They say that Orpheus was to singing as Harry Partch was to listening. That he could annotate the least vocal quaver or demi-shift in timbre, modulate his voice like a lyre & inscribe by hand a grid of notes on the head of a phoneme.
He had a phonographic memory.
He believed the speaking voice should be the basis of our music; that the voice shouldn’t conform to traditional instruments. That we’d gone off track millennia ago. He spoke, always, with a sing-song lilt, as if divining arias from the everyday. Refusing the entire Western canon of music, he invented a microtonal scale with 43-note octaves & he built instruments to suit it.
Their names were as beautiful as their forms: Chromolodeons, Harmonic Cannons, Gourd Tree & Cone Gongs, & the Cloud Chamber Bowls (cross-cut pyrex carboys once used in nuclear experiments suspended from ropes). Often he arranged these instruments into a motley of percussion, such as his Spoils of War, with its artillery casings, raspadors, whang-guns, & its own cloud chamber bowls. As a tribute to his alcoholism, he built the Zymo-xyl-- a xylophone of spent liquor bottles. Played high to low: Heaven Hill Farm Hash to Bristol Cream Sherry.
The vast scale of many of these instruments required their musicians to enact a dance as they moved around them, striking them with delicate hammers.
He described the slight glissando between notes when bowing his Adapted Viola as “an infinitude of nuance.”
When I think of John Cage—whom Partch hated— I imagine him floating in tepid water, pellucid, the temperature of spit. Fluctuating around 98 or so° F, the tank he’s in-- an inanely overprecise instrument-- is designed to affect true silence; if possible, to absolve the soul of its myth of skin. And, but for the crucial hum of the body-- high, slight, auricular crackle of nerves; low blood drone, the arterial percussion rumbling the labyrinth of the inner ear, its microscopic hairs-- it all but achieves its ends. What remains is a primal fugue, a pulmonary feedback loop: “explosive motor, wind, heartbeat, landslide.”
But in truth, there was no water suspending him, as I would have it, like some ancient Zen infant; no bubbles gathering in his beard; no body-nullifying auto-corrective temperature control-- just an anechoic chamber and Cage inside it, listening. It was here that he witnessed for the first time the power & the illusion of silence: an apocryphal state. Private. Pink noise. Carnegie Hall, the Chauvet Cave, this room, the heavenly bodies in orbit or your body as it enters REM: each with its innate drone. An invisible, personal pitch from which all music must necessarily begin.
Late one night at Wendy’s Subway, Will Rahilly is telling a story which, despite the deepest googling, not even he can substantiate. It’s the Tale of Ringo the Wrestler, known not for his glory days against the ropes but for the peculiarity of his afterlife, where, upon his death, a collective of post-musique-concrète punks made a plaster cast of his enormous corpse, replicated his weight & density as best they could, then installed microphones in the head & body of his effigy. They took him by bus to Niagara, picnicked on the sides of highways, traveled to oceanside bluffs, to trainyards & tarmacs. Everywhere they went he went, absorbing the ambient roar. The question was, if the body’s a resonant instrument, how does it mute & transmute variable frequencies? What would it be like to be suspended, as it were-- as Ringo was-- inside a giant’s body?
There are a lot of myths about LSD, like how spinal fluid records a memory of the trip which can trigger a flashback at random. What I do know is that the amount of acid it takes to get you high is incredibly minute. Like, less than two grains of salt or 0.025 milligrams. I’ve been told that by the time you’re high, you’ve metabolized the drug, sweat it out in a mild lysergic fever & will piss out the rest within the hour; the subsequent period of bafflement, awe, hysteria, & joy are caused by a flood of chemicals endogenous to the brain which the drug sets loose.
*Every once in a while my dad will slip a word or two of Russian into our conversations. As a kid, when I asked him how he learned to speak the language he told me that during the Cold War he was in the army training to be a spy. But two decades later when I goad him to tell me more about his time in the military, he opts instead to describe his furloughs. How he’d hitchhiked down from Monterrey to spend the days wandering Los Padres forest; the nights, tripping on LSD in his army-issue mummy bag, derelict, on the cliffs of Big Sur, in the shadow of the Milky Way: nebulae, deerlick & pinwheel, swirling, seemingly in real time, not above but out & out.
