Bartholomäus Traubeck has a certain knack for reification. Building on a tradition of sound art from John Cage and Fluxus to Christian Marclay’s Record Without a Cover, the German installation artist fastens guitars with transducers to conjure feedback out of nothing, loops the Beach Boys ad nauseam on toy turntables, and reorganizes Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier on the basis of shortening note length. In each piece the sound coursing through his systems imperceptibly alters as it runs: the grind of a needle against vinyl produces inaudible degradation over time; lush organ tones build atop one another until they slip into superposition, masking their original pitches. These changes are less heard outright than intuited, for in Traubeck’s works, speculation takes over where the direct perception of sonic events fails. His close attention to the specific objects involved within those events outpaces the perceptual capacities of the human ear, and in this interval, one will find the driver for his pieces.
In this same interval, categories of medium specificity tend to dissolve. Signal processing in Traubeck’s works troubles the very borders of these categories, since the ubiquitous presence of sound they produce is constantly subject to unique but ultimately nonlocatable modifications by their constituent elements. His forms of sonic media are ones that hold tenuous relationships with their material affordances, relationships brokered by perceptual limitation. And while this tension between general processes and concrete elements has been a wider preoccupation for sound art, it now informs theories of media and mediation as well. Recent works by new media theorists Sarah Kember, Joanna Zylinska, and Richard Grusin all expand mediation to a state of ontological priority, where every instance of matter is also that of the medium. During the course of this expansion critical attention turns away from medium specificity, something grounded by material conditions (as in the case of sound), to favor, instead, a focus on generalized, nonspecific processes. Materiality, in other words, loses its edge. Traubeck’s installations investigate these conditions. In them, this tension between matter and medium is most acute where it transposes itself into the registers of hearing, and this transposition is complicated all the more when, in the particular case of sonic media, listeners may not only fail to hear things, but because of that failure hear other things instead. Perception appears to modulate medium and matter alike, for, as the Gestaltists knew, that faculty is a productive one, and Traubeck paradoxically amplifies the creative potential of perception in his pieces by pushing it up to its limits.
That his working category is so often sound demonstrates the relevance this medium has for theorizing generalized concepts of mediation. Sound’s open, indeterminate processing best captures the phenomena new media theorists have now turned toward, and Traubeck’s sonic signal processing demonstrates where such theorizations require additional support from post-phenomenological methods.1 Attending to sound, both in Traubeck and more generally, requires engagements with fabricated perception—and the speculations induced therein. Hence reification: the concretization of medium specificity in the following pieces relies on a constitutive disparity between their material configurations and the perceptual effects they produce. For an exposition of Bartholomäus Traubeck’s work, this point is the most crucial of all, for it is precisely towards this that he most often turns a keen eye, ear, and technical device.
1 This is a condition that both N. Katherine Hayles (2017) and Mark B.N. Hansen (2015) have recently discussed. For them, our most important interactions with media devices and processes in the twenty-first-century occur well below the level of perception, where they inflect sensation and shape cognition without rising to a level where one would be able to take note of their effects.
Witness, then, Two Axes in a Forest (Resonanz 1): a pair of transducers affixed to a pair of guitars hung inversely across an imagined axis. Body parallel to headstock, fret lines pointing to pickups, their contours mark a sloped angle of empty space bounded by taut fishing wire and trailing quarter inch cables. The latter run to the floor, pass through distortion pedals (candy red, duplicates, settings unclear), meet in a two-track mixer, route through a power amplifier, and send signal to a single ten inch speaker. Close-ups and a choppy shot plan catch every angle in the video. No humans are in view. In their place a low, steady throb pulses throughout the ensemble, a mutual resonance produced shortly after cable snaps into input jack and the guitars’ pickups begin to send electric signals toward the amplifier. From the latter’s back, transducer wires run up to the guitars and reroute this signal, translated now into vibration, and join it to the base of each instrument’s body. This creates feedback; the process repeats as the sloped axis of one instrument’s sound waves mutually enforces the slope of the other. Almost - but never quite - ex nihilo, resonance blooms across these axes as if from the middle point of their axis. In the wake of such axes’ rise and descent, Two Axes in a Forest poses the following: if a tree falls in the woods and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?
Bartholomäus Traubeck (2014). Two Axes in a Forest (Resonanz 1). Linz: Raum für Gegenwartskunst. Published with permission from the artist. Original video.
Spectralist composers of the 1970s knew well that the listener is a red herring in this question, not out of any particular conviction for the real “out there” but because the human ear’s perceptual limitations afford certain experiences over others. In other words, someone could indeed be around said tree, said tree could come crashing down, and the ear might still fail to perceive the noise it creates. While no doubt I exaggerate in this instance, going large makes space for hearing the very small - precisely what Gérard Grisey and others set out to do when they incorporated spectral and sonographic analyses into their composition processes. By attuning spectrometers to their source inputs (say a trombone playing E2, as in Grisey’s famous “Partiels” ), spectralists unpacked whole swaths of sounds between the Western octave’s twelve tones, not just to explore what microtonalism already knows - sound surpasses staff music - but to arrive at a granular sense of timbre.2 This granularity renders the specificities of sonic events, how one instrument articulates sound differently from the next. Running a Fourier transform over such signals renders perceived timbre as a statistical average, a through line smoothing over multitudes of jagged harmonics and frequencies, sustains, transient pitches, and decays.3 In the moment of their capture, the ear attunes itself less to each one of these quirks than it does to their Gestaltist impression, and based on the latter, it adjudicates differences between instruments or tone colors. However, as in any average, this process exchanges particularity for an overall value, and the phenomenon that comes to be known as instrumental sound results as much from general impression as it does from that which it leaves out.
