:: Article

Round: an excerpt from Blank Sign Book

By Anne Lesley Selcer.

Janet Cardiff, The Forty Part Motet, 2001, Installation View, Gallery 308, Fort Mason Center for Arts & Culture, 2015. Courtesy of Fort Mason Center for Arts & Culture, San Francisco, and San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Photo: JKA Photography. 

The first time I saw Chris Duncan’s sound piece 12 Symbols, I sat—as audience members were invited to—inside a spacious circle formed by twelve percussionists playing twelve single waist-high cymbals. This iteration of the performance took place in a disused warehouse space on Mare Island, an overgrown outlands where head-high fennel plants throw licorice to the wind. 12 Symbols whined alive quietly. Twelve bows dragged slowly at the edge of each cymbal to create a low, copper cacophony. Extremely tired, I drifted off for minutes, then awakened faced by an enormous, dark block of sound. One by one, each percussionist had taken up two mallets to strike their cymbal forcefully. Walking in continual rotation, they struck continuously, right then left. Each collision left a long, deep resonance hanging. They played fast. Shimmering layers of sound rose around the circle. Resonance relentlessly piled atop resonance. Soon, the heavy thickness built into an unimaginable, urgent body of noise. The piece lasted around thirty minutes. The simple score created art that grew huge, feral.

Once, I was in the countryside walking through a
field of grass, through the normal sounds of insects, wind, sun, green. All at once, I heard a sharp drone,
a concert of buzzing. I looked down and small bees were swarming near my feet. The sound surrounded me; its loudness amazed me. A multitude of low tones piled up formidably clipping an enormous racket into the air. The gestures in 12 Symbols are simple and repetitive. Its power is inherently social. Its maximalism is driven by time; time multiplies the memory of sound, wavering and brassy.

A sonic assertion this large requires a degree of submission or sublimation. It reframes dissonance—which always feels like a kind of threat—as sublime. So I felt my contours, the cold seal my hand formed with the raw floor. 12 Symbols does not ask for connections, interjections or projections from its listener; everything is offered, all of the energy of this art. The sonic power of 12 Symbols borrows the resonance of transformation itself, the energy that appears to make time move. The artist cites solar and lunar cycles as influences. Before the piece gradually flamed out, each percussionist increased the speed of drumming considerably, then each laid down their mallets. There was beauty, relief, and the profundity of the transition back into silence, away from this celestial scale of the sound, and back into human space.

A circular composition comprises Janet Cardiff’s sound installation The Forty Part Motet. Here, human space acuminates into an uncanny assertion of spiritual high beauty. Inside an expansive and cavernous gallery space with polished concrete floors and warehouse windows (sailboats knocking together beyond them), the complex sixteenth-century choral composition Spem in Alium emanated from forty small, rectangular, ear-high speakers. Thought to be the pinnacle of early English music, this song braids the voices of eight five-member choirs. In a complex round, they toss Latin phrasings back and forth. Art made by this many voices is a high feat of humanism, and is easily understood as having aesthetic (if historical) value. In the early twenty-first century, this felt like a vestigial kind of pleasure to be taking in an art space.

Cardiff’s The Forty Part Motet was spectacularly sculptural when heard from the middle of the room. I walked along the edge of the circle of speakers and pressed an ear to each. Each of the forty speakers created an intimate aural frame around a singer’s singular voice. I had rare, precious access to the inimitable breath, skill, tenor, timbre, tone, and texture, and all the unnamable qualities one hears in a human voice. The experience was technically stunning, but also profoundly intimate, as if each voice in isolation was singing to me. In The Coming Community, Giorgio Agamben describes “singularity”:

Love is never directed toward this or that property of the loved one (being blond, being small, being tender, being lame), but neither does it neglect the properties in favor of an insipid generality (universal love): The lover wants the loved one with all of its predicates, its being such as it is. The lover desires the as only insofar as it is such—this is the lover’s particular fetishism. Thus, whatever singularity (the Lovable) is never the intelligence of some thing, of this or that quality or essence, but only the intelligence of an intelligibility.[1]

In Western culture, “voice” is a metaphor to describe “presence” in a political sense; it has a connotation which is analogous to “will.” In a recent lecture, philosopher Jacques Rancière contrasted language with the “cry of animals,” which can only express pleasure or pain.[2]  According to Rancière, “politics” happens when the impossible becomes possible—that is, when “noisy animals” are perceived to have a position. In contrast, singularity—less a representation of the self, more like an irreducible distillation—suggests a different possibility. Says art historian and theorist Kaja Silverman, “The voice is the site of perhaps the most radical of all subjective divisions—the division between meaning and materiality…situated ‘in the partition between the biological body and the body of language, or, if one prefers, the social body.” [3] When each singular voice sang from its given speaker, it felt like contact, connection. Just as a photograph of a human face evokes desire, fascination, protection, affection, listening closely to a human voice—especially one at the height of its skill and reaching toward the sublime—feels like a particularly human gift, if not the human gift. Along with the various other listeners, I moved around the circle, eavesdropping on something indefinable and radically irreducible.

The video installation The Visitors by Ragnar Kjartansson plays with singular and collective voices. The piece was shown in a darkened room lined by several screens. Vivid on each, a different room of a house, and a single musician playing there: a cellist, a guitarist, a pianist, a banjo player. They are plugged into mics and recording equipment. Each musician hears the others through earphones. They collectively sing a repetitive folk song adapted from a poem written by Ásdís Sif Gunnarsdóttir. The poem-song
is plodding, slow, and emotive. “Once again…I fall into…my feminine ways” repeats, then repeats, and repeats. The work is durational, and as the light begins to die around the musicians, crickets start to sing.

