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Between the Two

A Re-address of the listener in situated musical practice

This paper investigates listener experience stemming from the author’s composition of Windows Left Open (2010), a work for microtonal-capable chamber ensemble and fixed electronics. While the format of the piece allows for concert hall performance, its approach to framing aural experience is argued to be more reflective of situated installation-oriented work. The author cites sound installation practices as a basis for re-addressing modes of interaction between listener, instrumentalist and electronic sound. Specifically, a phenomenological analysis of Max Neuhaus’ Times Square (1977–1992; 2002–present) provides one model of the situated listener experience, which enables a deeper understanding of the listener’s ability to reassess notions of site in relation to an emergent awareness of self. Windows Left Open is used as a representative example of how this model is similarly operative within the concert hall. Ultimately, this analysis articulates how sound installation work initially intended to distance spatially-oriented sound practice from musical convention can be a significant resource for understanding how composers may re-address the listener as a fundamentally mobile and constitutive agent within conventional performance practice.

Compositional Process and Subsequent Questioning

Upon completion of a musical composition, I switch perspective on the object of creation. Alleviated of the motivation as composer to make alterations to the work according to some weighting of rationales, I start (by imagining the listener’s perspective) to question the basis on which any one rationale became operative in the first place. Herbert Brün’s assertion that “where there is no choice, there is no Art” (Brün 2004, 3), belies a latent and hierarchical problem stemming from the recognition that the basis, reasoning, or even logic upon which we make artistic choices is in fact our first choice. Therefore, the methodology of compositional activity is at issue here, as it so often provides the territory for further investigation. Should the direct phenomenal experience of listening bear no reflection to the methodology underlying the organization of sound, or in fact belie the function of such organization, further investigation is required. Through responsive questioning, a piece of music, which itself may reflect the espousal of a propositional response to some initial set of questions, may then provide the necessary impetus for the formulation of a new set of questions, and a new artistic response. In this (perhaps idealized) way, artist and creation(s) may become forever embroiled in an antiphonal dance whereby one is always responding to the questions of the other.

Windows Left Open (2010) is a composition for microtonal-capable chamber ensemble and fixed electronics. 1[1. A webpage providing materials and performance documentation for the Windows Left Open project is available on the author’s website.] My completion of the work prompted a robust line of thought concerning how the work functions. The process of composing the piece was more akin to designing an installation: I developed a musical software system to generate the electronic sound and the corresponding data to populate a performance score, a system which generated multiple versions, each being a unique, nuanced version of the work. This system could have been configured to run indefinitely. Windows Left Open, while it is a work intended for concert hall performance, is therefore a piece that could have been presented as an installation that offered an infinite number of variations to listeners who would come and go. After finishing the piece, I was both enthusiastic and nervous about its actual concert hall performance. As I shifted perspective from composer to potential audience member, I started to reevaluate two particular aspects of the piece: the connections between the fixed electronic sounds, and the relationship between these electronic sounds and the instrumental sounds. The fixed electronic sounds were comprised of pitched percussion sounds placed against a backdrop of environmental soundscape recordings, and I was worried the listener would interpret these two parts as having no relationship to each other at all. Furthermore, I was concerned that the live instrumental task of improvisatory pitch-matching with the algorithmically generated tones would not be sufficient in order to establish a relationship between the instrumental and electronic material.

Now, these concerns may sound like those of a composer still actively refining a piece, however this was not the case. I had finished the piece; there was nothing left to do. Poiesis was complete, followed out to its as-near-perfect-as-possible realization based on the limitations of my own initial conceptions, listening abilities and the technology at hand. The software I developed — to generate both the pitched percussion sounds reflecting a deep structural harmonicity 2[2. Details pertaining to the algorithmic structure of the pitched percussion electronic sounds are described at the beginning of the Windows Left Open score. See the author’s website.] and the data needed to populate a performance score that enabled live instrumental pitch-matching — accomplished the goals I had laid out for the piece and had reified along the way. I ran the system several hundred times and intuitively selected five versions of the resultant audio output, which, when arranged according to the sequence in which each version was generated, yielded five sections comprising the form of the piece. Furthermore, I paired each section with a particular stereo soundscape recording of the Payne’s Prairie Nature Preserve in North Central Florida. I recorded each soundscape at a different time of day in autumn and edited each of the soundscapes so that its length corresponded to the duration of the section it was paired with. I then layered the two sources with minimal adjustment to their initial amplitude levels. Once the constituent parts were put together, or, as Nattiez might claim, the “acts of composition” were complete, the work was then subject to purely esthesic consideration; I sought to “construct meaning, in the course of an active perceptual process” (Nattiez 1990, 12).

