Our most famous “silence” in the art world would arguably be 4’33” (1947-48) by composer John Cage. Where some may see initially a punch line, those who experience it may realize the work is not about hearing silence; it’s about listening actively to your surroundings. 4 minutes and 33 seconds of a pianist at a piano, hands still, keys untouched, piano unsounded…“no neutral surface, no neutral discourse, no neutral theme, no neutral form. Something is neutral only with respect to something else. (Sontag. 1969, IV). Nothing is not what happens. Some years later from conceiving this work the composer had had a chance to experience the closest earthly (and manmade) thing we have to real silence, in an anechoic chamber on the Harvard University campus in 1951. Cage later stressed when asked about the experience that, “there is no such thing as silence. Something is always happening that makes sound” (1967), and describes how in the chamber he heard both his blood circulating as well as his nervous system operating. Our concept of silence always implies its opposite, demanding its presence within what we perceive as absence. (Sontag, IV).
“Even the surrounding hills were hushed, as if brought low by language” speaks Grendel (1971) in from Gardner’s novel telling Beowulf’s story from his side, that of the “monster”, exploring the necessity of the other side, and that opposites need each other to define their existence as opposites. There is battle, but also an implied balance within the war these opposing forces and their battles make up. Opposites are active, they push and pull at each other, creating oscillation and vibration. “…one must acknowledge a surrounding environment of sound or language in order to recognize silence. Not only does silence exist in a world full of speech and other sounds, but any given silence takes its identity as a stretch of time being perforated by sound.” (Sontag).
There exists a sculpture that elegantly and visually embodies this complex consideration. Its creator, Kadet Kuhne, is a visual and sound artist whose use of different mediums and technology allows for experimentation in a diverse array of forms, which is clearly seen within her oeuvre. One has the sense that her initial dreams and concepts are never attached or weighted by a set structure or know-how, but rather she finds and forms the best path to them, fearless of unknown territories or technologies. This feels especially apparent within her recent Interference series (2013-14), which includes 3D printed sculptures based on the architecture of sound waves, specifically the phenomenon of destructive interference and how it relates to the audio waveform. When two simple sound waves share the same frequency are produced simultaneously while holding opposites of phase that coincide with one another in an exact counterbalance, the alternating pressure disturbances of both waves cancel one another, producing an amplitude vibration of zero…which we can consider, silence. (Holland, 1997).
The waveforms of spoken words are phase shifted, or inverted, to create cancellation, rendering the perceived sound silent. This cancellation brings into consideration the transitory and subjective nature of thought and aims to question the solidity of language. (Kuhne, 2015).
In Dependent Origination (2014), the sculptures are printed sound waves of their title being spoken, whose meaning is also an ongoing theme within some of Kuhne’s other works. Dependent Origination is a core Buddhist teaching that speaks to the interconnectivity of all things. There are no beings or phenomena that can exist independently of other beings and phenomena, and they are caused to exist because of other beings and phenomena, which may also cause them to cease, in a perpetual rise and fall that if mapped may even look something like a complex sound wave rendered visual.
Her work centers on an existential dilemma (and dialectic) of movement versus non-movement, resistance versus surrender, receding from versus emerging into…space, presence, being. At its heart Kuhne’s art is seeking a way to explore and come to know the unconscious while avoiding the very real potential of being drowned by it. (…)With these works she provides a visual, aural, and also somatic simulacrum of our tightly spun-together nature—one in which any movement toward transcendence is simultaneously frustrated by inertia, negation, or perceived boundaries. (…) She is aware that it is exactly in these moments—”states of stasis,” she calls them—that consciousness comes into being. They do not require escape. But to ultimately move beyond the duality of their tangle requires trying to tease them apart. (Krowswork Gallery Statement).
Kuhne not only renders sound visible, renders silence visible, but freezes a voice in space and time, in volume and silence. Her sculpture is a time capsule and an archive, a sound and an object. It creates place by placing a visible silence, and surrounding it like parenthesis, transposing it from a time-based media into a sculpture.
You’ll realize that there is an embodiment ever present in this unsound art, this thinking art. You’ll have a work that might be concealed and confined, but with indeniable materiality, corporeality. You’ll face the plethora of spaces conjured here which all merit further study (…) You’ll then open your eyes, and see the volume of your listening. (Migone, 2003, 8)
The writer twists language, he makes it vibrate, embraces it and splits it in order to tear the percept out of the perceptions, the affect out of the affections, the sensation out of the opinion, with a view – hopefully- to that people that is still missing (…) this is the task of any art, and it is in the same way that painting and music tear out of colours and sounds the new chords, the plastic or melodic landscapes or the rhythmic characters that lift them up to the song of the earth or the cry of Men: that which constitutes the tone, the health, a visual or sound block. (Deleuze & Guattari, 1991, 166-167)
When Rancière writes on this paragraph in his essay, ““Aesthetic Separation, Aesthetic Community: Scenes from the Aesthetic Regime of Art” (2008), he describes the link to a public artwork and human community as a “transformed sensation”.
