of electromagnetic radiation, acting as astronomical “lighthouses”. Thus, by punning metaphor Hirs links neuron and word to neutron and star, suggesting another set of connections between the inner life of words and nature, here on the scale of cosmology.
Most of Pulsars, however, is given over to the exploration of the inner life of a different kind of “word” appearing in nature: bird song. Hirs has used fragments of recordings by composer and ornithologist Magnus Robb (of the species Locustella fluviatilis, Catharus guttatus, Troglodytes troglodytes, Ammomanes cincturus and Luscinia luscinia), and has stretched these, to obtain abstract harmonious sounds of great beauty and with a subtle living quality. But the genius of Hirs’ sonic concept lies in the treatment of this powerful material. By means of intricate layering techniques Hirs has managed to project the pulsation of firing neurons and neutron stars into the sound of the birds. Just as the layering of one voice leads to fields of meanings that open up the inner life of words, here the layering of a single birdsong excerpt leads to sonic textures of great rhythmic vivacity.
Many minute and periodically varying pitch-shifts, of just a few Hertz at most, were applied to the stretched recording, and all these versions were mixed together. These many tiny and ever-changing pitch differences between the layers then lead to an extraordinary web of beats – the acoustic phenomenon of a rhythmic throbbing that is produced by two tones very close in frequency, at the speed of their difference in Hertz. This technique is somewhat reminiscent of the work of Alvin Lucier or Phill Niblock, but as the gradually shifting patterns of beats interact with the stretched birdsong, shifting the ear’s attention between harmonic development, timbral detail and continuously transforming rhythmic patterns of beats, the sound world produced is one all of its own. The result is a breathtaking combination of natural sounds, acoustic technique and free interplay of words and meanings that links birds, words and stars together into a powerful poetic vision.
Bridge of Babel seems like an outward extension of Pulsars‘ textual concerns. Written to be part of an installation at an Amsterdam bridge to sound while the bridge is up for boats to pass through, the piece interprets waiting in public as an opportunity for random people to meet and exchange “small talk, small bits of communication and every-day thoughts,” as the composer puts it. The part of Amsterdam where the bridge is located is a highly multicultural area, with a great number of different languages being spoken on a daily basis. This has inspired Hirs to create a piece in which languages meet. Excerpts of poetry in twenty different languages were chosen, read and recorded by the composer, interwoven and superimposed into dialogues, streams, clouds and bursts of languages, embedded within abstract electronic sounds that are related to the material of Hirs’ Roseherte for orchestra and electronic sounds.
As in Pulsars, everything is read by the same voice, thus putting all the languages on the same level, in the medium of the composer’s voice. The procedure opens the languages up to each other, though on a more exterior level than in Pulsars. Rather than opening up the inner life of words, Brug van Babel weaves its music out of the different rhythms and fluxes that characterize languages, and what we hear is a polyphony of fluxes, a music of the process of globalization.
Thus Pulsars explores language at the micro-level of its inner life, and Brug van Babel explores the macro-level of global polyphony. In LA then explores the meso-level: it explores language as a support for memory and personality. The title refers to composer Louis Andriessen, with whom Hirs studied, and the piece is a re-enactment of what happens inside him. The text for the piece (the only piece not to use electronic sounds at all) was constructed out of memories and thoughts from an interview that Hirs conducted with Andriessen. Hirs then laid the text out in a metric notation, while inserting repetitions of words and fragments of words – this score was published in Hirs’ third book of poems, Speling (2005).
The composed text acts as the basis for a composition in six parts, again spoken by one voice which is layered and spatialized electronically. The text itself is recited by a central part, while other parts removed from the centre at different positions are speaking different fragments of the same text. Thus, the text is constantly being interwoven with itself, generating new connections and meanings. Hirs has described the work in terms of a cacophony of competing voices, as an image of the inner workings of memories in the brain. For the act of remembering the composer has found a metaphor in the so-called “cocktail party effect”, which is cognitive scientist Edward Colin Cherry’s term for the ability of listeners to focus on a single speaker within a multiplicity of simultaneous conversations. The spatialisation of the voices corresponds with the multiplicity of the areas in the brain in which memories are stored, with a centrally positioned main voice being flanked by five subsidiary voices. For Hirs, this central voice represents an actualized memory emerging from the virtual polyphony of memories that exist in the brain when an act of remembering is taking place, just as the voice of a single speaker can emerge from a polyphony of conversations during a cocktail party.
Intriguingly, in In LA, the polyphonic cocktail party hubbub builds a portrait of a single consciousness, that of Louis Andriessen. Again, the difference between one voice and many is nullified. But this does have the paradoxical effect of de-personalizing what is intensely personal, and of course this effect is strengthened by the fact that it is not Andriessen’s voice that we are hearing at all. The text itself is based on Andriessen’s words but was written by Hirs; the first recorded version, in Dutch, was in the voice of Hirs herself; the present English version is in the voice of percussionist Arnold Marinissen.
Finally, as we grope for narrative and meaning among the six layers, we incorporate the process of being Andriessen, and we make the voices of Marinissen, Hirs and Andriessen our own. If the details of the text are intensely personal, perhaps at times even uncomfortably so, at the same time what is portrayed goes beyond the personal: it is the dynamics by which the great polyphonic mass of words, each with its own inner life, comes to build a narrative. In this way Hirs’ work invites us again to experience and join the supra-personal, natural process of being someone.