What is ‘nothing’, exactly? Surely it’s impossible to define — for to ascribe qualities to it, to say that it’s like this or like that, is to turn it into a thing, which is precisely what it isn’t. It’s tempting to try to define nothing negatively, by articulating all of the things it’s not; but as such a list is infinite, this too becomes an impossibility. I’m reminded of Daniel Linehan’s dance piece “Not About Everything”, in which he continuously spins on the spot while naming everything the piece isn’t about. He inevitably exhausts himself well before he is able to get to the end of this infinite list, thereby simultaneously revealing the impossibility of a ‘pure’, conceptless dance and opening the dance up to the world.
Nothing is often thought of in terms of absence or lack, as a place where no thing is present. But it might also be considered a sort of caesura within each and every thing — a ground upon which being becomes possible, the zero added to every number. From this latter perspective, to hear nothing is not deafness, but rather an attentiveness to that within every sound which is not sound, but without which there would be no sound. To say “there is no such thing as nothing” is not necessarily at odds with saying “nothing is what makes every thing possible”. Linehan’s dance really can be about nothing and everything at the same time.
Such apparent contradictions make little sense to the intellect, but fortunately they are easier to grasp with whatever faculty it is that wraps up sensory perceptions into what we call the aesthetic. May I offer up Clara de Asís’ solo album “Do Nothing” as an example? Not as a demonstration of a principle, exactly, but as an intriguing case study. The artist rejects the thought that the music may be reduced to the elucidation of an idea, however complex or subtle; rather, during the compositional process she was interested in “what happens in between” two actions, and that “the way to make that life come out was by doing nothing”.
For the first piece, from which the album derives its name, “doing nothing” initially means isolated, repeated guitar notes, crystalline and pointillist in character. The space around the notes is too brief to draw attention to itself, instead highlighting the notes’ shape, or what audio engineers call their envelope — the way they begin from nothing, achieve fullness, decay and fade, and set other objects and the air around them resonating as they do so. The notes are joined by tings from a metal bell or bowl; when both guitar string and bell are struck simultaneously, the sound is transformed in a way that suggests some sort of physical interaction between the two. What I really, really like about this piece is the way in which it develops a depth of complexity without losing its surface simplicity: however quickly the numbers come, I can still hear the zero added to each.
The handful of small chinks that close the piece are immensely instructive: their more extreme isolation and the brevity and abruptness of their envelopes shifts attention away from them onto the silence that surrounds them. Nowhere on the album is nothing more palpable than here.
A continuous gentle clattering characterises second piece ‘Know Nothing’, little mechanical whirrings, creakings, tappings, and poppings creating a sound world strangely reminiscent of a hydrophone recording. This kind of sound recurs later on in ‘Nothing Lasts II’, albeit in a softer, hissier form, like rain on a roof. The first part of ‘Nothing Lasts’, meanwhile, is a faint and airy high-pitched glimmer, obscure in origin and in substance. Repeated guitar notes return for ‘Say Nothing’, though here the timbre is different, duller but with more ring; there is greater variation in timbre depending on how cleanly the guitar note is plucked, pronouncing the same note differently each time. I like the interplay between the guitar and the bowed metal in this piece, echoing the simple complexity of the album opener.
What I experience listening to “Do Nothing” is that nothing is not the same as silence, if we define the latter as simply the absence of sound. To be sure, there is plenty of this kind of silence to (not) be heard across the album, but the selective range of well-chosen sounds don’t come across as the ‘something’ to the silence’s ‘nothing’, at least not to me. Rather, it feels as though nothing is always there, in the sounds as much as the silence, and the album’s greatest achievement amounts to making room for it, acknowledging its presence rather than trying to banish or exclude it. If that reads as contradictory or nonsensical, then, well, that’s not a problem you should let put you off — this is nothing you simply have to hear.[soundcloud url=”https://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/418231116″ params=”color=#ff5500&auto_play=false&hide_related=false&show_comments=true&show_user=true&show_reposts=false&show_teaser=true” width=”100%” height=”166″ iframe=”true” /]