Black Box Music
Black Box Music
The Danish composer Simon Steen-Andersen’s audio-visual work Black Box Music is a surprising, energetic, noisy and yet profoundly entertaining deconstruction of traditional musical drama. The starting point is the classical setting of a conductor in front of an orchestra – but quickly the scenery explodes in musical and choreographic energy ad absurdum, bending the conductor’s role through puppet theatre, hand choreography and eventually a musical performance involving tuning forks, finger snaps, rubber bands and the construction of a musical machine within the black box. The DVD also includes Steen-Andersen’s signature work Run Time Error, filmed at the Royal Library in Copenhagen, as well as a short documentary and thus offers a fascinating meeting with one of Nordic Music’s most visionary voices today.
OUT OF THE BOX by Rasmus Holmboe
Simon Steen-Andersen was born in 1976 and despite his relative youth already has an impressive CV. His music is played by leading ensembles all over the world and he has won several awards for his work, including the prestigious DAAD Berliner Künstlerprogramm in 2010 as well as the Kunstpreis Musik from the Akademie der Künste in Berlin and the Carl Nielsen Prize in 2013. Besides composing, Simon Steen-Andersen often participates in the performance of his own music, music that ranges over a wide field, with works that often have both visual and spatial dimensions.
The works on this DVD thematize an important element in Simon Steen-Andersen’s work in recent years: a focus on concretizing music, in his view one of the most abstract of the arts. He understands the abstract as all the elements that only pertain to intramusical matters – that is, where music refers only to itself. The abstract thus also represents what distinguishes music as an art form from its surroundings; its opposite, the concrete, is understood as the more tangible aspect or all that relates to the world outside the music. Some of the concretization that Steen-Andersen wants to carry out works through the involvement of visual and physical-choreographic elements in the works, and both Black Box Music and Run Time Error are good examples of this.
At the same time it is important for Simon Steen-Andersen that the visual is not just a packaging or dressing that can make ‘difficult’ music easier to digest, but something he attempts to integrate as much as possible in the works. He therefore treats the visual material on an equal footing with the sound and composes just as much with material that appeals to the sense of sight as to the sense of hearing and listening. Of this he says: “My hope is that I am not standing somewhere [in the music] and choosing something else that I add [the visual], but that I am standing within the music and expanding from there. Instead of having music plus something else I have music that can also be visual. Visual music.”
Black Box Music
In Black Box Music Simon Steen-Andersen turns the traditions inside out. Both humorously and critically, he explores and exposes the relationship between the musical sounds and the actions and motions that produce those sounds – all with the conductor as soloist and as central figure.
The work was written for the Norwegian percussionist Håkon Stene and was given its first performance in 2012 in Darmstadt. Later it has been performed many times by a succession of significant international ensembles, including the Aventa Ensemble, the London Sinfonietta, Århus Sinfonietta, Ensemble 2e2m, Ensemble Modern and of course the Oslo Sinfonietta, which both premiered the work and appears on this recording. In 2014 Black Box Music was nominated for the Nordic Council’s Music Prize.
In his notes to the score Simon Steen-Andersen describes Black Box Music as “[…] a deconstruction of conducting and of puppet theater and also an exploration and exploitation of the audio-visual relations inherent in conducting and staging.” As a point of departure, the piece thus demonstrates a fundamental view that music cannot always be understood exclusively as an auditory phenomenon – music is equally something that can be both visual and contextual, and the sound is always already an integral part of the actions and movements that produce it.
For the work Simon Steen-Andersen has constructed a black box fitted with a camera and microphones inside. The camera signal is projected onto a screen in front of the audience and the signal from the microphones is diffused in the performance space in an extended ‘surround’ setup, such that we can see and hear everything that takes place inside the box. In the overall mix the sounds that are generated inside the black box thus blend with the sounds from the ensemble.
The musicians are divided into three groups placed behind and on both sides of the audience. In this way the audience is literally at the centre of the event. Each ensemble group has a percussionist who plays on a number of non-traditional instruments – for example wind whistle, plastic cards, sandpaper, pop-guns, balloons, slide whistles, PVC tubes, a whip and a drill. The sound of the piece is therefore richly nuanced, variegated and sometimes clattering and noisy, while traditional elements like melody and harmony are as good as absent throughout the piece.
The soloist plays all through the piece with his hands inside the box, but instead of using puppets he conducts (with greater or lesser success), he throws up hand signs (fuck, the V-sign, stone/scissors/paper, telephones, bulls, speaking creatures and various other recognizable gestures), he plays on tuning forks, rubber bands, plastic cups, electric fans and a lot of other knick-knack. Besides conducting, the soloist thus also assumes several other roles that intertwine with more common conductor’s gestures. In this way the boundaries between conducting and (puppet) theatre are blurred, and it becomes hard to identify where one starts and the other stops.
