TWiS x 3: “Nine Stages of Approaching Silence"
Robert Fripp’s Rules of Order + a quiet-spaces app + listening while other people read
TWiS x 3: “Nine Stages of Approaching Silence"
November 11, 2022
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Welcome (back) to my newsletter about the role sound plays in culture, technology, politics, science, ecology, storytelling, warfare, art, society, and anywhere else it might chirm.
The “main” issue of This Week in Sound comes out on Tuesdays. TWiS x 3 is a bonus round at the end of the week (when my work is done and a largely offline weekend awaits — I had today off work, and ended up across the Bay, which is why this is going out later than usual).
Today we’ve got: an app, an exhibit, and a book.
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1. AN APP
CROWD CONTROL: Have you ever found yourself wanting some quiet time, perhaps in an unfamiliar town, and not known where to go? The app SoundPrint (available for iOS and Android: soundprint.co) is a crowdsourced service that rates locations — with an apparent emphasis on eateries — by their relative volume and din. And unlike Yelp reviews, where your favorite local spot gets downgraded because an entitled out-of-town grouch wanted the waiter to smile more, SoundPrint’s core information is primarily quantified in nature, rather than anecdotal.
To participate in rating a place, you click the SoundCheck button, to which you feed at least 15 seconds of uninterrupted sonic mise-en-scène. Your individual data is then processed and collated alongside previously submitted user data. When you click through to a specific location, you see all the SoundChecks to date, plotted by time period within a given day. It’s not an exact science by any means, but it’s a good enough gauge whether a given coffee shop doubles as a heavy-metal meet-up, and if a nearby museum’s restaurant is hermetic or boisterous.
When you do a local search, the locations pop up with color-coded, numerical ratings that represent averages of the submitted information. A search of my neighborhood definitely aligned with my personal experience:
The restaurant Steins, for example, while often playing some alien-to-me sports event on a huge TV behind the bar, is quite large, with a high ceiling that provides space for sound to disappear into. Chili House (one of my two favorite Sichuan restaurants in San Francisco, I should mention — the other being the quieter Sichuan Home) can, indeed, get exceedingly loud, with packed tables and a generally upbeat clientele. (For the record, I’m still living pandemic-style and eating outdoors. Chili House, fortunately, has its own dedicated parklet.)
The design of SoundPrint’s layout is worth looking at more closely. Not only are there decibel levels (69 for Steins, 91 for Chili House), there are colors that make the relative volumes easier to distinguish at a glance. In addition, some places, like the Richmond (which is, indeed, very quiet), get highlighted thanks to user nominations.
The one thing that stands out to me, at this phase of the SountPrint app’s development, is how the decibels are given such weight. Most people aren’t familiar with the meaning implicit in the numbers, and so users may not recognize that 61 is, in fact, quite quiet for a restaurant. I could imagine a situation where, in the future, either people do come to understand those numbers, or the app diminishes their prominence in favor of colors and some other form of data visualization — perhaps like how in Los Angeles an A, B, or C serves as shorthand for the top 30% of food-safety ratings, with the numerical score posted only for those that get a 69 or under (at least that’s how I think it works).
As with any crowdsourced app, SoundPrint will only be as good as its users — unless, of course, Nest or Siri or other digital assistant gadget gets involved, and locales start submitting their own realtime data. And if such a thing happens, then there will be inevitable scandals about how some restaurant is feeding recordings of empty rooms into SoundPrint to cheat the system. Which now that I type it, seems more likely than not. (Thanks, Glenn Sogge!)
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2. AN EXHIBIT
PUBLIC SPEAKER: I spent Friday, which we had off for Veterans Day, across the bridge in Oakland at one of the Bay area’s many excellent museums, in this case the somewhat awkwardly named Oakland Museum of California, which is housed in one of the most playful brutalist structures I’ve ever had the pleasure of learning the ins and outs of over the years.
The museum is very much “of California.” While it contains, and displays, a lot of art, it is as much a history museum. And while it is a history-oriented institution, with an engaging permanent section dedicated to the state’s deep, broad, and — by some relative measures — brief through lines, it is also a visually motivated institution. Which is to say, the current Angela Davis — Seize the Time exhibit (running through June 11, 2023) is as much about an icon — emphasis on that eclipsing silhouette of hair — as it is about the lived experience of a transformative political figure. To that end, Seize the Time mixes art about and related to Davis (paintings, prints, photographs, video, installations) with artifacts from her own life (news footage, publications, posters, video, interviews).
And there is a lot of sound, so much so that individual galleries within the Seize the Time exhibit have both a speaker and headphones, so visitors can separate the different pieces of work.
