Recordings Alone: Part II, Silence & Speech

Albert Grantowski

[June 2002.]

James WHITEHEAD: JLIAT: 6 Types of Silence, Still Life #5. edition . . . xi, (http://www.jliat.demon.co.uk).

Cage is famous for showing that silence is sounds. In these CDs, James Whitehead explores realms of silence Cage probably never imagined: the silences of PCM code. The pieces are composed directly in the code commonly used in digital audio recordings. 6 Types of Silence, Whitehead explains, is “six ten-minute pieces made by writing continuous values of binary data into a PCM sound file.” This CD, The Grandi Series, and five other CDs are part of a series of what Whitehead on his Web site describes as “extremely minimal ‘explorations’ of the digital media of sound recording.”

The preamp on my hi-fi is noisier than these silences, and I was scared by the warning on 6 Types that some pieces could damage certain CD systems. I listened to these disks on a portable system through in-the-ear headphones. I heard the following:

  1. Boogie, +32767. White noise and a very faint whistling sound, which I heard once and never again. At full volume (5 o’clock), a fainter, lower-pitched rushing sound. Like pieces 2, 5, and 6, it begins with a click.
  2. Swing, +16383. A crackly, wee-uh-wa pulsation at a lower pitch than Boogie. At maximum volume, a sort of cha-cha-cha sound. On second playing, I heard ta-ka-di instead. On third, chi-auh-uh in the foreground and a faint train-on-tracks sound in the background.
  3. Jive, 0. “Nothing,” just ambient sounds.
  4. Ragtime, -1. Faint crackly noise at full volume.
  5. Be-bop, -16383. A wea-eh-ou pulse. At full volume: louder, cracklier pulse and a second, click-click-pause pattern.
  6. Hip Hop, -32768. Crackly sounds with a faint, pulsing whistle.

How these pieces “really” sound is impossible to determine. Am I hearing the silences of the code or the environment or circuits or ectoplasmic projections, or what? But clearly, each piece is unique. Digital silence has character, volume, and flux. How it is that the same digital value can produce pulses and even two different sounds simultaneously is a matter for digital audio experts to explain.

What are these pieces? Music, sound art, or just explorations of peculiar digital audio phenomena? One way of hearing them is just as what there is to hear, like dog barks, tree rustles, or anything else there is to hear. Another way of hearing them is as a demonstration of the number mysticism at the heart of digital audio: Numbers really do produce realities, and, perhaps, unpredictable ones.

JLIAT: The Grandi Series, Still Life #7. edition . . .xvi, (http://www.jliat.demon.co.uk).

The back cover of the CD has a quote from Whitehead explaining the Grandi Series. Grandi claimed to have found a mathematical representation of how God created something from nothing. The infinite sequence 1-1+1-1+1 . . . sums to either 0 or 1, depending on how the numbers are grouped. Whitehead uses the series as a basis for creating the piece.

The metaphysics of being and nothingness in the cover text clashes humorously with the sticker on the shrink-wrap. It declares “CONCEPTUAL ART” and explains that CD players will probably not render the data on the disk as sound. I imagine not a few listeners didn’t “get” the piece and thought the disk was defective.

Indeed, there is nothing to hear, ’cept whatever’s already all around or in the circuits. Dead silence, even at highest volume setting. Why the alternating sequence of +1-1 produces the silence of Jive, which is a series of 0s, and not the silence of Ragtime, which is a series of -1s, is a mystery to me.

What is the concept of this art? That Grandi’s account of how God made something from nothing can be turned on its head to make nothing from something? Or that nothing is something, i.e., all there is to hear. Or, the piece is a Cage homage, a variation on 4’33″? The cover notes say, “play with infinite repeat.” Maybe that’s all we need to know.

Alvin LUCIER: I am sitting in a room (for voice on tape). Lovely Music LCD 1013, (http://www.lovely.com).

This piece is mentioned in a number of reference books on new and experimental music. Kyle Gann describes it as “very popular, one of the easiest works to use to attract people to listening to music based on acoustic phenomena.” Christopher Burns calls it an electroacoustic classic. Lucier, tongue in cheek, locates the version of I am sitting reviewed here as somewhere between a sonic science project and speech therapy.

Lucier created it in his living room in 1980. The score allows for variations in the text, type and number of rooms, performance venue, etc. This version is one of the simplest and most elegant realizations of the score. It consists of a recording of Lucier reading a text and 32 iterations of recordings of previous recordings played back in the same room. The text is an account of the process of and reason for making the piece.

I am sitting in a room different from the one you are in now. I am recording the sound of my speaking voice and I am going to play it back into the room again and again until the resonant frequencies of the room reinforce themselves so that any semblance of my speech, with perhaps the exception of rhythm is destroyed. What you will hear, then, are the natural resonant frequencies of the room articulated by speech. I regard this activity not so much as a demonstration of a physical fact, but, more as a way to smooth out any irregularities my speech might have.

Lucier recites the text in a deliberate, almost labored voice. The response of the room is noticeable on the second iteration as a slight fullness to the sound. Over the next five or ten iterations, the voice hollows, and hoots, ringing sounds, and whistles as if from blowing into a bottle appear. The pauses in Lucier’s speech and the gaps between cycles gradually grow fuller and louder as the words become incomprehensible. Silences slowly build into sounds that merge with the remnants of speech until one loses track of where one iteration ends and the next begins and hears only a drone with peaks and soft spikes, as if the volume knob on system of controlled feedback was being slowly manipulated. In the end, only the room speaks, in gorgeous waves of sound pressure that echo, in memory only, the words that gave them birth.

The work is simple, clever, and strangely beautiful. One is surprised to find the exercise of playing with the acoustic properties of a room so interesting, even dramatic. The piece, in one sense just variations of frequency amplitudes, is driven by the most basic element of storytelling, plot. Although Lucier knows exactly how the piece will turn out and tells us so, we experience it as a sonic detective story. Lucier, the investigator, gradually reveals the culprit, the room. As he does, we hear that the culprit was right there all along. Lucier’s speech is what he says and the room talking back, and the whole thing is music.

I am sitting belies Lucier’s mundane description of it. It is rich with meaning, even as language is obliterated and transformed into meaningless, yet mysterious sound. It illustrates the inevitable victory of the physical over human meaning and creation. It telescopes the process of centuries and millennia in which every human creation becomes an artifact — an object whose original meaning and purpose is lost — that we can enjoy in its pure physicality, knowing it will be destroyed and ourselves as well. Maybe this is more poetry than Lucier intended. But I hear it. And I hear, too, a pun: Lucier doesn’t eat his words; his words eat him.

Sources:

Burns, C. (2000). I am sitting in a room (1969) by Alvin Lucier, real-time realization by Christopher Burns (2000). Program notes. http://sfsound.org/~cburns/writings/burns-icmc2001.pdf

Gann, K. (1997). American Music in the Twentieth Century. NY: Schirmer.

Manning, P. (1985). Electronic and Computer Music. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Nyman, M. (1999). Experimental Music, 2nd Ed. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Schaeffer, J. (1987). New Sounds: A Listener’s Guide to New Music. NY: Harper & Row.