Writing: Sounds passing through circumstances

by David Toop

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If I am here, then where is the sound? Sound has no sight-line, no fixed point in space, no duration beyond its own activation, no single moment of existence, no edges, but only cumulative moments of disappearance at the boundaries of its reach. Its place as a mark within temporal dimension and the mapping of space can be a mixture of the precise and ambiguous: a bell rings, the clock chimes, a cannon fires a shot. The day is divided and the space of human relations is mapped according to the fluctuations of a sound and its extension through air.

Call it spillage, cloud, smoke; the need for similes drawn from the tangible yet fluid world of liquids and dispersing materiality is only a lunge at the nature of sound. So much of the world is consumed through the culture of text, in alliance with various visual forms. Urban space is divided up according to ideas of visual drama, social connectivity, and the pragmatics of movement, yet sound is taken for granted, forgotten, or ignored despite its vital role as an element in urban design. Sound is not reducible to a text, so not susceptible to ‘reading’. Its place within the system of signs is an anomaly, the paradox of the invisible/audible. The transience of sound, its abstraction, its passage through time that leaves no trace, all form a resistant barrier to interpretation. Most attempts to understand sound attempt to avoid its nature in favour of descriptions of its context, so sound remains a barely categorised yet central element of social and cultural life.

Artists who begin with the visual are confronted with the challenge of the system within which they work, in which the visual can stand for status and containment. The space of the gallery is not designed for sound (is even designed to exclude or minimise extraneous sound), being conceived in most cases as a frame for that which has a frame (or some sort of boundary, at least), and so sound leaks, creeps or bombards in its unruly fashion. “What is still interesting to engage with and pursue is sound,” artist Anri Sala has said. “Sound is one step away from language (sounds in an airport, or the sound of elevators in hotels, are already language), but once you are in the street, most sounds are untamed, they are in the act of becoming. They are part of a language that is not yet controlled. And that is why I am interested in sound: it’s like an incomplete music.”[1]

This follows, perhaps unwittingly, thoughts noted by John Cage in 1969. “Introduce disorder,” he wrote. “Sounds passing through circumstances. Invade areas where nothing’s definite (areas – micro and macro – adjacent the one we know in). It won’t sound like music – serial or electronic. It’ll sound like what we hear when we’re not hearing music, just hearing what we happen to be.”[2]

What do we happen to be? Francis Alÿs began to ask this question after moving to Mexico City in 1987. Faced with the enormity and dizzying complexity of a city whose nature is to overwhelm, he began to walk. “Certainly, at the very beginning, it was a very non-adding attitude,” he says. “A let-be situation, just passing through..”[3] Gordon Matta-Clark was one of the first artists who influenced him, but by literally cutting sections out of buildings, Matta-Clark was extracting from his chosen environment, whereas Alÿs was trying to build on the story of a walk and use that as a vehicle for an art work to happen.

“Being in Mexico City,” he says, “it seemed vain to try to add something in that enormous and saturated situation. I was trying to affect the situation in the most minimal way. In the first walks, maybe a few passers-by noticed what I was doing. I didn’t want to be adding anything concrete, I just wanted to insert a story, a furtive, clandestine act…”

Both Matta-Clark’s anarchitecture, and this act of walking urban space, suggest a relationship to Alÿs’s training as an architect and engineer, even if only in the sense that architecture is reversed out, or plotted from the external boundaries. Its occupation of space is traced in order to find transient events and human transactions within the streets.

“I don’t know if there’s a direct connection,” Alÿs says, “ but I think it’s a natural state for somebody who’s interested in cities or architecture in general to walk. Walking offers a very convenient space for things to happen, and it allows a certain awareness in between an ongoing chain of thoughts and a series of incidental informations around, glimpses of scenes, sounds, smells, etc… .” This journey between two points, encompassing the peripheral information that filters through, bouncing off thoughts to shape the piece and simultaneously question its validity, is his optimum working space.

“From early on I was intrigued by these characters I would meet in my neighbourhood,” he says, “in a sense lost souls who were inventing for themselves those kind of roles to justify their presence in the urban chessboard, odd characters who do these strange acts on a repeated basis, but through that ritual they build themselves a territory and a public function which make them a part of the neighbourhood, or a local reference… Maybe it was because I was an outsider and trying to find an entry. It was a very slow process with many mistakes.”

