Sova Labs pres: Sonic Performance, The Poetics of Sound, with Aboutface

Last year, Ben Kelly (AKA Aboutface) conceived and presented three lectures for our Sova Labs series that addressed ‘The Perception, Philosophies and Poetics of Sound.’ The first two events took the form of conversations: Ben spoke with spatial audio specialist Dave Haydon about ‘sonic reception and perception,’ then got deep into sonic philosophies and transcendental events with Funktion-One founder and sound system sage Tony Andrews.

For the last event (available to watch in full below), Ben took the concepts explored in the previous talks, incorporated insights gleaned from his research as an ecomusicologist, and channelled the result into a live improvised performance that aimed to demonstrate sound’s ‘poetic’ potential and explore how it might be utilised in the context of the climate crisis. As you might have guessed, it’s heavy, multifaceted stuff, and while Ben was considerate enough to follow up the performance with a lecture outlining the theories that informed the work, we thought it would be worth having a chat with him to get an even deeper lowdown.

First off, what does it mean for a sound to be poetic? Well for Ben, poetry is defined by the murky distinction between what can be felt and what can be comprehended. “There’s a quote by TS Eliot saying ‘Genuine poetry can communicate before it's understood.’” Ben explains. “So poetry, for me, is about communication, but in a way that isn’t condescending. It’s about empowering the listener because it allows them to generate or cultivate the information and communication in themselves.” It’s aptly demonstrated by that feeling you get with a bafflingly beautiful David Lynch or Tarkovsky film; you’re moved, engrossed, beguiled, yet utterly incapable of explaining why.

In musical terms, this idea relates to the way in which abstract sounds can be used to transmit meaning and the subjective manner in which they resonate. Ben’s Sova Labs performance begins with astral synth tones overlaid by a recording of Great Thunberg’s impassioned speech to the 2019 UN Climate Action Summit, but with her words excised and just staccato vocal intonations left. The explicit meaning is therefore removed but the exasperation and doom she feels over our beleaguered planet’s plight is still evident, to me at least. “There is information there but it’s more abstract, and the meaning is open to many interpretations,” Ben says. “We all exist in our own realities based upon our previous experiences, our genes, our DNA, and all the rest of it. There’s a spectrum for different experiences and different realities, and none of them are wrong or right but they all occur in response to the same message.”

But wee Greta’s chopped-up lamentation is just one of many weapons in Ben’s poetic-sonic arsenal, each one bringing with it its own ambiguous connotations. He uses manipulated ‘waste’ sounds of glass bottles and plastic taken from the coast, as well as “recordings of arctic marine animals under an ice shelf which is gone now, so those sounds don't exist in that area anymore - there’s something powerful in that.” There’s also a beat formed by playing two old BBC nature records stacked on top of each other, one intact and one which has been shattered: “Is it a broken record, as in how we’ve been banging on about this since the 60s and 70s, or is it that the environment is broken?” Decide for yourself, but whichever way you look at it the message doesn’t seem too cheery.

Just to add a further layer of meta-complexity, Ben also feeds in spoken lines of actual poetry which he extracted from his dreams during a three-month period spent “extending the hypnopompic state” that exists just before we wake up. “I started to write in more detail about my dreams, I started to paint images from my dreams,” Ben says of the experience. “And the more I interacted with my dreams, the more and more surreal and lucid it became.” It’s this exercise that spawned the title of the many-limbed project of which his Sova Labs performance was in some ways a part: “I saw a typewriter, with cartridge paper and red ink and on it typed: The water that glows like dancing glass cuts crimson.’” 

As he continued the process, he built up more and more ‘dream prose’ (“something I've collected from the collective subconscious is how I would explain it”) which he has now used as the basis for an album due later this year. The TWTGLDGCC LP will be pressed by the meticulously green folks at Deepgrooves and all profits are being donated to the Extinction Rebellion legal fund.

So then, taking from the rich collective consciousness and giving to the poor battered Earth. Who knows, if enough people follow Ben’s innovative eco agenda we might just stand a chance of getting out of this mess.

You can read more about Aboutface's ‘The water that glows like dancing glass cuts crimson’ on the project website.