Sound artists and composers working with audio feedback and other types of drones exploit this fissure, asking listeners to turn sustained attention to cycles of noise minutely, if not imperceptibly, changing over extended periods of time. Steve Reich, Robert Fripp, and William Basinski serve as canonical reference points, and more recently the kinetic sound sculptures of Adam Basanta and Lesley Flanigan’s overdubbed vocal loops have continued the practice.4 Techniques will vary, but in each, continuous signal processing produces differences ears strain to hear; drones clash with minute incidentals. Traubeck finds an easy rapport here, though his specific focus lies on tensions arising between rigid technical systems and the minute variations occurring within the feedback loops those systems produce. The material organization of Two Axes is entirely regimented: stopping just short of the points of power and output in the ensemble, Traubeck has carefully doubled every component with a manufactured replica of itself; each guitar is the same model, the same color, as are the pedals, as are the transducers. He misses nothing in this aesthetic of total duplication. But this precision belies a fundamental instability that rears its head the moment cable clicks into guitar: as these doubles’ shared resonance builds, it will immediately waver. Less a matter of loudness or pitch, rate and synchronization crinkle their even exchange of signal, and within a few seconds, whatever waveforms Traubeck’s guitars have both sloped up and down on begin to crash against each other. They slip out of phase. That they occupy the same spectral space matters little; the very fact that this guitar is not that one means each articulates frequency in its own way - an extra hertz here, a few less there. Traubeck’s play of duplication exaggerates the minute differences between their timbres. A few more seconds pass in the video before the D-string on one instrument jumps, jerking into the fretboard in a volume spike before another tone subsumes it. In the space of a half minute, every duplication in Traubeck’s ensemble washes away as the specificities of timbre open a fissure between them.
Much of what resonates within this gap will be imperceptible, but, crank the volume, and a number of faint, nearly stable patterns begin to emerge. Etched around the borders of a deep and humming resonance are a series of overtones and string attacks speaking to one another, just palpable, though without a stable rhythm or coherent sense of pitch. These sounds toe a line between contingency and tightly-wrought duplication, all while sitting within a generalized space of resonance that threatens to overtake them at any moment. This throb marks out where much of the guitars’ output smoothly vibrates in tandem, all moments of clean doubling and easy connection, so that at these lower scales it would be difficult to identify the source of one sound or another. Hence no mediation appears to occur. In its formulation by twentieth-century information theorists, mediation is an intervention; it comes between two discrete objects, if even to bring them together, and so it necessarily entails certain failures or disparities in their communion.5 Nothing of the like happens at these lower troughs in Traubeck’s piece. Rather, that phenomenon seems to emerge at the edges of this resonance, where the sound frays and where thin timbres - importantly, timbres within the range of the human ear - navigate their trend lines among the hum of thick sound waves. Here Claude Shannon’s formula for entropy, that function of probable newness against redundancy, rings true: sameness is not news; an informative correspondence requires material and symbolic correspondences that serve as preconditions for the transmission of new information over their heads. But on the other hand, where guitars must negotiate difference - this is where mediation appears to cohere.
Whereas much sound art relies variously on delayed and displaced perception, Traubeck reverses this trend to emphasize anticipation instead. It wouldn’t be quite accurate to say there are no variations among his instruments’ lower frequencies of resonance; there, too, other sonic disjunctions occur, but are either outside the range of hearing or masked by overwhelming similarities in the installation. While Two Axes runs it looks toward these as yet unperceived - or never outright perceivable - differences in a speculative gesture that alludes to their existence without disclosing their qualities or possible location in sonic space. A stray twang might set off an unfamiliar pitch and kink what faint pattern has emerged, indicating a small pocket of noises deeper but unreachable among the strata of the guitars’ lower registers. Phantom-like resonances must exist elsewhere, unheard, this wall of sound seems to suggest, recalling Steve Goodman’s ontology of vibrational force: “If we subtract human perception, everything moves. Anything static is only so at the level of perceptibility” (2010: 83). Perception, in turn, becomes wracked with suspicion.