Because of its role in urban space as a component “passing through circumstances”, an element only regulated through negative action (too loud; temporally or contextually displaced; downright inappropriate), sound is assumed to leave little trace, even though its role in memory and the evolution of urban culture begins to be acknowledged. Progressively throughout the 20th century, the composer’s role in regulating and constraining sounds was relaxed. John Cage was the first composer to apply this conception consistently as a methodology for organising sound. Speaking of a Mark Tobey painting, Untitled, 1961, Cage said: “What’s so beautiful is that there’s no gesture in it. The hand is not operating in any way.” [4]

Cage was influenced profoundly by Robert Rauschenberg’s monochromatic White Paintings, created at Black Mountain College in 1951. Rauschenberg has described these paintings as hypersensitive: “So that one could look at them and almost see how many people were in the room by the shadows cast, or what time of day it was.” [5] Developing this theme, Cage likened them to “airports for particles of dust and shadows that are in the environment.”[6] This guided him towards the idea that silence is a condition in which intention is given up.

By using chance operations, Cage’s aim was to establish conditions out of which compositions in sound would arise. Again, discussing Mark Tobey, he told Joan Retallack, “The intention of the mind was put out of operation. And that’s what chance operations do.”[7] For Cage, art works were a vehicle for coming closer to life. “Do you agree with the statement: After all, nature is better than art?” he asked. “Where does beauty begin and where does it end? Where it ends is where the artist begins.”[8] If the beauty of art works overpowered that process, then they encouraged the acquisitive, materialistic urges of the collector.

Cage opened a window and the sound drifted in. The remnants of a frame that always contain his works were reduced even further by pieces such as Philip Corner’s I Can Walk Through the World, and Max Neuhaus’s Listen. In his Lecture 1960, delivered to Ann Halprin’s Dancer’s Workshop in Kentfield, California, La Monte Young recalled a meeting with Dennis Johnson, when Johnson claimed to have found a piece that was “entirely indeterminacy and left the composer out of it.” According to Young, he then tore off a piece of paper and wrote on it the word LISTEN.[9] Corner’s I Can Walk Through the World, a piece from 1965 in which the audience at New York’s Town Hall was taken for a walk around Times Square, extended the implications of Cage’s 4’ 33”. Cage’s so-called silent piece, premiered in 1952, in which an instrumentalist is instructed not to play for the designated duration, was a huge step yet its success rested on his attachment to the concert hall. Like Corner, Neuhaus was prepared to step out into the street. His Listen pieces, begun in 1966, were subtitled Field Trips Thru Found Sound Environments. Neuhaus would invite an audience to a lecture or concert, stamp their hands with the word Listen, put them on a bus and transport them to a site of distinctive sound such as a power station.

More windows were opened, more sound drifted in. Music could become faint, barely present, as in Mieko Shiomi’s Boundary Music of 1963, which instructed: “Make the faintest possible sound to a boundary condition whether the sound is given birth to or not. At the performance, instruments, human bodies, electronic apparatus or anything else may be used.” Or it could ask, if I am here, where is the sound?, so becoming an extension of the ear, the conjoined ear, of the initiating agent and the perceiver. In the latter case, the Otodate series conceived by Akio Suzuki in the 1960s, impose and negate the frame in one gesture. Ododate is Japanese word play combining oto/sound/date/preparing tea/tate/points, related to the word Nodate, a term for preparing tea in the open air.[10] In recent years, Suzuki’s method has been to walk through the city, then mark distinctive points on the ground, using a stencil and white paint. The sign, diagrammatic and seemingly municipal, represents two feet, encircled, so inviting the participant to take up a position; the footprints, also suggesting diagrams for dancing, can be read as ears, so inviting listening.

Beyond their simplicity and wit, what is distinctive about these works is the clandestine yet insistent presence of the composer, either as ghost, guru or guide. In Suzuki’s case, his choices are not always obvious, so he also plays the trickster who demands a leap of imagination, a capacity for humour. Whereas Cage revealed the sound of a room to the heightening perception of an audience whose initial purpose was to focus their attention away from such a supposedly neutral quality, and Corner and Neuhaus directed their listeners to specific conglomerations of urban sound, just as the Italian Futurists, circa World War I, had celebrated the noise of industry, war and mechanized, electrical life, Suzuki may point the listener to a distant, perhaps obscure event that only suggests, rather than emits, sound.

Ambiguities exist in Alÿs’s work, particularly in the question of documentation that haunts performance. Just as audio recording can reduce music and sound work in all dimensions, overlaying one space with a random variety of others, obliterating the atmosphere of social and spatial sharing, so video can flatten any sense of emergence. “The image on the left is a direct documentation of the facts,” he says, discussing one of his walks in Mexico City (Re-enactments, 2001), “ and the image on the right is the re-enactment of the facts, it’s pure fiction. The two images are pretty much the same, and so is their perception. As an artist who has been using performance as a medium, it’s very difficult to maintain a certain integrity when it comes down to the documentation of a performance…What makes the image on the left more valid than the image on the right? What’s left in both images of the experience of the live moment? And how much of the performance has been unconsciously conditioned by the prospect of its future documentation? Each time I document a performance I am trying a different take on these questions…”.

