UbuWeb | UbuWeb Papers
Craig Douglas Dworkin
Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
John Cage: 4'33" (1952). The classic. In three movements. Premiered by David Tudor on piano, although it sounds pretty good even in transcriptions. Not to be confused with either the showier 0'00" (1962), "to be performed in any way by anyone" [NOTE 1], or the watered-down Tacet (1960), which "may be performed by (any) instrumentalist or combination of instrumentalists and last any length of time." Recommended recordings: Frank Zappa's acoustic rendition on A Chance Operation [Koch 7238], or Lassigue Bendthaus' electronic version on Render [KK Records 115]; the definitive recording of 0'00" is by Peter Pfister [hat ART CD 2-6070]. For real range and lots of artistic license (well, lots of license at least), check out Roel Meelkop's recent compilation of nine different performances on 45:18 [Korm Plastics 3005].
Alphone Allais. Marche funbre pour les funrailles d'un grand homme sourd (1897).
John Cage: 4'33" (1897). The great granddaddy of silent pieces. Allais -- something of a cross between Erik Satie, Raymond Roussel, and Joel Stein -- is probably best known for pioneering fiction structured on holorhymes, but he was also a composer. Sort of. The first movement of his Funerary March is simply nine empty measures [see the Album Primo-Avrilesque (Paris: Ollendorf, 1897)]. No recording, to date, but a scaled down version for string quartet was premiered at the FestivalMank (Nice) in 2000, under the direction of Ismal Robert (who perhaps took a cue from Henry Flynt's 1961 Fluxus score, which reads: "The instructions for this piece are on the other side of this sheet." The other side, of course, is blank).
James Whitehead (aka Jliat): Still Life #5 (2000). Six types of silence, all sounding the same but all empirically different. And potentially damaging to boot. The medium is the message, and in the case of the 16 bit 44.1khz compact disc the message can have 65,536 types of silence, none of which are the same: different data but all sounding null. In Still Life, Whitehead wrote those data directly to a PCM file, creating 6 ten-minute pieces with all of the values in a given track set to the same binary values. As Whitehead explains:
pausing the playing of a track will show this to be so, for the data being played is halted and the CD system jumps back to zero -- resulting in a click (if the value 'playing' was not zero or near to it). Interestingly this click is heard but is not actually on the recording -- it physically doesn't exist! It is the interference of the continuos stream of data which causes the sound.
The second track, "Swing" [+16383], is my favorite. Best of all, since the cd player translates every one of the continuous set of binary values to DC voltage, playing the disc can actually damage the speaker system coils and electronics in DC coupled equipment. Play at your own risk. [Edition ... 011].
Ken Friedman: Zen for Record (1966). Blank phonograph record in homage to Nam June Paik's Zen for Film (1964): a 16mm film consisting only of clear leader (often claimed to be an hour long, the screening I saw was advertised as 10 minutes, though it clocked in at closer to 8). Not to be confused with Christine Kozlov's Transparent Film #2 (16mm) from 1967. The incidental soundtrack to Paik's film is a lot louder than Friedman's disc. If you get a chance, sit near the projectionist; even after only eight minutes you'll never forget the nervous clack and twitter of the shutter, blinking like a blinded Cyclopes in the noonday sun . . . .
Steve Reich: Pendulum Music (1968). Like your high-school physics lab, but without fudging the results. Several microphones (no input) are suspended from a cable over a loudspeaker, with amplifiers arranged so that they generate feedback only when the microphone and loudspeaker are in alignment. The mics are set swinging along their pendular paths, honking briefly each time they pass the speaker and coming naturally to a droning stop. Premiered in Boulder by Reich and William Wiley, the performers for the 1969 Whitney concert were Reich, Bruce Nauman, Michael Snow, Richard Sierra, and James Tenney. Two good recent recordings from the Ensemble Avantgarde (two versions) [Wergo 6630-2] and Sonic Youth on Goodbye 20th Century [SYR4].
