The Aural-Memory-Machine sounds the Mariendom

For the third year in a row now, Linz’s Mariendom—St. Mary’s Cathedral—will serve as the venue for a very special acoustic performance and installation on festival Saturday. “The Aural-Memory-Machine” by Wolfgang “Fadi” Dorninger will play the extraordinary acoustics of this space, engendering constantly emerging, varying and disintegrating worlds of sound. It will be an excursion through Dorninger’s aural memory. In preparation for this installation, he’s combed through his extensive archive of field recordings to come up with a suitable selection. In this interview, he discusses how he came up with the idea of “The Aural-Memory-Machine” and what festivalgoers can look forward to.

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For the third year in a row now, Linz’s Mariendom—St. Mary’s Cathedral—will serve as the venue for a very special acoustic performance and installation on festival Saturday. “The Aural-Memory-Machine” by Wolfgang “Fadi” Dorninger will play the extraordinary acoustics of this space, engendering constantly emerging, varying and disintegrating worlds of sound. It will be an excursion through Dorninger’s aural memory. In preparation for this installation, he’s combed through his extensive archive of field recordings to come up with a suitable selection. In this interview, he discusses how he came up with the idea of “The Aural-Memory-Machine” and what festivalgoers can look forward to.

So, Fadi, what awaits your audience at “The Aural-Memory-Machine”?

The Aural-Memory-Machine actually consists of two parts. The first is a six-channel installation, and later that night there’s a performance.

The reason for the installation has to do with my own life story. Ever since the days of the Sony Pro Walkman, I’ve been recording everything imaginable. In the beginning, TV preachers were my obsession. And there were others, leading up to urban recordings. Then, it quickly turned out that my main area of interest is zones where nature and technology collide and overlap. That might be a field where a natural event is triggered by technology, or, conversely, by pure coincidence. Crossing gates come down, and all of a sudden you’re standing in a natural landscape; then, three minutes later, the traffic din resumes and nature is blotted out.

I started to insert the TV preachers into my music, and then integrating the recordings into the music, and it became increasingly obsessive. Basically, the inspiration I derived from these recordings increasingly led me in the director of sound synthesis. Finally, I reached the point at which the whole thing had gotten so pathological that the question was often asked, even by reviewers: Where are the field recordings?

Then I said to myself that I’d like to give the field recordings their autonomy again, though not in a phonographic sense—this is a giant hassle, beginning with the placement of the microphone. And then you walk away and leave the environment to itself. But where do you cut in and where do you cut out? Archiving never interested me. Same goes for soundmapping, doing acoustic cartography.

Then I had to come to terms with the autonomy of these chance recordings, all of which are totally unique. They’re audio snapshots, maybe one-of-a-kind occurrences, or sounds that happen only under certain constellations of factors like rain quantity, traffic volume, temperature and so forth. So a recording always depends on the facts & circumstances. Then the point became how to give them back their autonomy.

How I answered this question manifests itself above all in my performance. I realized that I had to outsource the algorithm, that I had to rein in and assign my will to create. My first idea was that the audience would give me a text and I would then play it. I wanted to eliminate my own score, exclude myself from the creative process. All I wanted to choose was how long to hold down a key, and how loud the sound is. But the audience tells me with the text which key I press and when to do it.

That worked really well. I wrote the letters on the piano keyboard, set up various sound banks. My decision was which sound bank to load, which one I liked best with the particular text. With an abstract text, I choose a hissing, static-like noise from the waterfall library. If the text is personal or philosophical, I go for cerebral patterns with recordings from houses of worship, large libraries, etc. In other words, the text I was given confronted me with a choice as to which sound I would use. And off I went.

The problem was that people tended to ask if it was all just a fake: “Is he really playing my text?” and “What are we hearing?” How can this sound be represented? What is this sound? Is that an E? That would be nice; that could recur another four or five times in my text, great! This might be the text donor’s train of thought.

I figured out that the text had to be legible by the audience, and that it had to be easily recognizable which letter was currently being played and which had ceased to be played. That worked fine as well. The audience recognized two levels. One was that with the audience’s algorithm, the code, the text is transformed into a sound landscape, into a temporary acoustic space, and that the player is no longer just performing a composition according to aesthetic principles, but instead is carrying on in a strictly reactive capacity, is DJing so to speak.

