James Webb - 'Phonosynthesiser' at US Art Gallery
by Chris Roper
Brian Eno, who I believe is a particular icon of James Webb's, had the following to say about Steve Reich's composition It's Gonna Rain. "The piece is very, very interesting because it's tremendously simple. It's a piece of music that anybody could've made. But the results, sonically, are very complex. What happens when you listen to that piece is that your listening brain becomes habituated in the same way that your eye does if you stare at something for a very long time. If you stare at something for a very long time your eye very quickly cancels the common information, stops seeing it, and only notices the differences. This is what happens with that piece of music."
A similar thing happens when you're listening to Prayer, the most satisfying of the three pieces on 'Phonosynthesizer', Webb's show at the US Art Gallery in Stellenbosch. A randomly rendered collage of various prayers from various religions, it is aurally pleasing in the conventional way of modern composers such as Reich or Philip Glass. By that I mean it sounds good (and let's not worry about what "good" means right now), and it has an underlying theoretical structure that challenges and fascinates the listener. It is a piece that stands on its own, without reliance on its status as site-specific art.
It is site-specific art, though, and that's how we must experience it. It's here that Eno's thoughts come into play. Because we are presented with something to look at while listening to the music, we are doubly enthralled. Let me first describe some of the exhibition to you before I take this train of thought further.
There are three pieces in three different rooms, each work consisting of a different arrangement of black speakers, black flex, steely wires, silver CD players and grey underfelt. As you enter the white Lutheran church containing the show, you are confronted with Phonosynthesizer. Speakers - round, flattish, like car speakers - hang from wires, looking like poised snakes. The rectangular grey underfelt that demarcates the floor area of the artwork is a muted, deadening counterpoint to the smooth techno-glossiness of the hardware. Webb describes it as a "weird electronic sound garden".
The sound coming out of the speakers is driven by five CD players randomly emitting noise samples. These sounds are recordings of technological glitches, warped tapes, skipping samples and vinyl poppings. Some of these are found sound, others created. For example, the artist disfigured CDs with a knife and recorded the resultant jumps and hisses. The ambient noise from the street wafts in, blending into and augmenting the soundtrack.
There's nothing wildly original about this musically. We could trace its genesis on a line looping around John Cage and Einsturzende Neubaten, and many other less obvious disciples of the noise-is-sound school. But originality isn't the yardstick here; concept, context and execution are. As Cage wrote, "If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, then eight. Then sixteen. Then thirty-two. Eventually one discovers that it is not boring at all." I'm not implying that Webb's works are boring, but that the same experiential process can apply to originality: the sound of Phonosynthesizer blends in with the sounds from the street and the comments of the viewers, and every moment of listening is different from the preceding. The idea might be old, but the act of listening it forces on you is always new. This is the power of the work.
Webb's arrangements of speakers and wires exert their own mesmeric fascination on the viewer, and once you are seduced into letting your imagination have free rein, the music seeps into your consciousness in an almost unassuming way. You start seeing all kinds of things: flowers stretching towards the sun, cobras poised to strike. The speakers that form Prayer are apparently arranged in the shape of the Kabbalistic tree of life.
To return to our consideration of the Eno quote: the music and the visual work together to give each other an augmented meaning. When you think you have assimilated the meaning of the visual, you notice the aural. When you think you have exhausted the meaning of the aural, you are suddenly aware of being confronted by the visual again. It's not a continuous feedback loop - there are times when the two work in tandem, or when component parts suddenly gel in an arrangement that you hadn't noticed before.
The works are simple. I almost wrote: deceptively simple, but that wouldn't be true. It's an honest simplicity that invites a complex experience, exactly the type of complexity Eno sees in Reich's work. An analysis of the pieces demands far more intellectual rigour than I've brought to this brief critique. There are several hoary questions we could debate to the hissing, chanting, thudding soundtrack that Webb has provided. When does sound become music, and when does music become art? But let's not bother with that now. 'Phonosynthesizer' first exists as beautiful art to be enjoyed, and only then as a site of debate around value and meaning.
Until April 25
US Art Gallery, cnr Dorp and Bird Streets, Stellenbosch
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