Why do we have to be quiet tonight: Christian Marclay’s Everyday

Everyday, a struggle with language, with time. Just to say something simple: on Saturday night I went to a concert, but to see it, to hear it? What we have learned from gender and language is that these problems are not easily resolved. Writing on demand, which is more or less all writing, since demand comes from somewhere, from the need to speak, from the noisy imprecations of a digital platform or from a paid commission, also raises many problems. How to articulate ideas that are too fresh or growing stale? I want to write when I want to write but when is that?

Something about the hall – the Queen Elizabeth Hall – and the nature of Christian Marclay’s Everyday exacerbated these problems. I felt the smallest degree of distance from the work, close to the stage but swallowed up in comfort and darkness at the outer edge of a cave. My responses rose torpidly out of some state of intellectual hibernation, untrustworthy and out of focus. Everyday is a provocation of moving images and sound, so whether you see the concert or hear it is impossible to parse, but it also bounces around in a cloudy zone between registers, history, document, myth, the real and the hyperreal. Cinema is the score but of course more than that. Drawing from the archive of cinema, what it presents via a screen to the audience and musicians – Marclay himself, Steve Beresford, John Butcher, Mark Sanders and Alan Tomlinson – is a series of everyday gestures whose sounding is central to their impact as image and narrative: a knock on the door, footsteps in high heels, ships’ whistles, gunshots, dancers, a jukebox, a stylus placed into the groove of a record. They are everyday and yet they are not.

This business of time, thinking slowly: the next day, a Sunday, I read two reviews of new books, The Big Screen by David Thomson, and Country Girl by Edna O’Brien. Thomson was quoted on cinema: “It’s a pattern of dream and desire”; O’Brien was quoted on James Joyce: “. . . the lush descriptions of corpses and steers and pigs and kine, and sea and sea stones, and then the extraordinary ascensions in which worlds within worlds unfolded.”

A knock on the door in a film; think about it. There is dread, maybe for one party or both, or there is desire, maybe for one party or both. Maybe dread and desire are the same. The knocking may be reversed invitation, the prelude to an opening, or death knell, a hammering from hell like the phantom or interior knocking that shakes the house (but only for some) in Robert Wise’s 1963 adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s story, The Haunting of Hill House. A knuckle strikes wood and on the other side of that resonant wood surface another story is set in motion by the unknown part of a sound, the drum and its interior. Simple. But this everyday sound has been heightened by cinema to become, as Thomson argues, indivisible from our dreams. Last night I was woken from a dream, not a nightmare, by three thunderous bangs. They forced me to get up, prowl the house yet they came out of sleep  and a beating heart, not the house, and who is to say that their origin was not a convergence of my currently troubled mind and the rapid sequence of rat-a-tat door knocking that opens Marclay’s Everyday?

In this way cinema ran parallel with literature, the two growing (unlike now) together. Writers like Joyce, Kafka or Woolf heightened the everyday, disrupted and overlaid time, revealed interiority and the life of the torrential mind, unfolded worlds within worlds, both in imitation of cinema’s montage and cutting, and as an inspiration to its progress. Think of Faulkner (a screenwriter) and his opening chapter of The Sound and the Fury, the plunging in and out of place, time, character, class, race, accent, language, noise and repeated calls for silence, as if sudden death is preferable to the torment of social relations, family, children, the innocent impossible demands of the autistic Benjy. What are we to make of it except to read it as cuts, flashbacks, a polyphony of voices (uncontrolled and controlling), thoughts, crackling emotion, a cast of strangers teeming like fish in a pond: “Please hush . . . rattling in the leaves . . . making all this racket . . . that damn loony to bawling . . . time he start bellering . . . hush now . . . so I hushed . . . tried to say Whooey . . . why do we have to be quiet tonight . . . but I didn’t hush . . . shut up that crying . . . make them be quiet . . . hush . . . shhhhhhhh.”