It is from this perspective that both of my previously stated worries regarding the performance of Windows Left Open reflect concern (at the esthesic level) over the potential failure for listeners to identify a “meaningful” relationship between two objects of aural perception. As a listener, I was able to correctly identify the work as presenting a non-unified whole with respect to its parts. And yet, I was paradoxically convinced that a complex understanding of parts being in relation to each other could arise despite their seeming disparity. This is a confusing and somewhat disorienting response to one’s own work. If the sonic tangencies between parts are tenuous, in what way can the objects of aural perception, as defined and shaped through poietic intention and activity, become reflective of relationship? In what capacity does the composer operate to frame a listening experience whereby relationships between seemingly contradictory aural objects may arise, nevertheless? And, what “meaning” might be derived from such relationships? Ultimately, asking such questions becomes an opportunity to temporarily set aside the need to analyse acts of composition and focus instead on how a listener might experience seemingly disparate aural elements in relation to one another, in an attempt to understand how such experience becomes framed through artistic intervention.

Externalizing the Experience of Art

Bruce Nauman’s 1968 installation Performance Corridor consists of two fabricated walls placed so that they nearly converge. As a result, audience members are able to traverse a constantly shrinking or expanding corridor space. The resulting effect is that audience members engage in a potentially meaningless behavioural pattern (Tucker 1972). Nevertheless, this behaviour is crucial to the installation; “The viewer must traverse it and experience it for himself. The artwork transcends its traditional role as an object invested with meaning and becomes the occasion for pure consciousness” (DeLio 1984, 53). The subject of artistic experience becomes its own object; the subject becomes externalized, outside the purview of the artist him / herself. In other words, the installation is understood as the framing of a direct perceptual experience, one that implicates the viewer as part of the work, rather than as an inscription of a representational / symbolic paradigm against which some abstract viewer operates in an interpretive capacity. Thomas DeLio (1984) thoughtfully connects this understanding of Nauman’s installation to Christian Wolff’s music, particularly his 1964 piece For 1, 2, or 3 People. Wolff’s development of an unconventional notation system allows performers to choose their own progression through the piece by asking performers to listen to the sounds generated by other performers and respond in a way that is both in accordance with the stipulations of the score and a result of individual performer predilections. As a result, For 1, 2, or 3 People cannot be conceived of through its score alone; it rests on the performers’ musical decision-making and interaction. In the same way that Nauman’s work is understood as an externalization of artistic experience, through an audience member’s conscious traversal of the installation, so too does Wolff’s music exist in the direct experiencing of it.

However, unlike Bruce Nauman’s installation, Christian Wolff’s piece does not elicit a “behavioral pattern that does not signify anything” (Tucker 1972, 42). Wolff’s music is political; it eschews compositional authority in favour of a more democratic and ideally egalitarian basis for the determination of sound characteristics. While his music offers a more direct experience of musical immanence, it nevertheless attaches itself to a discursive social function, one that is up for interpretation. Furthermore, Wolff’s music remains unbalanced; the relationship between composer and performer might be normalized, but the audience has not been dispensed with. Performers may experience the generation of musical materials directly, but the listener’s perspective relative to the object of music is still wholly dependent on their knowledge, or perhaps discovery, of the performers’ emancipated role in the creation of music. In this sense, the notion of a “listening performer” is undoubtedly operative, but the emergence of the “performing listener”, as one who is implicated in the completion of the work through the active construction of intentional relations between the disparate objects of aural perception, remains undirected.

