Damir Očko in conversation with Alexander Sigman

The “Fortissimo of Agitated Perception”: An Interview with Damir Očko│ 2011

by Alexander Sigman

[Luigi Nono] was not good at using language in a discursive fashion. And yet his pronouncements—fragments of thoughts, combinations of concepts which could be completely disjointed and incoherent were all the more vivid and more apt, and no doubt also more treacherous than all the rational statements made by others who have battled in vain with the vagaries of verbal argumentation where art is concerned. In his often carefree aphorisms, Nono was more accurate than he himself realised.
–Helmut Lachenmann, “Touched by Nono”[1]

0. Points of Contact

Damir Očko and I met at the Akademie Schloss Solitude in Stuttgart in 2008, at which time we were both Fellows. Since then, we have been collaborating on projects. At Solitude, I participated in the making of Očko’s film The Age of Happiness, and he realized the video component of my piece detritus I.[2] For his 2010 film The Moon shall never take my Voice (which exists as the centerpiece of the On Ulterior Scale exhibition), samples derived from an ensemble piece of mine entitled _blo(o)t_[3]were employed.

As is made evident by Damir’s “three songs for muted voice and various sounds,” musical sources figure prominently in the artist’s creative process—neither decoratively underscoring the emotional or sensual qualities of the visual content, nor merely serving as points of departure—but rather occupy a central role in the conceptualization and execution of his video pieces and drawings.  In both The Age of Happiness and The Moon shall never take my Voice, Ocko meticulously completed the sound design and editing himself, integrating the visual and audio dimensions with an extraordinary level of rigor, aptitude, and insight. In so doing, Damir has sought to embrace and expose the historical challenges underlying the interaction between visual art and music in a more substantive manner than is typical in the domains of multimedia and sound art.

The artist’s OUS series of drawings convey the importance of text in his recent work.  In this instance, Očko makes explicit and implicit references to a famous lecture by American composer Morton Feldman (1926-1987) presented during the 1984 Darmstadt Summer Courses, an homage to Luigi Nono (1924-1990) by German composer (and former Nono student) Helmut Lachenmann, Nono’s own seminal lectures from the 1960s and ‘70s, mysterious expressive indications in Mahler symphony scores, as well as a passage from twentieth century avant-garde French author René Daumal’s The Powers of the Word (1927-1943).

By the same token, Očko “sets” three texts to music and physical gesture in The Moon shall never take my Voice: Mahler’s 1907 account of observing (and hearing) a funeral cortège in New York from his window, John Cage’s famous story about visiting an anechoic chamber at Harvard University,[4] and excerpts of interviews with astronaut Neil Armstrong regarding his childhood and the impossibility of producing sound on the moon. Besides describing memories of aurally rich experiences, these quite personal texts all somehow address the perception (or avoidance) of absolute silence.

In the following interview, Damir and I discuss the significance of these diverse musical, textual, and symbolic “found objects” in the works featured in the On Ulterior Scale exhibition, as well as the more general questions, problems, and complexities emerging from the interplay of sound, image, and text in contemporary time-based art.

I. The Source-Texts

Alexander Sigman: Composers writing music is one thing; composers writing about music quite another. Feldman and Lachenmann are especially well known (perhaps even notorious) for their highly idiosyncratic modes of writing and communicating. What initially attracted you to the Lachenmann, Feldman, and Nono texts?

Damir Očko: It was the context in which familiar music interconnects on various levels: poetically, politically, and theoretically. Interest in historical and narrative aspects of texts came with an essay titled “Touched by Nono” written by Helmut Lachenmann about his teacher and friend Luigi Nono.

Later, out of curiosity, I started to read the transcript of the Morton Feldman 1984 lecture at the Darmstadt Summer Courses. The transcript was done so well that it seemed like a script for a comedy with many familiar characters. In spite of the fact that these two texts were written in completely different styles (the Feldman text was a spoken lecture, while Lachenmann wrote an essay), there were many interconnections in between the lines. As more texts appeared, more “found” subtle details emerged. Further, I continued to make note of interconnected details by removing protagonists from the equation and ended up building my own “liberated” script as a group of drawings called On Ulterior Scale.

