Used by permission of the Publishers from ‘Commentary: A Few Silence’, in John Lely and James Saunders, Word Events: Perspectives on Verbal Notation (New York: Continuum, 2012), pp. 97-108.  Copyright © 2012.

A Few Silence
is one of a series of pieces by G. Douglas Barrett which focus on the notion of transcription, exploring how information about events, sonic or otherwise, is encoded and decoded by people and/or automated processes. This piece in particular brings the act of verbal notation into the realm of performance. In an artist’s statement, Barrett contextualises his work:

In my current work I concentrate on setting up processes that have to do with documenting, replicating, recording and repeating: experiences of space (the gallery, the concert hall, the urban landscape), action (performance works, ‘unintended’ performances, video documents), and existing music and performance. These processes have involved ordinary recording technologies, algorithmic or automatic interpretation, and what I refer to as performative listening and “live” notation. In general, I do these things not for any particular desired result, but to allow each to uncover something unforeseen, to follow through with a process the result of which is unknown. I have begun to conceive of this body of work as falling under the umbrella I (and others) have defined loosely as ‘transcription’ – invoking the specifically music-related practice though in my usage it tends to bleed into other disciplines. Arising out of the context of experimental music, my work is also presented in contexts ranging from performance art to new media, sound art, and experimental theater.[1]

Barrett has used various techniques to explore transcription, including using computer software to transcribe automatically recordings of sonic environments in some instances of his ongoing Derivations series (2006– ). In A Few Silence the transcription process uses decisions by people. In a realisation, performers are required to notate the sonic environment using verbal descriptions, marking sounds heard and indicating the timing of their occurrence during an initial five-minute period. This notation is then used as a score for a performance using pre-selected sound-producing objects, with performers individually reading their notation and responding to their earlier observations during a further five-minute period. In the score for A Few Silence, the order of events takes the reader through the stages of the piece in sequence. This is explicit in the layout, with sections marked ‘Preparation’, ‘I’, and ‘II’. As such, it is reminiscent of a recipe or instructions for an experiment: ingredients/apparatus, sequential method.

The activities specified in the score are complex. In the first phase of the piece, the performer hears a sound and formulates a verbal description, acknowledges the time, and writes the description on the score. There is a tension for the performer between the need simultaneously to listen and translate perceived sounds into a verbal description and write this down in relation to a time point. It is hard to undertake these complex tasks continuously for an extended period, given their iterative nature. Barrett observes that this act of notation is ‘something that happens in time, so maybe that complicates things somehow, and you’re dealing with all these subjective experiences of that time’.[2] As a result, it is likely that some events will be missed or ignored as performers try to undertake different activities at the same time. Based on data collected from a recent performance, the average number of events notated by a single performer was 29, averaging out at about ten seconds per event.[3] Whilst some events might be closer together, especially where they are linked in some way (such as a series of coughs), there seems to be a sustainable pace at which performers can comfortably notate events. This is harder with text, as opposed to graphic notations, which may be more immediate or intuitive to produce. This pressure to an extent defines the pacing and density in the second phase of a realisation. The score also states that the performers should use a stopwatch as a way of measuring duration throughout. Whilst measurements of time may be altered slightly by the performers’ processing of events and notating sounds, the use of a stopwatch provides a reference point, reducing the possibility of a subjective response to time in performance.

Barrett does however admit to some flexibility in his requirement that sounds are notated using only text. In his own performances he says it is ‘common for me to include the occasional arrow, or even traditional music notation can crop up sometimes. The emphasis for me is on using text … a version which did explicitly call for graphic symbols only would be a different piece.’[4] Using text can be problematic when trying to notate continuous sounds, such as environmental sounds, that will be present throughout the first five minutes. For example, they could be notated once when they begin or end, or referred to repeatedly whenever they are apparent to the performer. It is a feature of the piece that a performer must make choices about what to notate, and these choices are determined by his or her own attentiveness to the situation. So, for example, a drone that changes may be notated as a constant event, perhaps using time brackets, or may come and go in the performer’s consciousness as more distinct changes become apparent. For Barrett

What’s interesting is that people normally find a way to deal with that notationally. So I’ve done things where I notice something happening during the beginning of the first five minutes and it sounds like it’s droning or continuing to sound, then I’ll use some kind of graphic notation and just put an arrow, and if I ever notice it stop then I’ll mark the time.[5]

The means to describe the sounds themselves using text might take a variety of forms, and the score suggests both morphological descriptors (‘contour’, ‘dynamic level’, ‘duration’) and adjectives which are dependent on context (‘quick’, ‘noisy’, ‘descending’, ‘low’, ‘soft’). Whilst, as the score states, ‘An occasional reference to a sound’s source is ok but should not predominate’, a description which privileges the source or context of a sound will impact on the subsequent performance. Barrett feels, however, that describing sound sources directly:

allows the process of transcribing to be a free flowing activity, so I don’t want people to be transcribing and something comes right through [and not write] ‘glass sound’ because a bottle drops. I don’t want performers to go back and think, ‘Oh no, how do I describe that in acoustic terms?’ So in that sense it’s OK to have the occasional reference to the source, just to get into this mode where the process is more or less automatic. I think generally it happens because you really have to concentrate in order to do this kind of continual description.[6]

