Noises Off


It is notable that Duchamp’s own retrospective account of the work from 1956 cited above – though there are others, notably in his 1964 lecture “Apropos of Myself” and in his interviews with Pierre Cabanne (1971: 54)[8] – ignores the questions around text altogether and foregrounds the issues of collaboration and secrecy. But clearly there is also a third constellation of questions around With Hidden Noise that the recording of Duchamp’s story highlights, one that the scholarship only occasionally addresses. He picks the object up, and we hear him rattle it: it is a noise-making machine – to borrow the term first devised by composer and sound theorist Pierre Schaeffer in 1959; the gesture activates a “sound object” (an opportunity also pursued in other directions by sound artist Holland Hopson in With Hidden Noises of 2000, in which sensors set off by manipulating a replica of Duchamp’s work activate pre-recorded sounds).[9] It is this possibility that I wish to explore here, one opening not just onto the issues around Duchamp, sound and music that have already been addressed by other accounts, but more particularly to the fate of the work as a missed encounter with the spectator-performer-auditor. The long silences of With Hidden Noise, of an object whose purpose is to be played with but whose destiny is to remain beyond our reach, join those of the performances and objects Christof Migone (2012) has termed the “unsound”: silences that are not only pregnant with hidden, latent or tacit noises, but resonate at inaudible frequencies thanks to the silences in meaning this work deliberately or accidentally embodies.


The relationships between Duchamp and music have been examined at length. We know, for example, that Duchamp frequented the French avant-garde composer Edgard Varèse throughout 1916 (Tomkins 1998: 166, 170 and 173). Varèse, whose research was centrally concerned with the relationships between noise and music, relocated to New York in 1915, and the two men met chez Arensberg. We also know that the whole period of this decade was one of repeated direct and indirect references to music, notation, composition and sound, to be found throughout Duchamp’s notes (particularly in relation to the Large Glass) and works before and after 1916, and that he completed a number of pieces or proposals testing the limits of musical composition.[10] Carol James notes the playful and conceptual experiment in Duchamp’s work around music, his testing of the boundaries between sound and other media and his particular interest in a kind of synesthetic musical experience and the problems of listening – for example, in his propositions for sound’s ability to manipulate the listener’s orientation in space as well as his use of convergent tones as “musical sculpture” in “an immense Venus de Milo made with sounds around the listener” (1990: 114).[11] Only one study, however, situates these questions explicitly in terms of sound and noise rather than of music. Craig Adcock’s “Marcel Duchamp’s Gap Music: Operations in the Space Between Art and Noise” focuses on the hollows, ruptures or absences found in Duchamp’s investigation of the aural field, arguing that Duchamp’s strategy uses sound to express “in-betweenness, this hypothetical gap between the real and the fictitious, the objective and the subjective” (1992: 130). 


Whatever the reference points of With Hidden Noise, its specific status as a sculpture seems in some doubt, and its place on a continuum between the conceptual and the aural seems as plausible as regarding it as a straightforwardly “artistic” proposition. Perhaps, amongst other avatars of this enigmatic work, Duchamp was thinking of something like Mallarmé’s celebrated “aboli bibelot d’inanité sonore” (from the sonnet of 1868 Ses purs ongles très haut): an object that both is and is not a text, evoked and withdrawn through absence in the form of tautological expression, this “trinket” made of an inane or worthless sound.[12] For Mallarmé, reading a poem out loud activates a triangulation between object, sound and representation, one that signals at the same time an identity and an absence, since, as Elizabeth McCombie argues following Julie Kristeva, the sound of a word considered in its own right severs the conventional relationship between sign and object; for Mallarmé, McCombie argues, what is born instead is a “true representation of the object […] achieved when the ‘son’ (sound) is reflected in and of itself” (2003: 27-28). 