AS: A common thread that may be traced throughout both the texts set in The Moon shall never take my Voice and those quoted in the drawings is a quest for a sublime state—be it John Cage’s search for absolute silence, or Daumal’s attempts to experience “the beyond.”  These narratives thus entail describing a virtually indescribable experience or concept—be it sonic or hallucinogenically induced (in the case of Daumal and his experiments with carbon tetrachloride). Could you discuss how you approach the sublime in your recent work, and what the sublime constitutes for you?

DO: My practice is very transparent, so it is hard for me to think in such a categories as a sublime in regards to the actual making of the work. In sourcing for materials or subjects, rather then reflecting the obvious, I try to look for inaudible elements that want to become audible or invisible elements that want to become visible. For example, I took a story that is part of Mahler’s Unfinished Symphony as a subject of the first song “The Day is fine” because its nature relies on absence of the music as much it does on what is written in the score. The choice of Neil Armstrong was largely due to the relatively unknown fact that he failed to pronounce “a” before “man”—a failure that I found to be an interesting subject.  In fact, the absence of his “a” provides a conceptual frame for the entire work, but most notably in the last section of the third song “The Astronaut,” where it is used to poetically elaborate upon the fact that the moon has no atmosphere, and therefore no sound can exist there, as a utopian territory, a sea of silence.

AS: On a related note: this elimination of the ego seems to extend to the way that you treat human subjects in your video works—they are typically “missing” something—either being deprived of a voice (The Moon shall not take my Voice) or vision (The Age of Happiness), or concealed by your sculptural constructions (The Boy with a Magic Horn). Is this somehow connected to your transcendent aims—imposing constraint systems as a means of alienating the actions of the human subject from their usual habitus?

DO: I would not say that protagonists in my films are missing something, but rather that they inhabit carefully limited areas, and have precisely limited modes of acting. In The Moon shall never take my Voice, there is a limited area for a voice that, due its “missing” sonority, appears in another reality of gesticulations. Limits are part of the same process of the selective exposure. Much like in sculpture.

AS: The journey, the ricercar, seems to be a central element in your recent work, and certainly lies at the core of the sources that you cite. As was indicated on a sign that Nono encountered on the wall of a cloister in Toledo “Caminante no hay caminos, hay que caminar [Wanderer, there are no ways, there is only walking].” How would you characterize the significance of the journey theme to the pieces featured in the exhibition, both with respect to the works themselves and the creative process?

DO: “Ricercar” is a very interesting word. First of all, it would be translated as “to search out” a certain territory rather than “to look for” a predefined subject. A territory becomes a subject itself, so to speak.

In The Moon shall never take my Voice, the origins of the song subjects are well known and there are well-defined facts that I talk or write about. However, in the film itself, there is an abandonment of any specificity that could define the subject as anything more than an ephemeral entity. So, it is not about Mahler, Cage, and Armstrong. Instead, it becomes about the different territories of silence that they all tried to reach. The same goes for the drawings. Sourced out of seemingly unrelated texts with well-known protagonists and subjects, the reinterpretation of these texts becomes fragmented, subjects are left behind, and protagonists are left anonymous. What remains is a territory where it is possible to walk into a new script.

II. The Drawings

AS: Memory, whether personal, collective/historical, or institutional is, needless to say, a central focus in all of your sources—be it the instability of the memory of previous pages of material in Feldman’s compositional process or his free-associative, anecdotal lectures, Nono and Lachenmann’s dialogue with music history, Neil Armstrong recalling his childhood, or Daumal’s various experiential memories.  Above all, if one seeks to engage with musical sources (and particularly the ones that you have chosen), the changing state of material over time becomes fertile ground to explore in the visual domain.

Among the more direct treatments of the theme of memory  (and its erosion) may be found in your OUS drawings—in terms both the fragmentary and de-contextualized presentation of texts and the degrading of features in the images. Can you elaborate on the aspects of memory are most relevant to this series of drawings?

DO: In the drawings you mentioned, there is a search for common ground amongst eroded and fragmented recollections of particular events, often “remembered” from different angles. I tried to conceive of memories as intervals between a variety of perspectives, especially those exhibiting a tendency to (re)interpret an already institutionalized history and to search for gaps between collective and personal memory, such as one finds in the Lachenmann text. When I take a certain text as a source for a drawing, the first action that I take is to remove everything obvious from it, so to speak, clearing the view and making space for parallel narratives, if there are such, to emerge. The applied image thus remains nothing more than an attempt to appear.

