This past winter, I created a sound performance titled Racquetball Score,which explores gender non-binary-ness through soundscapes strategically sourced through a game of racquetball using live feedback and embedded piezo mics.
The idea for this performance came from my own personal practice of playing solo games of racquetball at the University of Washington’s gym as a way to decompress. As I was pondering the intersections of sound and gender, I thought it would be funny to source a type of ‘white noise’ from the inseam of my shorts rubbing together as I ran around playing racquetball. I also realized other things could be used to generate sounds such as the walls and rackets. Racquetball courts are also already acoustically rich places full of the echo-y smacking of balls, squeaking of sneakers, the thudding of footsteps and laughter or shouts of people playing nearby.
As I began to develop the piece, the performance took shape as a confluence of symbols of gender built into the infrastructures of a kinetic sound system which then became a space to be shaped by, and act and perform within. In this way, the performance was the animation of a self-built system, exploring the possible narrative arcs or sculptural and sonic potentialities in this new system-space. This to me is an extension John Cage’s experimental 'open works’ where, “musical arguments are replaced by processes that result in “music,” and the writing of music is supplanted by the creation of situations” (LaBelle, 2015).
I created three unique symbol sounds, a pair of shorts, a racket and the lines of the racquetball court. The shorts had a piezo mic embedded in the crotch, making a kind of white noise from the friction of my legs brushing against each other during play. ‘White noise’ represents an interrupted or missing transmission, but in this case was also the amplification of friction, and the sound itself had a kind of ‘tearing’ quality to it that felt like the amplification of the soft violence of the friction of trying to either belong to or disengage from gendered systems when those definitions don’t quite work.
Another sound-generating part of the system was the racket, which had a piezo mic secured to its strings. I chose to pass the sound of the racket through a delay pedal to give the racket’s sound a resonant ‘pong’ which repeated and decayed and reminded me of the amplification, reverb, and sound of many games in play simultaneously that naturally occurs in a racquetball court itself. The amplification of the racket also references the performance piece, Open Score, created by Robert Rauschenberg, which was an electronic sound performance that utilized sounds from a game of tennis and was a part of a Bell Electric arts and engineering collaboration in 1966 titled 9 Evenings: Theatre & Engineering held at the 69th Regiment Armory, New York.
The final symbolic sound gesture I created was the generation of a court. I did this by placing a piezo mic under tape as I pulled lines of tape out to create the service boundaries normally found in a racquetball court space. These lines came to operate as a symbol of building the grounds on which to play a game, (a game without many rules or without competitive play at least) a new space for gendered identities to belong or behave. The double lines signify both the double bar which starts and ends musical notation, but also, I felt they created a third space between the two lines which moves away from a binary, as well as actually addressing the ‘ground’ on which gender is founded (whereas the ground, or the court, in a performative setting could have been left unaddressed).
The infrastructure the performance utilizes, or the physical microphones, electronics, mixer, speakers and pedal also became to be interesting to me. I felt that ultimately, while this project was about creating this system, performing within the system was about the slow, dogged, management and manipulation of complexity in order to generate desired effects. While I developed soundscapes and movement practices and methods for creating these soundscapes through rehearsal, achieving them in the moment was always a matter of a hair of a turn of a knob on the mixer or pedal and always required critical thinking and on the spot adjustment and evaluation, and honestly was never 'right’ or ‘perfect’ — eventually I gave up on these types of aspirations and settled for near, close, or interesting, or on occasion, simply ‘what worked’. Over the course of my two different performances, I explored different mixers, pedals, performance arcs and ways of annotating the performance (at one point designing a score for my music out of a template of the knob settings) to explore and manage this complexity.
Below I share photos of my process of building, testing, rehearsing and annotating. I also share photos of two different performances and a short video of clips from one performance. Also, check out my Soundcloud where the performance and preliminary sound explorations are archived.
LaBelle, Brandon. Background Noise : Perspectives on Sound Art. Second ed. New York, NY: Bloomsbury Academic, an Imprint of Bloomsbury Publishing, 2015.