A Distributed Performance

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Brette Ragland, Anna Ghublikian, Olivia-Jene Fagon, Olivia Fialkow - A Distributed Performance

1. Intent of the Album

(Click each thumbnail to see an enlargement of the album leaf)


The Flaming Lips’ 1997 album, Zaireeka is an experiment in performance, listening experience, listener participation, and generative music composition. The album seeks to challenge the conventions of the standard studio album through dividing each of the compilation’s eight tracks into four parts, on four separate discs. In order to hear each song in full, a group of at least four listeners (with four compact disc players) must gather together in a space and simultaneously play all four discs at once (see the liner notes, above, for the band’s exact instructions on how to listen to the album.)

The limitations set on listening to Zaireeka dictates that a minimum of four people must be present in a physical space in order to achieve the full listening experience. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote that, "music is the universal language of mankind" (Outre-Mer: A Pilgrimage Beyond the Sea, 1838), a statement that is iterated in a contemporary way through the performative and communal gestures associated with listening to this composition.  Zaireeka aims to bring individuals together, using decade-specific technology, through individually unique performance experiences. 

2. Process

After arriving at a general idea of what we wanted our project to be, we went about finding a suitable symphony. Our intent was to either find a recording that could be easily broken into instrumentally individual parts, or music that could be imported into a program that could play individual parts. The former was unavailable (at least in our available resources), and the latter was a bit too difficult to figure out given our time constraints and unfamiliarity with the necessary software. In light of these issues, we reconsidered our source material and settled on using The Flaming Lips’ Zaireeka. Already broken up into parts, this album seemed an appropriate choice for both conceptual and practical reasons. We chose four disparate locations (Sayles Hall, a car driving down Thayer St., the Bookstore Cafe, and the Main Green) based on both their distance ("distribution") from each other, their individual acoustics, and their public access.

We planned the date and time of our hack, and acquired the necessary materials and equipment: the four-disc album of Zaireeka, 3 discmen, set of speakers, amplifier, car, and 4 video cameras.

On the day of the hack, we coordinated our phones and set up at our individual locations. After exchanging a series of texts, we counted down and began filming in unison. Given the diversity of our spaces, we had slightly different methods for camera-handling, yet we agreed that we wouldn’t make any adjustments based on what was happening in the song. When the song finished, we stopped filming. We then collated all of our footage, made sure it synced up with the original tracks, and posted it on YouTube.

3. Hack of Space

As none of us consider ourselves to be particularly computer savvy, we were originally a bit intimidated by the idea of having to come up with a compelling hack. Yet as we thought more about the class readings, especially McKenzie Wark’s “A Hacker Manifesto,” we began to consider other possible manifestations of a hack, which led us to our more analog take, the “hack of space” element of our project. Wark’s text considers hacking as a new means of production that has the potential to seize power through controlling the means and methods of information production and sharing. While the goals of this hack were not nearly as ambitious, they had similar aims of laying bare the often hidden or taken-for-granted structures, both institutional and socio/cultural, that determine how we think about and move about in space. By executing these unsolicited (and unauthorized, though this did not seem to be an issue) public presentations of the various elements of A Machine in India, we (hopefully) raise questions about how formally and casually established codes of space are formed.

We choreographed and then injected our own specific temporal (the playing of the tracks) and spatial (where they were played) circumstance (that when played and heard together the tracks comprise one complete song) into these four different now shared locations.

The cohesion of the track abstractly united these four separate locations, but it was unclear whether we actually intervened in the experiencing of these spaces. In the bookstore, for example, music is always chosen by the Blue State staff and played regardless of customer preference or opinion. Did listening to one of the four parts of Zaireeka anyway from the normal conditions of the bookstore?  Audience reaction was not something we considered in our process.  

4. Distributed Symphony Performance

Initially we had hoped to play different parts of a symphony (e.g. strings, brass, woodwinds, percussion) in different spaces around campus, the idea being that no one person could hear all the parts at once, yet, in some cosmic place on some grander scale, they could exist in the same space. While this proved too challenging a task to complete within the time frame given, we felt that our goals for enacting a hack could be similarly -- in new and interesting ways -- achieved through playing a distributed track from Zaireeka.

5. Evaluation

We decided on a straightforward, surveillance-style of shooting (adopting one, unmoving view point), since we felt the intention of the hack didn’t demand any sort of narrative or active filmic engagement with the space. We recognized that the quality of the videos could have been improved with more consideration of light, as well as the use of microphone booms to improve the audio. Overall, while we had to make some adjustments to our original idea, our project, for the most part, came out the way we had hoped.

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