Photo: BJS (left), Henrik Landén (right)
“Silence, Noise, and Collapse”
was a two-day performance made by Richard Widerberg
and myself, with a small group of participants on the 6th and 7th of December, 2014. The first day consisted of a long and silent walk through a dense old forest, punctuated by a campfire conversation about silence and chaos. On the second day participants experienced noise by building unstable electronic systems, leading to a public performance of a new group named “The Norbert Wiener Memorial Feedback Orchestra.” Skogen theatre
in Gothenburg hosted us and helped us with some of the production, and it was financed by a grant from the Gothenburg City cultural fund.
The unusual format of the performance allowed us and our participants to have an immersive exploration of the topics and to understand how they interact. Planning for this performance took place over the previous year, and we were focused on examining the dynamic relationship of noise, silence, and instability, what it means to people in the context of society, and the stories we make and are told about order and chaos. We wanted to create a structure where it was possible to explore more than just the simple associations that come to mind when thinking about these subjects. Below you can find more images, sounds, and a detailed description of the two days.
We sought a small group of participants via an open call circulated within the city. Richard and myself would act as guides, and the entirety of the two days were carefully planned. Participants met us at the theatre in the morning of the first day, and we then drove in a transport van to a nearby city, chatting with each other on the way. However, we then stopped at a roadside café, explained that from that point on we would be silent, and the participants were asked to wear blindfolds.
We drove further out into the countryside, the group still blindfolded, to an isolated and rarely visited forest on the top of a mountain. We had chosen this forest several weeks before, after scouting different locations in the Västra Götaland region. It is a surprisingly silent place—free of road noise at its deepest point—and very diverse despite not being a nature reserve of any sort. For the first weekend of December, we were lucky to have such sunny and calm weather, as we were prepared for something much more challenging.
Removing their blindfolds after leaving the van, the group were guided into the forest, where one after another they met a guide who gave them wood and a sitting mat, and were asked to walk further on their own to wait by a lake (though we did not specify how far that would be). After everyone was once again together, we departed the shore for a slow, silent walk into the forest. At the entrance of the forest, some noises from society were still audible. However, over the next hours these noises dropped away as we descended into a lush valley. Throughout this entire time no one was to speak unless it was important. This allowed for an atmosphere of calm concentration, and at various points in the forest we would stop simply to listen.
After having to hop over a couple of streams, we reached as far as was practical, broke our silence, and built a fire together. We provided a simple picnic lunch to cook, and then had a long wide-ranging conversation about silence. We had prepared a series of questions to direct the conversation, but knew that people would provide their own unique ideas as well. Topics covered included the different meanings of silence; noise pollution; preservation of natural spaces and our intrusions within them; rights of animals to have their own silent spaces; people with noise sensitivity; different kinds of mental states; the relation of silence and chaos as a “natural” state; if silence means lack of progress, or if it suggests refinement; questions about the values of being a chaotic person; self-regulation in order to cope with stimuli; silence as restorative but also as dangerous; comparing this to a so-called “silent retreat” and why one would want to purchase a trip to one; if stability is at all possible; and so on. This discussion was meant to fuel thoughts for the second day of the performance.
We extinguished our fire and left the fireplace, aware that it will remain for a long time to come. We resumed our silent hike until we reached the van. Driving back to Gothenburg, most fell asleep because of the long hike and fresh air. Returning to Skogen theatre, we arrived to a freshly warmed sauna in the basement, where we could warm up and relax. We left after, but participants would return the next morning for the second day.
The second day took place entirely within the theatre, a closed and synthetic environment. The weather was incredibly rainy, providing a perfect excuse to stay inside. Over the last months, Richard and I had assembled a large amount of electronic equipment, mixers, speakers, and many cables. We had this set up in the theatre on the morning of the second day. To start things off, we had participants sit or lay down in the dimly lit theatre, while Richard and I performed an extremely loud noise improvisation on the equipment, taking advantage of the theatre’s ample sound system. Wearing ear protection, the group perceived this as a rather comfortable physical experience. Afterward, we engaged the group in another wide conversation, this time about noise and systems. Topics this time included the physical reaction to noise as therapy or terror; losing one’s self in an ecstatic noise; defining noise versus other sound; the obsession with keeping noise and chaos at bay; the science of control systems; how society is built upon controlled systems and their supposed stability; questioning the self-regulating system and stability in general; is balance natural; whether we look at chaos differently now than we used to; whether balance exists in nature or not; and more.
Participants were then introduced to the equipment: how it works, how it is set up, and how to connect it. Quite simply the set up was many individual audio mixer boards, each wired to produce internal feedback. This feedback is chaotic and difficult to predict, yet the nature of a mixer allows it to be manipulated and controlled in a creative way. We all engaged in a “free play” of our electronic instruments but further, and crucially, the group was shown that each mixer could be connected with another by both sending its own signal and receiving another. By interconnecting all the mixers with a mass of cables, the creation of a large feedback instrument—controlled by several people at once—is possible. Moving between consoles, the participants came to understand that the feedback system travels throughout the system and could be controlled from several points. These points, however, are constantly changing. While absolute control was impossible, a collective improvisation grew from selective, subjective control. In this system, noise and order is certain to collapse, yet both group work and individual action allows for the creation of new orders. The complexity of the system and its inherent instability allows for a boundless range of sound textures.
Photos: Henrik Landén. First image shows myself (left) and Richard Widerberg (right).
We would perform on this system for an audience in the evening, and together as a group decided on a way to present. In addition to a simple program for our performance, we also agreed to present to the audience some keywords related to our two days together, to be written on large sheets of paper before the audience. Ahead of the performance the theatre provided dinner, during which all the pictures taken during our forest walk were projected.
The performance itself can be seen in the pictures and also heard below. We began in darkness, with only very quiet sounds coming from many small speakers. Slowly we built up, raising the light level as the volume increased and transferred to the larger amplifiers and speakers, reaching a high volume for only a moment.
After the concert, we talked with the audience about the performance and answered their questions. We offered for them to try out the system, and to our surprise everyone was very interested and many people played with the instruments (above), resulting in a second recording this time made by the audience.
While that was the end of our two-day adventure, it ended with the creation of a performance group, The Norbert Wiener Memorial Feedback Orchestra—named after the famous cybernetic theorist—which includes Richard and myself as well as some of those who participated in this event. We will continue to perform in the future and hopefully have more events like this. See the dedicated page on this website for more.