Sound of the Century

A keyword of our digital environments today certainly is speed, and there is no shortage of voices decrying this fact. There is another realm of experience being offered to us, though, through those very-same digital channels, which is much more akin to the contemplative nature of book reading. Something more aligned with immersion.


The watchword is slow. Or rather —


m i n i m a l i s m

I discovered a few weeks ago a wonderful blogpost about trains in cinema, and I even commented on the post before noticing that he thanked Tarrl Morley for his “numerous suggestions.” It’s a small world, I am discovering… I actually know Tarrl, or I mean knew Tarrl from some years ago, when we worked together at a book store in North Carolina. He is at least half the reason I am pursuing a Masters of Library Science today, as I was inspired by his devotion to and love for librarianship.

He is a delightful, knowledgeable man with whom I share a great love of armangac. He’s also a wonderful minimalist photographer and video artist — you can see examples of his work here and there. We also both love film noir (and I thank him for pointing me toward Rififi, which I somehow missed in all my trawls through grimy basement collections over the years) and, what initially interested me at least, unusual music. What he loves is not just any unusual music, though.

I have to admit, for me making a mix suited to a particular person’s tastes is an art, and an art that is impossible to practice consistently. I am a seasoned mix-maker, though not in the seamless DJ dancehall sense. I still have a huge collection of cassettes, and countless CD-Rs, custom made for me or assembled by my own hand over the years. So once I learn that someone is into music, and especially not into pulp mainstream plug-n-play madlib-style pop radio music, my hunger to make the Perfect Mix is again renewed.


Tarrl likes to wear the same suit every day. I like to think that he has, Dale Cooper style, a closet full of 31 exact reproductions of the same suit. I discovered that he is into minimalism, and especially the music of Morton Feldman. I don’t know if you’re familiar with his work, and it’s hard for me to describe if you’re not — So here’s a wonderful description of Feldman’s work from a June 19, 2006 New Yorker article by Alex Ross:

The often noted paradox is that this immense, verbose man wrote music that seldom rose above a whisper. In the noisiest century in history, Feldman chose to be glacially slow and snowily soft. Chords arrive one after another, in seemingly haphazard sequence, interspersed with silences. Harmonies hover in a no man’s land between consonance and dissonance, paradise and oblivion. Rhythms are irregular and overlapping, so that the music floats above the beat. Simple figures repeat for a long time, then disappear. There is no exposition or development of themes, no clear formal structure. Certain later works unfold over extraordinarily lengthy spans of time, straining the capabilities of performers to play them and audiences to hear them. More than a dozen pieces last between one and two hours, and “For Philip Guston” and “String Quartet (II)” go on for much longer. In its ritual stillness, this body of work abandons the syntax of Western music, and performers must set aside their training to do it justice. Legend has it that after one group of players had crept their way as quietly as possible through a score of his Feldman barked, “It’s too fuckin’ loud, and it’s too fuckin’ fast.”

Music can be a powerful stimulus for inspiring reflection and meditative states. Considering how fundamental waves, frequencies and vibrations are to life on Earth, it’s little wonder that music is likely older than language, or rather, that music as a communicative sound was very likely our first language. Rhythm inspires a state of immersive trance and mental sublimation, but there is something perhaps even more powerful in extended aural meditation. The didgeridoo, Pandit Pran Nath, Acid Mothers Temple, Taj Mahal Travelers, the Gyuto Monks, Sufi ney music, Indian ragas, Aki Onda, Oren Ambarchi, Taku Sugimoto (and nearly the entire 10 CD Improvised Music From Japan box set), Terry Riley, Gregorian chants, Pärson Sound…and, well, innumerable others.

So I set out to make a suitable mix for Tarrl that would capture something of the extended trance that he likes, and I failed miserably. Track for track, a total loss. Even though the disc had about five songs, averaging about 16 minutes a song, it was still too noisy and active for his tastes. What I didn’t know then was that he listens to perhaps the only genre of music that I do not have anything of — modern electro-acoustic field recordings. Electro-acoustic because the recordings may be glancingly modulated or re-oriented, rather than wholly pure. I’m not talking about those crappy log-in-a-fireplace CDs, or Amazon Rainforest sound-fields to fall asleep to. I mean Steve Roden’s recordings of a light bulb, for instance, or certain Intransitive Recordings. His wife said it best when she told me “sometimes I walk into the room, and I’m reading for about an hour before I hear the CD stop and I realize that Tarrl was listening to music.”

Silencio (1)

I of course tried again, this time I think I fit in four tracks, one each by Aeolian String Ensemble, an extended Muslimgauze drone, a Kazuhisa Uchihashi work and I forget the last one just now. I got it half right, barely, since he enjoyed two of the tracks, which I had to settle for because he got a job elsewhere in the state, as a librarian no less, and I never saw him again. At least, until I ran into him on the art of memory blog post about trains…

I was thinking about him when I came across an article about the John Cage piece Organ2/ASLSP (which, now that I am learning about cataloging practices, sounds suspiciously like a system for organizing knowledge, but I digress). Apparently this was originally a 20 minute piece just called ASLSP, which stands for As Slow As Possible; it is now to be a phenomenally unhurried 639 year performance if all goes as planned. Beginning in 2001 at midnight in a small German town, the first performance consisted of the sound of an organ being inflated. “The audience gathering at the former Buchardi monastery in Halberstadt will not hear the first chord for another year and a half.”

It’s like sitting down to watch the Earth breathe.


Is the audience still there, hibernating like cicadas between annual month-long exhalations?

In the same vein I’d like to briefly mention a project by Brian Eno. Yes, Brian Eno, sound sculptor with an affection for eyeliner, tribal fusion and putting people to sleep in airports. Not to be outdone in the ambience department, since he does have a rightful claim to the throne of modern Ambient music, Eno has launched his 77 Million Paintings project live to the web. Essentially this is a constantly mutating abstract painting, and artistically is worlds away from the original Mind’s Eye series of computer animations. In theory, this painting could continue to evolve forever, or at least until all energy in the universe dies out, which may reasonably be a mite longer than Cage’s paltry composition.

The silent life experiences on the surface through activity…In the silent life there is no joy but only peace.

Hazrat Inayat Khan, The Music of Life

2 Responses to Sound of the Century

  1. well, this is a very nice post, mr. morley gives information for many of my posts, in fact i started it and continue to do it to share information with him and his wife.
    (because we live so far apart.)
    it is funny, because i was going to do a post on his videos this weekend because they go so well with another dvd i was starting a post on.
    anyway, nice blog, thanks

  2. Vaucanson's Duck says:

    Hello Mr. Memory,

    What a happy coincidence, the synergy of our posts. I am certainly looking forward to any videos you might post this weekend, I’ve not seen much of Tarrl’s work. I believe I saw a collaborative piece online which used video of water, but I couldn’t find the URL in time for Sound of the Century. I am curious as well about the DVD that reminds you of his work. I know that there is a collection of re-imagined video game digital-scapes coming out, overall fairly quiet, contemplative works, culled from a museum show at Amsterdam’s Stedelijk, but that probably isn’t what you’re referring to…

    Well, thanks for stopping by!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: