Decontextualisation, Disintegration and Repurposing

Aled Smith

In summer 2019, Jason Alder (a clarinettist specialising in bass/contrabass variants of the instrument) and I collaborated on a new work: vus (variant of unknown significance) for Leblanc “paperclip” contrabass clarinet and analogue electronics. Working on this project raised questions about how multiple identities and perspectives can be forcibly derived from a singular source without shifting too far outside of its original material form.

The materials I work with are often saturated, noisy and violent, because they are difficult to experience and because there’s something attractive, even paradoxically concrete about a material whose nature is unpredictable and chaotic. To me, traditional approaches often seem too close to rigourist, oppressive, institutionalised systems and are indicative of fearful intolerance for difference and individuality. I find it necessary to continually evade artistic stagnation and not to rest in one fixed state of working. I prefer to offer the performer a “collaborative” space by relinquishing control over certain elements, allowing them to breathe in the material in their own way.

Decontextualisation, disintegration and repurposing are all keywords for me in the creative process. I am currently exploring methods of denying the performer direct physical contact with their instrument, whilst still being able to produce sounds. For this project, it was not possible to practically dislocate the instrument and performer, so instead, I wanted to think about alternative ways of creating a sense of distance and disconnection through other means. After reflecting on this issue for some time, I concluded that I could make an effective divide by using several guitar pedals which could both play back material and process it live (in real-time). Because of the way the pedals are used, they take on a collective characteristic, almost like a second instrument, rather than just altering the outcome of what is already there. Having said that, each pedal is specifically set up to match or mimic certain sounds that can be produced acoustically on the clarinet. Speakers placed at a distance from the performer further the sense of disconnection. And depending on how the volume pedal is set at any given moment, the depth of field appears to be substantially different.

On a macro scale, the splitting/tearing apart of identity is itself repeated and manipulated at increasing levels of focus. For example, the clarinettist is required to frequently divide attention between their mouth (playing the instrument) and throat (humming, screaming, choking, etc.); the “pitch” language is heavily focussed on multiphonics (splitting single pitches into many) and harmonics; the effects pedals are sequenced in such a way that the player can switch between two vastly opposite EQ profiles and between individual pedals; the looper and delay pedals offer two options for altering the temporal perspective so that past events can be repeated verbatim and current events can be sliced up and endlessly regurgitated.

I consider how my work will be perceived both physically and visually (as well as sonically). Perhaps the most critical aspect of this questioning is how a frame can be created to remove constraints rooted in the past which place various obstacles in the way of reception. A performer is placed on a platform, in binary opposition to the listener, where the perspective is designated and fixed. This could be defined as the difference between observation and experience. Since working on vus, I have moved towards using self-made constructions which form a sort of “installation-theatre”, integrating the exhibition space and the visual style into the work, inviting the listener to move around freely and giving them the option to choose their perspective and how they will experience the work. Effectively, this brings the listener close to becoming a collaborator, even if unknowingly.

vus, alongside much of my recent work, highlights and draws parallels with many social issues surrounding identity (connection, isolation, race, gender, sexuality, etc.) and how fluid its definition has recently become. It is also directed towards an oppressive framework where individuality is drowned out ‒ the human voice is often featured, screaming and gasping for air. Still, it is frequently consumed by the overpowering, abrasive sounds around it. I often have this feeling. The nature of something being either torn apart or forcibly suppressed is violent and ugly. It’s not an easy thing to think about.

*1990 Wrexham, North Wales 

Aled Smith is a composer and sound artist whose recent work comprises a language of materiality that strives for absolute, infinitely complex sound. Embodied as physical constructions involving raw, repurposed materials and analogue approaches to amplification and electronics, his works bridge and distort visual, physical, spatial and sonic perspectives through decontextualisation and disintegration. He studied at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester, UK, earning an MMus and PhD in composition (2012–18).

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