What the artist does is weave a new sensory fabric by tearing percepts and affects out the perceptions and affections that constitute the fabric of ordinary experience. Weaving this new fabric means creating a form of common expression, or a form of expression of the community, namely ‘the song of the earth or the cry of men’. What is common is ‘sensation’. The human beings are tied together by a certain sensory fabric, I would say a certain distribution of the sensible, which defines their way of being together and politics is about the transformation of the sensory fabric of the ‘being together’. ( 2008, 3)
A woven tapestry of hovering glass, tangling wires, electronics both recognizable and mysterious is splayed out into a space, spilling down from the performance table we are more accustomed to seeing on a stage. This is how we might experience visually Pedro Tudela’s performative installation, “Transparente/Opaco” [Transparent/Opaque], in its static form. In that moment before the artist/performer begins the performance, the installation lends us certain expectations, pregnant with its relationship to the possible. There is the hint within the mix of materials, for example glass hanging over speakers, of sound being rendered visible. With the delicacy of glass over the rough of electronics, we might even expect a small disaster, imagining our culturally shared image of the opera singer reaching certain frequencies and shattering windows. It leaves, with time, that expectation to hoover, like the glass over the system, and linger at what feels like a precipice…even if a false one, interestingly if a false one.
In “Transparente/Opaco” [Transparent/Opaque], the artist offers an installation that remains visually unchanged but whose sounds undergo progressive and significant changes/mutations over time. Micro-sounds, the result of both manipulation and induction, are subjected to processing. As a result of the changes, the sounds end up revealing themselves with a different body, a different size, in a different space that is far from what was visually apprehended at the start. The image maintains its shape, but the sound and the space change both their appearance and the initial relationship to the viewer. (i2ads site)
Humanity tied together by a network of woven sensation, like a shared soundscape that brings both information as well as experience. Rancière speaks of a vibration “speaking to the ears of the future”, transmitting protest, suffering, and struggle. Artists have that ability to pluck those threads in that “sensory fabric” and cause vibrations that ripple, and ripple through time. “The artists voice of the people is the voice of the people to come”. They “superimpose to that sensorium another sensorium organized around that which is specific to their own power, sound, and absence. Staging a conflict between the two sensory worlds” (Rancière, 2008, 4).
Even the surrounding hills were hushed, as if brought low by language. (Gardner, 1971)
There have been numerous studies in urban areas on how anthropogenic, or activity originating from humans, has affected bird song, interfering with their communication. Urban noise tends to be louder at lower frequencies, and it was noted that within a thirty year period, bird song dialect had replaced much of the lower frequency call with a higher one, also increasing in dynamic, or what many might call volume. And, as one can imagine, fewer birds to sing, less calls called within this new dialect. A rise in volume in one area, a hush in another.
Sound is important to many species. For humans, it has a special relationship to emotion, instinct, and memory, both individual and historical. Tapping into an ancient area of our brain, sound provides immediate information telling us where we are, if it’s safe, and how we should feel about it. “Based on hearing, listening (from an anthropological point of view) is the very sense of space and of time..,”. Barthes further notes, “[N]oises have been the immediate raw materials of a divination, cledonomancy: to listen is, in an institutional manner, to try to find out what is happening” (Barthes, 1985). We have a relationship to biologically important sounds that hold information-bearing elements (IBE) within them, and it is theorized that responses to complex sounds and soundscapes (and for example, cinematic sound design) could be explained on the basis of these IBEs. (Suga, 1992, 423-428)
We can be reminded again of Cage’s composition, and the experience of a concentrated listening, of focusing your ears to the soundscape surrounding you. And what is a soundscape? R. Murray Schafer, a Canadian composer, environmentalist, educator, and author, coined the phrase at Simon Fraser University in the 1960’s, where he began to teach soundscape studies. The phrase is used to describe the component of our acoustic environment that is perceived by humans, or “how that environment is understood by those living in it”. (Traux, 11).
Imagine Chernobyl in our present, the exclusion zone. For the vast majority of those of us imagining right now, we imagine a visual variation on the idea of empty. Just the term “exclusion” begs our imaginations to construct cinematic images of buildings frozen in time, there contents frozen in place…a pile of shoes in a mysterious two decade old dust in a corner here, a ghostly boat of rust and twisted metal beached upon the bank of a river. Perhaps it’s a street, the pavement cracked by time and spreading flora. What do you hear, in this place in your mind? Empty of humans, is it the wind howling through the broken windows and crumbling structures left behind by their people, maybe inspiring a loose door hinge to creak, or an old pipe to howl? What does a place left in disaster by humans sound like?