What develops from this suspicion is a “prehension of mediation,” a Whiteheadian term Richard Grusin uses to designate experiences of situated processes where “all acts or events of mediation both remediate prior mediations and premediate future ones” (2015: 142). Any single instance of mediation links itself into a temporal chain that plays upon “prior acts, processes, or experiences” of others (2015: 142). When massed together these constitute the wider context of “media formations and events” in which a particular instance takes place, subsequently providing the conditions for further instances.6 In Two Axes the exchanges between each guitar constitute subsets of this larger, dynamic context, one that for Grusin’s analysis would extend in a “radical” sense to the gallery space as a whole - and beyond it. Indeed, framing this context with “single instances” is the wrong way to put it; whereas twentieth-century information theory would insist on separable participants during processes of mediation, the speculations this prehension engenders emphasize, instead, the primacy of relations, wherein dichotomies such as sender and receiver, subject and object, are “outcomes of mediation” (2015: 143). A more apt slogan for Two Axes in a Forest would follow that of a latter formulation in Grusin: among the phantom signals in Traubeck’s work, one finds “mediation all the way down” (2015: 146).
2 “Discontinuous variations on the micro time scale of music,” writes Curtis Roads, “melt the frozen abstractions of traditional music theory such as pitch, instrumental timbre, and dynamic marking. Even such sacred notions as tone continuity and simultaneity reveal themselves to be illusions. The micro time scale defrosts these frozen categories into constantly evolving morphologies” (2001: 330).
3 For a discussion of spectralism and psychoacoustics see Daniel Pressnitzer and Stephen McAdams (2000).
4 For the former category of more familiar artists, I think here of the Frippertronics system, which Fripp and Brian Eno use in (No Pussyfooting) (1973), and pieces like Basinski’s The Disintegration Loops (2002-2003). Recent examples include Basanta’s investigations in The Sound Of Empty Space (2015) and Flanigan’s Amplifications (2009).
5 The very terms, for example, that Claude Shannon uses to describe the communicative situation evince this. Shannon carefully cordons off every element in his circuit, so that “information sources,” “channels,” and “destinations” remain discrete, insulated. See Shannon (1971: 31-35) and a gloss in Terranova (2004: 6-38), which lays out the ontological implications (and assumptions) of the mathematical theory of communication.
6 It is this logic that, in Kember and Zylinska’s work, creates the conditions for media to “‘communicate’ in the sense of always remaining turned toward what is not them, in being a delimitation of the standing reserve of technology that has to be temporarily cut off but that must never be forgotten. Every medium thus carries within itself both the memory of mediation and the loss of mediations never to be actualized” (2012: 21; emphasis original).
Grusin’s theory of mediated prehension transforms medium-specific concepts into ontological first principles; activities of radical mediation “constitute the ontological character of the world, what the world is made of” (2015: 142). In a strong sense this radical mediation becomes “co-present with creation,” resulting in his claim that “all bodies (whether human or nonhuman) are fundamentally media and life itself is a form of mediation” (2015: 132). So, too, in Kember and Zylinska does mediation serve as a “‘theory of life,’ whereby mediation becomes a key trope for understanding and articulating our being in, and becoming with, the technological world” (2012: xv; emphasis original). The feedback cycles in Two Axes serve to reinforce this: separate guitars autonomously transducing a shared signal from sound into vibration, and then back into sound again, generate just the kind of circular processes that inhere in these radical forms of mediation. More, since these transductions operate at the fringes of conscious perception, there appears to be no way to separate their processes from others in the gallery space - at least from a human perspective. Sonic media focalize this process particularly well, since under the epistemologies of resonance “all objects have a sound component, a second shadow existence as a configuration of frequencies” (Viola 1990: 86). Precisely because so many of the installation’s resonant phase differences go by unheard - yet leave a residual suspicion that they are, in fact, there - do they threaten to incorporate the very walls and fixtures that house Two Axes. Those too may well affect one’s perception of signal without one knowing it, and it is the indeterminacy of such boundaries - those of the human and the nonhuman, the installation and the gallery, cognitive operations and material-discursive processes - that will drive radical mediation forward.
When mediation designates the space of object interactions as such, concepts like “communication” fail to register the details of this process. For Grusin this limitation requires a revaluation of the status of media as communicative agents, ones appended with senders, receivers, and representational content, and moves them, in his view, toward the broader categories of human and nonhuman bodies. “[W]hat is radical about mediation in the twenty-first century is that mediation can no longer be confined to communication and related forms of media but needs to be extended to all human and nonhuman activity” (Grusin 2015: 147). At root I do not contest this revision, but Grusin’s essay cannot explain what radical mediation does in lieu of communication, only that the former is. It is not enough to say bodies mediate; such a statement is tantamount to saying mediation mediates in Grusin’s ontology, which evacuates the dynamic processes he otherwise seeks to highlight. If the activities of bodies are to supplant communicative media as primary sites of worldly interactions, this opens a range of questions about the sensible, perceptible, and conscious capacities of such bodies - not to mention what constitutes the divide between their human and nonhuman variants. Hence my focus, both above and below, on the process-oriented works of Bartholomäus Traubeck. These intertwine speculative and micro-perceptual experiences of sonic events to work those experiences into so many instances of mediation. Traubeck’s experiments with sound turn toward the experiencing body, starting with the thresholds of perception and their physical affordances and building toward speculation. Here, at these borders, a melding together of cognition, sensation, and material processes make it possible to speak about their specific interchanges - and where these interchanges then blur.
