Invisible Cities Audible: Rinus van Alebeek & Michał Libera Play Alvin Lucier Chambers

Roman aqueduct bridge, Split, Source Roman aqueduct bridge, Split Author Carole Raddato from FRANKFURT, Germany, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

Rinus van Alebeek and Michał Libera Play Alvin Lucier Chambers è un diario audio di un viaggio attraverso la Calabria fatto tra luglio ed agosto 2014. Utilizzando come guide Invisible Cities di Italo Calvino e Chambers, il brano verbale di Alvin Lucier, van Alebeek e Libera hanno ricreato il paesaggio audio attraverso una composizione fatta da registrazioni esterne, readings e suoni manipolati.
Ignoring Pascal’s advice to stay within one’s own four walls, Rinus van Alebeek and Michał Libera in summer 2014 took a road trip through Calabria. The CD Rinus van Alebeek & Michał Libera Play Alvin Lucier Chambers is the travel diary of that trip, a document of augmented audio vérité grounded in the sounds captured at the places they stopped, where they took field recordings, read from a book and played whatever objects were at hand. Their travel guides were two texts: Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities (in English translation), and Alvin Lucier’s performance score Chambers.
Places needing a map, they took Invisible Cities as their unauthorized Michelin guide. The book was their point of departure and a model of sorts, a script to be read and partly erased and overwritten, the place names and data of their own travels supplementing or supplanting parts of Calvino’s text. In their recorded readings aloud, in the titles of tracks laid out in parallel to the structure of Calvino’s book, the particulars of Calabria in July and August 2014 substitute for the names and details of Calvino’s cities. Lucier’s score, which directs the performer(s) to find or create audio environments by performing given actions to make them audible, was, just as much as Calvino’s text, a point of entry into these cities and towns and an occasion for the making of sounds to be recorded. Van Alebeek took the location recordings the two made and altered and composed them into this audio travelogue—a travelogue of real places as suggested by a fictional guide and an indeterminate composition.

A catalogue of some of the places visited reads like a historical cross-section of Southern Italy, actual and mistaken: The modern center of Catanzaro, where one can see Doric columns in the concrete pillars upholding an overpass, if one really tries; Sant’Eufemia d’Aspromonte, site of a Norman monastery with a musical tradition reaching back to the 11th century; Rosarno, destroyed by earthquakes in 1783 and rebuilt; the village of Ziia, largely abandoned in the last century; Caulonia, late Roman or Byzantine but named for a Greek settlement later discovered elsewhere; the former Greek colony of Gioia Tauro, standing at the intersections of the Sirocco, Libeccio and Mistral winds and connecting Suez and Gibraltar; Raghudi and Chòra tu Vùa, whose Greek-Calabrian dialects conserve echoes of Magna Graecia or the Eastern Roman Empire; San Ferdinando, built with rehabilitated convict labor and named for a Bourbon king.

Invisible cities—non-existent cities, as in Calvino’s fictional narrative, or simply unnoticed habitations and ruins existing away from the main highways. The cities, towns and villages—frazioni, literally fractions of larger places—of Calabria were understood to be invisible in the second sense and thus by extension inaudible. By recording through and in them and then composing the results afterward, van Alebeek and Libera ask the listener to inhabit an audio landscape both natural and artificial that is, like the locations they visited, often un- or under-noticed. A kind of philosophical insight is stake in that they attempt to make explicit the taken for granted fact that our ears give the world entry into our sensibilities and give rise to the experience of what it is like to inhabit this place at this time, for any place at any time.
Van Alebeek’s after-the-fact composition and manipulation of the sound files would appear to introduce a degree of artificiality into the location recordings. As would the addition afterward on two tracks of Barbara Eramo’s voice reading from the text. But there always was an element of artifice necessary to narrative—which this audio diary is—the artifice of a conceptual framework within which the sounds are structured and arranged. (And consider that van Alebeek and Libera’s audible cities are the refigured image of Calvino’s invisible cities, which are themselves refigured images of Marco Polo’s cities.) This kind of artificiality points toward something John Ashbury once called a “superior realism”—a capturing of the essence of the real through artifice. A kind of transcendental realism in which a somehow true picture of Calabria emerges through multiple filters.
One of these filters is technical rather than conceptual. There is a residual lo-fi aura about these recordings which gives them a certain immediacy. One can hear, or imagine hearing, the air surrounding the travelers in the ambient noise captured by their recording devices.
Crucially, van Alebeek and Libera’s audio diary documents a performance rather than a simple sightseeing trip. For, no less than Calvino’s book, Lucier’s score provided an itinerary. Not an itinerary of places to go, but of actions to perform once there—blowing, rubbing, bowing, scraping and other activities designed to produce sound from objects and spaces. In realizing the score, the performers realize the place as a sound environment and constitute it as somehow knowable.
By choosing to make their invisible cities audible van Alebeek and Libera imported a kind of self-consciousness to what we ordinarily consider inert and inanimate. To record a place as a place is in a sense to recover it for itself, to bring it to itself through the awareness of the attentive listener. Ordinarily these places confront us with a kind of mute opacity that faces away from us in indifference. One gets the sense that van Alebeek and Libera’s diary was directed precisely at this opacity and was designed to penetrate it—to retrieve something intelligible from it. And they would seem to be onto something. By its nature the recorded environment presented as an object to be listened to brings the customarily unheard or merely overheard audio background to the foreground, carves it out as an object that by virtue of being attended to transcends the impassiveness of its self-enclosure and becomes an element in the dynamic of perception. In effect, with this project van Alebeek and Libera are able to recreate for the listener these places as present to themselves in these particular moments, as evidenced by these particular sounds offering to move to the center of the listener’s awareness.