To Become Empty Again - A View of John Duncan's Recent Audio Pieces and Installations
It seems that the important times are those when a lot is needed or required, and we're hypnotized by motion. In truth it could be quite different: that all that's important comes in quietness, and that activity is the working out, digesting and putting forward of what's been learned, in order to become empty again and receive more. It's a quality of the heart, this stillness; the mind has to get out of the way.
This line from John Duncan’s THE ERROR, a web project and multiple artwork in book form, sheds light on his more recent works given to explore “empty” space and still moments. In this way he gives voice to a need to breathe, to create a hiatus between experiences and self-reflection, not as a lack or privation but as a passage and enrichment, as vital nutriment. By immersing himself in experience and drawing in often difficult lessons, Duncan weaves together seemingly disparate elements, from the most delicate alongside the most direct. In order to become empty again.
All that’s important comes in quietness. Or when we least expect it. On 18 April 2002, while carrying out his routine reconnaissance in the varied and unpredictable sonic landscape of shortwave radio that gives form to audio sources for his work, Duncan came across a section of unexpected sound in the course of a single recording, marked by a near-miraculous completeness, released as PHANTOM BROADCAST. Here sounds take the elusive form of a dance of shadows, of bells echoing through cascades of lost voices that dissipate into emptiness. At times we seem to be listening to the ghost of a choral composition, a complex construction of sounds held together then thinning out, as if breathing. In this audio work Duncan's ability to accumulate tension and energy is striking, avoiding dramatic passages or resolutions: PHANTOM BROADCAST could be interpreted as a paradoxical, infinite extension of a single climactic moment, unraveling in a series of declinations and minimal tonal variations. The use of sounds trouvé seems to uncover secret folds of iridescent sound, urging us to explore with extreme delicacy that which passes by and normally goes unnoticed. From this point of view, PHANTOM BROADCAST epitomizes that wish for “becoming empty” expressed by Duncan, leaving space to a subtle richness that takes form in the very moment he forgets himself. Rather than referring to Cage’s famous “I have nothing to say / and I am saying it / and that is poetry”, the symbolic nothing presented by Duncan stands for a sort of creative sleepwalking akin to that of August Strindberg, whose tormented and sharp prose in his collection of journals Hell gave voice to in-between states, investigating an apparent void yet populated with visions and demons, contrasting high and low styles in unexpected and unorthodox ways. Likewise, the ERROR seems to draw its strength by the stark contrast of profound thoughts reaching extreme levels of poetic evocations, and ruthless images directly taken from porn or other unfiltered iconic sources. All of these are surrounded by the black background presented on large pages measuring 40 cm x 60 cm.
Returning to THE ERROR: “Every lesson is the first lesson. It does not mean that we forget what we already know. It means that what we are doing is always new, done for the first time.” As an artist, Duncan is never interested in hanging on to a given truth, but rather in throwing himself into an experiential space. Although such an approach can be painful, as the myth teaches us, the ecstasy of flight is worth the fall. A fall that, rather than referring to the symbolic gesture of Yves Klein’s Leap into the Void, Duncan forces himself into as a place of discovery – recalling in this way the nearly impossible (but in fact real, though unbelievable) landscapes explored by Captain Nemo in his stubborn, romantic and vengeance-driven adventures in his journey around the Seas; a fall, a leap through which Duncan seems to be painting his personal Gravity’s (sound) Rainbow, occurring through an experiential atmosphere so thick with a pulsating array of presences and states of mind.
Again spaces apparently empty, but actually dense with voices.
