Silent Sound: Iain & Jane And Jason Pierce Warp Minds In Middlesbrough

At this weekend's AV Festival, artists Iain & Jane will be joined by Jason Pierce as they revive their Silent Sound performance. In an essay for the Quietus, they take us through the event.

We got interested in these different devices that claim to be able to convert spoken messages and output them subliminally. They all work in different ways and use different technologies, some software based, some electronics, so we wanted to try building something that was a mash-up of all the different ways people were trying to achieve this sort of ‘silent’ communication. There’s lots of documentation of the technologies and how different people have tried to make them work, so we had lots of research material. We then worked with a team of experts in acoustic engineering, including an amazing guy who used to work for the Ministry of Defence on what they describe as their ‘non-lethal weapons’ programme. The technology exploits the idea that the subconscious mind can receive information that the conscious mind is completely unaware of. In theory, your conscious mind eventually begins to believe something your subconscious has been aware of for some time, which is why you need to be subjected to the message over a period of time. Many claim that large corporations still use it, and that the US government deployed it during the first Gulf war. Similar technology is also used in the manufacture of ‘self help’ tapes and CDs, those things where new age music may is mixed with messages encouraging you to quit smoking or whatever it might be.

During the performance the machine receives an audio feed of a spoken ‘subliminal’ message that we will repeat from inside a soundproof cabinet onstage. The commissioned composition by Jason Pierce is designed to enhance the transmission of the subliminal message, manipulating the audience into an altered state. The audience will only be aurally aware of the music, but should feel an immersive psychological awareness of the potential of the ‘subliminal’, although it isn’t received as a ‘message’, like many people expect it to be. We couldn’t think of anyone more capable of composing a piece to carry a subliminal message than Jason.

We approached Jason to write the score as he was the one contemporary musician we felt would understand the project and have the skill to produce the kind of piece that was needed. We asked him and he agreed with great enthusiasm, which of course we were delighted by. His score draws on science, dramaturgy and traditional music theory to heighten the psychological impact of the event. Jason is keen to explore composition outside of the audible frequency range and the live implementation of studio techniques such as phase cancellation, which occurs when two signals of the same frequency are out of phase with each other, resulting in either a boost or cut in the overall level of the combined signal. The music will attempt to build suspense, warp time, hypnotise and convey, in atmosphere, that it carries a hidden message. The live sound for the performance is engineered by Charles Poulet, who has worked with many great musicians including Throbbing Gristle, Wire and Liars, so he completely gets what we’re trying to do and is an enormous asset to the team.

Our aims are somewhat epic, passionate and bizarre. We are in a way creating an enactment of communication – an experimental, eccentric technology for altering and opening the mind. The work could also be read as an enactment of neurosis, symptoms of a larger repetition compulsion born out of trauma – personal trauma or the trauma of our age, or both. The Victorian’s fascination with unearthing new ‘sciences’, new understandings of reality, new discoveries about the working and potential of the human brain and mind, new possibilities for the survival of the soul and spirit were also compulsively born out of trauma – the personal trauma of losing so many lives through war and the trauma of a rapidly changing Industrial age. Neither of us believe in the ‘afterlife’ in any traditional sense, so we’re not directly interested in the idea of communication with the dead, but the Victorian fascination with communication ‘beyond the ether’ has been a huge influence on this and a number of projects we’re working on for the future. Ultimately, for us it’s about creating an experience for a live audience, which they’re then free to interpret in any number of ways.

Silent Sound from Iain & Jane on Vimeo.

Working in collaboration with parapsychologist Dr Ciarán O’Keeffe, we have developed a vigorous scientific and pseudo-scientific approach to shaping and strategising all the different elements of the project. Ciarán’s immense experience of monitoring the existing conditions at the sites of claimed hauntings has allowed him to work with us to reverse engineer many of those elements, to manufacture controlled conditions and outcomes based on scientific findings to maximise the psychological impact of the experiment. We’ve also consulted a number of other professionals in different fields and this has given us a ‘toolkit’ of techniques to draw on. Some of this we’re not allowed to talk about but some of the techniques we will be using include chairing the air with negative ions (which creates an atmospheric condition similar to that experienced shortly before a thunderstorm), infrasound (which is very deep bass that can be manipulated and moved around the room creating differing effects on the audience depending on where they’re sat in relation to the bass sound wave), manipulating the temperature in different parts of the room and of course some elements which are more psychological, and based purely on suggestion.

Our drive to affect the audience on an emotionally direct level first and an analytical level second is a common aim in all our work, whether it’s a live project or not. We’re looking to create an extraordinary experience – to tap into each individual’s memory and imagination and to stimulate an altered perception of reality. One of the ways we try to do this is by choreographing every aspect and detail of the work – how the audience hears about the work, the experience of entering the work, the immersiveness of the experience and the tone and timing of the information supplied to the audience. We’ve picked our collaborators deliberately and carefully. Chris Bigg at V23 has produced all the design elements of the project as we felt those guys would be the only people who would understand how to visualise the notion of ‘silent sound’. Working with the right people is really important to us and the team we’ve worked with on Silent Sound are the best.

For full Silent Sound details, go here. Silent Sound will be broadcast live on Resonance FM on Sunday 7th March from 6.30pm – 7.30pm

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