material #2: grains

salt performance – austria 2009

I am only now starting the process of going back through my earliest recordings of & with grains (salt, ground glass, sand, polenta etc) as a main material, trying to work out why i’ve waiting so long to do so. The reel-to-reel machines and tapes have been on a shelf, in clear view daily for a couple of decades at least & yet every time I have thought about getting round to transferring them I have resisted. It’ll take me a while but for now I think I can say that I know that part of that is to do with being aware that some of those tapes contain memories of times that I know will bring up different emotions. There’s something in physical media that differs from the digital, which I know is often said. Somehow tape, for example, seems soaked in something other than the sound recorded onto it.

I remember the first time I tasted sea salt for example. Not salt water, but as a cooking ingredient. This would have been in the 70’s. I think here about how such an important seasoning, significantly more nuanced than the alternative processed table salt, is still often seen as a luxury. I remember years later, in the first flat I shared with my then partner, J, how we would save up to go on some of our first holidays to France, and be sure to bring back Breton Sea Salt. Even when we’d used it all up, we’d keep the empty tub it came in, fill it with any other sea salt if we could find it and keep that connection, taking pleasure in the simple act of taking it from the shelf, and it being part of us getting to know each other in these ‘proper grown up’ ways; household budgeting, preparing meals for each other every day and the most simple of things that we regarded as a treat. I still do that; using a Breton sea salt tub from a holiday with my daughter, Pheobe, when she was much younger, currently filled with salt from Iceland.

As an element of sound I used salt on reel-to-reel tape in my teens. Sometimes when I had pre-recorded other sounds onto the tape and often with blank tape, interested in hearing how the salt would eat into the coatings, creating detail. I have now taken one of the machines out and I find that one of the salt tapes has been left on it, since the 1990’s I think. There are still traces of the salt, and an additional layer of dust.

I would drop grains onto zithers, guitars and cymbals, before I knew anything of experimental object based methods. I say that not to claim uniqueness but because I am, I admit, often still surprised by how conventional scenes can be in terms of assessing how approaches are developed by individuals. The ‘they must have heard…’ or ‘they must have been inspired by…’. straight lines. Not everyone starts that way, not everyone progresses in the same way or by adhering to the confines of set paths, however they are formed. When we assume such things we can overlook the subtle differences, disconnect from other motivations and outcomes. We can simplify and constrain the personal connections some have to their practice, and how they delve deeper into the areas they work with. Over the years different grains have been used in projects and contexts that explore structural acoustics, micro-listening, minerals in soil systems, aquatic shifts, root systems, cultural dynamics and as an element in intuitive responses to place and situation.

In live performance travelling with salt and other grains often raised eyebrows at customs checks; plastic containers with different grains, various sizes of salt crystals would show up on scans as deserving of further investigation. I remember arriving in Japan & finding that the custom’s staff hadn’t re-closed a container correctly and the contents of my suitcase were, shall we say, well seasoned. At one of the concerts on the same tour I found that I had run out of the few grains I’d salvaged from the case and asked if someone could find me some more whilst I was setting up for the performance. They returned a few minutes later with a small packet of local shio. The texture of this salt was very different from the European salts I was used to, and, on licking a few grains from my fingers, it also began my interest in the different types of shio; moshio, enden, shinkai, yakishio, flavoured salts etc. They all have a different quality as a performative material, but I use them mostly as an ingredient as one can only bring back a few small packets from trips to Japan. I do connect food and sound, or rather I don’t separate sound out from daily life.

I would add here that yes, I have often asked questions of myself in terms of my use of salt, and indeed of other grains and objects; am I using it because of a specific sound that can be created with it, or because one collects sets of ‘props’ for performances? I come back to the same answer; there is something personal for me in the connection between the element of being public and the reassurance of physical and emotional memory. Salt, as a substance for example, creates multiple, minuscule sparks in my senses, and in my ability to stay focused in each new place or performance situation.

There is another, newer connection; my daughter, the artist Pheobe riley Law, has become interested in salt as a performative object, and salinity as an environmental element. She used salt as well as seeds and other grains during a residency and UK tour in 2021 and is developing a series of installations based around salinity. I like this connection, this linking between our individual creative and research interests.

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