The identification of the listening performer is similarly significant in Windows Left Open. However, the mechanisms through which the listening performer emerges are quite different. The score only provides info regarding the microtonal pitch and sequence of arrival of the notes heard in the algorithmically generated electronic sounds. Performers are instructed to freely articulate; they can choose when to match pitch with the electronic sounds and which pitch to match (given the current, aurally available set of options). They are also encouraged to listen to both the underlying soundscape and fellow performers and respond in multiple capacities. However, there are no symbolic (notated) structural stipulations regarding the performance of the work that are not reflected directly in the sound of the electronics. The written score is merely a guideline for what is otherwise a phenomenological engagement with the electronic sounds. Akin to the walls of Performance Corridor, and different from For 1, 2, or 3 People, the electronic sounds of Windows Left Open allow performer and listener alike to share access to the same object of (aural) perception, which provides no further function beyond itself. When Windows Left Open is performed, the audience members and performers are both able to listen to the electronic sounds in the same way, but only the performers actively engage with these sounds via freely articulating their instruments (or not). This relationship begs the question: what is the listening audience member’s level of engagement? That is, to what extent is the audience listener a performing listener?

Co-incident Listener Experience

From an audience or listener perspective, the emancipation of musical listening through the acceptance of sounds (and noises) of the world around us has stretched, and ultimately redefined, the ontology of music across the 20th century. Within academia, an entire field of contemporary critical discourse surrounding musical improvisation — from jazz to live laptop performance — addresses the listening performer. Yet, rarely do these two camps intersect; rarely does our identification of the listening performer emerge concurrently with our identification of the performing listener. Our typology of listener engagement is reflective of the two discourses and may very well be secondary to what their co-incidence reveals: even when listener and performer share access to the same object of aural perception, a physical and discursive fundamental gap exists between them: the audience member is not on stage, and the performer is not in the audience. Yet, paradoxically, listening serves as a fulcrum that enables an understanding of the audience member as performing via intentional listening and the performer as audience to his / her own responsive listening. The resultant musical “situation” is reflective of spatial expansion in both physical and discursive domains, which is more appropriately addressed not within the strictures of concert hall convention, but rather in the more spatially emancipated medium of sound installation practices.

Place and Discovery in “Times Square”

Max Neuhaus’ Times Square (1977–1992; 2002–present) is not only the artist’s most well known work, but, thanks to Christine Burgin and the Dia Art Foundation (Vergne 2009, 21), remains extant. While many contemporary artists working with sound choose to use video recording to document a sound installation, Neuhaus’ solution to the problem was to create what he termed circumscription drawings, which were often diptychs presenting a sketch of the site with some accompanying text describing the work and its intended effect. For the majority of Neuhaus’ work “these drawings are… the only possibility of knowing certain thoughts that otherwise would remain unimaginable” (Safran 1994, 7). For the circumscription drawing of Times Square 3[3. Italics denote the Neuhaus piece rather than the literal location.], Neuhaus drew a slightly elevated, angled representation of the pedestrian traffic island, which rests between 45th and 46th Streets at the intersection of Seventh Avenue and Broadway, with what appears to be a column of sound rising directly out of the triangular space. 4[4. Neuhaus’ circumscription drawing of Times Square is freely available on the web courtesy of the Estate of Max Neuhaus.] The column of sound rising perpendicular to the street reflects the verticality of the two large cubes / buildings framing the far side of 46th Street. In the last paragraph of the text that accompanies this sketch, Neuhaus articulates his understanding of how the work functions:

For those who find and accept the sound’s impossibility… the island becomes a different place, separate, but including its surroundings. These people, having no way of knowing that it has been deliberately made usually claim the work as a place of their own discovering. (Neuhaus 1992)

These last few words bear repeating: “as a place of their own discovering.” Neuhaus is drawing a direct connection between the process of aural discovery and the identification or perhaps emergence of a sense of place. The hypothesis seems to be the following: the discovery of a sound that is understood (as Neuhaus states earlier in the circumscription text) as “an impossibility within its context” (Neuhaus 1992), has the effect of heightening, if not disclosing, a sonically delimited, subjective sub-place. Neuhaus is not casually using the word “place” here in order to indicate a mere physical location. Rather, we are to understand place as denoting a history of continual (re)habitation within a particular context, and as the feelingful dimension of the immediate situated experience of being there. Neuhaus’ use of the term Place Work, rather than “sound installation” or “sound art”, to refer to Times Square, is in fact grounded in this distinction. As Pier Luigi Tazzi describes:

First we have a place, then we have a sound construct that hinges on that place. Neuhaus begins by attempting to achieve an understanding of a work’s particular site, examining the kind of sonority in which it is immersed, its historical or traditional connotations, the social functions for which it is employed, and finally the physical features that distinctively condition its use. (Tazzi 1997, 13)

It is clear that not only are considerations of place addressed according to acoustic, historical, socio-cultural and physical perspectives, but the notion of place itself seems to appear twice. First, as Tazzi indicated, as that which is always-already there, and then as the desired, imagined effect of the sonic intervention.