UK artist Peter Cusack’s text, photograph, and sound recording based project Sounds From Dangerous Places (2012), sought recordings from disaster sites such as the Chernobyl exclusion zone in the Ukraine, the Caspian oil fields in Azerbaijan, the Chernobyl-fallout affected farmlands of Northern Wales, and the rivers of Eastern Turkey with their extensive, local climate altering dams. Listening to Cusack’s recordings from Chernobyl, one might feel surprised to hear that iconic name attached to such rich and pastoral soundscapes. Cusack says Chernobyl held the richest dawn bird choruses he has ever recorded, which we hear woven against that iconic sound of the Geiger counter increasing its metallic chirp as he walks toward an infamous radioactive hotspot, at one point it making an eerie duet with a calling cuckoo. (Colbert, 2012)
The zone is now a wildlife haven and the sounds of the dawn and evening chorus of spring are intense. The vibrant recordings of wildlife show that many species, at least, are doing fine in the exclusion zone…
Dangerous places can be both sonically and visually compelling, even beautiful and atmospheric. There is, often, an extreme dichotomy between an aesthetic response and knowledge of the ‘danger,’ whether it is pollution, social injustice, military or geopolitical. (Cusack)
This work jumps through time in multiple ways. Its name alone, an important and perhaps at times overlooked choice of Cusack’s to keep the name of the recordings to the name of their recording site, as well as a descriptive title, such as “Cuckoo and radiometer”, and “Power cable cackle”. The titles also give a nod to the scientific side of this research-based artwork. Rick Altman has pointed out that, “in a recording we hear double, both the sound of the site it was recorded and the site where the recording is being played” (1992, 27). This contributes a jump in time and location as well. The relationship with that jump, or jumps, and our own imagined Chernobyl exclusion zone, creates a compelling tension with the lush and lively recordings within this work.
For me, an interesting aspect to all three of these sound works, and part of my desire to consider them in a shared space, is their relationship with the other media that make up their entity and give them a visual form. With what is audible, or from the audible, they are as well a book, a sculpture, and an installation. Christian Marclay once said, “I’m interested in sound, not just for how it sounds, but also for how it looks”. (Khazam, 2000, 28). There is a history to the desire to see sound. Consider the color organ of the eighteenth century, the concept traceable back to the sixteenth century, or even Ancient Greece, where philosophers such as Aristotle and Pythagoras speculated that there must be a correlation between the musical scale and the rainbow spectrum of hues. (Moritz, 1997). But these three works, while some of the desire that fuelled their creation may have a long history, are very contemporary with their conceptual relationship to their media and time. The three speak, in different tones and volumes, on their relationship to their silence, and their relationship to their sound.
Altman, Rick. 1992. The Material Heterogeneity of Recorded Sound in Sound Theory Sound Practice. New York: Routledge
Baptista, Luis and Luther, David. 2010. Urban noise and the cultural evolution of bird songs in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B. Doi: 10.1098/rspb.2009.1571. Accessed January 25, 2016: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2842653/
Barthes, Roland. 1985. Listening, in The Responsibility of Forms: Critical essays on music, art, and representation. New York: Hill and Wang.
Brentano, Franz. 1874. Psychologie vom empirischen Standpunkt. I. Hamburg: Felix Meiner. English translation: 1973. McAlister, L. L. Psychology from an Empirical Standpoint. London: Routledge
Cage, John. 1967. Silence, Lectures and Writing. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press.
Colbert, Maile. 2012. Listening to Disaster, Our Relationship to Sound In Danger in Sounding Out! New York: SUNY, Binghamton
Cusack, Peter. 2012. Chernobyl in Sounds from Dangerous Places. London: ReR Megacorp. Berlin: Berliner Künstlerprogramms des DAAD
Deleuze, Gilles., & Guattari, Félix. 1991. What is Philosophy? Paris: Les Éditions de Minuit
Gardner, John. 1971. Grendel. New York: Knopf
Holland, John. 1997. Sound Waves and Their Properties in the Surrounding Media. American Sound Press
“Kadet Kuhne” KROWSWORK – a gallery/project space. Oakland, CA. Accessed November 1, 2015 http://www.krowswork.com/kadetkuhne.html
Khazam, Rahma. 2000. Jumpcut Jockey. Wire, No. 195. London: The Wire Magazine
Krause, Barry. 2012. The Great Animal Orchestra: Finding the Origins of Music in the World’s Wild Places. New York: Little, Brown and Company
Kunhe, Kuhne. 2014. “Interference: Dependent Origination” 3D Print. Accessed November 1, 2015: http://kadetkuhne.com/portfolio/3d_dependentorigination/ in www.kadetkuhne.com
Moritz, William. 1997. The Dream of Color Music, and Machines That Made It Possible in Animation World Magazine, 2. Van Nuys, CA: AWN Inc.
Rancière, Jacques. 2008. Aesthetic Separation, Aesthetic Community: Scenes from the Aesthetic Regime of Art in Art & Research, Journal of Ideas, Contexts, and Methods, No. 1. Glasgow: Art & Research
Schafer, Raymond Murray. 1977. The Soundscape, Our Sonic Environment and the Tuning of the World. New York: Knopf
Sontag, Susan. 1969. The Aesthetics of Silence in Studies of Radical Will. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Suga, Nobuo. 1992. Philosophy and Stimulus Design for Neuroethology of Complex-Sound Processing. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences. United Kingdom: Royal Society Publishing
Truax, Barry. 1984, 2001. Acoustic Communication. Westport: Ablex Publishing.
Tudela, Pedro. 2013. Accessed November 1, 2015 http://www.i2ads.org/nai/en/performance-cam-pedro-tudela-%C2%B7-transparenteopaco/