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The polyphony of polyphonies


Kim Maxwell, <em*Steiner Verse*</em> 2016. Performance. Image courtesy the artist and Liquid Architecture. Photo credit: Keelan O’Hehir

To throw around polyphony with an unstructured multiplicity and plurality is now a commonplace. Ideas of fluctuating disunity and rhizomatic structures clumsily circulate around the contemporary dialogue, resembling what some now terrifyingly call a ‘classic’ postmodernism. Yet there is more to say about polyphony than this now-normalised discourse, and Polyphonic Social stresses this shifting rhetoric.

Co-curated by Emily Siddons and Liquid Architecture, Polyphonic Social took place on a frosty May afternoon at Melbourne’s Abbotsford Convent, encompassing four perpetually interweaving performances, including Prophets freestyle orchestra, Kym Maxwell’s Steiner Verse, Lara Thoms’s How to piss off the music industry and the art world — an exploratory model and Zoe Scoglio’s Rehearsing the Revolution. Taking its cue from the musical notion of polyphony — the concept of two or more distinct lines of melody co-existing rather than working toward the unity implied by harmony — Polyphonic Social transposes the musicality of multiple sounds and voices as having social articulations and implications, relational consequences and an implicit ethic.


Mayday is the entry ticket. While not invoked explicitly, Mayday’s various manifestations are placed on our minds; as a celebration of worker’s rights, as a distress signal, as the pagan marking of winters come and passed, as a signal of the quotidian change in seasons and life. Yet importance is not placed strictly on the word or its sounds, but the response it engineers: ‘in each, the human voice is calling out for an answer within others’.1 Where sounds and voices come from, what they might mean and what they socially imply does not stem from some hidden lore of personal knowledge but is an unavoidably communicative act.

Polyphony’s power resides in the relations articulated through difference and Polyphonic Social engineers these relations through sound and voice. In this regard, the exhibition coincides with the larger theoretical shift away from sounds-in-themselves to sound’s sociality and relational aspects — a shift generated by thinkers and artists such as Seth Kim-Cohen, Brandon LaBelle and Julian Day, as well as being the implicit mantra in Liquid Architecture’s recent oeuvre. What becomes explicit throughout Polyphonic Social is that sound does not merely provide a connection to a social reality but is what articulates a social reality, whether it be the orchestra, the classroom, the pop duo, the lecture or the protest.

Prophetic Repetition

Polyphonic Social has signalled itself as a moving event and the aptly titled Prophets commence the afternoon and proceed to lead us for the next two hours. Elaborately disguised in various masks and costumes, Prophets are a freestyle ensemble blending traditional orchestral accompaniments with self-made instruments. No conductor is present (although there later emerges an alluring octopus-man whose tendrils are connected to various wind instruments; the octopus-man manipulates the breath of the instruments while the musicians holding the instruments circulate, only able to control their note) and each member plays upon musical polyphony by adhering to their own melody and rhythm, leaving the audience to negotiate the sonic fluctuations.

Prophets, <em>Untitled</em> 2016. Performance. Image courtesy Liquid Architecture. Photo credit: Keelan O’Hehir

While their masked appearance flouts conventional orchestral rigidities through a playful carnivalesque, it also signals a loss of identity and individuality into an embodiment of sound. Yet the interactions between the musicians are not an overthrow of orchestral organisation, but rather an alteration that sits between total fluidity and static structure. This is a lesson that will be repeated again and again throughout the afternoon: multiple sounds do not imply a disordered multiplicity, but can imply an alternative social organisation through multiplicity.

Zoe Scoglio, <em>Rehearsing The Revolution: Act II</em> 2016. Performance. Image courtesy the artist and Liquid Architecture. Photo credit: Keelan O’Hehir

At the Prophets’ insistence we witness, and take part in, the first of Zoe Scoglio’s three acts of Rehearsing the Revolution, which asks spectators to place themselves back-to-back with a performer and engage in prolonged group humming. Both the sound and the physical resonance of the hum articulate a group relation whereby the sounds cast by a person are only ever half-theirs — an utterance is always incomplete until it achieves the desired response and interaction of another.

