Everything in this book is pure fiction. Its source is the author's imagination. But as is also true of any novel, it builds a bridge between fact and fiction. The free play of the imagination transforms experience into a new, different reality. When the author steps into the virtual reality of a software program, the App 4'33", and navigates that dimension as he would the real world, then the boundaries become blurred.
The narrated world contains the act of its conception. It contains itself, as it were.
So as long as we find ourselves in the reality of the app, similarities to real persons or events are purely coincidental. Outside the app we know that the world as our mind conceives it is in fact an image of external reality that has been edited by our senses. Nothing that humans think is necessarily as it really is, but much of it could be exactly as it occurs.
I begin by explaining to him that I use every opportunity to slip through these portals of reality into the virtual world of the app. When my mind travels from apparent nothingness to the locations of the recordings, I confront central questions about our existence: What is the world? What constitutes time? The music is certainly a conduit to a world. But what world is it? Is it a world that each of us perceives for ourselves? How does this world relate to the external world which we inhabit on a daily basis?
I am particularly interested in Essl’s ideas on the matter, since he is a sound artist who creates worlds himself. Is he aware of similar experiences of traveling beyond the physical dimension?
Essl Museum: stairs (19 Feb 2014)
A 4'33" performance by Karlheinz Essl
Together we walk through the cavernous staircase in the gigantic Essl Museum in Klosterneuburg on the Danube. It is an important contribution of his parents’ life work. I listen carefully as the oldest son of two entrepreneurs clearly and precisely recites the text from Goethe’s Faust into the echoing space of the silent museum:
Gretchen’s monologue at the spinning wheel from Goethe’s Faust was already on my mind, for I had just heard on the internet the performance entitled FABRIC by Karlheinz Essl and his son, the filmmaker Simon Essl. They use the poem in that piece. Afterward I listened to Essl’s Youtube explanation, and then to a performance of the musical setting of Goethe’s poem that Franz Schubert composed in 1814.
Karlheinz Essl: FABRIC - premier
Live recording 2 Mar 2017, Künstlerhaus 1050
Video: Markus Lobner
Into the echoing silence of the stairwell I say, “As a rule we secret listeners on the edge of the internet are invisible and can only ourselves communicate in a few exceptional cases.”
“I use, or should I say abuse, the 4’33” App as a sort of acoustic diary, in order to preserve certain tonal situations”, Karlheinz explains, and laughs as if I had caught him doing something improper. “Cage probably would not have approved, because I am acting intentionally and recording just the things I find valuable, and that I like.”
Even before I can ask my question about his favorite recordings and places on the app, he adds, “I think it is especially important to fill in the blanks on the map. Eastern Europe is hardly represented yet. I'm trying to help with that. And I've been able to find real treasures on islands such as Madeira and Malta.”
Every recording location is like an island. We enter into the sounds of a place and for four minutes and 33 second we find oneselves on an island. And then, if we so choose, we can extend our stay, or should I say our presence, or we can return automatically.
Outside we hear the rushing sound of traffic. We walk with a moderate pace through the huge, now empty building. It houses an exhibit of important contemporary, mostly Austrian artworks. Then we use the next break, called Break II, to steal away again.
We emerge again at the hotel, Dar in-Nanna, in the street called Triq Doni. It is the first house on the square, not far from the Mdina and the Cathedral of St. Paul. Against this scene lies the familiar sonic backdrop, consisting of the drone of traffic, the buzz of people, and an atmospheric rushing sound. Sparrows accompany the scene intermittently with their chirping, and we hear a rumbling loudspeaker before the break. After the break this sound comes rapidly closer, and it seems as if a few more sparrows are awoken from their midday silence. A few cars roll through the street, before the scene is distracted by the siren of an ambulance. We are fully immersed here after only a minute and a half. The sparrows hold forth. The traffic stops in order to let the ambulance through. The sound of the ambulance gets closer and then farther away. We lean back and leave the window open.
Malta: Rabat (23 Feb 2014)
A 4'33" performance by Karlheinz Essl
“I was just as moved by your sound/video/performance FABRIC as I was by the recording on the app”, I say, as we reach the second break, “but in a different way. Your combination of tones and images sets up a distance to the audience. It's the same distance that I always feel when the intentionality of the creator comes into play. A film on television or in the theater is clearly not the reality of experience. It is its own reality. As such it still becomes part of my life, and remains present in my memory. But the absence of images, it seems to me, facilitates a different, archaic dimension of experience. Confining it to the sense of hearing challenges my visual imagination.”
“Yes, that’s true, the visual is primarily in the foreground”, Karlheinz explains as he straightens his glasses, “for the brain is extremely dependent upon it. The visual part, as I understand it, provides a very strong analytical gateway to perception, associated especially with the cortex. We humans learn to see much later than we learn to hear. We can hear already in the womb.”
“And is that the reason why we do not need the images when listening to these tonal sceneries?”
“Yes, precisely. It takes a long time before a child can construct a comprehensible world out of sense impressions. A child comes practically blind into the world. It perceives fields of light, but cannot make sense of them.”
“So when I listen to the recordings on the app, I find myself in much the same situation as a child in the womb. An interesting comparison!”
“Our hearing is embedded very deep in our limbic system. That is the function of the brain which corresponds to the origin of the emotions and drives. The limbic system is also responsible for flushing out the body’s opioids, called endorphins. What we do know is that I as a musician can penetrate to a person's inner- most core.”
“So must we then assume that the music we take from the App 4’33” affects our brains in the same way?”
“Yes, by all means”, Essl laughs, and adds: “Let’s go to Valetta. I know a nice café there where we can relax and continue this conversation.”
In the world of the app my fingers can take us there in five seconds. But relaxing is not so easy! We sit for that pre-determined span of time at that busy spot in an old palazzo, where the Caffe Cordina has been preparing and serving its delicacies for almost two hundred years. Valetta is the smallest of the European capitals. Its rich history and culture have earned it a place on the UNESCO World Heritage List.
