Sarva Mangalam!

Sightlines: Filmmaking in the Academy Issue 4 2022

 

Nick Cope: Author, Researcher
Name of Work: Sarva Mangalam!
Year: 2018
Length:  5 minutes 20 seconds

RESEARCH STATEMENT

Electroacoustic composer Tim Howle and filmmaker Nick Cope have been collaborating on a series of visual music films since 2002. Cross-disciplinary and inter-departmental in nature, the work contributes to creative media practice-based research in the academy. Specifically, the collaboration, and this work, contribute to audiovisual/visual music practices and their contexts; video art histories and practice, sonic arts and acousmatic/electroacoustic composition, screen media practices and audiovisual composition and cross-disciplinary collaboration. Previous works have been selected for conferences, concerts, and screenings internationally; published on DVD and through online audio-visual journals; and resulted in papers, journal articles and a PhD addressing the working practices and research contexts of the collaboration (see: Cope 2012, 2014; Cope and Howle 2005, 2018).

Producing work that explores and examines both sonically and visually theories and practices of the acousmatic and electroacoustic led us to describe our collaborative output as ‘electroacoustic moviemaking’ (Howle 2009), the visual element treating camera sourced material in post-production analogously to electroacoustic sonic treatment of microphone gathered sound sources (Cope 2012, 60), ‘if to the microphone we add the lens: what happens to the dislocations?’ (Howle 2009).

Sarva Mangalam! has developed out of previous iterations exploring shots of Tibetan prayer flags accompanied by a score that is influenced by both Cornelius Cardew and ambient musical practices. The work extends a practice research collaboration that seeks to explore notions of what it means to compose with sound and moving image in works where the sonic and visual are treated as commensurate partners. The title of the work is a Sanskrit phrase (‘May all be well!’), which appears on many versions of prayer flags alongside depictions of various symbolic animals, Buddhist deities and mantras. Tibetans believe the prayers and mantras are blown on the wind, spreading goodwill and compassion to the pervading space and all beings wandering therein.

Sarva Mangalam! introduces a third location and image stream to the single and dual-image formative explorations (working title Flags) that pre-dated this work. Repeating phrases of sound and image are looped in such a way that new combinations of sound and image emerge as the video progresses. The work has found screening outlets at Sound and the Environment and Ambient @40 festivals in recent years indicating an engagement of the work in explorations of both ambient music and music ecologies. The work can be seen to extend notions of what constitutes visual music. Visual music practices look to musical modes of composition in their realisation. Our notion of the electroacoustic movie extends acousmatic music practices into audio-visual composition. Sarva Mangalam! begins to engage with wider notions of ‘the soundscape’ (Schafer 1993), sound walks, sound-ecologies and field recording, which have become widespread in musical academic circles in recent years, and to bring these into the realm of visual music composition. Taking Viola’s analogous view of the video camera as a form of microphone, then visual music composition can be extended to explore video recordings within frameworks opened up by notions of soundscape, soundwalk, field recording practices, acoustic ecology, and the ambient.

REFERENCES

Cope, Nick. 2012. “Northern Industrial Scratch: The history and contexts of a visual music practice.” PhD diss., University of Sunderland. http://sure.sunderland.ac.uk/3287/

Cope, Nick. 2014. “Electroacoustic Movies: A visual music practice and its contexts” Divergence Press: Issue 2 – Sound. Music. Image. Centre for Research in New Music, University of Huddersfield.

Cope, Nick and Howle, Tim. 2005. Open Circuits video published on DVD in ‘Visual Music’ AV Special, Computer Music Journal, 29 (4) Winter 2005, MIT Press.

Cope, Nick and Tim Howle. 2018. “Electroacoustic Moviemaking: A Creative Media Practice Research Collaboration Case Study.” Special Issue: Creative Practice in Filmmaking and Screen Production, Studies in Australasian Cinema. Volume 12, Issue 2-3, pp.116-134. DOI: 10.1080/17503175.2018.1539539

Howle, Tim. 2009. “Making Electroacoustic Movies II.” Paper presentation, Seeing Sound Practice-led International Research Symposium, Bath Spa University, September 19-20. http://www.seeingsound.co.uk/programme/papers/

Schafer, R. Murray. 1993. The Soundscape. Rochester: Destiny Books.

