I say "the last couple of years", but really this goes way back. I remember an embarrassing misunderstanding in music class at school. I must've been eight or nine. The teacher played a piece of music and asked "What does this remind you of?" I put up my hand and said "A lake!" Well, that wasn't the kind of answer the teacher wanted; she meant, does it remind you of Beethoven, or a hymn, or the national anthem? For me, though, the important thing was that the music made a landscape in my head. It created space.
I think most people experience sound this way. It's much more evocative than movies, because you have to do some of the work yourself, bring your personal experience to the production. Radio is better than TV because "the scenery is better". Of course, the person making the sound has to relinquish some control and allow the listener to insert a personal landscape filled with private associations and memories. It's powerful, but out of control. Language can specify spaces more precisely, but what it gains in detail it loses in openness. As a teenager I immersed myself in David Bowie albums, seeing them as fantastic spaces, little planets made of words and music. The great thing was that because the space these records allowed me to create was at least 50% my own work, I could continue to occupy it when I started to make my own albums. Taking control of these created worlds, I could help people to create spaces in their minds just as David Bowie had helped me to.
Recently, I've moved beyond traditional singer-songwriter records into projects which play with this idea of sound producing space. This started in earnest in 2000, when I staged an exhibition at LFL Gallery in New York. Called Folktronia, the show was an extension of my 2001 album Folktronic. There were hay bales, teepees, and a video-projected walkthrough of a forested Appalachian landscape. There were birdcalls and donkey cries and people's voices. I was in residence in the gallery the whole time, making up folk tales and recording vistors singing their interpretations of the songs they heard in the teepees.
Earlier this year I was artist in residence at Future University, Hokkaido, experimenting with what R. Murray Schafer calls "schizophonia" (the splitting of sounds from their natural environments). I'd make recordings of pure sound in one location and play them back in another, imposing a layer of virtual sound on an environment already filled with its own real sounds. This very simple method allowed people to produce unexpected and dreamlike landscapes in their imagination. Standing at the back door of the university, for instance, smoking while they surveyed a snowy landscape of mountains and sea, people would be listening to the summer sounds of Korean insects, creating hybrid winter-summer landscapes of personal associations in their minds.
For I'll Speak, You Sing, the 2005 show at Zach Feuer Gallery, I want to do something slightly different. My idea relates to two projects, the Summerisle record I made with Anne Laplantine in 2003 and later turned into The Summerisle Horspiel (now hosted on audio art site ubuweb), and a sound project Vito Acconci made in 2001, The Bristol Project (also hosted by ubuweb). My Summerisle Horspiel created an imaginary Hebridean island somewhat related to the one in cult horror film The Wicker Man. Acconci's Bristol Project is a hypnotic spoken walkthrough of a futuristic world which contains many of the buildings Acconci has made with his architectural practise, Acconci Studio. I've listened to this amazing piece dozens of times, and see it almost as establishing a new genre: the sonic walkthrough. But unlike a CAD software walkthrough, these sounds evoke very personal landscapes in the mind of each listener.
This is the kind of "space-producing" narrative I hope to be improvising in real time for five hours a day during the run of I'll Speak, You Sing in New York this summer. It'll involve a double collaboration: with Mai Ueda, who'll place her song-objects in my narrated landscapes, but also with the visitors to the gallery. My main relationship, though, will be with Mai. She'll be an unknown, slightly risky recipient for these spoken spaces: a non-English speaker, a woman, a Japanese person, another performer. Mai and I have not yet met at this point, and we're planning this intimate three week experience as a sort of "Platonic Love": an unpredictable encounter in a space that we both share and create.