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A few days ago El ruido eterno. Escuchar al siglo XX a través de su música, [[Alex Ross, El ruido eterno. Escuchar al siglo XX a través de su música, Seix Barral, Barcelona: 2009 (Original publication: The Rest is Noise, Listening to the Twentieth Century, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007)]] by Alex Ross came into my hands . Although not a book about the History of music, it leads us through various musical episodes from the last century looking at the context and their relation to the artistic avant-garde and coetaneous experimental practices. One of the author’s questions refers to why contemporary “classical” music doesn’t have as much impulse as other types of music considered more “popular”. He questions why other arts from the 20th century, such as abstract painting or experimental film, have reached such a massive public while contemporary classical music still resists this massification and is left relegated to a less ample circle of devotees.
Even so, what really resonated with me was the first phrase of the title Ruido eterno (Eternal noise). A perpetual noise we can’t stop listening to, wherever we are. In the cities, the country, or in the mountains, what fundamentally we listen to is noise, while the total absence of sounds, and as such living beings, remains beyond our reach, as John Cage would describe in 1961 in his book Silence[[John Cage, Silence: Lectures and Writings, Wesleyan University Press, New England: 1961.]] after visiting the anechoic chamber of the University of Harvard. His writings demonstrate that, even inside this chamber capable of absorbing sound waves without reflecting them, we can do nothing more than listen to other sounds, even if these are only of our organs.
On the other hand, the title of the book in its original English version is more suggestive: The rest is noise an expression that clearly alludes to the phrase of the moribund Hamlet of William Shakespeare, where towards the end of the piece, the protagonist declares: The rest is silence [[William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Ed. Cátedra, Madrid: 1993, p. 711]]. Hamlet announces, in a different way, the very impossibility of absolute silence during human life. Or to put it in the words of John Cage: “Until I die there will be sounds. And they will continue following my death. One need not fear about the future of music.” [[John Cage, Silence: Lectures and Writings, Wesleyan University Press, New England: 1961, p.8]]
Noise. Sound. Silence. There is a lot of noise in contemporary cities and few alternations with its due silence. People murmur distractedly into their telephones, talk, laugh and shout, alongside claxens, screeching brakes and untimely bashes. From afar, echoes of demonstrations and hullabaloo. It is undeniable that the soundscape of cities also talks to us of a specific urban anthropology that we inhabit, as happens in the country where nature is revealed through her seasonal sonatas. And, despite this, we are not always disposed to listen to them.
Nevertheless there are some people who pay close attention to these soundscapes (both introspective and extrovert), such as the French artist, Robert Cahen (Valence, Francia, 1945), who a few days ago presented in Barcelona the video exhibition “El universo del ser” (The universe of being”) at the Institut Français (in collaboration with Videoakt Videoart and Homesession). A pioneer in video art and unflagging researcher into the use of the image and electronic arts, Robert Cahen studied concrete music with Pierre Schaeffer in Paris and made his debut in the French national radio and television studios.
In his initial journey, his encounter with concrete music led him to experiment with the electronic image and video in the 70s, managing to conjugate a tight relation between the moving image and sound, noise and music; a relation that still impregnates his work. The art of video, or of the moving image, feeds off experimental projects such as Fluxus and concrete music amongst others, the latter a term coined by Schaeffer in 1948 to refer to a kind of music that exists exclusively recorded on some form of support, a non-volatile music, that can’t be modified by the executing musicians. He rescues in this way the significance of sound in itself beyond the context of the source that emits it. In this way, a particular poetics of concrete music is developed through sound montage, which placed in relation with the image, both static and moving, reveals a singularly creative field.
In effect, Robert Cahen treats sound material in a similar way to the image, as in the material of his films and videos. We can observe it in the works he presented in Barcelona: Corps Flottants (Cuerpos flotantes) (1997) 13’, L’étreinte (The embrace) (2003) 9’, Sanaa, passages en noir (Passages in black) (2007) 7’,Plus loin que la nuit (Further than the night) (2004) 10’, Dieu voit tout (God sees everything) (2011) 11’, Blind Song (2008) 4’. These pieces reveal a landscape with the specific sonority of wherever they are, some mountains in Japan, or recondite places in Africa, Vietnam or China. A documentary poetics made up of sequences merging images and sounds that make the journey into an experience that is not just visual but also sonorous. These pieces, for their formalism, make it possible to glimpse his imprint on younger artists, on contemporary sound artists and their respective soundscapes and visual installations, as well as on the VJs (video-jockeys) and the festivals of electronic music in general.
Music in its transformation has undoubtedly abandoned the rigid frontiers between the visual world and that of sound, the relations between both universes have changed. We need to pause, even if it is only every now and again, to listen and look at our surroundings, to discover the sounds and silences that surround us. For the rest is noise.
"A desk is a dangerous place from which to watch the world" (John Le Carré)