Malta: Caffee Cordina, Valletta (25 Feb 2014)
A 4'33" performance by Karlheinz Essl
The subtropical Mediterranean climate provides warm spring temperatures even in winter. This Tuesday afternoon on the 25th of February, 2014 the streets are especially alive. Karlheinz Essl demonstrates for me, despite the whirlwind surroundings, how he can find a sense of peace like that mental state of silence. The voices of hundreds of people speaking surround us in the streets, a steady murmur, and the periodic clatter of coffee cups, the shouts of children playing, the clearing of throats, and laughter.
„Cage’s concept of silence, if I understand it correctly, has nothing to do with acoustic silence. Rather it means the mental attitude of letting go, of accepting in humility.“
A folding chair falls with a crash, and is set aright.
“Cage’s composition, 4’33”, I mean the piano piece, is actually a ‘loud’ piece, since its performance often results in tumultuous scenes.”
The astute music professor and artist casually stirs his coffee. Pigeons step between the tables, cooing, peck at the crumbs, beg for more. Waiters serve their customers. Questions are posed, answers are offered. What does all this have to do with the span of the universe? More chairs are set up. The place is getting full.
The same scene in the Café Tomaselli in Salzburg! A tapestry of seemingly banal voices facilitate us entering into a state of meditation. We exit the linear time of every-day activities and enter into the tonal realm of John Cage. These little coffee house scenes are retreats, caves, sanctuaries. The person who gave me access to this place of refuge is clearly alone amidst all those people. He is taking in the solitude-turned-to-sound that he has sought here. He separates himself and enters into himself under the cloak of the surrounding sounds, and there he reposes.
Salzburg: Café Tomaselli (8 Jul 2014)
A 4'33" performance by Karlheinz Essl
And again in the Salzburg Cathedral. At the train station, waiting for a train. The meaning of the particular sounds is immaterial for him. He simply enters and sinks into timelessness.
For Karlheinz Essl every entry point is a temporary exit from his noisy surroundings. Did he achieve his ability to repeatedly achieve this mental state from his early work with John Cage?
People liked my paintings, so in addition to my position as a school superintendent, which I had resumed after my medical leave, I began exhibiting, first hesitantly, then ever more actively. I took my paintings to other cities in Germany, and as a result exhibitions followed on the Spanish island of Mallorca, in Vienna, and finally in China, in Beijing and at the University of Tianjin. It was at this time that my mind opened to people’s various perspectives and sensitivities.
In 2007 on the occasion of Dokumenta 12, the international contemporary art exhibit in Kassel, Germany, I met the Chinese artist, Cui Kegang, who called himself “Mr. Korn” at the time. He participated in the action piece entitled Fairytale, created by Ai Weiwei. Kegang, with a camera in front of his face, ran all day long through the city of Kassel, a city he did not know yet. This was the first time he had been outside of China, and so he eagerly photographed as much as he could, so that he could later study it. He sent me numerous pictures on the internet and together we developed an exhibition, entitled “Your World in My Eyes.”
In the process it became clear what impressions Mr. Korn had gleaned from the participants of the Dokumenta, the “world’s most important recurring exhibition of contemporary art.” Since then the “world” means much more to me than the way we think of it in our every- day language and lives. It is now clear to me that every human being, indeed every living thing, constructs their world at any given moment with the perceptive capacities at their disposal. I’d like to use the term, “worlding,” to describe this process, an ambiguous term which is used in various contexts and with various meanings.
This morning I noticed that the parent birds who had built a nest in the hedge near my terrace stopped feeding their six babies. Were the babies old enough to leave the nest?
Last year I put a recording of a different bird’s nest onto the App 4’33”, to document the acoustic world of the young birds. I am convinced that this too belongs to the realm of John Cage’s music. The recording was successful. I attached my iPhone to a long pole and held it level with the loudly peeping babies when the parent birds brought food to the nest. In the intervals when the parents are away we hear the tonal scene that any baby bird hears, sitting in its nest in a middle-European village: traffic, barking dogs, voices and conversations. This recording, entitled BIRDMOMFEEDSINNEST, takes place in Kaufungen, Germany. It, too, is world communicated by sound.
Yesterday the failure of the birds to return turned to crisis. My wife made me aware of the constant, loud chirping of the babies, but I could not hear them at all. I deduced that the chirping was in the range of one of my inner tinnitus tones. The peeping corresponded with the color orange! So I attached my iPhone to a pole again, and I was able to hear the fearful peeping of the birds through earphones.
What we fail to see or hear stays outside of our world. Furthermore, what we hear effects our actions more than what we ‘merely’ see. We perceive all the images of immigrants almost drowned in the Mediterranean merely as pseudo-events from the world of news, far removed from our own world, and not as cause for action on our parts. Yet if six young birds scream for food, our heart is moved. Karlheinz Essl has just reminded me that there are special regions of the brain dedicated to triggering our emotions through auditory impressions. In the course of the afternoon the little birds fled the heat of their nest, one by one, and fell helpless and parentless onto the terrace in the sun. I gathered them up, brought them into the shade under a tree, and carefully doused them with water. Then I let them be. I read on the internet that parent birds do not reject their babies after they have been handled by humans. The birds do not react to the sense of smell. So I placed them back in the nest. But all day long, the parents never returned. And since the little birds made no attempts to fly or to look for food, I took over the job for them. I placed the six exhausted fellows under a protective rhubarb leaf and searched for worms, isopods, snails and spiders under rocks in my yard. They excepted my meals clumsily but thankfully.
After about two hours I reached the limits of my abilities. The resources for nourishment were running out, and night was approaching. I made calls to the local veterinarian, the animal shelter, and even the fire department, all to no avail. No one really knew what to do in such a case. I finally left my orphans to their fate, and I comforted myself with the realization that someone besides me was responsible for their fate. After all, it was the parent birds who had abandoned their babies. Who was I to disturb the course of nature? One or several of the babies might survive the night, if a cat, a weasel, or a hedgehog did not make a meal of them.
One can find the echoes of this story on the App 4’33”, entitled FLEDLINGSALONEINNEST, located east of Kassel on the app map.
Why do I tell this story at this point of my narrative?
