Dieter Roth. Radio-Sonata, beginning © Dieter Roth Estate / Courtesy Hauser & Wirth.
You have heard the artist Dieter Roth in his famous Radio Sonata. In 1976, he recorded a 45-minute LP filler (Roth) in a Süddeutsche Rundfunk studio, a piano performance that is subject to three types of ephemerality:
First, unlike Chopin, non-pianist Dieter Roth doesn’t manage to overcome the continual dying away of the piano sound. But he seems to stage even this complete failure when he claims: “Ich würde darum bitten, das so trocken wie möglich aufzunehmen” (“I was asked to record this as dryly as possible”). Thus, he can only struggle through the seconds and minutes with his cramped five-finger-unroll-technique; shortly afterwards, he audibly complains of pain in his forearms. In this context, it seems logical that he punned on the German word Klavier (piano) with Kla-ge (lament) on the album cover.
Second, under these circumstances there is no musically enriched time that might also charge moments of silence with tension and weight. During Roth’s studio session, there is only an external, purely technical time: every pause becomes a hole, and Roth struggles against the emptiness by constantly talking, drinking liquor or (mostly) immediately playing on.
Third, Roth is obviously concerned that the recording could possibly miss something which would be irretrievably lost. “Kann man das Hören, was Sie sagen?” (“Is what you’re saying audible?”) and then “Das nehmen Sie auf, nicht?” (“You’re recording this, aren’t you?”). Finally he formulates the principle behind it all: “Immer weiter spielen, immer weiter aufnehmen” (“Keep on playing, keep on recording”).
We have now transitioned from the microephemerality of the piano sound to the macroephemerality of any music. Dieter Roth is well-known for his mould museum and his artistic approach to waste, shit and failure – symbols, ultimately, of our ephemeral existence – but he also had a penchant for expensive self-archiving and created lovingly-designed repositories and boxes where the fleeting, accidental and anecdotal of our existence could be framed and preserved.
Due to the ephemeral nature of music, this basically primordial human need for structures suggesting permanence could be fulfilled only through secondary media. I am thinking of the concert hall architecture in the second half of the 19th century: temple-like buildings with columns, caryatids and ceiling reliefs. In this spirit, the musicians playing here used gold-embossed, leather-bound scores, with mostly arabesque-like calligraphic propylaea surrounding the title page. The musical moment is inescapably fugitive, so musical monuments at least pretend to outlast the centuries.
A short time later, it was finally possible to catch the sound itself and fixate it on fragile shellac records, later on scratch-sensitive vinyl, and so on. Another anecdote from my childhood in the eighties: I can still see my uncle and my aunt playing Frisbee in their living room with a small flat object called a compact disc, celebrating the supposedly non-perishable canned music.
I also remember, 20 years later, my first MP3 experience when I realized, a little irritated, that the player suddenly seemed to take the name of Schubert’s Unfinished too literally, brazenly fading the end of the first movement or, to put it another way, crossfading it, with the second Song of that very symphony. No matter, my whole CD collection now became an uninterrupted flow of sound.
So, while Chopin, and even Dieter Roth, reflect on the ephemerality of sound in their works, while at the same time building up great encyclopaedic work cycles in a vanitas-like manner, the electronics market suggests unbroken continuities, but miniaturized: more than 300 hours of music can be saved on the latest iPod nano or, even better, stored in an earthquake-proof cloud, bound to temporal limitations only by batteries.
Now, however, digitized reproduction and conversion to MP3 format has turned this sound flow into more of a thin trickle. The original source is known to be quantized and to undergo lossy compression; aurally insignificant signal components, which constitutes considerably more than half of the information content, are filtered out.
Mehr als die Hälfte (More than Half) is an orchestral work by Hannes Seidl that premiered in February 2014 at the Eclat Festival in Stuttgart. In preparation for this piece, Seidl developed a reciprocal MP3 filter that allows him to hear only what an MP3 filter would normally filter out as insignificant.