The sensation is akin to standing at the top of a mountain and looking out. The ecstatic failure of trying to ingest the sheer expanse of the earth below and knowing that it unravels far beyond what I can see. Or conversely, standing at the foot of a mountain and feeling my body collapse beneath the rock, as jagged earth consumes my field of vision. It hits me about an hour into the experience. I try to recall my life prior to the moment of listening and it feels distant. Separate, even. I peer into the darkness of future experience and perceive nothing but the present prolonged. Listening to works of long duration comes accompanied by its own peculiar palette of emotional responses, and it’s an experience that has consistently fascinated me.
I’ve explored this in some of my own work, most prominently through SIGNALVOID: a 263-track, four-hour compilation on the theme of noise. By generating a work of extreme length, I wanted the durational edges of experience to dissolve, so that in the midst of listening, it feels like SIGNALVOID was all there ever had been and all there ever would be. SIGNALVOID becomes synonymous with experience. Life prior to SIGNALVOID is a memory so vague as to belong to someone else entirely. It exudes a continuity that makes my own enduring reality feel tenuous, so brash in its assertion of perpetual being that I start to doubt the delicate daisy-chaining of experience that constitutes my own notion of the self. There’s the dreadful sense that SIGNALVOID will outlast me, echoing through the abyss beyond the end of my own timeline. In other words, it maximises the state of submission that heralds the most ecstatic possibilities of listening. I release my edges and melt into the sonic scenery. Intellectually I know the experience will eventually end, but in that present moment of experience – stranded miles from the start and oblivious to when the ending might arise – listening becomes its own euphoric infinity.
The effect is most pronounced within sound that asserts a solitary idea, compounding the sentiment through the gravity of gathered time. For example – Presque Tout by Francisco Lopez, which collates seven hours’ worth of quiet pieces recorded between 1993 and 2013. Even though we tend to associate louder soundscapes with the sense of being “enveloped”, I’ve found that the effect is much more pronounced in these liminal forms of experience. As I shrink into these fields of circulating air and rumbling plosives over the course of an entire afternoon, it feels like tuning into the trembling imbalance that resides at the centre of the universe: movements that have been powering worldly change for billions of years and will continue to do so long after I’m gone, let alone after I’ve stopped listening. On the other end of the scale is a work such as Natural Incapacity by Relay For Death: over two hours of atomised concrete and tar-black smog, like an industrial factory unfurling in all directions, pollution billowing edgelessly, hydraulics gasping in surprise. I could walk for miles and never escape it. This chilling sensation is only affirmed by how certain squeaks and hisses recur as the piece progresses. If sounds simply regenerate after they disappear, there can be no endings. If I were to walk out of the city in one direction, I’d simply reappear on the other side. This reeking, cacophonous metropolis consumes me and will outlive me. Again, two hours might as well be an eternity.
There’s a tangential habit I enjoy, which is to have a long-duration piece playing in a room that I intend to leave and then return to. Eliane Radigue’s Trilogie De La Mort works great in this context. This sunlit humming reveals itself to be indifferent to my presence, settling into my lounge with the same autonomous permanence as furniture, as integral to the room as the colour of the walls. Again, the listener is the more tenuous fixture here. Sometimes absent, sometimes present; compared to the drones that drench indulgently into the carpet over extended stretches of time, I come across as existentially indecisive. The sound cradles the shadows of tables and lampshades, gradually becoming embedded into the fabric and varnished crevices, as I flit through the space like a moth. I leave the room, and sound floods into the vacuum created by my vacated form.
After two hours I start to fantasise about the ending of the piece which, when the durational work is wielding its power, can feel mythic – almost inconceivable. I disbelieve the silence when it arrives. I discover the need to reorientate myself now the sound is gone, no longer able to assert my edges in relation to the vibrations that pressed against me for so long. It’s like waking up, feeling dreams draining from my fingers, feeling the air settle upon me after the weightlessness of the night.