back to: worklist

Christian Scheib:

Static's Music - Noise Inquiries

fundamentals about Peter Ablinger's work

CalArts 1997/1998
edited by Bill Dietz

In the last years the composer Peter Ablinger has focused his artistic work on research in static noise. This lecture gives a survey of his findings so far, the ideas and conceptions that brought static noise to the center of his interest, and of the pieces he’s actually written and/or developed. Ablinger writes music for soloists, ensembles, and orchestra; he makes installations and performance art; he works with electronics and live-electronics.

Peter Ablinger is one of the few artists today who uses noise without any kind of symbolism — not as: a signifier for chaos, for energy, entropy, disorder, or uproar; not for standing up against, being disobedient, destructive; not for everything or for eternity, or for what-have-you — as in all these possible cases of music deliberately involving noise (but for Ablinger, this alone), noise is the case. Peter Ablinger has also come a long way in questioning the nature of sound, time, and space, the components usually thought central to music—and some of his answers have jeopardized or made dubious conventions usually thought irrefutable in music. These insights pertain to repetition and monotony, reduction and redundancy, density and entropy.

A few words on his biography: Peter Ablinger is an Austrian born composer who has lived in Berlin since the early eighties. As a student he played piano in free-jazz groups and studied graphic design. Around 1980: composition studies with Gösta Neuwirth and Roman Haubenstock-Ramati. In this period he writes his first notated pieces: mostly experimental scores that already combine notions such as dense multi-layeredness (via his free-jazz experience?), graphic scores (study of graphic design) and the thematization of the act of writing music or performing music as such.

Many of these pieces exist somewhere between music performance, abstract theater, installation, and performance art. Something he begins exploring in these early years as a composer is what he calls "die Haltung": carriage, in the sense of the quality both of your inner and outer position [posture], where composure and alertness meet: performance attitude. There is, for example, a piece involving an actress trying to find —to impersonate— a position exactly between a private posture and a stage behavior. Or, a piece in which a performer is asked to impersonate "doing nothing", which —as one soon realizes in thinking about this problem— cannot simply be done by doing nothing, as there is a categorical difference between doing nothing and conveying the idea of (or playing the role of) doing nothing. And in later years he develops pieces that further require musicians to behave almost like actors (though - obviously - it should never look like "acting", as it is music, or performance, that requires impersonation of a certain attitude). From the late 1980s, a piece for trombone and twelve tape-decks (La Fleur de Terezín/Monolith I und II): the tape-decks are installed like objects in an exhibition and the trombone player positions himself between them while playing; the tape-decks (among other things) play the sound of footsteps on pebbles—though the trombone player never steps on any. And thus, part of this piece’s subtle tension derives from keeping your (the listener’s) attitude fixed within this minimal yet irritating environment.

Occasionally these notions of performativity are not even mentioned in the score but simply arise while the composer and musician are at work in rehearsal. I recall a performance (2) of another trombone piece, Annahme 2: the trombone part is sparse, full of long pauses and short, intense fragments of music. It’s very difficult to hold any tension in these long intervals and to make these short outbursts sound justified; so, while rehearsing, Peter Ablinger suggested to the trombone player that he keep a certain idea in his mind throughout the piece: imagine driving a car over a long, long curve, a curve as long as the piece (about fifteen minutes), and you’re driving almost too fast to keep the car on the road—you’re constantly in danger of loosing ground—so you actually have to go on and on in order not to loose ground, to make it through the curve. And with this, the trombone player— the ingenious Roland Dahinden—played a performance of the piece that made everybody in the audience shiver, though nobody could tell exactly what it was that was almost frightening. It couldn’t have just been those few outbursts of trombone-sound in a fifteen minute long piece. It was the combination of these sounds, the long non-sounding intervals between them, and, especially, the attitude the player conveyed while performing: this notion of being on the verge of taking off, of being ceaselessly threatened.