In Akkurat Orgeln, a collaboration with Linz-based Ivo Francx, Traubeck turns once again to the anticipatory and the speculative. This time, however, the installation ponderously builds its sound spaces layer by layer, rather than digging into processes already underway. The setup plays out like this: he and Francx hang Casio and Yamaha keyboards under an arch like awkward wind chimes, their red lights gleaming. One begins to emit a thin organ tone - G♯4 - that fills the space with a droning tremolo. A few minutes later C♯4 joins in. It is unclear at this point if the organs themselves play these pitches or if hidden speakers are pumping sound into the archway. This ambiguity will not resolve, and neither will the slight tension between these notes’ perfect 5th interval; over the course of the next 20 minutes more pitches will begin to accrue around the installation, building in a dissonant rise that nearly overtakes any perception of individual notes altogether. This dissonance produces a pulse sensation, more vibration than discernible tone, transforming the Western scale into a gut-level experience of sonic phenomena. By the end of this performance, the blank face of these keyboards suspended in front of a white backdrop has become, quite literally, a wall of sound.
Ivo Francx and Bartholomäus Traubeck (2015). Akkurat Orgeln. Linz: bb15. Published with permission from the artists. Original video. A complete audio recording of this piece may be found here.
Bach’s Prelude and Fugue No. 3 in C♯ Major, BWV 848, serve as source material for Akkurat Orgeln. Traubeck and Francx reorder these compositions as a hierarchical frequency distribution, where a note’s recurring presence in the original sound spectrum determines its length and position in Orgeln. Among the Prelude and Fugue, G♯4 is heard most - the cumulative duration of its occurrences exceeds that of other notes in these pieces - and so it starts first in the installation. It continues to play underneath subsequent layers of shorter pitches (C♯4 follows) and will end only when each note of Bach’s original fugue sounds in this new order. Orgeln takes time to explore its source material; the piece stretches into a drone, thus offering a sustained experience of intervallic relationships between pitches in equal temperament - not the pitches themselves, but the places where they meet. Stacked atop one another in a slow climb to cacophony, the notes in a C♯ major scale maladjust; dissonance appears where diatonic harmony would otherwise play out in the fugue. Or rather, this stacking makes it clear how scale tones in equal temperament have been maladjusted from the start, since they must be offset from just intonation’s absolute changes in frequency to accommodate octaves divided into uniform parts. Temperament makes these intervals a material question. There is more than just electronic circuits and plastics separating a twenty-first century keyboard from its forebears of the 1700s; the MIDI standard adheres to equal temperament, whereas Bach wrote with a well-tempered instrument in mind. It is this difference that Traubeck and Francx investigate in Orgeln, which they take as their cue. Is it possible, they ask, to play The Well-Tempered Clavier with materials that stray from well temperament?
Whether or not these keyboards are able to faithfully render Bach’s intervals, Traubeck and Francx nonetheless take the stepwise logic of his fugues to heart - and do so to bring that logic to its breaking point. The droning build-up of layers atop one another mimics the linear progression of harmony in their source composition, but distends and slows that progression to tarry with the space it fills. Whereas accidentals, grace notes, and otherwise dissonant material slide by in the general course of Bach’s music, Akkurat Orgeln keeps them in stasis and in tension. “The development of tension within any segment of the fugue is determined above all by the density of prominent material,” writes Siglind Bruhn. “This density can be achieved horizontally or vertically” (1993: 46). Traubeck and Francx take the latter route; they create a high tension experience of soundscape density in Bach by generating waveforms that lead to superposition. The pitches of Akkurat Orgeln converge and overlap, combining amplitudes to surpass those of the organ tones beginning the piece. And this effect only heightens as more pitches sound from around the installation, so that tension itself becomes the focus of Orgeln, not the notes producing it. Their microtonal clash carves out space to hear where equal temperament cuts a rough path across the sound spectrum as it renders uniform ratios between notes. Much as how, in Two Axes, Traubeck manipulates angular resonances to draw one guitar apart from another, this later piece uses dissonant tension to introduce palpable differences between one pitch and the next. This is a theory of intervals transposed into audio-affective registers.7
But when these pulses, rings, and oscillations grow to such an extent that they begin masking each other, the ear must set off on its own. Paradoxically, Akkurat Orgeln generates difference to eventually smother it: toward the end of the piece waveform variations become all but indiscernible as their aggregate drone overtakes them. Only a careful ear will unpack these variations - or, perhaps, fabricate them altogether. Psychoacoustics theorizes a Gestaltist-like process known as spectral completion, where the mind infers and perceives frequencies that are themselves absent to sensation.8 In ambient sound environments certain background tones (loud conversation, traffic, or here, electric organs) may mask waveforms relevant to a listener’s focus. The listener, in turn, reifies these frequencies out of thin air, generating perceptual content where sensation would otherwise leave gaps. Spectral completion functions “to achieve a faithful representation of an object’s spectrum during masking, the main result of which would be to promote timbre constancy” (McDermott and Oxenham 2008: 5943).9 As long as portions of the partially obscured sound maintain some consistency in pitch and loudness, the mind will use these as guides to reconstruct what has been masked. Put another way, Akkurat Orgeln inverts the question Two Axes in A Forest prompts, that one about a tree falling in the woods and the ontological status of the sound it may or may not produce. In this piece one is compelled to ask: if you hear a sound, but nothing emitted it, did you still hear it?
