silence is sexy: the other 'extreme' music
Ami Yoshida at 'Amplify', 2002- photo © Yuko Zama
I. Parental Advisory: Explicit Quiet
“Burn flutes and lutes, and plug Blind Kuang’s ears, and then they’ll really be able to hear again.”
“..the lid fell like a feather falling on a mound of feathers…”
In the summer of 2004, I found myself collaborating on a radio program with sound artist John Wanzel at Chicago’s WLUW (on the University of Loyola campus.) I recall a discussion we had at the time about radio broadcasting laws, and how it was technically illegal to broadcast a small amount of silence, or dead air, during normal operating hours- less than 20 seconds, if I recall. This bothered me, since, by that time, I had amassed a good number of sound recordings in which pieces contained stretches of silence longer than the FCC-allotted maximum amount. Would the intentional silences on these CD recordings really constitute ‘dead air’? I figured that it would be difficult to make a case to an FCC agent if complaints werein fact lodged to the station, saying that the programmers were being negligent and were continually, mischievously dropping the volume levels down to zero. It seemed like it would be futile, and a little comical, to try and explain the difference between long, deliberate silences used as an aesthetic element within sound works, and the long silences which resulted from a programmer’s personal failings- i.e. fumbling to cue up the correct tracks, or falling asleep on the job. To someone in charge of upholding broadcast standards and practices, what would be the difference between inaction on the behalf of a pre-recorded artist, or inaction on behalf of a live disc jockey? The more I thought about such things, the less I was able to come up with an answer that would satisfy someone unfamiliar with the phenomenon of extremely quiet music. At the same time, I realized how much antipathy there was, in our modern society at large, towards moments of quiet- as if it the quiet individual were counter-productive, aloof, nihilistic, incompetent, or some nasty cocktail of all this and more. If silence could be viewed as a compositional element, then placing limitations on its use spoke to some more insidious agenda that itself would involve a bit of 'silencing' (for example, silencing of deep reflective thought.) Getting people to view it as a compositional element, though, is no less of a challenge today than it was when John Cage’s landmark piece 4’33” dared to break the non-sound barrier (with the caveat, of course, that this piece revealed the impossibility of 'pure' silence in the minds of the living.) In a way, it is more difficult since the number of sonic distractions in metropolitan and suburban life have become manifold in the 50+ years since Cage’s breakthrough.
One thing is certain, contemporary appreciation of silence is truly subjective, and those who do not appreciate it tend to absolutely, unequivocally abhor its presence, viewing it as an aggressive weapon or interrogative device when used in interpersonal or social situations. Tales abound of negotiations during the 1980s between Western business executives and their Japanese counterparts, the latter of which craftily used Ma (literally ‘interval’, meant here as an extended period of conversational silence) to fatigue their comparatively loquacious business partners. The latter, unfamiliar with anything but instantaneous response, would then be pressured into accepting proposals less beneficial to them, if this technique was deployed skillfully enough. More close to home, I recall a handful of instances in which, during moments of protracted silence during telephone conversations, the speaker on the other end would become audibly uncomfortable and would begin dishing out intimate details about other people within our immediate social circle. All it took, in some cases, was a pause of less than 10 seconds to spur on the disclosure of confidential, ‘off-the-record’ information relating to mutual friends’ romantic lives, financial track records, and embarrassing quirks obscured from public sight. This was never actively sought out- yet I found this information was disclosed with disturbing regularity in situations where I was, owing to work-weariness or just brain-dead incoherence, unable to hold up my end of a conversation, yet was not allowed to hang up for reasons of communication etiquette. It was surprising, to say the least, how a raw fear of apparently blank audio space could drive certain individuals to desperation, and to fill this sonic void with whatever was immediately at their disposal. This phenomenon became much more evident to me when, a few years down the road, the explosion in the popularity of mobile phones annihilated moments of private contemplation or internalized dialogue while roaming in public.
