Außer ein paar Vögeln war er das höchste Tier

The piece is my contribution to the collaborative sound installation «Ohrwald» (like ear-jungle) that I developed with students of the Studio for electroacoustic Music (SeaM) Weimar. Apart from «Außer ein paar Vögeln…», eight other pieces have been composed by Anja Erdmann, Christian Helm, Chelsea Leventhal, Björn Lindig, PyoungRyang Ko, Ursula Meyer-König, Reingard Lipp, and Andreas Vorwerk. An algorithm fades between them in random intervals.

Concept

The installation is mounted along and below a wooden path in the national park Hainich that leads the visitors through the treetops of that forest. This path is extended by the aural sense, the natural atmosphere of the forest is confronted with new sounds that are at the same time extrinsic and seemingly belonging to the place. The sound collage installed along the path tries to establish a dialogue with its environment. It unfolds as a spatial image of proximity and distance, while walking along the path.

The common topic among the different pieces is the contrast between the untouched nature, which the national park predicates, and the cultivation of terrain, palpable due to the groups of tourists visiting the place.

«Außer ein paar Vögeln…» is a quotation from a short text by Gottfried Benn, «Gehirne», written around hundred years ago. The line catches the irony of the human being at the end of romanticism and the advent of modernity—“Apart from a few birds, he was the highest animal”. The irony is translated to the desire to rise above the trees, the natural limit of the the humanosphere. Or as a critic of Benn put it, the person described by Benn’s text “tries to escape from the lowlands of philistine actuality into the vertical”.

The forest as a romantic residual is a recurring image in my music. Here however, I reduce it to the occasional sound of the turning of pages in a book. Instead the concept of the path is highlighted in its categorial teleology. The human being is jammed between the forces of nature – boulders thrusting the visitor along in the clockwise direction, and the rushing of the celestial ocean approaching from the shore – and encounters crystalline conformations of human activities, strung like pearls of an asthetisizing chain.

Compositional details

Twentyone loudspeakers are spaced more or less equidistantly on the 308 metres of the path. Of those, eight are suspended below the path, and thirteen on the side grills, pointing away from the path into the forest.

The piece is developed in three layers. The first layer, representing earth, consists of the sounds of boulders. Small gestures in the order of a few seconds are carried out, first by the most massive texture, originally produced by grains moving inside ballons and projected onto the four larger speakers hanging below four “islands” along the path, creating a sense of unseizability (some visitors have described this sound as thunder storm or even a roaring animal). The gesture is then successively imitated by the three or four smaller speakers in clockwise direction (each step corresponding to some fifteen metres), where each imitation is produced with a different sound colour, all ressembling stones. All phrases are synchronized in order to create a infinite continuous forward movement.

The third layer, representing sky, is build with shore recordings I made last winter on the north sea. When I was young, I figured out that the sky for me is a kind of endless ocean, and once you internalize that, lying on the ground, eyes towards the sky, it becomes a very massive thing with upside down gravity and upside down vertigo. On the path, the sound of the sea is heard from four different distances, first very far away – basically you only hear a strong wind and an open space –, then step by step you get closer, finally you literally stand inside the waves. This layer is projected onto the four suspended speakers inbetween the “islands”. The sound comes and goes.

For the middle layer, projected onto the thirteen smaller speakers, I utilized Benn’s text. It happens that the last paragraph can be broken down into thirteen phrases:

  • Was ist es denn mit den Gehirnen?
  • Ich wollte immer auffliegen wie ein Vogel aus der Schlucht;
  • nun lebe ich außen im Kristall.
  • Aber nun geben Sie mir bitte den Weg frei,
  • ich schwinge wieder—
  • ich war so müde—
  • auf Flügeln geht dieser Gang—
  • mit meinem blauen Anemonenschwert—
  • in Mittagssturz des Lichts—
  • in Trümmern des Südens—
  • in zerfallendem Gewölk—
  • Zerstäubungen der Stirne—
  • Entschweifungen der Schläfe

I do not recall how I re-encountered this text that I had read some years ago. It must have been the blue anemone sword which I remarked in a sketch book, and that, along with the figure thirteen, resonanted instantly, even before the discovery of the title «Außer ein paar Vögeln…».

Approximately every nine minutes the boulders pause, and after the turning of the pages the thirteen phrases are whispered simultaneously, each on their distinct position. Inbetween those repetitions, the sound recording of the voice is taken and stretched in time, the constrast of its spectrum is highly increased, and the resulting time-frequency-plane serves as a projection canvas for thirteen different sound materials, each metaphorically linked to the corresponding phrase, mosaiced according to the spectrum. The often bell or glass-like sounds emphasize their origin in the human realm.

Außer ein paar Vögeln… (binaural rec.; use headphones)