Time After Time: Athanasios Argianas’ Hollowed Water Playlist

Drawing together sculpture and sound, the ancient and modern, Athanasios Argianas's show Hollowed Water inhabited Camden Arts Centre before the lockdown and is now available to view online. Here the artist shares some of the images and sounds that inspired the exhibition

Hollowed Water was an exhibition of new work in music, sculpture, and video by Greek/British artist Athanasios Argianas held at Camden Arts Centre (London) earlier this year (and now viewable online at the Camden Arts Centre website). Argianas’ work draws on the social and historical specificity of acoustic forms and visual aesthetics, with his works pivoting between different periods and genres.

An artist and composer with a background in classical and electronic music, Argianas often works across disciplines, exploring how the procedures and protocols associated with one might be brought into play in another. Prior to his exhibition at Camden, Athanasios developed recordings and new musical compositions during a residency at the Centre. These investigated the function of aural forms, shifting tonalities and structural models, including rounds, quartets and melodic repetitions.

As part of the exhibition, a new piece written for a string quartet was activated by the visitor, played from a turntable through a speaker and a custom adaption of the Metalique resonator, part of a prototypical instrument – the Ondes Martenot (Martenot’s Waves) – that tilts and bends sound, treating it as a tactile material. Another composition featured as the soundtrack for a new film commission in the Reading Room. Both of these recordings are part of his new album Purr, on the Lo Recordings label, released last month.

Ακουσματα / Akousmata (any things which have been, οr may be heard )

This playlist-essay comes from the auditory memory of the last two years building up to the show and my new album, sometimes through much older thoughts and work.

The Hollowed Water exhibition has been brewing for quite some time now.

The last five years of our life (mine and Rowena’s, my other half for two decades) has changed quite drastically. We begun to spend more and more time in Athens, discovering new possibilities.

The different climate and culture has impacted our way of life more than expected. We have seen the whole relation we have to our environment change. The time you spend outside increases; our definition of space and our exposure to first-hand, direct experience shifts. The climate is not only meteorological but affective and emotive. The psychological awareness of societies varies as much the language.

This can only impact our work in a profound way. There was inevitably a longing for this shift and this partly triggered the move.

Viewing things from a distance in years and geography, I have had the time and space to selectively reconnect to what I found most important in all of my work and to those elements in the art of others that have shaped my life both artistically and humanly.

I have always had a mistrust of trends, of surfaces that may look like substance from close-up, and – perhaps contradicting the zeitgeist today – I feel that what we make should not be addressing the current state of things.

Work addressing the very current state of things, can’t really be properly genuine or truthful to the complexity of what our lives are. In order to react to what you re going through right ‘now’, you risk missing out that which is before and after that moment. It is a very thin, transient idea of contemporaneity.

In order to distill anything at all, you need time and distance.

So, instead of describing the present, I think we should be making proposals for the future.

Hollowed Water has many back & forths, and many parallel kinds of crystalline aggregates of time:

Historical time,

Deep time,

Thin, realtime duration.

The two key works in the exhibition are Hollowed Water, a projection isolated in the Reading Room of the Camden Arts Centre, an immersive single work which exists in a space between a musical object and a filmed object, and in Gallery 3, Pivoting Music, a vinyl record with a site-specific recording of a string trio and a drone made from a cat’s purr, complete with its own record cover image played through a resonating loudspeaker set belonging to a proto-synthesizer from the 1930s called the Ondes Martenot.

[note: the show’s title derives from an idea of trying to describe our environment – the air – to someone who lives in water. Trying to see something we are taking for granted as singular, as just one of many possibilities.]

Chris Marker ‘Chat écoutant la musique’

Recently, while looking through another of Marker’s films, I remembered first coming across ‘Chat écoutant la musique’, possibly seven to nine years after it was made, in the late 90s.

At that time a neighbour’s cat used to walk into our east London flat and studio, and occasionally sit on my hunched shoulders as I played piano or edited.

I felt this occasional visitor, who belonged to no one and everyone, was like an ancient symbiotic partner to humans, actually evolving to physically attach to our bodies, vibrating in a surreal comical and deeply connective way.

