By Jason Noghani
Collaborations are always full of surprises! We always begin with a blank canvas, with whatever mediums we are working with, and at the onset of the creative process, we only have a sense of what is yet to come at best.
Bintang Perkasa, fellow brother at LTTW, initially proposed the idea of this project – Sambal Binatang (or “Animal-based chili” in Bahasa), having become fascinated with how drawing on different surfaces produces different sounds, and how these reciprocally correspond. I immediately agreed, and although we began embarking on a project, we knew we had to test our ambitions out before they could fully manifest. I suggested that we use one of my compositions as a starting point, namely the one referred to in this article, and that is how this particular journey began (The journey actually began in pre-natal form in Circle of Trust [1st Movement] with Gado Gado enSambal, which you can read about here)!
Other-Self (An Existential Exercise)
Other-Self (An Existential Exercise) is the sixth piece of the cycle Alignment, which is a series of 24* text-based pieces aimed at nurturing creativity in classically-trained musicians, which was composed in the second half of 2016 (another piece in the cycle is Gado Gado enSambal’s Cosmic Gamelan).
*(24 is a number synonymous with Western Classical as well as other musical traditions, as it embodies the total number of major and minor keys within an octave (12 + 12) and is also represented in works such as the 24 Preludes and Fugues in each volume of J. S. Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier, Chopin’s 24 Preludes, Stockhausen’s Klang for the 24 hours of the day etc.)
Other-Self can be recreated on any sound-producing sources with electronic playback (pre-recorded or live), which is why it became an amazing opportunity to realise it with Bintang, as it provided him with the freedom to create as he pleased, using the instructions as a point of reference. This works for me, as from a compositional perspective, I am interested in eroding the barriers between composer and performer, particularly given the increasingly makeshift nature of music production through technological advancement, as it provides the opportunity for all parties involved to be equally satisfied. Furthermore, the creative process is an everlasting phenomenon with various dimensions; most of which are largely out of our control or beyond our comprehension.
Based on the instructions in the text, I suggested to Bintang to make self-portraits (or whatever he decided to draw upon staring into a mirror), of which he created four in total, each using different materials and mediums, and each having particular characteristics that made them distinct. The materials used were charcoal, Conte crayon and graphite, drawn on paper, plywood and cardboard respectively, and another portrait was made using the UPIC (Unité Polyagogique Informatique du CEMAMu) software, which was initially envisioned by the pioneering composer/architect Iannis Xenakis (1922-2001).
Even though the score/text indicates a live performance setting, the realisation we made was an arrangement of the four recordings of the four respective portraits. The four sources of material were also of contrasting durations, which counter-intuitively determined the form and functionality of the material. The paper and plywood recordings were approximately 25 minutes each, and were superimposed upon each other, with the plywood layer appearing about 40 seconds after the paper layer begins.
The relationship between the two layers is largely non-causal, as despite sharing similar properties, they exist as independent layers in keeping with the unpredictability of the process. This meant that any moments where both layers formed a connection was unplanned.
There was approximately 10 minutes of cardboard material (which first appears about 2 minutes after the piece begins), which was mainly used to provide lower tones and bridge silences in the plywood recording. The order of events of the original cardboard recording were largely kept intact, although their entries were adjusted to correspond to the plywood material.
Apart from slight amounts of EQ and applied panning of sounds, the material was left unaltered, and much of the piece is an overlapping between the paper and plywood layers, with occasional cardboard interjections and superimpositions. The reason for this sparseness was to enhance and magnify the complexities of the properties of the sounds created. Largely noise-based textures contain levels of melodic and organic rhythmic properties, which can only be perceived once the ear has become acclimatised to their specific acoustic dimensions and properties. After listening to largely feint silvery sounds over a certain period of time, we eventually adjust our senses to the particular dimensions created through such soundscapes as those made through exciting canvases with matter, and begin to perceive these sounds in a more attuned manner than we would otherwise.
There was only 2½ minutes’ worth of UPIC material due to the constraints of the software and disk space, a limitation of which provided the idea of introducing the UPIC material a little over 19 minutes into the piece, determined by the fact that a natural silence lasting a little over three seconds occurs round about that point. I then decided to have five versions of the UPIC material occurring simultaneously, at different speeds of up to 4½ minutes in length. This was achieved by either stretching or compressing the track, whilst retaining all the musical properties of the original, but varying the speed depending on whether the length was to be increased or decreased).
UPIC Entry and Thereafter
The entry of the UPIC material marks a transformative moment in the piece, as the functionality of material alters as a consequence of its entry. The previously sparse, feint textures are replaced with a dense cacophony, with all four core layers occurring simultaneously – within its timespan of 4½ minutes, it is arguable that more activity occurs in this section than in the preceding 19 minutes and 19 seconds.
The paper and plywood layers continue largely unchanged, although volumes are occasionally adjusted to balance out the textures, but the cardboard material now plays an intermediary role between the plywood and UPIC layers. Snippets of earlier cardboard material providing low bass sounds were also used, and as earlier, these interjectory sounds appear in their original order, albeit with altered entry points.