One of the myths connected with the origin of music, reported by Pindar in the XII Pithian Ode, tells us that the goddess Athena taught the Greeks the art of sound modulation after having heard the tormented weeping of Medusa’s sisters when she was killed by Perseus: sound is born as an expression tied to the voice and the complete breakdown of an emotion impossible to hold back. Intense emotive impact is always one of the basic elements in Duncan’s work, coupled in recent works with particular attention given to voice as a privileged sound source. In PRESENCE (2004), with Graham Lewis, the two remix and manipulate shortwave and field recordings to give form to four audio tracks interwoven with a submerged pulse. The beating heart of the album is Fall: half an hour of buzzing, a softly modulated voice that multiplies into infinity, orchestra-phantoms that dance in the mind, bewildering lines of sound that vault and circle insidiously, becoming intertwined in the end. Toward the middle of the track the sound seems to crouch, lose grandeur and examine its own roots, immersed in a threadlike panting on which the track unravels. Once more Duncan manages to render visible a “sound-presence” by occupying the limits of the human dimension. In his work, the line separating absence and presence, evanescence and plenitude, softens, becoming indistinct. He reveals all that lurks in this liminal zone, by trying and locating coordinates within it.
The investigation into voice later appears as the fundamental element in two installations, THE KEENING TOWERS and CONSERVATORY (San Sebastian), the first realized at the Second Göteborg Biennial in 2003, the second in 2004 with visual artist Paolo Parisi at Quarter in Florence. In these two cases we’re faced with ghost voices that float through space: in THE KEENING TOWERS a children’s choir directed by Duncan himself, distributed or vaporized in space in front of the exhibition center via two separate stereo audio systems, creates what the artist has described as a fluctuating “sound cloud” that constantly assumes new forms. In contrast, CONSERVATORY (San Sebastian) renders voices more obscure and evanescent. Here, moreover, Duncan seems intent on constriction, forcing sound through a circuit of pvc pipes. Operating to literally strain audibility through curvilinear traces, the circuit of pipes draw in opposition to the effective transpiration of the sound with the surrounding space: a succession of spoken phrases that Duncan has modified and distorted beyond recognition, pushing aside any semantic placement to join the proteiform kingdom of pure sound, bypassing all significant meaning to make them primordial vehicles for moving the soul. The work creates a space for recalling absolute emotions, oscillating between seduction and threat. The sound is an elusive presence, at the limits of human measure, on the verge of an apparent void: impalpable diaphragm, passage, perceptive subtlety necessary until what transcends our usual sense of listening may be perceived here in all its evocative power.
Speaking of passages and traces, in connection with the sonic aerial arabesques of THE KEENING TOWERS and of the coils spread along the ground in CONSERVATORY, another trajectory has fascinated Duncan: the fact of non human-related phenomena that nonetheless influence human direction and method. In 1996 Duncan released THE CRACKLING, realized with Max Springer, based on a series of field recordings made at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center.
The Stanford Linear Accelerator tunnel is a straight line of prefabricated steel structures several stories high, connected end-to-end, 2 miles (3+ kilometers) long. Inside, microwave electron drivers are set every 10 meters, each unit emitting an intense, disorienting 120Hz buzz that creates phasing effects with the other units near it, all in an enclosed straight line that stretches out to a vanishing point. These drivers propel electrons in parallel paths along the tunnel up to velocities just under the speed of light, toward a collision chamber at the far end where the paths split and the electrons are driven into each other head-on… The place is full of contradictions: structures built to dwarf and outlast their creators, designed to generate subatomic events that take place in a time scale that is experientially impossible to imagine, using forces and processes that are hostile or lethal to human life, yet are entirely human-created. A 'city of the dead' that seems to have an existence of its own with or without its operators. For this work, the electron is understood as a metaphor for the process of life: isolated, compelled by a system that uses the electron's own energy to force it into a path that leads at a constantly increasing pace to certain destruction -- to a point of certain change, of complete resolution and the beginning of a new process.
