First Soundings


How can we test the identity of this work and of the thing lurking within it like a grub in an apple? How can we nudge this muted artefact from visual experience and restore the promise of its literal and figurative “noise”? In a 1956 televised interview of With Hidden Noise, Duchamp briefly explains the work and sets it rattling (Fig. 2). It is tempting to pay attention to the ellipses, hesitations and inconsistencies in his spoken account, due perhaps not simply to the fact that the object he describes is by this point a half century old but also to something deeper, something resistant in a work that – even for Duchamp – strikes us as particularly obtuse:


This is a Readymade dating back from 1916. It’s a ball of twine between two plaques of copper, bro-, brass, and when I, before I finished it, Arensberg put something between inside the ball of twi- the ball of twine and never told me what it was and I didn’t want to know, it was a sort of secret and it makes a noise, so we call this a Readymade With a N- Secret Noise, and listen to it [brief sound of rattling]. I never know I don't know I will never know whether it’s a diamond or a coin. (Sweeny 1956: 16m 10sec)[2]


We notice, in particular, the triple denial of the identity of the unknown object at the heart of this work, guessed as readable at the poetic and prosaic ends of the spectrum of his friend’s inherited wealth (itself derived from the transformation of raw materials into glittering capital as crucible steel): a jewel or loose change. The link Duchamp makes to status and money is more, however, than just a genial nod to Arensberg’s fortune and generosity: it also pulls the object back to Duchamp’s short written note – planning a Readymade (1960: n.p.) – which names it as Tirelire (ou Conserves), usually translated as Piggybank (or Canned Goods). While the French term tirelire, moneybox, neatly ties up money (lire from the Italian), text (lire French for “to read”) and string (tirer, to pull in French), we can note as well that the French conserves has musical connotations of performing in harmony or unison.


 Piggy Bank (or Canned Goods)

  Make a Readymade with

a box containing something

unrecognizable by its sound and

solder the box


already done in the semi Readymade

of copper plates

    and a ball of twine.


With Hidden Noise sits reasonably high within the canon of Duchamp’s works, dating as it does from the heyday of the early Readymades and the advent of the Large Glass; created in Easter 1916, it was not “completed” until that New Year’s Eve, when at Duchamp’s invitation, Arensberg opened it up, dropped in an object and resealed it again (Nesbit and Sawelson-Gorse 1996: 163). Indeed, the presence of this brief but explicit note in The Green Box of 1934 locates the 1916 object as one of several Readymades whose conceptual origins lie in preparations for the Large Glass but that stands as a kind of unattached “spin-off” from the larger work.[3] Frequently cited in the extensive literature on the artist, most accounts tend to focus on two of its key aspects. The first concerns issues of collaboration and secrecy: the fact that Duchamp not only handed part of the responsibility for the completion of this work to someone else but deliberately rejected knowledge of its content.[4] The second is the enigmatic inscriptions on With Hidden Noise’s two brass plates, and attempts at decryption of these ruptured statements form a major part of the scholarship on the work.[5] Though the problem of these inscriptions are not under consideration here, their interrupted meanings, the always failing attempts to reassemble a coherent message, resonate with Duchamp’s stammered recollections and set up tensions between textual and sonic languages to which we will return.


With Hidden Noise is also the subject of two idiosyncratic scholarly texts, both of which use it to access other themes and enthusiasms. The more recent of these, Seymour Howard’s “Hidden Naos: Duchamp’s Labyrinths” (1994), promises an analysis of the work but, after some brief readings along esoteric and mythical lines, soon moves on to expand these ideas in other directions. The other is a little-known study by Kurt von Meier from 1989-91, boasting a staggering 350,000 words. Most of it deals with contextual issues or moves around tangential but often fascinating territory, incorporating dozens of topics from time, myth and science to Tibetan Buddhism and the identity of the work’s hidden object (n.d.).[6] In a sense, both texts use the work as a portal to an endless extension of ideas: With Hidden Noise becomes instrumental: picking it up and shaking it, in the mind’s ear, becomes a performance attuned to the rhythms, rhymes and tones of thought.[7]


If these writings see With Hidden Noise as the fulcrum of a cosmic order, in more succinct but productive ways two other much shorter texts also home in on the work so as to reach a broader debate. With Hidden Noise is the éminence grise at the heart of the intriguing exhibition of the same title of 2004 exploring “ventriloquism” in contemporary sculpture – a remote sound projected onto an object. Duchamp’s Readymade took pride of place in both the display and the catalogue, which also features a concise but fertile discussion of the work by co-curator Jon Wood, emphasizing the role of collaboration and distance in the work and highlighting its play with listening and sound (2004: 28). A second consideration appears in Gavin Parkinson’s Duchamp Book (2008: 130-31), in a brief case study essay that is again sensitive to the work’s aural character and to the fact that this interactive function is lost to contemporary audiences. It also, however, argues for its status as an enigmatic but imminent vehicle for an enquiry into epistemology, into the conditions for knowledge itself. Parkinson uses the work to help crystallize the proposal that Duchamp’s entire œuvre might be seen as a problematization of knowledge that can never be made stable or definitive through critical interpretation. These two essays are necessarily condensed and have specific purposes in mind, but between them they open up a space that the present enquiry is also interested in occupying.

Fig. 2. Marcel Duchamp rattling With Hidden Noise, from the NBC television broadcast A Conversation with Marcel Duchamp and James Johnson Sweeney, 1956. Courtesy of Manufacturing Intellect YouTube channel.

Marcel Duchamp discussing With Hidden Noise, from the NBC television broadcast A Conversation with Marcel Duchamp and James Johnson Sweeney, 1956.  Courtesy of Manufacturing Intellect YouTube channel (March 2020).