in Language, Performance Critiques, Sound

At a Loss for Words (Silent Barn – 8/18/13)

Dear Sam

I was at a loss for words last night.At a loss for precise and useful words that is. And I remembered when you told me

There is just no knowledge about sound in our society. We have no real words to talk about it. So, for many people sound is like a miracle. Everyone has a basic idea of gravity, but why don’t we have a basic idea about sound? Everybody wonders why cities are humming, but they have no idea that the lowest audible frequencies have a wavelength of 16 meters, and these lowest frequencies act like water, they just swim around together! *

and my hunch was to disagree with you; to remind you that we–musicians and phonographers, music lovers and sound-walkers–we who know that low-tones bend round corners but high tones don’t, who know that the electic hum in America is 60hz and 50hz in Europe–we who love(d) both sound and noise–had personally departed from this dominant trend and had formed vocabularies of our experience.

And yet, there I was, at the Silent Barn, listening and watching Melissa Clarke perform, and it was much easier to describe what I saw than what I heard. And I was thinking, Sam was right. I don’t have the words.

There was a table, made of glass. Covered with shards of glass. Iit was similar to this table in her recent Antarctica installation (except no glas-bergs were under the table.)

Melissa Clarke, Untitled Antarctica (2011)

Under the table instead were candles. Melissa began with a phonograph. A sound track of water, splashing. Were they oars? Were we in a boat? Or just current, slapping against a dock, or lapping rocks.

Melissa lit a candle. I saw her do this: it is easy to describe and my report would even stand up in court. (And now she has sent me a picture…)


The audience sat in a dark room and saw a young woman dressed in black lighting a candle. She used this long candle light another candle. Pass it on. and another. There was a grid of candles on a glass shelf underneath the glass table. The tape kept playing. We heard a whir. Was it a motor? Or a distant plane? She lit more candles, and the sound-field on the tape seemed to widen. The wind picked up. We could hear birds. The virtual space re-presented was no longer just the surface of the water, lapping some thing, but now the whole shore–a forest approaching the water’s edge, the wind rustling the trees, the planes that connect the world. She kept lighting candles. Flickering light glowed in the shattered ridges of glass above the candle-flame.

It was a ritual. I thought of Brenda Hutchinson describing the Giant Music Box as a ritual to perform, a difficult task to distract herself, while playing various tapes. I wondered if we would only hear tapes. Melissa finished lighting all of the candles. And it looked like she was… listening. She pressed her hand onto the upper glass table… and another layer of sound came through the speakers. Another motor whir? It was a mysterious sound. She touched the table and wiggled some knobs. Suddenly we were inside of some giant motor, all whirring around us. She pressed her hand on the table and the motor burst into a giant echo chamber, whither the whole audience was transported.

She stroked a large piece of glass against another. And after this point, words completely failed me. I resolved to go home and read the liner notes of “The Glass Concert” to see if Annea Lockwood had come up with any terminology for the sounds we heard. But Annea’s liner notes didn’t help — only her track titles offered hints of a new vocabulary, with their specific sources.

In Melissa Clark’s performance, I heard sounds reminiscent of “Glass Rod Vibrating”, “Two Ribbed Discs,” and repeatedly, and quite beautifully, “Vibrating Pane.” (Track 13 on “The Glass World” — for blog readers who would like to hear excerpts, visit Annea’s page at The Wire.) All in a massive room full of echoes whose delays seemed too precise to be the result of the physics of the glass shards, which seemed to be fixed time tape-delay effects… but who could tell? Melissa also added, rather than “Rod Across the Edge of a Pane” a long shard (I feared she would cut her hand!) which she bowed across another shard, producing a clatter that sounded to me like a roomful of misbehaving typewriters.

Which returns me to the loss for words. For it sounded to me exactly like “a roomful of misbehaving typewriters.” But what sound would those words evoke for you? If I tell you something is “sweet” or “blue” or “smells like shit”, I cannot predict the feelings you will associate with those words, but I can reasonably guess what sensation the words provoke. You are right, Sam. We don’t have the words.

