Deep Listening: Mary Helena Clark’s The Glass Note
Before anything for the eyes, the sounds of nature: birdsong, the wind in their homes. This audio continues when there appears some seconds later the image of a Caucasian figure in tight close-up, cropped harshly above the collarbones and below the chin. Five laser-red dots dance on this throat. Having heard rustle and song before seeing these dots, the latter take on some character of the former, pecking and hopping to the rhythm of chirps and whistles, blown about by the breeze. The figure appears to swallow, or take a large breath, and a new voice enters the soundtrack, a human voice humming a tune, strangely familiar. And so a sense of documentation emerges, only to be brought immediately into question by the odd, insistent stillness of the throat. Is this the performer? When did I last reflect on how humming looks? When did you? And don’t the lasers point toward an understanding of this image as one of documentation as well, as one of evidence being gathered, of measurement? Our sense of uncertainty is deepened by a shallow depth of field which renders what little can be seen besides flesh a muddle of muted, deep grays, greens, and blues, impossible to pin down as in- or outdoors. A sudden, visible cut within the same framing, across which the soundtrack remains consistent, finally confirms any skepticism regarding the unity of sound and image. Which is not to say that this sequence, which opens Mary Helena Clark’s The Glass Note, is necessarily something other than documentation, it may just be of an event which is, for the moment, something other than visible.
Most plainly, that presently invisible event is Clark’s installation, Ligature, at Chicago’s Document gallery this past winter. It would perhaps be preferable to call it partly visible: The Glass Note condenses two of its five looped video projections and selections from its audio installation into a nine-minute, single-channel work for theatrical presentation. We might well follow the paths running from film to installation, to trace the points where various institutional and economic pressures make themselves felt aesthetically. I hope that such considerations remain on the edges of what follows, which proceeds instead through the close attention to the surfaces, visual and aural, which comprise the structure of The Glass Note, an object at once intricate and elusive.
Following the opening described above, it proceeds through six visually disjunctive movements, linked by sound bridges and a variety of rhymes and relations, though each is functionally modular and internally coherent. The second, which plays out in sound and yellow subtitle-style text against a black screen, narrates a set of associations relating to the painful cracking heard on the soundtrack, “We hear of those formations of rocks which suddenly shift when the wind blows upon them or else emit a soughing sound or give forth a mandolin-like music.” Is this what we are hearing? Clark inserts alternate possibilities—“[a creaking boat]” and “[a rope stretched]”—without committing to either. But is this correct, to say that Clark, herself, is the one “speaking” these suggestions? That is, can I really assume that these subtitles are replacing a voice which, for some unknown reason, has chosen not to make itself heard? The alternative points toward natural language, or the algorithmic: these are the words most people who speak English would use to describe what they’re hearing. “People come from near and far to see them. And yet one’s first impulse is to turn and run no matter how much one may love music.” At the moment the last of these subtitles appears, a door seems to lower, the rope creaking with its weight and joined by the ringing of an alarm, in the middle of the black frame, revealing a digitally animated ocean rolling softly, as if seen from the hold of a ship somehow opened while at sea. This is, of course, a cheap illusion, the gradual carving away along lines of perspective of a black mask over an animated layer. Though the illusion is plain, the effect is no less unnerving—the ship, surely, must begin to sink soon—though we are mercifully washed ashore before it becomes unbearable.
So begins the third movement, which alternates between 16mm images of a beach in dense Southern light and footage uploaded during the early years of YouTube showing four people playing the “ringing rocks” of rural Pennsylvania. The sound of the ocean, having arrived only with the image of the beach, rather than in sync with itself moments before, gives way to the song of the rocks. They are not blown by the wind, but hit by hammers, and their sound is of bells, rather than a mandolin. For much of this movement’s minute-long duration, both the 16mm and low-res digital images occupy the same small expanse of the wide HD frame, the space “opened” by the lowering door which concluded the second passage. The editing is drawn into this amateur percussion circle as a fifth instrument, bouncing between its two image tracks at an erratic rate which tempts syncopation. Nature, play, and craft dance a disorienting choreography. Here again, the question of who is shaping this material arises: the rocks, of course, are instruments built with patience at a geological scale, eons beyond any Steinway or Stradivarius, through millions of years of the glacial work of sedimentation and flow; the beach footage is that of a skilled 16mm artisan, composed to take full advantage of the play between deep shadow and the open blue of the sky, a sharp contrast softened by the density of foliage and calm expanses of sand in between; while the playing of the rocks is seen in jittery low-grade digital, full of dropped frames, amateur performance documentation of the sort which is produced today at an unfathomable rate. Finally, the 16mm footage refuses to be contained by its imposed frame, running over it to such an extent that it is cropped by the edges of the 16:9 video container, reminding us, as the image flares out, of the heavily felt frame of the opening movement.
The fourth and fifth movements are the film’s least opaque. The fourth is once again narrated by the yellow-subtitled “voice” of the second section, which now tells of travellers coming from afar to see metal rather than stone, statues which glisten under the compulsive hands of the pious, whose collective polishing of precious spots serves as a kind of mapping: “Hero statues are made of bronze and after many years they will tarnish. But not the lucky part that gets touched. There it remains shiny. That’s the part you want to touch.” The monochrome 16mm images, once again cropped to widescreen, which comprise this segment—rephotographed still pictures of the sort of statues under discussion—seem to me superfluous: Clark herself has already shown in the second movement that the strange narrative voice she has conceived, at once knowing and naïve, is more than adequately intriguing to function without illustration, more than capable of conjuring its own images in the mind. Though the final photograph, which shows the sculpted face of a man, his nose buffed to an almost blinding white, allows for an elegant transition to the fifth passage. Its shine blows out into a white frame, which is quickly reduced to the sharp beam of an industrial scanner as it moves beneath a pale oblong rock so dense with air pockets it has a sense of former life, as if it were some fossilized organ. This passage consists of nothing but the scanning of the rock, the soundtrack thrumming with industrial noise punctured by the unexpected return of the birdsong. The collaged audio sits in counterpoint to the matter of fact quality of the image—a precision machine seen in operation from a clear perpendicular angle—which brings Clark close to Amie Siegel’s excursions into the affects of institutional gazes, while its content returns us to the birds’ initial appearance and to the process of measuring with light. How much that we cannot see would the image produced by this machine, which is withheld from view, offer us that we cannot see for ourselves? And how can we begin to understand what is kept from us because it is addressed to institutions which are not our own?
The sixth movement brings the traveling line of the scanner out of illusory depth onto the surface of the image. An oversaturated color 16mm image of an androgynous face seen in profile in extreme close-up rises slowly from the bottom frame, creating a different sort of optical confusion: the ragged edge of the rising frameline gives the initial impression that this is a single frame being analyzed under an optical printer, but as it comes fully into view, the figure’s mouth closes slowly and subtly. The material fact of the film strip—nearly identical images following one after the other, awaiting animation—is shown to be detachable from its commonly understood mechanics. This is yet another instance of a voice being thrown, an object communicating in an expected way. The mouth opens again and a piercing note is heard on the soundtrack, which continues across a different framing of, perhaps, the same figure, a tight close-up on a throat which continues upward until the lower edge of the doubled “frame” reaches the top third of the digital container. Abruptly, the condensed internal frame reappears, as in the second and third passages, beginning a sequence of monochrome 16mm images showing an empty zoo, populated only by stones—both decorative carvings and the boulders strewn about cages tigers once roamed. The sharp, oscillating note continues, annotated briefly by the yellow subtitles: “[ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh].” The initial figure returns, now seen head-on, mouth opened wide, making space for this sustained note, only to have it ripped as quickly from their throat by a harsh cut to a lower resolution digital image showing a hand playing a wine glass. Clark cuts sharply back to a monochrome image of a large rock (now filling the frame) from which she pans raggedly away as the note concludes and the soundtrack fills with the sounds of table service—water pouring, a glass being rearranged—which continue as she returns to the first framing, now repositioned several inches to the right, bringing the focus squarely onto the ear.
Both sound and image cut out: “[hush in the throne room].” The effect of this moment in the theater was as startling a use of silence in cinema as one is likely to find, an intense reminder that it fills a space no less effectively than does sound, a moment which would be inconceivable in a gallery setting. And so begins the film’s curious final movement, as the yellow text returns a final time to narrate a crude, slick, 3D-rendered portrait of a chair designed for the 19th-century Portuguese King John VI, an object which functioned as both furniture and hearing aid. Its ornament, the mouths of lions agape at the end of each armrest, doubled as rudimentary microphones, siphoning in sound and amplifying it within a hollow body, the sounds accessible through a tube available to be placed in the ear. The false Steadicam, bobbing in engineered space as it examines the chair, finally descends down one of the open mouths, drawing the image into its final role: sound itself, descending into darkness, “[transmitted through the tube]” ”[to the king’s ear].”
To conclude, we can now return to the process by which Clark has condensed one work into another. Consider the closing passage, with its dovetailing of decadence and technology, its clinching of Clark’s equivalence of sound and image. As one sequence among many, waiting for some viewer’s chance encounter and subsequent folding into the fabric of their experience, it seems less likely, if not impossible, that in the gallery this movement would be able to set the resonant frequency of the work as it does here. Would the opening function as it does were we not briefly, subtly given birdsong before seeing any image? Perhaps so—and surely The Glass Note is but one tune among many embedded in the original mass of material—but the fact of its being a relevant question points toward the level on which the film operates. Few artists in these hundred years have paid such careful attention as Clark does to the arrangement of aural, verbal, and visual images, and to their unique epistemological valances, their capacities to create meaning and mood. Much work has been done toward understanding how these forms function in counterpoint. Considerably less has been done toward understanding how they might blur into one another, how they might swap effects as if they were masks, troubling the usual routes to making sense of experience. Clark’s films, The Glass Note above all, do just this; they leave us to find unexpected uses for our senses.
PHIL COLDIRON is a writer living in Brooklyn.