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Nihil Unbound: Enlightenment and Extinction

Through The Looking Glass

by Francisco López
Kairos, Vienna, Austria, 2009
CD (box set containing five CDs), #0012872KAI
Distributor’s website: kairos-music.com/

Reviewed by Eugene Thacker
Media Studies & Film, The New School
New York, NY


Some years ago I recall going to visit a sound installation by Francisco López. I can’t recall the name of the piece though I do recall the experience. In a quiet room with speakers, I waited. Knowing López’s work and seeing that the room was almost totally empty, I expected nothing but sound. And this was, in a way, what I got – though I never actually heard anything. Standing in that room, I couldn’t hear anything except for the subtle and gentle rattling of the windows. Eventually the whole room started to quake. And still nothing coming from the speakers (or so I thought). Then I realized that the speakers were, in fact, playing sounds, but they were outside of my hearing range. These non-human sounds were only accessible to me indirectly via their acoustic and physical effects on the space itself (the windows, the floor, my body). Eventually more audible, rumbling bass sounds did make their appearance but only after the sounds had first manifest themselves as the physical space itself.

This play between sound in space and sound as space is, for me, indicative of much of Francisco López’s work. For over 30 years, López has been working in that liminal space between the audible and the inaudible, producing recorded works, installations, and live performances. Recently, the Vienna-based label Kairos released Through The Looking Glass, a beautifully produced CD box set of López’s work. While López’s output is voluminous, Through The Looking Glass offers an excellent survey of one of the most important sound artists of our time. The set ranges from field recordings made in the early 1990s, to more abstract ambient works from the late 1990s, to recent work that exists at the limits of sonic experience.

While there are discernible continuities in López’s work, in my view, the pieces collected on Through The Looking Glass are of four types, each differing on the way they balance the sounds of the world and sound worlds. Qal’at Abd’ai-Salam (1993) and O Parladoiro Desamortuxado (1995) both combine field recordings with various sound processing effects. The sources of both pieces are discernible – one hears birds, cicadas, the bustle of street markets, the hum of the countryside, resplendent forests, the echo of a distant temple. The sources retain their referential aspect (“bird,” “car,” “bell”), but the subtle effects and layering gradually create a vibrant cacophony, a kind of shimmering din that belongs neither to the external world nor to the world of purely synthetic or electronic sounds. The titles of these pieces hint at this cacophonic naturalism (“The Game of Mud,” “A Time Spirit in the Body of a Plant”). In these pieces, sounds taken from the world begin as referential sounds and gradually become non-referential. At the same time, they never completely lose their referential quality, placing us as listeners in a strange in-between place.

From here López experiments with this relationship between sound and effects. In La Selva (1997) and Buildings (New York) (2001), López presents us with sounds without effects. Both are straight field recordings but from very different environments – in La Selva the recordings are drawn from several sites in the Costa Rican jungle, while Buildings (New York) are drawn from different residential, industrial, and office buildings in Manhattan. While there is no processing to the sounds, these are, strangely, the most surreal of the recordings, in part because we as listeners do not know if one location simply follows another in sequence or if different locations are layered on top of each other, producing an “impossible” sonic reality. Both pieces are also characterized by an abstract texture – a swarming texture of insects and rain in the jungle, and the vacuous, ambient hum of empty buildings, generator rooms, and abandoned tunnels. These field recordings are “fields” in the true sense, in that they transform a physical location in the world into a location that, strangely, has no actual “place” (interestingly, the sounds of human beings are absent from both pieces). La Selva is the dense, polyrhythmic sonorism of non-human life, while Buildings (New York) is the cold, mechanical life of the city.

The near inverse approach characterizes Belle Confusion 969 (1996), in which these seem to be only effects, and no source sounds. Distant overtones, delicate trills, and diffuse echoes are juxtaposed with non-directional washes, eventually condensing into a kind of thick, ambient noise. Over a period of 50 minutes, these “ambient” sounds eventually become so dense that they start to occupy and fill space itself. Instead of ambient sounds carving out or hollowing out space. In Belle Confusion we as listeners experience an acoustic paradox: diffuse sounds that hollow out a space from without, and, at the same time, nearly subsonic rumbles that fill a space from within. Belle Confusion is indicative of many of López’s better-known works, such as Untitled #74 or his numerous sound installations. In pieces like these, one rarely notices when the piece itself has begun. The sounds begin so faintly and emerge so gradually, that one can easily mistake them for the sounds of one’s own environment. First there is silence, then before you know it, there is suddenly an amorphous, diffuse wash of sound – was it always there, or did it suddenly begin? This acoustic uncertainty is central to Belle Confusion, a confusion between the sound recording and the sounds of one’s environment (which is most cases are never totally separate). While works such as La Selva and Buildings (New York) present us with sounds without effects, in Belle Confusion we have effects without sounds – as if the sound sources themselves have vanished, leaving only sonic traces.

