At the end of 2019 I discovered the book “The Spell of the Sensuous” by David Abram. The world is expressive, writes Abram; people, animals, plants, mountains or the wind act and communicate with their surroundings. These life forms talk through, with and against each other. The human language and culture not only developed in dialogue with people but also with places, local animals, plants and natural elements. Musicians making in-situ performances recognize this vision. They often search for living places to let the local expressive environment talk and sound. In a public space you can make music, together with passers-by, interact with the cooing sound of doves or make the site-specific acoustics audible.
In this worldly concept of art sensuality is more than the mere tactile, more than feeling sound vibrate on your skin. Essentially it is about experiencing sound as part of the world’s activities, as inextricably linked with the living, direct surroundings and its sounds, movements and bodies. Visual, auditory, tactile and other experiences weave through each other in the daily world; actively doing and passively experiencing are mixed. Thus, in sensual sound art artists let (a part of) the dynamic, complex reality become active. In this way a ‘performed’ music work is just one voice within a polyphony of environmental sounds and sensorial experiences; and sound displays itself in many appearances and is linked in multiple ways to local phenomena and living beings. For example, in Shiiin by Sytze Pruiksma the performers walk with a carriage full of music instruments, sound objects and loudspeakers through nature, together with the audience. Now and then they stop to play with the surrounding soundscape or to playback recordings. The performance wants to direct the attention to what is sounding and going on around the performers. The focus is not on the ‘stage’ and the autonomous art work anymore. Another example: Stephen Chase is an English composer and improviser, creating “walking music”: walks through a city in which the walkers are also performers, making music. He shows how listening and sounding are something that you often do while walking, and not sitting on a chair. You walk through a city and hear birds, people, buildings, alleys, streets ‘in movement’. Inevitably you make sound as a walker/performer and again and again the sound is transformed by the specific acoustics of a place and connected to (the possibilities and rhythms of) your own body.
Sensual art – as worldly art – is more than an ode to immediacy, although some in-situ musicians such as Pauline Oliveros have highly stressed the here-and-now experience. For Oliveros this meant concentrated listening to yourself, the others, the surroundings and improvising with this temporality and embodiment. This usually also meant paying less attention to local histories, ideas and technologies. But you don’t need to neglect more abstract phenomena to relate to the immediate surroundings and the daily world. A place, its inhabitants, passers-by, architecture or microclimate, etc. are also dynamically co-formed by abstract stories, the global climate or technologies. I see it as a challenge for sensual art to fit these transcendent phenomena into usual, daily surroundings. Thus, the transcendent-abstract and local-temporary exist equally, next to each other and they give a view on a more complex here-and-now world. This equal juxtaposition is more an embedding of abstract phenomena in the living here-and-now than the opposite, because it is the physical world that houses and hosts ideas, technologies and knowledge and gives them a tangible form (in bodies, tools, landscapes, etc.). Therefore the presentation and staging of ‘abstract’ phenomena is crucial in sensual art. If an artists audio-visually excludes and isolates the audience from the direct surroundings -as in a concert hall- and next, plays field recordings or live electronic music, the staging and ritual creates a ‘powerful’ image of this abstract music and (audio)technology, because there is no resisting, living environment with its own sounds and activities counterbalancing the art work.
In my works Not necessarily music and Glass the audience also hears a kind of field recording but in this case the audience is ‘in the field’: they see and hear how the environmental sounds around them are captured by microphones and how the performers deal with this environment. In these works – and in the mentioned one of Pruiksma – technology such as music instruments, speakers or laptops doesn’t create autonomous, illusionary sound worlds with musical logic and expression, they amplify and enrich the surrounding, physical place. An important effect of embedding abstract phenomena in a living place is contextualization. In these performances the loudspeakers don’t produce a mighty, full sound, the surroundings are visible and (acoustically) audible next to the speakers. The performers are not the only ones acting, there are also people (passers-by) walking, talking or driving by at the concert site. Embedding in a living place ensures that one sensual experience (for example, listening to the loudspeaker) can be coupled to other experiences (for example, listening to a cyclist passing by). In this way performers and audiences can contextualize and put things (both the art work and environment) into perspective. They can compare experiences or abstract ideas with other experiences or phenomena at that place. The art work and the daily, direct environment intertwine, become more complex and multifaceted.
The sensual world is a place full of acts and experiences of living, embodied humans, animals, plants and natural forces. In sensual art the artist accepts this ‘living together’, celebrates it or is at least sensitive to it and therefore gives art a place in a living place. The world is expressive, as David Abram wrote beautifully in his book ‘The Spell of the Sensuous’…