The function of the musicians is similarly twofold – on one hand they follow their conductor as an ensemble (or they don’t) and on the other they create an auditory backdrop or illustration of the events that take place inside the black box. In this way Black Box Music becomes a staged puppet-theatre-like solo concerto where the usual role of the conductor, when it comes to communicating with the musicians, is examined and exposed by treating him much like a soloist, thus both maintaining and humorously parading all the conventional dramatic tensions between soloist and orchestra that are associated with the concerto genre.
Expanding and Invigorating Music
All these performance elements, which are meticulously notated in the score, make it difficult to imagine Black Box Music deprived of its visual side. To a great extent it defines the identity of the work – yet the sound has by no means faded into the background or become unimportant. On the contrary, the music and the visual are each other’s mutual prerequisites – and it is precisely the connections between the sound and the visual or theatrical, and the way we experience these connections, that are constantly thematized, worked on and reworked throughout the piece.
This makes Black Box Music an example of a current trend in contemporary music in Europe; a movement away from writing and listening to music in solitary contemplation towards a more vigorous and performance-oriented ideal where the music is expanded by other forms of expression, thus adding new kinds of (more contemporary) meanings and potentials. It is part of this movement – and especially of Black Box Music – that the music, because it has strong performative or visual elements, is often written directly for the live situation where the interaction with the audience is important. In this way music thus becomes a social matter by default, something that takes place in reality, in its own time and between real people.
Run Time Error
The same is very much the case with Run Time Error. The piece is a site-specific audiovisual performance in which Simon Steen-Andersen himself – in a dual sense – is the performer. Video and sound are recorded prior to each performance and at the venue, for this version the Black Diamond in Copenhagen. It shows Steen-Andersen moving through the building as he plays on a large number of objects and at the same time records the sound of these objects with a handheld microphone. The objects are arranged in a sequence that closely follows a set of compositional rules, and in this way the building itself and its sounds are turned into the musical material of the composition.
In the performance of the work the composer plays on two joysticks which control two audio channels and a double video projection. Both channels use the same material, but as the title of the piece indicates it is not just played back normally in ‘real time’. With the joysticks the composer manipulates the time and direction of the playback as the two sound-video projections go forward and backward, speed up and down, stop and start, and the result is a ‘music’ for two ‘voices’, a cunning take on that time-honoured musical form, the two-part invention.
In this stretching, stopping, compressing and reversing of the run time, the compositional principles of the classical invention are evident from the start – even for an audience not familiar with classical forms. In the nature of things a form like the invention can be difficult to grasp by the ear alone, since one cannot listen in ‘reverse time’ or to two different moments in the music at the same time. For many people a compositional technique like the retrograde can perhaps even only be perceived after repeated listenings or through visual analysis of the score. In Run Time Error, however, it is immediately and humorously obvious. Sound and image simply roll backwards from time to time.
Through the use of technology Simon Steen-Andersen opens up the abstract to the concrete in a relatively simple but highly effective manner that speaks a very contemporary language. When he further makes himself both the main character and ‘player’ in this video-game-like situation, to me that also pictures a composer working in a context where the roles of producer and consumer are no longer sharply defined and where the composer, by participating in the performance of his own works, questions some of the entrenched boundaries and categories that surround contemporary music.
Music for the Present
Both embracing and innovative, the relationship to music history demonstrated by the way that Steen-Andersen’s works with compositional materials and classical forms thus also becomes a positive dissociation from what one could call modernism’s inherent negative dichotomies. Modernism’s constant demand for renewal has often promoted a prohibitive dogmatic aesthetic, but Simon Steen-Andersen reverses this situation. Instead of trying to break down formal or material concepts and categories he uses music history in an investigative and playful way, as a critically reflected repository, thus viewing tradition as a positive and productive resource rather than as a problem or a negative starting point.
Black Box Music and Run Time Error are thus good examples of works that thematize issues central to music history – but do so in a direct, entertaining and straightforward way. Historical knowledge is not a prerequisite to understand the music, it is rather an extra conceptual layer, complementing and broadening the scope of the concert experience. This is not music that insists on autonomy, rather it is music for the present and for the people living in the present – an invitation for a critical and inclusive dialogue.
And when Simon Steen-Andersen at the same time takes the stage or participates as a sound designer, as is the case in these two works, it further underscores a movement away from the understanding of the composer up high in his ivory tower, writing great works for a putative posterity; a movement towards a more democratic view of the relationship between musicians, audiences and a composer with a strong drive to communicate.
Rasmus Holmboe holds an MA in musicology from University of Copenhagen, where he currently works as a PhD Fellow. He is also the co-editor of the web magazine seismograf/DMT, www.seismograf.org