All of this is taken to another level in López’s more recent works, many of which bear the simple title of Untitled. Through The Looking Glass contains three such works, all produced in 2008. These pieces are distinct in their subtractive approach; they truly exist at the limit of audibility. Occasionally one hears faint hints of found sounds, but more often than not the Untitled pieces operate at the highest and the lowest registers, the supersonic and subsonic. Sub-bass rumbles and high-pitched, aleatoric glitches, both faintly audible – and without anything in the middle. These pieces are fascinating in their austerity in the way they empty out the sonic spectrum. López subtracts almost the entire audible range, leaving only the highest and the lowest, the most distant and diffuse. Sound itself becomes enigmatic, at once omni-present and yet non-directional.

López’s approach to sound art is made clear in the accompanying booklet to the box set: “Typically, recorded sound is considered to be a representation of reality. Unbeknownst to the average person...a sound recording can also be considered an entity in itself...those extractions, in fact, are a different ‘reality’ in themselves.” This switch, from sound as a representation to sound as presentation, is also a shift from sound as referential to sound as tautological. López is, of course, aware of the use of found sounds in the history of avant-garde music, from the experiments of Luigi Russolo, to the l’objet sonore of Pierre Schaeffer, to the elusive “acousmatic” sound of Michel Chion. However, López’s use of field recordings also brings to mind the work of Luc Ferrari, whose Presque Rien series takes seriously the notion of autonomous sound worlds, existing apart from their sources or their function as representational sounds “of” something. In many of the pieces collected in Through The Looking Glass, López adopts a process whereby recorded sounds from the external world are arranged in a non-representational and non-musical way. The sounds move past their indexicality where sounds signify objects or events in the world. These sounds also move past simple abstraction, where a sound source is processed or manipulated so that it becomes unfamiliar. What López often aims for is a double failure – the failure of sounds to adequately or faithfully represent the external world, and the failure of sounds to achieve the perfection of purely synthetic, purely artificial entities. This is, perhaps, what López means when he speaks of his experience with field recordings: “I realized the dramatic difference between listening as a semantic activity and as a phenomenological experience.”

Sound art is typically positioned along two conceptual axes. One axis is that of music and sound, where music ceases to be the representation of a feeling or emotion and becomes the presentation of independent sounds without reference to feeling subjects or the objective world. Much of the post-war avant-garde explores this terrain, though its beginnings are already evident in the turn towards chromaticism and atonality in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The other axis of sound art is that of sound and silence, where the presence of sound as sound gives way to autonomous sound objects, whether found sounds or electronic sounds that question and challenge the scope of what is listenable, of what can possibly be included in the sonic experience. Monotones, overtones, even microtones come into play as types of barely audible differences, but so also do a whole range of found sounds and artificial tones, the sounds around you right now and the those same sounds cut and spliced many times over. But here even silence is, as John Cage has shown us, never just silence, but simply a new context for old sounds.

The sound art of Francisco López represents a third axis, one that has generally been underexplored in the history of Western sound art, and that is the axis of sound and unsound. The term “unsound” has several meanings. On the one hand it denotes something incoherent, unstable, something “structurally unsound” like an argument that demonstrates a faulty use of logic. That which is unsound is unreliable, suspect, absurd. But the prefix in the term “unsound” also denotes a negation. An unsound is not simply an “anti-sound” (in the way that silence is the negation of sound). It denotes a negation that manifests itself as a negation, as a reduction, as a subtraction. An unsound is paradoxically present in its absence. It is the sound of the windows rattling that is not just the sound of the windows rattling. Unsound is distinct from sound because it deals with sonic characteristics that exist on the horizon of sound, from spectral overtones to ambient artifacts. Unsound is a field of sonic stillness, an acoustic deep time that moves in the “infrasonic” (to use López’s term), at the edges of the supersonic and subsonic. Unsound is also distinct from silence because it is not simply the absence of any sound (which is impossible), but the ambiguous presence of all sound, whether or not it is audible. Unsound is an empty space articulated through sound, or the relativism between the absence of sound and the total diffusion of sound. Perhaps this third axis of sound/unsound has been under-appreciated largely because all sound art and all music demand – or really, assume – that sound is generally equivalent to presence. Perhaps there is a furtive metaphysics that underlies our ideas of sound, as broadly equivalent to presence, existence, being – the “it is here” and “it is now” of sound. Of course, this makes a certain sense, for it would be absurd to inquire into sound as non-being, sound as nothingness, unsound. And yet I would argue that this is precisely what sound artists such as López invite us to do.

A last word – my own “confusion” upon listening to one of the Untitled pieces occurred when I noticed a low, deep rumbling. Wow, I thought to myself, how does he make these sounds? And then a thought occurred to me. I paused the recording, and the rumbling continued. It was the sound of the C train, many floors below me, down underground in a subway tunnel. I wonder if this is the point that López wants to evoke in the listener – when they take off their headphones, and listen.

Last Updated 1 December 2011

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