Performing Crossword Canon – Saturday, August 9, 2014 at Forest City Gallery as part of the program HEAR HERE 09 featuring 8 experimental acts from Ontario and Quebec. This particular Hear Hear, guest curated by Chris Myhr, has been titled Zounds!!
Crossword Canon is a quartet for four voices for “unmusical” performers using a simple instructional score. The score is a linearized crossword, and the “song” is a sequence of words repeated multiple times; each performer reciting the words with a steady rhythm, pitch and volume adding occasional short improvisations with the mouth where the score calls for it.
This work was inspired by scientific research. Diana Deutsch, a perceptual and cognitive psychologist and a prominent researcher of the psychology of music at the University of California, San Diego, demonstrated in her research that the human brain’s dominant perception of words is musical, but our desire to find meaning in a sequence of words suppresses this recognition.
However, if someone repeats the same sentence multiple times with the same pitch, rhythm and volume, a listener’s brain will soon interpret it as a song. This phenomenon is called the speech-to-song illusion, and it is even more prominent if the repeated words do not form a meaningful sentence. Crossword Canon exploits this phenomenon.
Crossword Canon is based on a crossword that I flattened out (linearized). I picked simple words from the crossword that are easy to pronounce. I devised a simple notation system that references elements of a crossword such as using squares to represent a beat which is equivalent with a syllable. I also used shaded squares to represent volume. Crossword Canon is for the human voice for four performers: 2 female sopranos, one mezzo soprano and one male bass or baritone.
It is 2 minutes long which is easy to determine from the score as the score indicates that 1 square is 1 beat and 1 minute is 40 beats. There are 80 squares altogether on the score thus the duration is 2 minutes. The 40 beats were determined based on the fact that counting aloud from 1 to 40 in a steady, slow rhythm is one minute altogether and everyone can easily comprehend and follow such a rhythm.
The pitch (how high or low the voice) should be steady for the whole duration of the piece. It is intentionally not determined in advance but to be chosen together by the performers before the performance to make sure each one of them is comfortable with it and does not strain their voice.
Improvisation is a fun part of the piece and offers variety and surprise to the listeners and an opportunity for the performers to express their individuality. The improvisation can be anything that uses the mouth or voice such as whistling, giggling, laughing, yawning, producing a popping sound or a trill and much more.
This piece can be performed by any four volunteers, “unmusical” performers, from the audience without rehearsal. To eliminate performance anxiety, performers usually appreciate if the composer indicates to each one with a hand gesture when they start. After that, they are very comfortable on their own.
This piece is best to be performed by people who never studied music. Those who are musically trained often can’t imagine that something interesting can come out from such a simple piece (but it does!) and they try to bend the rules. They add complex changes in pitch and vibrating and trilling the individual syllables which ruin the piece’s intended effect.
My work, Geometric Laughter, is a spatialized immersive soundscape inspired by a short section in Robert Smithson’s essay, Entropy and The New Monuments. Smithson speculates that “laughter is in a sense of kind of entropic “verbalization”” and after analyzing the work of the Park Place artists of the 1960s (Mark di Suvero, Robert Grosnevor, Carl Andre among others) he concluded that “the order and disorder of the fourth dimension could be set between laughter and crystal-structural, as a device for unlimited speculation”. He paired the major laughter forms with the six major crystal structures (geometric forms).
My interest in Smithson’s “ha-ha crystal” concept stems from the possibility of representation in a multi sensory immersive environment, laughter being its primary material produced by live laughing performers (“the musicians”) at the vertices of the crystal that I recorded in the centre of the geometric form with binaural microphone during a thematic artist residency at the Banff Centre in the summer 2013. I was interested in the challenge in creating and communicating instructions visually or textually to ordinary performers in order to produce the desired laughter sound (ordinary laugh, giggle, titter, snicker, etc.)
Initially, I asked fellow participants in the residency to listen to a one minute segment of a person laughing (from a sound library recording) and draw the laughter. I asked them to do the same while listening to a giggling person. The resulting drawings were beautiful and showed many commonalities as well as clear differences between visual representation of ordinary laugh and giggle. Still, despite the commonalities I found, it was impossible for me to create an exact visual description (visual score) of laughter that would prompt everyone to produce the same sound if they only have a visual score/notation to rely on. This led me to look into what science has to say about laughter.
During my residency, I looked into recent research published in October 2012 on the physiology and neurological effect of laughter led by Robin Dunbar, professor of evolutionary psychology at Oxford University, which suggests that laughter is a form of exercise. It inspired me to devise a set of breathing exercises (similar to those we do in the gym as warm up) that naturally produce various laughter sounds and were executed easily by the performers (fellow participants in the residency). In fact all of the performers reported it felt very natural for them doing the exercises and they felt they were really laughing as opposed to mere mimicking (mostly due to the fact that they found the whole situation (e.g. ‘laugh into your knees’) hilarious).
I also aim to actively engage a wider audience with my work as well as Robert Smithson’s ideas. For this I appropriated the usual look of the ‘Trainer to Go’ fitness cards commonly found in fitness magazines and created a ‘Laughter to Go’ card for free distribution in community centres, libraries and public spaces. I am also interested in engaging a diverse public (not just those who regularly visit galleries) on a more personal level by acting as a ‘Laughter Trainer’ giving ‘laughter workshops’ at various locations (community centre, student club, schools, etc.) based on the exercises I devised – a personal and communal experience. This gives me the opportunity to engage with and educate a diverse public (while they are also having fun) on Robert Smithson’s ideas, Minimalism (and minimalist artists’ fascination with crystals and crystal geometry), as well as my own practice and research relating to this project by embracing simultaneously the roles of laughter trainer, artist and community educator.