Everything touches everything.
– Jorge Luis Borges
In the shower, I can hear music. The water comes out of a long narrow pipe directly over my head, splashes down over my skin, and runs down through a grate into another pipe with a much larger diameter and much longer straight section directly under my feet. Up on the wall behind me is an exhaust fan, mounted in a shorter but still larger diameter pipe. Each of these pipes has a resonant frequency which is activated by the turbulent fluids and gases flowing through it and the hissing of the shower head. It took months for me to realise that the disembodied fragments of melody I occasionally hear in the shower aren’t coming from the neighbour’s hifi, masked and distorted by the sound of the water, but are a product of the shower itself. Or more specifically, a product of my characteristic interaction with the shower. These melodic artefacts – short cycling tones – are produced by my habit of moving about in a particular way while I bathe. As I shift around, my head moves closer and farther away from the resonating pipes, changing their relative balance and producing a pattern which I subliminally associate with familiar patterns in popular music. If I try to concentrate on the phenomenon directly, or to recognise particular songs, it dissolves into noise. It’s only when I can listen from the corner of my ear, as it were, that the phantom refrains return.
The shower head, like wind in the trees and water over the falls, produces pink noise.(1) It’s like an acoustic blanket or fallow field from which filaments of order can emerge. The shower head splits the pressurised water in the pipe into turbulent strands, millions of droplets bouncing off one another and merging and being torn apart again, and each deformation releases packets of acoustic energy. The relationship between those packets is a 1/f distribution, the same kind of distribution found in earthquake sequences,(2) the saccadic movements of our eyes,(3) highway traffic,(4) and the words in James Joyce’s Ulysses.(5) Pink noise has everything inside it for the construction of significance.
Generally when I’m in the shower I’m in a correspondingly cleansing mental space, where the conceptual agglutinations of daily life can be dissolved in the pleasures of merely circulating. In the shower I’m unclothed mentally as well as physically, my usual state of task oriented distractedness set aside. Both my skin and my mind are on the pink side; blood comes to the surface and exchanges are heightened. Pink noise can facilitate the understanding of things; it can manipulate the threshold of awareness so that patterns which are buried in the mix can come forward. This is how stochastic resonance works.(6) Pink noise isn’t random; 1/f is a sign of self-organised criticality,(7) exhibited by systems on a poised between chaos and order. Self-organised criticality is characterised by unpredictable avalanches of events; the critical threshold is like the sloping sides of an ant lion pit, its “angle of repose”, tuned so that even small perturbations can produce fatal cascades under the ant lion’s prey.
Every sharp impact of a droplet of water on my skin generates a sensation; an electro-chemical correlate of a mechanical pressure differential. Every transformation of mechanical pressure into electro-chemical sensation generates an idea, and this ideational flow is definitively pink. It’s pink because there is a scale-free logarithmic relationship between the intensity of the ideas and how frequently they occur. The self-organised neuronal space of my imagination is constantly cascading in this way, mostly small correlations, changes in potential; a drift like the movement of sand dunes driven by the wind. Occasional avalanches have enough power to deliver a perceptual morsel to my ant lion consciousness, which is really nothing more than the top level of a very sophisticated fractal search paradigm reaching right down into my fingertips and beyond through my extended, extensible culture/body. Even more occasionally, I might be visited by a very large and comprehensive correlation of events, nine on the Richter Scale, the kind of correlation that sent Archimedes running from the shower into the street shouting “Heuristics!”
So the granular materiality of the shower entrains my imagination, or parts of it at least, into a 1/f distribution, where it’s open to perturbation by organisational patterns from the culture at large. What I know as my “self” doesn’t really have a clear border, like a skin. My “self” fades in somewhere in the ideational flow rising into consciousness from sensation, and it fades out somewhere well beyond my skin, in the space where cultural categories, known ways of being and becoming in the world, are written down into the personal. These categories are a kind of ideological architecture which defines the unfolding of my subjective, personal experience of being in touch with materiality.
