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The experience of immersion

May 19, 2008


I’ve just seen Wild Combination, a documentary about Arthur Russell, which was shown at the ROM as part of the Inside Out film festival. I learnt a lot of new things about Russell and his scattered, still largely unsorted back catalogue of recordings; pertinent to my own particular interests, however, is the information passed on by Russell’s boyfriend that Arthur kept an enormous aquarium. He would place his recording equipment as close as possible to the tank, sometimes draining water out so as to emphasise the gurgle of the filter. This aquatic background drifts in and out of of the World of Echo recordings.

At this point in the film David Toop appears, quiet with his usual unassuming wisdom, to tell us about the immersive, oceanic qualities of echo in music, which is something he explores in his book Ocean of Sound. R. Murray Schafer, also, reckons that

The experience of immersion rather than concentration forms one of the strongest links between modern and medieval man. But we can look back farther still to determine a common origin. Where then is the dark and fluid space from which such listening experiences spring? It is the ocean-womb of our first ancestors: the exaggerated echo and feedback effects of modern electronic and popular music re-create for us the echoing vaults, the dark depths of the ocean.

Schafer’s comment is typical, I suppose, of the way that immersion is usually presumed to be a return, a looking backwards. Ceremonies involving baptism, likewise, associate immersion with rebirth. Perhaps you’d have to start assessing rising sea levels to work out whether the simulation of immersion through sound might instead be an anticipation of the future, rather than a memory of the past. And of course Russell’s recorded history is something of an ocean whose depths have not yet been sounded. Towards the end of the film, Russell’s father wonders what his son’s career might have been, had it not been cut short by AIDS. He decides with a smile that “he’d have probably had another four or five thousand tapes”.

(Of course, none of this tells us what we really want to know — what type of fish did Arthur Russell keep?)

As an aside, now is as good a time as any to mention that Sparks, who have nothing whatsoever to do with Arthur Russell, have a new album out tomorrow called Exotic Creatures of the Deep. They’ve certainly kept busy in their advanced age, and who can blame them? And… there’s another album out tomorrow that has songs about catfish and whales on it.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Tom Lee permalink
    May 30, 2008 12:26 am

    the one most important fish in the tank was a very large, pale whitish pink gourami that we called “Big Pink.” Friends would sometimes ask me, “How’s big pink doing?” for some time after Arthur died. When Big Pink died about 2 years after Arthur it seemed to me to be very significant …another moment in Arthur’s departure for me.

  2. May 30, 2008 5:31 am

    I know the type — magnificent, beautiful creatures. Thank you so much for sharing this with us, Tom.

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