For me, Times Square was a sub-place within the pre-existing commercial Mecca of Times Square before having ever directly experienced it. I learned from afar that such an installation was extant, and sought it out. When I did experience the work for the first time, I was nevertheless surprised that I still had to find it. While my experience of Times Square did not follow Neuhaus’ idealized model of discovery, my prior conceptual awareness of the installation’s existence did not fully alleviate the burden of discovery. This experience is echoed by Alex Potts, who in addressing the piece’s true “discoverability”, claims that he “spent a good deal of time wandering one evening around the wrong end of Times Square… imagining [he] was hearing the work. [He] only happened to come across it just as [he] had given up hope of ever finding it” (Potts 2009, 52). However, such accounts beg the question: if even those who know of the installation must in fact discover it, is the discovery Neuhaus proposes merely an art-world quasi-discovery? Is it even possible for an ideal discovery to take place? It appears so, considering at least the following account of a person who passed through the site frequently:

I work at 45th Street and Sixth Avenue in New York City. One evening some years ago, I walked across a traffic island at 45th and Seventh Avenue, and heard a strange sound coming from the sidewalk grating. It was metallic, deep and harmonic, with what you might call an urban New York mechanical strength. The sound had no discernible notes, so it wasn’t really musical, but it wasn’t noise either. It seemed to ebb and flow like a musical composition. I asked a police officer about the source of the haunting sound; he didn’t know. Along with many other people, I often returned to that area of Times Square specifically to listen. At one point it occurred to me that this was a work of sound art. I wrote to the Museum of Modern Art to inquire, but got no answer. Recently, I picked up a copy of Art in America and read the obituary of artist Max Neuhaus. To my surprise, I found out that he had created the sound work in 1977. (Ross 2009)

The notion of “[returning] to that area of Times Square specifically to listen,” is nearly a direct substantiation of Neuhaus’ proposition that “sound is used as a subtle tool to shape a new perception of place” (Neuhaus 1997). Furthermore, the aural discovery of the work without an a priori understanding of it reinforces the link between the process of discovery and the emergence of a perceptually bound, subjective sub-place. In order to uncover the mechanisms by which Neuhaus’ work functions, as framed by the notions of place and discovery, it is perhaps first critical to address Tazzi’s implicit identification of a distinction between place and site from the perspective of the artist. Site, that which is directly addressed by Neuhaus and that which listeners conceptualize in confronting a sound’s “impossibility”, is necessarily the bridge between the two instances of place, as first being always-already there, and eventually becoming a new re-contextualized sensitivity. A deconstruction of “site” will ultimately allow for a deeper understanding of how we move from one to the other through mere sonic intervention.

Because notions of site are much more well-formed within the area of what Neuhaus refers to as the “plastic arts”, a term he has repeatedly found useful for distinguishing his work from that of musicians or composers, it may be helpful to address issues of site as they relate to Neuhaus from that perspective. In fact, doing so may further reflect the irreducible shift in perspective that I hope to demonstrate as fundamentally operative in his work.

Site: From Literal to Functional

A site is little more than an area of ground, in an abstract locational sense. It is an area of ground that is both bound in some way (parameterized) and amenable to, or demonstrative of, some intervention. Take for instance an empty lot amidst an urban environment. For elucidation purposes, imagine that the surrounding buildings are actively used, maintained and stand in strict contrast to the empty lot. Therefore, we may perceive the lot as if it is yearning for an intervention. It has potentially been forgotten or neglected, and therefore demonstrates the physical manifestation or emergence of site. Yet, such a description also points towards a similar understanding of site as an “area of ground” in a discursive space. Because I see the lot as an architectural abeyance relative to the surrounding buildings and their cultural use, I can easily imagine another site: a dialectical engagement arising between architectural continuity and emptiness. A more complex understanding of site ensues. In recognizing both the physical and discursive manifestations of site, we begin to develop a dichotomous understanding of how each operates as two sides of the same coin.