Peter Ablinger also loves to write, make notes, draw sketches, scribble down drafts, & write conception-books. Though these are not intended to be read by any public, he occasionally publishes a text or an essay. In a way his texts are crucial—or at least helpful—for understanding his music because his work as a composer is sometimes not so much about putting together sounds or notes—com ponere—but much more about formulating questions (3), about being precise enough in your ideas that a second step results in music. But in his texts you won’t always find something obviously referring to music: there are, for example, passages on (similar to the above mentioned scenario) driving your car on the highway at night from one city to the next, or reflections on European paintings as categorically opposed to Eastern icons. A reason for this is that Ablinger is very much concerned with perception as such, with our ways of experiencing the world: How do we construct information out of totality? Which strategies do we apply for notifying, understanding, remembering, forgetting? But as his thinking is nevertheless always closely related to music, many of the texts, no matter what they seem to be about, deal with time-related processes: successive and simultaneous experience, repetition and variation, memory and forgetting. In his music you will find a variety of strategies for provoking seemingly paradoxical experiences, as well as either overly, impossibly demanding procedures, or almost unnoticeably simple ones (4). He constructs situations in which any familiar way of listening is jeopardized: an irritation that is supposed to initiate new experience. The irony in this statement is obviously not only in the idea that the drama of a second pitch is such that one could write an opera with it, but that in a strange way Ablinger's instrumental pieces are already music theater pieces.

Anfangen (:Aufhören) for solo violin in viola-tuning is a twenty minute long piece. The main theme of the piece, at least the layer of the piece one might recognize as its main one, is a single tone played by the viola player with a sharp attack. This tone appears again and again, played as though there was never another before it. It’s the paradox of a constant beginning: that each of these repeated tones be played with the energy and surprise of the aggressive opener of a piece. You may have seen the famous Akira Kurosawa film "The Seven Samurai". Before the night of the showdown one of the samurai is doing his exercises: again and again—and exclusively—pulling his sword from its hilt, just this one (opening) movement. He makes no successive stroke, the idea being that the first pull is, in any case, at the same time the last one. So again and again he makes this one initial movement, unsheathing his sword. It’s always the same and of course it’s not the same even twice.

This is exactly the idea of these, so-to-speak, repeated tones in Anfangen (:Aufhören). And obviously—once again—the performance of this piece requires much more than being able to play an instrument the way one is taught a music-academy. Yet it does not require acting either—instead, it is exactly this idea of attitude or pose or carriage that makes the piece conveyable to an audience. And it’s in this sense that some of Ablinger's pieces are almost theatrical. Anfangen (: Aufhören) combines the idea of the onenote-piece with the importance of ‘attitude’ and— as another element we have yet to talk about—a whole variety of small, mostly low-volume, dirty-sounding, fast, irregular, tissue-like sounds—virtuosically played, though they sound almost unintentional. This web of sounds reveals a few of the features we will come across again in the later static noise pieces.

Although it might seem we have not been dealing with noise or static noise so far, the boundary between varying one-note repetitions and all-note static entropy is perhaps only apparent. After all, repeating—in the Ablinger or Samurai sense of it—means focusing and differentiating. That means: redundancy produces information. And from here, it is not a long way to entropic noise as information in Shannon's sense.

It was Arnold Schönberg who stated that variation is necessarily a form of repetition as at least something must return between variation and variation. And he thus shifted his attention from the changing aspect of music to the continuous, the repeated. Ablinger's attitude is something like the hidden, reverse secret of the same story: that each repetition is also variation, that there is necessarily always something changing (5)—that, in other words: repetition does not exist except as an abstraction.

But, by repeating, Ablinger focuses our attention as listeners not so much on the fact that something is repeated, not even so much on the fact that in repetition there is always change, but on the effect of something like a time magnifying glass. You are forced to look at this one moment again and again, this one moment when the viola player "begins" his piece anew. Ablinger tries to problematize your assumption that time passes as a linear phenomenon. Time is thrown out of itself. Linearity is no longer the guiding temporal concept (just as, for Ablinger, linear narrative has also never been). His music is static even when it constantly attacks (or ‘exercises’ the attack). Even in this reduction of Anfangen (:Aufhören) there are a huge variety of sound-events taking place: from the never really "repeated" single note to those hundreds of small intended/unintended events in the background. The music is constantly changing: it moves like the psychic process of someone’s listening to something that really is (for example, mechanically) repeated: for even in this case, perception itself would change the repeated event. And this process is meticulously composed, transformed into music by the whole of the piece. One could say that this is one of the stories the piece tells: of the annoyance, the anger, the patience, the not-giving-up, etc., of a person listening to something repeated again and again for a very long time. A vast variety of sounds that at the same time really are reduced to almost one pitch. Static and lively at the same time. (And it can be a really annoying piece; one that really drives you crazy if you don’t find a way of playing with your perception or if you’re waiting to be served something that doesn’t require your perception to work—to move beyond the familiar.)