Different scenarios, different situations

This was totally liberating for me because the text was a surprise every time. Sound compositions, whatever, like Fluxus, from fun to serious and political, the whole spectrum was represented. The point of visibility is where the installation begins for me, and for a very specific reason. When somebody enters the cathedral in the given timeframe, he/she will discover six stations, they’re easy to spot. At each station, there’s a MIDI keyboard that’s labeled with the letters including four punctuation marks (period, question mark, exclamation point and comma) and a spacebar—which, of course, produces no sound. There’s also a key to individually delete the letters proceeding in reverse, and there’s a key to erase everything.

I assume that most people will try it out, then delete what they input and start over.

From the moment a person enters the space, there are several possible things that can happen. If the person isn’t really interested, then they just casually check things out. This happens all the time; after all, technology has this magic attraction. Then, there’s the next stage. A person comes in, gets a little hands-on experience, sees what happens, and their curiosity is piqued. Then they erase their first effort, and give it their best shot—they have a text, they’ve written it, and then they want to know how it sounds. The letters resound in real time; you hear something immediately. Maybe the person wants to write “I’m a nonvoter!” [Ich bin Nichtwähler in German] Which is a debate going on right now. So you press on the “I” and you hear something, water trickling. Then you press the “C.” Polyphony is possible—you can lay your whole arm on the keyboard and produce a drone. “I” and “C” sound beautiful together. Now the person might want to know what the “H“ does, then the space bar, then the “B.” It become undifferentiated, and then people want to know how the “B” sounds by itself, without all the rest. This is highly text-determined; this exploration process takes place very quietly.

I think that inquisitive people will climb the various steps. At first, they’ll input a text to see what happens to it. Then they’ll recognize that this gives rise to spaces, and what’s even more fascinating—there are five other stations, and if you’re lucky, someone will be playing at one of them at that very moment. I can take a seat at the keyboard, the text level recedes, I go to the “I” and check out what’s happening with my water. Somewhere else, there’s the sound of birds, and behind me I can hear the vibration of a highway bridge. What then takes shape in this room is a temporary acoustic space.

For me, this is the optimal situation, in the installation, when it’s not the production of chaos that’s driving things but the design of a tonal space that begins from absolutely nothing. After all, I don’t know myself what’s going to happen in this space, since several fellow-attendees could be on hand as well, and because I too need time to discover this sound container that I have at my disposal.

People will play around, some people will leave because they don’t get enough of a high-tension jolt, no pictures to blow them away visually. They don’t appear on the internet screaming “Hey, everybody, I’m a star!” We live in a situation in which everything has to be really loud.

In the installation, the flash is: Even without musical training, you make something happen with a letter. All of a sudden, in this immense interior space, I hear a sound. This is something that you can try out only when you sneak into a space like this and scream “Hey!” at the top of your lungs. You recognize this when you go about interacting with a large system.

In case you want to go even further, you can. The stations allow you to construct a giant acoustic environment. You can take this to the point where you can work together with groups of two or three, with the aim of ultimately holding down all the keys to find out how the whole text sounds altogether. You conceptually dominate the entire church.

Another step could be to play each letter individually, to savor this intimacy, this singular element.

There were questions: Which code do I develop myself? How do I begin this recollection? After all, the noises that occur are not exactly the world’s most exciting sounds; quite the contrary, they’re noises emblematic of noise itself, of the sound of our surroundings. You don’t hear the voice of a celebrity, but rather of a farm worker berating a donkey. This isn’t a matter of peaks. Sounds are placed at your disposal and you have to decide where you’re going to take this, if you’re going to take a strategic, purely algorithmic approach. My concept determines in which direction I proceed. Or you could take the way of hearing, of interaction—How does the space react? How do I react to the other players? After all, this is precisely the issue that is currently of such decisive importance in our society. Take Bradley Manning, for instance. A lot of people are asking themselves why he did what he did; after all, he had to have realized what would happen to him. He knows the situation in the USA. Particularly in the case of a soldier—how the state is going to react to passing on secrets. Not in a very affable way!