Nearly twenty years later, an Athenian cat gives birth in a plant pot in our yard, and the cat comes back in the studio.

Also Chris Marker’s Yamaha DX7 synthesizer has joined the one I played on as a teenager in a school friend’s parents’ recording studio, amazed by the synthetic plastic otherworldliness of its timbre.

The FM sounds are elsewhere in Marker’s films, but not in this one. Here we listen together with Guillaume-en-Egypte, Marker’s cat, to Guillaume’s favourite composer: the Catalan impressionist, Federico Mompou.

Athanasios Argianas ‘Pivoting Music’

When I saw Diamantis, one of our two cats, sat inside a basket on our yard’s table, the immediate image that came to mind was that of an octopus adopting a clam shell (or bottle, coconut, any domed object) as a home, an ad hoc exoskeleton.

The fact that this cat was finding solace in the same thing a mollusc does, this affective connection from a likely epigenetic memory, made a new image in my mind, which became the cover for ‘Pivoting Music’, a composition I was working on at the time.

‘Pivoting Music’ is a piece for three strings, moving almost constantly and entirely in glissando, defining harmonic planes as the three notes shift between each other.

A stable note – a drone – comes from the cat’s purr, used as a granular oscillator, pitched to 440 hz, a concert A.

Aris Retsos & the Nikos Skalkotas Ensemble ‘Sophocles’ Antigone

I often think in two languages – and less so in a third, weaker one, which I don’t really speak anymore. But I sense the tint of that third language, when I catch myself thinking of an object that comes first in that language for some reason.

No matter what that first language is, your perceived sensibility of its words is formed really early, in the native tongue. A chair for example, is always feminine for someone who first spoke a language that has gendered nouns, no matter whether the second language has none. Not neutral, but not gendered.

These are automated connections that are pretty hard to shift. We can imagine these changes but perhaps superficially – and this helps get some distance again.

This recording of Aris Retsos playing Antigone, a classic tragedy, with the supervision of Yorgos Koumentakis and Miltos Logiades’s direction, is unique in challenging our preconceptions of a language and its identity and its sonics.

At first, the voicings sound barely Greek – or what we think of as Greek through our modern ears and pronunciations. They sound Japanese in fact, vowels punctuated sharply and separated in a way that feels alien to a native speaker of the modern version.

And this is the point. The re-imagining of a language that has no objectively recorded pronunciation – an ancient one – has to be reinvented the way we have to reinvent our understanding of particles smaller than the microscope can detect. The letters and the shapes and the syntax may be similar to what people speak today, but the flexibility, the plasticity of accent, is infinite.

[note: This is a recording of the entire performance of Antigone. I don’t expect you to sit through it all, and this would still be missing the actual play. But I love listening to parts and find its musicality deeply refreshing.]

Naturally, I will compare this to the recordings of Ezra Pound reading ‘Altaforte’, replete with drum.

Chris Marker ‘An Owl Is An Owl Is An Owl’

Also part of the five-part collection of short films, Bestiaire, Chris Marker’s ‘An Owl Is An Owl Is An Owl’, has the same exact sense for me, of being an Object. Not quite a film, not a sound work, but a piece of music expressed through a sequence of images of owls.

The musicality of the tape echo and their constant manipulation on top of a landscape of ambient recordings, is obvious. But the way the script folds itself onto the form and the cut-ups has this plasticity that I find uniquely textural in the most essential sense of the word.

I think of it as a subconscious influence for the Hollowed Water piece, which I’ve sequenced next.

Athanasios Argianas ‘Hollowed Water’

Hollowed Water from LINEL FILMS on Vimeo.

‘Hollowed Water’ started as an idea of a film that is so short in duration, and so stretched out physically – in the sense of the physical scale it travels through – that it ultimately becomes a kind of object.

Almost containing no filmic time, and being formed from leaps: leaps between thoughts, and locations. Basically, I am trying to see what happens if you make an extremely short, eight-second film, with a script that actually produces the soundtrack, and with that script bearing no resemblance to a conventional narrative, but rather a kind of causality, or a chain of causalities.