It occurs to me that a sound recording taken from real life cannot provide sufficient context for such a story, despite the best powers of imagination that a listener can bring to the scene. A tonal track of the pitiable begging of the six baby birds does not achieve viability as a story until the surrounding circumstances are explained: An old man in his world crawls on the ground in his yard with a tweezers, lifting one stone after another in search of bird food! A strange scene, one that belongs in a Kafka novel or a Becket play! The orange-colored chirping of the helpless birds activates his old patterns, until he learns to recognize that this event originates in his inner world, and is utterly inappropriate to the external world.
Understanding world by deeply listening into world is one thing. The other is immersing oneself in the totality of our inner tonal being. It is immaterial whether this is found in a tone that is essentially internal, or if it is found in a tonal scene that comes from outside, as the continuously sounding environment of a coffee house, street noises through an open window in New York City, a park bench in Paris, or the sound of the ocean elsewhere in the world.
Today this place is much less spectacular. On this particular warm summer evening the mass of people gathered here make a leisurely impression. They are enjoying the beginning of the weekend. A good number of tourists blend with the Parisiens, a fact that we can hear from the multi-lingual sentence fragments reaching our ears.
We approach the Eiffel Tower, built out of iron from 1887 to 1889 to a height of 324 meters, and until 1930 the tallest human construction in the world. Today it remains one of the most famous landmarks of France’s capital.
Paris: Tour Eiffel (18 Jul 2014)
A 4'33" performance by Karlheinz Essl
Karlheinz Essl documents this important geographical location on the app with his recording entitled, TOUR EIFFEL. Is not every location at which we find ourselves at that moment the center of our world?
We have been sitting here together for quite some time, watching the lively activity around us, and using the sound scene to immerse ourselves into the history of the place.
“I studied musicology and art history in Vienna. In spring of 1988 I had just finished my doctorate and a number of other projects when I was asked if I would like to help prepare a so-called lecture-concert for the Viennese Concert Hall (Wiener Konzerhaus). The project was to prepare John Cage’s “Music for...” with the musicians. I was just working on another big John Cage project, in which different versions of Cage's piano concerto would be played in all the rooms of the Vienna Konzerthaus. I was glad to comply, because the prospect of meeting the composer personally seemed to address a question that I had been contemplating for some time: What exactly is the nature of what we call coincidence?”
“Ah, that’s very interesting!” I cry, and almost jump up off the bench, for I suddenly realize that this part of his discussion is exactly what I needed for the next step of my own investigation. But I catch myself, and ask, “Could you say that this meeting with John Cage was a sort of initiation?”
Essl is silent, thinks for a moment, and then answers in slow, thoughtful sentences. “I’m not sure I would call it that. But meeting him certainly changed my life. In the course of my studies I had just read his book, Silence, and now I asked him to sign it. I’m proud to say that his signature indicated that he valued my work.”
He wrote, “For Karlheinz Essl / I’m very glad to know your work and to hear some of it. My very best wishes / John Cage / Auf Wiederhören!”
I myself am a teacher who worked for many years with children and adults, so I can sense the magnitude of the spirit that expressed those words.
“Karlheinz, I think what that man, at that time 76 years old, was expressing nothing less than his ‘blessing.’ John Cage sensed the promise of the young man you were back then, and he ennobled you with his recognition.”
After a little while I add: “I think I now understand one of the inspirations for your prodigious productivity over the years!”
Since then Karlheinz has become a world-famous composer and recognized expert in musicology. He laughs, a little embarrassed, expressing the spiritual attitude that he apparently gleaned from John Cage.
“I’m afraid you exaggerate, Peter! But it’s true that the magnanimous humility of this man made a deep impression on me.”
“I know”, I exclaim, “because in a recent sequence of fictitious events, I met him myself in his New York apartment. But that belongs in a different context. Please describe how meeting Cage influenced you.”
Karheinz Essl lifts his right leg that he had crossed over his left, and puts his foot on the ground. It occurs to me that for the longest time we have been sitting in exactly the same position on the bench. At your next opportunity, pay attention to how much our body language mirrors our agreements or disagreements. Now I too lower my leg and place my right foot on the ground next to my left. Every change of our sitting position has meaning, even if it is not immediately discernible. But now the time seems right for another change of location.
“There was a palpable sense of anticipation when John Cage appeared for the dress rehearsal. He was a small, frail man in a blue Mao jacket, much different from how I had imagined him based on his writings and his music. Cage was extremely forthcoming and friendly. Not a word of criticism crossed his lips.”
Silently I look at the famous construction, that iron behemoth that fascinates the tourists. This is a good place to conjure the great spirits of the past. We sit silently and let the people pass by. For a good four minutes...
Then Karlheinz Essl speaks again, and it sounds like a summary. “John Cage’s humility — a living example of his concept of silence — is in striking contrast with the popular impression that many had of him. Silence for John Cage was not a posture, or a belligerent polemic (as was the case with many of his critics). It was reality without pretention. Just as he allowed the sounds to come to him ‘without distorting them into principles of organization or feelings,’ so too he lived this same principle with every fiber of his being.“
Traveling on the tone documents of the app dedicated to John Cage means allowing your spirit to actively and soundlessly glide across to the other, imagined space in which his presence appears in the sound of his past reality.
‘Reality without pretention.’ I like the phrase!
“Selecting a recording at random and listening to it is a big risk. It can be a huge waste of time”, I say. “Waste of time? What’s that?”
This brings me back to the topic on which I most like to hold forth at the moment. Karlheinz Essl looks at me puckishly over the rim of his glasses. I have the distinct feeling that he knows exactly what needs to come next.
“What alternative is there, if I want to expand the horizon of my experience by stepping into my app?”
I attempt to explain myself. “I have to give the whole thing meaning.”
“Sure.” Karlheinz' eyes flash. “Does that mean that I need to order the recording in the app, which occur there randomly, in such a way as to create a palatable menu?”
“How do you mean that?”
Once again we sit together, talking shop. For some time I have had the feeling that our discourse is approaching a revelation. On this occasion the bench is located in a little corner of the park in the Australian city of Redcliffe, which lies on a peninsula 28 km northeast of Brisbane. “Your stories”, he explains, “are constructed from a web of sensual elements, which, without your engagement, would simply whither unused in the deep freeze of the app.”
“Karlheinz, you are speaking in riddles.”