This might, conversely, throw up descriptions that create a more distant relationship with the original sound. A performer may regard their description of a sound to be successful, and repeatable. However, ambiguities may slip in, and the performer may have problems recalling what the notation was intended to mean. This could create the possibility of radical difference between the source and resultant sounds, mediated by the created score and choice of instruments. Barrett observes that Pierre Schaeffer’s notion of acousmatic listening was an important point of reference for A Few Silence,[7] in that it refers to ‘a noise one hears without seeing what causes it. … [and that it] marks the perceptive reality of sound as such, as distinguished from the modes of its production and transmission.’[8] In relation to the event notated at 1:29 in the sample score, Barrett comments:

Honestly I don’t know what ‘noisy constant’ means, but it’s sort of difficult because you’re writing in real time and maybe another sound happened right after I started to write that, and I moved to the next one. So maybe it was supposed to be something that was more clear or made more sense or something. Or maybe it was ‘noisy, constant’ and I just forgot the comma.[9]

The other sound common to all performances of A Few Silence is that of people writing. In quiet performance spaces in particular, it is likely that performers will notate the sound of notation in progress. Barrett is comfortable with this possibility if it surfaces, and points out that it often happens that the notation might contain a ‘transcription of the piece’s own performance. If it comes out, then it’s fine. It often does happen that the next thing you notice is someone’s pen on paper, a scratchy sound.’[10]

(Hartford) Memory Space

for any number of singers and players of acoustic instruments

Go to outside environments (urban, rural, hostile, benign) and record by any means (memory, written notations, tape recordings) the sound situations of those environments. Returning to an inside performance space at any later time, re-create, solely by means of your voices and instruments and with the aid of your memory devices (without additions, deletions, improvisation, interpretation) those outside sound situations.

When using tape recorders as memory devices, wear headphones to avoid an audible mix of the recorded sounds with the re-created ones.

For performances in places other than Hartford, use the name of the place of performance in parentheses at the beginning of the title.

Alvin Lucier, (Hartford) Memory Space (1970). (© Alvin Lucier. Reproduced by permission.)

In the second phase of the piece, performers attempt to respond to their notation by making sounds that fit the notated descriptions, rather than as a response to the original sounds themselves. The piece is not primarily about recreating another environment, in contrast to Alvin Lucier’s (Hartford) Memory Space (1970) which requires performers to ‘record by any means (memory, written notations, tape recordings) the sound situations of [outside] environments’ and then, using instruments or voices in the performance space, ‘recreate … with the aid of your memory devices … those outside situations’ (see fig. 56). Aside from the distance between the sampled environment and the performance environment, (Hartford) Memory Space differs from A Few Silence in that it defines recording as a memorising activity. The recording methods employed are to be used to recreate the original sound situations, acting as a trigger to memory. In A Few Silence, the original sounds are similarly captured by the notation, but performers attempt to read the resultant score autonomously and without reference to them. Barrett states:

A question I often receive is ‘am I supposed to recall the sound that this description refers to?’ and I usually say no. I want it to be less about recording, recreating. So not thinking back ‘that was a car driving by’ so let me try to recreate a car driving by, but really to replay the mechanical written description. I’ve thought of it as an indexical use of language.[11]

Barrett acknowledges the importance of C. S. Peirce’s writing on indexicality,[12] where a sign has a real link to the object it signifies.[13] Peirce’s classic example is a weathervane,[14] whose orientation is indexically linked to wind direction, the thing it represents. Peirce states that indexes ‘represent their objects independently of any resemblance to them, only by virtue of real connections with them’.[15] So in A Few Silence, the link between the text written by the performers and the sounds that provoked them is indexical: the words are intended to describe the sounds.[16] Elsewhere Peirce also contends that: ‘An index is a sign which would, at once, lose the character which makes it a sign if its object were removed, but would not lose that character if there were no interpretant. Such, for instance, is a piece of mould with a bullet-hole in it as sign of a shot; for without the shot there would have been no hole; but there is a hole there, whether anybody has the sense to attribute it to a shot or not.’[17] Likewise, in A Few Silence, the remapping of the notation onto a new set of sounds creates a fresh indexical relationship.

Whilst in both Barrett’s and Lucier’s pieces there is a translation of one sound environment to another through the use of different sound-producing resources, the aim and result are different in each case. In A Few Silence there is a change of signification in the notated descriptions between the two phases of the piece. So consequently there is a difference between the change created by reading a notation which was suggested by a car driving by but which does not present the original context (Barrett) and the change when the aim is replication of the original sound (Lucier).