Here the nascent layers of polyphony begin to emerge; the polyphonic musicality and movements of Prophets, the polyphony of our movements around Prophets, the polyphony of our movements from space to space, the polyphony of the different tonal intonations in Scoglio’s hum, the polyphonic relation between performer and spectator. If polyphony creates its own networks and own points of self-reference, then these smaller polyphonic networks are played against each other — revealing a polyphony of polyphonies.
Call and Response

We follow Prophets to Kym Maxwell’s Steiner Verse where students of the Sophia Mundi school’s Class 6 and their teacher, Tanya, stand in a circle playing orchestral instruments. They are surrounded by blackboard interpretations on the nature of sound. Sophia Mundi is a school which draws upon the Steiner Education system, inspired by Rudolph Steiner, which posits an holistic education acknowledging, ‘children’s internal and external connection to nature, self and others’.^2

What holds my attention is the call-and-response of the classroom. If shared sound articulates relations, then what kinds of relations are being articulated? How do we tell the difference between call-and-response as a simple reiteration of a conditioning norm, or as articulating fruitful social relationships? What is being put forth, perhaps unknowingly, is the question of how much an individual’s voice is really an individual’s voice. The call-and-response of the classroom may very well be our first organised sociality and while sound articulates and shapes these relationships, it remains open as to what extent, and how, we are determined by them.

We then move to the courtyard for the sonic combination of Prophets and Scoglio’s performers, the latter of which are conducting scaffolding sounds through the strikes of metal and wood. As Prophets disappear we’re left glancing into the building’s second-story windows, with each window framing one of Scoglio’s performers as they embark on a frenzied bang-and-twang piece that increases in speed and volume.

While sound is clearly an act of consequence, this consequence is not simply articulating relations between people, but between agency and dependence. I feel we’re being positioned to imagine a lofty plurality of consciousness through a utopian ideal that sees an individual belonging to a whole, while also retaining their individuality. Sounds can do this and the question Polyphonic Social seems to be asking is whether this sonic arrangement is open to human relations. In many respects this echoes Mikhail Bakhtin’s ‘dialogical interaction’, which transposes polyphony to linguistics to proffer a reality that contains multiple perspectives and voices which are subordinated to neither an author nor each other.3 If we indeed live in a world of unavoidable splitting or separation (whether Marxist alienation or Freudian separation), it is dialogue (pursed here as sound and voice) that can tentatively bridge the void. Polyphonic Social engages with this grand yet also sincere gesture, and while this optimism is alluring, its idealism needs to be investigated.

Methodologies and Dollars

We move to Lara Thoms’ experimental lecture, How to piss off the music industry and the artworld — an exploratory model. The answer? Simply uncover the material economic basis and processes of exchange that art and sound rest upon. Thoms never explicitly utters this, she instead talks through the convenient amnesia of sound’s relation to capital via a methodology of The KLF (a pop duo consisting of Jimmy Cauty and Bill Drummond, although better known as the men who burnt a million quid). She approaches The KLF not as a musical entity but as a methodology of stripping away art’s excesses to its pragmatics of exchange and value, pictorialised through a story-board of miniatures upon a retro-style projector (no doubt a reference to Cauty’s work with miniature models and creating miniature universes).

Lara Thoms, <em>How to piss of the music industry and the artworld — an exploratory model</em> 2016. Performance–lecture. Image courtesy Liquid Architecture. Photo credit: Keelan O’Hehir

As Thoms notes, The KLF established themselves as musicians-as-methodology with their book, The Manual, that instructs readers on achieving a number-one hit. In an aesthetic practice characterised by absolute extremes, the pinnacle of Thoms’ lecture is The KLF’s infamous burning of one million pounds in 1994 on the Scottish island of Jura. After the burning, she tells us, The KLF find it difficult to articulate their reasoning. During a tour in which they screen a video of the burning, The KLF turn the question of ‘why?’ to the audience, which Thoms then throws to us. Rather than an evacuation of meaning, this silence on The KLF’s part is what prompts dialogue (and most likely argument).

Yet there is a larger claim here. Sound is often invisible and this invisibility extends to the economic structures that underpin it. The burnt million pounds gives visibility to the ‘dirty’ material basis we’re subsisting upon — bank notes. If sociality is positioned as polyphonic, capitalism might be monophonic, and both The KLF and Thoms’s work is an attempt to force the marketplace into some semblance of dialogue. Although the refusal to recognise the marketplace’s implication in sound may be due less to capitalism’s monophonic nature and more towards the delusional, yet predominant, desire for art to be unsullied by money.
Cauty points to these concerns in one of his few, yet admittedly contradictory, answers to the question of why? ‘It’s to do with controlling the money’, says Cauty:

Because money tends to sort of control you, if you’ve got it, it kind of dictates what you can do with it. You either spend it, give it away, invest it, and we just wanted to be in control of it.4

Intuitively I understand this: the desire to bring yourself into a dialogue with money due to the powerlessness of being withheld from this dialogue. This isn’t necessarily a logical gesture but an ethical one. This subtle ethic, which derives from affect, is implicit throughout Polyphonic Social and is what gives the exhibition its sustenance.