Matmos: "Always Three Words" (1998). First word: 4-channel tape recorder. Second word: walkie-talkie (no input). Third word: another walkie-talkie (no input). Both of the hand-held walkie-talkies are put in transmit mode and moved over the recorder; producing interference which can be manipulated with gestural sweeps. Last word: smart and funny and it's got a beat [Quasi-objects, Vague Terrain 001].
Mike Batt: "One Minute Of Silence" (2002). The kind of thing that gives the avant-garde a bad name. Third-rate excerpt from Cage's 4'33", impatiently arranged by British impresario Batt and included on the recent album Classical Graffiti by The Planets. An imposter child of Silence and slow Time, Batt was promptly sued by Cage's publisher for copyright infringement [EMI 5 57316 2].
John Cage: Silent Prayer (1949, unrealized). Hints at the neo-dada origins of 4'33" and its latent corporate critique. Cage's plan was to "compose a piece of uninterrupted silence and sell it to Muzak Co. It will be three or four and a half minutes in length -- those being the standard lengths of 'canned music'." Cage, that still unravished mariée, would have mise a nu canned music and translated it into a Duchampian "hasard en conserve [canned chance]." Always seemed to be playing in the elevator in my old building.
Reynols: Blank Tapes (1999). Yep. Pieces made by the digital and analog processing of blank magnetic tapes. But special blank tapes, some of which had been saved, with a kind of touch-ing sentimentality, since 1978. A lot noisier than the Argentine trio's first release, Gordura Vegetal Hidrogenada, which was a "dematerialized cd" (it came as an empty jewel case, reprising Psychodrama's 1984 release No Tape, a cassette shell that did not, as promised, contain any tape [the band's best release to date]). That (lack of a) debut cd was appropriate for a group whose leader, Miguel Tomasin, occasionally asserts that they don't exist. Tomasin, whose Down's Syndrome misprisions are taken as oracular pronouncements by his partners Alan Courtis and Roberto Conlazo, also regularly announces that the United States doesn't exist either. Which has cut down on his touring here. As Tomasin also says: todo afrazarmo de lo spolido cintas [TrenteOiseaux 002].
Peeter Vähi. Supreme Silence (1999). The third movement of this Estonian composer's piece is indeed scored for silence, which was probably a nice break for Kristjan Järvi and the men of the Estonian National Choir. Not to mention the listener who has to sit through the new age orientalist mysticism of the other movements (the first of which, just to give you an idea, is entitled "Mandala Offering."). Fine silence, to be sure, piping to the spirit ditties of no tone, and it's nicely recorded on this disk, but "supreme" is probably overstating the case [CCnC 182].
*0: 0.000 (2002). Actually not so rigorous as the title (or the pseudonym of Nosei Sakata) suggests, but rather the subtle hum and the molecular waver of air from frequencies just beyond the threshold of human perception: an ultrasonic 20200hz and a subsonic 14hz (or, in the case of one raucous track, the overtone produced when the two are combined). Though even that relatively lower frequency isn't likely to be reproduced on most sound systems. If you've got a good stereo, turn it up really loud and see how the neighbor's dog reacts [Mu-Label 002].
Mieko Shiomi: A Musical Dictionary of 80 People Around Fluxus (2002). Music worthy of the OuLiPo, in which Shiomi "describes" each of those people either by realizing one of their works, putting a signature compositional method into practice, or through a general pastiche of technique or timbre, but in all events using only the pitches available from the letters in the dedicatee's name. The disc from Galerie Hundertmark doesn't match the rigor of its concept with musicianship -- a few selections feature Shiomi's lackluster keyboard work, while others are left to an equally impassioned computer driven synthesizer. "Oh no" you're thinking, "eighty people?" Oh, yes, but the best piece is #56, for Yoko Ono, whose name wisely refused to supply any notes [? Records 10].
