Punk Archaeology: Trench Sounds

Tuesday, August 4th, 2009 by Bill Caraher

The long awaited final Pyla-Koutsopetria Archaeological Project podcast has arrived.  Titled “Trench Sounds”, it is a 10 minute extract of over 3 hours of taping in Dallas DeForest’s trench at Pyla-Koutsopetria.  (For more typical discussions of this trench you can down load these two podcasts: Koutsopetria East Week 1 and Koutsopetria East Week 2).  The goal was to capture the sounds of a trench in all of their mundane glory.

The inspiration was Punk Archaeology.  Kostis has posted on Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music and its seminal influence on the New York “No Wave” movement.  This album, which is almost impossible to listen to, is composed almost entirely of various ephemeral sounds of the musical production process particularly looped tracks of guitar feedback much of which was created intentionally by placing guitars facing their amplifiers.  This dissonant noise was then remixed and edited to produce tracks including an unusual locked groove track at the end of side “D” (of a two record set) which would play the final 1.8 seconds continuously (an effect lost on 21st century listeners who are more likely to spend the 4$ to download the album in MP3 than the $20+ to purchase the album on vinyl!).

Our final “Voices of Archaeology” track is hardly as intentionally dissonant as Metal Machine Music (nor will it likely be as iconic).  It does, however, capture and attempt to present some of the ephemeral sounds of archaeology — the gentle thumping of the pick, the scraping of the dust pan, the cascades of dirt into buckets, the interrupted and fractured conversations.  It attempts to capture sonically, what we as archaeologist are attempting to capture physically: the various bits of pieces of the past.  At one point on the track, Paul Ferderer asks whether a tiny fragment of ceramic material is a piece of tile or a piece of pottery.  The tiny fragment was at once almost completely inconsequential (and the question of whether the fragment was pottery or tile was even less consequential as all ceramic material was analyzed by our ceramicist) and at the same time the bit of ceramics is representative of the archaeological process.  The artifact must be contextualized in some way to generate meaning.  It goes without saying (almost) that fragments of the past have no inherent meaning.  They are displaced objects that the archaeologist envelop in contexts ranging from the place of origin, the original “primary” use, and, of course, the chronology of the other objects at the site.  The tension between the decontextualized object at the moment of discovery (the most tenuous and fleeting contextualizing moment) and various “big picture” narrative and analyses that ultimately come to make a specific site meaningful finds its place in the immediacy of punk rock as experience. 

I recently listened again to the MC5’s first album Kick Out the Jams, a live album, and admired their effort to capture the live sound and mark the band as a live phenomenon while evoking punk rock’s debts to the blues (a genre of music almost always recorded live) and the ephemeral connections manifest in garage bands across the country.  The contextualizing narrative of modern American music has, of course, placed the MC5 in a proper analytical and interpretive category (often placing them alongside Iggy Pop’s Stooges whose first album came out the same year and captured a very different kind of sound through the exacting production of John Cale) and striped the first album of much of its shock value (although it still can capture some of the excitement typical of live performances).

Our short track of trench sounds hopes to capture the same thing — at once it is inconsequential (and frankly hard to listen to!) alone just like Paul’s fragment of pottery — but at the same time, it captures a moment that begs a larger, more dynamic context.  The moment of discovery is the point of departure for archaeological analysis.  Trench Sounds pushes the incidental noise of archaeological research into the center,  like the feedback pushed to the center of Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music.  By recontextualizing the sonic elements of archaeological fieldwork I hope to have shed light on the analytical process itself which brings otherwise discarded and inconsequential artifacts to the center while pushing the archaeological experience to the edges… 

Enjoy: Trench Sounds

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One comment on “Punk Archaeology: Trench Sounds

  1. Kathryn Nedegaard says:

    I’d ask you to watch this video, which takes about 4 minutes.
    This will help illustrate my thoughts: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H8f8drk5Urw (“The Juggler”)

    Lou Reeds and this juggler have something in common. They took
    aspects of physics and made art out of them. Reeds took his guitars,
    created amplified feedback that, in turn, played the guitars which created feedback and so on. The sound was based purely on the physics of the situation, yet caused a reaction that created perpetual motion and evoked a highly emotional response from its listeners. People didn’t like it or find it interesting. They hated it or they loved it. They were fascinated and/or shocked by it on some level.

    The juggler in the video also took aspects of physics and made art
    out of it. Gravity and the laws of motions dictated that the balls
    would respond in the way they did. The juggler controlled that
    motion, created fluidity and perpetual motion. Like Reeds, (who also manipulated the laws of physics to create his art), the juggler evoked a highly emotional response, this time from both listeners and watchers. People were fascinated and delighted.

    I am completely intrigued by your application of this to the trenches.
    Therein lies the potential to evoke in your audience an artistic, fantastic
    emotion concerning the way in which archaeology crosses barriers of
    time, and is also fluid: has sound and motion. However, the clips
    you chose and the manner in which they present themselves is, (please forgive me), boring. There is potential there, especially in the trowel scrapings. They are dissonant and evocative.

    The concept is beyond brilliant, but the execution falls well short. I
    balk at saying much more simply because I think punk ceases to be punk when it is brought into scholarly discussion. Nevertheless, I truly believe that if anyone can pull this off, it is you. I genuinely hope you keep at it. I’m enthralled by the
    possibilities.

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