The score suggests a battery of instruments, and the categories listed present ideas which might be developed individually. Barrett sees this as ‘a question of exciting imagination, exciting possibilities’,[18] encouraging the performers to adopt an investigative approach. The list at the beginning of the score implies the use of a (wide) range of instruments, rather than a single sound source used in a multiplicity of ways, although such a constraint is not explicitly excluded. In preparing a realisation, performers do have a choice over the instruments they might use in the piece, and it is likely that a smaller selection of these possibilities will be made during the performance, dependent on the events of the first five minutes. As such, it could be useful to consider in advance what might happen in a particular environment, or to consider possible techniques of sound production if fewer resources are available. It may be practical to use instruments which are capable of producing a range of discrete or sustained sounds. The notational strategy of the first phase of the piece is also exemplified by the inclusion of a sample notation of sounds from the first performance as an appendix.[19] This provides a possible model for performers to follow, demonstrating the range of descriptive options available (including shape, contour, dynamic level, duration and the sound source), although it is arguably superfluous and potentially limiting in the way it might constrain realisations. It is also worth noting that performances involving Barrett himself often have the performers sitting on the floor, and typically involve small groups of up to about eight performers,[20] although the score states that any number is possible. Performance locations have included conventional performance spaces (theatres, galleries), public spaces, and outside urban environments, presenting a wide range of possible soundscapes to sample in a realisation.

G Douglas Barrett - A_Few_Silence_Fuchs_Gagliardi_Barrett_Miss_Micks_01.14.09

G. Douglas Barrett, A Few Silence (Berlin, 14 January 2009, 21:00), realisation by (L–R) G. Douglas Barrett, Francesco Gagliardi and Kerstin Fuchs, at Miss Micks, Berlin. (Photo © Sophie Rook. Reproduced by permission.)

G Douglas Barrett - Belfast_barrett4
G Douglas Barrett - Belfast_barrett3
G Douglas Barrett - Belfast_barrett2
G Douglas Barrett - Belfast_barrett1

G. Douglas Barrett, A Few Silence (Belfast, 25 August 2008, 15:30), realisation by G. Douglas Barrett, Richard Glover and Scott Mc Laughlin, at Performing the City: An Urban Performance Workshop (Photo © Francesco Gagliardi. Reproduced by permission.)

G Douglas Barrett - Hudds

G. Douglas Barrett, A Few Silence (Huddersfield, 23 November 2009, 14:20), realisation by G. Douglas Barrett, Ray Evanof, Richard Glover, Johnny Herbert, Joseph Kudirka, Kate Ledger, Scott Mc Laughlin and James Saunders. (Still from video © James Saunders.)

[1] Barrett, 2009.

[2] G. Douglas Barrett, in interview with James Saunders, Huddersfield, 22 November 2009.

[3] A Few Silence (Huddersfield, 23.11.09, 2.20PM) had seven performers who notated 22, 24, 25, 27, 29, 35, and 39 events, an average of 28.7 at a density of 10.44 seconds per event. Note that the full title of a performed version of the piece makes reference to its location, date and time of performance. Barrett suggests that the date format to be used in the title is the one native to the performance location e.g. in the UK, mm.dd.yy in the US.

[4] G. Douglas Barrett, in interview with James Saunders, Huddersfield, 22 November 2009.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] G. Douglas Barrett, in correspondence with James Saunders, December 2009.

[8] Schaeffer, P., ‘Acousmatics’ in Cox and Warner, 2004, p. 77.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] G. Douglas Barrett, in interview with James Saunders, Huddersfield, 22 November 2009.

[12] In interview, Barrett made direct reference to Peirce as being influential on his work.

[13] Peirce contrasts this with two other categories of sign: icon, ‘a sign which stands for something merely because it resembles it’, and symbol (sometimes termed token), a sign which ‘is related to its object only in consequence of a mental association, and depends upon a habit.’ (see Houser and Kloesel, 1992, pp. 225–6)

[14] Peirce Edition Project, 1998, p. 297.

[15] Ibid., p. 461.

[16] It is not an iconic link: the words do not resemble the sounds unless there is some sense of their being pictograms or onomatopoeic. It is also not generally symbolic: Barrett warns against referencing the source.

[17] Hartshorne and Weiss, 1931–58, para. 304.

[18] G. Douglas Barrett, in interview with James Saunders, Huddersfield, 22 November 2009.

[19] First performance: A Few Silence (Big Orbit, 11 September 2007, 21:00), performed by Francesco Gagliardi, Lindsey L. Lodhie, G. Douglas Barrett as part of Works in Translation at Big Orbit Gallery, Buffalo, NY on 9 November 2007.

[20] Typically performances have involved three people, although the piece is often performed solo. The Huddersfield performance quoted earlier used eight people.