Space as a Symphony of Turning Off Sounds

In David Toop’s classic book Ocean of Sound – something I cite repeatedly here on BLDGBLOG – we read about a musical performance that, by accident of circumstance, became a process of turning off all sources of noise within a building.

[Image: Felix Hess assembles similar sound machines, next to a photo of an unrelated concert hall].

For an installation of fifty specially made “sound creatures” – little interactive robots “inspired by the communication eco-system of frog choruses,” Toop writes – experimental musician Felix Hess insisted that there be no “extraneous sounds” in the concert hall. Hess’s miniature sound performance required absolute silence, or else the machines would not function.
Toop then quotes a lengthy description of the creatures’ set-up:

We had imagined that the foyer, on an afternoon when nothing was being held there, was extremely tranquil, but not even one of them began to call out in response to any of the others. So first we turned off the air conditioner in the room, and then we turned off the one on the second floor. Then we turned off the refrigerator and the electric cooking equipment in the adjoining cafe, the power of the multi-vision in the foyer, and the power of the vending machine in a space about ten metres away. One by one we took away these continual noises, which together created a kind of drone there… Hess was very interested in this and said things like, “From now on maybe I should do a performance of turning off sounds.”

It’s amazing to think, of course, that anything could pick up, and even respond to, sounds that subtle; but it’s also quite incredible to imagine one’s own acoustic awareness of architecture as a process of subtraction.
You could even turn it into a game:

1) You are sitting on a stage, wearing a blind-fold.
2) Every electrical device in the building around you is on.
3) Suddenly, you detect a slight difference, a vague change in sonic pressure somewhere, as if an extremely distant mosquito has been swatted – a spot of silence, as it were, has appeared in the room.
4) “Toaster, fourth floor!” you call out – and you’re right. Someone turned off the toaster.
5) You win a trip to France.

In any case, it’s easy to imagine Hess and his assistants finding this process much more difficult than they’d imagined. At one point in the afternoon, then, with only hours to go before the doors open, they have to step across the street and turn off the appliances in a nearby high-rise – and then next door, to a block of flats, and then down the road to the neighborhood hospital. Still nothing.
Gradually they go on to turn off the entire world, street by street, city by city, in an ever-expanding ring of total silence.
The world becomes a sonic sculpture from which sources of background sound are constantly removed.
Finally, twenty-five years from now, as the very last radio is unplugged in a distant house in Tanzania, the “sound creatures” sitting with Felix Hess on stage begin singing.

15 thoughts on “Space as a Symphony of Turning Off Sounds”

  1. I was once in the cast of an operetta. We were recording the sound track one afternoon in an otherwise empty recital hall. The sound engineers, after our rehearsal but before the recording session, shooed us out of the buidling because they had to guage the sound of the empty room, then adjust their equipmenmt accordingly. I thought this was funny, but they were quite serious.

    I do like the notion of turning stuff off as an artistic statement. Rather like minimalist painting or music. But moreso. Or less so.

  2. This reminds me of my favourite part of the day at some past jobs- turning off the computer and then the overhead lights, and feeling my body relax in the absence of those sounds which all day long I had not realzed were causing me subtle aggravation or anxiety.

  3. we take room tone all the time when we’re shooting video. it’s used to build up layers in sound editing, since no background at all sounds so weird [sic]

  4. we are reminded here not only of cage, but of claude debussy:
    “music is the space between the notes”
    still, it may be that the noisiest thing one can make right now is silence. if we are to follow jacques attali´s account of noisy social conditions, what would noisy (silent) architecture sound/look/be like?
    great post…more on sound!

  5. A wonderful phrase from that TAL stream, from the first segment with Dennis Wood: “the poetics of cartography.”
    The earliest reference I can find to it dates back to 1984. This, from :
    “The thesis: Reading a map is like reading a poem. The main point I remember is that you cannot translate a poem, you have to write a new poem; likewise you cannot translate a map, you have to draw a new map. It was considered one of the best dissertations that had been done in the department for years.”

    That would be Jois Catherine CHILD’s Creating a World: The Poetics of Cartography. [1984]
    University of Washington, Dept of Geography (of course?)

    Thanks, Exurban Escape!

  6. This got me thinking about the differences in sound and light, which was reinforced by Romsby’s 2:04 comment.

    Experiencing complete darkness — that’s rather easy for us. But experiencing complete silence? We generate sound, so that seems nearly impossible for hearing people.

    I teach classes about sound and light to elementary-aged students. Some of the demonstrations in my light class require that we completely darken the room. That’s not hard to do. I put a sheet of aluminum foil over the glass panel in the door, and I’m done.

    Then we can cast shadows with a single tiny bulb, or see the (upside down) image of a candle projected on the wall by a magnifying glass.

    In my sound class, we have demonstrations that require quiet, but I never thought of trying to eliminate all the extraneous sounds coming from outside the room. That would be impractical. Possibly impossible.

    To demonstrate sympathetic resonance, I hit one specially designed tuning fork. An identically tuned fork on the other side of the room will start to vibrate, but my students can’t hear it when I dampen the first fork. I have to dampen the second fork for the students to realize that it was producing sound.

  7. I’ve heard there’s a test at Berklee where a student is placed in an anechoic chamber listening to white noise. A single frequency is removed and the student has to identify it.

  8. In the entirely forgettable Michael Crichton book about time travel, there is one thing that stuck with me…and that was his observation that, in the medieval period, there was no ambient engine noise, and this may be disconcerting to the modern ear, even disorienting. Makes sense. Ever been in a sensory deprivation tank?

    I had the pleasure of venturing to Loving County, Texas recently (pop. 87, though in the 2000 census it is 67). In the vast flat southwestern prairie, there is the ceaseless hiss and pop of the gas wells and oil pumping units.

    Noise everywhere.

  9. I was once on an aerospace program which required extraordinarily precise vibration control–not just shutting off the A/C, but in fact having to re-do tests that happened when a truck drove past the building!

  10. Great blog!

    The tonal centre of a city is the hum generated by trillions of electric cables. There’d still a noise even if we switched everything off and stopped all the cars and buses. Its like a modernist harmony of the spheres.

    R Murray Schaffer’s Soundscape book is a good overview of the slow increase in sound in the modern world. He also makes the point that pre-industry, humanity grew up in virtual silence. Noise was an event when it happened. Its a good read, although he’s a self-styled acoustic ecologist so he can get preachy about the modern city. Personally I love alot of the noises around us, except scooters, and mobile ringtones, and…..

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