It is what is not in this book that haunts me; it’s what’s left unsaid that I hear most.
Ostensibly a catalogue, LISTEN hEAR documents work by sound artist Danny McCarthy. It has many photographs, an introduction from David Toop, and an essay of sorts from Julie Forrester. The essay closely maps the tracklist of the audio CD, tucked into the black, folding back cover.
A cursory look—or listen—puts the reader/listener before a wide range of sonic possibilities.
What’s that, says you, looking at listening?
Over a twenty-year career, McCarthy has not only redefined the contexts in which sound is presented and framed, but also in how we choose to look at what we most often cannot see: sound.
Many artists working with sound have engaged in new forms of aesthetic encounter with the city and nature, with technological effects and psychological states. At the centre of McCarthy’s work is a profound meditation on sound and its location: No Curfew On Late Night Listening (a photograph on page 5) features one, in- ear headphone, tangled on a blanket of cream and pink. It seems foetal, embryonic, against a screen that nods to Rothko, nods to Pop Art, but belongs to neither. It is what it is and it is not. Here, found objects find subjects and evoke distinct psychological thresholds between open and closed, inside and outside; here, inhabited space transcends geometrical space: with a new sound, a new world.
Objects embodying deep emotional reserves are not new. However, placing the witness on a journey into interior memory through exterior soundwaves and making him/her question how sound embeds us within local environments—while connecting us to a broader matrix—is.
Or am I reading too much into this? Do cartographic and geographic elements come into play as we respond to a work like this? Or is it more a matter of fiction: inviting the listener to look at and strain to listen to something they never encounter?
End fiction, try fact, load history: though public memories are harder to trace, they are easier to reveal by means of the poetic concept or installation. Echoes from an Abandoned Schoolhouse is an early work which set a Padraig Pearse text amidst his work as a teacher, for an installation at the Pearse Museum, in Dublin, in 1988.
Today, all we have are the photographs and the audio. Contrary to other art forms, sound recordings are not bound to a xed space. They also foster the illusion that what the listener hears is not a representation of the work, but the ‘work itself’.
Listening to the CD and looking at the photographs suggests different experiences. Once again, the piece is directed at one and the same time both inwards and outwards. I imagine that the installation attempted to trace the reception of the sonic image in the subjective consciousness of the viewer listening to the installation. So much then for the ‘work itself’.
I wonder if that is what McCarthy means by ‘listening with the sound turned off’? Probably not, but such a soundwalk leads to the crossroads of silence.
But there are noises here too: take Birdcages of Dublin.
In the city, where the visual is at its most potent, we still navigate the streets not only through seeing, but also by listening.
In a setting where almost everything is artificial, there is little to no room for reverie—which makes Birdcages… (later came Birdcages of Cork, then Birdcages of Limerick) even more arresting. Once again, a comparison between what has been photographed, what has been written, and, in this case, what has been remixed is startling: beat-mixing turned into beat juggling, unique momentary compositions for a music using the sound of the original work, if not its form or technique.
It makes me wonder if we can document sound art or sound installations at all? Sound as sound is as liberating as it is demanding. unlike the visual, sound is all pervading; sound penetrates the ears and the body: no escape and no prisoners.
The greatest chasm between photograph/text and recording on LISTEN hEAR is Walls Have Hears p4.33. Field recordings often mark and archive a moment in time, one we can travel back to through listening on some later day. But the material here is so abstract that it takes the listener both further and closer to the original source: James Joyce reading from Ulysses.
The photographs show a turret staircase in the Crawford Gallery in Cork, the text tells the tale of how McCarthy used the ‘rhythms of Joyce’s voice, tempered by the hiss and crackle of ancient vinyl’. No traces of the voice are here, nor are there any shards of hiss and whirr. It’s as if McCarthy has taken particularly noisy recording sources—an echoic Crawford turret and sizzling vinyl recitation—and used de-noising techniques to create the vacuum that is this composition. Breath and step are one and none; it is an abstract—and—lyrical late Beckett writing early Joyce in sound.
The essence of LISTEN hEAR then is in this porous, owing, polyvalent presentation of text, sound and image. There can be no rigid descriptions here. There really is no curfew on late-night listenings, rather a continually produced and challenged discourse about what sound art is, and through McCarthy, what sound art can be: a haunting and a silence, sounding out.