Peter Ablinger's music is about perception and it is about sound as a phenomenon of time and space (though it will turn out later in this essay that space might be a phenomenon of sound). Music is a time-related process, so we deal with memory and forgetting, with repetition and variation, and—this is another step in the same direction—with successive and simultaneous experiences. Writing pieces reduced almost to a single pitch did not only occur parallel to Ablinger's development of pieces approaching white noise, there are even pieces suggesting that these two things are not at all contradictory. The ensemble piece Ohne Titel für 14 Instrumentalisten is almost exclusively constructed with or around one pitch, but with the totality of those already mentioned other small, mostly low-volume, dirty-sounding, fast played, irregular, tissue-like sounds that are also constantly played by all fourteen musicians, there evolves a hardly audible, yet nevertheless distinct and dense web of static noise.

Ablinger’s next piece, for a small orchestra of almost thirty musicians, Der Regen, das Glas, das Lachen [rain, glass and laughter] —and Ablinger must forgive me for this abridged way of putting it— eliminates the one-note layer of so many previous pieces for the benefit of six succeeding (and simultaneous) segments, each of a flickering, nervous, low-volume, high-energy texture. Static noise appears in the disguise of a traditional orchestration. Obviously however, this static noise is not white noise, but differently colored noise, with each segment predominantely devoted to one shade—though within each segment, due to the composite instrumental activity, the texture, and by that I mean the color, is constantly changing. Immediately after this piece was composed, Ablinger went to audio-studios to begin actual research on static noise.

But before we go into that I want to refer to one more piece of Ablinger's composed in the period we’re now talking about, the early nineties, and this one for three pianos. The line of thought that eventually lead Ablinger to static noise in its orchestrated form was pointed to by pieces such as this, Ablinger’s Grisailles. In this piece, one repeated pitch spread over all the octaves of three grand pianos functions as a means of redundancy dependent focusing, whereas all the other softly played sounds and pitches function as something like the illumination of the piece. And what I mean with this "illumination" metaphor, the color of not just one tone, but of whole processes, will reappear in our discussion of static noise, its colors, and about transferring the time of something linear into something either omnipresent, or static, or spherical: that, for example, as soon as you give up the discrete steps of a melody unfolding in linear time, all the information held in these succeeding tones reappears, remains, as the characteristic(s) of a particular colored noise. But we’ll come back to this when we talk about vertical and horizontal layering of sounds.

The piece Grisailles takes its name from a medieval technique of coloring glass windows. Opposed to the famous multi-colored windows of Gothic churches, this style is one based exclusively on working with shades of gray. These windows from the early Middle Ages were always rare and there are few left today. The theological or perhaps philosophical impetus for these gray shaded windows was not to vividly tell stories or praise the omnipotence of god via instantly impressive color-effects (as the familiar multicolored windows were supposed to do), but instead to refer, to suggest a more subtle concept of god as something inexplicable, as the Mystery. This dichotomy resembles in part Immanuel Kant's differentiation of the beautiful and the sublime, the colored windows as the beautiful, the gray shaded as the ungraspable sublime. And what made these gray shaded windows so appealing—maybe more to medieval theorists than to churchgoers— was that they were said to produce no shadows: that whatever passed into this gentle gray light left no traces on the floor. That is sublime. And so in this piece for three pianos, the medieval notion of sublime traceless shades of gray is transferred into a notion of static noise articulated on pianos— that is, gently dipping these repeated notes into the sublime light of a shimmering, nervous, low-volume, high-energy sound texture —as John Cage said when reflecting on the handling of the boundlessness of silence and noise, "Instruments that leave no traces."

