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Anne Marie Varrella’s songs, and notes about collaboration

July 10, 2007

(This is a rare Ideal Tiger entry without pictures. I have sounds instead.)

I feel very privileged — Anne Marie Varrella recently thought that it would be sensible to allow me to get my semi-skilled hands on some already majestic sounds that she’d made, resulting in Chordal, a long-distance collaboration between a deft lady and a daft man; or, a meeting of a song-making expert and a sound-making pervert.  It seems like a sensible time, then, to write about how fantastic Anne Marie’s music is, and also to mention how much I’m enjoying overcoming my previous fear of collaboration.

It helps to know that Anne Marie has described her own music, amongst other things, as “spatial music”. When I hear Anne Marie sing I don’t just hear a voice; I hear a voice that knows exactly how to situate itself within a given space or environment — that tends, in fact, to both receive and offer air to and from that space. That’s why restructuring a new aural space around the voice was such an initially alarming task for me. The reason the world should really celebrate Anne Marie is actually quite a basic one — her voicebox is physically connected to her ear, and she knows it. By refurbishing the the background to her voice, and reshaping the piece that contains it, I felt like I was somehow severing the two. I decided to make a point of that act of severance, keeping present what Anne Marie sang, and quite ostentatiously cutting apart what she actually heard whilst singing it.

In receiving the sound files of Anne Marie’s voice (and other electronic sounds, too, I should add) I suppose that I was involved in an advanced act of what Pierre Schaeffer calls “acousmatic listening”, which is how he describes hearing sounds detached from their original source. (Fittingly, many of Anne Marie’s original accompaniments seem to be involved with musique concrete, as founded by Schaeffer.) And in sending fragments of her voice, I suppose that Anne Marie was involved in a digitally accelerated version of what Douglas Kahn discusses as phonography, the process by which the human or animal voice is torn from its voicebox and replayed or stored elsewhere. The problem with these two sound theories is that they both suggest the kind of sound-splicing behaviour that I was involved in to be an act of sensory violence, rather than the mutually generous act that, being the means to a shared piece of sound, it clearly was. Fortunately, thanks to some qualities special to Anne Marie’s music, it was easy for me to reimagine my task rather as one of atmospheric refurbishing, or exterior design.

It isn’t all just voice and music, of course. There are sounds — spirit sounds, threads of sound — moving all throughout her songs, moving in from the periphery of her songs, making like scent. She sings a piece called fromIndiaGujurat and reshapes her sung sounds so that they swing back to answer themselves, returning from an atmosphere and wearing its dew. She has a song called Windows From Their Light in which I could swear that an audible left-on background broadcast (television? radio?) is what’s generating the entire piece. My ideal aesthetic gesture involves the peripheral, and the atmospheric, converging on an accepting centre. That’s why a current enthusiasm of mine is to salvage the word “atmospheric” from the near-meangingless that it’s fallen into, and reinvest it with a sense of agency and movement (subtle movement, rather than macho dynamism). I celebrate active atmospheres, generative atmospheres, atmospheres that refuse to be well-behaved backgrounds.

What else does it help to know? Anne Marie’s songs often sound like near-relatives of field recordings, even if they’re not. In a sense, of course, they necessarily are field recordings of a very rare songbird. It makes good sense to me that in the vast majority of photographs of Anne Marie Varrella that I’ve ever seen, she is in a field of some sort, and also that she uses electronics with a curious hand that knows how to release the spirits within technology. These would also be acts of exterior design.

I don’t think that Anne Marie’s songs stay still when I’m not listening to them. I usually find that when I return to them — which is very regularly, I might add — they have moved about a bit and present themselves with the tiniest new gesture upon each listening. When they’re moving, I imagine, they move upon little threads of spindle-legs. It probably helps to know, then, that Anne Marie has offered art for Louise Bourgeois, whose shapes suggest themselves as good companions for Anne Marie’s sounds — which are, like all atmospheric art, delicate with a purpose.

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