N.B. Aldrich | Hiroshima
Aldrich’s work is rooted in speculation about observed systems of organization. He feeds raw data into machines to filter and churn out beautifully sounding art to a skeptical ear. In Hiroshima, such speculation provides a platform from which to question how a specific moment (a cataclysm) evolves into an aftermath (rebirth). It’s completely in a moment, on a surface that the work resides.
Aldrich collects and undermines a realm of uncertainty in his dismantling and reconstruction around the technology of armed conflict. The process is integral to the work, so he builds the computer program to massage the text and the layered beds of sound. What unfurls in the ear feels far from the indexical realm. It is abruptly analogic and also smooth, tinged with mis-voicing and syntactical hiccups amidst a rich soundscape. The voice is steady, but doesn’t speak in sentences we could or should understand. That is due to the Cagean mesostics the artist has applied to actual text, penned by John Hersey. Hiroshima began as the entirety of the Aug. 31, 1946, New Yorker issue, and was later published as a book.
Hersey’s text boldly details the experiences of six survivors of the U.S. atomic bombing of Hiroshima. As a kind of witness, both Hersey and Aldrich attempt to understand what happened (what we did there, how the catastrophic will illuminate the new landscape). As random as the survivors’ experiences were, so is Aldrich’s handling of text and sound. Randomness is to the ear, and not to the machine that reconstructs.
… almost no one in Hiroshima recalls hearing any noise of the bomb. But a fisherman in his sampan on the Inland Sea near Tsuzu, the man with whom Mr. Tanimoto’s mother-in-law and sister-in-law were living, saw the flash and heard a tremendous explosion; he was nearly twenty miles from Hiroshima, but the thunder was greater than when the B-29s hit Iwakuni, only five miles away … —John Hersey, Hiroshima, 1946
The ambient sound Aldrich ‘designed’ the piece with welcomes the listener, overtaking those smoothly stuttered spoken words. The sounds were also chosen by algorithm, yet feeling alive, seemingly beyond and into and from another era. Try to listen to disheveled text forming a truncated narrative. Hear the disarrangement and uncertainty; catastrophe and re-birth; the broken and the wasted. It creates an illiteracy; like dis-ease, it’s an inarticulation:
… skin repelled from clothes; the skin kimonos …
… brackish, hurt people, across the river from again speech …
… many screamed, many helped in … survivors …
—N.B. Aldrich, Hiroshima, 2004
The sounds of children playing could also be squeals of panicky crowds; the quiet ambience of cars and trains passing conjures a normality. There’s a choir, singing or chanting; gongs sound in the distance; water flows. When asked, Aldrich explains these sounds, along with Hersey’s text, form a relationship and are mixed by a hand-built serial algorithm: “I literally draw a map for how to proceed then go do it.” Intuition is followed, then obliterated.
In conversation with N.B. Aldrich and Earlid’s Joan Schuman …
Earlid/Joan Schuman: Early 20th-century French poet, Francis Ponge, suggests that we cannot truly see something until we allow it to ‘disarrange us.’ How does this sentiment strike you, especially given your work in sound and its relationship to the visual/material/spatial world?
N.B. Aldrich: Not being familiar with this quote, I will take the luxury to reconstitute it. Ponge, or rather one of his poems, was the subject of an essay by Derrida, the details of which escape me. I believe he was referred to by Derrida on multiple occasions. The idea of disarrangement seems to relate directly to Derrida in his role as the Father of Deconstruction, as one might think of deconstruction as a sort of formalized disarrangement which seeks to get to the essence of something. I think for artists today, we often think of ourselves as disarrangers, following this deconstructionist attitude. So whether we actually see more clearly after being disarranged or not, it does seem like disarrangement is an important contemporary strategy for approaching work, which I suppose implies it is thought to have a clarifying effect.
That said, “deconstruction” has unfortunately become one of those terms that has been so universally and inappropriately applied it has become difficult to use, ironically, with any clarity. Like “conceptual” or “interactive”. So, regrettably, it can be a tool for obfuscation as well.
For me, one of the valuable uses of deconstruction, at least as a technique, is it allows me to map out ways to compose across mediums. I can find certain keys, terms or images or whatever, that I can cross-reference intermedially. And, of course, the idea of spatializing information, even if that space is a multimedia space, is pretty central to Art in the Information Age, basically how one arranges New Media compositions. So disarranging leads to rearranging, deconstruction leads to reconstruction. And the new geography of the reconstructed results from changing spatial relationships, again, even if those spaces are mediumistic.
