Delivered as a 9 minute reading at 6 x 9 Salon in Herne Hill on 20th November 2015. This version is slightly amended and I have added notes and pictures – there were no pictures in the original spoken version. There was, however, a short demonstration of Achim Mohné’s work ‘One to Another’.
From ‘In The Labyrinth’ by Alain Robbe-Grillet:
‘The sun does not get in here, nor the wind, nor the rain, nor the dust. The fine dust which dulls the gloss of the horizontal surfaces, the varnished wood of the table, the waxed floor, the marble shelf over the fireplace, the marble on top of the chest, the only dust comes from the room itself: from the cracks in the floor maybe, or else from the bed, or from curtains or from the ashes in the fireplace.’
‘…the staccato sound of hobnail boots on the asphalt, coming steadily closer down the straight street, sounding louder and louder in the calm of the frostbound night, the sound of boots cannot come in here, any more than other sounds from outside. The street is too long, the curtains too thick, the house too high. No noise, even muffled, ever penetrates the walls of the room, no vibration, no breath of air, and in the silence tiny particles descend slowly, scarcely visible in the lamplight, descend gently. Vertically, always at the same speed, and the fine gray dust lies in a uniform layer on the floor, on the bedspread, on the furniture.’
After reading these passages I was reminded of a room in Tarkovsky’s film ‘Stalker’. This is not what you would call a dry film…’Stalker’ is all damp and drips. Even the room I was reminded of turns out to have puddles, and maybe the room is, in fact, full of sand…so this association would be misplaced were it not for a very short sequence in which Stalker throws one of his trackers to test the veracity of the ground. The film shows the tracker bounce in slow motion through what I take to be dust…the motes stirring up into the air. The dull thump of the tracker as it lands is sound heading towards silence. Sound and matter becoming nothing. This is what dust does – first it actively suppresses, muffling sound, then it swallows the echo, the reverb. It is both sonic and material decay.
Here is Dickens or Pip describing Miss Havisham’s room in Great Expectations:
‘It was then I began to understand that everything in the room had stopped, like the watch and the clock, a long time ago. I noticed that Miss Havisham put down the jewel exactly on the spot from which she had taken it up. As Estella dealt the cards, I glanced at the dressing-table again, and saw that the shoe upon it, once white, now yellow, had never been worn. I glanced down at the foot from which the shoe was absent, and saw that the silk stocking on it, once white, now yellow, had been trodden ragged. Without this arrest of everything, this standing still of all the pale decayed objects, not even the withered bridal dress on the collapsed form could have looked so like grave-clothes, or the long veil so like a shroud.
So she sat, corpse-like, as we played at cards; the frillings and trimmings on her bridal dress, looking like earthy paper. I knew nothing then, of the discoveries that are occasionally made of bodies buried in ancient times, which fall to powder in the moment of being distinctly seen; but, I have often thought since, that she must have looked as if the admission of the natural light of day would have struck her to dust.’
When I looked back at David Lean’s film of Great Expectations…it was cobwebs and not dust that he had used to signify stopped time. And, once again, sound was subdued, not absent.
The necessary silence at the centre of Jules Dassin’s film ‘Rififi’ exists because the robbery that generates the plot depends on it. In the still hours of a Paris night, the thieves break into the flat above a jeweller’s shop. Breaking through the floor has to be done as quietly as possible but there is a piano adjacent to where they work and much play is made of the intermittent and inadvertent striking of the keys before someone eventually closes the lid. This gesture of closing the lid also marks the sections in John Cage’s 4’33”. At the moment when the hole is made into the shop below, there is a single shot of a column of dust falling onto the floor – marking the arrival of silence in this space too.
‘Dust breeding’…this is the middle of this piece now and I have almost nothing to say, except that this picture, a photograph by Man Ray of Marcel Duchamp’s ‘The Large Glass’ with a year’s accumulation of dust suggests that while time has stopped, dust multiplies…that it occupies a separate, unhearable realm.
I have just bought a 7” flexidisc by the Swedish musician Carl Michael von Hausswolff. This is his version of John Cage’s 4’33” arranged for electric guitar and broken amplifier. Of course here he reverses the usual expectation of this famous so-called silent piece. Because the amp is broken it buzzes and, instead of closing a piano lid, von Hausswolff switches the amplifier off and on to mark the separate passages. This reminded me of how 4’ 33” is not about silence at all but about noise…the noise that comes to fill up any sonic void that we attempt to make. Except maybe for this one:
I am beginning to wonder if collecting recorded silences is a bit of an affliction but I remembered that I also own an album called ‘The Sounds of Silence’…a kind of Now that’s what I call quiet Volume 1. On this record there is a piece by Andy Warhol made for the East Village Other magazine in 1966. It is called ‘Silence (Copyright 1932)’ and purports to have been created by Andy Warhol aged 4. But this silence, unlike the dust induced silence of Robbe-Grillet or the dust that slows and extends the passing of time moving towards silence in ‘Stalker’, has no duration. This is not just time stopped but time negated.
Although he raged against the noise of the city, I wondered if Thomas Carlyle also wanted to deny time in his sound-proofed rooms at the top of his house in Cheyne Walk in Chelsea. He had a room built within another room to exclude street noises and the sound of the piano from the adjacent house. But, though apparently sealed from the outdoor world, the wind whistled across the skylight and the sound of the next-door neighbour’s macaw still found its way into his space. Maybe in order to create silence sealing a room is not enough (as Cage noted in his visit to the anechoic chamber). And, as Warhol’s solution is impractical if not impossible – is easier said than done – it is necessary to impose the active ingredient of time in the form of dust.
Which brings me to my final stop. This is a record by the German sound artist Achim Mohné called ‘One To Another’. The grooves in the record have no content. When the record is played what you hear is the sound of the dust in the groove, the dust that has gathered there over time. The artist’s intention is that the record should be left out of its sleeve for 6 weeks in the space in which it will be listened to. On the occasion of my talk I made a different mix – leaving it to gather dust for only two weeks in a different room in North London. I’m not sure what my audience heard. The sound of time passing or the sound of time stopped? Or maybe, if they heard anything at all, it was just the sound of the rain falling on the roof above our heads.
Pages 141/142. ‘In the Labyrinth’, Alain Robbe-Grillet (1960). Trans. Richard Howard. Grove Press, New York, 1978.
‘Stalker’ directed by Andrei Tarkovsky (1979).
Chapter 8, ‘Great Expectations’, Charles Dickens (1861).
‘Great Expectations’ directed by David Lean (1946).
‘Rififi’ (also called ‘Du Rififi chez les Hommes’) directed by Jules Dassin (1955).
‘Dust Breeding’ (1920). See:
On the day I wrote this piece I came across this image of Palmyra (here rendered in black and white). This opens the possibility of another chain of associations stretching out from dust to archaeology to ruin to destruction…
‘Sounds of Silence; The Most Intriguing Silences in Recording History!’ edited by Patrice Caillet, Adam David, Matthieu Saladin on Alga Marghen. Cat no. alga 0406. (no date).
‘Silence (copyright 1932) also on ‘The East Village Other, Electric Newspaper’ re-release on Get Back Records. Cat no. Get 1012 (1998).
There is an interesting piece by David Ellison on Carlyle’s room at:
‘One to Another’ by Achim Mohné is available here: