ALL THE SOUNDS

On a cool October morning in 1972, I woke up with a plan: I would write down every single sound I heard on that day.  As soon as I was aware of a sound, I began to record what I heard in a small notebook.  At the end of the day, exhausted, I fell back into bed and noted the last sounds I heard; the final sound was “breathing.”   In the following days I went through the notebook, deciphering my scribbles and working out the grammatical kinks, resulting in a 60 page typed manuscript.

Since that day I’ve contemplated repeating the exercise, but the world is infinitely noisier now than it was back then.  In any case, the piece stands on its own: a lopsided record of an ordinary day, made extraordinary by a single-minded focus on sound.

Here are a few excerpts from the Sounds piece, interspersed with images to complement, rather than explicitly adhere to, the narrative.  I noted the time sporadically throughout the day, whenever I thought to look at a clock.  In this excerpted version a line:  ___________  means I’m skipping ahead to a later time in the day.  I begin here at 9:30 am, a few hours after I woke up.

9:30am

light switch turning on

light switch turning off

stomach grumbling

sparrows chirping

blue jay calling

door opening

clothes sliding against each other

door closing

clothes falling on chair

paper falling on the floor

door opening

paper bag rustling

jars hitting each other

door closing

door opening

glass hitting the counter

door closing liquid pouring door opening

door closing

blue jay calling

___________________________

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1:13pm

page turning

lid screwing on

swallowing

glass hitting other glass

paper rustling

biting

chewing

bell chiming

my voice

voice

match striking matchbook

paper sliding across table

paper rustling

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my voice

voice

footsteps

siren whining

horn honking

bell chiming

liquid pouring

voice

my voice

footsteps

humming

chairs scraping the floor

voices

footsteps

banging

match striking matchbook

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footsteps

crash

sirens whining

papers rustling

crash

piece of wood hitting table

voice

my voice

whistling

paper tearing

sandpaper sanding wood

swallowing

fingers scratching head

voice

my voice

burp

laughing

___________________________

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6:40

truck passing on the street

feet stamping

hands clapping

fingers snapping

elevator door closing

laughing

cooing

voice

elevator door opening

elevator door closing

elevator door opening

elevator door closing

elevator door opening

footsteps

door opening

door closing

my voice

___________________

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voice

slide projector motor running

laughing

voices

chairs creaking

whispering

paper rustling

cigarette pack dropping into bag

voices

coughing

pad rubbing leg

blowing

laughing

slide projector clicking

voices

laughing

voices

laughing

slide projector clicking

____________________________

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8:40

my footsteps

ladder hitting the floor

my voice

voice

whistling

traffic passing on street

chewing

bus passing on street

hand rubbing my hair and face

elevator door opening

elevator door closing

elevator running

fingers tapping

elevator door opening

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voice

radio

voices

laughing

whistling

plastic rustling

horn honking

voice

my voice

kiss

voices

kiss

laughing

my footsteps

my voice

kiss

my voice

nibbling

subway passing by

burp

motor in clock running

 

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*

 

A few words of explanation: Early that morning I made a decision to record sounds by naming what made the sound, rather than spelling out what the noise sounded like. I quickly realized that trying to write down the actual sound I heard was impossible, in most cases. Using a tape recorder to make an actual recording was not a consideration, because my primary interest was in exploring the relationship – or the space, in a way – between the sensory traces an object makes (our perception) and a record of those traces, a concern that interests me to this day. *

What is different about a sound you hear and the mute, written words that describe that sound? What is lost and what is gained when you step back from direct experience, and put something – in this case, the written word – between you and the experience? What does a day look like when the traces that are left of it are only a written description of the sounds that were heard and some bits of memory? How is the shape of the day itself altered when one sensory component of it moves into the foreground?

I was in my final year at School of Visual Arts in New York when I made the Sounds piece. I had moved back to my parents’ house temporarily, after losing a shared Brooklyn loft and all my belongings in an unfortunate incident. Each morning that semester I awakened to the quiet of suburbia, then I commuted by bus to the city and took the subway to school or to my part time job as an artist’s assistant at a studio on Irving Place. On this October day I went to work first, then walked to an evening art history class, probably with Carter Ratcliff.  Thankfully, those classes were usually a lecture with slides, and were relatively quiet.  But as soon as my friends figured out what I was doing, they made their best efforts to interrupt any quiet that would give me a rest from mad scribbling in my notebook by producing an assortment of difficult-to-describe sounds. A few are seen above, along with my foot-stamping frustration. Unsurprisingly, it was for me, a day of few words.

I used a small notebook to write down what I heard that day. When I was in a quiet place I would hear the page turning. Later, when I typed up the piece, I chose to follow the same page spacing as in the original notebook, so that “page turning” appears at the top of some pages. The piece was submitted as part of my final work for a fine arts degree, and was well received. Now the paper edges have softened, the cover is tattered, and rust is slowly eating into the binder’s metal insert.  I hope to transcribe and digitize it one of these days.

An earlier post on this subject with photos of the original manuscript is here.

The photos:

  1. A light fixture for sale at ABC Carpet and Home on Broadway, in New York City. I took the photo in New York on October 17, 2017, exactly 45 years after I made the Sounds piece.  What goes around comes around; the artfully distressed wall behind the light is reminiscent of the way walls actually looked in downtown lofts in the early 70’s. It wasn’t chic then, it was just what existed.
  2. A rope-tied rock serves as a polite barrier in a path at Seattle’s Japanese Garden.
  3. A view of trees outside a window. A small piece of blue glass in a wood frame rests against the window.
  4. A collection of insects at an eccentric museum inside a Roman Catholic seminary in Mount Angel, Oregon.
  5. At the Seattle Japanese Garden, workers erected a tarp to protect plants while they worked on a new addition to a structure in the garden.
  6. Hoses on the old wood floor of an auto repair shop in Ferndale, California.
  7. The view across the street from the ABC store window where the lighting fixture photo above was taken. This view hasn’t changed since I was in school.
  8. A single rubber glove dropped on a sidewalk in Seattle.

 

 

* A concern with investigating the difference between objects as they are and as we perceive them was prevalent in the 1960’s and 70’s art world. It was a time when conceptual art questioned art itself, and minimalism was beginning to battle it out with post-minimalism, a term coined by art critic Robert Pincus-Witten, who taught at SVA.  Dorothea Rockburne, one of a number of working artists who taught at SVA then, would often bring up Kant in connection with ideas like this one, from Wikipedia:

Kant argued the sum of all objects, the empirical world, is a complex of appearances whose existence and connection occur only in our representations.[2] Kant introduces the thing-in-itself as follows:

And we indeed, rightly considering objects of sense as mere appearances, confess thereby that they are based upon a thing in itself, though we know not this thing as it is in itself, but only know its appearances, viz., the way in which our senses are affected by this unknown something.

— Prolegomena, § 32