It also goes without saying that there are a substantial number of situations in which some, any, external noise serves to soothe and comfort: when being jolted awake from sinister and portentous nightmares, it is a relief to have some utterly banal sound pierce the darkness that we lie in, and to jar us out of the hypnagogic terror that would convince us we are alone with the phantasms of our minds. Why, though, do we approach brightly illuminated and decently populated spaces with the same primal fear of silence as we do excursions into isolated, cavernous darkness? When the AIDS awareness group ACT UP chose “silence = death” as their rallying cry in 1987, “silence” referred to the mute indifference of communications media and the political class to the existence of a rapidly spreading, mortal disease- yet, twenty years later, this same rallying cry seems to apply to consumer culture’s attitude towards all forms of silence. It is equated with all social evils from un-productivity to insolence; a void only willfully inhabited by the anti-human.
II. Silence in the Digital Age
From the 1990s up to the present, there has been an unexpected, curiosity-provoking influx of electronically aided sound artists who make regular use of quiet as a compositional tool. Like much of the other music discussed in this book, pockets of such expression arose with such simultaneity that drafting up a linear chronology of actions would be difficult, if not pointless. The culture seeded by these musicians is, refreshingly, free of egotistical attempts to elbow one’s way to the front of the ‘public acceptance’ line- and therefore no one is really brazen enough to claim they were “the first” to innovate or revolutionize any aspect of this music. Such claims would be met with skepticism and would be viewed as bad form within a culture that de-emphasizes the need for celebrity. Besides, for every musician that we know of through recorded evidence, there may be another who came to the same conclusions years before, and yet was content to keep such discoveries private.
The name of this music changes depending on where the form arises: in the metropolitan regions of Tokyo and Osaka it is referred to as onkyo [meaning loosely “sound reverberation”], in Western Europe it has been christened by the journalistic community with the label of New Berlin Minimalism. Others, like Steven Roden, have tried to draw attention to its tendency towards subtlety and near-imperceptibility by referring to it as ‘lower case sound’, going as far as to refuse the use of capital letters on the appropriately sparse artwork accompanying his recordings. I myself would (for lack of anything more universally acceptable) use the term ‘digital-age silence’. Unimaginative as it may be, it refers to a characteristic I find unique about this music: its genesis followed the rise of the CD as the dominant format for music storage, as well as all the formats like MiniDisc, MP3, and FLAC [Free Lossless Audio Codec] that followed on its heels. In any of these formats, the introduction of silence or near-silence into the recording can be sharply distinguished from doing the same on a cassette or a vinyl LP: the amount of ‘system noise’, or the sound being generated by the sound playback equipment itself, is infinitesimally small on a digital format. No form of interference or system noise, like tape hiss or vinyl crackle, is readily detectable, in many cases you would have to place your ear next to the playback device simply to be reminded that moving parts are at work, to hear the restless whirring of the disc or the liquid squelching sound of the laser navigating its way through the tiny indentations on its playable surface.
The makers of this music are spread all over the geographical space of the planet, and even the preponderance of Japanese musicians in the roster does not presuppose Japan as the epicenter of such activity (even though Western media bias occasionally points to it as such, lazily equating ‘exotic’ Japanese culture with ‘exotic’ new music.) The means of making the music are similarly ‘all over the map’: a wide variety of voicing and tonal color is to be found underneath whatever umbrella term we use for this music. Some use the feedback from audio and video devices as the prima materia from which to compose, some use electronically manipulated vocals (the idiosyncratic and occasionally frightening output of Ami Yoshida is a standout in this regard), some use output devices devoid of any conventionally ‘playable’ transducer (Toshimaru Nakamura’s no-input mixer and Taku Sugimoto’s manipulation of amplifier hiss), others play a form of computer-based acousmatic music that sounds like the scattering of sonic dust particles.