Earlid: Does it have any resonance for you around Hiroshima?
NBA: So, Hiroshima is exactly this kind of composition. Cagean mesostics applied to John Hersey’s text as a deconstructive filter produce a new reduced text, and that new text is then reconstructed as a larger audio work. The idea is pretty simple. Once the reduced text is made, every word that is, or implies, a sound is high-lighted and brought into usage as part of the audio environment that the text is then placed against. This is directly derivative of Cage’s Roaratorio, a piece I greatly admire. The sounds used in Hiroshima are all recordings I have made over the years, and, I believe, some by my longtime friend and collaborator, Zach Poff, as well. These recordings are representations of the various sounds indicated in the text. The text was read by poet/musician Duane Ingalls, another longtime friend and collaborator, who has a magical ease with difficult text.
I also have employed some custom serial strategies over the years that prevent me from arranging by intuition. Often these are anagrams, but not exclusively. For me, an artist’s intuition is best applied in the conceptualization of the work, meaning, the “What am I doing?” “Why am I doing this?” phase. I trust my intuition, my passion, about what might be an important avenue of investigation, but I try to avoid intuitive compositional procedures. If an idea is strong, and the organizational strategy for rendering it is strong, then hopefully the work will materialize with its strength intact. If not, maybe the idea wasn’t that strong, or the organizational strategy wasn’t, or both.
To bastardize Sol Lewitt, a bad idea brilliantly rendered is still a bad idea.
Earlid: Could there be a similar sentiment explored in your artistic practice as a whole?
NBA: I would say in part, maybe large part, rather than whole. I am not a big believer in universal truths. But, regarding Ponge’s “disarrange us”, I often use the analogy of a walk in the woods when discussing creative practice. Even if you walk the same path at the same time every day, you will notice all is much as it was the last time, but many of the subtle details have changed. This attention to detail is extremely important. Occasionally some large change has taken place, a tree fallen across the path or a large puddle arisen. And sometimes you get lost. I suspect finding your way back from being lost is the most valuable of the experiences measured on a grand scale. We are disarranged, then rearranged, or reacquainted with the familiar.
My dog acts as my guide in ritualizing this for me, actually, as we do this exercise together daily.
I spent many years, decades in fact, doing sound design for theatre, and some commercial film and video work, and composition for dance. This design process is very congruous to these ideas. Deconstructing a text, a play for example, that deconstruction viewed through a director’s lens, in concert with the design team. Then reiterating the important conceptual elements globally, both in the audio composition and, in a healthy collaborative environment, the overall production; figuring out how to legibly apply the ideas to the compositional process and content.
This practice is similar to the compositional ideas I employ at large, whether making acousmatic pieces, like Hiroshima, or making generative or interactive installations, which has been most of my focus for the past decade or so.
Earlid: I was surprised you didn’t mention the tonality of John Hersey’s text, how it reads so clinically (and linearly) about the six survivors of the atomic bomb’s horrific impact and after-effects. Was that a decision, too, about how to juxtapose the lines you selected and their own relationship to the sounds you designed and used to absorb them?
NBA: One of the truly arresting features of Hersey’s book is his clear-eyed delivery, certainly. A beautiful counterpoint to the breathlessness of the Media Age that is just dawning at the time. So that may be one of the reasons I find this book as powerful as I do. That said, I did not set out to remake the book or to specifically utilize the techniques or aesthetics that John does. Though it can be said that Duane Ingalls reading on the recording does echo that tone somewhat, it is probably inescapable.
But to me these are not design decisions and I didn’t work with them in mind specifically. The words we used were what the mesostic provided and the relationship between the spoken text and the other sounds are mixed by a hand-built serial algorithm; I literally draw a map for how to proceed then go do it. Of course I listen back and if there are problems I try to readjust, but only by revisiting the choices made and seeing what might be an alternative based on the map. A few choices can become a complex array in short order.
Cage said he did not want to compose music he already knew, meaning transcribe what was in his head, but wanted to compose music he did not yet know, design a process and see what transpires. So that may be the key here, remove myself from having the freedom to dislike it.
Earlid: How have you found Hiroshima to be best realized or situated for audiences—in a gallery installation or online or over the aleatory, random airwaves of radio?
NBA: In truth, I don’t believe I have ever been to a public presentation of the piece. I know it has appeared without me at festivals in Barcelona, LA, Philadelphia, other places I forget now. It is an acousmatic piece intended to stereo playback, whether in concert or livingroom, broadcast, earphones, however you find it.