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Reflections on Sonic Acts Festival 2022
Industrial ecologies and adventures with an Acousmonium
I am standing by a small patch of grass behind the main building of the Het HEM arts centre on the banks of the North Sea Canal in Zaandam, on the edges of Amsterdam. One by one, the people around me crouch down to listen to a mound of freshly turned soil, no bigger than a mole hill. “There is always one moment at Sonic Acts where someone is down on the ground with their ears to the earth,” I hear nearby.
Beneath the mound is a semilla – a sonic seed the size of a large mango – from which a speaker is emitting the vibrations of a new piece by Nicole L’Hullier into the earth. Framed as “a symbolic act of resonance and active protection”, the sound waves of the semilla are designed to render this small patch of ground “unsoundable” to sonic devices such as geophones, which are used by fossil fuel companies to prospect for oil underground.
Like echo sounders underwater, geophones are used to determine the edges of things, the shapes, contours and hollows of the world beneath our feet. Sound permeates the soil as it permeates the water, to render in data and maps that which is unknowable from above. Just as sound is instrumentalised to commodify land into resource, so does L’Hullier show that sound can also transform us from passive bystanders into active participants, as it permeates our bodies too.
The act of burying the semilla marks the opening of the 2022 Sonic Acts festival at Het HEM – a ritual of sorts whose themes chime with the weekend’s title Inner Ear(th). Much of the work presented over the course of three days seeks to find connections between ecologies, politics and sound at different scales and in different contexts, from Dutch Army training centres to the Laguna San Ignacio in Mexico.
The most present context however is Het HEM itself. Situated in Hembrug – an area near Zaandam flanked by canals Northwest of Amsterdam named after the bridge which connected it to the city - the industrial complex in which Het HEM is situated was once part of a large artillery and munitions production site.
Initially owned by Artillerie-Inrichtingen, a Dutch arms company dating back to 1679, the site at Hembrug was established in 1895, and quickly lent its name to the widely used the AR-10 battle rifle, the Hembrug bayonette. Aside from manufacturing munitions used in both World Wars, the company produced weapons that are alleged to have been used against indigenous populations of the then Dutch East Indies in an attempt to consolidate colonial rule over modern day Indonesia.
Dating back to 1956, the 200-metre-long factory building in which Het HEM is housed became the headquarters of Eurometaal, one of Holland’s largest arms manufacturers. According to Wikipedia, the facility in Zaandam was licensed to produce American DPICM’s – a relation of the cluster bomb that was subsequently banned by several countries. Military functions were suspended in 2003, as the site opened up first to artists and then developers.
The walls of the former munitions factory not only contain the sounds of Sonic Acts but infuse them with its own troubling history. I get the sense that there is something in the air here, both metaphorically and literally – a fear perhaps of residual particles – a haze that hangs over the long open rooms, that hint at the alchemical coming together of something as ephemeral as powder, into something as material as an explosive.
The language of blue-collar nostalgia is never far from regeneration projects such as this. In London, developments of industrial spaces tend to make a point of their former lives – Printworks, Pickle Factory and so on - and Het HEM is no different. “Situated in a former munitions factory, Het HEM is a new home for contemporary culture,” begins the blurb online. It is a complexity that cannot be easily resolved and at several points over the course of the weekend my mind wanders towards the destruction this building must have facilitated around the world.
In her book on heritage and ruin, Curated Decay, Caitlyn DeSilvey asks whether giving a space over to art or ecology can “obscure or excuse” its past. Is there a line, an edge to where the history of a building renders that unacceptable? Perhaps asking this question is also the point. How uncomfortable do we need to be in the knowledge of our complicity with violence – be it war, resource extraction and the colonial legacies they leave behind – to question the extent to which our lives are entwined with them? Reclamation is one thing, but it must also be accompanied by acknowledgement.
