sound art (alex keller)

Cosmetic (1996)

Cosmetic was based on a scenario written by Troy Authement, an artist I worked with in Chicago. Troy had the idea of creating four written scenarios under the umbrella name of The Blue Crystal and giving them to artists, musicians, and composers. The receiver of the scenario would then make a soundtrack for the scenario, setting the mood and accompanying actions from the story. When the recordings were done, he would master them and release the work as a CD on a not-for-profit arts record label. Since he and I shared an interest in the relationship between image and sound, and he knew me from experience as someone who would complete the project, he gave me Cosmetic in the spring of 1996.

The scenario told the story of Penne, a entrepreneur in the makeup industry of the near future, who was haunted by a figure from the past, and who may be Penne himself. The scenario was divided into fourteen parts, and Troy suggested that the whole thing be around twenty-five minutes long. Since the story was futuristic, I decided to create the whole thing on a computer, using appropriated recordings, and try to let the harshness of the digital recording medium speak for itself in the piece.

I chose to use appropriated recordings for a very specific reason. For the last fifteen years or so, both popular music and the avant-garde have used musical and sound sources from other works in their own recordings. Many have been successfully sued for copyright infringement, which I see as a violation of their freedom as artists to use whatever methods and materials necessary. Appropriation has a long history in the visual arts (Rauschenberg and Warhol, for example) and has been established as a valid working method and a real part of art history. In the music industry, where the rules are dictated by lawyers instead of aesthetic history, appropriating sources means exposing yourself to getting sued. I feel that every act of sound appropriation is a political act and, by doing so, we give the process that much more of a history and will clearly establish itself as a legitimate creative act.

I began by familiarizing myself with the story, and wrote down impressions of the sections and how to work with the events that happened in each section. I then started to graph out the sections, specifying total and relative timing, loudness, tempo, pitch range, and timbre. From there I began gathering textures and sounds and digitally manipulating them to obscure their origin. Then I made a graph comparing my original notes against the list of textures which let me decide which textures would be used in each section, and exactly how they would be used.

On a Power Macintosh 7200/75, using SoundEdit 16 software, I began arranging the source material in the score. I worked on it for probably six months, and was able to give Troy a completed piece in December of 1996. At this point, only one of the other pieces has been completed (Soft Coffin by Jason Bradley) so the CD release has been put on hold. Parts of Cosmetic have been played in exhibition at Chicago’s In the Eye of the Ear 2 and Toronto’s Sonic Circuits Music Festival; and the whole piece has been played on the radio in Chicago several times.

Following is Troy’s original scenario.

1. penne
This piece introduces the story. Penne is the owner and chief executive of Blue Crystal Cosmetics. This cosmetic company is very different from all the others as it uses injection rather than surface application. Color is injected under a layer of skin in the face. Blue Crystal offers a time line collection that is heat sensitive, so as you change environments the color changes. Another line called plastique allows for a clear natural look that neutralizes color. One takes away all color allowing you to watch your blood flow and look at your innards. This line can only be worn indoors. Penne is gay, 46, and lives alone. His company is worth millions.

2. The Blue Crystal
Advertising, photos, video, a phone call allows you to view models day or night. Endless digital photographs, programs that allow you to view yourself with cosmetics on. Everything in advertising for blue crystal is pumped from a place called THE LAB. This is also where the offices are located. This piece is about the transfer of information. Information received, digested, passed on.

3. profiling
Penne walking outside of the lab one night notices someone watching him. He walks on, occasionally looking over his shoulder. A block or two away it seems as though the strange r has disappeared. Penne slows his walk and stops at a stand to pick up a news guide chip. When he leaves the stand the stranger has returned. A moment later Penne begins to run through the city streets. A red flash appears in front of Penne stopping him in his tracks. Penne looks behind him and the stranger is gone.