Humpybong Park in Redcliffe is a popular park, which especially attracts families. From our bench we have been watching two families of Eurasian coots in the narrow north eastern corner of the park, apparently engaged in a bitter fight on the water before us. Due to its closeness to the ocean the water is affected by the tides, moving with the lunar rhythms. Water fowl, also called rails, are found all over the world, in addition to the Arctic and Antarctic. The Australian coot is a member of the same rail family to which the crane belongs. It is a relatively small, duck-like waterbird with short wings, long legs, and large lobed toes. It has slate colored plumage. You can recognize it by its beak and head shield, both of which are white. One seldom sees them fly. They spend most of their time in the water, rocking their heads, and diving under the surface with a little forward hop. Rails eat plants, roots and seeds, but also animals, such as insects, worms, spiders and crabs, as well as smaller fish, frogs and polliwogs.
So much for the information available on the internet. Now what do we hear?
Recliffe, Australia: Coot Fight (24 Jul 2016)
A 4'33" performance by Karlheinz Essl
We are acoustically experiencing a formative social scene in the lives of these birds. The title that Karlheinz Essl gives for his recording in the app, COOT FIGHT, draws our attention to the basic situation, a fight of rivals. In the recording itself we hear just a jumble of loud, discordant shrieking, yammering and wailing of animals. The precise meanings that the members of the group are communicating with theses sounds remains beyond our human comprehension. Is it a territorial dispute or a courtship rivalry? We are not privy to its meaning. It clearly involves the frantic flapping of wings and paddling of feet, for so much is clear from the sound of the splashing water.
The birds‘ vocal repertoire is large and varied, and mostly monosyllabic. It seems to me, the less meaning we can discern from such a tonal scene, the easier it is for us to distance ourselves from interpreting. Isn't this precisely what is required for us to enjoy the music in its pure form?
Is there a pattern here? Bird experts, such as Stuart, whom we met in this book working 1000 km farther south on the same continent, could certainly research if there are regularly reoccurring tonal sequences. Moreover: as a bell miner expert he would certainly be able to identify a certain intonation as a warning cry, or as a different kind of communication.
I have built a little pond in my yard. I have a few goldfish in it, parents and ten of their offspring. They survived the winter and are developing nicely in their second year. When I feed them I notice the following pattern: The four smaller, red fish eat as soon as the big ones have finished eating. Only after the red fish have finished do the black smaller ones hesitantly take their turn. It is always the four lively, red babies who first discover the new food. The total cacophony of the rails in this pond, I assume, represents a type of ritual.
“What do you think, Karlheinz? Is there a tonal pattern in this scene, or are the sounds of the birds arbitrary?”
I must wait a long time for an answer to my question. Was he annoyed by my crazy mind traveling idea? Granted, I am not just using the documents on the app, I am also presuming to perceive personalities, characteristics, habits and even ideas, which are in reality my own, and could be an unreasonable imposition on my interlocutor.
Then the succinct reply follows: “Arbitrary, sure. But why is that important?”
Together we once again step out of the app, and then return to find ourselves in one of the most beautiful places in the world. Not that I am there physically. Nor can I use the word, "beautiful", in a visual sense. No, it is the tonal scene that is beautiful, breathtakingly beautiful! Karlheinz Essl’s recording, STRADBROKE ISLAND, makes it abundantly clear that there are vast differences in the tonal psychological character of places on this planet. Once we have entered this scene, we want to stay, despite the fact that our pure listening does not make it possible to identify what we are hearing. It is that silence that Victoria was seeking in Antarctica, and that found for just a couple minutes. I am certain that if the spirit of John Cage occasionally were to listen to this app dedicated to him, then he would go to places like this. He would not be attracted to the many recordings of street traffic in New York City, but rather to these places that one can truly call "living silence".
Listen for yourself! No, I will not give a copious description of this paradise here.
Stradbroke Island, Australia: Cemetry (31 Jul 2016)
A 4'33" performance by Karlheinz Essl
Again and again I listen to the sumptuous multitudes of fauna, and always up to about the third minute. For at that point something appears that makes us anticipate human activity. Can it be true that the droning slowly but surely entering the scene is the sound of a bulldozer? I am not able to figure out what it is. But by minute 4’33” I ask myself whether the bird voices, which can still clearly be heard, are not really complaining about this intrusion into their world!
I listen to the scene repeatedly, and I notice that the apparent construction sounds were present in the distance from the beginning. We are on the northern end of this gigantic island. The island consists primarily of sand, and off the northern coast lies the largest coral reef in the world, the Great Barrier Reef. This place is called Amity. It lies on North Stradbroke Island and is designated a recreation reserve.
“Peter, if you open your eyes here to the wonderful surroundings, you can see right away how much you miss when you crawl into this app, and thereby confine your senses to just the sense of hearing!”
Karlheinz is sitting on the grass at the foot of a grave in the middle of a cemetery. Next to him lies the bicycle which clearly served as his transportation.
“When I was a guest professor in Brisbane I used every opportunity to explore the area. I came here to Stradbroke Island on the weekends by train and ferry. The cemetery with its beautiful sonic scene is close to the water. Those noises that you thought were a bulldozer are in fact the sounds of the ferry docking close by.”
I never would have thought that a single image like this photo could so clearly show me the nature of an illusion. It is precisely the “imag(e)-ined” image that is its essence. The so-called reality of this place which is documented in this photograph reveals the seductive power of the purely auditory realm. Essential information gets lost in a purely auditory recording of the microcosm of this place, its totality of time and space and all the matter and energy contained within. It's the same as with that nest of baby birds, whose cries remain naked and empty without an understanding of the situation.
I realize now that ‘Deep Listening’ cannot convey the information that sight can convey. The perceptive understanding of an auditory scene is not complete until we perceive the corresponding image. Is it likewise true that a concert goer’s experience of the music is made an authentic experience by imag(e)-ined scene?
There are sound scapes that are particularly conducive to repeated listening. It is easy to let our thoughts “surf” on them.
“So does it really exist, music that is always present, and completely independent of our perception-based understanding? Music that requires no understanding? That is the secret of the seduction of those who engage in the commercialization of music, a secret they do not divulge. They don’t know any better.”
