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Perceptual fundamentals

Stephen Whittington

In Metaphors of Vision, Stan Brakhage asked “how many colours are there in a field of grass to the crawling baby unaware of ‘Green’?” Alex Carpenter’s music asks a similar question about sound. Can we, even for moment, recapture the primal, unconditioned experience of the child? If we (reluctantly) agree with Brakhage that “one can never go back, even in the imagination,” then we must go forward in pursuit of knowledge, of perception in its deepest and most fundamental sense.

The physical impact of Alex Carpenter’s music, heard in a small gallery at high levels of amplification, is so forceful that it focuses immediate attention on the physical sensation and might lead to the conclusion that there is nothing more to it than that.

But Carpenter’s art—with music now increasingly and inseparably linked to video—is also a philosophical investigation into the nature of sound and our perception of it. There are some obvious precedents, the most notable being La Monte Young. Born in the turmoil of the 60s, Young’s work initially seemed to be anarchic, fuelled by drugs and the hippie ethos. His association with the Fluxus movement did little to dispel this impression, as Fluxus was often perceived as flippant and flaky, an impression that the artists did little to correct and at times deliberately and mischievously encouraged. But a key element of the movement was what Henry Flint called ‘concept art’, art that is about ideas, often articulated through seemingly insoluble paradoxes. Young created some of the most notable and philosophically challenging works of concept art, works that revealed a mind which (contrary to superficial impressions) possessed daunting self-discipline. That quality has determined the trajectory of Young’s art ever since, with the side effect of making his work resolutely non-commercial and almost inaccessible.

Carpenter’s music has some affinities with Young’s, while his use of music and video brings to mind Phill Niblock. That broadly puts him under the stylistic rubric of Minimalism, a description that seems as inadequate to describe his work as it does Young’s 7-hour long Well-Tuned Piano. Carpenter wants to evoke a specific response in the listener, an experience of Sound (the capital is deliberate)—sound in and of itself, independent of cultural conditioning, sound as experienced by the child who does not yet know what ‘sound’ is. Is such an experience possible? It is not simply (not that there is anything simple about it) a physical sensation, nor is it an emotional experience (which 19th century attitudes, still dominant in music today, would have us believe is the primary purpose of art). Paradoxically it can only be experienced—if at all—through physical sensation, mediated by culturally loaded artefacts such as guitars, synthesisers and PA systems, and moreover—in this performance—in an art gallery, albeit an ‘alternative’ gallery. If it must be concluded that Carpenter’s project contains contradictions, that is exactly what makes it so interesting.

Featureless landscapes rush past on left and right walls, like riding in a very fast train through the outback, while multiple keyboards, guitar and samples produce a dense, textured wall of sound. The music (Chord from Second Delphic Hymn) is one extended chord with a rich spectrum of high harmonics. Turning one’s head from side to side, or cupping the ears in various ways, reveals more of the structure of the chord in all its jangling, pulsating glory. Beyond the micro-variations in the sound, the music is essentially static. Like the video projection that hurtles at breakneck speed while the landscape scarcely changes, the overall impression is of motion arrested. The Futurists’ worship of speed has been turned on its head; rather than rushing forward into a glorious technological future, this high speed ride takes you to exactly where you are. If this is a philosophical investigation, it is pre-Socratic; at one level, following Heraclitus, everything is in a state of flux, but Parmenides steps in to retort that nothing moves. (There might be Zen resolution to Carpenter’s paradox: according to Hui-Neng, ‘Mind is moving’.)

In a more relaxed mode, a video of slowly turning dancers is curiously compelling. Their circular movements are yet another form of arrested motion, while the lighting and gentle music bathe them in a glowing aura. What appear to be coffee grains slowly being washed away by water form the material for Excavation Pattern 3. The gradual erosion produces constant change, yet in the end no real change. High energy music returns with Emerging like an Infant from the House of Truth, in which furiously repeated notes on keyboards—recalling Guy Klucevsek’s Oscillation series for accordion or the ‘clouds’ of La Monte Young’s Well-Tuned Piano—with the addition of guitars and saxes, assault the ears with frightening intensity. Like most of Carpenter’s work, there is constant change (and, in this case, an extremely active micro-texture) without forward motion.

With an increasingly assured use of video, Alex Carpenter’s work continues to grow in depth and interest. His recently released DVD, Studies in Dynamic Photography (Vanished Records VAN20504), makes his work available to a wider audience.

Alex Carpenter, Music of Transparent Means, De La Catessen Gallery, Adelaide, August 7-8

RealTime issue #69 Oct-Nov 2005 pg. 43

© Stephen Whittington; for permission to reproduce apply to

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