4. Morning comes in the shape of an animal
The next morning Penne awakes on his plush satin sheets. His penis is erect and in his head is the image of blonde hair blowing across the sky, lab techs stretching tissue, and a collage of other images changing often. He rolls over and rubs himself against the sheets imagining his penis going into warm sand. The television / information system comes on. It rolls through the stations and networks waiting to be given instruction. This provides a part of the soundtrack to Penne’s masturbation fantasies of sand, robots, hair, and lab techs.

5. The Letter (I’m writing you now … )
Starts with Penne at the office sitting at his desk. In front of him is an envelope with his name on it. There is no postal marking and no return address. Slowly Penne opens it, a sense of dread pouring over his face. The letter starts, I’m writing you now to see if you’re better … the last I saw of you you were recovering from a cold. I do hope you’re better and that things are well for you. Oh Penne these night s can be long and unbearable but I feel confident that I will be near you soon. Remember me. Penne sits the letter down, the keys of his brain are whirling out of control … his past? it can’t be John, surely not. John’s dead. His eyes are recording nothing.

6. Thoughts are made of plastic.
This is the music from the fashion show that is going on. Should not only be the music but the response from the audience. The show is both an emphasis on clothes as well as the makeup done by Penne. The show is called `The organic seasons of the moon, the prettiest star.`

7. Empty corridor
As the show finishes and as the final round of applause are fading, Penne looks toward the back of the room to see a man standing, staring at him. His face has a few bandages around it, covering or obscuring his features. The man slips from the back door in the room. Penne rushes toward the door. He pushes it open and steps out into an empty corridor … he hears footsteps scurry down stairs … running towards them his heart rises into his throat … pressure, the steps descending, the hand rail, the oxygen, holes in the walls, his neck, memory, consciousness …
At the bottom the figure disappears … Penne sits alone, head in hands, and cries for the first time in years.

8. Elevator up
Penne makes plans to leave for vacation … the show is done … his obligations for the time being are complete … he has a secretary arrange a rental car for him … the next day he will leave … the date of return is not discussed.
This piece is about leaving behind the last seven sections.

9… . someday song
Penne on the road leaves behind the city … Cold Fire, he thinks … someday it’ll be cold fire … a new make-up line? … ahead on the road is a figure … as Penne draws closer the figure crosses into the middle of the street, turns and faces Penne’s oncoming car … Penne stops, gets out of his car, walks up to the man and climbs into his body … this transformation only takes a second … the sun and the road are sucked up into their mid-section … together, now as one they slip inside the car … Penne driving looking through a different pair of eyes.

10. The beach house
The drive takes roughly two hours. The two end up at a beach house Penne had rented to do a fashion layout. The two go in, close the blinds, and lay out on the floor. They fall asleep and begin to drift away, their thoughts mingling, the central air blowing over their collective minds.

11. Slow moving fingers and toes
A dog outside barks and at that precise moment the two bodies split. Bewildered, they lay on the floor slowly moving fingers and toes.

12. Kitchen knives and ice skating
Penne runs to the kitchen, grabs a knife, and returns to the living room. His friend is hiding behind a chair. Seeing him Penne attacks him with the knife. Never making a direct hit the knife continually carves chunks of flesh from the body, spilling blood across the low shag carpet. The struggle continues with the knife being dropped and the two rolling across the floor. The scene switches to the men holding hands on an icy pond. The background is of mountains and is painted upon cardboard. Their legs lift and glide the skates across the ice. Their mouths open to receive puffs of cold air. The climate is of violence. They arrive out of this dream with Penne sitting against the wall, a dead man at his feet.

13. Stationary
They just remain stationary … out of nowhere a blast comes through the window killing Penne, as if the room imploded. We, the audience, realize the body was never there. The camera pauses to survey this event. Blood spills out of Penne in continuous bubbling spurts. All the life is running out of him. We see glimpses of events shown before, flashes of his secretive childhood, and hundreds of media illustrations. Everything ends with a sparkling light that flashes to black.

14. Kiss tomorrow goodbye
A few cars are driving in the distance. We, the camera, pick one and follow, the light changing its color before fading from view.