Though we're still waiting for the definitive recording, the anti-expressivist wing of the Japanese onkyo school of minimal gesture has been moving toward working entirely with non-networked equipment. Think of it as applied zen. Recent performances have matched Otomo Yoshihide and Akiyama Tetzui on empty turntables with Sachiko Matsubara at the sampler, but with no samples (only its sine wave test) -- all mixed together by Toshimaru Nakamura's mixer without any input. Then again, it may be better to meditate on the idea than to actually listen; try to imagine the hand of one clap sounding (in applause).
Institut für Feinmotorik: Penetrans (2002). Following Martin Tetreault's minimalist work directly with tone-arm pickups, this Southern German collective of turntablists spin their machines without any records. Though the record players are well prepared, in the Cagean sense of the term, with household items (rubber-bands, tape, a toothbrush, et cetera). As the hearts of the hochwetige Discoplattenspielers beat away, a few wheeze and cramp with the repetitive stress, some begin to click and thrum, and before you know it the resultant low-tech techno creates a wry roots electronica. Most astonishing of all, though, is that what might have been an inspired conceptual gesture or a 'pataphysical investigation into "precision motoricity" has been going on for years now and led to eight (!) albums. Put on your narrow black rimmed glasses and check one out [Staubgold 25].
Language Removal Service. Static Language Sampler (2003). State of the art in speech elimination, LRS cleans and purifies recordings of all language. Sources from their ever expanding archive include entries from various categories: "divas" (Callas, Monroe, Deitrich), "critics" (Susan Sontag, Noam Chomsky), "musicians" (Mingus, Monk, Cage), "artists" -- well, I guess they're actually all divas once you think about it. In all events, LRS takes out the words but leaves all the other sounds untouched: air whistling in buccal cavities, the pool and drain of saliva and phlegm, the glottal pops and deglutinations that punctuate the inframince spaces between even the most rapid speech. With that speech liberated from the distracting clamor of language, the cleansed recordings let ye soft pipes play ever on. With a good pair of headphones you can almost imagine the aolean echo of inspiration and the calcinated drip off stalactites in the caverns of bucolic grottos.... [promotional cd]
Matt Rogalsky. S (2002). Like the LRS but even cleaner. Rogalsky plays Doktor Murkes with this project, actually collecting the gesammeltes schweigen [collected silence] that Heinrich Böll's character supposedly splices together on tape. Doktor Murkes works in a radio studio, and S, not coincidentally, compiles all of the silences in one day of BBC radio broadcast. Testing both the proposition that "the tedium is the message" (as Darren Wershler-Henry phrased it) and that "silence is golden," the result was released as a limited edition boxed set (24 audio cds and a cd-rom documentation) priced at £300. No doubt feeling some pressure from the masses, Rogalsky later used filtering software to distill the set into a single disc of excerpts -- a "best of" album, of sorts, containing only the quietest silences -- which was later released in a more democratic unlimited edition (though still kinda pricy at £15). Although they congratulated themselves on treating the whole project lightheartedly, the BBC did assert its rights to the silences, risking a showdown with Cage's publisher.
Braco Dimitrijevic: Njeqove Dovke Glas [His Pencil's Voice] (1973). Pre-post-historical work from the Sarajevo-born conceptualist, who has written: "I want a style as neutral as possible, a kind of universal writing." In this case, the writing was done with a sharpened pencil on a piece of white cardboard, creating a unique variable speed phonograph record (16, 33, 45, or 78 rpm). I've never heard this one, but apparently the album was exhibited in Zagreb (Croatia) and Chicago in the '70s.
Vasilii Gnedov: "Smert' Iskustvo" ["Poem of the End"] (1913). Sound poetry reduced to the blank page. Grab a sheet of paper and give a performance yourself.
1. The score for 0'00" specifies: "In a situation provided with maximum amplification (no feedback), perform a disciplined action, with any interruptions, fulfilling in whole, or in part, an obligation to others. No two performances are to be of the same action, nor may any action be the performance of a 'musical composition.' No attention is to be given to the situation (electronic, musical theatrical)."