Three hours a week, I speak to a group of ninety-nine people and explain how to make choices. I talk loudly, to the back of the room, then I lower my voice to engage them more intimately. I pause and let the room grow silent. Near the end of the twice-weekly performance, I review my main points. Like a bell, this signals to my audience that they will leave soon; they begin to rustle in their chairs. I say, “Hey, I’m not done! You can’t go yet!” And they laugh. And they stay.
I am an economist and a musician. In both of my chosen fields, performance is a necessary component. As an economist, I teach and I present papers; as a musician, I put on shows. Performance is the willful construction of a series of events using the body—hands, voice, gesture—and the instruments the body can manipulate to create a particular mental state for the witnesses. In the days leading up to my next show on October 16th at The Beef in Binghamton, NY, I have pondered the intimate ways in which listening structures the corporeal nature of performance. As an economist, I understand that performance is strategic, in that I imagine a listener for my music and choose my actions to influence that listener. As a musician, I recall moments that I listened.
“Audience as available instrument in performance”
The audience is one of the instruments available to the performer. I plan to use this to my advantage at my upcoming show. When I envision my fingers first passing across my guitar, the audience will not be engaged with me: they will be talking to each other, getting a drink, finding a seat. I will play a song at a normal volume; given the other noise, it will be background, not a centerpiece. Most people will hear it, but not many will notice it. The climax of the song will involve me holding a loud, high vocal note until all other noise dies. Each person there will have a moment in which they hear that note and wonder what it is and they will grow silent. By the end of the note, every person in the room will realize that the performance has started and that this sustained note is part of a song they have been hearing but not listening to for several minutes. As the note draws to a close, they will feel compelled to shout, to clap, to exclaim. Their part in this performance—the noise, the silence, then the noise—will be one they will play without knowing, beforehand, that they were included.
I imagine this moment like the opening to Belle And Sebastian‘s “I Don’t Love Anyone:” ‘I don’t love anyone/ You’re not listening/ … I don’t love anyone/You’re not listening even now.’ As a listener, you realize as he says ‘even now,’ that he’s right: you weren’t listening. It was a transcendent moment that shocks me as a listener: the author of the song had climbed inside my head without me knowing, and then was able to name exactly the listening experience I was having.
“Rhythm to Organize Silence”
In Chronicles, Bob Dylan describes a listening experience built around a singer who constructs her own way to view the rhythm of a song. “I’d seen [Martha Reeves] in New York … where she’d been playing with the Motown Revue. Her band couldn’t keep up with her, had no idea what she was doing and just plodded along. She beat a tambourine in triplet form, up close to her ear and she phrased the song as if the tambourine was her entire band” (160). This phrasing that is out-of-phase with the band (or the audience) reminds me of Odetta.
Odetta might be best known for her performance of “I’ve been driving on Bald Mountain/Water Boy.” She rebuilt those two traditional 4/4 folk songs swung onto a three-beat triplet, so what emerges is a swinging triplet where beats two and three are rushed in after a lethargic one: ONE… two three; ONE… two three; ONE… two three. After several times though the verses, she stops the guitar entirely and carries a long vocal note, setting up a moment of unnaturally long silence. The guitar and grunt that end the silence seem arrhythmic to my ear, but Odetta can sing by her own time that swings in and out of phase with the rest of us. We’re not meant to know when resolution comes, and it’s that uncertainty that Odetta wants us to experience.
I once saw Jeff Tweedy use a controlled complete silence with Wilco‘s performance of “Misunderstood” from Being There in 2001. Tweedy doesn’t use uncertainty as Odetta does; his use of silence is more akin to methodically turning on and off a bedroom light in the middle of the night. In particular, the band performs an extended outro which involves two beats of sound and two beats of silence: “NOTHING – -.” On “NAH” and “THING” the whole band is together on two identical, stinging staccato notes.
On the off beats, the entire theater is silent. When I was in the audience, it was so quiet you could have heard the audience breathe. . .if anyone had been taking a breath. On some level, I was in a state of shock, or at least, a state of being constantly startled; everyone must have been, because the silences were complete. On another level, I felt at peace. I calmly looked from face to face in the audience behind me, and everyone had the same startled, smiling expression I’m sure I had. I looked around the room–just looked, without an agenda, just idle curiosity–for the first time in what felt like years.
Seeking to recreate a combination of those listening experiences in my audience, I wrote “Something This Easy,” a song about confusing interactions with an ex. The song is forty percent silence: nineteen beats of melody followed by thirteen beats of silence. I don’t tap my foot or keep time during the silence, save for holding my breath, and I bring back the sound when I (have to) exhale. I try to keep the audience slightly and repeatedly startled by resisting any precise expectation of sound that they may hold. After a beat, the audience will break the silence when I make them laugh with the line: “I know your body like a Swedish furniture map.” With the eruption of laughter in an otherwise silent room, my audience becomes the instrument creating the music that they are listening to at that moment. That is, they are the only instrument I’m playing.