Due to the effects of spectral completion, an important dimension of sonic materiality resides both within and beyond the confines of Akkurat Orgeln. In their droning, the installation’s waveform superpositions cancel frequencies, only to reintroduce them at a perceptual level, reified, mediated. The mind mediates sound by completing the latter’s gaps, enacting material effects on perception wherein a sound object is no mere object but rather a relational emergence of perceptual intensities.10 Ensconced within the gallery space at bb15 in Linz, these intensities introduce slippages between conscious awareness, nonconscious cognition, and material processes - all of which N. Katherine Hayles has recently formulated in Unthought.11 She formulates this tripartite structure of cognition in order to blur its borders, and this blurring is what Traubeck repeatedly achieves. This slippage between external materiality and the body’s own neurophysical makeup encourages a rereading of his and Francx’s self-declared concern with temperament: not only does “temperament” relate to debates surrounding Bach’s playability in this moment of the twenty-first century, but it calls, too, to the bodily disposition of Bach’s listeners. If “training and mood strongly influence musical hearing” (Roads 2001: 340), then temperament refers as much to that of an embodied state of listening as it does to a musico-theoretic division of the sound spectrum. And so, too, must an examination of the interval entertain the way in which the mind tunes in a close approximation of tones during intervals of their sonic masking. The interval is a material question indeed.
For both Two Axes in a Forest (Resonanz 1) and Akkurat Orgeln Traubeck directs sound modulation toward epistemological ends, using it as a way to feel out the material differences of elements in an assemblage. Take this dead metaphor in its most literal sense: the sensation of a shift in sound, the felt force of an intervallic skip, directs attention to its source’s differential organization. Attuned to this organization, one may heed Christoph Cox’s call to root sound firmly “in the material world and the powers, forces, intensities, and becomings of which it is composed” (2011: 157). Amid a wash of radical mediations, Traubeck’s sounds focalize concrete instances where perception brushes directly against the processes Cox describes. The perceiving body itself is one of these processes, bearing material consequences, and the workings of such a body are that which Traubeck’s speculatively-driven pieces uncover. Articulated along the boundary points of the human and nonhuman, they identify the specific interchanges where that phenomenon called mediation is brought into being.12 Traubeck, in other words, uses sound to feel out the limits of a particular arena of mediation.
7 “Acoustic and perceptual reality stand in contrast to the simplications [sic] of intervallic thought. The momentary frequency of most acoustic instruments is constantly changing. Noise is ubiquitous. Difference thresholds limit all aspects of perception. Masking and other nonlinear effects complicate perception” (Roads 2001: 340).
8 This is just that kind of “experienced relation” one finds in radical empiricism. See Grusin’s discussion of William James and the “reality of affect” (2015: 126-127) as well as Anna Munster on the slide from perception into the perceptible (2013: 5-10; 82).
9 McDermott and Oxenham have created a demo page that features an experiential showcase of the experiments they conducted.
10 Because of their “definitive” and “distinguishing” temporal qualities, sound and sound arts often ask for a reappraisal of objects as events. For Cox, if we proceed from sound “we might begin to treat artistic productions not as complexes of signs or representations but complexes of forces materially inflected by other forces and force-complexes. We might ask of an image or a text not what it means or represents, but what it does, how it operates, what changes it effectuates” (2011: 157; emphasis original).
11 For Hayles, human cognition is a tripartite structure, not one of latency, as in the Freudian model, but one of depth. At its top lie modes of awareness, followed by nonconscious cognition (cognition that is “inherently inaccessible to consciousness” and “closer to what is actually happening in the body and the outside world”) and, finally, the material operations of the body and its environment (2017: 27-30).
12 In this sense Traubeck’s works adhere to Kember and Zylinska’s logic of the cut. For them, their work on mediation must avoid approaching ubiquitous processes “at the expense of singularity. Indeed, we are driven by a requirement or even an ethical injunction to cut across the flow of media in order to say something about them. Doing so requires us to always consider time in relation to space, matter in relation to life” (2012: 27).
Enter: A Long Echo to Noise. For one of his earliest installations Traubeck encodes the first 1.44 seconds of the Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations” onto a 33⅓ rpm vinyl record. It sits, perched on a Fisher-Price turntable (cheap plastic, blue and cream colored) until a hand like a manicule appears house right and nudges the speed selector from “Off” to “33.” Larry Knechtel’s Hammond organ riff begins, E♭ minor and tinnier than usual, and right as the bass melody picks up, the sample glitches back to its beginning with a certain percussiveness. The groove is locked; instead of allowing the needle to continue its course and spiral inward to the center, the toy’s tonearm stays in place while the sample ends just as it has begun only to begin again. The video cuts and the light changes slightly. Time has elapsed. It cuts again, and the sample has faded - even more so after a third jump forward. Locked in place, the turntable’s needle has begun to palpably scratch out the music. On a fourth cut no music can be heard. The record has deformed and wobbles slowly like thrown clay on a potter’s wheel. After a while the hand reaches back into the frame and, with a thumb, pushes the speed selector from “33” back to “Off.” As it clicks the tonearm quivers, and the record briefly sparks to life, coughing out a final, squelched burst, after which a few more seconds pass and the video ends.13
Bartholomäus Traubeck (2013). A Long Echo to Noise. Cincinnati: Third Party Gallery. Published with permission from the artist. Original video.