I closed my eyes a while ago, and now I let the sounds enchant me, until my accomplished travel companion remarks, “Life itself generates the music, which is repeated literally!”
In no time we find ourselves in southern Europe, emerging in another cemetery, this time in Rumania. The recording gives us our location with the succinct title, CEMETERY MEDAS. We are surrounded by impressive stones that themselves would be worth the trip, were we able to see them. For the listeners, confined to the sense of hearing, only the tonal scene is accessible. Is it possible to put the contextual information provided by the title out of our mind?
Medas, Romania: Cemetry (8 May 2017)
A 4'33" performance by Karlheinz Essl
“When you extinguish sound and meaning — what do you hear?” At the moment we entered this new scene — it was as if someone had whispered to me the well-known zen koan.
Again we are sitting together on the ground, close to Mother Earth, listening to the tonal truths. Swarms of black crows circle ominously in the sky above us.
“So we take the illusion to the grave?”
At first the few remaining songbirds in the surrounding bushes protest shyly with their song, but soon the cawing masses of crows overwhelm them, and they fall silent. Occasionally a pigeon shyly objects, and then leaves.
“PiTTo, you haven’t noticed that it is always the internal images that lead you to understand what you hear”, Karlheinz proposes. “Instead try to focus on what remains when you focus only on the pleasure of the sound.”
“That’s not hard to do”, I reply from my stance of deceptive certainty. “It depends of the kind of recording we are dealing with. From my extensive listening in the app I have been able to acquire a number of different experiences.”
Everyone who has dedicated a portion of one’s life to something considers oneself an expert. So I too start to hold forth on what I have learned from my experiences.
“For me there is one particular type of recordings that I call ‘stories’. With those an identifiable situation is usually clear from the beginning. Usually the narrator, that is, the one who produced and uploaded the recording, identifies the story line with the title. Then the ‘story’ involves chronology of events. For example, if you indicate a ‘Coot Fight‘, then right away you draw the attention of the listener to a particular scenario.
I would call a clearly different category of recordings ‘soundscapes.’ Usually the situation is indicated here too, so that the listener can conjure an inner image. A forest fire, for example, a waterfall, rainfall, thunderstorm, or a visit to a chicken farm, the recording you made at Madeira, east of Funchal (CHICKEN CHATTER). A prime example is your STRADBROKE ISLAND, where we just came from, or this tonal scene from the Rumanian cemetery. We hear the totality of the sound. For the most part we don’t concern ourselves at all with the details of what’s happening, and yet we are free to engage our imagination. I would say that this is the type of recordings most conducive to steering my mind toward meditation.”
My interlocutor lets me go on, and so I do: “A third category is less common but equally interesting. It has to do with what I would call ‘mystery.’ that is, something undefined or puzzling. This overlaps with the other two categories. These recordings fascinate me because I never heard them before, neither by themselves, nor in combination with sound, rhythm, or a narrative. Some examples are LUCIER LONG THIN WIRE by Guy Dammann in Reykjavik, Iceland; your own recording from Funchal on Madeira, MONTE:TELEFé and XMASEVE101, by Charles Amirkhanian, from Fresno, California.
The special thing about this music is that the ‘composer’, if he or she follows the rules, contributes nothing to the tonal experience except the choice of the place. The rest is determined by chance.”
“And that is an illusion, too.” Karlheinz continues my line of thought, which is actually his own. “The ‘composer’, as you call him, PiTTo, can still decide in the course of the recording if he thinks the piece is successful or not. If it is not, he can still decide not to upload it. Then he deletes the option of it being heard again.”
“Yes, that happens to me all the time. I can’t completely escape my inclination to impose the supposed criterion of quality, something like a normative criterion of form.”
Here on the ground, in the proximity of the innumerable, unknown dead, that reality lies apparent before us, stripping away the preferred everyday illusion of our comfortable, western lives. And I sense that it is only the music that could bring us to this point.
We are deeply immersed in this scene now, which like the others is a unique tonal event. The interplay of the sequence of sounds, the tone frequencies, the atmosphere and the rhythms is a unique resonating experience, and as such will never recur. Even if it were possible to write a graphic notation to capture the randomly occurring sounds, no orchestra in the world could perform the score in the concert hall.
Nevertheless Karlheinz found a way and a revelation is at hand: “There are two fundamental conditions that comprise the influences of John Cage.” He speaks with the awareness of one who is about to touch on the core of the cosmos.
“Randomness is a principle of every composition in Cage’s tradition.“
“What exactly does that mean? Something very unusual has to happen in the App 4’33” if just by chance a sack of rice falls over just at the moment when I am making a recording with my smart phone.”
“Let’s say I happen to sit down next to a duck pond at the precise moment when a fight breaks out between two rival families of ducks. If, then, I also happen to have a recording device and the Cage App in hand, then I have the opportunity to follow the great dialectic of order and chaos.”
“Karlheinz, once again you speak in riddles.”
“Oh, but it’s not that hard to understand.”
Monte, Madeira: Teleférico (24 Apr 2014)
A 4'33" performance by Karlheinz Essl
“If you ask me, that's a pretty horrible sound. When I first listened to this recording, it took a certain amount of discipline to continue listening to the end. It certainly has something to do with my handicap, my internal friend, Sam. It is as if Sam invited a friend of the same species to join him. In the meantime, however, I listen to steady tones like this parallel to Sam in the app with all their dissonance one after another.”
“That's brave of you,” my music expert remarks with an interested raise of the eyebrow. “PiTTo, I think you should explore more deeply the pleasures of contemporary music, and not confine yourself to your travels in this app.”
“I can't promise that”, I reply with the full tone of conviction. “My real passion is for travel.”
“Yes, one discovers a number of things by traveling”, Karlheinz adds with a cunning glance, “and when one records one’s insights in writing, as you do, PiTTo, then maybe one can recognize a deeper form of order within the apparent chaos of our perception.”
“Please describe to me how you compose nowadays! I am very curious!”
Karlheinz Essl looks at me over the rim of his glasses, as if he were trying to discern what manner of creature I am. I am already beginning to regret the fact that this short but intense discussion, which has taken us halfway around the world together, will soon come to an end.
