Mysteries of Recording Techniques: Dave Allen’s “Recording” Works

Wiederaufnahme”, Neuer Aachener Kunstverein, 2001

By Harald Fricke

Dave Allen has become well known through videos and installations in which he deals with the relationship between the visual arts and rock music. Once, he filmed a documentary of a band practice, depicting the concept of artistic praxis; another time, the Scottish artist living in Berlin explored the iconography of musical heroes such as Richard Hell (who insisted on autonomy from major record companies), by reconstructing them in drawings. Toward the end of the 1990s, Allen added “Song Drawings” to his oeuvre: sketches of simplified charts for pieces such as Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell”, or the intro to Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven”. It is this series, in which he focuses on transforming famous rock anthems into easily understandable chord diagrams, that classifies Allen as a “rock artist” – almost guaranteed to be a sure- fire success in these days of incessant crossover between music and art.

However, in his latest CD recordings, Allen distances himself from this almost clichéd game of making references to high and low culture, though not simply because the Royal Concert Hall in Glasgow or the Berlin Philharmonie (where the recordings were made) hardly meet the expectations of an art community eagerly awaiting pop. Perhaps this distance has more to do with the fact that, in these almost noiseless recordings, he has raised certain issues that bear no resemblance to the type of question that usually arises when the art scene produces sound. Instead, Allen’s questions take aim at the problem of perception in a more general way. His works describe a paradox: how can silence be portrayed – especially in the context of music and simultaneously, as an artistic intervention?

At first, there appears to be a correspondence to the monochromatic paintings by Ad Reinhardt or Barnett Newman, which permits the existence of a magical “nothingness”, thus mirroring a sublimity beyond the object portrayed. Indeed, however, a silence is not defined by the presence of a particular, permanent, unchanging stimulus, but by the complete absence of acoustic signals. The absent sound is neither the construction of a creatio ex nihilo nor a silence planned in opposition to the sounds coming from all channels of sound produced by the surroundings of everyday life. Rather, the noiselessness is simply a gap in which perception is thrown back upon itself. Hence, the music theoretician Stan Link writes of “silence as the voice of listening”.1

At the same time, silence is also the image of emptiness in a particular place: nothing happens. Unlike a white canvas or blank videotape, quiet does not indicate the lack of the artist’s hand – after all, the silence has been recorded and is therefore the result of production. This production can be compared to “absolute zero” (Roland Barthes), where the symbols of music and art practically collapse into each other to form a single, almost entropic unit. Furthermore, in Allen’s conceptual approach, reduction is spatially defined: for one, he names the actual concert hall in his work; and for another, the “Recordings” will be reproduced in the exhibition space. There, the silence becomes the object of an altered perception caused by the transmission. The acoustic void becomes a spatial sound object added to the other pieces in the real space; the hi-fi set is the necessary visual focal point for the setting. This way, Allen creates a situation in which the portrayal of the absence of sound closes gaps (in the discourse), yet simultaneously re-opens them. His next project is to record in the Hansa Ton Studios in Berlin – where David Bowie, Depeche Mode and Iggy Pop made some of their records; perhaps this will be a particular way of “recording recording’s mysteries’.

(1) Stan Link. “Much ado about nothing”, in Perspectives of New Music, vol. 33, nos 1 and 2, Winter/Summer 1995, p. 237