The domain of touch is the threshold between inside and outside, where internal and external spatial experience is integrated in the most fundamental way. It encompasses all subcutaneous proprioceptive and kinaesthetic sensation (information about the body’s movement, position and alignment derived from muscle and tendon sensors) including the sensations of saccadic movement and lens distension in the eyes which support and enhance visual perception. Hearing is an acute form of touch, part of a continuum of responses to mechanical stimuli, an awareness of the physical movement of flesh; vibrating membranes and fibres in the ear, resonant spaces in the face and bones and body cavities. The hearing/touch continuum reaches from deep inside the musculature out into the pulsating material flesh of the culture body; to the car alarms, the church bells, the man shouting something in the street, the whispered sweet nothings, the neighbour’s imaginary hifi.
Even if a thing can’t be physically handled there’s a relationship to volumes which is inherently tactile. I’m able to form an impression of a person’s emotional state from the timbre of her voice because I know how muscle tension in my throat feels, and how muscle tension affects my voice, and I understand these correlations in other people. Empathy is shared feeling, a matter of touch in its broadest sense; it’s a resonance phenomenon. If something affects my emotional equilibrium I say I’m touched by it. If I’m touched by something, an idea or a story perhaps, I might say it resonated with me. Resonance involves excitation, where the oscillations of one system push another into activity; entrainment, where the oscillations of one system cause other systems to alter their oscillations in such a way that they become synchronous; and reinforcement, where characteristic oscillations in one system are amplified by the influence of another.
For a system to generate sound it must be touched. Matter must be energised, motivated into vibration through a physical connection. If the energetic motivation is high enough to overcome a system’s natural resistance to change (its inertia, its conservatism, its damping factor) those structural vibrations will cascade into resonance. As a system resonates it agitates the material surrounding it, and the energy flows outward, resonating everything that can be resonated in its path, acquiring a signature colouration from the materials and structures which facilitate its propagation. Inside my fourth floor apartment in Vienna the sound of pealing church bells is a combination of the resonance characteristics of the bells and the architecture of the apartment building and the streetscape between the building and the bells. Some frequencies are reflected away from the apartment’s external walls, some penetrate the walls, some come through the narrow apertures of the open windows to be diffracted. The room’s internal volume and the relative shape, size and alignment of the walls channel the energy in particular ways until it reaches my body, which resonates according to its physiological sensitivities within a field of unique memories and the conventionalised descriptions of the world in which those memories arose. The resonance of the bells is a trans-temporal psychoacoustic phenomenon; to experience and respond to the sound of the bells one’s flesh must be fully penetrated and activated by the filaments of culture, right down to the level where the filaments become neuronal. If a sensation can be experienced it must have already crossed a significance threshold with both physiological and semiotic dimensions. Sound is that which can be heard. It doesn’t exist as an independent phenomenon, it requires a society of listeners. Sound can only arise against a ground of linguistic and social structures which have evolved within communities over time, within a range determined by the physiological sensitivities of the human body. The bells produce an expanding field of airborne vibrations, but that field is only sonic in the presence a listener, either real or imagined by other listeners.
Cage’s assertion that all sound is music recognises this. In 4’33” Cage stripped away the constituent parts of the musical event except for the expectation, given by the traditions of music and theatre, that something will occur. He retained only the framing devices, title, stage, performer, instrument, audience. These devices are like carrier waves, information channels which we expect to be activated in one way or another, so inevitably music emerges as a result of their activation. 4’33” opened up the channels but refused to activate them, and what eventuated was a kind of semiotic tinnitus; the perception of an open channel channelling itself. The channel’s information floor was lowered so it sucked detail from outside its normative parameters. The coughing and shuffling of the audience, creaking of chairs, the traffic events outside; all conventionally regarded as noise rather than information, were drawn into the musical context.