“We call the simultaneity of events or conditions which actually have nothing to do with each other, but happen at the same time, ‘coincidences.’ They can lead to triumph or tragedy. Many partnerships occur in this way, but also many wrenching catastrophes.”
In the meantime we are just a few hundred meters east of that annoying cable car sound, and relax in the sound of the chicken farm in the above mentioned recording on Madeira.
“It's a pity that we cannot ride one of those wicker basket sleds, a tourist attraction not far from here,” I add, “if I were to make the effort to travel physically here one day, I would definitely invest the four minutes, 33 seconds to give the world the experience over and over of riding such a sled, pushed down the steep mountain streets of Funchal.”
“Anyone who is clueless — pardon the term, but it's important — anyone who is clueless when they first enter the App 4’33” develops a curiosity for that which they experience there.” Karlheinz Essl is trying to reconstruct my initial encounter with the app. “He sees a world map with its green pins, marking iconic places in the real, external world. Then if he uses the app as a means of conveyance, he may be drawn in. For most people who enter into the app by chance, however, listening without seeing may prove boring. After all, who listens to longer spans of sound documents, in which nothing particular happens? You are the exception, PiTTo!”
Here, too, near the chicken farm on Madeira, stands a pleasant, little bench, and we sit down. It is a cozy, shaded place, perfect for enjoying the silence of the surrounding sounds.
“Well, one still needs to take the second step”, I reply. “Using the app doesn't get interesting until I put myself in the place of the composer. Anyone can store their own sound creations and upload them for others to hear.”
“And that is fundamentally exactly what the traditional composer does as well. In order to understand that we must be ready to subject ourselves to the dialectic of order and chaos.”
“So if I understand you correctly, our task is to discover coincidence in the spectrum of world events, and to take it by the horns?”
“Exactly!” Essl says and places his right foot over his left knee. A moment later I do the same.
“Once you recognize this dialectic of order and chaos, it leads to the paradox of improvising with yourself, in order to bridge the gap between composition and improvisation.”
“Aha”, I interpolate, “that is exactly what I do if I am listening in one of my own, active recordings, and I look up a different, more interesting location while the first one is in progress. You would say that I am improvising. That is, I enter into the recording with a self-controlled intentionality.”
“PiTTo, since we have all the time in the world, could you please explain to me more clearly what you mean?” He says this and removes his foot from his knee, in order to lean back on the bench. In the meantime the recording of the chicken farm starts its repetition.
“Well, let's take for example the bell tower of the Church of the Three Kings in Dresden. I know from an earlier visit that the bell tolls at exactly 12 noon. On October 10, 2015 I was traveling through the city with my wife. We arrived shortly before noon and I had the idea to climb the tower with the App 4’33” running. I knew that it required a strenuous climb over several iron staircases to enjoy the spectacular view from the church tower. And at the foot of the tower one needed to buy a ticket. So time was short. In order to get onto the tower one needed to climb past the platform with the bells. I also knew that if we did not make it past the bells before they started ringing at 12 noon, being on their level could be a very loud affair. At the beginning of my recording, entitled CLIMBINGTHEBELLTOWER, you hear the sound of two people climbing the iron stairs of the tower.
Now you would say that by choosing this subject, I entertained a compositional idea, the notion to compose a piece, the topic and time span of which were determined by my intentions, and yet unfolding without my influence in actual time. Correct?” Karlheinz nods.
“And now coincidence comes into play. I still have to smile when I think of the chain of events which makes this recording so special. I climbed
ahead of my wife, because the stairs were very narrow. You can clearly hear the footsteps of two people. Suddenly I noticed that she remained behind, but I didn't understand why. Since I was very close to the level where the bells would start ringing, I was very concerned to move on to the top as quickly as possible to avoid the noise. But since my wife remained behind this now seemed unlikely. As it turned out the overwhelmingly loud ringing of the bells begins just as I am standing directly next to them, waiting for her. It is at the 1:17 mark of the recording.
What happened? As she was climbing she failed to notice a stone outcropping, and she struck her head. At the risk of making light of an annoying and painful event, one could say that she heard the bell before the bells started to ring.”
“Yes, the bells...” he says and then stays silent for a while. The recording stopped and we start it again.
“Seren...how was that?”
“It is the ability to discover unexpected, but fortunate coincidences.”
“Yes. Consider, for example, Sir Alexander Fleming’s discovery of penicillin in 1928. Initially he was annoyed that mold had infested one of his bacteria cultures, but then he discovered that the mold killed the bacteria.”
“I am aware of the concept of synchronicity in another context. The Swiss psychologist, Carl Gustav Jung, used it to characterize our reaction to two events close to each other chronologically, but having no causal relationship. The observer perceives them as meaningfully connected.”
“Yes, I think it's about more than just the temporal connection. There's a positive corollary. Essential to the concept of serendipity is the way in which we perceive that which fate has presented. Above all, serendipity is not like winning the lottery. It does not merely fall into our lap. It requires a positive reaction to the new and unexpected. Then, if all goes well, it is perceived not as a threat, but as an opportunity. So-called coincidence, which lies beyond our planning and control, can open a door. We must be willing to walk through the door. Only then do we have the opportunity to experience connections that are otherwise beyond our perception.”
“I find it most fascinating that such connections exist. Maybe this is the way our entire culture could evolve! If we open our consciousness to the perception of such doors, as you call them, Karlheinz, maybe this could lead us out of the dilemma of our time.”
“That begins with the little things, PiTTo. Poking around in a library, for example. You are looking for something in particular and suddenly find the answer to a question which you had never been able to ask so clearly before. The same thing happens when surfing the Internet. Often it is the paths that seem like distracting detours that lead us directly out of the labyrinth. It is important in the process to keep an open mind. If we are closed to the possibilities, because we are stressed or overburdened, then these revelations don't happen. We cannot perceive them.”
“Well, the same thing happens when I use the App 4’33”. Looking at the map of the world in the app can suddenly reveal a whole new world to me, transmitted through sound.”
We sit silently for a while and just let the screaming of the birds happen. It is clear to both of us that it requires no commentary. In this meeting with the Austrian composer, Karlheinz Essl, I have come to realize that we perceive music on various levels. It is not dependent on the understanding of the listener. Music is simply reality. It just is. Period.