In a different iteration of this piece, the sample from A Long Echo to Noise looped some 187,500 times over the course of 75 hours before the turntable’s needle finally scratched it into silence. Such an entropic treatment is entirely apropos for a song written and recorded during the Pet Sounds sessions with Brian Wilson’s “pocket symphony,” the Wrecking Crew. On that record, the charm and subsequent terror lurking beneath his sun-soaked sighs and snaking intervals is that this psychedelic menagerie substitutes slow fades for song endings. The Beach Boys cannot end a song. Each track - every track - completes its circuit with a measured slope into the opening bars of its successor without marking a clear terminus. At the risk of these vibrations losing “the wind that lifts her perfume through the air,” they must suggest a sonic unconscious where every song plays at once underneath the tow of a given track, until they all dissolve into the ambient rail traffic of “Caroline No.” There, a dog barks and the train continues on its track toward auditory schizophrenia. Of Caroline’s fading teenage beauties, “Could we ever bring ’em back once they have gone,” Wilson laments, to which the soundscape of the record, in response, seems to say they have never gone and only lie in wait for another pass of needle across vinyl.
And if the refrain at the close of “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times” voices a worry about Pet Sounds’ 1966 debut, its fade into oblivion gestures toward an imagined moment of the record’s revival - that is, when the time is right. Before Traubeck can retrieve the atmosphere of “Good Vibrations” in 2013 and loop it ad nauseam, however, this moment is attended to, and literally prolonged, by the ears of listeners. In a phenomenon known as pulse continuity, one similar to the process of spectral completion I discuss above, a fade-out increases the perceived duration of a song by as much as 2.4 seconds after its end (Kopiez, Platz, Müller and Wolf 2013). During this process the slope of music into the inaudible does not slowly wean listeners’ dependency on rhythm but rather inscribes that rhythm into the very lockstep of cognition. It is not just that these fade-outs suggest the phantasm of a schizophrenic unconscious in Pet Sounds; rather, the terror of the Beach Boys lies in these songs’ ability to make listeners make these songs in their heads, playing them well after they have fallen silent. Consider this to be reel-to-reel’s answer to the film-born stroboscopic effect. And, in consequence, consider this to be the unearthing of the Lacanian imaginary in sound, where Friedrich Kittler only finds the real.14
13 The parallels this pieces shares with Christian Marclay's sampling and noise experiments are many, though Katie Paterson's Langjökull, Snœfellsjökull, Solheimajökull (2007), an installation featuring records made of ice from three Iclandic glaciers and played until they melt, also deserves mention, especially where Traubeck's works incorporate natural materials and processes into their operations, as in his tree-rings-turned-LP-record, Years (2011). For an overview of artists working with phonographs variously manipulated, modified, or destroyed, see Kelly (2009: 84-208).
11 In his efforts to demonstrate media devices’ effects on subjectivity - or, rather, to show at crucial junctures where subjectivity, “so-called Man,” is itself a media effect - Kittler models his Gramophone, Film, Typewriter after Lacan’s three psychoanalytic orders: the symbolic, real, and imaginary. “Film was the first to store those mobile doubles that humans, unlike other primates, were able to (mis)perceive as their own body. Thus, the imaginary has the status of cinema. And only the phonograph can record all the noise produced by the larynx prior to any semiotic order and linguistic meaning [...] Thus, the real - especially in the talking cure known as psychoanalysis - has the status of phonography” (1999: 16).
Pulse continuity haunts A Long Echo to Noise. It haunts the installation because, there, it cannot be experienced. The interactions between this piece’s vinyl and needle are machinic, nonhuman. They will fade out, but not for human ears. They sit, unlistenable, well below even the productive energies of perception, and hence their ability to mediate experience is in question. Matter and medium appear to come apart. Or if some subterranean connection still remains between them, what Traubeck’s experiments with sound show is that, among the spectral affinities shared by material processes and the rhythms of cognition and perception, there lingers a question regarding to whom or what a particular medium is addressed.