AS: The use of negative space in your series of drawings is quite striking. Is this visual silence meant more to suggest a tranquil, neutral state, or a tension-field—the “fortissimo of agitated perception,”[5] as Lachenmann describes the use of silence in Nono’s late works?

DO: Implied negative spaces could be interpreted by analogy as a moment when all the actors have left the scene and an undefined, indescribable object has been left behind. Appropriate cite by Cage, and taken from second song of The Moon shall never take my Voice, “Schattenhaft” accurately describes the negative space tension created by attempts to interpret the “found objects” as “a tone in which all tones resounded while at the same time it contained all silence.”

III. The Moon shall never take my Voice

AS: Given the performative/theatrical focus of the piece, could you conceive of a live version of The Moon shall never take my Voice being presented?

DO: Some adjustments would be necessary, but it is possible. There is a score for an entire performance.

AS: The three songs are scored for “muted voice,” which has entirely different connotations than “mute actor” or “mute singer.” This seems directly linked to the negative space in your drawings: the space is not merely vacant—rather, elements have been forcibly removed. Did you intend to express that the singer’s voice (and by extension, subjectivity) had been dislocated (or even eliminated)?

DO: I usually think in terms of transposition, but the word “dislocation” seems to be more accurate. My intention was to transport the voice from its natural physical reality into another physical reality. The voice is, so to speak, transferred from the lungs, throat, and mouth to the shoulders, hands, and palms. Thus movements can be described as loud, quiet, silent, long, short, high, low, fast, and slow. When this happens, and movements become so obviously treated like sound spatial phenomena, the missing sound of the voice becomes a negative space worth exploring. Recontextualization of different textual fragments in drawings clearly reveals the same relationship between displaced narratives.

AS: In Nono’s Il canto sospeso (and to some extent in his opera Prometeo), an attempt to create a “meta-language” out of spatially dispersed speech particles, as a means of accessing transcendent experiences beyond the semantic limits of natural language.  In Ligeti’s Aventures and Nouvelles Aventures, nonsense syllables are paired with semantically charged vocal gestures. The narrator/performer in The Moon shall never take my Voice attempts to describe the virtually indescribable, but does so through a “language” of physical gestures tethered to instrumental, breath, and electroacoustic sounds emanating from another source.  Do you conceive this scenario more as a construction of a “meta-language” (as in the Nono) or as the replacement of verbal communication with semantically rich sonic and physical signs (akin to the Ligeti)?

DO: It is neither constructed nor deconstructed. In The Moon shall never take my Voice, lingual particles remained mostly intact. It is the voice that has been transposed/dislocated. There was however a sort of a serial translation process that affected the language. Songs were first written in English, then translated into German, and subsequently translated into a descriptive shorthand notation for German Sign Language that finally becomes a series of performed gestures. As the essence and linearity of the narrative remains intact, one is able to follow the lyrics just by observing the performer’s gestures.  However, it is almost impossible or at least very challenging to translate the text back from gestures into the original English version of each poem without reconstructing the whole (new) language again.  The relationship between physical gestures and the sound materials employed is a musical one, so sonic elements rarely interact with specific lingual particles in the way that they do in Ligeti’s Aventures (i.e., the substitution of a missing and often fictional syllable with a musical object, such that it is ultimately difficult to distinguish music from language). Instead, interaction happens on the word or sentence level—and only occurs when something is “sung” rather than “spoken.”

AS: In viewing The Moon shall never take my Voice, I am reminded of Christian Marclay’s Mixed Reviews (American Sign Language), a video piece in which a deaf actor signs a collection of reviews of performances and recordings. Besides being a study of the aurally evocative power of gesture, it is, on the surface, an absurd and futile exercise. (What could a music review possibly mean to a hearing impaired viewer?)  Similarly, your work explores the “loudness” and musicality of silent actions, as we have already discussed. From my perspective, three primary sound/gesture relationships are examined in The Moon shall never take my Voice: the communicative potential of movements (as opposed to verbal communication), the re-interpretation of implied meanings behind sonic and visual objects as a product of cross-domain re-mapping and intra-domain re-ordering of these; and the interplay between the triggering and purely mimetic functions of visual and aural elements. Which of these aspects for you has been most important to foreground?