We Westerners, especially, constantly seek a rational explanation for everything. We insist on explaining the mystery. We could very easily enjoy music as a pure phenomenon of sound, if we would only put ourselves in that state of mind. Is that what John Cage was getting at with his composition, 4’33”?
As if he could read my thoughts, my companion says, over the sounds of the birds and the dogs, “You can just go into a concert and let yourself be carried away by the music.”
He lets the fifth or sixth repetition of the chicken farm concert come to an end, and then he takes us back to his home country, Austria.
“This is the Joseph Chapel”, Karlheinz explains. “Sometimes I come here when it's on my way. It's a true pearl.”
We step into the sacred space which stands open as a refuge for anyone who needs it.
“Do you know what I mean, PiTTo? There are places that feel to me like a spring of strength, because they exude a certain energy.”
Yes, indeed, how well I know that experience!
“Maybe in the future we should try to increase the number of recordings in the app from locations that project this strong energy?”
The question remains unanswered, for just after we enter the chapel Karlheinz moves behind the altar to pull on the bell rope. Later the recording will document — what a coincidence — that just as when we climbed the tower in Dresden, the time now is exactly 12 o’clock! A clear, sharp bell tone tolls and travels through the valley. It must be a sign. But of what?
Saag: Josefikapelle (24 Jun 2017)
A 4'33" performance by Karlheinz Essl
“A bell is a musical instrument. It is a percussion instrument, and a so-called idiophone, that is, an instrument that creates a tone by vibrating as a whole.”
I had never seen it that way before. For me a church bell had always been a means of communicating a message. On Sundays in the village it announced the time to go to church. At noon it implore us turn inward and to God. For centuries it structured the shape of our days. As such, it was a means for the church to influence the everyday lives of the people.
Karlheinz continues, “The bell is a percussive idiophone. The clapper, which does not vibrate itself, strikes the bell body, setting the bell into motion, and the vibration produces the tone. If you listen very carefully when the bell is struck you can hear a very characteristic sound. The pitch, duration, volume and tone color can be described is specific to each bell. Every bell has its own measurable pattern of vibrations, and as such its own expressive personality. We can identify the fundamental tone and above that each of the partials, defined by their respective pitch and volume. Together they blend together with the fundamental tone to give the bell its characteristic sound.”
After the first break in the recording on the app the ringing ends. The composer pulling the rope wants it that way. The bell falls silent, and so do we. Our thoughts fill the silence, accompanied by the occasional bird song heard through the open door.
Yes, Karlheinz, I understand! Silence is accessible anywhere. It depends only on our state of mind. It can be found even, indeed especially, through heavy sounds, if we just allow the silence to enter in. It requires our own inner silence. We must concentrate our spirit on timeless eternity.
Not until the third repetition do I again attempt to address the composer, sitting now before me on the little church bench, deep in his own meditation.
“Karlheinz, I as a layman am fascinated how you came to personal story of how you came to use a computer in your composing. Could you briefly describe your development? I realize your work began with the study of classical composition.”
“I'd be glad to...although”, he hesitates, “it’s really a chapter in itself, and maybe it exceeds the framework of our discussion here. You can easily look it up on my homepage, essl.at. Instead, let’s try another experiment. You have already had success with your attempt to use the App 4’33” to travel around the world and step into countless tonal stories. You have demonstrated some of the astounding capabilities of the human mind. You have explored the dialectic between the perception of reality and our self-seduction into the realm of illusion. If you want to call that mind traveling, why not! These are the meta-dimensions of our existence. This little church, in this particular location, with its aura of energy, is just the right place to enter a meta-dimension!”
I stare at him somewhat incredibly. I have only a slight sense of what he means. When I was a student of communication in the 70s we were fascinated by the theories of the American scholar, Paul Watzlawick. Watzlawick, a professor at Stanford University, had just formulated his axioms of communication. One of these, for example, is that it is not possible “to not communicate.”
We found this to be as simple as it was baffling. It is true that even not communicating communicates something. The notion of “meta-communication,” that is, communicating about communication, played a big role in those days. It also played a large role in our understanding of structures. What does Karlheinz Essl mean to tell me now with this kernel of wisdom? Perhaps everything placed on the app is a form of meta-communication when it is called up again and listened to. What is he trying to say? Will we attempt meta- meta-communication?
Today Karlheinz is dressed completely in black. I just noticed that he is carrying a little black attaché case, which he set down on one of the church benches shortly before the church bells began to toll. Now he takes out a mini computer with a screen and two speakers. In no time he has set them up on the little altar to the left and right of the simple wooden cross. Then he begins recording on the App 4’33”, and simultaneously he plays the recording of a concert which he recorded in a different place. I follow the proceedings, fascinated.
Brisky Breath performed by Karlheinz Essl at the Queensland Conservatorium
Brisbane (AUS), 29 Jul 2016
Finally, with the help of this little trick, sitting on this church bench, I can give myself over to pure listening, and do not have to search for the meaning. The colors that appear on the screen are exactly the same as the colors that Sam has emanated ever since he has been living in me: all the tones of black, orange, and a little blue.
The special thing about this experiment, however, is that it is a recording within a recording, and yet it feels like pure reality. Only much later is it revealed as an artwork.
He recorded his piece, Brisky Breath, for computer and kalimba, during his stay in Brisbane. He presents it here in tones and images. We see the composer at the center of a circle of silent, listening musicians. He is performing simultaneously with a kalimba and a computer. Does everyone present fully understand what's happening?
Three elements come together in this music: the composer, who conceived of the idea, the instrument, which produces sounds and sequences to which our ears are unaccustomed, and the computer program, called m@ze°2, developed by the composer for this purpose. The composer provokes coincidence by bringing these elements together into an improvised ensemble. The “concert” occurs through its staging. Something is both performed and presented. Through that process it takes on meaning. The meaning lies in the performance itself.
“I performed Brisky Breath on my real time composition platform. It is an interactive software that allows me to spontaneously compose and transform sound in space.”