The UPIC material, unlike the other materials, is pitch-based, and therefore distinctly characterised, although the dense cacophony that results creates a web of noise that eerily compliments the sounds previously heard. The qualities of synthesised tone-based electronic sound, in contrast to the concrete sounds of materials on canvases, also provides an animated quality that colours the music in bold and bizarre ways – opening other dimensions, whilst enhancing the sounds which preceded it.
The atmosphere is drastically transformed when the UPIC material enters. The material that precedes the UPIC entry is largely raw, primordial, tribal, silvery and savagely ecstatic, whereas the UPIC material takes the experience into a more intense, jarring and potentially disturbing dimension, with occasional moments of respite to catch a breath or two!
This could also be conceived from a Jungian perspective. Upon initially staring into a mirror with intent focus, we just see what is in front of us, our physical selves, warts and all – the persona, so to speak. But upon deeper reflection and awareness, we become increasingly aware of our shadows – the darker aspect of ourselves. Given that neither darkness nor light can be extinguished, we therefore have the choice of either allowing our shadows to consume and control us, or to integrate our shadows, to become aware of our darkness, and retain the control of that which consumes us for the betterment of our being.
This observation brings into account another aspect of the nature of the collaborative process – namely, that things are discovered that one previously could not envision. By taking the concept of Other-Self to other dimensions, namely by both bringing the visual aspect into the performance and synergising it with the sounds created, Bintang’s work reveals the deeper dimensions of what can occur when the texts instructions are followed. Each of the four portraits is entirely unique, although the penchant for using certain geometric patterns and concepts reveals a unifying style that is markedly distinct.
The portrait on paper is the one that most explicitly resembles a portrait, as it figuratively corresponds to Bintang’s facial features. The cardboard portrait has a Janus quality to it, and in many ways is prototypical of a portrait rather than making a direct reference like the paper portrait. The UPIC portrait is also reflective of Bintang’s facial features, conceived in a manner evocative of Jean Cocteau, which enigmatically compliments the stylistic limitations and qualities of UPIC.
The plywood portrait is of considerable interest, as we are only aware of the fact that it is a side profile portrait from a distance. The size of the portrait meant that certain details were focused upon at any one time in the video, which makes it questionable as to whether or not we are observing a portrait in these instances. Bintang also used his own hand as an outline in the plywood portrait, which takes the physicality of self to other iterations – leading the viewer into closer contact with his actual being in other contexts. The superimposition of images in the film also means that the functionality of this image enhances the facial qualities of the other images, revealing other possible faces that Bintang himself did not draw, and taking the concepts of self-portraits and perceiving oneself to new dimensions that were beyond his control.
The common thread underlying the portraits, I feel, is the attention paid to the eyes, perhaps reflecting the activity of staring into a mirror. The spirally patterns emanating out of the eyes are responsible for various textures and prominent moments in the piece, and the differences of these patterns also correspond to the sonic differences between the raw materials and canvases. Whereas the paper and cardboard portraits contain both eyes both from frontal and side profiles respectively, and the plywood portrait focuses on the side profile, the cycloptic nature of the UPIC portrait could be implicative of other aspects of “seeing” – perhaps indicative of the enlightened visions of the third eye, or the one-eyed demonic dajjal…
The UPIC material disappears as spontaneously as it appeared, swallowed up by the final interjectory cardboard sound. This then marks a return to the previous silvery feint soundscape for the final minute and a half, although this time it feels more distant, due to the transformation of perception that occurs after the UPIC material, and the comparatively sparse textures in stark contrast to the previous cacophony.
Does this provide respite?
Do we become more at one with ourselves?
Do we accept ourselves more fully?
Are we a shadow of our former selves?
Do we know ourselves better?
I invite you all to find out for yourselves. I find that’s the beauty of making art – you do your bit, and then anyone else can develop their ideas from that point. There is only ever so much the artist can do, as art, like us sentient beings, has lifeforms of its own. Also like us, art also needs the freedom to engage, interact and form relationships with other entities outside of itself.
Whatever the case, an alchemy was created. Visual art created music, and music created visual art, revealing the inherent symbiosis between both mediums, even if this direct relationship is commonly overlooked. Even though audio-visual synergy is something that has and continues to intrigue artists, an outcome such as this one could not have occurred had it not been Bintang staring into the mirror, applying his materials to canvases, both revealing what was within him and what lay beneath the originally blank canvas.
John Cage once said, “(Oskar) Fischinger told me that everything in the word has a spirit that can be released through its sound. I was not inclined towards spiritualism, but I began to tap everything I saw. I explored everything through its sound.”
Iannis Xenakis – “Daddy” of Sambal Binatang?
It is interesting how Xenakis became the point of reference in this project, which again reflects the unpredictable adventure of different aspects of the creative process. The text of Other-Self was largely inspired, like many of my other works, by the text-based compositions Aus Den Sieben Tagen by Karlheinz Stockhausen, and other works following a similar format by composers such as John Cage, James Tenney, Pauline Oliveros, Alvin Lucier etc.