James Meyer uses the terms “literal” and “functional” site to draw the above distinction (Meyer 2000). According to Meyer, the literal site refers to a physical “area of ground” as a site of action. It is the domain in which some intervention is materialized and thereby activated. In contrast, his notion of functional site refers to a position of reception within some discursive context, where the intervention means something in terms of thought.

Within the territory of the plastic arts, when the intervening act is situated both materially and dialectically, notions of the literal site and functional site are both constantly at play. In so far as art is situated in the world, issues of site are not only relevant but take on an increasingly important role in how we understand our own engagement with the work. In the context of more phenomenologically driven site-specific art, the literal site and functional site are wholly uneven. Concerning such an approach as evidenced by Richard Serra’s public sculpture as well as the work of Light and Space artists Robert Irwin and James Turrell, the address of literal site is direct and substantive, while the address of a functional site is diffuse, if manifest at all. 5[5. Though Robert Irwin’s distinction between site-conditioned and site-specific draws a marked contrast between his work and that of Serra’s, both can be viewed as a phenomenological approach to the notion of a situated æsthetic experience, whereby the literal site takes precedence. Therefore, each artist presents a different approach to the parameterization of site, yet neither of them necessarily attempts an address of functional site through their art or the context of its presentation. Neither Serra nor Irwin (nor Turrell for that matter) make art that means something else beyond the experiencing of it.] To refer back to the earlier example of Nauman’s Performance Corridor, that the piece does not mean anything beyond the direct experience of it, becomes reflective of a substantive address of the literal and an eschewal of the functional.

Yet, as is clear regarding the political implications of Christian Wolff’s music, the site of artistic intervention is not necessarily one-sided, that is, a framing of pure experience versus pure meaning. A new generation of artists whose work points towards even more general socio-political discourses, such as Christian Phillip Müller, Andrea Fraser, Anne Hamilton and Mark Dion, exemplify this point. The work of these artists suggests that while neither one side nor the other takes precedence, the gap between the two is ever widening. Meyer’s introduction of the terms literal and functional in fact stems from what he identifies as a “displacement of the 1960s-generated notion of ‘site-specificity’ over the past thirty [now forty] years” (Meyer 2000, 35). This new generation of artists approaches the notion of site-specificity as not merely a phenomenological engagement, but as a means opening up a larger discourse in the domain of thought. In doing so, an unhinging of literal site and functional site appears to be operative.

Miwon Kwon has furthered our understanding of this “trend towards the functional” by discussing how notions of site have become “unhinged”, as the practice of site-specificity has become reflective of the artist’s role in the realization of the work (Kwon 2002). Using the example of Mark Dion’s On Tropical Nature (1991), whereby the artist spent time at a “site” in the Venezuelan rainforest, collected and boxed a variety of objects found at the site, transported them to a gallery in Caracas, and displayed them as an installation fore-fronting issues concerning the representation of nature and larger global environmental concerns, Kwon argues that Meyer’s identification of a predilection towards the functional underpins a transformation of the operative definition of site, “from a physical location — grounded, fixed, actual — to a discursive vector — ungrounded, fluid, virtual” (Kwon 2002, 29–30). Kwon’s use of the word “vector” here reveals her particular insight: the functional site operates reflexively with the movement of the artist him / herself. Through the artist’s address of literal site as being primarily functional:

The site is now structured (inter)textually rather than spatially, and its model is not a map but an itinerary, a fragmentary sequence of events and actions through spaces, that is, a nomadic narrative whose path is articulated by the passage of the artist. (Kwon 2002, 29)

Is this not precisely the artistic activity that DeLio argues stands in strict contrast to Nauman’s Performance Corridor and the music of Christian Wolff? Doesn’t the externalization of artistic experience decentralize the role of the artist / composer such that he or she is no longer the sole carrier of a functional site? Yet, if the artist relinquishes functional responsibility, then on whom does it fall, considering that the intervention is nevertheless sited? It would appear that the trend towards the functional, while nevertheless operative (as again evidenced through a propensity to understand Wolff’s music as political), instead falls to the perceiver.