This focus on a pure sound in its own right, one that achieves a new and more penetrating relationship to the object, is one that might be seen at work in With Hidden Noise, even if the activation of this sound is denied to its audiences today. The discipline of listening, of sound considered in and of itself, is also the focus of French composer and music/sound theorist Pierre Schaeffer’s exhaustive Traité des objets musicaux, first published in 1966 but drawn from his theoretical and practical development of musique concrète from the 1940s onwards. The Treatise on Musical Objects places center stage his identification of the “sound object,” one that refocuses the idea of music and sound towards strategies of hearing (Schaeffer 2017; Chion 2009). The sound object, it should be clarified, is not a material entity, nor is it to be confused with the physical thing whose agitation may have caused the sound: it is sound itself, considered as an object (of composition, of investigation, of knowledge). Indeed, for Schaeffer the pure objet sonore is one whose origin you don’t know, accessed through the kind of perception known as “acousmatic listening” (as happens when sound is recorded and mechanically or electronically reproduced), where the listener hears a noise without observing its source. 


We might think of With Hidden Noise, then, as an activation of a sound object: the armature of twine and brass plates is an apparatus containing a sound of unknown origin – repeatedly unknown, since its source is invisible, its material identity unverifiable, and for today’s audience it must remain virtual or latent, an “unsound” that vibrates beyond conventional perception. As a device, With Hidden Noise requires an acousmatic listening; even if this is not through the activation of a recording, as with Schaeffer’s sound objects, it nevertheless gravitates towards technologies of mechanization and reproduction: machine-made twine, engineered brass, and inside, a rattling body from the pocket of a man of industrial means.[13] What might this perspective open onto? 


Methodical, seeking objects “made to serve” rather than cloaked in mystery or narrative, Schaeffer is not interested in chance, the arbitrary or the humor with which Duchamp’s object experiments are often charged; indeed, in a final chapter added to the 1977 edition of the Treatise, he specifies: “Present-day musical expression may well still be at the stage of laboriously cultivating old surrealist challenges amid instrumental disarray, and the fascination for the readymade and the happening, but I have said often enough that this was not my ambition. Duchamp was never my mentor” (2017: 535). His task, on the contrary, is to discover cross-disciplinary principles and structures, to dig deep into an ontology of sound in order “to recover its general laws,” to locate spaces where the vectors of scientific and creative research converge. In particular, the Treatise interrogates the relationships between sound and language,  citing “an unbroken chain” that runs “from objects to structures and from structures to language” (15). It considers sound as a language and situates the sound object as “entirely contained within our perceptual consciousness” (67) so as to reappraise frameworks of perception. Schaeffer’s deeper intention, then, is to propose sound as an access to knowing, as epistemology and ontology: “the concept of the sound object, apparently so simple, quite soon obliges us to refer to the theory of knowledge, and the relationships between man and the world” (206).[14]


This goal, as we have noted, is not very far from some of the claims made for Duchamp’s works, in which concept, object and the converging arcs of distinct modes of thought come together in a mode of speculative philosophy, through an encounter between making, observing and material. Listened to via Schaeffer, With Hidden Noise could be seen to embody these conceptual ambitions: as with several of Duchamp’s works its misaligned inscriptions point to questions of language and meaning, but now the specific problem of sound lies at its heart. For Schaeffer, the sound object has something unique among objects:


All other objects of consciousness speak to him [man] about other things than consciousness: in the language of men they describe the world to him in accordance with the ideas he forms of it. Sound objects and musical structures, when they are authentic, have no informative mission: they turn away from the descriptive world with a sort of reticence in order to speak all the better about it to the senses, the heart and mind, to the whole being, ultimately about himself. […] They are man, described to man, in the language of things. (Schaeffer 2017: 529)


This might be overstretching the claims for With Hidden Noise, but as we will soon explore in greater detail, questions of knowledge and exchange are intrinsic components of its mechanisms.

Holland Hopson, With Hidden Noises, 2000. 4-channel interactive sound installation. Courtesy of the artist.