THE CRACKLING testifies to Duncan’s attraction for a mechanism that puts faith into question, engaging the experience of being overwhelmed, and of fundamental self-doubt. Inside the linear accelerator, the electron is obliged to follow a course that according to Duncan can be seen as a metaphor for that of all life. The entire CD is a challenge to human scale, transgressing the threshold of perception. Even in its most ‘reductionist’ outcome (which, it must be noted, took shape in a moment, the mid-1990’s, in which many musicians began to focus on a number of reductionist stances in sound practices), Duncan manages to remain faithful to his personal search, relating yet another experience to his endless challenge against pre-determined clichés and perceptual structures. He does so by a firm statement in the liner notes: “You exist in a world of gravity and sound. You are like light, like a sea of air. You are history, and make all of history something else”. He does so, most of all, in the high symbolic charge that seeps through each one of the sounds in the CD: sounds that create an architecture through balances and modulations that echo the contrasts of the place of their origin: the micro-pulsations invite us to lose ourselves in the details of the infinitely small, while this drone-sound measures an immense space, finally stopping as if endlessly waiting for some event. Insistent pulsations are treated at length, almost beyond the physical limits of sound, which seems torn apart with a metallic resonance. Reflected movements in the background, fixed and impassable signals that examine themselves at a distance, unsettling harmonies. Never before, never so clearly, Duncan was close to the modulation of emptiness, here reached by subtraction, giving voice to micro-rhythms, pushing the act of listening to an abnormally high level of attention. He has a mastery for infiltrating our emotional space, slipping into it and then locking us inside, letting us out again only after we’ve managed to reach its most extreme borders. To do this, he practically seduces with sound. His is an awareness of being part of a process where lack of control does not invoke annihilation but a need for affirmation, to absorb each experience, to imbue breath in every sound. The exterminated accelerator space, projected on the human psyche, opens an interior space both vast and rich in questions. We’re at the edge of an abyss.
In recent conversations there’s a phrase that I’ve often heard Duncan say: “I’ve been visited by my demons”. This endless battle with malevolent impulses that are submerged, hidden, censored or ignored, impulses that characterize his work since the beginning, is never meant as a death wish but intended instead to manifest the deepest roots of a subterranean world, to suck nourishment and depart on ever more arduous challenges: a descent to return later and emerge regenerated, as our most ancient myths have always taught us. I think that it’s just this sense of dizziness, living constantly on an emotional precipice that nourishes and renders Duncan’s work credible with respect to many other artists that assume the extreme as a pose. Duncan lives by putting his life at risk. Keeping his focus steady on the abyss and on the flows of energy that come from a self-proclaimed underworld, he constantly launches himself into new challenges, letting go of the fact that every certainty vanishes, that each stable security unravels. This stems from a sharp awareness of his own position: not a calculated stylistic decision, but a condition, a way of being, an imprint. An instinct, never theatrical, just a normal daily task that puts him in contact with himself. If he’s not inexorably involved, Duncan is not at peace. From the more confrontational events at the beginning, to those darker and more tainted with blood in the Japan years throughout the 80s, to the performances of the 90s, to the threatening sea of tranquility of recent works, the effect of his work has always been to strain rigid structures. Fearlessly, without ever being sure he can succeed. Baffling, always changing in style and difficult to predict, impossible to hold in check, capable of absorbing and rendering vast cosmological concerns next to futile aspects of the everyday, soaring from delirious visions to the sharpest irony.
An example of this subtle form of risk-taking, defined by subtraction rather than addition is his collaboration with Finnish artists Mika Vainio and Ilpo Väisänen (Pan Sonic): a pleasant shock to predetermined expectations relative to these artists’ past work. NINE SUGGESTIONS (2005) puts their common interests in discussion. The grit of sound renders this record a zone of perceptive infection, of progressive accumulations and dispersions of energies, of sonic nuclei piled up here and there. A trip to the center of sound that threads through passages of unexpected calm: this record is much more than what you might expect from the meeting between three masters of experimentation, showing aspects of their sensibilities that often pass unnoticed. All three seem to have deliberately looked at the shadows of sound, at fancies less emergent or expressed that drag themselves up from memory, this time putting them in the foreground. In the process they discover an unexpected lyrical slant, that distances itself from the ferocious rhythmic structures of the Finns or the works of Duncan’s marked drone mould. A record that appears very meaningful today, as it bends any pre-conceived notions related to each of the three musicians’ previous outcomes and liberates itself from any tight grids of cold minimalism by giving way to voluptuous structures. Collaboration here is another way of “becoming empty”: it does not function as a consolidation but as the foreseeing of possible outlines of new forms to come. NINE SUGGESTIONS appears then to be a forging of new creative apertures. Hard to escape Scratch Ring, that opens the disk between crystalline wrapping, liquefied architecture, a restless shout and a bundle of laminated sounds. Unsettling dirges that reflect Duncan’s sonic mirrors. And if in episodes like Volume the sound relives a memory of lashings of pure noise, the mood that prevails overall is that of soft embroideries on scraps of velvet sound (Eliminated: The Stress), softly precious striations (The Deepening), an organic and winding pulse (The Bristling Haze). The taste for anti-climax and distension is found reasoned and accomplished in Center: Pause, a piece that is born in total panic, folds in on itself, implodes… and then is reborn, radiating rings of sound: a passionate, sophisticated and extremely personal song.
