- This lecture-performance was given last year at the end of a residency at Critical Path in Sydney, Australia –

Good evening and welcome to this presentation.
The project I’ve been working on and the research I’ve been doing here is part of a larger project called Quies. The latin root for quiet, silence, lull, it signifies for me a desire to work on just that: the quiet, silence, nothing.

Now I don’t see silence as the absence of sound, but as space. The space in which sound happens, the spaces between sounds. Any musician knows that by changing the space and time between notes, you change the melody. It’s exactly that play between event and non-event, if you want, that makes a piece of music. The nothing or space or quiet is as integral and important and defining as the note or event.

So when I first started thinking about this project, it was immediately clear to me that I wanted to focus on this nothing. I wanted to focus most of my initial attention on space and air. I wanted to research silence and nothing, the lack of.

So far Quies consists of 3 chapters. All of them deal with the same concerns and desires but have a slightly different focus. What you’ve been listening to since you entered is part of the first chapter, and it’s an exploration of sine waves and how they interact with the room and your ears.

What I like about sine waves is their purity. They just are, one tone, plain, simple. And the way they bounce around the space and between your ears is, as far as i’m concerned, pure magic.

I started working with sine waves because of a phenomenon called beat frequency, or the devil’s frequency. It’s an acoustic phenomenon, an interference between two sounds of slightly different frequencies. The difference is usually around 4hz, or in other words so low that it can’t be heard.

Let me explain this by explaining why it’s called the devil’s frequency. You’ve all heard gregorian chanting, I’m sure. Liturgal music, monophonic, and sung by monks since the middle ages.

Now imagine that two monks are both singing the same note, let’s say a La, or the middle A. When sung at perfect pitch it’s a 440hz tone. Now imagine that one monk is singing at 438hz. It will sound like a perfect La as the difference is so small. Now also imagine that the monk standing next to this monk is singing his La at 442hz. Again, it will sound like a perfect La. The difference between the two of them, however, is 4hz and they will feel this difference as either euphoria or anxiety. As they were not supposed to feel that, it’s sometimes called the devil’s frequency.

Now this piece consists of 4 different tones, each slightly different in frequency. If you would hear them separately they would sound like the monotone they are. Because they are played together in this space, they meet and intersect and bounce against each other and create the beat or pulse that you all hear. You can change this by simply moving around or even turning your head. On top of these I’m playing single notes and clusters of notes that also interfere with the sine waves, creating the pulse or beat you’re hearing.

In short, what you’re hearing and experiencing is as much because of the space and your ears as because of the notes or tones.
And it’s this subjectivity that brings me to the next chapter and sound you’re hearing.

I gave myself the absurd task of looking for and recording silence.

And I wanted to do it this as seriously, diligently and professionally as I would tackle any other subject or concept.
So I applied for residencies: one here in Sydney at CP, the other at Theatre in Motion in Beijing. Both are big cities in enormous countries with deserts close by. Both are far away from Europe, literally and figuratively speaking. It felt important to be disconnected, to be a stranger, a foreigner. I felt like I had to throw myself into a space i did not know yet.

I’ve been recording hours and hours and hours these last 4 weeks and it’s way too soon to come to any conclusions or results, let alone first drafts of actual work.

What you’re hearing then, is a selection, a montage of those field recordings, and more specifically of the recordings from my field trip to the desert.

Graham Greene writes in A Quiet American: “When you escape to a desert, the silence shouts in your ear.” And that is exactly what happened.

But before that: you’are listening to a montage of recordings done between Adelaide and Woomera, 500 km north. I stopped every hour or two and recorded wherever I found myself. As you can tell, traffic quickly became less dense before it disappeared altogether, culminating in near silence, around sunset between Roxby Downs and Woomera, after a day of driving. When I went to bed that night, I was convinced I was gonna find and experience silence.

The next morning I went to Lake Hart, 40 km north of Woomera.
Lake Hart is one of the many salt lakes in the area. I arrived there by about 9, geared up and started walking. What you’re hearing is only an excerpt, but I walked out onto the lake for about 20 minutes, stopping every 5 minutes or so to check for silence. The first time I stopped, I could still hear the odd car on the highway in the distance, the second time, it was dead quiet, except for the …. flies.
Incessant, everywhere, all the time. Only the wind could chase them away and the further on the lake I walked the louder and stronger the wind became. But needless to say neither of the two are ideal when you’re trying to record silence. I was extremely disappointed when i heard back these recordings that evening. I felt I had come close to silence and failed experiencing it because of flies and wind.