The harpsichord, as sonic material and instrument in ‘Hollowed Water’, was chosen intuitively for its sharpness in the way it punctuates time. It has no velocity, much like very early synthesizers and sequencers, lending itself to very mechanical, crystal-sharp attacks and decays when the player’s hand leaves the keyboard. Modern qualities perhaps.

Also, when recorded close up rather than in the diffused ambience of a chamber orchestra, it is also a timbre that works like a massive additive synth, full of sharp harmonics from the lowest to the highest of frequencies. If you made a spectrogram of its sound, it would look like the iridescent poly-surface of bismuth.

I’d like to place this alongside an Elizabethan era work for the same instrument by John Bull, and a recent work by Meara O’Reilly.

John Bull ‘Fantasy for keyboard’

Meara O’Reilly ‘Hockets for Two Voices: VI’

I find some works from this era sound very relevant today, somewhat crystaloform, almost psychedelic in their counterpoint – this John Bull piece in particular. The work is Elizabethan, late in the development of this style of music and ripe in polyphony. The piece has a systematic and dynamically mechanic feel, with chromatic harmonic chains.

It’s not unlike the fractal kind of chromatic harmonic chain i am using in Hollowed Water, where the two later harpsichord voices are composed of the same line, shifted along the timeline, and the same harmonic sequence jumps by a fourth, every five bars.

I enjoy tapping into premises of geometries that seem to be both very old but very current too, sometimes through the prism of a recent modernity.

The second half of my this description of Bull’s piece could relate as well to this exercise in patterns by Meara O’Reilly. Here, very different in style but sharing a core love of intricate universe-making geometries. Exactly bringing this sense of geometries but in a distinctly contemporary resolution, this piece reflects a lot of what we’ve been navigating through in this playlist, from crystals to fractals to these very highly mechanised vocalisations: sharp dry and punctuating. Hockets, canons, rounds – music has the ability to make structures only possible in this immaterial format.

Jean Painlevé ‘The Love Life of the Octopus’ (extract)’

Another hybrid work, this series of artful, stunningly shot and meticulously researched films on marine life by Jean Painlevé. He worked on a sprawling series of cinematic portraits of sea horses, jellyfish, crustaceans, molluscs, and also bats.

The music for ‘The Love Life of The Octopus’, in its 1967 version, in contrast to the more conventional orchestral music of the rest of the series, was composed by Pierre Henry, using solely a modular synthesiser.

The sculptural quality arises from the resistance to any landscape shots, most panning is focused right into the subject. It’s probably due to the whole series being filmed in a highly controlled environment, but it also gives these films a peculiarly textural quality.

The ‘Poulpe vulgaire’, as the commentator calls this beautiful genius of a mollusc, somehow called for an instrument as otherworldly, alien as a modular synthesizer. New aesthetics being employed as ‘weird’ aesthetics. Its script is also disarmingly emotive and vulnerable.

Peter Greenaway ‘Making A Splash’ (Michael Nyman’s Water Dances)

Shaw Swimming Method: Lesson 1: Butterfly

During the last weeks of lockdown, we’re experiencing a unique abstinence from swimming, an activity we devote every day (or every other day) of our lives, for at least an hour, for the last fifteen years.

These two links are both aquatic and repetitive.

I won’t describe further the links you will make after watching them, from repetition to meditation. The references in the first one are truly abundant from Leni Riefenstahl to Greenaway’s own earlier works Water Wrackets, via Busby Berkeley musicals and minimalism (or as my composition teacher called it, ‘maximalism’).

Wherever we are we tend to swim, collecting chlorine and bacteria from the YMCA to the Statbadhalle, and washing it off in the sea from May until November.

Gravity sucks.

Esthir Lemi ‘nD2’

Esthir Lemi is a dear colleague with whom I share a similar trajectory: a visual artist but now firmly a composer and academic. Her work often involves technological institutions, having developed work for ambisonics and various contemporary ensembles.