An Ethic

Scoglio’s third act is the participatory crux, whereby Polyphonic Social aims to produce relations through a commonality with the implicit ethic that a ‘rehearsal’ of shared relations may, stated simply, make the world a better place. We subsequently arrange ourselves in a circle around her and we’re divided into four groups, each with a specific hum as we begin walking clockwise. Scoglio’s work, as she says at the time, is invoking a ‘collective practice in planetary and political movements’, which stems from the relations between the anthropocene, the self and the political. I cannot honestly say I was invoked to such grand heights but the work did foster an intimacy from which these idealist relations might extend — the intimacy of human beings being aware of other human beings.

As participants we’re united via the materiality of our common movement and sonically through our turn-taking hums. Yet if we follow the structure of polyphony, we cannot be absorbed into the collective but must maintain a distance to preserve our own autonomy. This space between one’s self and the other is the space of difference which is underpinned by an ethic that respects difference within the collective. While an ethics of difference has its roots in the feminist thought of Luce Irigaray and the philosophy of Jean-François Lyotard, it is broadly speaking the double demand for an ethic that recognises both sameness and difference, and can be thought of both politically and in everyday life5.

Although these artworks appear to be preserving autonomy through a polyphonic relationship, to participate in any relation requires relinquishing total autonomy to accept the parameters set by the work. The moment of choice exists in whether to participate or not. Yet I would argue, and indeed I believe this is the point, that greater freedom exists within the relations that participation provides. It is more fruitful to play an improvised saxophone solo in the context of what Prophets are playing, than to pick up a saxophone and play whatever I wanted, just as it seems more liberating to voice one’s self within the frameworks and context of a relational society. While ideally we may have complete and utter autonomy by not participating in prescribed social worlds, there is a deep sense of meaninglessness to endless personal freedom, as well as a perpetual aloneness. At a pragmatic level, a failure to participate in social realities closes off the choices and relations these realities offer. Furthermore, the idea of not participating might simply be an illusion itself.

The building of communities, whether temporary like Scoglio’s or those in the ‘real’ world, points toward an intersubjectivity that does not subordinate either individuality or collectivity, but requires both for its structures to work. Yet it cannot be ignored that just as sound is a neutral phenomenon, the relations it engineers likewise appear neutral. The protest, just like the classroom or the pop duo, is not by nature an ethically ‘good’ social modality and we only have to think of protest groups like the United Patriot’s Front (UPF) to understand this point. Polyphonic Social may contain an answer to this; organisations like the UPF are based on recognising what is similar in the other, meanwhile difference, unless it can be subsumed into the collective, is degraded and discarded in favour of a monologic dialogue that ultimately works via exclusion. Polyphony not only requires difference but respects it.

While sound can establish an ethics of difference, listening enacts this ethic. Sound has appeared throughout this article as secondary to relational and social concepts and yet the only way into the social and political aspects of Polyphonic Social is through the listening body. This is what Rosalind Krauss, when analysing Marcel Duchamp’s readymades and concept of non-retinal art, calls the ‘interpretive paradox’.6 While Duchamp rejects the retinal aspects of art, ‘we have nonetheless to acknowledge the presence of physiological optics at work within Duchamp’s thinking and production’.7 In other words, the conceptual and perceptual features of the work are equally necessary for understanding. Listening to sound is not a constraint on interpreting the relevant social questions and implications, but is, in fact, what articulates them. Polyphonic Social aims to sonically phrase relations that have been silenced or that remain poorly articulated — relations between self and other, performer and spectator, capitalism and sound, call and response, to name a few. The ethic lies in listening carefully so we neither subsume one sound into another sound nor subsume another’s voice into our own.

Polyphonic Social took place at Melbourne’s Abbotsford Convent on 3 May 2016.

Tiarney Miekus is a writer, broadcaster and musician who holds a First Class Honours in English Literature from the University of Melbourne.

A companion audio piece to this article, Responding to Mayday, by Tiarney Miekus is available online as part of un Extended 10.2.

1. Liquid Architecture, exhibition statement, Polyphonic Social website, 2016.

3. M. M. Bakhtin, Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics, ed. and trans. Caryl Emerson. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1984, p. 10.
4. Jimmy Cauty, ‘A Foundation Course In Art’ Omnibus, BBC. 1 June 2016 (aired November 1995).
5. Luce Irigaray, An Ethics of Sexual Difference, Trans. Carolyn Burke and Gillian C. Gill, Cornell University Press, Ithaca, 1993, pp. 72–82 and J.F. Lyotard, The Differend: Phrases in Dispute: Theory and History of Literature, Minnesota Press, Minneapolis MS, 1988.
6. Rosalind E. Krauss, ‘In the Blink of An Eye’ in David Carroll (ed.), The States of ‘theory’: history, art, and critical discourse, Columbia University Press, New York, 1990, p. 184.
7. Ibid., p. 184.