Duchamp doesn’t define ‘infrathin,’ he gives examples: the odor of cigar smoke & the bouquet (mint, garlic, lamb) of the smoker’s breath; the difference between silences or the glide between notes; that (ku kluxian) feel when korporations employ incidental satiric spelling (eg krispy kreme, koffee kup, kum & go, &c.) or when Ke$ha changed her name to Kesha; the vocal quality-- pitch, plosive force, handling of the aspirated T-- of a feminist saying Cunt, a true believer saying Christ-- in vain or in earnest-- compared to the same words in the mouths of misogynists, blasphemers, or those who lack conviction.
In short, ill-defined, liminal or transitory states of being-- deja vu, jemais vu, the word on the tip of the tongue. A rare, often never-to-be-felt-again admixture of qualia. A little something just for you.
*My dad’s coarse army-green canvas, worn supple, absorbent, never washed, combined with the near-hermetic tightness with which it’s rolled & stored, ensures that the mummy bag keeps a record of its own use surprisingly well. On the outside: undertastes of Californian blue spruce & hume, redwood mulch & lupine, with overtones of New Mexican sage, piñon pitch, mesquite smoke & gypsum grit (chalky & orogenous). On the inside: Old Spice, lysergic sweats, sebaceous oils, the musk of the body after days in the woods.
In short, an infrathin cocoon or transgenerational time machine. A readymade Sum of Nights.
In the deep gauze canyons of Carlito Carvalhosa’s Sum of Days, the figures & voices of patrons are turned to rumors, silhouettes. Elliptical & labyrinthine like a gossamer Serra, when you enter, the skirts of the sculpture seem to breathe, “revealing the air we don’t see” while above microphones are hung from the ceiling at different heights, recording-- like a benign NSA-- indiscriminately soaking up the conversations of the museum-goers. And at the same time amplifiers, also hung from the ceiling, play back the previous days’ recordings. What develops over time is a aural palimpsest, aswarm with overlapping voices. Occasionally a string quartet, pianist, or the voice of an opera singer rises from the buzzing morass only to be swallowed up again by the mass of noise-- destroying as it creates.
It’s only by serendipity, so far as I know, that Sum of Days’ installation coincided with the decade anniversary of William Basinski’s completion of the disintegration loop recordings--the day, also, the World Trade Center fell. The composition of the recordings, as the name suggests, is based on decomposition. Basinski was in the process of transferring 20 year-old recordings he’d kept in storage from analog to digital, &, as the tape head bussed along the time-worn tape, the ferrite particles which store the music, began to flake off, transforming the intended act of preservation into simultaneous acts of destruction & of creation.
I’ve been told that that night Basinski sat with friends drinking wine on his roof in Williamsburg, a video camera pointed at the sunset, &, as they sipped their Zinfandel & watched the black, thick clouds rake through the avenues of lower Manhattan, emulsifying them in toxic dust, disintegration loops played on the stereo.
Between 2011 & 2013 three of my immediate family members were homeless. In journals & notebooks from the time, I wrote little to nothing about it. But this silence, my inability to fill it, is acute in my memory, as are images of my brother sleeping on the lawns of my alma mater, my sister hiding her belongings in the sage brush, curling up on a stranger’s trampoline with her baby pitbulls, Marley & Blue, or my father in the hills behind our newly-foreclosed home, in the shadow of the Milky Way, lying by a fire in his army issue mummy bag.
After his early compositions on the poetry of Li Po, Partch spent over a decade in creative silence. Like George Oppen’s 30-year caesura, Partch’s lapse was brought on by the Great Depression. While Oppen moved to Mexico, Partch took to the rails-- in part out of poverty, but also to indulge in the liberties, both sexual & personal, that transient culture afforded him.