In your travels through America, have you ever heard a radio program called Car Talk? If you haven’t, I recommend that you ask Bruce to tell you about it. It was a weekly “call-in” format radio talk show hosted by Tom and Ray Magliozzi on National Public Radio in the US.  The main subject of the show was automobiles and auto repair, but as the hosts were basically providing diagnostics over the telephone, much of the subject of the show was about sound, the sound of machines, their malfunction and smooth operation. (The Magliozzi Brothers even have their own online resource, the Car Noise Emporium, cataloging some of their auto-problem imitations. Very fun. It will be an important element the Museum of the Fossil Fuel Age someday.)

Sadly for those radio listeners with car-troubles, the Magliozzi  brothers have retired, but the show was so popular that NPR still broadcasts re-runs, and of course you can hear episodes online. I propose to you (and to the world) that the newly retired Magliozzi brothers should put their educated ears to work towards the development of new sonic terminology. (I’m not sure how we go about this but perhaps someone reading this blog has an idea.)

After Meilissa Clarke, Lesley Flanigan performed.

Leslie Flanigan at MATA 2012.

Lesley held a dynamic microphone over one of her speakers, and made feedback. The elegant technique that rockers love and public speakers fear, made famous by Steve Reich’s Pendulum Music.

Flanigan traced circles, surfing you could say, around the edges of feedback, diving in sometimes to bring forth a buzz. It appeared that she grabbed loops of the feedback as well, building up a pulse of different feedback sounds, a pulse like an amplified tambura. And then she took a breath and she sang.

Reset. Speakers off. Pulses off. A change was coming. Loops unspooled, layer upon layer. Something that could be called music arose, and the previous free play with the speaker and microphone seemed like it had been the alap before the song. Lesley turned the feedback loops up a notch and sang more. Pure phonation–no words. She played with her mixer like a DJ for minute and then turned to the other two speakers.

The performance was crowded. At some point, the movement of people to and from the bar knocked me loose my choice spot where I could watch Lesley Flanigan perform and see her gestures. I was knocked to somewhere I couldn’t see, and so for the second “song” I listened from the back of the room with Nat and Kunal from the Silent Barn. As I was standing in the back of the room, looking at the silhouettes of many heads standing between me and Lesley Flanigan and her beautiful speaker boxes, the sounds were suddenly much less interesting than they were when I was watching. I then remembered something Richard Kostelanetz told me after ((audience)) presented a performance by Lary 7:

What is it? If it’s comedy, it’s great. Madcap man with a machine that he builds but can’t control. But if it’s music, it fails, because the sounds are completely uninteresting if you don’t see what he is doing.

Do we have a word for that? For something like the opposite of acousmatic music? “Must See” Music, not in the promoters sense, but as a precondition, where you must see the gesture of the performer for the music to be meaningful?

Antithetically, the final performer of the evening, Jacob Kierkegaard presented an acousmatic work. It was all long form phonography and nothing like musique concrète of the classical or Lopez variety; acousmatic nonetheless, since you couldn’t see and you didn’t need to see. The sounds were the thing, not the speakers or the gestures or the ritual. Sounds alone. From a room that was re-presented in the room where we sat. Was it a room? Or was it a landscape? Was it in Chernobyl? There was no program (printed, or online) and I didn’t ask, because when the sounds are interesting in their own right, we don’t need to know where they came from. We don’t need to recognize them. (Of course, we always recognize the water. “The first sound heard was the caress of the waters” and we never ever forget it.)

Jacob took us somewhere, and we listened, all while remaining in the Silent Barn in Brooklyn. Beyond that fact, I don’t have words to describe it; it was an experience which the audience shared and which is difficult to convey. And this is wonderful, but it is also a problem: If audio art is to advance, we must develop precise terminology.

What do you think? And, how is the situation in the German language? Perhaps we need to embark on a translation project?


ps: Congratulations on the Harmonic Bridge restoration!

* Sam Auinger, in Sound Generation

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