Sound is a wave, one that flows within a frequency band low enough so that it reaches into the structures of our inner ear and vibrates there. That information gets sent to the brain, where we try to figure it out. That's how we hear, and how we listen.
We see light waves, we smell chemicals, but we feel sound, literally. Sound touches us, and since music is a type of sound, music touches us at a distance. Consider how intimate that is—a singer produces vibrations in their body, and when those reach us we are entwined in a real way. The only other experience like that is sex.
Music making is a social activity, and that fundamental feature of touch at a distance is not just a physical realization of socializing, but likely something that motivated early humans to make this thing we now call music, a social desire for connection that brought about an enormous evolutionary step.
That touch also means that hearing music is always a live activity, things are moving around and working their way into and through us. There’s a long-standing knock on musical organizations acting like museums, preserving some precious and stale piece of classical music or old-time jazz as if under glass, reluctant to alter a phrase or drive up passion in fear of dislodging some delicate part. Even in those situations, though, the sounds made in the moment are alive, are life, and we touch them in a way that no actual museum would allow. Music cannot be hands-off.
But now everything is hands-off. People are making music, people want to listen, both sides struggle to connect, much less see their way through to what is going to be different for music performances in the future, and there’s going to be plenty that’s different beyond what is sure to be a large number of institutions and venues closing up for good.
The live streaming experience has quickly become the status quo—we’re fast to adapt. The tension of the last few performances in mid-March, concerts going on even as the audience was shut out, has gone. There is so much live streaming going on that one is again faced with the pleasant dilemma of having to pick something to see out of several simultaneous events. The stakes are different, the quality of the event is almost inconsequential right now, what matters is the amiability, the feeling that, even though we can’t be together, we are doing something in synchronicity, organized around a performer.
This is something like the experience of radio, but muddled and, I’m coming to find, not as satisfying. Radio is pure, just the sound connecting you to the DJ, and wherever they happen to be, they are right there in the room with you, touching with sound. Watching the live performance while hearing it is pleasant but also jejune, without the same kind of grip. The visual component creates sub rosa confusion—why am I me and not you?—and the eyes and ears split the focus. That happens at a concert too, but there’s something about the digitization of the sound, from an instrument far away through a transducer, then across wires into a server, then back down to our computers and retranslated through speakers, that removes the touch. It’s uncanny in an old-fashioned and futuristic way, because the sound wave has been turned into digital information, then reconstituted into a wave—we’re not touched by the artist so much as we are by the microprocessor right in front of us.
Through all these experiences, something has been running through my head, memories of seeing the violin duo String Noise (Conrad Harris and Pauline Kim Harris), play a piece Alvin Lucier wrote for them, Love Song. I have witnessed them playing this twice, at the Paula Cooper Gallery in 2016 and at the Gallery of Fine Arts in Ostrava, Czech Republic, the following year. In the work, as Lucier explains, “two violinists are connected by a long wire stretched between the bridges of their instruments, causing the sounds played on one violin to also be heard through the other. As the two violinists play long tones using only the open E string, they move in a circular motion around the performance space, thus changing the tension of the wire, which creates a remarkable array of variations in pitch and timbre ranging from ghostly wavering pitches reminiscent of a singing saw to near-electronic tones.”
That explanation ignores the title, which has real meaning, especially when played by this husband and wife pair. They are metaphorically singing together, but also apart, they need to keep sufficient tension in the wire or else the slack in the line will absorb the waves and there will be no effect. So the work is about a lot of things and asks a lot of questions about how to be together, be intimate, but also be at a distance, because without that distance there’s no music.
String Noise has released this piece and others on a new double-CD, String Noise (2020), on the Black Truffle label, so you can listen to this through your speakers. What you won’t get though is seeing how the music is produced in front of your ears. This is not a bad thing, but it means that you will be at some distance from the experience, even as Lucier’s ideas, preserved on recording, reach out and touch you. Because Love Song is less about the music than about how we make music together, and how we can both bridge the distance through sound waves, and how it might be possible to make sound out of that distance. Distance is most of what we’ve got for still some time to come, and if it’s kept empty, then there will be nothing to touch us.