There are ways, however, to heuristically - or, as I will soon show, axiologically - approach this problem. Félix Guattari’s work on political and libidinal ecology centers around similar processes. His use of cybernetic concepts such as allopoietic and autopoietic processing gauges the way subjectivity is processed over and through a jagged and heterogeneous terrain, one woven together by machinic interfaces, semiotic and material fluxes, and the flows of capital. In Chaosmosis, systems theory offers a privileged view of these phenomena because the twin structures of allopoiesis and autopoiesis frame a milieu of many moving, though apparently disparate, parts within a kind of matter-agnostic ecological analysis.15 Guattari uses allopoiesis to designate machines producing “something other than themselves,” as opposed to autopoietic machines that “engender and specify their own organisation and limits” (1995: 35). While the latter only respond to alterities in their environment, recalibrating production and regulation as external perturbations require, allopoietic systems seek these alterities out; they organize what they will not be (a car on an assembly line, a child in a womb). In the case of Pet Sounds the record modulates into this latter sphere when its refrains manage to breach the material of cognition; those allopoietic figures send a listener’s brain into its own autopoietic circuit of reiterated and reiterating phrases, organized first from without and then propelled along on their own. A voice pipes up in the ensemble, and like the composition technique from which this draws, others join in an imitation of that original theme.
But in its crossings between one register of materiality and the next, the allopoietic shades back into the autopoietic. Once bridged, the former’s heterogeneous materials begin to operate in tandem and will do so with a degree of stability until the joint force of their newly operative autopoiesis takes on yet another allopoietic trend. The process is less dialectical than phasic, and for Guattari, rewriting the junctures of these systems as so many modalities within a single structure demands a rethinking of autopoiesis “in terms of evolutionary, collective entities, which maintain diverse types of relations of alterity, rather than being implacably closed in on themselves” (1995: 39-40). Opening this autopoietic closure stretches Guattari’s thinking beyond a human frame to point toward a “prospection” of value and reference among “virtual Universes,” ones extended toward sites where machines couple together in ecologies operating “in relations of complementarity or agonistic relations [...] or again in the relations of parts of apparatuses” (1995: 41). Canvassing these clashes of forces - interior even to the constituent parts of a single machine - enunciates change less as the clean transfer of force or information between objects, building upwards to singularity, than as “wear and tear, fine balance, breakdowns, and entropy” (1995: 41). Moreover, this change may be entirely outside the purview of perception, as it often is in Traubeck, making a careful, sometimes unabashedly straightforward listing of these breakdowns a necessary step toward understanding their subsequent interactions with consciousness.16 “Details count here,” writes Matthew Fuller in his analysis of distributed systems like pirate radio and shipping containers. “Perhaps any discussion of media technology needs to meet with and use at times the convention of a ‘straightforward’ account” (2005: 45).17
As Traubeck’s Fisher-Price needle grinds against vinyl until the latter wears away, it enunciates machinic alterity - and the entropy accompanying it - to the finest degree. The components of this ensemble touch each other, and in their touching, acclimate to their mutual frictions through a nonhuman operation that will slowly adjust to its own stresses and stabilize itself with a set of elements unique to its organization. Eventually this system will scratch itself into silence, but not before that silencing progresses through any number of changes in autopoietic stability and allopoietic viscosity. Here, auto- and allopoietic forces are accounted for, a chaotic and machinic history materialized; media are cozied up, touching one another, and material storage eventuates entropy - all too cleanly, perhaps. Indeed, framing A Long Echo to Noise under Guattari’s thinking seems to leave no room for the machinic autonomies he otherwise champions. Formalized theory would utterly capture their operations, in stark contrast to the immanent activity these autonomies reveal. Crucially though, while Chaosmosis walks both up to and through the point at which the tonearm’s needle and Traubeck’s vinyl meet, theorizing this moment ends in an almost untheoretic particularity, that which Fuller calls a “straightforward account.” As is so often the case in Traubeck’s pieces, the problem is the way materiality - a materiality in which perception participates - grates against formalized medium specificity: a full exposition of A Long Echo to Noise would need to account for how the record he encodes “usually deteriorates fast and then slows down at some point because as the grooves get smoother, less friction is produced between needle and groove. So it [the rate of decay] really depends on the needle, the heat it produces through friction, which is again the quality of the needle, the weight of the vinyl and how much weight is added to the tonearm.”18 Needle and vinyl almost meld, and even Guattari’s formalizations in Chaosmosis would curtail a view of that process as it unfolds amid this assemblage’s good vibrations.
Without an inbuilt way to delimit the elements of this installation - and resisting such limitations is precisely what Guattari aims to do with autopoiesis - this tabulation may never end. Paradoxically, a specified account of these details would seem to lead to an elision, at a different, formal level, of medium specificity. It induces what Fuller calls a full-blown “crisis of the object in art” (2005: 74). Are the needle and vinyl one medium, or many? What of the tonearm? What of the pedestal on which the piece sits, to say nothing of the listener in the room? What of the gallery space, its lights, its tiles, its walls? Might they also mediate an experience of A Long Echo to Noise, even if they largely elude perception?19 The problems entailed in Traubeck’s installations point toward the fact that anything may be a medium (a fact wholly emboldened by Grusin), so that drawing the lines around a specific site of mediation to include every relevant element therein is nearly, if not outright, impossible. And yet, bounding such sites stands as a necessary condition for the beginning of critical analysis.
