If You Were To Clap

If you were to clap, a storm of synapses would fire across your brain, scattering left and right from both cerebral hemispheres, crackling their way through the efferent nervous system until they reach the junction box of your spine. From there a complex switching process begins, with electro-chemical chain reactions spreading out from your spine through relays of knotty ganglia, reaching out to the skeletal muscles in your arms, contracting some, relaxing others. All the while the proprioceptors are sending out their own somatic semaphore, reporting muscle position and proximity back up to the medulla so that further instructions can be delivered down the line. Your shoulders open, your elbows rise, the hundred bones in your hand are choreographed to close your fingers into an approximation of the webbed appendage it once was; your ligaments tighten under the tendons, your shoulders close, the elbows move towards each other, and you clap.

As your palms connect and the tips of your fingers touch, the force of your muscles, the posture you have assumed, the thickness of your subcutaneous fat, the texture of your skin — all this and more — determine the characteristics of the mechanical energy that is released by your clap. The force of the collision of your hands pushes out into the air that surrounds it in the form of a pulse that is shaped by some pockets of molecules being squeezed together (compression) while their neighbours are stretched apart (rarefaction). This pulse is called a sound wave, the pattern of whose peaks and troughs is described by acousticians in terms of frequency, amplitude and wave shape and by musicians in corresponding terms of pitch, loudness and timbre.

As the wave rolls away from your knuckles and fingernails — each movement a process of one vibrating molecule passing the baton of energy on to the next — its onward journey is guided by the space in which you stand. Are there hard walls to rudely shove the wave back? Are there piles of discarded clothes that will smother the sound by robbing it of its force? How dense is the air where you are? What is its temperature? 

Our clap is forged in a cauldron of chaos where innumerable events unfold across media of immeasurable complexity. Shifting register and scale from your brain to your hands to the room through chemical to electrical to mechanical and then to acoustic energy. Energy that leaves the blocks at three hundred and sixty six metres a second before eventually losing momentum as it passes through air, bounces off stone, slides through glass before making one final exhausted alchemical transformation into the energy of heat.

If I Were To Listen

If I were to listen, then my skin would be joined to yours. The vibrating sound wave that had its origins in the skin of your palms would wind its way across the room until it connected with my body, perhaps skirting imperceptibly across my unshaven neck, before spiralling down the fleshy pinnas that jut out from the side of my head to tap a tattoo on the taut membrane of my ear drum. From there yet another relay is set in motion, this time one that sees the hammer bone connected to the anvil bone, the anvil bone connected to the stirrup bone, the stirrup bone connected to the cochlea and the cochlea connected to the Organ of Corti.

In the last stages on the route from your clap to my listen, the pulse pushes deeper inside my body and undergoes something of an inversion of the process that your brain began. This time, the energy sequence is mirrored, moving from acoustic to mechanical, to electrical to chemical, with the million and a half hairs in the Organ of Corti each striped with many neurons that deliver information for my brain to interpret.

A knowledge of how you ‘clap’ and how I ‘listen’ — even when that knowledge is half-digested from elaborately served numbers and diagrams and through unfamiliar words — is not knowledge that erodes marvel. To know that with my eyes shut, I can autonomically measure the differences in amplitude between what I hear with my left ear and what I hear with my right and from that disparity judge where you are standing while you are clapping and whether you are moving, is a knowledge that sparkles more brightly when I hear that the smallest detectable interaural-time difference is reckoned to be 20 millionths of a second. To know that in addition to enabling echolocation, the human ears’ sensitivity to sound means that the smallest sound we can hear contains a million millionth of the energy of the loudest sound we can tolerate does not diminish my awe. To know that when we respond to that smallest sound, the detecting mechanism is moving a distance equivalent to a tenth of the diameter of the smallest atom this, too, doesn’t dry things out into brittle banality.

No network of ice-cold supercomputers connected to a bustling chemical laboratory that, in turn, was coupled to teams of mechanics equipped with the most delicate mills and lathes could even come close to duplicating the dynamism of the journey between your clap and my listening. It is perhaps the admixture of the infinitesimal and the infinite, of motion and rest, the shifts between different physical states and the queasy processes through which sound joins the most intimate enclosures of our two bodies, that has propelled the analysis of the sounded world into the supra-rational.