By investigating the labyrinth of both towers
layer by layer
the entire structure disintegrates.
I came across these words under unexpected circumstances  in the process of considering
possible conclusions for this essay. Here the circle seems to come to a close: these words in fact appear in the inner sleeve of Duncan’s first 7” e.p., CREED (1980), seeming to stand, 26 years later, as a foreboding of what was to come in his music in the early years of the new millennium. In CREED there is one track, HAPPY HOMES, that features Duncan intervening on a radio talk show in which a psychologist gives direct advice to listeners who call in: his story starts with two episodes of violence to children and the indifference of the police, among his experiences as a bus driver in South Central Los Angeles. The other track is called BABYLON, its text was entirely re-written, beginning with the last letter of the last word, and recorded with the reversed words pronounced as closely as possible to the phonetic written structure. The result sounds a little like the original text, with a surreal twist made clearer by having a printed version of the text to refer to in the liner notes. The setting outlined in such notes is yet another void: the apparently empty space after disintegration (we are not told who, or what, caused such disintegration, but that's one of Duncan’s major skills, leaving spaces and traces open for us to wander in the towers of our minds). A structural void full of debris, elusive and fragmented suggestions and sounds, to which Duncan has started offering space again after all these years. First, by consuming himself in such emptiness, then starting to breathe in it again.
Two towers appear on the perceptual horizon. Duncan seems encompassed by them, by the sounds they diffuse: he’s embraced between the dark, keening voices of abused children as described in Happy Homes/CREED back in 1980, and the anticipation for possible relief in the sound of children’s voices in THE KEENING TOWERS (2003).
Two forms of emptiness and stillness come to the mind here: the joyful, blissful version as depicted by William Blake in Nurse’s Song, in his collection of poems Songs of Innocence:
When the voices of children are heard on the green
And laughing is heard on the hill,
My heart is at rest within my breast
And everything else is still.
And the bleakness that’s born out of loss, age and weariness, as he evoked in the poem of the same title in Songs of Experience, the twin collection to Songs of Innocence – laughing here is replaced by whispering, peace by visible signs of unrest:
When the voices of children are heard on the green
And whisp’rings are in the dale,
The days of my youth rise fresh in my mind,
My face turns green and pale.
Today Duncan seems driven through the void by lost voices of children, back and forth between an unfathomable thirst for Innocence and the unavoidable sense of doubt after all his Experience, in an endless circular corridor of mirrors that begins with the reverse-recording process of CREED and ends in the hovering cloud of sound in THE KEENING TOWERS.
After disintegrating all possible structures (moral, religious, scientific, perceptual), John Duncan opens to a new set of sounds as his unique way of becoming empty again. His practice in the investigation of voice-generated sound testifies to his rigour and accuracy, and somehow we know that his insistent acoustic ghost stands there, disciplined and true - constantly, internally tapping, tapping at our (stress) chamber doors.
 I must thank Elke Moltrecht for making this epiphany happen
Daniela Cascella is a writer and curator. Her research is focused on sound and its intersections with the visual arts. She has published two books, articles and essays about her area of research. Between 2000 and 2008 she was one of the editors of Blow Up magazine in Italy, and she has curated and promoted projects such as Sound Threshold. Music and sound across the landscape, Eco e Narciso, TRACKS.
This article orginally appeared in the John Duncan monograph published by Errant Bodies, June 2006
© All Rights Reserved. This work is the copyright of the author.