This problem is amplified, perhaps exponentially, when a theory such as Guattari’s comes to take these difficulties into account. “In the context of a reductionist modernity,” he writes, “it is up to us to rediscover that for every promotion of a machinic intersection there corresponds a specific constellation of Universes of value from the moment a partial non-human enunciation has been instituted” (1995: 47). There “is no generalized syntax for these deterritorialisations” (1995: 52), with the result that following his theory elides medium specificity - because theory is just such a generalized syntax - while simultaneously tracking down medium specificity to gauge its particular effects. The theory of specific values Guattari develops in Chaosmosis enjoins critics to take an object on its own terms, only to erase itself as one begins to follow out its very commands. It demands an “axiological complexion,” one including “all the machine modalities of valorisation: the values of desire, aesthetic values, ecological, [and] economic values” (1995: 55). A course, then, that charts its way among each of these values will become itself auto- and allopoietic, for as it extends its terrain to cover more points in an assemblage, this course manufactures further extensions, further outsides.20 Always on the lookout for these sites of expansion, the logics of Guattari’s axiological complexion drive themselves forward and, paradoxically, drive themselves differently. An analysis of this kind will sit both within these logics and entirely beyond them.
15 Guattari recalls how Francisco Varela “characterizes a machine by ‘the set of inter-relations of its components independent of the components themselves.’ The organisation of a machine thus has no connection with its materiality,” meaning that a given machinic array does not inherently or deductively lead to materiality. In this way abstract processes are able to traverse any number of disparate devices, bodies, and milieus (1995: 39).
16 Such a change, in other words, is a hallmark of asignifying semiotics. It takes “place without the mediation of subjectification at all,” removing both its “representational and mental dimensions” (Genosko 2014).
17 Earlier Fuller writes that a “simultaneous reeling off of information and reeling at the implications of each element making it up provides a compositional drive for the use of lists in developing an account of medial interconnection. Simply enumerating the diverse components that make up a media system allow for speculative work to take place” (2005: 15).
18 Traubeck, Bartholomäus (personal communication, 16 February, 2016).
19 There are similarities here between this dilemma and Rosalind Krauss’s work on a piece’s technical support in “Two Moments from the Post-medium Condition” (2006), where she welcomes “the layered mechanisms of new technologies that make a simple, unitary identification of the work’s physical support impossible” (2006: 56). Elsewhere she writes, “if a car can become a medium, then anything might be pressed into such service. It only needs the set of rules that will open onto the possibility of artistic practice - like the musical goal in the example of improvisation” (2013: 51).
20 “Every permutational exploration,” writes Fuller, “of the phase space composed by the problematics [these interactions] respectively generate produces a cumulative capture (of a likeness), collapse and spillage as a result of their coming into combination with their many outsides.” Rather than announcing some sort of failure, every point of collapse in such an analysis only bespeaks sites of further enumeration and enunciation (2005: 83).
In the meantime, Traubeck’s vinyl keeps on turning. Much of its machine-on-machine mediations and complexions sit well below the level of perception, reified or otherwise, and in their continued playback they will stay that way. Cracking them open and extending them outward creates the necessary space for a sustained analysis alongside this play, though such an account may yet fail to account for how observers can be within a moment of change without being conscious of that change themselves. Deterioration may run rampant, but for all intents and purposes “Good Vibrations” still sends out its eponymous vibes. And it is among these vibes that Traubeck’s pieces construct interfaces with the machinic processing of the real, only to reveal moments where consciousness must not be in order to be at all. A subject finds itself alienated within - but part of - an ensemble, both exterior to it and caught up within it, and this is the point at which the human-machine begins. Upon such a recognition, extended materiality gives way to an intensive set of relations, ones the paradoxes of Guattari’s axiological appraisals are best equipped to render. When all media have been accounted for (at least for the time being), there may well remain a final act of intensive mediation that bridges an assemblage with an assembled consciousness. To revisit A Long Echo to Noise on these terms is to query the installation’s place in subjectification and to prime the resultant consciousness for what Guattari calls an ethico-asethetic encounter.21
Or encounters. Among the intervals between machinic autonomy and perception, singularities result, and even an apparent lack of change still makes a difference. In this way an encounter with A Long Echo to Noise is an encounter with other encounters, sensed or not, empirical or intangible, and these operate either as forms of history (“I’ve been here before, what changed?”) or as the basis of sociality (“you were here before, tell me what it was like”). Aware that it has not been aware, one consciousness looks to another in an effort to supplement its lacunae. A human-human coupling emerges. Stored properly, it will loop on long after needle and vinyl have scratched themselves silent. Bartholomäus Traubeck creates fugues from such couplings, such looping. It is only natural, then, that when, in music, a theme is developed during a fugue, it takes on a different name. A theme starts the process, one voice at first from somewhere within the ensemble, but it is called a subject when others pick it up, imitate it, and send it back around.
21 The ever-present semiotic registers of Guattari’s work lead him, in Chaosmosis, to claim that aesthetic creation attunes subjects to political investment. Art “does not have a monopoly on creation, but it takes its capacity to invent mutant coordinates to extremes: it engenders unprecedented, unforeseen, and unthinkable qualities of being” (106) - qualities that, in his view, may serve as the conditions for new social collectivity, new ways to be.
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