This piece has crept in here by stealth…it is not really about sound at all.

‘I have nothing to say and I am saying it…’

John Cage. Lecture on Nothing (1949)


I was asked to speak about ‘the silence of the exhibition’ at a two-day workshop on the ‘Silences of Science’ run by Imperial College and hosted by Wellcome Collection. On the first day of the workshop there was a performance of Cage’s 4’33” and over the course of the two days various other ‘silences’ were created and evoked through meditation, prayer, censorship, and pauses both musical and vocal. The two relevant words kept getting conflated…I could swear that some ‘silence’ I heard as ‘science’ and vice versa.


When it came to my session I decided to speak without notes and without pictures…my presentation was only supposed to be 15 minutes long so I figured I could keep enough in my head to say something coherent, though I took the precaution of warning my listeners that by the end the talk might dissolve into babble. The John Cage quote above was used by one of the other speakers and though I felt that it might be a suitable introduction to my own talk I also thought that this would appear too much like self-sabotage/self-deprecation. Instead, I confessed to a kind of heresy and admitted my fondness for noise. City noise, amplified music, improvised acoustic music played at full force in small spaces.


Afterwards one of the organisers said he thought the talk was like watching and listening to someone thinking. So, rather than let that process slip away, I decided it would be useful, for me at least, to try to record these thoughts. So here is a tidied up version of what I think I said.


There are 3 parts to this talk: the first is the description of an artwork, the second is an anecdote that might morph into a rant and the third is an open question. The last of these is the one that might remain at best, unresolved and at worst gibberish.


1. The artwork is part of a piece called ‘Museum of Angels’ by Tim Brennan (2003). The work was a book and a guided walk (this is often part of Brennan’s practice). The walk started at the north entrance to the British Museum where Brennan talked about our immediate surroundings (I particularly remember him pointing out that Senate House was the model for George Orwell’s ministry buildings in ‘1984’). The walk itself consisted of a tour through the museum in silence, with Brennan pointing to various objects that belonged in his invented/hidden collection of angels. I was struck by the oddness of walking through the museum surrounded by social clamour as part of a group who were not permitted to speak. We certainly perceived ourselves as different kinds of visitor/viewer…and maybe we were seen that way by others too.


2. A few years ago, visiting the Frick Gallery in New York, I wandered through the rooms in a very unplanned way, enjoying both the peacefulness of the galleries and the collection. I came into a busy room that was still relatively hushed. There was none of the usual chatter that comes with groups of people looking at art and I realised that this was because everyone in the group in this room was wearing headphones. Passing close to the other visitors I was aware of the buzz of the voice leaking from their earpieces. And then someone stepped on my foot, walking backwards without looking. A few minutes later the same thing happened again and I came to the conclusion that the immersive spoken sound world that enveloped these listeners had robbed them of their usual sense of spatial awareness. They might have been attentive to the artworks visually but it seemed that their aural environment superseded their ‘body sense’. If the voice in their ears told a listener to step back and appreciate a picture from a different vantage point that is what that listener did – as if they were the only person in the room.


3.  When I worked at the British Museum, a phrase that was often used was ‘let the objects speak for themselves’. Of course this is impossible – the objects are mute, silent. Instead what happens is that the objects are given voices in an act of ventriloquism by a range of people: curators, educators and designers. So, despite the apparent silence of the objects there is actually a cacophony of active voices demanding attention in the gallery. Related to the idea of the object speaking for itself is the notion of a ‘neutral’ environment for artefacts. I think this neutrality is equally impossible…any space created for display comes with an array of messages; everything from the architecture through the vitrines to the armature carries some meaning. So while the acoustic space of the exhibition may be quiet…the conceptual space, as much as the visual environment, is full of noise.


