The Sound of Silence

September 7, 2010

Kenneth Goldsmith: Welcome to another edition of All Avant-Garde All The Time, the UbuWeb Poetry Foundation Podcast. I'm Kenneth Goldsmith. Today we're going to be doing something a little bit different. You probably didn't know that UbuWeb had a trove of papers on sound, on words, on film, on all things avant-garde. What we're gonna do today is we're gonna take one of those papers, a scholarly paper, written by Craig Dworkin called, Unheard Music. We're gonna put it to the test, and we're gonna see if in fact Craig's paper holds up when materialized in audio form. But the funny thing about Craig's paper is that it shouldn't hold up because it's all about conceptual music where the idea of it might be more interesting than the actual listening to it. As a matter of fact, Craig begins his paper with a quote by John Keats, and Keats says that, "Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter." And so, Craig starts his tour of Unheard Music off with John Cage's 4'33" written in 1952. Craig says, "It's a classic," of course in Three Movements premiered by David Tutor on piano. This is a recording that the BBC did. The BBC Orchestra actually did an orchestral interpretation of John Cage's 4'33". So, what you have is on the stage at The Barbican Center, you've got a full orchestra, and you hear the conductor getting ready to conduct Three Movements, and he does absolutely nothing, and the orchestra sits there in silence. The audience is very, very quiet. You can hear the occasional cough or rumble. And then between movements everybody breathes a sigh of relief, and it's on to the next movement. The BBC recorded this thing live. It's a video documentation of it. There is a goofy BBC announcer who's almost doing a play by play call of what's happening, almost like a sportscaster.



Announcer:   Tonight the piece is being presented in a full orchestral version conducted by Lawrence Foster. He's going to give a downbeat to each of the Three Movements. He'll turn pages when he needs to, and of course the orchestra will remain silent, we hope, throughout the piece.


Kenneth Goldsmith: And at the end you can hear the rousing applause, and the very excited sportscasters saying that this in fact was a tremendously successful rendition of John Cage's 4'33".


Announcer:   Well, that's one of the most extraordinary performances I've ever experienced here in The Barbican Hall, 4'33" by John Cage. And by the way, those of you with stopwatches, and there are many of you out there I know, 4'33" is the amount of performance time we heard. There was of course time between the movements as well for everybody to cough. I've still got Tom Service here with me. Tom, have you ever experienced a performance of this piece?


Tom Service:  Yes, but not in this environment. I mean what was amazing about it was how much tension it generated. You could cut the atmosphere with a knife. Every cough, every tiny noise was amplified, made into a massive musical event.


John Cage:    When I hear what we call music it seems to me that someone is talking.


Kenneth Goldsmith: Just so you understand a little bit more where John Cage is coming from, this is a really profound piece of an interview with John Cage recorded shortly before his death in his loft on 6th Avenue.


John Cage:    But when I hear traffic, the sound of traffic here on 6th Avenue and, I don't have the feeling that anyone is talking. I have the feeling that sound is acting, and I love the activity of sound.


Kenneth Goldsmith: What he's doing is listening to the sounds of traffic, and he's explaining his theories of silence saying that in fact there is no such thing a silence. Cage, in this wonderful short excerpt from an interview, says that the sounds of 6th Avenue, the sounds that the traffic makes is much better music than anyone can possibly compose.


John Cage:    If you listen to Beethoven or to Mozart you see that they're always the same. But if you listen to traffic you see it's always different.


Kenneth Goldsmith: The music you're listening to right now, which of course doesn't sound like music at all, is the music by Alphonse Allais. This is a piece called, His Funeral March, the very first movement of His Funeral March written in 1897, and its nine empty measures of silence. Allais was a cross between Eric Satie and Raymond Russell. This is from a realization of his piece off of a CD put out by the Sonic Arts Network called, Pataphysics. This is pure silence. There's no room tone, there's no sound of somebody cracking gum, or coughing, or the sound of a train rumbling by. No, this is nine measures of pure and unadulterated silence. Let's enjoy it for a couple of moments. Listen closely.


(silence playing)


Kenneth Goldsmith: And continuing our guided tour of a paper that resides on UbuWeb, Craig Dworkin's Unheard Music. This is a piece written in 1968 by the minimalist composer by Steve Reich called, Pendulum Music. This was premiered in Boulder by Steve Reich and William Wiley in 1969. What he does is he sets up a couple of microphones from cables over a loud speaker. And then he begins to swing them back and forth, and the amplifiers generate feedback ala Jimmy Hendrix with his guitar feedback. But there is no guitar, and there is no melody, but there's plenty of rhythm. The recording we're listening to is realized by Sonic Youth on their avant-garde record called, Goodbye 20th Century.


(record playing)


Kenneth Goldsmith: This is from Matmos. Dworkin has chosen Always Three Words, written in 1998. He tells us that the first word is four channel tape recorder. The second word is walkie talkie. The third word is another walkie talkie. What happens here is both of the hand held walkie talkies are put in transmit mode and moved over the tape recorder, very similar to the way that the Steve Reich was moved over the amplifiers producing interference, which can be manipulated with gestural sweeps, somewhat like scratching a record. Now, I think that Matmos makes things that sound too good. This can't possibly just be samples generated by running walkie talkies over a tape recorder. I think they cheat and make it sound better, but that we don't know.


