Sounds of Forgetting
|updated August 17, 2011|
Memory and Perception Exploration
A sound piece and the artist's statement.
To listen to the sound piece that accompanies this paper, please click on the link to the right >>>
This piece is a sonic exploration of a failing memory. My intention was to create a soundscape of a mind suffering from dementia, in which the listener is immersed in a disorienting chaos of memories, thoughts, and experiences. My raw materials were approximately four hours of recorded conversations with my father, Dr John Moorhouse, from October 2009 and December 2010, and two tapes of dictations from his medical practice. One of the tapes was the last recording of his career in which he states that he is “retiring from patient care.” It was recorded five years ago, when my father was seventy-nine, soon after he began showing signs of dementia. His has been a very slow decline, but the sharpest drop occurred directly following his retirement. My goal was to create a simulation or soundscape of his mind while creating a through-line of a movement from a life guided by intellect to one guided by perception. I attempted to achieve this by experimenting with an array of acoustic techniques, by exploring intimacy, immersion and disorientation, and by applying concepts of phenomenology and perception. I was greatly inspired by the work of Janet Cardiff, as can be seen from many of the concepts and techniques that I used.
I originally set out to create a sound version of a “Memory Theatre” based on concepts in The Art of Memory by Frances A. Yates, and particularly on his exploration of Giulio Camillo’s Memory Theatre. Camillo’s theatre was based on an ancient process of remembering, where one recalls a speech, for example, by “placing” images associated with words in a building in one’s imagination. Then, when these words need to be remembered, one takes an imaginary walk through the building, andeach image and consequently its associated word are recalled (Yates). In the sixteenth century, Camillo actually created a physical structure – his Memory Theatre - which, through images, told the story of human history from creation to human artistic, religious, and scientific activity (Yates 141).
I wanted to create a soundscape Memory Theatre of my father’s cherished memories, highlighted by sound images associated with the memories. This would have provided the listener with an aural tour of his mind. However, as I soon discovered, these memories were not available to him on the days of our interviews, and what I got instead was a recording of my father’s current experience of the world with very little reference to the past. I was struck by his readiness to “live for the moment” and to, for the most part, fatalistically accept the loss of his memory. I chose to explore this new phenomenological way of living.The resulting soundscape is dominated by random and fragmented dictations and conversations because this is my interpretation of how my father's mind works-but, really, it is how most minds work. As Cathy Lane and Nye Parry state in the description of their installation, The Memory Machine, at the British Museum in 2003, "Rather than taking a narrative paradigm as a storyteller might, The Memory Machine applies musical processes to the materials it gathers. Sounds are fragmented and echoed, repeated and varied, juxtaposed with both similar and unrelated fragments. This way of looking at structure offers a useful analogy to the processes of memory, in which networks of meaning interact and complex connections between ideas link seemingly disparate elements." Janet Cardiff explores this randomness of the mind in her installation piece The Dark Pool, which she describes as "a metaphor for the mind and how it works in a hypertextual way. The mind is a dark pool of forgotten, illogical facts and images as much as it is a logical reasoning entity." I experimented with this idea, and then in order to explore a mind suffering from dementia I further increased the disorder. Conversations with my father are marked by repetition, fragmentation, and randomness, and I employed these techniques to explore the inner processes of his mind and their outer representations.
I used my father’s Dictaphone for most of my recordings because I was influenced by the Marshall McLuhan concept of a technological medium being an extension of a human being (Newman). My father had used this Dictaphone for many years, and while growing up I would hear him dictating letters each evening in his office. I chose to use this device as an extension of my father, and as a way to connect his past self with his present self. Janet Cardiff uses this same concept in her Villa Medici Walk, where we hear a man’s voice through a Dictaphone, and the device and the sound of his voice through that medium represent someone she has lost. In her book, Christov-Bakargiev notes that at the end of this piece the lost man seems to emerge from the Dictaphone, as though he had literally been inside it. Perhaps I too am looking for someone who is lost.
My piece is, to use Damiano Pietropaolo’s words, “a digital manipulation of reality into art.” All of the sounds other than the two jazz recordings are natural and unscripted, but were technologically manipulated in post-production to create a structure of my own design. My intention was to create intimacy by making the listener a participant in the piece, and by going so far as to place the listener in the acoustic space of my father’s mind. I wanted to create a sense of confusion, unease, and disorientation in order to create an acoustic experience that might mimic my father’s experience. As a result of the transparency of the medium, for the first few moments of the piece the listener might be led to believe that she is hearing an oral medical document. I borrowed the technique of setting a piece up to be something other than it is for a disorienting effect from Janet Cardiff who’s Munster Walk begins as a museum tour and turns into an immersive art piece. My hope is that the listener might feel deceived or misguided, which mimics the mistrust that I imagine my father feels toward his mind.