Some time after Der Regen, das Glas, das Lachen, Peter Ablinger decided to take the constantly occurring references to static noise aroused by his pieces seriously and to finally do some research. (Again: "Until 1994 I wrote music for instruments and voices exclusively. A basic tendency of these pieces is heading towards increasing density, towards static noise. (I mean static noise, not noises. This to me is exactly the opposite.)") In various electronic studios (TU Berlin, Experimentalstudio Freiburg, Peter Böhm, MHS Graz) Ablinger began to examine the possibility of manipulating white noise. At first, this seems meaningless as white noise is said be the composite of all frequencies—and many technicians therefore expressed their skepticism about his research. Yet Ablinger soon found what he was looking for. The decisive element in his experiments turned out to be space, or rather, specific location. In one of his experiments white noise is played in a room via two loudspeakers. With the help of filters this white noise is exactly divided into two complementary parts over and over again, each part projected by one loudspeaker. The sum of the two loudspeakers is always white noise, no matter what division you choose. Changing from one division to the next therefore does not change the extant frequency spectrum, it is white noise again and again. Nevertheless one is always able to hear decisive differences from a given division to the next—which is exactly what all the technicians had denied. And which suggests that the concept of white noise is something far less ‘absolute’ than the common dogmatic authority holds. "Experiencing the change from one partitioning of white noise to another gives one the sensation that at the moment of change the walls slightly widen and at the same time the ceiling moves down a little bit. Everything in the space changes with every change. The changes are experienced more as body-related phenomenon than acoustic ones, the sound-total after all remains the same."

After these experiments Peter Ablinger began working on his series Weiss/Weisslich. Some of which, as works, are deliberately or even provocatively simple arrangements for producing or perceiving static noise; others, fully developed works. Among the 22 written up to 1996 are the following:

Weiss/Weisslich 6: for twelve tape-decks divided six on one side, six on the other side of a row; through which a sound is recorded and played and recorded and played and so on until colored static noise itself is the result.
Weiss/Weisslich 7: a technical device called a noise-receiver is used to receive noise.
Weiss/Weisslich 8: a shell is used for a receiving noise.
Weiss/Weisslich 12: recorded on DAT are the hardly audible, humming ground noises of empty, quiet churches.
Weiss/Weisslich 13: a vinyl record, especially produced, with silence on it; to be played at various speeds. (Maybe DJ Spooky owns a few of these.)
Weiss/Weisslich 15: on five CDs are five differently colored static noises to be played at low volume in five adjacent rooms. Part one: the experience of these five rooms; part two: the experience of the transition from one room to another.
Weiss/Weisslich 18, the noise of: birch, mountain-ash, ash, alder, willow, whitethorn, oak; evergreen oak, hazel, wine, ivy, sloe, elder; fir, broom, heather, aspen, yew.
Weiss/Weisslich 22: the condensed symphonies of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Bruckner, Mahler

Peter Ablinger has approached his work with static noise via his earlier and continuing occupation with questioning assumptions of occidental music making—such as: music’s unfolding linearly in time, the idea that music is a phenomenon more directly related to and dependent on time than to or on space, that music is a matter of a few distinct and discrete parameters such as pitch, amplitude, color, duration, etc., and that music is a semantic system similar to language. Instead, in his work over the years Ablinger has come closer and closer to a notion of undivided totality. As a result of his unyielding questioning it turned out that the embracing of noise instead of splicing it up was the phenomenon that most satisfied his artistic needs—providing a spherical instead of linear paradigm of listening.

However, we should keep in mind that Ablinger never romantically wished to or looked for ways to grasp totality as such. On the contrary, Ablinger simply arrived at his states of aggregated density that almost tip over into static noise on his way. As we have seen or heard from his texts, he began to work with actual white noise only after he had deconstructed it into complementary parts that were renderable independently when put together again. He demystified white noise as an absolute or synonym for the absolute and only from that point on began his direct use of static noise (even in a few apparently mystical constellations). It is the selection out of totality from totality that makes totality palpable and Ablinger's unique mode of selecting from (the Debussyan) totality is to apply procedures of redundancy, repetition, and condensation.

Weiss/Weisslich 15 was originally planned for a gallery space. The gallery had five adjacent rooms with doors from one to the next. Ablinger produced five differently colored noises in an electronic studio based on the five German vowels a-e-i-o-u. These static noises were played in the five rooms, one in each, at such a low volume that while in a given room one might not notice any additional sound, but as soon as you would walk from one room to the next, you would notice a strange difference, so subtle that at first it wasn’t clear if it was a change due to temperature, light, sound, walls, or material. Only after walking from one room to the next again and again was it obvious that the slight change in a room's atmosphere was dependent on the artificial adjustment of a room’s ground noise. This is a work that very obviously and very subtly plays upon our perception procedures. The rooms seemed almost to be painted in slightly different colors.

