over a few minutes while I am sitting under an awning in the market eating a kebab roll and drinking a 35 pence cup of tea with hail coming down and on my right the grocer playing weekend only Indian film music is it? on the lower right the iron shod wooden-spoked wheel of one of the market carts carved with the name of its maker Hiller Bros on hire E2 in front of me there is a gap and then two streams of people moving left to right right to left beyond them the shoe stall the wig stall the bra stall where all the bras are white so the display is like an Antarctic landscape of cups and the stallholder picks up a detached stockinged leg and prods the fabric over his head where a pool is forming the water pours down onto the tarmac
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:
David Toop organised and orchestrated this conversation/collaboration/improvisation featuring Shelley Hirsch, Sofia Jernberg & Elaine Mitchener. Normal (eloquent) speaking voices drifting into and out of song as if shifting with unseen currents. Elaine Mitchener suddenly and unexpectedly demonstrating how she had spent the day looking for the structure in Kurt Weill’s ‘My Ship’ – singing fragments of the first line. Almost heart stopping in its brilliant, broken complexity.
An invitation to the audience to join the discussion made me feel protective towards us listeners…there was a lot of talk about control and the performer but I think that listening demands that control is relinquished or, at least, suspended. In this, listening is not passive but it could be seen as a form of surrender. Us listeners are not mere consumers just because we are ‘silent’…the act of listening can form the space of the sound as much as the production of that sound.
David Toop, Rie Nakajima, Angharad Davies and others performing Mieko Shiomi’s piece from 1963, Boundary Music.
Coming through the doors of a ground floor gallery at the Whitechapel, each member of the audience was shown into the centre of the space and encouraged to wander. When I came in I asked if this applied to the performance too, little knowing that the performance was already in progress. There was no stage but seats were spread around randomly. People sat around the edges of the space, some with paraphernalia spread before them, a couple holding conventional musical instruments. A single floodlight on a stand illuminated the centre of the space but around the walls edges and corners became indistinct. Some of the performers were already engaged in making sounds and moving through the room. Someone walked around carrying a set of chimes, another was positioning lights under tissue paper and setting off small battery driven motors. Gradually each performer began to engage with the instruments or with the room like sleepers waking. Movements, gestures, sounds were all marginal, almost tentative. As the room filled up the blurring of audience with performance increased. The sounds of chairs being moved, the brief cry of a baby, murmured conversations all merged with the intentional micro-sounds of the piece. At one point I moved my foot across some piece of metal on the floor and another audience member turned round expectantly as if this too was part of the work. One of the performers peeled an apple and handed out the slices, another offered small wooden boxes and then, minutes later would wordlessly retrieve them. One person filmed throughout, many others took photographs but none of these actions were intrusive. At the time there seemed to be no obvious structure to the performance and it was truly immersive with participation enacted through the mere act of being there. Reading the score afterwards I realise that it is all structure…an instruction so simple that each sound and movement falls within the framework.
The piece ‘ended’ as it had begun, without anything to mark its edges. The sounds trailed off, some of the audience drifted out, performers began to pack their stuff away. No applause, no announcement. ‘Boundary Music’ is, in effect, still being performed.
Making drawings as I moved around I felt as if these too were part of the work. I usually edit the drawings in these posts but in the spirit of the piece I have included all 25 of the drawings I made here. Speaking to David Toop in the space later he talked about the possibility of failure that is inherent to the work. I found myself wondering how failure might manifest itself here, what imbalance might occur between the various participants and how we would recognise it.
My second big band experience of the week after the Arkestra at Cafe Oto on Monday night. This time round, virtually the whole audience was on its feet 2 numbers in…something I have not witnessed before at the RFH. The sound here could never compare with the intimate clarity of the Arkestra at Oto but there was certainly an electric atmosphere to the proceedings as guest stars did their turns to wildly enthusiastic response from the dancing masses. But who were these guest stars? Introductions were lost in the aural blur of the sound system…I got Charles Lloyd (who played a wonderful solo introduction on sax), Alexis Taylor and David Byrne but other names escaped me…maybe all will be revealed by others in the days to come. Not really a night for drawing; here are two from early on and a photograph of the entrance of the 200 piece choir during the finale…
Line up update:
Amadou and Mariam
Okkyung Lee – cello, John Chantler – electronics.
In the basement with a large mound of bread dough wrapped in cling film on the floor.