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The Topography of Chance

by Stewart Lee, Curator
Sonic Arts Network, London, 2006
Audio CD with 28 pp. booklet, illus. 15.00
SAN autumn 2006

Distributor’s website: http://www.sonicartsnetwork.org/.

Reviewed by Stefaan Van Ryssen
Hogeschool Gent


Three times a year, the members of the Sonic Arts Network receive a limited edition CD, curated by a guest artist. The Topography of Chance is the eighth installment in this series. It is curated by Stewart Lee, a stand-up comedian, writer and director who co-wrote and directed the stage show Jerry Springer——The Opera.

At the origin of this collection of 17 widely different tracks is an anecdote. Stewart Lee met a group of Fluxus fans who were floating a large portrait of the late Fluxus performer Emmett Williams down a river in Cardiff. Intrigued, Stewart bought Williams’ book An Anecdoted Topography of Chance, which documents in detail objects left at random at the desk of artist Daniel Spoerri. The book inspired him to bring together a series of seemingly randomly chosen sound fragments, each connected to a specific place and involving some element of chance. The collection is absolutely hilarious and thought provoking at the same time. In the best tradition of John Cage and Luc Ferrari, some of the fragments are just recordings of some naturally occurring sound, commented on by a musician or a local character. But there are also two small fragments of ‘found recordings’, pieces of tape that were lost and found in the street or on the bank of a river. Other tracks include improvisations by legendary musicians Evan Parker and Derek Bailey.

Maybe the most unsettling fragment is a short recording of a conversation at the Golan Height between Syria and Israel. A fence and a 200-metre wide strip of no-mansland split a little Druze village neatly in two so the villagers have to use megaphones to exchange news and shout small talk at each other. The recording was taken from the 1996 album, The Fence, by Australian sound artist, Jon Rose. In this case, the word ‘soundscape’ definitely rings with political overtones. Not only does the fence——a material sign of aggression, discord and deep-rooted hate——split families and lives but it also literally changes the voice of the affected villagers. Their privately whispered daily communications are transformed into lo-fi public statements, their privacy as well as the sound of their voice is shattered and spilt across——of all places——a no-mansland. What normally keeps people together is now sown onto barren soil and stripped of its individuality. It is heart breaking and comical at the same time. My sense of shame for being caught at listening in on these private conversations is lessened because I’m not familiar with Arab. I can only imagine what it would be like if it was in English or in Dutch.

Like the above, each track has its own anecdote; its precise location and its measure of unexpectedness and everything is perfectly clearly documented in the booklet, which makes one wonder if this is a book accompanied by a CD, or vice versa. Anyway, a visit to www.sonicartsnetwork.org will give you an impression and more details about this collector’s item and if you really want to know what Man United did in its football match on 19/11/2005, you can listen to Mark E Smith of The Fall reading out that day’s score for BBC on track 16.



Updated 1st September 2007

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