I am baffled. But then I realize that Karlheinz Essl has made it his mission to hold up a mirror to the music world. Everything here seems to me “artistic.” But what does that mean? Isn't it just that sense of “artistic” that turns such a piece of music into art?
These sonic artworks shake us up, but only those of us who are ready for such an awakening! Despite the fervent admonitions of people like John Cage, the world is not fully ready to perceive them.
“The sense of meta-communication is to step out of so-called reality, in order to see it from a distance, and realize the decadence of that which we consider to be normal, or natural. Karlheinz, it seems that you are working to express the life of music that exists on a plane beyond that of nature.”
“It's not so hard to recognize and communicate what we call truth in the meditative sanctuary of this little chapel. But PiTTo, do not think for a moment that it is easy for critical, progressive composers to deal with all the ignorance and hostility that comes their way. I'm sure it was no different for our role model, John Cage. We have to grow a thick skin.”
The toneless silence of that chapel sanctuary makes it possible, after the bells toll, to transition into that timeless truth that lies beyond all events. This positive energy is necessary to counterbalance all the negativity that pulses through the world.
The magpies in Brisbane greeted Karlheinz Essl every morning with their nature-given energy, and they inspired the composition in which he both highlights them and builds a contrast to them. A breath of the atmosphere of Brisbane makes me aware that much could be different for this energy-laden world.
I cannot avoid noticing that I am feeling a bit of shame. Did I need to wait until now, sitting in this Austrian chapel, before I was able to see what was really fully apparent in the app all this time?
The perpetual loop of this composition, 4’33”, is the answer. Cage’s intention, given the loud environment of his New York apartment, could only be realized by following a path of inner immigration.
Yes, they do exist, these places of silence and sounding energy! We have had them stored in the innermost recesses of our brain. They are still there, but they are deeply buried. We need to become aware of them. Only in that way can the music transform us and possibly save the world.
“In the summer of 2016, when I was working at the Queensland Conservatory in Brisbane, I woke every morning to the sound of magpies greeting me with their songs. I had never before heard anything like the frenetic intensity of their singing outside my window. The rich musical repertoire of these birds in Australia is incredible. They are veritable opera singers! There is no comparison to their European cousins. I discussed this phenomenon with my Australian friends, and I learned that the warm climate and the high energy influences the vocal abilities of these birds.”
And again the 30 second bell tone, followed by the silence of the recording in the Joseph Chapel. Now the Brisky Breath dissolves in meta-communication on the altar of silence.
“Is it possible”, I ask during the third repetition, “that the songs of the birds reflect the condition of our world?”
The question remains unanswered for a moment, for once again, and for our last time together, we change locations on the earth. We slip out of the portal of the app, only to step back in at another place.
“This trip has been a pleasure for me. Now at the end of our travels together, PiTTo, may I invite you into the concert hall? Let's return briefly to the capital of the country in the heart of Europe where I spent an important part of my life.”
Immediately it occurs to me that what we are about to hear is a piece in the spirit of John Cage, not just the music as such, but the entire event as a whole. The guests are waiting for the concert to begin, and do not realize, at least in the meta-communicative sense of the app recording, that it has already begun. The chatting of the audience is contributing to the result. The well informed concert goers are fully aware of the audial cues that indicate the start of the concert within the concert. It is so pleasant to be in a familiar space. And so the first segment of the recording unfolds, and picks up again after the break. The players tune their strings; the visitors exchange their thoughts. It reminds me of the recording of the chicken farm, until the 1:23 mark, when presumably a visual sign from the musicians start the piece. Then chaos transitions to ordered sound, structured by the composer and coordinated by the musicians. We hear the famous-infamous Canon in D Major by Johann Pachelbel.
Paris: Place des Vosges (19 Jul 2014)
A 4'33" performance by Karlheinz Essl
The audience falls silent. The random chatter of spoken thoughts gives way to the order of instruments playing in harmony. Here there clear structure. The rhythmic accentuations, it seems to me, emphasize the structural form. “Oh, I like this piece,” I whisper to Karlheinz, who has settled into the chair next to me, recording with his iPhone in his hand.
“One needs to hear a piece often before one can like it”, Karlheinz whispers back.
Sam agrees. He feels comfortable in me and I in him. This concert, which appears as a span of time, is really a condition. And that condition holds forth beyond the 4’33” mark. Is entering the meta-level of awareness a condition that rises above literal experience?
It is still holding forth when I arrive at “sandra,” a few hundred meters further north, at the Cente Georges Pompidou. Her pleasant voice whispers in my ear, and her voice leads me gently into the infinite space of this recording. Dear readers, listen at your convenience to the two recordings by Karlheinz Essl, entitled PLACE DES VOSGES, uploaded on July 19, 2014, near the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. Then follow that by listening to the contribution from “sandra,” who is unknown to us and yet feels familiar. It was recorded farther north and is called CHAMBRE AN&#E9;CHO&# XEF;QUE. Yes, it seems to be the same woman who we can meet again, if we wish, on the Azores!
Shortly after my return from Paris I receive an email message from Karlheinz Essl. He shows me how easily I can slip into illusion, enchanted by sounds and carried by emotion. The app contributor and composer of the meta- communicative recording, PLACE DES VOGES explains: “I was walking through the trellis covered arches with my wife when I heard the familiar sound of strings tuning, great nourishment for the App 4’33”. I couldn’t have guessed that the musicians would play this old favorite.
This is what it looked like: For a moment I am baffled. The recording gives no indication that the music was not performed in a concert hall, before a formally assembled audience. Somehow the situation befuddled me. I couldn’t make sense of it. I thought, this must be exactly how a blind person feels, trying to orient himself in a material world without light and images!
We are not concerned here with right or wrong, but rather with finding a deeper awareness.
So several questions arise. Two of the most harmless of these are:
What really is a concert?
What role does illusion play in any performance?
In relation to our travels through sound with the help of music, I am particularly interested in Karlheinz Essl’s treatment of time. Our meeting in the app must be more than coincidence. Perhaps it is serendipity, a coincidence fortuitous to both sides. That would mean that our cooperation is about to continue.
Karlheinz Essl and PiTTo
Kassel, 9 Aug 2017
Updated: 31 May 2019