Viola, Bill. 1995. Knocking at an Empty House: writings 1973-1994. London: Thames and Hudson.

 

PEER REVIEW 1

Sarva Mangalam! (May all be well!) delivers an energising and intriguing, almost eerie screen experience. The delicate combinations of visual and sonic rhythms form a cohesive work that will continue to create dialogue across various disciplines of media arts.

I am particularly interested in the use of three channels that describe three distinct points of view. The use of a single take on the left, single take forward and reversed in the centre, and the series of shots repeated on the right correspond (for me) to different ways of considering time: as ongoing conscious experience, as reversible in memory, and as divisible via video technology.

The juxtaposition of stillness and arcing movement of the individual cameras at times seems to be described by the more conventionally ‘musical’ parts of the soundscape.

Tim Howle’s soundscape is minimal yet forms complex relationships with the images across the three channels. At times there is a feeling of ‘walking’ – I hear exaggerated twigs cracking underfoot, the wind, and creaking ropes(?) – and at others, I feel as though I am the camera due to the rawness of the sound of wind, the sound of a camera being manipulated and the movement of the camera – particularly the centre camera. The musical elements that swell and resolve toward the end of the work have a spiritual sensibility, echoing the unknowable vastness of the respective landscape and the sky seen in each channel.

I am also interested in the juxtaposition of the flags with the expanse of the seemingly serene landscape within each shot. At times when the worn and almost transparent flags are serendipitously superimposed over the countryside, thoughts of the climate crisis enter my mind. Can a belief in prayer be reconciled with a belief in science?

The submission has been refined over several years and certainly lives up to its potential to expand ideas of visual music to incorporate notions of the sound walk and the ambient.

The submission is firmly contextualised within an ongoing long-term, iterative practice-based research project. The submission provides clear evidence of the exploration of questions around how artists incorporate notions of soundscape, sound walk and field recordings to extend ideas of what can be considered visual music. The evolution of form from single, to double and now triple-channel video represents innovation in Cope and Howle’s ongoing electroacoustic movie project, not simply because of the number of channels used, but the way in which the phrases of sound and vision interact throughout.

 

PEER REVIEW 2

This is a very strong, atmospheric piece of audio-visual work, which captures the sense of Tibetan belief expressed through the title (‘prayers and mantras are blown by the wind’). In this way, the work in its own right effectively expresses practice-as-research, and the provided statement is useful in anchoring this tacit knowledge further. It seems that the stated aim of ‘extending notions of what constitutes visual music’ is key to this project, as well as treating ‘the sonic and visual … as commensurate partners’. These key aspects of the research would deserve much greater prominence and expansion in the statement, perhaps at the expense of information that do not directly illuminate the exposition of practice as research. These aims seem to be dispersed throughout the statement rather than being systematically unpacked and exposed. Furthermore, it would be really useful to give a sense of context in creative film practice that treats the sonic and visual as commensurate partners, perhaps suggesting how this work differs from some key examples of such practice and what are the unique aspects of the audio-visual approach in comparison to previous practices. The aspect of the work that focuses on ‘new combinations of sound and image’ would deserve more consideration, as it can be argued that while here this effect emerges successfully out of certain visual minimalism (repetitiveness in both the sound and the image), it is also the case that creating new combinations of sound and image is the norm in filmmaking: the vast majority of notable films forge striking or unexpected sound/image combinations – it is perhaps the most prevalent source of ‘originality’ in filmmaking. Therefore, specifying the ways in which new combinations of sound and image are formed here – and how this differs from or coincides with established creative/artistic audio-visual practices – would definitely be beneficial. The context in electroacoustic moviemaking is useful and important but this does not seem to be sufficiently explained and clarified. Likewise, the stated context in fields such as ‘sound walk’ and ‘acoustic ecology’ does not provide any insight into how this work relates to or is positioned in these fields, and a little expansion on this would have been really helpful. Above all, the audio-visual work represents valuable new knowledge in its own right and the statement exposes effectively how the work operates as research. However, while some of the key research aspects, such as the aims/questions, the context in theoretical/artistic fields and evidence of innovation are present in the statement, they do not seem to be sufficiently and systematically exposed. Rather than necessarily extending the length of the written component, the statement could be rebalanced by focusing strictly on the key aims and the essential context of this practice research.