The mixing point of Alÿs’ work comes through notes, which collect together drawings, diagrams, textual scribbles. The notebooks seem to function as a kind of notation in which future actions can be imagined, yet they also seem to be at the heart of the work. Everything is here, and we can imagine outcomes, or sense what might be, or what might have been. This recalls the Nature Study Notes of the Scratch Orchestra, edited by Cornelius Cardew and published in two collections: Nature Study Notes, 1969, and Scratch Music, 1972. A loosely convened, large ensemble of composers, musicians and other artists, founded in London in 1969 by Cardew, Howard Skempton and Michael Parsons, the Scratch Orchestra was, as Cardew proposed in the Draft Constitution, a group that “fosters communal activity, it breaks down the barriers between private and group activity, between professional and amateur – it is a means to sharing experience.”

“Just as ‘any activity whatsoever’ could be included in the category of performance,” wrote Michael Parsons, examining the group’s history for Leonardo Music Journal, “so any kind of graphic material came to be regarded as a possible form of notation: a look at Scratch Music reveals a miscellany of drawings, diagrams, maps, collages, texts, photographs and found objects (even some musical notation) from the notebooks of 16 members of the orchestra, laid out in random juxtaposition to suggest the visual equivalent of a Scratch performance. Anything that could be set down on paper, it seemed, could become part of the all-inclusive and indiscriminate category of ‘graphic music’.”[11]

Text scores were central to the challenge of circumventing the emphasis on pitch and metre in conventional music notation, as opposed to alternative notations of timbres, unconventional technologies and instrument preparations, durations, actions and activities that might not be considered musical, sonic, or even connected to the making of art. They confronted hierarchies in musical professionalism, along with the systematic inequalities within society that interpenetrated the structures of music. The text pieces written by poet Jackson Mac Low were particularly inclusive and open. His instructions for Thanks, composed between 1960 and 1961, conclude with the following: “Anyone may submit any or all elements of this simultaneity to chance regulation by any method.”

Walk – “for any number of people walking in a large open space” - composed by Michael Parsons in 1969, precisely illustrates this fracture within the conceptualisation of what music might be, as well as returning us to Alÿs. In Walk, randomly chosen numbers determine the speed of walking from one point to the next, and the length of time standing still at the point reached. The walking itself, the nature of the walking, the geometric patterns and intersections that can be imagined as an inscription derived from the event, and the communal spirit of its enactment as a public/private rite are what exist in the bare bones of instruction on the page. Clearly, it is also possible to understand Walk as a near-silent equivalent of the process of performing a symphony, in which participants begin and end at allotted moments, yet move through the work in varying rates and durations of activity and rest.

Sounds converge, through a time base; meet, merge, evoke desire, sex, the social, yet produce structures that can be deciphered and absorbed. This articulation of time, through which music and sound work emerges, has been decisive for Alÿs, and has clear parallels with the development of his scenario for a contingent of Coldstream Guards, marching towards each other, gradually building a square, under the multiple eyes of CCTV in the City of London, presenting arms, moving as blocks of colour, making sounds that are at once musical and military. “In the last few years,” he says, “I have been using sound as a means to destabilize time perception through the space of the rehearsal, a way of diluting time if you want… Very much thinking of my experience of time in Latin America, a certain way of delaying the narration or postponing the conclusion… There is a progression always, but by kind of going back and forth, 3 steps ahead, 2 steps backwards, 4 steps ahead…. It’s a different take on the western concept of what efficiency could be… It took me quite some time to understand that mechanic and adapt to it.”

Adaptation is also enforced by the sonic nature of a dynamic, complex, developing city. In Mexico City, Beijing, Bangkok – cities where life rapidly mutates on the streets and legislation is informal or drastically uneven – music is heard in contiguous layers, enfolded in vernacular and functional noise. The shrill, relentless blasts of traffic control whistles, a chaos of traffic, three different styles of music heard simultaneously; such a typical soundscape of Mexico City is integral to the evolution of civic space and shape.