When I think of my family during this time, I think of their silence. How I couldn’t call them, but had to rely on news from my mother as to their whereabouts, their well-being.
Partch spent his decade-long fermata perfecting his ear, scratching the words of his fellow travelers into notebooks, transcribing inscriptions from alley walls & highway railings. Two of the first compositions of his early 30s, from The Wayward-- the “Barstow Cycle” & “US Highball”-- took these words & set them to music, his own brand of love song to the men he met on the road. He was overcome with near Whitmanic love for the itinerants’ wit & resourcefulness, even going so far as to claim that they were the most creative people he had ever encountered, not in terms of “poetry or literature” but “everyday living.”
Within the same month as Carvalhosa’s Sum of Days’ installation at MoMA, protesters began their occupation of Zucotti Park.
As you probably know, in lieu of a PA, to avoid the need for “amplification permits”, they used the people’s mic. Which means that immediately after uttering a short statement the person speaking falls silent so that those within earshot can repeat what’s been said for those around them to hear. As the speaker’s thoughts travel concentrically out from the center, the people’s mic instantiates a kind of rhythmic, choral activity, a call & response which allows the listener to test the speakers words in their own voices.
In the same week that I read that neutrinos cannot, in fact, outpace light, the Guardian releases an article detailing how the FBI partnered with various Big Banks to plot the extraction & dissolution of Occupiers, not only from Zuccotti Park, but across the nation.
That night, video cameras were banned, news teams barred, & the airspace above the park shut down. During their assault, the NYPD deployed an LRAD sound cannon, a weapon which exceeds human pain thresholds for hearing & can cause permanent damage. Such tactics are traditionally the recourse of petulant children: the loudest wins the day.
As if they could simply steal our ability to listen, too; as if they own our silence.
They say the dull ringing noise you hear after a concert, after the rave, after the LRAD cannon blares, is actually a ghost frequency, like negative space, the echo of a new absence in your range of hearing.
Every time you remember something your remembrance erases & rewrites the original, already plastic, already dubious account. The departure is slow, imperceptible. What is egg-yolk yellow in your mind was once lemon, cheddar, or marigold. This is common enough knowledge. But as these memories recur, as their recursion spawns new sensation enfolded with fresh experience, you lose touch with people you used to be.
Much of what I’ve written here is subject to this kind of slippage, sourced from stories I’ve heard (many of them already apocryphal), hastily jotted notes, or things I read years ago.
Gertrude Stein says, “At any moment when you are you you are you without the memory of yourself because if you remember yourself while you are you you are not for purposes of creating you.”
But what if, rather than remembering who you were, you could actually experience your former self?
Go through the house collecting all of your old journals & diaries, your half-finished notebooks & never-sent love letters, every scrap every note; find the books most intimate to you, preferably from when you were a teenager, a child, or in your first years of college; books which might yield the most inspired, intrepid, perverted, most callow, confused or angry marginalia.
Leave what’s digital in the cloud; the closer to barely-legible the better.
Lay it all out on your kitchen table, press record on your recording device, & begin reading aloud. It’s OK if you stumble over your own handwriting or have to pause for a moment of revery as you read, remembering where you were, how you felt, who they were, how you felt about them. If you feel tempted to skip a page of a journal, a letter, a scribble, don’t.
If you receive a phone call, record that, but only your half of the conversation.
Replace all of the music on your phone with these recordings.
Listen on the subway. Listen as you fall asleep. Listen to your voice saying now what you would have said then. Again, if you feel tempted to fast forward, don’t. Listen to the silence of the room when you paused to think, the silence of the past playing over the silence of the present.
Welcome to the uncanny valley between you & you.
Gabriel Kruis is a New Mexican poet living & writing in Brooklyn. His work has been published or is forthcoming in Quadrant, the Atlas Review, Everyday Genius, & at Well Greased Press. He is also a founder of Wendy's Subway & runs the Shitluck Reading series at the Tip Top Bar & Grill.