Chapter IV Music

Soundography: A Spacetime Mapping Experiment

For any number of players who would like to pay their respects to all living creatures who inhabit dark places and who, over the years, have developed acuity in the art of echolocation, i.e., sounds used as messengers which, when sent out into the environment, return as echoes carrying information as to the shape, size, and substance of that environment and the objects in it.

Lucier, Vespers (1969, p. 16), score instructions


If a lily’s petals fall in a room and no one is around to hear, does it make a sound?

I could engage with this paraphrased question, this Berkeleyan notion, as a starting point for this fourth and last chapter of the current investigation into perception, which is dedicated especially to the temporality of sound and its emplacement. The question, in the age of mechanical reproduction and the proliferation of recording devices, feels passé, suffused with an almost nostalgic tint of untamed sensuousness, as if we become lost in a reverie of the distant past, or a Proustian voyage (see Chapter 3, p. 136 and following).

In the last chapter with its experiment on music, I bring into the performance space 54 iterations of a 50-minute audio recording of my walk from home to workplace: here repetitiveness of an ordinary action is the springboard for inspecting the species of time nesting in the space explored during a daily walk, which is then transported into the experimental performance space by objects, images, and sounds from the walking path itself. I notice that by consciously paying attention to the routinary path from home to workplace, and by navigating within the experimental space, a heightened attention to the action of walking is foregrounded (the haptics of the feet, the quality and variety of acoustic inputs), a sense of novel discovery of an ordinary gesture.

In the experimental space, memories and affect of the past experience of walking triggers surprise, excitement, mixed with expectation, and at times, confusion. I think of Lucier’s Vespers (1969), and  I am sitting in a room (1969): my experiment is mapping space as Lucier does in Vespers with his performers equipped with Sondols; and the space of my experiment is filled with resonances, reverberations not only of sounds (as in Lucier’s I am sitting in a room) but also smells, visuals, and tactiles from my walking path. 

Here both Husserl, and Merleau-Ponty come to my aid, from different directions: by repeating the action of walking a number of times and by repeating the action of experiencing the content (aural, visual, tactile, etc.) of that action in an experimental space, I came to notice first-hand the differences as to a duration of the sensation, and conversely, the sensation of that duration. And when Merleau-Ponty points at the emotional essence of words suggesting that their function is not to represent things but rather extracting ‘emotional essence’ (Merleau-Ponty, 2005, p. 193) – their emotional content – he is talking about the same intertextual elements elicited by my experimental set design.

Merleau-Ponty makes a distinction that ‘emotional gestures and gesticulation are “natural signs,” whereas speech is a “conventional sign”’. Conventions, continues the French philosopher, are a recent modality of relationship among people: these conventions however presuppose an earlier means of communication, where ‘language must be put back into this communicative current.’ As if to say that words, vowels, phonemes are impregnated with ‘emotional essence’ which they bring with them into the construction of linguistic conventions: this accounts for why, according to Merleau-Ponty, the ‘full sense of a language is never translatable  into another’ (Merleu-Ponty, 2005, [1945], p. 193).

The current practice, once again, with its experimental outcome through first-hand experience of time/space amplification, attempts to respond to the previous research questions while also pointing in a new direction:

  1. Is the conceptualisation of a map some form of response to a stimulus or phenomenon in either space or time?
  2. Where are we located (again spatially and temporally) in relation to a given phenomenon? Are we within the map or outside it? Is there a meta-map?
  3. How is memory (by definition, displaced in time) of a map different from the actual stimulus – the map as it is being unfolded in present time? Is there a temporal map?

The result of this experiment in soundography (sic), mapping space through sound, is an interactive Installation. The work consists of a combination of mediums designed to provoke temporality of the senses: more than 70 foam boards from A6 to A1 size, with printed images of charts, scores, maps, drawings, photographs, digitally processed images, and text; four white wooden boxes of different dimensions laid on the floor, enclosing several objects: a clock, a glass vase with a bouquet of lily flowers, a book, a drip coffee machine, a microphone immersed in a jar containing a little pond of styrofoam spheres and a hydrophone immersed in a second jar, full of water; an isolated object, a worn shoe placed on an A1 board; a red cotton thread connecting many boards and objects, tracing trajectories and dividing the space; four loudspeakers capturing and processing live input of the microphone and the hydrophone, while simultaneously playing a 50-minute audio field recording of my walk from home to the studio, repeated over and over. Indeed, the soundographic experiment in the studio begins with and is conceived, composed, and designed around that daily walk routine. To understand the former, the reader will have to indulge me in the latter.

Fig. 1. Satellite map of the path (from home to the venue). Credit: Sascia Pellegrini