Silence as Rubbish


JL: There is another question about a small part of the film you highlighted in the transcript.[3] It is the part with the blank tape. Because, obviously, when we thought about rubbish, at the beginning, for the 2020 Lab, we immediately thought about noise – it was actually even in the name of the lab. But what about silence as actually rubbish? It is not quite pure silence, there is a “sound of technology” (Birtwistle 2010) for less than one minute, I think. But when you encountered these silences in the archives, how did you feel? Was it a bad sound, a good sound, or only rubbish, and to what extent?


EK: Yes, I do often think of that. It’s interesting you ask it that way because when I hear that part I think about the first time I heard it. So, before that silence, Michael Rockefeller announces:


Cut one of this tape was supposed to have been drinking water. However the tape as it turned out was not against the recording head. Therefore cut number 1 will be, sounds of men digging in the garden. The first cut, quite a while from now after a space of blank tape, will be Walimo and Walewe singing as they dig in the garden. (Michael Rockefeller audio archive)


So it’s because he didn’t operate the machinery correctly. And then, it just plays out. The first time I heard it, I really just had this visceral sense of the way that time gets turned into a length of tape. Just that. What we’re hearing now is actually that very length of tape, that represents that amount of time. We actually left that intact, so that is the actual length of the blank tape that’s on the tape, at that moment. We didn’t make any decision that it should be longer or shorter, or anything like that. Nothing profound, really. But that was this sort of physicalization of time. We’re listening to this thing that something was happening, but because the recording head was not against the tape, there’s no record of it. And so just hearing the natural noise of the tape, and those occasional pops or whatever they are, are there for whatever reason. And thinking of the archivists, thinking: “Okay, we’re just letting the tape roll.” And that’s what they did.


JL: Sure, for archivists a blank tape is not rubbish. Because they are part of the things that you just keep and preserve. And probably there is, for the archivists, this deep love for the hiss of the magnetic tape. Right? [laughing].


EK: I think others have written about this too. Micah Silver has written a small book called Figures in Air (2014), where he distinguishes between sound and audio and talks about the studio as a place for composing durations. It really underscores this idea of a recording as principally a duration. So that was also coming to my mind when I heard this: it is just the duration of audio with nothing being represented there.


HW: There’s something koan-like to it.


EK: It reminds me of something Morton Feldman said, that composers have only two things to work with: time and sound, and that sometimes he’s not even so sure about sound [laughter]. But that kind of duration of the blank tape going by is a moment of recorded time. It’s a pause. It’s simply a duration. [long pause and laughter]

“A space of blank tape.” “The 3rd of June 1961, tape no 1, occupational sounds. Cut no 1.” (Michael Rockefeller audio archive)