Flourishes of conceptual humor often surface to combat the misperceptions of po-faced seriousness within this culture. Before the coming of the digital age, there was a rich history of “anti-records” containing little or no sound on them, but acting as comical enlighteners in other regards: it’s hard to stifle a laugh when being confronted with, say, The Haters’ silent 7” vinyl platter entitled Complete This Record By Scratching It, Before You Listen To It On Your Stereo, or another Haters contribution to participatory art, the Wind Licked Dirt LP. The latter features no grooves at all on the record, but does compensate for this shortcoming by including a bag of dirt in the packaging, which the lucky owner can then use to create their very own Haters’ ‘performance’, rubbing the dirt across the vinyl . Seeing as how contemporary Haters performances involved the band members watching mud dry and staring at blank TV screens, this activity may provide a decent substitute for their live appearances, for those whose hometowns are not included on the Haters’ tour schedule. Another “anti”-album more relevant to the present era is the Argentinian band Reynols’ Blank Tapes: a compact disc release assembled solely from the noise produced by, yes, unused cassette tapes. One proud owner of Blank Tapes sees it as a multi-purpose object, at once a ‘joke,’ an honestly intriguing listen, and also
“…a subtle attack on the medium of excess, the CD. How many albums need to be trimmed of their fat because the artist felt compelled to fill every millimetre of silver? Now, we're moving into the age of the Deluxe Edition! Not this one, sir. This is a wonderful tribute to the many minutes of negative space that haven't yet been violated by forgettable b-sides and studio flotsam.” 1
When it comes to instrumentation, the incorporation of silence into the music can be accomplished in a number of ways, as well: it could either done through literal inaction, such as not touching a hand to an instrument, or through an action which is borderline imperceptible, like playing constant electronic signals at such high frequencies that they teeter on the threshold of audibility and eventually vanish in the upper atmosphere…only to re-appear later in phantom form through the effects of mild tinnitus; a belated ‘encore’. An artist like the Syndey-born guitarist and electronics manipulator Oren Ambarchi – also organizer of Australia’s “What is Music” festival, host to many of this book’s surveyed artists - reverses the polarity of this trend by using bass and sub-bass tones which can be felt but not always heard. Trente Oiseaux label boss Bernhard Günter shapes electro-acoustic sound clusters of satisfying variance, then mixes the results down so low that ferreting them out becomes more of a personal quest on the behalf of the listener than a mere receipt of audio information. Günter’s more intriguing creations could also be an audio herald of nano-technology to come- the sound of impossibly tiny machines at work, as they float through the bloodstream.
To further complicate matters, some artists operating within this silence-enhanced realm will refer to their music as ‘improvisation’, while others consider it a form of ‘composition’. Such partitions can be dismantled very easily, though. Taku Sugimoto, whose work since the dawn of the new millennium has relied more and more on intensified emptiness, suggests that it can be seen as both: “[music] means neither ‘theme and variations’…nor ‘chained and dancing’…listen to the sound as it is…there is almost no distinction between improvisation and composition…to accept all the space.” 2
II. Returning to the World
Toshimaru Nakamura- photo © Yuko Zama
Whatever we choose to call this variety of sound that relies on low volume / perceptibility, intense concentration, and reflective pauses on behalf of both performer and audience, it has to be admitted that it is followed by a loyal coterie as limited as that which enjoys other ill-defined pursuits like “noise”. Those who are hostile to it assume that its motives are purely intellectual ones. Like certain minimalist forms of visual artwork, it is assumed to be a cynical gesture of opposition from an incomprehensible intellectual clique: a small cadre of people with such a distaste for the shared human experience that they deliberately cocoon themselves in alienating expressive forms. Others will insist that such sound should be reserved as the plaything of ascetic religious brotherhoods, or for those who live deeply internalized lives, wishing for no place in a vibrant social universe and preparing themselves for the ultimate silence of biological death by maintaining strict regimens of wordlessness. Some brave souls, like the Berlin-based guitarist Annette Krebs, have submitted to severe ascetic routines as the inspiration for recording, but such cases are still the exception rather than the norm.
