Archive(s): Introduction

Introduction by Matt Wright
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How can the notion of the archive be helpful when considering the plethora of contemporary sonic practices? As sound so deftly evades capture and merely leaves behind its traces (through notation, through recording, through embodied instrumental knowledge), can looking at fluid concepts of storage, retrieval and renewal be helpful for explaining artistic work?

Starting this intro on the eve of the US election in 2020 and writing during the counting process, I’m wary of the futility of writing at a time when the (post) truth of the written word seems so multiple, the potential for misinformation so ripe. I’m immediately straying into the thorny issue of truth because traditionally we look to archives as preserving the thoughts, the memories of others, the ‘truth’ of what those thoughts were, what those people did, and in the case of music and sound, how those musicians, scores, instruments, concerts or events might have sounded. However, if in contemporary sonic practice the archive is not fixed, or exists in multiples, if it needs specialist technique, cultural sensitivity and linguistic nuance to access it (or indeed it may not even claim to be an archive in the strictest sense), we move towards an intriguing position of risk: the risk that the codified, archived truths we associate with music and sound are not absolute, but open to new questions, new fluidities. The questions that seem to underpin this first issue in the Echo series are themselves built on this dialogue between fixity and fluidity: What is a musical archive in the 21st century? What form does it take? How do we access it? What is it for? Who is it for?

On this first question, musical notation might seem the most conventional place to start when discussing the musical archive. However, Lauren Redhead and Daniela Fantechi consider notation from multiple perspectives, showing how the fixity of the stave collapses when recontextualised via subtle microphone placement or when graphic scores suggest labyrinthine routes through multiple media. Andy Birtwistle reminds us of the recording medium (another key trope in the sonic archive) as ripe for reinterpretation through plunderphonic technique and Mariam Rezaei, Evan Parker and myself consider how recordings may themselves become dnyamic material for improvisation. How might the musical instrument itself be considered an archive? Tom Jackson considers the ergonomics of instrumental design and how it lurks as a catalytic net of references behind any notion of ‘free’ improvisation. Nguyễn Thanh Thủy shows us how instrumental design and its resultant techniques and repertoires are implicit in the archiving of gender norms in Vietnamese music, and how her work exposes fissures and dynamic points of friction between the archive and the lived experience. What happens when the archive is unstable? Nic Collins and Wolfgang Ernst consider electronic circuits as dynamic archives open for sonic navigation, Collins discussing two works that involve non-linear path-making from node to node, whilst Ernst considers a similar exploration from a conceptual perspective.

This first issue of Echo modestly focusses on the work of 10 practitioner-theorists, each of whom work with the artistic and conceptual boundaries of the musical/sonic archive and whose art making proposes that we trespass beyond those boundaries. The issue is conceived as web-based and therefore represents a fluid experience via artistic statements, interviews and theoretical articles, interspersed with audio and video examples. Within some entries the reader / listener is encouraged to find multiple routes through the texts and media, and you are encouraged to navigate through the entire issue as you wish, etching your own path.

My many thanks to all the contributors and my colleagues at the Orpheus Institute for their tireless support and patience with me in bringing this together.


20 November 2020
Review status
Editorial review

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