This rather intimately documented piece is a favourite of mine, as it also involves a performer I found extremely inspiring – both as a human being and through the philosophies he practices through his working method and his daily life – percussionist Kostas Theodorakos. The synaesthetic texture of the piece, this strong sense of resonant bodies and the intense warm voicing of soprano Erophili Papadogia, shine in spite of the compressed recording.

It is inspired by Sylvia Plath’s ‘Night Dances’, and in the words of the composer, “The choice of percussive instruments for the piece was a kind of game of discovering the sounds and micro-sounds of everyday objects that surround us.”

It is refreshing to watch an incredibly complex piece of music filmed so casually, especially today in the era of slick self-conscious overproduced documentation of vacuous bedroom musings.

[p.s. Look out for the bit where she starts whistling – it’s divine]

Arthur Russell ‘Arm Around You’

All playlists need Arthur Russell, especially during lockdown.

Again, a heterochronous figure, the cellist with a baseball cap, the 80s PPM drum machines, distorted strings, and his fragile voice in these exotic rhythm signatures.

Maxwell Sterling ‘Hollywood Medieval’

A double bassist with a baseball cap (often) and a penchant for FM synthesis and editing his own cello and double bass playing, complex sound design and pre-renaissance aesthetics running through this record, strings, clarinet-like square waves, FM marimbas and granular twirls, with a backbone that sounds like chamber music at times – in spite of the tech.

I came across his music through artist Tai Shani. Maxwell composed for her recent films. Maxwell later also played with us at the Camden Arts Centre, at the live concert we did on the 26th of February, the recording of which will be broadcast soon after its edit.

Wim Mertens ‘Inergys’

This is a marimba and flute version of a piece you may have heard from Mertens’ own ensemble, a super woody kind of sound, and a great recording – especially the lows of the marimba. His book on American Minimal Music has been on and off my desk in the lead up to the show.

Pamela Kurstin ‘London’

This performance, from Kurstin’s album Thinking Out Loud was recorded live at E:vent, a project space in east London in the early 2000s, and we were actually at this concert, standing somewhere at the back on a warm summer evening in Bethnal Green. Perhaps this was another gig date to the one we attended, but I couldn’t know that. I think it was the only place she played then.

I was always a great fan of Kurstin and I’ve always presumed this is simply because she is a great thereminist. But recently, and through my own experiences with my pieces for Hollowed Water, I’ve realised that what I find so appealing is how she makes it sound like a rich, layered polyphonic instrument via looping, but in a very contrapuntal kind of way. The harmonic planes are modern – often clustery – but the sense of space feels heterochronous and hybrid.

This record was released a year or two after I wrote a short piece for humans pretending they’re theremins, a whistling quartet, which formed part of my MA show in 2005. The Ondes Martenot Resonator work in my Camden Arts Centre show stems from this research and similarly takes a distant, early modernist trope and makes it intimate, and active.

Baikonour ‘Runner, Pt. 1’

Jean Emanuel Krieger (Baikonour) is an ex-labelmate of mine, from the days of releasing music as Gavouna on the Melodic label in Manchester, which he re-mastered for its re-release this year.

Jean Emanuel’s music is very tightly focused on the quality of the sound and the meticulous process in which each record is produced. This one was particularly technical, as the album title (Everybody Knows This Is Hardware) suggests.

I love the mechanical quality and the irregular time signatures across this piece and the spaces between them that make up the build-up. The synths are recorded with a fetishised clarity and warmth, with a sound design that alludes to Klaus Schulze and Harmonia as well as early MIDI-based dance music. You can literally hear the electrons jumping around.

Athanasius Kircher ‘Tarantella Napoletana Tono Hypodorico’

And we close with a chirpy tune from another multidisciplinary Athanasius, who also made both visual and musical work – yet in the middle ages. His visions are infamous, but his music less so.

Athanasios Argianas’s exhibition, Hollowed Water, is now online at the website of the Camden Arts Centre. Athanasios Argianas’ album Purr is released by Lo recordings

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