In thinking about this workshop I began to wonder what the spatial equivalent of silence would be. The closest I could get was ‘blankness’. In my design work I often remind curators that it is not essential to fill every wall with artworks or displays…there is some idea of ‘pacing’ at work here. But what does the visitor do when faced with a blank space? They do not let their eyes travel along a blank wall. The wall has no duration that has to be lived through. Instead they turn away or pass on. And yet I persist in this idea of blankness because it inserts peripheral, unprogrammed space into the exhibition. Blankness, like spatial complexity, increases the chance of uncertainty, open-endedness, visual rest, punctuation…And it suggests something else that is not usually discussed – a kind of ‘exhibition time’. In this time/space combine people are reminded of the fact that they are not just seeing a particular artist’s work or a set of objects that support a narrative but are in a construct that is ‘an exhibition’. This leads me back to Cage’s 4’33” – what I believe this piece does not do is create a silence, rather it makes a space in which noise (or sound if you want) happens in an unexpected way – it makes a void into which noise floods – and as listeners we are reminded of the noise that surrounds us, the noise of our lives. Ideally what these blank moments in an exhibition do is position us as viewers actively engaging in the act of looking, examining the chaos, listening to the cacophony.


31st January 2013


1. At the Kurt Schwitters exhibition in Tate Britain as the sound of the Ursonate leaked out from the central room…trying to work out where the fragment of ‘phonograph record’ was in the collage.

kiss 1

2. This Prince single from Dalston Oxfam. 59p.

3. Telling my son. Ivo,  about how ‘That Lady’ (by the Isley Brothers – but I couldn’t remember that at the time) was stuck in my head…but also thinking that the intro of acoustic guitar followed by that wailing electric guitar and wordless falsetto vocal is really wonderful. This song is almost ruined by too much exposure…too much radio play and being played in the background in too many shops.

4. At the Vortex Jazz Club after hearing a duet by Han Bennink and Steve Beresford, talking to Ivo about the validity of ‘prepared piano’ as a musical strategy.

5. Evan Parker, John Edwards, Han Bennink. Vortex Jazz Club, Dalston.









6. Listening to Instant Composers Pool Orchestra and thinking about the band I heard in the Imperial Hotel in New Delhi in the 1980s. They were playing jazz in a lounge style but they also kept drifting into an almost subliminal version of Indian music. It was like an inflection within the sound. Well, I think that is how they sounded. I think I may have got drunk that night and so much time has passed. Out of time and space.

7. ICP’ s cellist, Tristan Honsinger’s single vocal intervention into the ICP set sounding just like a fragment of Kurt Schwitters’ Ursonate.

ECM – A Cultural Archaeology

Don Cherry ponders and asks his toy trumpet to be quiet on the exhibition poster

Don Cherry ponders and asks his toy trumpet to be quiet on the exhibition poster.

I’ve been thinking a good deal about what stuff and ideas should be turned into exhibitions recently. In the last couple of months I have had to deliver two talks – one dealing with exhibition design and the other with house/museums and I began to wonder if the documentation and communication of some ideas just work better as books or blogs or records. This was going through my mind when I visited ECM: A Cultural Archaeology at the Haus der Kunst in Munich earlier this month. I was also thinking about the Touch event staged in London at the end of last year and about Jon Wozencroft’s heartfelt naming of a significant part of the Touch project as an act of sociability – reaching out to a community. I knew that the ECM display would be cooler…a longer history, a huge catalogue…with far more cultural baggage to be opened up and pored over.

The exhibition guide offered a ‘sensory field’…I liked the sound of this.  There are many pieces of music that have been recorded and released by ECM that I have hugely enjoyed over the past 37 years (I came ‘late’ to them…their first record was released in 1969)…but I have also appreciated the less obviously musical releases such as Jean Luc Godard’s sprawling soundtrack for Histoire(s) du Cinéma. Maybe the exhibition would be an attempt to extend the aesthetic of ECM rather than just document it – I guess I was looking forward to some kind of a Gesamtkunstwerk.  It was maybe with this in mind that I had suggested to my companion, Jon, that we visit the Asamkirche on the way to Haus der Kunst. This is a Baroque church squeezed into the busy Sendlinger Straße in central Munich. Architecturally it is a fairly straightforward oblong with 2 long, high galleries and an apsidal end…but its decoration is where it moves into extreme baroque – dripping with gilding and sculpture, trompe l’oeil painting and draped fabric rendered in stone. As if to order there was an organist practicing as we entered the church but whether it was the repertoire of the musician that seemed to just slide over the surface of the building’s interior or the museum/mausoleum like air of the place, the experience didn’t have the resonance that I had hoped for.asam