The Minimal Difference

An artist’s awareness of his or her own itinerary and the resulting increased onus placed on his or her role as carrier of the work, may in fact point to a more fundamental discontinuity underpinning the distinction between literal site and functional site. The notion of an artist traversing two spaces, one physical and the other discursive, reflects a parallelism of passage. Physically, an artist moves from literal site to literal site. Movement is also possible within a discursive space, as the artist moves from one functional site of reception to another. For example, an artist who constructs two different installations at the same literal site may not reflect movement physically, but in so far as the two installations function differently, i.e., occupy different positions in the world of ideas and proposed meanings, the works may demonstrate movement through a discursive space. Therefore, the notion of passage, particularly a parallelism of passage, reflects an understanding that each person, artist and perceiver alike, is demonstrative of both notions of movement: coming to a literal site and leaving it, coming to the functional site and leaving that too.

There is always-ever a continuum of engagement marking an individual’s passage through physical spaces and passage through headspaces. What there is not, however, is a continuum of engagement bridging the two. Between the two notions of passage, there is an irreducible discontinuity. This discontinuity is in fact the gap discussed in the previous section, between literal and functional notions of site. Žižek would use the term “parallax gap” to describe the irreducible literal / functional antimony. Parallax denotes “the apparent displacement of an object (the shift of its position against a background), caused by a change in observational position that provides a new line of sight” (Žižek 2006, 17). Parallax therefore becomes useful in describing the two notions of site, because of the gap that emerges due to the shift in perspective between site as literal and site as functional. By shifting (moving) between the two perspectives on site, I myself am implicated in the site, as constituted by me. As Žižek further clarifies from first a Hegelian and then Lacanian stance:

Subject [(viewer)] and object [(site)] are inherently “mediated”, so that an “epistemological” shift in the subjects’ point of view always reflects an “ontological” shift in the object itself. Or — to put it in Lacanese — the subject’s gaze is always-already inscribed into the perceived object itself, in the guise of its “blind spot”, that which is “in the object more than the object itself,” the point from which the object itself returns the gaze. (Žižek 2006, 17)

Therefore, the difference we find between literal and functional perspectives on site reflects the minimal difference between a site (its phenomenal presence) and itself (its noumenal notion). This minimal difference, or fundamental discontinuity, provides the basis for understanding how artist or perceiver, embodying the gap between literal and functional, moves to further implicate him / herself as both the subject and resultant object of his / her own experience.

The Gap as a Function of Artistic Experience

Sculptor Tony Smith’s anecdote about an experience in the early fifties in which he was able to drive the then un-opened New Jersey Turnpike late at night, might be able to shed some light on the issue. Smith, in recounting the drive, positions himself as an audience to the æsthetic experience of late-night highway driving, and in this capacity, outlines a train of thought which gives rise to a full disclosure of himself as viewer-subject. As Smith describes:

This drive was a revealing experience. The road and much of the landscape was artificial, and yet it couldn’t be called a work of art. On the other hand, it did something for me that art had never done. At first I didn’t know what it was, but its effect was to liberate me from many of the views I had had about art. It seemed that there had been a reality there which had not had any expression in art. The experience on the road was something mapped out but not socially recognized. I thought to myself, it ought to be clear that’s the end of art. (Wagstaff 1966)

There are three key aspects to the progression of thought presented in Smith’s account of his NJ Turnpike experience. First, there is the immediate, phenomenal experience of driving on the highway. Second, there is the questioning of that experience’s relationship to a larger discourse concerning art. And third, there is a self-reflexive disclosure, positing “the end of art.” In turning his focus from the immediate presence of the experience to identifying that same experience as something that “had not had any expression in art,” Smith shifts perspective in search of a functional site. As a result, the object of Smith’s experience and the object of his thought are co-incident with a third unfathomable object, the minimal difference between the phenomenal experience and its noumenal self: the gap occupied by Smith himself. By discovering, or even positing, the potential for a functional site of reception, his account collapses back in on himself, which he demonstrates by prefacing his final assertion in a self-reflexive way, stating: “I thought to myself, it ought to be clear that’s the end of art.” Though his concern with the “end of art” is reflective of an absence of an artist-subject (seeing as how the highway is a product of civil engineering), the discovery of the mere potential for a functional site of reception nevertheless coincides with a re-emergence of Smith himself as perceiver-subject; his own trajectory as a perceiver of the “work” is implicated in the very constitution of the work, through the “work” he brings to bear in moving from a literal to a functional notion of site.

It is here, finally, where we are able to identify the process of discovery as important from the perceiver perspective. What else is discovery, if not a fundamental shift in perspective disclosing a gap between what we thought we knew and what we know now? When we discover something it is necessarily through confrontation: a penny on the street, a movie discontinuity, a mathematical proof, a missing puzzle piece, etc. The minimal difference between the confrontational object and itself, marks an ability to discover distinctions. To the extent an art object (art work or a site of artistic intervention) confronts a viewer / listener and enables a shift of perspective on that object by uncovering a distinction, the viewer / listener is implicated in the process. Discovery enables the emergence of the perceiver-subject, providing a means for not the “the end of art,” but a relinquishing of artist-as-subject prioritization. Ultimately, it becomes possible to approach artistic intervention as a means of facilitating discovery through mere confrontation with an intervening object.

The Confrontational Sound Object of Times Square

Equipped with a fuller understanding of the mechanism by which discovery operates in an artistic capacity, from the perspective of the perceiver, we may return to the work of Neuhaus and assess the potential for discovery concerning the intersection of sound and site. If discovery is to take place, that is, occur in a situated capacity, framed by a particular configuration of place and moment, the confrontational object enabling discovery must too be situated. The use of the word “situated” does not denote immobility, but rather a particular bounding (in space and time) of a literal notion of site. Sound, not just mere sound, but a particular, designed sound is of course Neuhaus’ situated, intervening object. It is also Neuhaus’ sole intervention; the vast majority of his work is not even labelled on site. As he states in the catalogue for his Place Work, Three to One (1992–present), he is interested in letting sound “be the sole carrier of meaning in a sound work” (Gahse et al., 1997). I would argue that Neuhaus’ use of sound enables it to be the sole instigator of meaning. The carrier job is actually deferred to “those who find and accept the sound’s impossibility” (Neuhaus 1992). Nevertheless, Neuhaus recognizes that he himself does not carry the meaning of the work, or in other terms, determine its functional site of reception.

The sound is of course different for each of Neuhaus’ installations, yet this difference is not established a priori. Remember, the singularity of a particular Neuhaus sound object, what he often refers to as its “sound character” (Gahse et al., 1997), is derived through his own aural investigation of site (and of the site’s own sound character). In this way, Neuhaus’ artistic process places him first as the listener-subject within a given context. Neuhaus then moves backwards to address the shape, colour, and scale of the sonic intervention, which, through an encounter / confrontation, provides the minimal intervention necessary to aurally re-frame the given context. Tazzi reinforces this notion of backwards movement, claiming that the experience of a Neuhaus installation “devolve[s] upon three fundamental components: the sentient subject, the new articulation of sounds elaborated by the artist, and the context. The actual procedure of composition might be said to reverse this order, moving from context to subject” (Tazzi 1997, 16). What Tazzi overlooks however, is that the subject is not pre-given, but rather disclosed through an encounter / confrontation with the sound object. In this way, Tazzi’s ordering of sound object and subject should actually be switched, such that the subject is always between the sound object and the context. Neuhaus’ compositional process ensures that the confrontational sound object is always integrally tied to the very place it aims to contextualize. 6[6. Neuhaus would certainly object to the use of the word “compositional” here, probably preferring “design” instead.] The sound is a fulcrum, or “a subtle tool to shape a new perception of place” (Neuhaus 1997, 24). As not merely a site-specific, but rather a site-conditioned sonic intervention (following Robert Irwin’s distinction [Irwin 1985]), the confrontational sound object of a Neuhaus work serves as an instigator for uncovering the minimal sonic difference; a plausible but impossible sound serves as a pointer to the mere suggestion of “site,” which once found, embarks the listener upon a Tony-Smith-like process of subjecting his / herself to the confrontation. Just like Smith, the listener, who is confronted by the “impossibility” of the phenomenal presence of sound, shifts perspective towards positing its noumenal notion, and then self-reflexively confronts the minimal difference as him / herself.