A favorite piece of mine was Reading Women (Angela Davis/ Prison Abolition Edit), a short film by Carrie Schneider projected on one of the museum walls. Just under seven minutes in length, the film presents carefully edited footage of women reading. And that’s it. They’re reading Davis’ books, and they sit, in the plain light of day, with the physical object in hand, turning the page, taking it in, reflecting, and turning another page.
We listen to the rooms in which these women sit as much as we watch the women.
Throughout, there is the natural sound of the moments: fingers on paper, the odd hmmm, a piece of paper moving, a seat being adjusted — and, of course, the great emotional barometer known as room tone. We listen to the rooms in which these women sit as much as we watch the women.
Reading Women reminded me a bit of some of Yoko Ono’s video art, and Andy Warhol’s, which can focus on quotidian instances. But Ono and Warhol are powerful — perhaps instinctual — visual designers, whereas Schneider is much more interested in the naturalist intimacy of the moment. Reading Women isn’t a documentary in any way, but it’s also more than a document. It’s documentarian in the manner by which it captures these moments, and maps contrasts and parallels while different eyes, different faces, different minds, respond to similar words.
It’s unfortunate that of the pieces in the Angela Davis show, Reading Women is one that is presented with speakers instead of headphones, because the sounds are so subtle. But if you can make it to the museum on a weekday, when there's no one else around, this is a vicarious book club you’ll want to join for sure.
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3. A BOOK
RULES OF ORDER: Few if any had “Robert Fripp becomes an internet romantic icon” on their pandemic bingo card. And yet the guitarist — as much known for his work with David Bowie and Brian Eno as for his prog-rock reign, since 1968, in the band King Crimson — spent much of the past two or more years with his wife Toyah Willcox entertaining the locked down, the self-quarantined, and the remote-working. The frisky duo’s popular YouTube videos feature humorous cover versions, barely covered nipples, and enough costumes to fill a stately British home.
Fripp apparently also spent a chunk of the unexpected break from touring by collating his voluminous past writing on the topic of guitar instruction. A new tome, the 561-page The Guitar Circle, serves to balance his recently acquired goofy public persona with a heady dose of artistic philosophy. Out with the new, in with the old?
The book is neither tutorial nor autobiography. Don’t pick it up if you’re looking for sheet music or tour anecdotes. It is, instead, largely pre-existing material providing a mosaic account of Fripp’s perspective on music instruction. There are speeches, and entries from his ongoing dgmlive.com diary, and documents once created to orient attendees of the courses, originally named Guitar Craft, that he developed. (Guitar Circle was a subsequent rebranding. That the book doesn’t take a moment, at the start, to spell out Fripp’s decades of music instruction says something about its assumed audience.) Leavening patrician prickliness with whimsical self-effacement, he even includes a chapter of letters he wrote to disgruntled students, whom he charitably leaves anonymous.
And there are lists, of which Fripp seems quite fond. He delineates “Four Qualities of Refusal,” “Six Strategies of Practicing,” and “Nine Stages of Approaching Silence.” The book’s sole illustration is a list in visual form: a “Tetrad of the Orchestra of Crafty Guitarists.” His favorite number appears to be seven. There are “Seven Assumptions for Work in the Circle,” “Seven Lies of the Devil,” “Seven Views of Charisma,” and “Seven Affirmations.”
The innumerable entries can be summarized as follows: practice, and if you don’t want to practice, sit with yourself for a while and then practice.
The most cited list here is so natural to Fripp that he often leaves it nameless. He simply and repeatedly — a dozen or so times — refers to “head, hand, and heart” as the three “instruments” of a musician. This is the book’s crux: musicians — and by extension all practitioners of a craft — must attend to their intellect and emotions as much as to their skills. (We know Fripp’s a romantic from his amorous videos with Willcox, but it’s still notable how prominent a role “love” plays in The Guitar Circle. The word appears almost as often as “discipline.”) The innumerable entries can be summarized as follows: practice, and if you don’t want to practice, sit with yourself for a while and then practice.
The book, a veritable mountain of aphorisms, evidences the discipline — that quintessential Fripp word — of someone who doesn’t merely record his thoughts but who scrutinizes and refines them. (Artists and bloggers alike should read him on the benefits of keeping a diary in public. “Maintaining a diary,” he writes, “is itself a process, of engagement with oneself.”) What it doesn’t evidence is editorial discipline: as in music composition, context and economy would have given his theoretical riffs meaningful structure. The Guitar Circle is best read as it was written: over an extended period of time, a bit at a time.
(My article first appeared, in ever so slightly different form, in the November 2022 issue of The Wire. Until today it’s only been available in the print magazine and behind a subscription paywall.)
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