Weiss/Weisslich 22 was conceived and produced in an electronic studio as well. About six to eight hours of symphonic music by each of the chosen composers were recorded onto hard-disc: a selection of symphonies by Haydn and Mozart, as well as all symphonies of Beethoven, Bruckner, Schubert and Mahler. As we’re already aware, Ablinger had been looking for a method of transforming the linear experience of time into a momentary or perhaps aimless/formless, static one. He and the technicians finally found a way of condensing the stored information in a way that made the linear time-line tip over into a vertical column of condensed information. They looped and folded the music’s horizontal time line into a vertical sound column exactly forty seconds wide. Instead of a few hours of Beethoven in a straight line, Ablinger turns it around on top of itself at 90 degrees into a 40 second sound column. And though it seems that one could call this compression, this word neither describes the idea behind it nor does it—as Ablinger and the technicians assured me— accurately describe what the software-program they designed actually does. Peter Ablinger has decided to use the term condensation. One of the ideas being: not to loose any bit of information - technically as well as philosophically. (On the contrary...: Make available all the information of 150 years of European symphonic tradition in an all-at-once-audible hit-single time-span of four minutes.) Of course the information—about 45 hours of symphonic music—in this density turns into noise. But noise is information now—and even in a rather precise way. What this means is that for those who know the symphonic tradition, it will be surprisingly unsurprising which composer's noise sounds which way.

The traditional foreground/background conception, even a signalto- noise ratio conception cannot be applied to a work such as this. Noise is not the enemy of information, it is by its coloredness, by its texture, by the change from one texture to the next one, the enabler of information.

After Weiss/Weisslich was underway, Peter Ablinger continued making works for instruments with electronics in a series called IEAOV, Instrumente und ElektroAkustisch Ortsbezogene Verdichtung [Instrumental and ElectroAcoustic site-specific condensation]. This title tries to define exactly what it labels: an instrument (or instruments) plays a few notes; a computer immediately transforms these notes in a similar way that the symphonies have been treated; the instrument keeps playing; the condensed, "timeless", colored static noise and the sound of the instrument begin subtly to interact. The instrument may leave an imprint on the noise or the noise may overlay the instrument, but more interesting are those phenomenon of the static noise (derived from the instrument) that actually reinforce certain instrumental sounds. A fabric arises, constantly moving and aimless, still. And a few characteristics of pieces discussed earlier are combined: the tipping over of time into space (Weiss/Weisslich 22 and others), and the iridescent shifting of color as a result of condensed totality (Grisailles and others).

"Site-specific" is in the title because not only is the site of the performance a decisive factor in how the piece will evolve, but also the actual space itself is defined by the static produced in it—as we know from the experiments with partitioned white noise. And finally, “condensation” describes the philosophical/technical procedure. The composer Peter Ablinger is a mystic of enlightenment. His litanies and evocations aim at re-cognition and perception; his static noise aims at perception and information; and their transgression into reality is based on the impossibility of total perception. Peter Ablinger's music displays a ‘being intermediate’, a being between utopian everything and a real totality. His music does not engage the illusory, abstract everything of white noise, silence, space and time, but rather, engages the realistic everything of colored static noise, being silent, site and moment.

(1) Ablinger, Peter: IEAOV Instrumente und ElektroAkustisch Ortsbezogene Verdichtung. Berlin 1997.
(2) Vienna, Societe de l'art acoustique, Odeon, 1989 (?)
(3) Sanio, Sabine: Portrait Peter Ablinger. Berlin 1997.
(4) Sanio, Sabine: Portrait Peter Ablinger. Berlin 1997.
(5) Sanio, Sabine: Portrait Peter Ablinger. Berlin 1997.
(6) Ablinger, Peter: IEAOV Instrumente und ElektroAkustisch Ortsbezogene Verdichtung. Berlin 1997.
(7) Ablinger, Peter: IEAOV Instrumente und ElektroAkustisch Ortsbezogene Verdichtung. Berlin 1997.
(8) Ablinger, Peter: IEAOV Instrumente und ElektroAkustisch Ortsbezogene Verdichtung. Berlin 1997.
(9) Sanio, Sabine: Portrait Peter Ablinger. Berlin 1997.

back to: worklist

impressum \ this page was created by Aljoscha Hofmann \  last edited 18.08.2002 CET