And it only got worse the further north I went, as you can tell by this recording just outside of Coober Pedy, at the beginning of the unsealed road to Oodnadatta. This recording is from around sunset. If it weren’t for the wind, it’d be dead silent here.

As I went to bed that night, I felt defeated. I had driven close to a 1000 km and discovered the potential for silence. All I had to show for it though was lots of recordings of wind and flies.

I woke up the next morning to this. This what you’re hearing now. Yes, indeed. I woke up to silence. 6 meters below the earth in my underground room 5km outside of Coober Pedy, at 7.50 am, I woke up and experienced silence. And even though I was hoping for this, it still caught me by surprise. Silence is a very intense, even disturbing experience. No matter how hard I strained my ears, I could hear nothing. Absolutely nothing. It was truly mesmerizing.

I was to experience silence twice more. The second time was in the underground Serbian Orthodox Church in Coober Pedy. It was so quiet in there that I heard my own blood pumping through my veins. There’s an anecdote about John Cage visiting the anechoic chamber at Harvard University in the 50s and describing afterwards that he had heard two sounds, a high and a low one. The engineer had explained that the low one was his blood circulation, the high one his nervous system in operation. Whatever the accuracy of this anecdote, it comes close to what I experienced in that underground church. If I had had the right sound equipment here, I could have tried to simulate what it felt like. But I can only try to describe it. A very low drone between my ears, pumping, pulsating, and spiked up with a very high frequency, some kind of hiss like static or dust on an old record. It was extremely intoxicating but ultimately very disturbing. It was like staring into a mirror….
with no one else around, nothing else but yourself to look at or in this case listen to.

I came close to this the third time I experienced silence, outside this time, on an unsealed road between Andamooka and Lake Torrens.

Now then, I did announce this talk as being about failure, as being a documentation of failure. Where’s the failure here, seeing that I found and experienced silence, even though I was convinced it did not exist.

Well, it’s quite simple really: it cannot be shared and it cannot be objectified. All it was was a very personal and highly subjective experience and since this is an artistic endeavor rather than a new age attempt at enlightenment, the end result is failure. The recordings are so quiet, so empty, so devoid of anything that all you hear are the microphones. And as these recordings are played back here in this space, all you hear is the traffic and birds outside, and the resident cicada in the roof. So failure. For now. And even then, I honestly do believe that failure is underrated, but that’s a topic for another talk, because we’ve come to the third and final chapter of Quies for tonight.

This chapter is about confronting music with field recordings, more specifically, a recording at the cemetery in Chillagoe, a small almost ghost town in tropical Queensland. All you hear in the recording is wind, obviously, the odd bird and two cars. Apart from that, it’s virtually quiet.
Last November I set up in Ausland in Berlin and invited 4 musicians to come and record with me. The idea was to play them this field recording of quiet and to ask them to enter into a dialogue with this nothingness. They were asked to listen really carefully and play as sparsely and precisely as possible. They were not allowed to play unless they knew what they were gonna play. Their instruments were miked very closely and gained in really high so that the smallest sound became audible. It created an acoustic space they occupied with their instrument.
None of the 4 musicians ever played together in these sessions. All they heard was the field recording I gave them and what they responded with.
As they all played along to the same 24 minute recording, I lined up all the music afterwards, thereby creating a virtual and yet very real score of music. What attracted me in this approach is the absolute lack of authorship. No single person is the composer of this piece, nor is it a collaborative group effort as in improv music, as none of the musicians ever played together. And my role finally is closer to that of an editor or auditor than to that of author.

So what you’re hearing is an excerpt from that piece. You will hear Nils Ostendorf on trumpet. Nils is one of the composers of the music for Hamlet, the theater piece that was programmed at the last Sydney festival. You will hear Brendan Dougherty on drums. Brendan has worked extensively as composer and sound designer with Jeremy Wade. On double bass you will hear Simon Bauer and the fourth and last musician is Guido Henneboehl.

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