Diary of a Mad Composer
Noise and silence initially appear to be opposite and antagonistic extremes, but in musical terms they are two sides of the same page, using different means and different language while sharing the same values. They are of course complementary, enhancing each other’s best side, but they are also concerned with filling time and space with sound while eschewing any need to mark or subdivide time with meter and rhythm. Meter and rhythm, from the perspective of noise and quiet, demonstrate the hubristic notion that man can control and order time, when it is the dimension of time that rules the entire universe, a force to which we are helplessly subjugated. Noise and quiet are conceptually free of time.
Perhaps this explains why I find both types of music so intuitively beautiful and comforting. The pleasures of good rhythm are immediately physical, but the pleasures of noise and quiet reach deeper. The involved noise/quiet listening experience brings me out of the flow of time into what can be a blissful eternal present, the sense that nothing and everything is happening all at once, and that the experience could continue for extended clock time while seeming to have no duration.
That is what I felt the first Saturday night in September, at the Dream House installation at the Dia Foundation, where, speaking of the sad vicissitudes of time, its stay has an expiration date. This is indeed the venerable Dream House, created by LaMonte Young, Marian Zazeela, and Jung Hee Choi, in what Dia calls a “site-specific iteration,” titled Dia 15 VI 13 545 West 22 Street Dream House. And it is indeed the Dream House, a space for the experience of sound, light, personal quiet, the inner self, and the infinite universe.
The way to explore that can be through music that is quiet and full of emptiness. As I lay on the rug in the semi-dark (Dream House protocol: no shoes, and silence before and after the music), violinists Christopher Otto and Erik Carlson and cellists Charles Curtis and Reynard Rott (the Eternal Music String Ensemble) played Young’s Trio for Strings. Young made the piece in 1958, and time and the accumulation of music based around noise and silence have changed the context so much that it takes historical knowledge to realize how radical the piece is. The music is made with long, quiet, sustained unisons and two-note chords, with one or two triads in the mix, and equal amounts of silence, spread across a three-hour duration. It has no form, no functional structure, and doesn’t go anywhere. It starts and stops in time, but it has no relevant beginning or end.
On a regular concert program, it might be tedious, but in the quiet stillness of the Dream House, it was impressive, exactly like a dream that is forgotten when one wakes up, but that was powerful enough to leave a lingering feeling of . . .something. . .in the middle of the brain. Music affects the experience of time so profoundly that the interspersed silences seemed to last for minutes at a time. They probably did. And the balance between the two stimuli entirely stopped the sensation of passing time. I was relaxed but also mentally and physically alert, soaking in the music and the silences, aware of the tiny details of my body—joints and muscles stretching and settling—and enjoying that sensation. It was three hours and forty-five minutes from the time I lined up outside until I left the building, and the experience not only seemed to go by in a fraction of that, but could have gone on much longer. In the days since, I’ve wished it was still happening.
There’s an uncanny communal feeling at the Dream House. The silence doesn’t isolate individuals but has them sharing the same purpose, which goes beyond witnessing the same event and into a mutual effort to preserve the experience from disruption. The verso to the Dream House, and the thing that came immediately to mind as I stepped out, still silent, into what seemed the drastic noise of Chelsea after midnight, was seeing the ambient doom metal group Sunn O))) at the Brooklyn Masonic Temple, in 2009.
Sunn O))) is loud, amazingly loud, and purportedly the group chose the Temple because it is not subject to standard noise ordinances. There is not only no silence at a Sunn O))) show, but they play at such a high volume that the sound waves from their Marshall stacks penetrate the body, bouncing around and vibrating, producing sympathetic pitches that meet the music in the mind’s ear. They play guitars, and they play you.
The Sunn O))) experience is as timeless and time-stopping as the Dream House, and as communal. Rather then being united in silence, the crowd at a Sunn O))) show is stitched together by mountainously beautiful guitar chords, and by the sound waves that are simultaneously the net that holds us all in and the line on which we are all strung. Sunn O))) embraces the emptiness of time and space as raptly as does the Dream House, but instead of pinging the edges with quiet, like Trio for Strings, and returning a sonar-like outline, Sunn O))) uses noise like a liquid, completely filling the vessel until its dimensions are defined. They are siblings in the downtown international—classical, even minimalism, and rock, including metal, are distant relatives to each—raised with the same values in experimentation, taking complementary paths to, in the moment, shape time.
And it seems to me they draw a like-minded crowd, even without sharing one. I cannot be the only person who listens to Young and Sunn O))), or has experienced each live. As forbidding or socially exclusive as the term “experimental” can seem, the foundation of experimental music is in asking questions of the universe and witnessing the answers. It’s genre, style, form and structure that divide tastes. Noise and silence are for everyone.
The Dream House is open to the public through October 24.
GEORGE GRELLA is the Rail’s music editor.