When he invented the word musicking in 1998, Christopher Small wanted to put the emphasis on music’s existence as a sonic and social activity. Music is a verb, not a noun, as he famously put it. Although it is meant for anyone and everyone who makes music, in whatever form, there are certain people who seem to particularly warrant Christopher Small’s need for the verb to music by the sheer virtue of how much music they just do. Ben Zucker is one of those people. He is a musician. He musics. In fact, he musics on pretty much everything – trombone, trumpet, keyboards, percussion, voice, objects. Sometimes he musics in the way that most musicking happens in the world: without writing anything down, spontaneously, expressively. And sometimes he musics in a way that has characterised Western music for centuries: with some form of writing. Dots on staves, text, graphics, drawings, or a mixture of all of these are all part of his musicking, as are improvisations, songs, ambient radio broadcasts, and conceptual sound poems.
It’s musicking of the last sort that we’ll do on Saturday, where we perform his piece for four speakers (human speakers, that is), neither/n/nor/n. What drew me to this piece first and foremost was its conceptual rigour. I have a real soft spot for pieces that are clear about what they’re going to do conceptually and then just do it. In this “non-dialectic for speakers”, passages from Roland Barthes’s Elements of Semiology and Kenneth Goldsmith’s “I Love Speech” are subjected to a radical hollowing out. They are shorn of all vowels – and many consonants –, leaving a dotting of odd noisy consonants standing like trees after a forest fire. These form the basis for the performers’ mouth shapes, which are to be sustained and sonified for unnaturally long times (like taking the attack of a sound sample and stretching it out). Attack becomes decay. Consonants become vowels.
First page of the score for neither/n/nor/n. Dots represent sustaining sounds, lines represent silences
Given the source material, what ensues is a rich interplay of semantic irony and sonic minimalism. Barthes’s text is analytical in nature, describing broadly what language and speech are. In Ben’s setting of them, these declarations lose all meaning, becoming, to keep using Barthian terms, signifiers that no longer have a signified. And yet the score leaves the original order of the text intact, having simply plucked letters out of it. It’s not so much that we don’t speak the text at all, but rather that we only speak its skeleton. There is no flesh, muscle or blood, but if we listen very hard, we may still recognise bone. Goldsmith’s text is more acutely relevant. The last sentence, “in order to proceed, we need to employ a strategy of opposites – unboring boring, uncreative writing, valueless speech – all methods of disorientation used in order to re-imagine our normative relationship to language”, could almost be a description of the piece itself. The fact that this is so makes neither/n/nor/n a piece that wrestles with its own identity. It struggles to self-describe, erasing its own meaning as it produces it.
And for those who like their musicking to be more straightforwardly musical, Ben has plenty of that too. One of my favourites that I come back to often is Strokes/Stokes, an open score realised beautifully in this recording by the Wesleyan University Orchestra.
Worth checking out too is his two-part ambient improvisation on synths for WESU radio:
I could go on – there is far too much musicking in Ben’s universe to be covered here. (His website does have a lot more stuff for those interested). Come and experience it live this Saturday 23rd at the Hundred Years Gallery, 13 Pearson Street, 8pm.