Sound Walks In Silence


What type of sounds are silences? – and, What types of relationships may form between these silences? And, I do indeed mean silences as plural nouns.

The name of the piece is "Lyd går i stillhet". In English the literal translation is "Sound walks in silence", but in Norwegian it can also mean "Sound goes into silence".

What it is and what it does

The object is a white round sculpture – a machine – that hangs from the ceiling by three ropes. On the underside of the machine there is a hole for the listener to puts her/his head into. Inside the machine there is a small dark chamber. Inside the walls of the chamber there are eight equidistant loudspeakers and two larger ones in the ceiling.

It is an interactive audio sculpture that provides an enclosed space for the listener to experience an intimate immersive musical landscape. A machine that composes music automatically by feeding on the silences that its listeners produce while inside the chamber.

The listener puts her head into the chamber of the machine. This event is detected by an optical sensor inside the box. Once the listener's head is inside the chamber, the machine starts recording the sound inside with a microphone. The audio input is analyzed in real time and all the silences – i.e. sound segments with a loudness lower than a given threshold – are kept in store for the whole duration of the listener's visit.

In order to work with this algorithmically I need to have a formal definition of what they are. Or, the computer needs a formal way to relate the data input – which is the recorded sound – to the data output – the set of silences.
I work with the formal understanding of silence being all sound that is below a given threshold.


Now, this is the moment where echoing John Cage's "Credo" would be suitable, and to state the obvious objection that, complete silence is impossible. And indeed it is. At least from a physiological perspective.
But from an algorithmic perspective one could argue that Cage got it both right and wrong in the aftermath of his visit to the echo-free chamber. The algorithms in "Lyd går i stillhet" certainly do gather and work with silences as raw material. They do indeed exist, and they do produce output resulting in music.

Inside this chamber, the listener's silences are echoed back and amplified, proving Cage's statement true. But at the same time the materiality of these echoes are fully dependent on the existence of a formal definition of silence. The machine needs the silences in order to operate; in order to prove Cage correct.

The transition between one certainty that silence is impossible, and the other certainty that you are hearing sounds as a result of silences existing in the world, points for me to the threshold between plausibility and implausibility.
That the rationale that silence is impossible is contingent on the converse to be true on some level – situates the threshold in a frustration field between two mutually exclusive truths.

It is of course plausible that there is a categorical error at hand in this suspension. One could say that there is a categorical difference between the perception and the existence of silences. By posing the question: "Did you hear that thing that was nothing?", what thing are we then referring to? Salomé Voegelin puts it succinctly: "Sounds in silence is what I hear".1 A semi-logical paraphrase could be: "I can't hear silence in sound".

This points out a line of reasoning whose length is comparable to the potential infiniteness of information and structure hidden in an entropy-rich segment of silence. The more you remove of the sounds that step out of the silence, the more your acuteness in listening is heightened, and the potential to discover new structures and tendencies increases manifold.

The silences are computable by definition; a given vector of numbers that satisfy a given condition falls into one of two categories. But your perception sharpens and the magnifying glass is focussing closer and closer into the voids and the spaces of the world, rendering the perception of silence again impossible. The computation will never end; it will never return the answer to the question: "What type of sound is a silence?". I want to put the listener and the algorithm at this threshold between the computable and incomputable.

The machine's agential intention is to turn your silences into music for you to listen to. Does it merely play the music for its own enjoyment? No, the music stops when the listener leaves, and all residue from the listeners visits are deleted. Each musical composition is ephemeral and personal, it appears with listeners presence and disappears abruptly in the listeners absence. Moreover it only exists for the listener for that exact moment; the next visit by the same person will result in a different musical composition.

But the algorithm doesn't require you to listen to the music. It actually just needs you to to produce silences. By enclosing you – and silencing you, it can produce something for you that is potentially experienced as intimate and personal. But in fact you are only a presence and a supplier of quantities of silences; a material you will produce for the rest of your life, and in the continuation after.


Deleting your data from silences

If you want the analysis data from you visit in the chamber to be deleted, please send an email to bscollist [ ] gmail . com.

Please indicate the date and time for when your visit to the chamber happened.


Thanks to Atelier Nord for letting me use their Editing Suite for producing parts of this piece in June 2018!