 

RESEARCHER RESPONSE

At the outset of the collaboration, Cope and Howle’s work was recognised by the Computer Music Journal as contributing to ‘a new and nascent medium’ (Terry 2005) being brought about through the engagement of computer music, electroacoustic composition, research, and visual media, engendering in Piché’s (2004) words a ‘new paradigm’ in audio-visual composition and creation. Howle (2007) saw the work engaging in this ‘area opened up by the hybridisation of electronic art forms and software tools’ particularly in relation to computer music composition, noting that much of the work in this field was authored by individual composers, often exploring algorithmic and computer-generated sound-image combinations. Recognising the partnership’s work to be distinct to these generative outputs, ‘on the cusp’ of disciplines, Howle considered the collaboration of a music composer and a film-maker ‘extends acousmatic composition just as the language of film was extended once sound could be incorporated’, in turn extending the exploration of new combinations of sound and image engendered in the field.

The collaboration explored a range of compositional methods, practices and outputs subsequently documented and reflected on at length (see: Cope 2014, Cope and Howle 2018). The notion of composition where sound and image are commensurate has been of significance, neither music video, nor film soundtrack but ‘a third communicative dimension’ (Williams 2003) looking as much to models of musical composition as visual narrative for structure. By taking the notion of ‘reduced listening’ from Pierre Schaeffer (1966; see also Chion 1994, 25-34), we might apply this to video and draw from this the possibility that there is such a thing as “reduced seeing”. In either case, the fact that the material is recorded suggests the possibility of generating correspondence between the lines of content that function in an electroacoustic manner, with the video operating in an acousmatic mode but in reverse’ (Cope and Howle 2018).

Sarva Mangalam! extends this looking to musical models of organisation and composition in working with the visual material beyond acousmatic and electroacoustic practices, and to other influences emergent in sonic arts in recent years. R. Murray Schaeffer (1993) and others’ writing on Soundscape have focused attention on sonic arts practices engaging in a deeper awareness of the sonic environment, field recording, sound walks, acoustic ecologies and the ambient.

Award-winning sound recordist Chris Watson (Cope 2008) talks about his own transition from being an electronic musician to working more widely with field recording and soundtrack work:

Slowly I realised what I was hearing outside of the studio was more interesting than what we were producing inside the studio… I couldn’t conceive or imagine the sort of sound worlds that I could hear by going outside by putting a microphone up and listening through headphones, so I became drawn into that other exterior world of location sounds.

For Cope, Sarva Mangalam! extends visually the investigation of compositional practices the collaboration has explored into territories addressed sonically in acoustic ecologies. Watson’s revelations about soundtrack recording combined with Bill Viola’s ruminations on the video camera as visual microphone provide rich contexts to explore the recording and post-production of visual material shot during extensive travels in south-east Asia and broadens the sonic and visual music contexts the collaboration has explored and arguably the contexts for visual music practice too.

REVISED RESEARCH STATEMENT

Electroacoustic composer Tim Howle and film-maker Nick Cope have been collaborating on a series of visual music films since 2002. Cross-disciplinary and inter-departmental in nature, the work contributes to creative media practice-based research in the academy. Specifically, the collaboration, and this work, contribute to audiovisual/visual music practices and their contexts; video art histories and practice, sonic arts and acousmatic/electroacoustic composition, screen media practices and to audiovisual composition and cross-disciplinary collaboration. Previous works have been selected for conferences, concerts, and screenings internationally; published on DVD and through online audio-visual journals; and resulted in papers, journal articles and a PhD addressing the working practices and research contexts of the collaboration (see: Cope 2012, 2014; Cope and Howle 2005, 2018).

Producing work that explores and examines, both sonically and visually, theories and practices of the acousmatic and electroacoustic led us to describe our collaborative output as ‘electroacoustic moviemaking’ (Howle 2009), the visual element treating camera sourced material in post-production analogously to electroacoustic sonic treatment of microphone gathered sound sources (Cope 2012, 60), ‘if to the microphone we add the lens: what happens to the dislocations?’ (Howle 2009).

