In the Sorcerer’s Palace: Reading, Listening, and the Magic of Sound

When one reads a text it is like entering a walled garden. You cannot read anything else without leaving one garden for another. Two gardens cannot be inhabited at the same time. Only a single book, not a couple, can be read at one moment. “My feeling about why write a book in paper now”, Kenneth Goldsmith said in conversation with writer Virginia Heffernan, “is that what a book does is it actually stops the flow of information.” Reading is a closed system. That is what makes it unique, useful. A book clogs any other textual information from coming in.

Music does not stop the flow of information. It is an open system. Sound is allowed to enter and leave in concordance or dissonance. Our ears pick up on anything and rarely discriminate. This is not so much a bug as a feature. Hearing two or more tones going in and out, ebbing and flowing, makes up the majority of our music experiences. The bands and orchestras we listen to embrace the open system. Otherwise, we would only be listening to pieces for solo violin or songs with no accompaniment.

But this open system goes even further. Beyond single tones, one can hear multiple pieces of music at the same time. These moments can be accidental – rolling the windows down to hear music from another car, playing music on your phone while the grocery store muzak hums. There is also, however, a history of this kind of experience being orchestrated. On the cusp of the 20th century, American composer Charles Ives’ father, George Ives, schemed for two bands to perform different material at opposite sides of town. They were then, whilst playing, to meet at the center. In 1920, Stefan Wolpe played eight Victorola phonographs of Beethoven’s 5th at varying speeds. Jamaica in the 50’s were home to what were called ‘sound clashes’.

This orchestration continued and can be seen in various guises today. Any search on the Internet can bring up these maximalist provocations. One that especially summons the spirt of the open system is Brandon Landis’ collage of every recording of Erik Satie’s “Gymnopedie no. 1” (here).

A fellow Frenchman, Paul Valéry, contemplated this power of sound. It reminded him of a fairy tale play. “In the Sorcerer’s palace”, he writes, “the furniture spoke and sang, took a poetic and mischievous part in the action. A door opening set off the piping or solemn tones of a village band. If anyone sat down on a pouf, it would sigh politely. At a touch everything breathed forth a melody…I sincerely hope that we are not moving toward such excesses in the magic of sound.”

The use of the word ‘magic’ is quite fitting. The act of listening today is not the walled garden of reading. It exists, rather, in the Sorcerer’s palace. Sound comes from all places at all times, provoked by our doing or by chance. There can be an ecstasy to how complicated our sound environments gets. No wonder that a genre of music is synonymous with the bewitched state of being entranced.

This state the Sorcerer’s palace leaves us is concerning for Valéry. Today it doesn’t seem to startle us much. We have acquainted ourselves with the furniture that breaks out in song and the doors with hidden marching bands. In fact, I think we are now eagerly exploring the Sorcerer’s palace more than ever. What new magic of sound can be found and conjured up next?

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