“Here in Latin America the function of the urbanist has been drastically challenged in the last couple decades,” says Alÿs, “where I was taught that the urbanist had to plan ahead the expansion of the city, to reflect upon its future mutations etc. I saw his role inverted if not reduced to the opposite mechanism: the urbanist’s role is now to react to given situations of spontaneous urban growth, to adapt to them and subsequently supply municipal services such as water or electricity to an anarchic urban phenomenon… there is an absence of any master plan.” Issues of control are touched upon here, derived from a method of making work and its specific urban context, but also illuminated by challenges to control and authority formulated in the latter half of the 20th century through chance procedures, indeterminacy, improvisation and communal music making.

There are illustrations of this in Guards, which developed a final form through a mixture of direction, unforeseen elements, and the decisions of the participating soldiers, their musical repertoire and the interconnection of marching, drilling, and weaponry. “A big part of the work is to provoke something beyond what you can plan,” he says, “and the more the project develops, the more it becomes a game of bouncing back and forth in between all the people involved, and it sometimes can adopt a shape very far from any original intention. Now, once the action itself is launched, the development of the piece is happening within an open field of possibilities, in the sense that any outcome of the event becomes a valid answer to the premises of the piece . It’s the real test of the scenario: if it isn’t clear enough, or good enough, the action will deviate, and rapidly turn into something else or simply collapse...

“I’ve done things where I lost total control and the crew working with me started freaking out. The one occasion I am thinking of was a year and a half ago, and it went totally wild. I was just watching, there was nothing I could do. It was totally liberating. But if the plot is simple and clear enough, the essence of the project will always survive…. Coming back to the guards, we thought that there would be more different types of marches, many more notes if you want… But they basically alternated 2 marches: the slow march and the quick march with some variations on the quick march. And we were expecting a game of phasing of steps, a kind of tuning if you want, but most often when they met one would stop and start marking time, and the others would join in… So again, once the parameters are set, the participants quickly imposed their own rules: “These are the notes the instrument can play and that’s the way we can play it.”

All self-imposed challenges to the authority of score and director contain the potential to eradicate both. I ask him if this was welcomed in the enactment of Guards. “Yes, yes, absolutely,” he answers. “They also asked if they could incorporate something else, something they thought would dramatically improve the musical potential of the piece: they wanted to carry their guns so that they could do the change of arms, ... clack, clack, clack, so they immediately translated our idea into their own skills and what they were best at. And that’s precisely what the piece wanted to provoke, to see the guards display the maximum of their skills to build up this perfect human machine, and for that to happen you had to find out what the perfect cruising speed of the machine was, the one that you felt was really coinciding with their image, but also the one where that essential need for individuals to dissolve into a social group they can identify with would became physically evident….

Though not as extreme as John Cage’s idea of silence, in which “the essential meaning of silence is the giving up of intention”[12], this links us closely to the ideas of Cage and his circle. Events are initiated, but they will develop their own momentum, impose decisions, and find their own form. Ultimately, they find their own life.


1. Sala, Anri, quoted.

2. Cage, John, Art and Technology, 1969, published in John Cage: Writer, ed. Richard Kostelanetz, Limelight Editions, New York, 1993, p. 111.

3. all quotes taken from conversation between Francis Alys and David Toop, recorded London, 6 July, 2005.

4. Cage, John, Musicage: Cage Muses on Words Art Music, John Cage in Conversation with Joan Retallack, ed. Joan Retallack, Wesleyan University Press, New England/Hanover and London, 1996, p. 127.

5. Rauschenberg, Robert, quoted in Calvin Tomkins, Ahead of the Game, Penguin books edition, London, 1968, p.192.

6. Cage, John, On Nam June Paiks Zen for Film (1962-64), 1968, in John Cage: Writer, ibid, p.109.

7. Cage, John, ibid, p. 127.

8. Cage, John, On Robert Rauschenberg, Artist, and His Work, 1961, published in Silence, Marion Boyars (1987 edition), London, p. 108.

9. Young, La Monte and Zazeela, Marian, Selected Writings, Heiner Freidrich, Munchen, 1969, part 6, unnumbered pages.

10. Osterwold, Matthias, Akio the Cat, published in Akio Suzuki: “A”: Sound Works Throwing and Following, Stadtgalerie Saarbrücken exhibition catalogue, 1997, p. 46.

11. Parsons, Michael, The Scratch Orchestra and Visual Arts, 2000, published in Not Necessarily English Music, Leonardo Music Journal, Volume 11, The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2001, p. 8.

12. Cage, John, On the Interplay Between Art and Music, Sounds of the Inner Eye: John Cage, Mark Tobey, Morris Graves, ed. Wulf Herzogenrath and Andreas Kreul, Museum of Glass: International Center for Contemporary Art, Tacoma, 2002, p.121


Image: (above) Annotated map for Guards (2005), Francis Alÿs, Seven Walks (2005)