Pleasure is dominant in the environment, which is a borrowed mansion. Each room/screen is set up like
a Dutch still life, replete with antiques, rich textures, and gorgeously patterned upholsteries framing each musician. It was wonderful to observe the musicians steeped in skill, responding to others out of frame. They are sometimes clad in lingerie, sometimes in a bubble bath, sometimes smoking while pounding a piano, sometimes strumming a guitar on the edge of a bed in which a naked woman is contoured sleepily under a thin sheet. This is all a delicious reference to a 1960s fantasy of freedom and bohemia. The song builds for a full sixty-four minutes. Its old-timey ramble underlines the languid aesthetic. The earnestness of each of the musicians becomes truly beautiful when they sing together separately, and then eventually get up from their individual rooms and tumble, stumble, pop a bottle of champagne, and find each other in the drawing room, or out on the porch, where a sloped, curved friendship alights upon all their shoulders and upon all of us.

Inside the enclosed installation space, we were invited to feel the being-together depicted on screen. The piece is deeply nostalgic. What is evoked is
like a gorgeous commodity: communalism, singing collectively, the inherent value of one’s unique voice. The personhood of the voice is revered. The work seethes with individualism but contains the spirit
of camaraderie—a coming together as a band of musicians, outliers, and artists. Folk is brought into the gallery space; everything is fluid, spontaneous, celebratory. In contrast to The Forty Part Motet, The Visitors frames informality. In this dear and enviable temporary utopia, each subject brings their own voice, masters their own instrument, is accepted in their quirks and clothing choices. The multi-gendered crew is free to sing about their “feminine ways.” If The Visitors enacts a bohemian exceptionalism made possible by a certain set of twentieth-century, first-world conditions, one that is often naturalized as an ideal in the San Francisco Bay Area, it might be worth noting this artist is Icelandic. What we relish about this piece—its apparent spontaneity and earnestness—is its design to evoke a specifically epochal love and longing specific to an era.

Each of these sound-based artworks constitutes subjectivity differently. 12 Symbols subjects listeners to the mightiness raised by the simultaneous percussive use of repetition, sound waves, and time. The Forty Part Motet starts with collective perfection but zooms out to frame the subjective singularity of the voice. The Visitors reveres the voice, relieves it from its loneness but not its uniqueness. The collectivity Kjartansson creates restates and reinstates the sanctity of the individual voice against the modern horrors brought by the radical shift to the factory. It posits the aesthetic itself against the dehumanizing automation of life. As emotionally powerful as this move feels, especially raised in languorous song, the more pressing tension today is the algorithm: those sets of data that base their very power on harnessing that which is most individual about our individuality— the measurements of our facial features in relation to one another, biometric iris recognition, and especially the voice.[4]

During the Occupy protests of 2011, resonance, sound, and musicality were often words used to de- scribe the spread of revolutionary information between disparate masses. This language reflected a magical begetting, as if something could be made from nothing. As power increasingly asserts itself through biopoitical means, adding layers of risk and precarity to the most basic human contingencies—water, air, shelter, food—unlimiting the possibilities of the senses is one way self, subject, and collectivity can continue to be reworked. When I began to write, I unwittingly began in manifesto mode. I scrawled, “The useless apocalypse of 12 Symbols is a rehearsal for art which is non-productive but transformative”; I wanted art with that much largess. I attended another performance of the piece. Not from emotion nor content, my eyes began to produce a significant amount of tears. I have no sonic science for this. This is not social change, but it is impossible to deny it is change.

“Round” appears in Blank Sign Book, Wolfman Books, 2019 and was originally published on Art Practical on March 13, 2018.

[1] Giorgio Agamben, The Coming Community, trans. Michael Hardt (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota, 1993).

[2] Jacques Rancière, “Shifting Borders: Art, Politics and Ethics Today,” Lecture, Rhetoric Spring Colloquium at University of California, Berkeley, Berkeley, California, February 20, 2018.

[3] Kaja Silverman, The Acoustic Mirror: The Female Voice in Psychoanalysis and Cinema (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1988).

[4] “The technology works by analyzing the physical and behavioral features that make each person’s voice distinctive, such as the pitch, shape of the mouth, and length of the larynx. An algorithm then creates a dynamic computer model of the individual’s vocal characteristics. This is what’s popularly referred to as a ‘voiceprint’…Although the NSA is known to rely on finger and face prints to identify targets, voiceprints, according to a 2008 agency document, are ‘where NSA reigns supreme.’” Ava Kofman, “Finding Your Voice,” The Intercept, January 19, 2018, https://theintercept.com/2018/01/19/voice- recognition-technology-nsa/


Anne Lesley Selcer is the author of Sun Cycle, Fall, 2019, and Blank Sign Book, Spring, 2019, a collection of essays on (mostly) art. Her chapbook, from a Book of Poems on Beauty is available from Gazing Grain. Her art writing includes Banlieusard, a book-length text for Artspeak gallery on media and sense memory, and Untitled (a treatise on form), a limited edition for [2nd Floor Projects]. Her writing and poetry has appeared in Hyperallergic, Fillip, Art Practical, Jacket2, Open Space, Fence, The Chicago Review and GaussPDF, among others, as well as for gallery and museum catalogs. She was Art Writing Fellow at Southern Exposure, and resident at Krowswork gallery and Mildred’s Lane.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, April 30th, 2019.