DO: For me, moving the voice into another reality, expressing this other reality’s gestural vocabulary, and exploring the notion that the omnipresent, mysterious, and indescribable narratives existing within every piece of music could be brought to the fore—occupying “center stage,” so to speak—were of particular importance. In so doing, several sound-gesture-visual constellations were conceived. In “Schattenhaft,” for instance, different strokes on the piano keyboard are very precisely bound to the gestures in a slapstick manner. Between piano strokes, there are two other electronically manipulated sounds: one simulating the very high frequencies of the nervous system in operation, the other the low frequencies associated with blood circulation.  Both types of sounds are tied to the meaning of the gestures, rather than to the gestures themselves.  If one observes the coordination between the aural and visual domain throughout the video, one discovers that the camera is perfectly attuned to the aforementioned sounds. That is to say: the camera moves either in the direction of the sound or in contrary motion. When a breath-like sound appears, the sudden eruption of other sounds is not always related to the gestures. Instead, there is a kind of causal relationship between sound-events, the domino effect of sounds triggering other sounds. This variety of sound-gesture-visual constellations and the recombination of elements on diverse levels are precisely realized both horizontally and vertically.

AS: In the late works of Nono and Feldman, there is an emphasis upon “re-tuning the ear”—sensitizing the listener to the inner life of a sound and radical extremes of interval, duration, register, audibility, and other sound characteristics—rather than a tendency towards violent provocation or a dramatically-infused musical language. As a consequence, the awareness of the listener of his/her own perceptual processes and aesthetic assumptions may be heightened. To what extent and by what means do you intend to explore new modes of viewing and listening in The Moon shall never take my Voice as well as your other video pieces?

DO: I think my work has a certain intensity that is the result of bringing background elements like sounds to the fore, and the fact that everything unfolding in time is being equally treated. So music, film, history, performance, etc., are all being composed, played, rewound, paused, stopped, slowed down, or sped up.  Thinking about time as material has been very important for my practice. In time-based art, the word “time” generally refers not only the time of the work itself, but should also be understood as the spectator’s time.

AS: Besides the chronological ordering of the three narratives, a movement from the dramatic silence between bass-drum strikes in a funeral cortège (Mahler) to the “artificial” (quasi-) silence experienced in a man-made anechoic chamber (Cage) to the absolute, impenetrable silence of outer space (Armstrong). In parallel, there occurs a perspectival shift from the immediate environment (a New York City Street) to the depths of the human circulatory (and auditory) system to the depths of the cosmos. In the audio domain, three primary sound-categories evoking these shifts in perspective are juxtaposed and superposed throughout: instrumental, biological (i.e., breath-like), and electronic, respectively. Did you conceive of these changes more as delineating a linear and continuous ascending trajectory from the earthly to the cosmic, or as three connected but contrasting ways of addressing similar themes and phenomena, all somehow pointing towards  (some sort of) sublime state?

DO: Most of the sounds are of instrumental origin. Some that were further manipulated by various filters were turned into noise and some into “cloud-like” prolonged structures (e.g., the last section of the third song “The Astronaut” is almost entirely populated by delayed samples of sitar harmonies). Breath-like sounds are in fact derived from samples of an accordion played with an open valve. I have imagined that the sound-narrative structure should at the same time satisfy two demands: unity and diversity. The three songs become three movements in which acoustic motives appear and reappear at specified positions (e.g., breath-like sounds appearing in the first and third songs).

In each of the three songs, the perspective gradually turns inwards from the narrator’s external surroundings (solid ground, the inside of the room, and outer space, respectively). Each time this external/internal shift occurs, it is signaled by an extraordinary auditory or visual event: a drum stroke in the first song, a scene in which the camera radically changes the angle and a shadow moves across the performer’s ear in the second, and in the last song, the unique moment when the moon enters the scene: an image as unexpected as possible.

[1] Helmut Lachenmann, “Touched by Nono” (Contemporary Music Review Vol.18, Part 1, 1999), p. 25.
[2] For counter tenor, ensemble, electronics, and video projection. detritus I (2009) was premiered by ensemble ascolta at Akademie Schloss Solitude in May 2009.
[3] For ten performers. blo(o)t (2008/2010) was premiered by Ensemble Modelo62 in The Hague, Netherlands in June 2008.
[4] This story may be found in Cage’s book Silence (Middletown, Connecticut, USA: Wesleyan University Press, 1961) and the John Cage/David Tudor recording Indeterminacy (Smithsonian Folkways #SF40804/5, 1992).
[5] Lachenmann, p. 27.