Sarva Mangalam! has developed out of previous iterations exploring shots of Tibetan prayer flags accompanied by a score that is influenced by both Cornelius Cardew and ambient musical practices. The work extends a practice research collaboration that seeks to explore notions of what it means to compose with sound and moving image in works where the sonic and visual are treated as commensurate partners. The title of the work is a Sanskrit phrase (‘May all be well!’), which appears on many versions of prayer flags alongside depictions of various symbolic animals, Buddhist deities and mantras. Tibetans believe the prayers and mantras are blown on the wind, spreading goodwill and compassion to the pervading space and all beings wandering therein.

Sarva Mangalam! introduces a third location and image stream to the single and dual-image formative explorations (working title ‘Flags’) that pre-dated this work. Repeating phrases of sound and image are looped in such a way that new combinations of sound and image emerge as the video progresses. The work has found screening outlets at Sound and the Environment and Ambient @40 festivals in recent years indicating an engagement of the work in explorations of both ambient music and music ecologies. The work can be seen to extend notions of what constitutes visual music. Visual music practices look to musical modes of composition in their realisation. Our notion of the electroacoustic movie extends acousmatic music practices into audio-visual composition. Sarva Mangalam! begins to engage with wider notions of ‘the soundscape’ (Schaefer 1993), sound walks, sound-ecologies and field recording which have become widespread in musical academic circles in recent years, and to bring these into the realm of visual music composition. Taking Viola’s analogous view of the video camera as a form of microphone, then visual music composition can be extended to explore video recordings within frameworks opened up by notions of soundscape, sound walk, field recording practices, acoustic ecology, and the ambient.

REFERENCES

Chion, Michel. 1994. Audio-Vision: Sound on Screen. New York: Columbia University Press.

Cope, Nick. 2008. Whispering in the Leaves: An Interview with Chris Watson. Documentary on the work of Sound Recordist and Artist Chris Watson, dir. Nick Cope. 29’41”  https://nickcopefilm.com/2013/10/11/whispering-in-the-leaves/

Cope, Nick. 2012. “Northern Industrial Scratch: The history and contexts of a visual music practice.” PhD diss., University of Sunderland. http://sure.sunderland.ac.uk/3287/

Cope, Nick. 2014. “Electroacoustic Movies: A visual music practice and its contexts” Divergence Press: Issue 2 – Sound. Music. Image.  Centre for Research in New Music, University of Huddersfield.

Cope, Nick and Tim Howle. 2005. Open Circuits video published on DVD in “Visual Music” AV Special, Computer Music Journal, 29 (4) Winter 2005, MIT Press.

Howle, Tim and Nick Cope. 2007. Supporting Statement for submission of Open Circuits to ‘ScreenWork Practice as Research DVD’ in The Journal of Media Practice. http://screenworks.org.uk/archive/volume-1

Cope, Nick and Tim Howle. 2018. “Electroacoustic Moviemaking: A Creative Media Practice Research Collaboration Case Study.” Special Issue: Creative Practice in Filmmaking and Screen Production, Studies in Australasian Cinema. Volume 12, Issue 2-3, pp.116-134. DOI: 10.1080/17503175.2018.1539539

Howle, Tim. 2009. “Making Electroacoustic Movies II.” Paper presentation, Seeing Sound Practice-led International Research Symposium, Bath Spa University, September 19-20.  http://www.seeingsound.co.uk/programme/papers/

Murray Schafer, R. 1993. The Soundscape. Rochester: Destiny Books.

Piché, Jean. 2004. “Interview with Paul Steenhuisen.”  http://www.jeanpiche.com/text.htm

Schaeffer, Pierre. 1966. Traité des Objets Musicaux. ParisEditions du Seuil.

Syring, Marie Luise. (ed.) 1994. Bill Viola: Unseen Images. London: Whitechapel Art Gallery.

Terry, Brett. 2005. “DVD Program Notes -Visual Music Edition” Computer Music Journal 29 (4): 113-122. DOI: 10.1162/014892605775179928

Viola, Bill. 1995. Knocking at an Empty House: writings 1973-1994. London: Thames and Hudson.

Williams, Kevin. 2003. Why I [still] want my MTV: music video and aesthetic communication. New Jersey: Hampton Press.

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