brettworks

thinking through music, sound and culture

Category: mimesis

On David Esterly’s “The Lost Carving”

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“On go the hands.” – David Esterly

In his book The Lost Carving, David Esterly describes in luminous detail his experiences in the art of decorative wood carving. In the mid-1980s, Esterly, a self-taught carver, worked on a year-long restoration project at Hampton Court Palace, a royal estate in England, to repair and re-carve some decorative carvings by Grinling Gibbons (1648-1721) that had been damaged in a fire. Gibbons is widely considered England’s most skilled wood sculptor and carver, famous for his elaborately filigreed reliefs of flowers carved in limewood.

Esterly kept detailed journals of his restoration work at Hampton Court, and The Lost Carving is a memoir about this experience and how it led the author to a deeper understanding of Gibbons’ techniques and artistry. Part craftsman, part naturalist, part artist, part writer, part art historian, and part phenomenologist, Esterly effortlessly assumes many interpretive stances and brings together a dizzying array of thematic strands in a literary way to shape a story that itself seems carved, so deliberate are its threads. His writing is a deep pleasure to read.

What interests me most in The Lost Carving are its finely wrought descriptions of what it feels like to carve and the complex decision-making in the activity “where the body hypnotizes the mind and vice versa.” There is a lot here about the two-way relationship between action and theory–between doing something and simultaneously asking questions about that doing. The work requires tools and know-how and also creativity and continuous problem-solving–the results of which only appear over time. As Esterly observes simply about this ongoing learning process: “The quality of my errors improved.”

In some ways, wood itself is the star of this book. It’s wood’s materiality, after all, that guides the author in his pursuits and keeps him coming back to keep improving his craft. “The wood is teaching you about itself, configuring your mind and muscles to the tasks required of them (…) The wood instructs the tool in its motions.” The complexities of the wood requires the carver to work “from the bottom up, not the top down.”

I also appreciated how Esterly gets at the underside of what makes compelling sculpture work. Literally speaking, “What you don’t see influences what you see” he says. And a “crucial part of the appearance of an object is the point at which it disappears from the observer’s view.” Reading as I usually do with musical things in mind, I thought about all those hidden parts of musical practice that we don’t necessarily hear per se, but whose presence can be felt by an attuned listener. After all, both music and sculpture are three-dimensional–each with a depth that’s there even if you don’t think you hear it or see it.

In sum, Esterly shows that it is possible to both practice a craft and write seriously and compellingly about it, without one activity compromising the other. The author went looking for Gibbons and found something bigger–the craft of carving itself. “The golden key to the carving was the carving” he tells us. “Gibbons wasn’t the giant whose shoulder I was riding on. The giant was the act of carving, the profession itself: the making of a carving, the making of anything. Making itself.”

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On Sounds And Humor

It took all of three minutes, but the guy on the subway was making all kinds sounds with his voice and as I listened to him I couldn’t stop giggling.

Verbal Ace is his name and he’s a vocal artist, a human beatboxer, a singer, a sound effects machine, and mimic extraordinaire. Armed with just a microphone and a small battery-powered amplifier slung over his shoulder, he performs a stand up sonic comedy, leading his captive listeners on a journey through his strange audiophonic obsessions.

Ace’s performance begins with a brief personal introduction and then a throwback to “Axel F”, the theme song to the 1980s movie Beverly Hills Cop. Composed by Harold Faltermeyer, this synth- and drum machine-driven instrumental with its infectious (and cheesy) lead hook used to obsess me to no end. Here’s the original video for the song.

As I hear “Axel F” I smile while frantically searching for the audio recorder app on my phone.

Ace’s “Axel F” soon goes into remix mode, the drums morphing into turntable scratches interspersed with outsized shout-out interjections to–curiously enough–Sponge Bob Squarepants.

Ace does sound effects too: crickets and an alarm clock to start with and then onto the sounds of the recorded voice announcements heard on the subway. Ace does the woman’s and the man’s voices perfectly.

Now I’m laughing as I check the sound levels on my recording. Actually, there are no sound levels to check! It’s just that I can’t bring myself to look up at this unexpected source of audio humor so I pretend to be busy.

Ace (in the booming and chirpy male announcer’s voice): “The next train will arrive in one day.” And then this: “Thank you for riding the MTA–as if you had any choice in the matter.”

As the train makes its stops, Ace pulls out more tricks to pull in his audience. He interacts with the train’s sounds in real-time–imitating, for instance, the two-tone chime of the doors opening and closing to the point that I’m note sure which sound is the real one.

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What makes me laugh is the musicality of Ace’s vocal mimicry. It’s one thing to have an ear for something, and most of us have very excellent ears in the sense that we can recognize the exact sounds of those male and female subway announcers’ voices after hearing them even only once. But few of us can build on our ability to recognize a sound’s distinctive characteristics and then verbally reproduce that sound ourselves. I wouldn’t even know how to begin doing a vocal impression of an alarm clock or a cricket. I know the sounds well but can’t produce them.

Ace also makes me laugh because of his ability to transcend what for most of us are limits to what our voices can do. Our voices are our primary audio stamp, our distinctive timbral profile that completes our physical presence. But Ace’s vocal pyrotechnics suggest, Gumby-like, a more fungible timbral essence; in fact, he seems to become whatever it is he imitates. I laugh because ultimately I find Ace’s uncanny way with sound a little unsettling. Here I am assuming that each of us is has a settled and fixed sonic identity while Ace demonstrates just the opposite.

Here is a video clip someone posted on YouTube of Ace doing essentially the same routine as the one I heard:

On Imitation, Oral Tradition And Pleasure: Nicki Minaj’s Super Bass Travels

That self-organizing living force is what we’re having to ride. What we’re doing with the web is making a very large-scale global organism that in a few decades or so we will be able to identify as an organism in every sense of the word.
– Kevin Kelly on the Technium

One of the most watched videos on YouTube right now is that of an eight-year old English girl named Sophia Grace Brownlee doing a musical impression of the song “Super Bass” by Trinidadian-American rapper and singer Nicki Minaj. Here is Minaj’s video for “Super Bass” (which has been viewed an astonishing 183 million times):

It’s understandable that Minaj’s video has been watched by so many people. The song hits all the right pop notes–musical and otherwise: infectious rapping alternating with sung melodic hook, an upbeat, 120-126 bpm tempo, a beat that switches from a half time feel on the verses to a full-steam ahead, four-on-the-floor feel on the choruses (making the song perfect for remixing), a simple four chord harmonic structure, and a video that telegraphs desire through its depiction of lots of pretty bodies.

Now here is Brownlee’s version (viewed an impressive 20 million times):

Brownlee’s clip has been watched so much because she’s such an exuberant and charismatic performer who uncannily gets the details of Minaj’s lyrics and phrasing just right.

But what I find fascinating about Brownlee’s take on “Super Bass”, though, is how well it demonstrates the ability of music to spread virus-like from one host to another, transcending differences of place, age and ethnicity to keep reproducing itself through oral tradition. Indeed, Brownlee performs Minaj’s song as if in an exuberant trance–like she can’t help the fact that she’s the new host for this musical virus.

And while music scholars today agree that music is neither a language nor a universal language that transcends boundaries of culture, the online ecosystem and global culture repository that is YouTube suggests that it is nevertheless still a powerful contagion of pleasure.

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