The programme does not shy away from these questions and the first piece I see seems to pick a provocative middle ground between the building’s history and the ritual soundings of L’Huillier’s semilla. Built from ground samples collected with seismic transducers and ultrasonic microphones at NATO and Dutch Army training sites, Anika Schwarzlose and Brain D. McKenna’s latest collaborative work, ‘Ground Loop #1 – 12 – Exercising Conflict’ sets out to register that which the earth hears during military exercises. Juxtaposed with images of rusted bullet cartridges and pieces of oxidized shrapnel investigated under a projection microscope like pieces of rare metal, the indistinct scrapes and rumbles are unsettlingly persistent, and it is hard not to think of the resonances the building around us has absorbed.
I am reminded of Stuart Hyatt’s recent Field Works project, which used the acoustic data from several Alaskan seismometers as its source material. Titled ‘Stations’, Hyatt was ultimately more interested in the silence rather than the noise, and the phenomenon of seismic quieting that occurred when the world went into lockdown during the first wave of the pandemic. In both cases, the earth registers much more than we are ever really aware of - sonic collateral that refers back to roughshod routines of industrialised capitalism.
The resonances of conflict are developed further by Samson Young, who I encounter sitting in the Grey Space downstairs, flanked by a large drum and a closed-circuit television screen showing night-vision footage of missile strikes. Dressed in military gear, Young was over 4 hours into 6-hour piece ‘Nocturne’ when I enter, painstakingly recreating the sound of the explosions and their aftermath with foley sound design improvisation. Around him, a handful of people are standing holding portable FM radios through which to hear his soundtrack. For a moment my radio slides instead into a local station, and all I hear is mainstream pop, which jars perfectly with the austere surroundings and the quiet brutality of the piece. Music to be numb to, just a slip of the dial away from oblivion.
Over the course of the weekend, there is a sense of promise and ruin to much of the work at Sonic Acts - pantea, u-matiq and telematiq’s speculative organisms adapting to toxic futures, Matthias Puech’s entropic landscapes suite, Olivia Bock’s interrogation of cetacean soundings and underwater noise pollution in Mexico’s Laguna San Ignacio.
Between these expressions of urgency are moments of calm. Tomoko Sauvage’s ‘Buloklok’ keeps time downstairs - two hydrophones hanging in water, picking up the tonal pings and pops of air bubbles as they escape from each glass vase. As much as mark its passing, time seems to dissolve in the presence of these watery vessels, and I leave not knowing how long I have been there.
Upstairs, Maria Komarova’s collection of hand-built electro-acoustic resonators are laid out in a circle, like wind-up toys. We sit in a circle around her, as she moves – rather glides – in silence between these little mechanical beasties, crouching down to set them to life, one-by-one. Over twenty minutes, the room fills with the gentle clicks, scrapes, hums, whirrs and rattles of an insect chorus. Occasionally she adjusts a spring or change an angle to alter each bug’s tone or rhythm. At moments, I am taken out of the undergrowth as Komarova’s chorus begins to take on the aspect of a twitching dial-up modem, hinting towards an ecological past and the naïve promise of a technological future. It is the quietest piece of the weekend, but perhaps its most memorable. I return to witness it again the following day.
Nearby, on day two, drummer Marshall Trammel aka Music Research Strategies and saxophonist / guitarist Dirar Kalash are making a soul-stirring racket, building a mountain out of sound. The performance begins with Trammel, windmilling around the space, a wooden feather on a rope, that flutters and chops the air like a propeller. At the kit, his drums cascade in the truest sense of the word, all power and control. The snare rattles like gunshots, the kick drum booming beneath, as he stares his collaborator down. Kalash leans into his horn, which sings and screams with ferocious intensity.
They play undiluted fire music for close to 50 minutes, until Trammel begins to slow the tempo one last time, bringing them down from another plane and back into the room. Kalash tips a horn-load of spit onto the floor, where it glistens at his feet like the ectoplasm of this free jazz séance. Like Farida Amadou the previous night who, with her electric bass laid out on her lap, filled the vast space by plucking great sheets of sound from its strings, there is something inexplicably exhilarating about seeing instrumentalists send vibrations into the skeleton of this building. It feels like an exorcism – the transfer of energy through sound - with the warmth of communion that some of the more abstracted computer-generated pieces lack.
