Sarah Peebles: Composer/Performer, Studio Excelo


Streets of Tokyo speak up
Layered noises reflect space issues captured in photos


Jun. 1, 2006. 01:00 AM



Mating music with architecture — a driving concern at the SoundaXis festival opening today — can sometimes lead to the highly idiosyncratic results you find with the pairing of any two highly rarefied species from exotic orchids to Tom Cruise and his main squeeze of the moment.

However, with 108-Walking Through Tokyo — a collaboration between composer Sarah Peebles and architect/photographer Christie Pearson, both Torontonians — sound and urban imagery engage in a far more down-to-earth, entirely human dialogue that's part mystery, part love poem and part documentary. The subject of all three is Tokyo.

"As you move through the different spaces of Tokyo you get different acoustic environments that can wrap around you and enclose you," says Peebles. "There are things floating in and out of your awareness as you hear them."

The 50-minute collage of recorded street sounds — stylishly reshaped by Peebles into a soundscape reinterpreted by Pearson's moody digital photography — is screening at Goethe-Institute's Kinowelt Hall Saturday and again a week Saturday at 11 a.m. both days.

Experiencing the work — even just on CD as I did — is rather like taking a walk through a city with the eyes kept shut for a short while, only to open them to suddenly receive a jolt of light and colour from a thoroughly unexpected source.

Tokyo's sounds taken on their own — the raucous cadences in sidewalk preacher's voice, the tingling of religious bells, the incessant chatter of a subway crowd — create their unique imaginary trip through the city, which, as Peebles points out, has any number of backwaters and quiet alleys, "where it is not always intense."

Pearson's photograph layers a level of reality on Peebles's sound tripping. "The idea of the piece is to take you into the space from which (the image) was drawn," says Pearson, who for years has been deeply involved in outdoor installations. "Walking is such an important part of the idea — capturing the idea of the walk."

Peebles and Pearson describe their take on Tokyo as "an alternative cityscape." Tokyo is a city without a centre, they maintain. Yet it has such an overwhelming density of stimuli — coming from its glut of neon signage, the bombardment of commercial messages and the sheer numbers of its citizens — that each individual becomes his/her own centre of the city, if only for the moment.

"In Tokyo, people numb themselves to what's around them at a certain radius around their bodies," says Peebles who's lived in Tokyo "on and off since 1995" and began Walking Through Tokyo some seven years ago.

"If you were as sensitive to the space around you in Tokyo as you are in Toronto you would go crazy," she says. "There's a kind of socially numbing distance in Tokyo. It's the way people get along with their environment. In Tokyo, people use their space in a certain way. They put up blinders to everything else."

Visual art, architecture and sound for centuries have been combined in compelling ways from rock's auditorium-filling lightshows back to the Sons et Lumières spectacles in 18th-century Europe to the early Baroque 17th- century poly-choral compositions by Andrea and Giovanni Gabrielli exploiting the reverberant architecture of St. Mark's Cathedral in Venice.

Until the 20th century, music was the driving force. These days, contemporary musicians are increasingly inclined to take their cue from the visual arts. The art band of the moment, Sunn O))), gives its minimalist, sub-bass compositions such titles as White 1 and White 2 as a way of suggesting a sonic moment is as intellectually cathartic as viewing any entirely monochromatic painting.

The most perfectly equally balanced moment involving pure sound and sight came in 1952 with composer John Cage's composition, 4'33", a piece consisting of four minutes and 33 seconds of silence non-performed by a motionless pianist with a crowd intently watching the non-event.

Compared to this, Walking Through Tokyo is as sumptuously lyrical as a pop ballad even if the only notes "played" come from distant tinny pop tunes Peebles recorded.

"It took me a year listening to my tapes to decide what to do with them, in making a choice how to structure all these walks," says Peebles. "I was very conscious of a space expressing something."


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