If it can be said that 4’33” theatricalises a musical experience, La Monte Young’s The Base 9:7:4 Symmetry In Prime Time(8) pushes it in the direction of architecture. It’s an optical/acoustic installation in a medium sized white carpeted room in the New York loft that has been La Monte Young and Marian Zazela’s home since the 1960s. The room is bathed in magenta light from gel coverings on the windows, and activated by thirty five synthesiser generated sine tones delivered at high volume through four large loudspeaker consoles in the corners of the room. The sine tones form a single unchanging chord with harmonic relationships based on prime number ratios that have nothing in common with the equal tempered musical scales familiar to western ears, and they generate standing waves in the room which intermodulate to produce an intricate, highly complex three dimensional matrix of sound pressure. Young spatialises the chord itself, allowing his listeners to occupy the space between the elements of the chord. Although the pattern of standing waves is static it seems to shift as the listener moves through the room; this is a shift in auditory perspective, a phenomenon we take for granted in the visual domain where objects and spaces have completely different shapes and alignments as we move around them. Because it doesn’t have any built-in temporal variation, the installation foregrounds the listener’s own lack of stillness. Even the drawing of a breath involves minute variations of position which radically change the perception of the sound, so the work operates as a giant biofeedback system, it can seem as if one’s movement in the space is producing the sound, rather than simply modulating it. The work embodies an infinity by means of its strict limitations, because to comprehend the sound as a totality one would be have to be completely still and everywhere at once. If there are five people in the room at the same time each one will be hearing something different. The sound is vaguely machinic, but even machine noise contains variation. Air-conditioners, refrigerators, cars, planes; machines are verbal, they are doing things. The Base 9:7:4 Symmetry In Prime Time isn’t, it’s crystalline, an embodiment of Goethe’s description of architecture as frozen music.
In everyday life, loudspeakers carry code, they re-present. Music, both recorded and live, the news and other kinds of infotainment, the voices of family and friends and business connections; all are delivered from another place and time through loudspeakers. I’m conditioned to the fact that the sound of a violin coming from loudspeakers is a representation/codification of a not-here and not-now violin. The loudspeakers are somehow transparent; I simply hear, or understand, the violin as present. Nevertheless I know what a violin sounds like playing in a room, and I know what a loudspeaker playing a reproduction of a violin sounds like, and the chances are I’d never be confused about which of the two I was hearing, which indicates that I also know what a loudspeaker sounds like and the difference between three dimensional spatial acoustics and a stereo illusion. However after a time in Young’s installation I could no longer be certain that the sound was actually being carried by the loudspeaker consoles in the corners of the room. It seemed to be emanating from the space itself, which was of course true to the extent that the sound was being shaped and articulated by the resonance and reflectivity of the room. Even right up close to one of the speakers it was impossible to distinguish what was coming out of it isolated from the sonic totality.
Think of the systemic intermodulation which occurs as I absent mindedly oscillate under the shower like Glenn Gould at the piano. There’s the turbulent materiality of water, an artefact of the resonance between hydrogen and oxygen molecules which gives rise to predictable, describable behaviour. There’s the network of pipes and tubes and taps which constitute the materiality of the shower, the local manifestation of a larger network of municipal utilities; water supplies connected to rivers connected to weather systems; power from the grid produced by generators transforming one kind of energy into another using technology which has arisen through an accretion of concepts developed through centuries of cultural activity. Then there is the materiality of my sensate flesh, its neurological infrastructure receptive to a narrow band of frequencies, optimised for survival and computational efficiency over millions of years of evolution. A body with an individuality ascribed to it by the culture in which it finds itself immersed, an environment of linguistic and behavioural conventions which promotes the construction of sense out of sensation. Much of this body’s reality is common to other individuals, but there is a unique resonant space of personal experience that can never be directly communicated or shared, because no other individual listened to the same combinations of vinyl records on the same record player in the same bedroom near the same ocean during the same historical interlude.
