About the lecture-performance:
Peter Lenaerts invites the audience into a cosy living room setting. In the center of the room, two flat screen televisions, back to back, covered by a black cloth. Comfortable couches are placed in a half circle in front of the televisions. There’s four speakers, one in each corner of the room, and two subs speakers in line with the tv’s. The lights are dimmed. The performance starts with a text about failure (see below). As the lights slowly fade to black, the only light that remains in the room is the screen of Peter’s tablet as he reads the text. When the text has been read, he closes the tablet and plunges the room into complete darkness. The sound piece that has been playing in the background now comes to the foreground. After about 10 minutes, the cloth is removed from the televisions and the documentary Ezra made starts playing.
Images © Giannina Urmeneta Ottiker
Quies & Failure
The biggest failure of them all. I shouldn’t have used the word silence when I first started this project almost 3 years ago. Silence makes people think of yoga retreats, or churches, or John Cage or Simon & Gartfunkel, and obviously there’s nothing wrong with that, it just doesn’t fit Quies. So rather than writing “I want to work on silence. And absence. And nothing” I should have written “I want to work on Quies. And absence. And nothing. The lack of. Just space. And air. That moment when the last note has rung. Just before the audience breaks out in applause or boos. That moment of anticipation. Of holding your breath. Your senses, exalted and wired. All ears. That moment. Exactly that moment.
What do we hear when there’s nothing to listen to?
What do we listen to when there’s nothing to hear?
This is also a pretty big one. Slightly tongue in cheek, but still.
When you decide to fly to Sydney at the far end of the world (24 hours or 16736km), then get another plane to Adelaide (1,5 hours or 1400km) then get into a hire landcruiser and spent 2 whole days or 1000km driving to what is technically not even a desert yet; when you decide to do all that because you’re curious how empty and desolate and devoid of both human and animal presence this place will be because you want to try and record this emptiness. If you want to do all that, then do not take a film maker. Because filmmakers are noisy. If you’re afraid to travel alone or you’re afraid to go desert mad, take a friend, but do not take a film maker. Because they make a lot of sound. And because they are busy making a film, they don’t listen. Even though film is 50% image and 50% sound, they just stand there and make squares with their hands and then look around, turning left, turning right, crouching down until suddenly they see what they want to capture and then they come racing with all their gear, and set it up amidst a flurry of sonic activity. And when they are finally ready to start filming, they ask you to stay in that uncomfortable position a bit longer.
And to add insult to injury: a year later, they have a film to show here whereas silly old me is still trying to make sense of all his recordings.
A smaller failure but still. Number one golden rule on filmsets? Don’t count on the weather.
Don’t think oh, I’m going to the desert and the desert is hot. And I’m specifically going in Summer because it’s so hot that there will be less people. And when I went the first time, it was constanly between 36 and 43 and I didn’t meet anyone besides the freaks and misfits in petrol stations.
No, you cannot count on the weather and I should have know this. So this time it was barely 30 degrees. On top of that, there had been massive amounts of rain. Yes, rain, in one of the most arid regions on earth. So much rain that Lake Eyre, which is usually a dried out salt lake, flooded over. So much rain, that the desert didn’t look yellow and red and white, but green. Green with little bushes and grass and greenery. And for the ears it’s even worse because really hot weather creates the illusion of sonic emptiness. It’s an acoustic phenomenon that when it’s really hot and there’s lots of wind and then suddenly the wind settles, and it’s like there’s no sound left in the world. I had experienced that before. But not this time of course. Not when the camera was rolling.
So bad weather. Barely 30 degrees and the constant threat of a freak rain storm coming. And stories from the locals about how the last time it rained properly, the town you’re in got cut off for 6 weeks. No people, no supplies, nothing coming in or going out.
So anyhow. Don’t count on the weather.
Technology is dumb, our ears are clever. I knew this but was still disappointed and frustrated when confronted with it.
Simply put, and without getting lost in technicalities: each microphone makes sound. It’s called self-noise. It’s comparable to the warm hiss of a record player. Some of you here might still remember that sound.
Even more simply put, the cheaper the microphone, the more self-noise or hiss. And finally, the smaller the microphone the more self-noise.
Now, most microphones for outdoor use are rather small, whether they’re cheap or expensive. And the big and quiet microphones are almost all indoor microphones.
For outdoor microphones you need wind protection. Serious wind protection, especially in the desert. If not, it just sounds like the very first sound you’ll hear in the film. Make sound.
And wind protection is only made for outdoor or smaller microphones. It’s not made for big, indoor microphones.
Now, before we left, I decided on the following guidelines:
I would start recording with small, inexpensive microphones and wear them on my head. They have good wind protection and create a very realistic surround sound – uh – image. As long as there’s actual sound to record, these microphone work really nicely. The moment there’s little to record, you start hearing these microphones.
At which point I would switch to a hand held stereo microphone. With even better wind protection. And less realistic surround -uh- image, but still stereo.
Eventually this microphone would also become too loud, at which point I would switch to an indoor microphone. A studio microphone and one of the quietest microphones around. It has barely any self-noise or hiss. Problem though: no wind protection available.
But I was only gonna use this microphone when there was no wind. But there is almost always wind in the desert. Maybe not to our ears, but to a very sensitive microphone there is always air movement.
So, conclusion: I came across quite a few extremely quiet places. Some I would even call virtually silent, but I shouldn’t use that word.
But technology failed me almost always in these places. Whenever there’s was no wind, or no flies (cos it’s usually either/or in the desert), and whenever the filmmaker was quiet, the landscape would sound eerily and scarily quiet. A sensation, just so you know, that is far from pleasant. Real quiet is freaky. Real quiet is unnatural. It’s the primordial sign for danger. When nature goes quiet, something dangerous is lurking somewhere. When babies are born, they are freaked out by the quiet. When babies have a hard time sleeping the first couple of weeks, it’s because the room is too quiet. They are used to sound levels similar to a busy underground metro station during peak hour. That’s what the world sounds like in the womb. Loud, throbbing, thumping, droney.
When all of that disappears, it’s freaky. Because we’re not used to it AND because we start hearing ourselves. The brain is hardwired for sound perception. It there’s nothing to hear, the brain and ears will zoom until it hears something. Neurological fact.
Anyhow, where am I going with this: to my final point of failure
I have nothing to make something with.
I have lots of nothing to make something with.
An album. A sound piece. An installation.
What I cannot make or share with you, is quies though.
I wrote all those years ago:
I do know that silence does not exist. Or that, if it does, it cannot be recorded. Or that, if it could be, it cannot be played back, or heard or re-experienced in the same way.
I now know that silence does exist. Or rather, such empty quiet that it sounds like there’s nothing there but my own sounds. It does exist. I can give you the address, but you’ll still need a lot of luck, because when I revisited the place for the film, it wasn’t quiet at all.
I now know that it can be recorded. Because of wind, flies, filmmaker and lack of proper wind protection, I could not capture a lot of it. But it’s there, in smalls bits and pieces.
But but but, can it be played back and heard and re-experienced in the same way?
Yes and no. I will play you something in a while that is as good as empty. Not for long, but for a little while, there’s virtually nothing.
But I am terribly sorry that I won’t be able to make you hear or re-experience it.
And that is the ultimate failure of quies. It can’t be shared.
Or, as Graham Greene says: When you escape to a desert, the silence screams in your ear.
Or, as I say: When you try to record nothing, you have nothing to share.
I can’t think of anything more exciting than that.
Enjoy the film.