The centre piece of the programme is the Acousmonium, the 80-speaker sound diffusion system designed by French musique concrete composer François Bayle in 1974 administered by the Ina GRM in Paris. The evening programme features playback “diffusions” of heavyweight composers like Iannis Xennakis and Bernard Parmegiani, alongside live performances either composed or adapted for the Acousmonium.
It is an imposing and impressive array. The speakers are lined up like sentinels on the stage, around and behind the audience. For objects concerned with sound, I can’t help but think they look a lot like eyeballs. Between them, long windows look across the North Sea Canal towards the wind farms of industrial Amsterdam. Every so often a long flat barge passes, silently, behind the speakers, and I get an overwhelming sense of peace – held by the all-embracing sound of Leila Bordreuil wrenching polyphonic reverb from her cello, as the quiet motions of the world play on outside.
The programme continues on the first night with Jessica Ekomane’s Manifolds, an almost onomatopoeic title for a piece that seems to fold and unravel different strands into a single sonic tapestry. In the same slot the following night is Aho Ssan, an artist who, like Ekomane, I’d come across in various guises before but never had the opportunity to hear work from in a live context. Here, ‘The Falling Man’ takes the iconic World Trade Centre image as its starting point to present a vertiginous triptych of the self in free-fall. Set against the dystopian backdrop of slowly rotating windmills, barges and ambient light of the canal, the piece takes on an otherworldliness that is all encompassing.
For work that tends to have a conceptual grounding, whether ecological, political or compositional, it is refreshing that there is almost no talking at Sonic Acts. No real introductions, no conclusions. Most performances begin unannounced, at the time suggested by the programme and end with a nod or a bow. Sound fills the room, which falls silent on command – there are few phones taking pictures, because what can you see but the apparatus of sound? – and then it ends, and everyone move on.
I drift away from the Acousmonium on the second evening for a moment to witness Marcin Pietruszewski’s ‘The New Pulsar Generator’, which I have been assured is going to be heavy. In the Dark Room on the mezzanine, Pietruszewski is standing at his laptop, summoning unholy noise from the most minute mouse clicks. He sips a beer and smiles to himself, like a pilot relishing the surrounding storm. A handful of people float around the space with their fingers in their ears, pummelled and loving it. Although I don’t hold out for long, sound in this extremity feels like a statement in itself, erupting through a tear in the fabric of everyday life.
Both evenings are headlined by artists whose work I have followed and enjoyed for some time. Félicia Atkinson takes the slot on the first evening, performing ‘Neither Back Nor Front Than This Burning Rock (For Georgia O’Keefe)’, which feels like part of the suite of recordings made for Image Language, an album released earlier this year about which I interviewed Atkinson in the summer. It is an unsettling, gentle piece – the sound, I think, of familiar spaces rendered uncanny in new light. Its architectural inspirations in New Mexico take on new meaning in this squatted space on the edge of the North Sea. Few artists have used their voices here, but splayed across the speakers of the Acousmonium, Atkinson’s whispered words hold the room in quiet rapture.
On the second evening, it is Lucy Railton who closes the programme with ‘Forma’, a part synthesizer, part cello composition that is a balm to the raw volume of some of the day’s earlier works. Delivered initially from the desk, Railton makes her way to the stage for the second half, the acoustic timbres of the cello all the warmer for their juxtaposition with the piece’s electronic components. As the piece concludes, she draws her bow ever more slowly across the strings, consistent and unwavering. It is a remarkable feat of control, the sound remaining consent even as her movements become less and less visible. Doing so, she seems to slow time, almost to a standstill, elongating the reach of the bow and stretching it beyond itself. It is a single movement that tends towards the infinite, she teases out the final notes from the evening’s performances. I leave into the cold air and head off down the towpath, the windmills still turning silently in the distance.