From Intellect to Perception
I was exploring the idea that my father has been forced from a life guided by scientific investigation to one guided by perception; or from one guided by the intellect to one guided by the body. I used Merleau-Ponty’s The World of Perception as inspiration to explore this shift. In the first lecture of this book, Merleau-Ponty debates the value of science versus the value of perception. My piece begins with the medical dictations which soon become incomprehensible. Pieces of other dictations are layered on resulting in a random and simultaneous collection of now meaningless scientific words and numbers. This is reminiscent of the Artaudian concept of disassociation of meaning from language (Allen). The disassociation in my piece is enhanced because, by changing the function of the dictations by manipulating them into art, they have lost the medical context, and in this new context most listeners will not have the medical background to derive meaning from the language. These words were once the key to somebody’s health and physical makeup, but through the passage of time, and the change of context and function, the words have lost meaning. I use this dichotomy between medical precision and complete incomprehensibility to symbolize the breakdown of his mind.
Although initially intended to mimic the ringing in my father’s ears as a result of poor hearing and to create confusion for the listener, the high-pitched drone throughout the piece took on another function. In The Tuning of the World, R. Murray Schaffer states that “the function of the drone has long been known in music. It is an anti-intellectual narcotic. It is also a point of focus for meditation, particularly in the East” (Schafer 78). Schafer is commenting on the “loss of richness of experience” as a result of the Industrial Revolution (Schafer 78). I am not commenting on richness of experience, but am using the drone as a tool to force the listener’s mind to quiet and to explore the “anti-intellectual” - and the meditative possibilities that may exist there.
The listener is then left with fragmented conversations in which my father reflects on his current, perceptual, experiences. Early on he calls out, “Live for the moment!” implying to me a reliance on immediate perception. Amidst the chaos I wanted to allow for moments of reflection where the listener could have a chance to emotionally engage with the subject matter. I did this near the middle of the piece by simplifying it to just one or two tracks of peaceful conversation between my father and I, and by removing distortion techniques. Here the listener has a chance to become an observer rather than an active participant. The confusion builds intermittently here, representing moments of confusion in otherwise linear conversations with my father.
In the final section my father begins to sing two songs that we sang together when I was growing up. He has never forgotten the words or the tunes of songs he knew in his youth and if I play a pop song from the 1950s or 1960s, he often has a very visceral reaction to the music, at times appearing to be almost transported. When asked what he remembers when hearing one of these songs, he says that he feels emotions from the past but cannot recall a particular time or place. In The Poetics of Space, Bachelard writes about art speaking to the soul and not to the mind. And in Emotion and Meaning in Music, Leonard B. Meyer states, “Unlike a closed, non-referential mathematical system, music is said to communicate emotional and aesthetic meanings as well as purely intellectual ones” (Meyer vii). The music here speaks to his emotions and to his body, but not to his intellect.
At the end of my piece the singing stops, and one of the final things we hear is my father and I clapping. This represents the final shift to the body. In his introduction to The World of Perception, Thomas Baldwin quotes Merleau-Ponty’s The Phenomenology of Perception. He states that “by… remaking contact with the body and with the world, we shall rediscover ourself, since, perceiving as we do with our body, the body is a natural self and, as it were, the subject of perception” (Merleau-Ponty 9). I partly attribute my father’s quick decline following retirement to a loss of personal identity, and I am exploring the idea that his current contentment may be a result of a recent “rediscovery” of himself through the world of perception. The contact with the world through perception creates, according to Merleau-Ponty,
an experience of a world of things in space and time whose nature is independent of us. It is our ‘bodily’ intentionality which brings the possibility of meaning into our experience by ensuring that its content, the things presented in experience, are surrounded with references to the past and future, to other places and other things, to human possibilities and situations (Merleau-Ponty 9).
The availability of the “past and future” are limited, but my father can receive references to them from the stories of those around him, as he does in the middle section of my piece, and he can become connected to other people through universal actions such as hand clapping, as he does at the end. He becomes an active part of the world around him and not just a passive observer.
Through the use of disorientation and immersion and by exploring concepts of the intellect versus perception, I have created a piece that is an exploration of my father’s immediate experience of the world. Scientifically, I do not entirely comprehend what is happening to him - and emotionally it is often very difficult. With this piece I am not attempting to explain or glorify what can happen to a person suffering from any form of dementia. I am simply attempting to understand and celebrate my father in a way that makes sense to me now, and which I find comforting. Merleau-Ponty states that we should try to understand differing forms of perception, and that “it is in this spirit that modern art and philosophy have come to reexamine… those forms of existence which are the most distant from our own” (Merleau-Ponty 57). Through my exploration I have attempted to do just that.
To listen to the sound piece that accompanies this paper, please click on the link to the top right
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