Silence has been used just as much in scenarios of seduction as in occasions where one intended to alienate, to repel, or to make others cower before a display of dominant intellect or spiritual awareness. Although Hollywood films, with their habit of cueing up swells of lush romantic music to heighten cinematic representations of love-making, have increased the appetite for having a musical backdrop to these moments of intimacy, silence still wields an incredible power as a seducer and consequently as an amplifier of emotions. Its ability to create an illusion of time’s cessation makes for some of the most intoxicating, intimate moments in the romantic ritual, as does its ability to yank certain bodily processes (e.g. the beating of the heart, and the rhythm of exhalation and inhalation) to the forefront of consciousness. Such things are normally taken for granted or buried beneath the incoming tide of daily distractions. Even the titles of pop songs –see “Don’t Talk (Put Your Head On My Shoulder),” "Enjoy The Silence" and “Hush”, for starters- seem to acknowledge the fact that silence carries as much of an erotic force with it as do poetic wordplay and gushing verbal confessions. You could always propose maudlin, introspective titles like Simon & Garfunkel’s classic “The Sounds of Silence,” written in the wake of America’s grief over the Kennedy assassination, to rain on this particular parade- but even a song such as this confirms the role of silence in deeply stirring, communal experiences, rather than its role as a denier of such experiences.
Interestingly, silence does not end with the music produced by these artists: a certain silence is also evident in the artists’ self-promotion (or lack thereof), and in the advanced degree of self-restraint or inaction that accompanies CD releases, concerts, and other supplemental activities. Secondary literature and biographical information becomes an unessential adjunct to the act of recording and performing, especially when there is no stated goal beyond merely transmitting sound and observing as it assumes its place in the daily flux of energy and sensation. Photographs of artists are rarely used in promotional materials (when such materials even exist at all.) Magazine features on the artists and interviews with the artists, when they appear, tend to ignore quirky anecdotes and gossip, going straight for the jugular: the ideas driving the music. There is a greater-than-average desire to not see the performer as the ‘center’ of the music, as Steve Roden illustrates with these comments:
“The whole thing is not about me as the artist, as the focus. It’s about making these things that don’t necessarily point back to me as being more important than the work. The art and sound culture right now is so much about the artist, the persona of the artist. I talked to someone recently who said he wanted to be ‘the first superstar of noise’, without thinking that Kenny G is the first superstar of jazz! I mean, it’s not a good place to be!” 3
With such limited attempts at promotion and outward projection of personae, music of this genre survives mainly thanks to a famished niche audience willing to discover it on their own, and to make old-fashioned, unadorned word of mouth or Internet bulletin board notification act as a highly effective means of information dispersal. This situation is encouraged by some artists, such as the Tokyo duo Astro Twin (Ami Yoshida and Utah Kawasaki) who humbly and humorously describe their music as “…boring sounds / un-evolving sounds / unproductive sounds / lazy sounds / garbage-like sounds,”4 adding the caveat “each sound is junk, but some may be important. They are for you to seek. We want you to find them…that is Astro Twin’s request.”5 When they are found, the surprises are plentiful, and present plenty of challenges to those who expect relatively “quieter” music to be a serene shortcut into easy narcosis: Ami Yoshida’s vocal repertoire is a pastiche of drawn-out wheezes, glottal aberrations, focused bird-of-prey shrieks, reptilian slurps and occasional sung notes, all of which are then combined with smooth washes of electronic tone (her other partners in electronic sound have included Christoff Kurzman, Günter Müller and Sachiko M.) for devastating effect. With many of these sonic elements regularly employed within the same short audio piece, the unique ‘push-pull’ effect of the music –a continuous alternating between erotic attraction and outright alienation- is achieved with a greater degree of success than in most other creative genres.