(static playing)


Kenneth Goldsmith: Dworkin directs us next to The Monotone Symphony by Yves Klein in 1957 meant to provide a sonic equivalent of his monochrome paintings. What we're listening to here is the first twenty minutes. An excerpt is just a sustained D major chord. Now, the work was originally conceived for a full Vognarian Orchestra, but it was performed in 1960 by a small chamber orchestra who memorized the score on short notice. Now, this becomes more conceptual in the second movement because it's 20 minutes of silence. UbuWeb also hosts a complete version of Yves Klein's Monotone Symphony that this time is generated all by computers.


David Hoyland: The vintage sounds will begin on the referee's whistle, and we'll end with the National Anthem.


Kenneth Goldsmith: This is David Hoyland, and “A Minute Silence for the Queen Mum”, recorded in 2002. The unshielded mic picks up wind noise, so this is not pure silence. This is a little bit of ambient silence. And then at the end you have this pompous anthem played by a slightly sour brass band, and suddenly that very innocent silence turns into a moment of silence. In a patriotic sense, it could be a moment of silence for war dead or for some sort of, a holiday reminding you that silence is not always neutral. It's what you frame it up by that can imbue it with meaning.


(anthem playing)


Kenneth Goldsmith: This is by the Argentinian band Reynols, R-E-Y-N-O-L-S. It's called “Blank Tapes” recorded in 1999. Yes, this piece is made by digital and analog processing of blank magnetic tapes, but they're special blank tapes. Some of which have been saved with a kind of touching sentimentality since 1978. You can hear these very special tapes. Maybe they're Maxells from vintage 1978, have their own sound to it. Of course, nothing is silent there. Blank Tape of course isn't blank. It's got a lot of surface noise. Reynols brings out the wealth that's inherent in analog media with this piece.


(static noise playing)


Kenneth Goldsmith: In 2002, the fluxus artist Meiko Shiomi did a piece called “A Musicial Dictionary of 80 People Around Fluxus” in which he described each of these people either by realizing one of their works, putting a signature compositional method into practice, or through the general pastiche of technique and timbre, but in all events using only the pitches available from the letters of the dedicatee's name.What we're listening to here is a portrait of Pauline Oliveros, the grandmother of avant-garde music in America. This is generated using the letters in her name that actually correspond to musical notes, so it's compromised of the pitches A and E.


(high pitch sounds playing)


Kenneth Goldsmith: And this, you're listening to a portrait of Yoko Ono, but her name doesn't supply any notes. It's just Y-O-K-O O-N-O, which cannot be transcribed according to standard musical notations, so what you have is silence.


(static sounds playing)


Kenneth Goldsmith: Dworkin next directs our attention to The Institute for Fine Motoric, and a piece called, Penetrans, done by the Quebecquoi turntablist Martin Tetreault, and a collective of turntablists. This is work for record players that are prepared in the cagient sense of the term with various household items. What they're doing is they're taking toothbrushes and rubbing them up against the needle. They're taking tapes and rubbing them up against the needle. They're spinning things around, various household items, and letting the needles hit them using the turntable anyway except for what it was originally intended to do, play records.


(static sounds playing)


Kenneth Goldsmith: What you're listening to now are the sounds of Marilyn Monroe's voice with all her language removed. What you're left with is gulps, and sighs, and spindles all done by Language Removal Services. What these guys do is they specialize in removing all language from historical recordings. We also have a recording here of Williams S. Burroughs with his language removed. As you can hear it sounds entirely like William S. Burroughs with his grunts, and his mumbles, and his stutters creating an inverse portrait of an artist. These guys got their start as sound editors in Hollywood, and they're job was to remove all of the stutters, and ums, and ahs, from movie stars recordings in the studio for the film soundtrack. What these guys would do is they would scoop of the outtakes and they'd take them home and they'd make these artworks out of them.


(outtakes of speech playing)


Kenneth Goldsmith: Finally, Dworken ends his paper by showing us the work of Vasilii Gnedovl. This is called “Poem of the End”, written in 1913. Basically what it is, is sound poetry reduced to a blank sheet of paper. Project what you like onto it. Listen to the silence. Listen to the unheard music. This is a interpretation of that poem that's done by playing a silent wax cylinder, and just listening to the sounds of the wax. This goes on for an hour, and it doesn't really change, but it is the audio equivalent of a blank page. Sound recording itself. The materiality of the medium being made manifest. Those are just a few of the many sounds, there are many, many more, listed here in Craig Dworkin's paper Unheard Music. It's a curious thing writing about something conceptual and listening to something conceptual. It's called, Unheard Music, but now you've heard the music and you have a chance to actually hear what it sounds like. And do you know what? Most of the time it doesn't sound like much. Maybe Craig, maybe it's better in its paper form. Maybe its better in its unheard form. Craig Dworkin's music Unheard Paper is housed in the paper section of UbuWeb, There's a lot of writing on conceptual art, conceptual music, music heard, music unheard. I'm Kenneth Goldsmith, and this has been another UbuWeb Poetry Foundation Podcast, All Avant-Garde All the Time. Craig, when you're updating your paper you might want to include our rendition of Unheard Music, and that's some room tone from the room in which we're recording this here at Curtis Fox's Studio in Brooklyn, New York. Here's room tone.

Samples from from Craig Dworkin's UbuWeb paper “Unheard Music,” featuring John Cage, Steve Reich, Mieko Shiomi, Yves Klein, and more.

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