Figure 1
Figure 1. Visualization of the emergence of the listener-subject, moving from left to right. [Click image to enlarge]

The shift in perspective occurs around the sound’s plausible / impossible engagement with site. Once a passer-by asks the question, “Is that sound of the site?”, she has discovered her own ability to shift perspective on the sound object (listen in a functional capacity), implicating herself as the listener-subject. And here’s the key point: regardless of how the passer-by answers that question, that is, regardless of whether she determines the sound to be of the literal site or not, she has posited a functional site, demonstrating a perspectival shift that discloses not an ability to listen, but an awareness of herself through the epistemological shift that occurs as a consequence of listening.

Returning to a discussion of Times Square, Neuhaus’ confrontational sound object, which at first exists for the passer-by only in a pre-given “world-place”, becomes a point of departure for a shift of perspective concerning Times Square itself. The shift occurs at the instant the question / discovery emerges: “Could Times Square be more than just Times Square?” That is, “Could Times Square (as a socio-cultural, inhabited place) be a functional site for art?” The answer doesn’t matter. To find Times Square as a “place of [one’s] own discovering” only requires that the question be asked. The question alone is evidence for the sound object having instigated the minimal degree of discovery necessary to disclose the minimal difference between Times Square and itself: the listener-subject. Figure 1 provides an illustration of the emergence of the listener-subject, as manifest in Times Square, and Neuhaus’ work more generally.

If a minimal degree of discovery is required to elicit the minimal difference between Times Square and itself, perhaps we have a better understanding of why the piece remains successful even for those art-world individuals who know of its existence and search it out. To refer back to Alex Potts’ “good deal of time [spent] wandering one evening around the wrong end of Times Square,” the search for the installation and the subject of the installation are one and the same. Potts was in effect encountering himself as listener to a functional Times Square repeatedly, yet without the accurate identification of a confrontational object. In this situation (the situated “mediation” of a literal and functional site) the search alone, as a desire for discovery itself, discloses the very same subject that a true confrontation with Neuhaus’ sound object potentially elicits. How many times did Potts discover himself in that place? How many aurally bound, subjective sub-places were framed through his listening? In this sense, our capacity for situated musical experience lies always ready-to-hand; to even suggest that there is some thing / object to listen to, if one is only able to find it, provides the only intervention necessary to find oneself. This lesson, which Neuhaus toiled to such marvelous effect to teach us, is applicable beyond the scope of sound installation work; it may in fact enable composers to re-inscribe, or at least re-discover, the reflexive capacity of listening regardless of the performance site.

The Concert Hall as a Place of Discovery

How might sound confront a listener as an impossibility within the context of the concert hall? And, how might the experience of seated, attentive listening become a process of discovery? These questions bring us back to the initial consideration of a listener’s experience of Windows Left Open. It would appear that discovery is precisely the issue at hand concerning my initial worries about the performance of my piece. Is it not the perceived lack of relationship existing between two constitutive elements that is precisely the object that confronts the listener? As we watch and listen to the performers attempt to match microtonal pitches heard in the electronic sounds that all are privy to, we identify their imprecision and, in doing so, implicate ourselves as the subject that perceives the difference. Our listening duly primed, we may then shift perspective on the schism between pitched percussion sounds and the background soundscape, and again, through the difference, self-reflexively attune ourselves to our own perception.

All too often, the compositional drive is a search for Kantian transcendence, a positive affirmation of the “I”, as listener, who subsists in rectifying or smoothing out the underlying antimonies presented as objects of aural perception. However, our capacity to smooth over, to cover up or to integrate emerges as an avoidance of a more fundamental void: an avoidance of self. Instead, I argue, composition should seek to accentuate, rather than resolve, an underlying discontinuity of parts, and present a deep structural and formal inharmonicity lurking under the guise of a superficial, harmonious whole.

Windows Left Open may be described as both listenable and fractious. Its listenability is superficial, while its fractiousness is substantive, yet lacking any substantial positive form. Its constituent elements open up a system of irreducible gaps: between algorithmically generated tones and soundscape recording, between computational precision and organic/instrumental imprecision, and lastly, between the listening performer and the performing listener. These gaps are the objects that the piece offers up to the listener for discovery, the discovery of oneself as both the subject and object of a framed aural experience.


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