Summer heat and my windows are open. John Cage famously said, “There’s no such thing as silence,” and New York City is your overachieving proof, offering up the pulverizing symphony anyone would expect to hear from a major metropolis at midday. Whining sirens and blatting car horns, thundering trucks and the odd, dopplering helicopter. On a smaller scale, an insistent, overheated sparrow on the fire escape chattering like a miniature teletype machine. The ringing hum of thousands of unseen air conditioners set on high. The sound of ozone dying. And underneath it all, and evident only when the surface noises cease, the air filter sound of the city itself, a kind of oceanic wash of silty air and endless traffic, rising up and combing through the buildings, playing them like tuning forks.
Within this welter of music/sound/noise, plays Removed by Richard Chartier. It hisses and swells, it ebbs and flows. It hums like the city. Sculpted over a period of five years through the careful removal of sound from its original musical surface, Removed is a monument to loss, to erasure, to the revelation of the remainder.
And in this exact moment as I write, the music has disappeared once again as the ring of a circular saw on the sidewalk out front crescendos its way through the room, drowning out everything else. But as the blade spins to a stop, a chiming sound emerges from the music to replace it, a chime that melts to a tone, a hazy drone that reminds me of having my hearing tested as a kid, of wearing cheap headphones and pointing to my ears to indicate where the sound was appearing in my skull, and feeling for the first time in my life that my skull was an actual space, a habitable kind of theater that I was suddenly sharing with this stranger who was putting these warm tones inside me to see how I reacted to them. I hallucinated tones during those tests, pointing to my ears at random in absolute certainty that I was hearing something. And it’s this particular quality of Removed that I find so compelling. I’ve played it four times today and each time that it came to a stop, I was convinced that it was still going, that the high keening sound I was listening to was on my stereo when it was actually outside my window, in the street, in the air. Not here, not anywhere. Gone.
In the age of the anthropocene, what does it mean to make music by subtraction? When something is removed, something else is revealed. An indentation, a smudge, a shadow. The palimpsest. And if you remove sound but there’s no such thing as silence, then what remains? Is it new life? Half life? At various points in Removed there are passages when something emerges that a non-musician type such as myself can recognize as “musical.” Not exactly a melody per se, but notes, harmonizing notes. Only they sound deeply subaquatic, softened into something rich and strange, certainly post-“musical.” And the sensation created is that they are reaching a listener (me) only after passing through and being transformed by whatever medium they’ve become absorbed by. What’s coming through are the ghosts of the original material. Or new forms, new beings altogether. Addition/creation by way of subtraction.
Which reminds me. Probably the most notorious example of this in the world of visual art is Robert Rauschenberg’s Erased de Kooning from 1953. The story is that Rauschenberg approached Willem deKooning with the idea of taking one of his drawings and erasing it, thereby transforming it into a new work. Rauschenberg was looking to repurpose the eraser as a drawing tool, but needed “something that was a hundred percent art…” something he considered deKooning’s work to be but not his own, conveniently enough. After a lengthy discussion with Rauschenberg spent working past the idea that he wasn’t looking to simply destroy his art, deKooning agreed and gave him a drawing, but one that he figured wouldn’t be easy to erase and that he himself would miss. The drawing, according to Rauschenberg was “done partly with a hard line, and also with grease pencil, and ink, and heavy crayon. It took me a month, and about forty erasers, to do it. But in the end it really worked.”
Rauschenberg, in an interview years after the fact, labeled the piece and the gesture “poetry.”
Chartier, who also makes music as pinkcourtesyphone, has a history of collaborating with visual artists to create immersive experiential works. In the case of Removed, the work isn’t directly collaborative, but it was inspired in part by the artwork of Linn Meyers, which adorns the CD cover (a media format on the edge of disappearing?), with Chartier not erasing Meyers work a la Rauschenberg but instead providing a kind of interpretive accompaniment for the kinetic and psychic force fields that inhabit and haunt it.
What remains here in its vanishing fashion is glacial, mysterious, persistent without being insistent. Music that’s there/here even when you think it isn’t. I’ve read suggestions to listen to this with headphones or to play it quietly in the sanctuary of one’s choosing. But I think you should play it loud and in the open. Feel every droplet of its hiss. Feel every grain. Don’t hide this music. Don’t protect it. Let it be overrun, let it be infiltrated by what’s around. Let it get swept aside and let it wash back in. There will always be more.
In the age of the anthropocene, “removed” could be a euphemism for extinct. So much of the noise of life now is the noise of destruction, the sound of suicidal greed replacing everything with reflections of itself. In the naked space of revelation, before something new rushes in to fill it, Richard Chartier has given us a glimpse of the spirit of what used to be. Listen while you can.