As these patterns interlace, they resonate and synchronise, and order cascades through the system to produce a set of very specific outcomes. Intercontinental climate systems produce snowflakes in the same way. The songs I hear in the shower are emergent phenomena, snowflakes from the global cultural imaginary. Concepts after all are resonant spaces of a kind, with pattern and structure. Since we can only experience the world from within a framework of concepts, for a human subject, resonance always has a cognitive dimension.
For the installation entitled Main Space Resonator at Canberra Contemporary Art Space’s Gorman House Gallery in 2008, I followed some of La Monte Young’s pathways and diverged on some crucial issues, the main one being Young’s idealistic hermeticism. The Base 9:7:4 Symmetry In Prime Time is a dominating work. It fully occupies its site and excludes interference from outside the purity of its conceptual parameters. In this sense it’s much closer to classical music, the opposite of 4’33”. Kyle Gann describes Young as a “counterfoil” to Cage.(9)
I was interested in producing something on the edge of audibility, something to be listened through rather than listened to, something more like a tuning fork than a piece of music. Something open to infection and disruption and change from without. In Gorman House there’s a constant low level mid-range hiss from the air conditioning and an irregular, looping, low frequency hum from the passing traffic, overlayed by voices from inside and outside, the activity of office machines, telephones etc – a combination of continuous sound, repetitive patterns with different temporalities, and intermittent single instance bursts of various intensity and duration. To activate this low-level sonic ambience, the characteristic timbre of the main gallery at Gorman House, and bring it forward into consciousness in a subtle way, Main Space Resonator used a low amplitude continuously sounding chord complex made up of sine tones harmonically related to the room’s resonant frequencies. I thought of it as a kind of passive harmonic filter through which environmental ambient sound could be drawn into the work, so that intrinsic and extrinsic elements became convoluted.
In formulating Main Space Resonator, I was concerned with activating the transitional zones between hearing and touch, between conscious and unconscious perception, the real and the illusionary, the understood and the not understood. I’m entertained by the notion that we are all world receivers tuned to a certain narrow range of frequencies, and that paradoxically it is our mechanism and action of reception which constructs the world to be received, floating as it might be on a sea of absolutes.
1. Kosko, Bart (2006). Noise. New York, N.Y: Viking.
2. Bak P (1989). Earthquakes as a self-organized critical phenomenon. Journal of geophysical research. Vol 94, No B11.
3. Aks D, Zelinski G, Sprott J (2002). Memory across eye-movements: 1/f dynamic in visual search. Nonlinear Dynamics, Psychology and Life Sciences, Vol 6, No 1.
4. Zhang, Xingzhi; Hu, Gang (1995). 1/f noise in a two-lane highway traffic model. Physical Review E. Vol 52, No 5.
5. Zipf, G.K. (1949). Human behavior and the principle of least effort. NY: Hafner Publishing Company, Inc.
6. Gammaitoni L, Hänggi P, Jung P, Marchesoni F (1998). Stochastic resonance. Review of Modern Physics, Vol 70, No 1.
7. Bak P, Tang C, Wiesenfeld K (1987). Self-organized criticality: an explanation of 1/f noise. Physical Review Letters, Vol 59, No 4.
8. The work’s full title is “The Base 9:7:4 Symmetry in Prime Time When Centered above and below The Lowest Term Primes in The Range 288 to 224 with The Addition of 279 and 261 in Which The Half of The Symmetric Division Mapped above and Including 288 Consists of The Powers of 2 Multiplied by The Primes within The Ranges of 144 to 128, 72 to 64 and 36 to 32 Which Are Symmetrical to Those Primes in Lowest Terms in The Half of The Symmetric Division Mapped below and Including 224 within The Ranges 126 to 112, 63 to 56 and 31.5 to 28 with The Addition of 119.”
9. Gann, Kyle. The outer edge of consonance. In Duckworth, William & Fleming, Richard (eds). Sound and Light: La Monte Young Marian Zazeela. London and Toronto: Associated University Presses, 1996. p.153.