Sound in cinema can silence both music and text. A gap in the script. Voices fall silent; the empty orchestra offstage is given a well-deserved rest. Theatre dies (finally) to make way for the everyday. Jacques Tati was the master of this. Complex surfaces, Michel Chion says, writing of Tati, describing scenes as if they were Duchamp’s nude, descending the stair in planes and fragments of time. “CLANG goes the now famous swinging door in Les Vacances.” A thousand other noises of the everyday besides, all noises quiet deafening short extended and silent raised to the brief intensity of fireworks. The founding myth of contemporary art, Duchamp’s readymade, is caught up in this everyday. A door swing, CLANG, nothing. But Tati makes it swing again, then again, then again. Now we hear it, not as a special door that would compel us to book our own holiday just to be able to hear it, but as all doors: CLANG.

There is an orchestra of noises on the screen, so suddenly we are more aware of this relationship of the vertical flatness and all of that bright saturated colour of dread and desire emanating in a blast force outwards, and then the musicians in shadow on their horizontal surface, working in three dimensions, disturbingly close to the reality we voluntarily vacate as our eyes drift from screen to stage and back. The tension is evident: sounds on film act as a score for improvisation yet they caution against unsubtle mimesis. A finger covers the lips: shhhhh. Time and again I watched Mark Sanders choose to play what was not obvious. A typewriter clatters; he waits, plays a tangential pattern on ringing metal. The balance is delicate. Focus and poise: to follow the rapid succession of sounds and images closely, sliding almost imperceptibly in and out of diegetic sound, yet loose enough in the realm of listening and intuition to allow another kind of form to emerge, a symphony of noise that lives in its own space just beyond the everyday yet one foot in, one foot out of the dream. The point is underlined when a brass band marches through the auditorium from one entrance to the opposite exit. Many people in the front row missed this moment, perhaps hearing it as a sudden thickening of the sound, some diffusion trick, rather than an irruption of the real in uniform, full colour and pomp. So real, in fact, that it seemed the closest of all to a dream.

In the theatre and the concert hall we are constrained in ways that we no longer know except as the way we were and always have been. Why do we have to be quiet tonight? Can the body be twisted around to investigate? It feels funny to do so, to meet the gaze of the person behind who is facing forward. Also funny, in the sense of a creeping feeling of how we have been remade, our dream state blown up to the size of giants and monsters in leaping flat colour and explosions of noise, is this dwelling in the presence of the sounding everyday.

About davidtoop

David Toop is a composer/musician, author and curator based in London who has worked in many fields of sound art and music, including improvisation, sound installations, field recordings, pop music production, music for television, theatre and dance. He has published five books, including Ocean of Sound, Haunted Weather, and Sinister Resonance: The Mediumship of the Listener, released eight solo albums, including Screen Ceremonies, Black Chamber and Sound Body, and as a critic has written for many publications, including The Wire, The Face, Leonardo Music Journal and Bookforum. Exhibitions he has curated include Sonic Boom at the Hayward Gallery, London, Playing John Cage at Arnolfini, Bristol, and Blow Up at Flat-Time House, London. Currently writing a two-volume book on free improvisation - Into the Maelstrom: Improvisation, Music and the Dream of Freedom - the first volume will be published by Bloomsbury in 2016. His opera – Star-shaped Biscuit – was performed as an Aldeburgh Faster Than Sound project in September 2012. He is Chair of Audio Culture and Improvisation at University of the Arts London.
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3 Responses to Why do we have to be quiet tonight: Christian Marclay’s Everyday

  1. Steve Beresford says:

    Thanks for this, David. Was so absorbed in it I missed my stop.


    PS – I don’t think that the door in ‘Les Vacances…’ goes CLANG. It’s more of a DOINK mixed with a CLUMP.

    Steve Beresford mobile: 07961 176 459

    Or, at University of Westminster: 020 7911 5000, extension 4650 [room CG25, Harrow campus]

    (from a UoW ‘phone you can dial mobile code 1720)


  2. Maureen kendal says:

    Polyphonic voices
    Poly morphous perversity
    Sound waves
    Porous touch of the body
    Where are or are there – any limits?
    A dance of silence and song
    A dance Of forms and spaces

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