Even though I am a huge fan of Xenakis’ music, I had not expected the core point of reference and even to some extent musical outcome, to have reflected this influence. However, with Bintang’s involvement, other things began to surface. Firstly, with UPIC of course, such as in 1977’s Mycenae Alpha, but also due to Xenakis’ own relationship to visual representation of sound, such as famously working simultaneously as composer and architect, and using mathematical processes (stochastic music), to realise the architecture of complex musical processes in works such as Metastasis and Pithoprakta.
The resulting music Xenakis realised through stochastic processes is something which few composers have been able to successfully emulate without similar mathematical knowledge and training. However, due to the sublime knowledge of visual geometry many artists naturally possess, they would be able to generate patterns of similar and subliminal complex geometric properties to Xenakis. To date, I have as of yet been unable to control dense musical layers with the acute surgical precision found in Xenakis’ work, although thanks to Bintang’s skills and knowledge in graphic design, I was able to actualise this one step further – even if complex mathematical procedures were not intently used for the resulting musical outcome.
Furthermore, in his electronic works such as Polytope de Cluny and La Légende D’Eer, Xenakis incorporated the sounds of cardboard, and other textures that bear similarities to the plywood and paper layers. This is particularly more distinguishable in the Polytope, which is texturally less dense than Légende, revealing another dimension to Xenakis’ music – that of simplicity.
Even though the composer is most famously known for the dense, polyphonic orchestral and electronic textures, he also wrote music of much greater simplicity, such as solo instrumental works and chamber pieces. Perhaps his most evocative music in this manner could be his percussion music, which corresponds to the shared primordial heritage we have to rhythm, also adding kinetic and otherworldly dimensions through rhythmic irregularity conceived through stochastic processes. Striking examples include the percussion pieces Rebonds A & B and Psappha.
In the sparser moments of Other-Self, even if this relationship is indirect and suggestive, the primordial qualities interwoven with unconventional rhythmic patterns could also be considered to be within Xenakis’ musical pathos; prehistoric, implicative of various roots and archaic heritage, and yet otherworldly through their idiosyncratic nature.
Following on from the latter observation, another interesting aspect of Xenakis’ heritage concerns roots, to which I feel Sambal Binatang affiliates. Xenakis was unique in the Post-War avant-garde in that not only, like many of his contemporaries, was he at odds with the pre-war traditions, but he was also at odds with the current avant-garde of the time, finding their compositional methods contrived and stifling, which made him a lone wolf of his generation.
He was not, however, a cultural nihilist, as his practices pay strong homage to his Greek heritage in scientific, artistic and spiritual ways, even though his position was ultimately anarchistic (from anarkhia [ἀναρχία], or “without a ruler”) – by today’s standards, he would have almost definitely been an intellectual punk in defiance of the nepotistic insanity currently plaguing institutions across the globe!
I found during my time in Jakarta, and meeting young artists affiliated with Yogyakarta, that many young people in Indonesia are fundamentally engaged with their heritage, yet also wanted to break free from those aspects of it which they find stifling. This is expressed, I feel, in a lot of the art being produced by the younger generations in Indonesia – subversive yet respectful of its heritage. I find this in myself too – I consider myself to be an anarchist, growing up in a Britain becoming increasingly detached from its roots, and finding Persian culture alien despite providing enrichment.
Therefore, like the youth in Jakarta and Yogyakarta, and also like Xenakis, Bintang and myself, it is understandable if half of us wants to smash culture up with a sledgehammer, whereas the other half want to be enriched through the acquired wisdom and knowledge of our ancestral heritage.
Epilogue – On Face Value
There is a dark irony of having the pathos of Xenakis underly this work, in that the composer sustained a serious facial injury during the final months of the Second World War when shrapnel exploded in his face, shattering a cheekbone and causing him to lose an eye. Even though pioneering surgery at the time meant that Xenakis’ looks were restored despite the noticeable battle scar, it was clear that the event and those surrounding it had a huge impact on him (it is worth noting that despite surgeons offering to conceal Xenakis’ scar with cutting-edge plastic surgery of the time, the composer refused as he felt he would be denying who he truly was). In many photographs, the scarred half of Xenakis’ face is hidden at the request of the composer, and he reportedly battled depression and anxiety for much of his adult life, grappling with the demons of his past and the corresponding magnitude of his life’s work, which he carried out with a Herculean might. Yet beneath the surface, we would never suspect such demons, given the sheer colossal might of his musical monoliths, and the generally warm and charismatic personality he exhibited (the literal translation of Iannis Xenakis is “gentle stranger”).
This shows that we should never take things at face value, as what lurks beneath can usually be unexpected – as evident by the fact that Xenakis as a person and his music were both similar and complimentary to one another. The same also applies to the creative process. At the onset, or on the surface, we can only assume so much, but the further we get into it, things are not always quite as they seem. I could never have assumed when I wrote the text (score) to Other-Self that it would turn out as it did, or that Xenakis would be the underlying impulse that gave rise to the unhinged beast that is Sambal Binatang!
We hope you will continue to join Sambal Binatang in the foreseeable future. It is safe to say we have merely scratched the surface, and if you enjoyed our offerings thus far, I hope you will not be disappointed!