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Music that is Impossibly Loud and Unbearably Silent: notes and video

(video part two is also available on YouTube)

early images (a vision?) ...
Music that is Impossibly Loud and Unbearably Silent came out of an earlier inspiration where Lowry, Jonathan and I were at an event on the NASA Ames research facility, waiting for the performance of ‘I See the Earth’.  We were sitting in a hangar large enough to have housed the space shuttle, looking out at the mountains framed by an art deco entrance way.  The buildings at Ames feel like egyptian temples and giant cabaret dance halls:  there’s also a Zeppelin storage area - now empty - that has the impact of a breaching whale.

The mountains mixed with a roar of jet engines, the real stuff loud and fast and agile.  Sexy.  The place cried out for large scale images, music of immense proportion, gigantic scale, enormous gestures.  One idea, a 20 mile mylar pipe balanced on a fulcrum between the doorway and the mountain view for which the place has it’s name.  A second:  seven jet engines arranged at intervals around the landing fields, each pilot generating controlled revolutions (or whatever measurement makes sense in a jet engine) such that an overlapping sequence of harmonics would be created.  

It would be a magnificent piece, perhaps with powerful lasers shot into the sky, creating unfolding petals in the night with  this unimaginable annunciation of sound exploding  on the ground.  

Our piece came and went, as did we, followed soon by the inspiration.  What we had been referring to as ‘That Jet Engine Piece’ languished, not forgotten but identified as one of those concepts  better to talk about after a few drinks on an easy Saturday afternoon. Besides, I can only imagine how resistant NASA would be to the misuse of their finely tuned engines and the pilots who run them.  (Turns out, they would be right to worry given the eventual destruction of my Subaru...

something happens...
The years passed.  One afternoon I was waiting at a bus stop in Pittsburgh.  (Grant and 5th, for a route to Oakland and the CMU campus). I was using my iPhone to listen to Spiegel im Spiegel, for cello and piano written by Arvo Part.  I was obsessed with the purity of the piece, and was listening to nothing else.  It was an early summer afternoon, following a short Spring and an extraordinary extension of brutal winter.  The sky opened with heavy rain, and I stood beneath the mostly  adequate protection of my umbrella.

When the wrong bus pulled up, I strained outside to follow the music on my headsets.  All I could hear was the Port Authority diesel - a lesson in Zen Ears:  what could I hear, what was I hearing, not what I expected or desired to hear.  The effort of following this un-hearable music was a lush, gorgeous experience.  It  pulled my heart apart, it dragged me to reminiscence and nostalgia.  The erasure of the structure that I knew was there created a void, a negative space that felt rich and ripe.

I don’t think it was an accident that this experience happened while listening to Part.  His music creates a highly formal space, open to elaborate ideas and processes, but constructed from the lightest use of musical materials.  In  a 1997 interview with Bjork and Part (part of a BBC series on Minimalist composers), Bjork asks “...question and answer the different voices inside your music almost like Pinocchio and the little cricket:  one is human and always doing mistakes and the little cricket is like comfort”.  Part responds “ I’m very is really so.  This style consists of two ways, two sides so that one line is my sins and another line is forgiveness for these sins.”

I thought back to the original idea at Ames.  I thought two things.  First:  I could not wait until I had access to seven jet engines.  I would take this vision and realize within whatever constraints existed.  Second:  I realized that there needs to be a sonic event on the inside of ‘That Jet Engine Piece” which is known to be un-hearable. That sonic event should be of extreme beauty.  Thus the title of the piece took shape:  an impossibly loud structure around a piece of beauty whose ‘un-hearability’ was unbearable.  

to be written...
I resolved to write a piece of exquisite form, and to call upon the resources I had at hand.  I could not allow the unavailability of military weapons to prevent me from realizing this  structure.    I rejected the  idea of a proposal to Port Authority to borrow seven of their buses for an afternoon - I couldn’t wait, and besides, there seemed to be an important lesson emerging, something along the lines of demonstrating commitment to a vision, to the subconscious forces.  Those forces didn’t seem to care about the details of realization, nor did they exhibit concern about the difficulties of manifestation.  Not for them the excuse of a bottom drawer filled with un-submitted manuscripts.  This was an event that had to happen.  

(This is not the only way in which the piece is different from anything else I have written to date.)

I was surprised by the  response I received from a simple status post  on Facebook  - and also by how easily I could explain the project.  I would  gather Drivers together.  They would learn a few simple hand gestures that I would use to direct the sounds of their engines.  My wife Kathryn would be in the center, singing a song that nobody should  hear.  Drivers included Nick Williams (in the family minivan), Diane Bronowicz (in what I think was a PT Cruiser), Lowry Burgess (in his wife’s beautiful new car), Maria Stoy (driving my Subaru), and Sam Stoy, in his rusty Pathfinder.  Jonathan Minard put together a crew of videographers and sound technicians.

Everything was in place, except the location.  I considered a spot down by the river, on the Monongahela by an abandoned glass works.  Suitably poetic mix of water, land and industry, but difficult to access by vehicle.  I was also unclear on the legal status of the land, and couldn’t stomach the prospect of law enforcement ( or worse, Pinkerton’s) showing up and questioning my activity.  

on the day...
We ended up beneath the 16th street bridge, on the north side of the Allegheny.  I had noticed the parking lot, empty during the week and likely to be ignored on a Sunday afternoon.  A trucking business made up one side, an empty church along another, and the riverside trail on the third.  Access was easy from the bridge, which itself is a striking backdrop to the cityscape.   Time, place and actors were set and established.

Impossible Site 

Now:  the reader may doubt that the event ever took place, just as they may doubt whether Kathryn is really singing anything at all, let alone a piece of heart-rending delicacy.  You aren’t supposed to hear the song - does it matter if a video exists to prove that this happened?

The event needed to happen.  But this written summary is enough to capture the experience.  I tell you that a piece was un-hearable, what does  that mean?  Is it different if you had been there to not hear it?  

At the same time, it all looked very cool, and I did hope that the Loud Structure of the engines would be an engaging experience in it’s own right.  If there was a taste of the visionary about the piece (sprinkled with a dash of Arvo Part for seasning) , then there was also a mug of frothy Futurism on the table.    From the Futurist Manifesto:

”We will sing of the great crowds agitated by work, pleasure and revolt; the multi-colored and polyphonic surf of revolutions in modern capitals: the nocturnal vibration of the arsenals and the workshops beneath their violent electric moons: the gluttonous railway stations devouring smoking serpents; factories suspended from the clouds by the thread of their smoke; bridges with the leap of gymnasts flung across the diabolic cutlery of sunny rivers: adventurous steamers sniffing the horizon; great-breasted locomotives, puffing on the rails like enormous steel horses with long tubes for bridle, and the gliding flight of aeroplanes whose propeller sounds like the flapping of a flag and the applause of enthusiastic crowds."

I didn’t have all that, but I did have a bridge and some combustion engines.  The logistics on the ground threatened to devolve into a jumbled parking lot.  I drew a diagram for the Drivers, reproduced here:

Impossibly Loud Score 

program notes...
The idea was that I would walk around the circle of cars three times.  On the first walk, I would point to each Driver, and they would turn on their engine, leaving the engine to rumble out of gear.  I would then walk a second time, providing hand gestures to more more precisely direct the RPMs of each car.  The sound structure would then be in place, and Kathryn would sing.  At the end of the song, every Driver would take their foot off the gas, and I would walk a third time directing Drivers to switch off the engine.

By the time the second car had revved up,  I couldn’t tell anything about individual RPM, and drivers would just have to rev up and hold.  I talked to Diane afterwards, and she said that regardless of what I had done with my waving arms, she’d just floored it.  

The score calls for something like an English horn to accompany the voice.  In the spirit of using what was at hand, we decided to have voice and mandolin.  I wish I could tell you what the song is.   I’ve never heard it sung myself, although I’ve been told that our daughter did once overhear a practice session.  The video of Kathryn singing is great:  there’s a snippet where it looks like she’s either tuning the mandolin, or perhaps just seeing if it’s making any sound at all...the  cars really did fill the space with a sonic gesture that was solid to the touch.

Towards the end of the song, you will see Kathryn look with alarm over her shoulder, and then shake her head.  This is to tell Maria *not* to try  and restart the Subaru, which had come clattering to a stop.  Further inspection by trained mechanics resulted in a new engine - I will not accept that art required such a sacrifice.

Impossible Car 

The idea of musical erasure, un-hearable sound, the empty noise of silence, is one that I wrestle with in other pieces.  How do you erase sound?  Until this, I had looked for electronic solutions.  My next piece in this set is for Hurdy Gurdy and Freight Train.  I will sit as close to the track as possible, play a drone and melody on my Hurdy Gurdy while a freight train emerges from the distance, blocks all sound, and then recedes to leave a shattered and empty sound space.

I may look to realize the same Impossibly Loud structure using different types of engines - maybe the Port Authority would be interested in a piece of public art?  Perhaps NASA will come around?  Maybe with the decommissioning of the shuttle program, I could arrange several unused launch engines over a 10 miles span.   Controlled thermonuclear explosions across the southwest desert?

I also see that one solution has suggested many new questions.  Something magical happens when sound is presented in counterpoint to a specific location.  Perhaps this will evolve into a ‘musical’ idiom where the shapes previously generated  as waves in air will instead be passed as energy through another medium?  Water, earth, air, electromagnetism all strung on a single Lyre.