Nearly a thousand years ago, the great Majd Al-Din Al-Ghazali, working out of Baghdad’s law school, proposed a defence of the “nobility of audition” whose language echoes what we have heard so far: movement and quiescence, the interior touching the exterior which then returns the compliment in kind, the very small meeting the very large. Where Al-Ghazali’s writing strikes its own notes is in its summoning of a new set of agents: the heart, the spirit, ecstasy, “the hidden lights and secrets” and Allah Himself all vying for attention in the understanding of your clapping and my listening. 

The temptation to cosmologise the acoustic - to intone “nada brahma, the world is sound” — is made more acute when we move out from one clap and one set of ears. Outside the clap-listen scenario are environments filled with sound with frequencies above and below our thresholds of hearing – but perhaps still within the clinamen of perception. There are atmospheres where sounds are so low in energy that even the hyper-sensitive mechanisms already described cannot register them; or, conversely, so full of energy that they may place us in perilous proximity to the 210,000 people a year that die from heart disease caused by long-tem exposure to ‘noise’, according to the World Health Organisation. There are sounds whose origins are so close that they come from inside your body — the rumbling stomach, the thumping heart, the crackling cartilage, the whining nervous system — but are masked in all but the most tranquil occasions. And there are sounds whose sources are so far away that the distance they have travelled is not the few metres from your clap to my ears but the five million metres of vibrating molecules that extended from the erupting Krakatoa all the way to Mauritius.

Analogue Speakers

The catalyst for this long reverie about clapping and listening was the work of Ed Osborn. To immerse myself in a creative portfolio stretching back over two decades was to be confronted by a stunning ability to balance a horizontal dimension that is testimony to range with a vertical axis that is evidence of proportional depth and detail. Osborn works simultaneously across and between the fields of sculpture, installation, organised sound and performance, playing out a kinetics of the audible where processes and problematics are sometimes hidden, sometimes revealed. 

It was the recurring appearance of exposed speakers and snaking cables that got me thinking. The audio speaker can be held as an analogue of both the clap and the listen. The speaker-as-clap because there is a similar energy translation system functioning — here, electrical-mechanical-acoustic — and the same operation of fluctuating pressure zones where the speaker diaphragm, exercised by a constantly reversing magnetic flux, pushes and then stops pushing the neighbouring air molecules. There is speaker-as-listen, too, because morphologically the naked speaker cones that occasionally populate Osborn’s work resemble, through a squint, the surrealist spectacle of so many fleshy pinna cut off and carbonised but with the wires retained as equivalents of the auditory nerves. The speaker-as-listen exerts itself, too, through the speakers’ visible and audible presence in the gallery inviting its visitors to shift bodily gears and change their minds from hearing to listening.

Osborn’s work is amenable to semiotic analysis, to a treasure hunt for symbol and association. How could it not be?

There would be room for Roman Jakobson’s syntagmatic axis — where the swings and their movements could be understood metonymically, extending out from the swings installed in the gallery to the other, external, swings of our habitual associations. Swing Set is also able to have its meaning charted along what Jakobson called the paradigmatic line. Here it would be metaphor that ruled the interpretative roost and, accordingly, other trains of response would be set in motion, ones that saw the installation as a closed interpretative unity. Arrays of meaning could then be made out of the diverse connections between Swing Set’s various elements: the material, the dynamic and the acoustic.

So it is quite possible for Swing Set to be read according to a variety of interpretations in these charged times: stories of childhoods past and present, tales of loss and abandonment and other narratives too.

Having made a ritual genuflexion towards the potential of the metonymic and the metaphorical approaches to such art work, I wish to encounter Swing Set from a different perspective — I prefer to listen. 

Commissioned for Relay

Angus Carlyle is curious about how we make sense of our environment, through sound and through our other senses.

In 2012 he completed a sixth month residency project called “Viso Come Territorio” / “Face As Territory”, a collaboration with 7 photographers based around a village on a Southern Italian hillside.

Another project Air Pressure has been a long collaboration with the anthropologist Rupert Cox that led to exhibition at the  Asia Triennial, Manchester and ISEA, 2012, a CD/ booklet, two films and a series of papers.

He edited the book “Autumn Leaves” for Double Entendre (2007), made the sound work “51° 32 ‘ 6.954” N / 0° 00 ‘ 47.0808” W” for the “Sound Proof” group show (2008), co-curated the exhibition “Sound Escapes” at Space Gallery in London (2009) and produced the CD “Some Memories of Bamboo” (2009) for the label Gruenrekorder.