The questions being asked

The question is: why did he do it? And I think the answer is pretty simple: Because he couldn’t do otherwise. He saw these pictures, this data, and he decided that he had to pass them on. Others would have said: OK, this is our job, this is the business we’re in. We have to repeatedly ask ourselves: how would we act; what would we do? The things that have happened in the media over the last 20 years are automated procedures. This is what’s expected of us. We’re supposed to be flexible, effective, trained to the max. We are formatted, channeled, so to speak. We’re paginated with codes, with optical codes which are the brands we wear. How do we exhibit ourselves in this society?

It’s easy to see how vehemently people try to break through this superficiality with piercings, with tattoos, with mutilations. When people try to set themselves apart nowadays, to differentiate themselves from the mainstream, they really have to make a physical effort, they have to get very artsy—wear their pants hanging down real low so that other people even notice how different they are.

These permanent questions that each of us has to face—How am I to decide? What is it that benefits me?—come increasingly to the fore. The channels are much stronger, and so is the propaganda. People want to be individualistic, but only in an overall context. My individuality is another individual’s fashion.

If you consider this, then you realize that it’s the same with sound. In cities, everything sounds pretty much mono, sounds like traffic frequencies. Cities have lost their own individual acoustics endowed by the people who inhabit them. Now, this only still exists in small towns, somewhere in France or Italy, in the mountains where cars can’t drive through town, where you can still hear acoustic, singular experiences configured by human beings—when five radios are playing in a neighborhood, when people are cooking at the same time and the aromas mix and mingle. You’d be hard pressed to find that in Linz.

Experiences like these in which a space is the site of an acoustic deformation that’s produced by the inhabitants themselves—you can see this, for example, on the banks of Pleschinger See, this tree-lined lake where members of the Turkish community hold barbecues on the weekend. You can smell lots of interesting things, hear different sounds, different languages, the shouts of children at play. The city can be conquered with sound too, but only in small enclaves.

The purpose of this installation is to investigate the question of whether you just want to function in a system in which you can use a text to generate a sound, or whether you want to experience yourself, carry on a dialog, go with the flow wherever it takes you? This isn’t a matter of a realistic representation of nature; we’re not setting up an archive here. The aim is to create new hybrids, sound fusions that give rise to new situations, which, in turn, engender free spaces in which to engage in a discourse. What is an open system, and what is a closed one? What takes place in digital space?

This can be a delight to the ears, enchanting to spend a few lovely minutes before an acoustic backdrop one had created oneself or together with others, and this is something that can never be reproduced.

Each of the six stations has the same equipment. There’s a monitor with a dedicated text window, so users can see which sounds are available at this station, where they were recorded, and what their history is. Each station provides access to different sounds, so anybody who’s interested can play all six. It pays to try them all.

In the performance that evening, we’ll be using the same container, and I’ll be accompanied by fellow musicians. Petra Anlanger, besides operating the playback machine, will bring her voice into play and move about the space. Richard Eigner will play the kalimba and other percussion instruments. Georg Edlinger, an experimental drummer, will also bring in some percussion elements and play a station as well. Each musician will play a station in this machine. Volker Kagerer, experimental guitarist and bassist, will bring a bass. And organist Wolfgang Kreuzhuber will also be joining in, which means that the Cathedral organ will also come into play.

We have 10 themes we’ll be working through. The instrumentalizing will be expanded because, in addition to the prescribed texts from the Ars Electronica catalogs, everyone will be assigned texts just for them as well as a very general score.

Starting with the field recordings that are evoked by the respective texts, there are stations that are often silent, where there’s no text, where a particular sound is extended by means of another instrument. We want to create a temporary musical composition, the point of departure of which is the Cathedral itself, and that culminates with the situation in that same ecclesiastical edifice. In between, we’ll work through thematic clusters that call out for a personal, artistic interpretation.

The Aural-Memory-Machine will happen in Linz’s Mariendom on Saturday, September 7, 2013. This is one of the absolute don’t-miss events of TOTAL RECALL – The Evolution of Memory.