The exhibition began with a film from 1971 by Theodor Kotulla: See the Music. This featured Marion Brown and Leo Smith on a winter trip to Munich with Manfred Eicher playing bass. Long thought lost, this was a gem of documentary filmmaking showing the band in rehearsal and walking in one of Munich’s snowy parks. It heralded the best of what was to come in the show…the surprising effect of film in this context. At the same time it was a pre-echo of another dominant theme of the exhibition – the presence and drive of Manfred Eicher as the founder and head of ECM. As if to get it out of the way, the next exhibit dealt with the great behemoth that is Keith Jarrett’s Köln Concert album. This was the record that cemented the ECM image, making its way into thousands of homes in the 1970s. But it was clear at this point, looking at carefully selected photographs and LP sleeves, that we would not be taking a journey into the socio-cultural nexus of ECM…even at this stage there was a sense that this was edited history…all control and, somewhat perversely, no improvisation. The real delights in this room turned out to be a number of TV programmes with interviews with Jarrett and Eicher, a very staged wall of master tapes from the ECM vaults and the wonderful film by Anri Sala, Long Sorrow. When I saw this film in London at the Serpentine Gallery it was from time to time accompanied by a live saxophone improvisation by Andre Vida…here it was presented on its own…a rather drier affair but worthwhile nevertheless. The film shows the saxophonist Jemeel Moondoc playing outside the window of a tower block…the camera roving first around the room and then in space in the open air. The mystery of the levitating musician is never revealed despite the incredibly close examination on film of his face as he improvises.

The other film that impressed me was commissioned from the Otolith Group expressly for this show – New Light. This was a collage piece using documentary images of the group Codona (Collin Walcott, Don Cherry and Nana Vasconcelos) from the 1970s, mixed with a text from Gertrude Stein and a piece of cinema magic in which moving images are filmed projected onto rapidly moving drumsticks. This seemed like a true piece of archaeology…digging up something largely forgotten and bringing it into (new) light as the title suggests. The long wall outside of this installation was covered in album sleeves in serried ranks…letting the eye drift over these was a pleasant enough experience but ultimately it had the look of an over-scaled stamp album. Opposite the LPs was a row of headphones on which the music of ECM played in endless loops. As a ‘sensory field’ this was disappointing…look at the record sleeves, listen to the CDs. There is no doubting the edifice that Eicher has constructed…an edifice that is composed of many individually beautiful building blocks – but I craved a little more generosity. One of the notes I made just after visiting the exhibition was ‘Nothing outside of itself…’ This seemed to sum up the whole experience…there was no sense here of reaching out to a community…it felt like the hand of a rather benevolent corporation was at work. This was a world built in order to exclude rather than include. So this was not the exhibition it could have been. I am sure there is still the possibility of an immersive examination of sound and place through the eyes and ears of an influential producer and his record label but maybe there has to be a bit more letting go. Some of the influence of all that musical improvisation has to creep into the exhibition space…

(Part of?) An essay by the exhibitions co-curator Okwui Enwezor is available here:


Tim Berne's Snakeoil. Matt Mitchell, Oscar Noriega, Ches Smith, Tim Berne. 12. i. 13

Tim Berne’s Snakeoil. Matt Mitchell, Oscar Noriega, Ches Smith, Tim Berne.
12. i. 13

On the evening of my visit Evan Parker performed as part of the Electro-Acoustic Quartet in the Haus der Kunst’s concert hall. Like the following night’s performance by Tim Berne’s Snakeoil, this was a beautifully judged improvisation set…a perfect balance of restraint and energy and impeccable ensemble playing. These concerts gave a vitality to the ECM project that was missing from the exhibition. Speaking to Evan Parker four nights later after his set at Café Oto in London he told me how Manfred Eicher introduced some interesting and unexpected reverb into the live mix at the end of his set. I said – ‘Doesn’t that bother you?’ and he replied – ‘No, when Manfred is around you have to accept that he is the 5th member of the band…’