Gum and Butts
(Linear Obsessional 2013)

Review by Chris Whitehead

Like a thief trying to leave no fingerprints, traditionally field recordists remain outside their own work. They breathe quietly, move stealthily and sit motionless beside microphones in forests as if they wish they were not there at all. As if they long to somehow capture this music of the environment without invading it in any way, because to be a figure in a landscape is to change the landscape.

A different approach is taken by Viv Corringham, for whom participation in the environment as she moves through it forms the core of the six tracks on Gum and Butts. Viv describes the disc as a collection of live vocal improvisations with the city. In her own words:  ‘They combine three activities I enjoy: Wandering around London, listening to city sounds, and improvised singing. To make one of these works, I simply start to walk and record. I think of the sound environment as an equal partner, like a fellow improviser at a gig. I try to avoid using it as an “interesting backdrop” for my vocals. I play a bit, it plays a bit and we play together.’

The recordings are made in real time using binaural microphones. As might be expected of someone who is a certified teacher of Deep Listening and has spent time studying with Pauline Oliveros, Viv’s interpretations draw from the core and plumb the depths of each fleeting sound moment. Of course she starts with surfaces, but as the tracks progress elements within the melee are drawn out and illuminated. I see it as a learning experience for the artist and the listener, because contouring and interlacing the human voice intricately within an unpredictable cityscape requires an ever deeper attention to detail.

For the listener accustomed to the soundworld being left to unfold by itself and the anonymity, or even attempted non-existence of the artist, to have a woman suddenly respond to a whirring fan or a machine on a construction site by improvising a vocal around it can seem unsettling. It is exactly these original techniques that require us to recalibrate our focus and rethink ourselves out of ruts.

FR: Viv, you let the environment speak for itself a lot of the time, listening.

VC: Yes that sense of listening is really important to me.

FR: Do you wear binaural mics in your ears?

VC: They are technically pseudo-binaurals as they don’t go in my ear but above. So they look like earbuds, sort of. The advantage with pseudos is they sound ok in  speakers, not only headphones

FR: Do you perform live often, and is it usually improvised?

VC: I do as often as possible. Yes, usually improvised, though I had a duo with Peter Cusack doing songs, mainly Mediterranean. In London I have a duo with Alison Blunt and a trio with Charles Hayward and Nick Doyne Ditmas called Monkey Puzzle Trio. I also do solos and ad hoc groups in New York and anywhere else I can.

Now living in North America, Viv returned to London and visited six diverse locations where she recorded Gum and Butts. These are certainly not recordings of performances though , they’re far more intimate than that. As she points out, walking round a city talking and singing apparently to yourself is nowhere near as embarrassing as it used to be. These days everyone is speaking into mobile phones, often quite loudly. It sometimes seems the only way modern man apprehends the outside world is through one of these electronic portals. Who needs memory? Who needs flesh?

FR: How do you go about making these recordings? Do you set off with a destination in mind or just drift?

VC: It’s a bit of both. The Tate and St. Paul’s are places I’ve always liked singing in because of the resonance, so they were planned. I heard the construction site by chance and didn’t have my recording gear with me, so I rushed home to get it. I was lucky to get back just before the machine went into that heavy rock rhythm! Otherwise the rest were drifts.

These wordless vocals themselves derive partly from a folky earthiness coupled with a willingness to move from smooth glides right through all the intermediate phases into burring, raspy yelps and squeaks. She still sings Turkish folk songs and Greek rebetika. Often understated and subtle, nevertheless quite startling outbursts occur sporadically. Always the location remains intact and is never smothered. Space is left for destinations to breathe and be themselves. Once she has found a starting point, a tendril of sound is spun out that takes its coordinates from the locality as and when they emerge, taking a monody for a walk.

FR: Do you do these walk/listen/sing perambulations wherever you are in the world?

VC: Yes it’s interesting in different contexts. Right now I’m at an artist residency in California in a forest so it’s been fascinating to sing really quietly at the level of sounds here.

Viv Corringham places the artist within the frame and locates the human voice within the city. She liberates interpretive singing from the galleries and gigs and uses it as a tool to tease away at details in the matrix until they gleam by themselves. Repeated listening to Gum and Butts produces an assimilation of the voice into the field recording and the work functions as a whole. A singular pleasure.

Contained in the very limited physical release is a map, a small section of collage and a piece of chewing gum which lends a fresh, minty smell to the proceedings. As always with this label a download is available too. These credits from the Linear Obsessional website say it all really:

Viv Corringham – Voice
London – Sounds


[Viv Corringham; photo courtesy of Twin City Sidewalks]

Viv Corringham website
Linear Obsessional website

Chris Whitehead

Sound artist.