As a musician, this is the listening experience I designed: the laughter rings after I’ve triggered it like a overtone ring on a string long after having been plucked and left. As an economist, I see how I used the imagined listener successfully: I forecasted how these real listeners would react, and was able to use that forecast to design not only this moment, but potentially many others as well.
Downloadable Pape Mix of Wilco, Odetta, and his own “Something this Easy”:
View Andreas Duus Pape’s latest album The Big Hit here
The humid dog days of summer are upon us, and with them their unique soundscape. In central-AC bereft Binghamton,NY, this means the opening of windows from now until the air turns crisp in September, an act whose necessity casts the intimate sounds of my daily life into my neighbor’s homes and invites their sounds into my apartment. You don’t need to be Mrs. Kravitz to pick up on the comings and goings next door; basically, summertime means your biz is in the streets whether you want it to be or not. In my former neighborhood, youthful and well worn, this meant anything from the heated fights of newlyweds—and the equally passionate make-up sessions, stereotypical but true—to bumping music and whose kids go to sleep when. I used to know what video games the guys next door played and how they were progressing, even though I still couldn’t tell you what they looked like.
In wintertime, this heat-necessitated, neighborhood-sanctioned audio voyeurism ends abruptly with the first frost; double-paned windows tell no tales. But for now, the sonic community is vibrant, even in my current neighborhood comprised mainly of retirees: the brush of wind through the trees, the yap of small dogs, the hum-and-drip of wall units, the snarl of lawn mowers and the high-pitched whine of edging equipment—I have learned after trying to work at home a few times that retirees reserve the right to mow any time they damn well please, thank you—and the gossip of family gathered in lawn chair semi-circles two doors down. I knew my next-door-neighbor’s grandchild was visiting two days before she saw me watering my plants and proudly introduced me to the sheepish little one.
I have to say that even after three years of living here, there still a part of me that finds the annual summertime ritual-cum-reality show novel and slightly unnerving. In my home state of (Southern) California windows are rarely opened unless they have bars on them—people worry that strangers will crawl inside, especially when Robert Downey, Jr. is off the wagon—and I have my dad’s perpetual “we aren’t paying to cool the outside” burned into my brain. Not knowing one’s neighbors is often a badge of pride in SoCal and privacy is treated as a right rather than a financially and technologically-enabled privilege or an unfortunate side effect of paranoia. The closest I have come to such a high degree of sonic intermingling was when I lived in a first-floor studio apartment at the bottom of an air-shaft in an old LA building, where, in addition to overhearing all sorts of drama, I would also find unexpected gifts in my shower: old razors, half-used designer shampoos, crusty loofahs.
This season, however, I was really settling in to the summer soundscape until we finally had our first real heat wave. Temperatures skyrocketed into the 90s and the dew point wasn’t far behind, creating an intense humidity that unleashed a noise the likes of which I have never heard before. . .at least not in this acutely painful way. It was finally warm enough for the people behind us to start SWIMMING in their POOL. Pools are a rarity in the Bing, and I have to say that when it is hot enough for sweat to creep down your back, the sheer torture of hearing splash after splash is enough to push anyone over the edge. But my discomfort with the sound is due to more than simply heat frustrations; it reminds me more than anything that even after three years, I remain a stranger in a strange land. Like sound artist and theorist Tony Schwartz reminded us, “There’s no party so noisy as the one you’re not invited to.” And I feel that intensely with every cannonball and yelp of pleasure that I hear over the back fence. I don’t know my neighbors yet—definitely not well enough for impromptu pool parties—and I don’t know anyone with a pool to holler at on a hot day, something I took for granted growing up in suburban SoCal, where swimming pools and homies with some kind of access to them, illicit or not, were much more plentiful. While sound has the ability to moor us to particular locations, it can also unmoor us in the same moment. As I hear the slurp of the choppy water against the concrete rim, I am simultaneously stewing in the shade of the neighbor’s giant pool-view blocking white fence—ironically the only shade in our yard—and I am back in 1980s Riverside, playing Marco Polo until my lungs ached from gulping too much smog. The sounds of swimming are so familiar to me that they are completely foreign in this new location and I can’t help but feel a little alien myself as a result.
A friend recently suggested that I should resolve my noise-related tensions the old-fashioned upstate New York way, by knocking on their door, son in tow, with a basket full of tomatoes fresh from our garden. I have long disagreed with the slogan of the Noise Pollution Clearinghouse—“Good Neighbors Keep their Noise to Themselves”—believing that in many occasions, noise is a product of social relations. This instance seems like an excellent test case. Perhaps if good neighbors shared more fresh produce, they would get more pool invites, and all that splashing would blend seamlessly back into the Binghamton summer soundscape. Or, I will pack up the car like usual and continue to be grateful that, unlike SoCal, public pools are still king in these parts.
Sounding Out! would like to hear about your favorite summer sounds. . .and the ones that drive you a little bit crazy. Drop some in our comment box, then adjust the bass and let the Alpine blast. . .