The more well known record labels dealing with digital age silence and the musical micro-gesture, like Bernhard Günter’s Trente Oiseaux, rely on a simple design template that is applied to all of their releases: in the case of this label, each new release up until a point in the early 2000’s featured no more than the artist’s name and title on a textured paper background (the color of which changed with each successive release.) The CD Warzsawa Restaurant by Francisco López (who relies on a similarly reduced graphic design template for his own releases), bears only minor dissimilarities when placed alongside Marc Behrens’ Advanced Environmental Control or Hervé Castellani’s Flamme. The end effect of this common design scheme effectively mirrors the aesthetics of the sound contained within. In a desperate panic to find some ‘hidden’ substance within this sparse packaging, the listener’s tactile sense is engaged by the coarse paper of the CD booklets. As is the case with the music, the lack of a familiar framing device, and the refusal on the artists’ behalf to lead the listener by the nose into a world where all is explained, uncovers those perceptible facts which were ‘always there’. This extends to how a listener perceives the compact disc itself: in such a context, the bold spectra of color dancing about on the reflective surface of the aluminum-coated polycarbonate plastic disc become all the more vibrant, and even the transparent center hole by the larger ring of clear plastic seems to take on greater significance. These mundane little items become as close as they will get to being perceived as living organisms, rebelling against their status as mere objects. This brings us to the other half of the Chuang Tzu quote which opened this chapter: destroy decorations, mix the Five Colors, paste Li Chu’s eyes shut, and in All-Under-Heaven, they’ll begin to see the light again. My careless play with Taoist ideals here may upset some readers who wonder how a state-of-the-art, technological form of expression can mesh with this largely organic way of life, but closer inspection reveals that the use of digital-age expressive tools is not an automatic disqualification from such a lifestyle. On this subject, I can only defer to Taoist and Zen scholar Alan Watts, who reminds us that
“…the Taoist attitude is not opposed to technology per se. Indeed, the Chuang Tzu writings are full of references to crafts and skills perfected by this very principle of ‘going with the grain.’ The point is therefore that technology is only destructive in the hands of people who do not realize that they are one and the same process as the universe. Our over-specialization in conscious attention and linear thinking has led to neglect, or ignorance, of the basic principles and rhythms of this process, of which the foremost is polarity.” 6
Watts goes on to relate the concept of electricity itself - without which very little of the music mentioned herein could be reproduced - to the Tao, noting that neither force can be explained on their own; both are fundamentals only comprehensible in terms of the phenomena which manifest them.
The concept of ‘emptiness’ in Taoism also takes on a special meaning far from a concept of ‘the void’ as purgatory or hell. Quite the contrary: Chuang Tzu refers to the “Tao of Heaven” as “empty and formless,” a sentiment Fritjof Capra expands upon in his book The Tao of Physics: “[Lao Tzu] often compares the Tao to a hollow valley, or to a vessel which is forever empty and thus has the potential of containing an infinity of things.”7 Put this way, we can see “emptiness” not as a terminus point, but as a starting point: we can see silence not as a capitulation on the behalf of the artist, but as an invitation to go beyond sound itself and to experience all available aspects of the phenomenal world. “Empty audio space” has the potential to severely irritate those who expect sound to “explain” something, but for those who go beyond this, the apparent absurdity of making “music” from nothingness takes on the same role as a Zen riddle: illustrating that nature is a unitary phenomenon, a deeply intertwined organism in which every part contains every other part within itself.
this is an excerpt; full chapter is available in Micro Bionic: Radical Electronic Music And Sound Art In The 21st Century (revised and expanded second edition.)
1 User “Namakemono,” review of Blank Tapes by Reynols, June 16, 2008. Available online at http://www.discogs.com/release/325745.
2 Taku Sugimoto, liner notes, Off Site Composed Music Series In 2001. A Bruit Secret, Paris, 2002.
3 Steve Roden quoted in “Case Sensitive” by Christoph Cox, The Wire, # 229 March 2003, p. 30.
4 Astro Twin quoted at http://www.japanimprov.com/astrotwin/profile.html
6 Alan Watts, Tao: The Watercourse Way p. 21. Pantheon Books, New York, 1975.
7 Fritjof Capra, The Tao of Physics, p. 212. Shambala, Boston, 1991.