Revolutions, 1-7

by Michael

[#2] Waves in the rattle like faces in clouds, or patterns in science, or attempts to communicate only through listening. Tuning in, tuning out. Time abandons us to the mechanical murmuration of an as yet unrevealed metallic larynx, a pea in a tin, a screw in a washing machine drum, the ticking over of some empty percussive space. Only the skips and disjunctures of the sound remain and I can’t remember how this one started or how long ago. Rhythm upon rhythms, a constructed mystery – but what am I listening for?

I am underneath the McDonalds at Guy’s Hospital in London for another Points of Listening. Dawn Scarfe is playing seven pieces that each use scientific instruments to produce noise, sound or just music. She conscientiously controls the revelation of information about the instrumentation involved, the artists and their motivation. It feels like a quiz – guess the source if you can. It turns out that at least a few of the audience are familiar with some of the pieces and are better placed to play the game than I am, unfamiliar in all respects. But that also seems to work against their enjoyment of the sounds as sounds and potential attempts to visualise the performances that could have generated them, to construct a material counterpoint to the audio, to reconstruct the artistic process that created them.

[#2, cont.] More spaces, something slowing, the rhythms disperse, sounds dissociate from the din, isolate, each one stopping and threatening at last to stop the entire piece. As stopping becomes a possibility again, time intervenes, holding out hope, reminding me that it will have to stop. Irregular regularity. Until just one sound is left, one hand clapping, and perhaps, I think, this was a machine of thousands of parts, wheels or switches, each one stopping in its own time, perhaps calculating, like Turing’s machine, and then coming to a stop.

[#4] A breath, a wind blowing, blowing what where? A shiver. Within the wind, other currents haling over glass bottles, evoking landscapes, vitreous humours of distant worlds. Deep-throated whale song and the tinkle of chimes, chimes with whatever it is you are trying to say.

[#5] Tones upon tones, trilling harmonics between the ears, between these apparently electronic tones. Synthesised banshee. What science is this?

In between the pieces, Scarfe shows us images of scientific instruments – most from a bygone era – or reads to us from the artists’ descriptions of their practice. How they relate to each piece is tacit but seems clear enough. Resonance with the environment; emotional distance of the scientific method. Fur trappers used to make a mental catalogue of the sounds around them before they went to sleep so that their subconscious would wake them in response to any new sound, such as a bear.

Instruments revealed so far and yet to come include: a radiometer, 100 metronomes, cloud chambers, sine wave generators, a Helmholtz resonator – musicalised instruments of science, apparatus of the imposter.

[#6] Deeper, throbbing, wavering, wobbling tones. Extraneous tones of people outside this room break the spell from time to time, reminding me that we are sitting in a rough semicircle of three or four rows of plastic chairs, directing our parabolic focus on two speakers in front of a white wall. This tone is too contrived, manipulated, orchestrated. No natural phenomenon would be this considered toeing the line between interest and boredom to make the boredom seem interesting. The voices outside the door vie for attention. They sound as though they are on the radio, a faint signal beaming through the noise of this piece. Have their voices been conjured out of the resonating tones? I doubt it, but it has become a possibility through the superposition of waving electrowaves.

[#7] A pin drop explodes and fades like an amplified tuning fork. Pebbles in an aural pool. Arbitrary decisions betray the composition at work here, perturbing the soundscape. Time accepts the composer’s challenge and dares them to go on. But what now am I listening for? What resonance emerges between these pieces? Between my ears? Is it alive…is it a live performance, with its tiny wet electrical kisses and the scuffing clicks and burrs of a microphone being moved? A choir of electronic tones interrupted by vitreous percussion and the scrape  of chairs in McDonald’s above.

The spatial nature of sound; a process of reduction; sculptured integrity. The Grand Tonometer has 692 tuning forks, ranging from 16 Hz to 4096 Hz. I wonder if the withholding of revelation turns the revelation inwards…

#1: Cassiere – Crooke’s radiometer
#2: Ligeti – poem for 100 metronomes
#3: Partch – cloud chamber music
#4, #5: Scarfe
#6: Lucier – sine generator and clarinet
#7: Chartier – the Grand Tonometer