Every Empty Space Sings, If You Listen

This quote comes from Oliver Beer, a British conceptual artist, in a short interview by Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker Magazine.

When I read it, I stopped reading and starting thinking about empty spaces and the whole idea of emptiness, in our wallets, in our lives, in our minds, in our future, and, for most of us, what we find when we are looking for abundance.

I didn’t learn how Beer got the idea for creating what Gopnik calls “the most eccentric and original keyboard instrument in the history of Western music.” But I did learn his method.

He selected thirty-two, among several hundred pots, cups, bottles, vessels, containers and other hollow objects from New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art’s collection, some of them never previously exhibited. He based his criteria on the sound made by the hollow area, which he detected by dangling a microphone into the space, amplifying the ambient sound and assigning the object a place on a chromatic musical scale. Museum staff later inserted the microphones into the objects.

Beer did not touch, tap, strike, rub or do anything to the objects to produce their sound. He merely increased the volume on what the microphone detected.

“Every empty space has its own resonance, one that’s based entirely on its geometry,” he said. Above, beyond and beneath the sounds you may be hearing right now, is a tone specific to the room you’re sitting in. It may be masked by the fans from the heater or air conditioner, exterior honks and whistles, the occasional whine from your computer’s hard drive, or the grumble from your torso as your digestive system turns that coffee and sandwich into something your body may use.

All that other stuff is what we hear most of the time. But, if it were possible to quiet all of that, and, perhaps, amplify what is happening in the seeming emptiness around us, we would hear the tone.

After assigning each museum object a note on the chromatic scale, Beer tied them in electronically to a keyboard that he called the Vessel Orchestra. Play a chord on the keyboard and the objects’ unique sounds are blended into that chord. Play Chopin, Bach, Rachmaninoff, Duke Ellington or Elton John, and you hear a composition coming through an unusual, but eminently listenable musical instrument.

I don’t play to go to New York to hear a Vessel Orchestra performance in the near future, but they’ll still be singing when the instrument is disassembled and the objects go back into the museum’s stores. “That Iranian jar,” Beer said, “has been singing D-natural for several thousand years. That’s the humbling thing about this. These objects are going to outlive the Met[ropolitan Museum of Art]. They’re going to outlive the English language. And they’ll still be singing the same notes they’re singing now.”

Well, maybe. Earthquakes, changes in taste, economic reversals and the slow deterioration of the object’s materials may…change their tune (pun intended).

But I’ve long been drawn to the mystic’s idea that what we perceive as empty may contain hidden beauty, if we only knew how to find it.

What we may call empty is not just what is enclosed by a vessel, or a room. It could be land that has no immediately exploitable value. It could be a culture whose ways and means seem simple, repetitive and unpractical. It could be the hours we must endure in an airport when unforeseen circumstances delay our connecting flight. It could be state of our finances, or a moment when everyone turns to us for a solution to a problem, and we are “empty” of ideas.

We already know that the “space” that surrounds our planet is not empty. A wind of hydrogen atoms blows from the sun. Radiation of numerous and various frequencies zigs and zags about. Asteroids the size of a lentil, or the state of Texas, tumble in the darkness, and, in order to make complicated mathematical models function properly, astrophysicists have posited the existence of “dark matter,” stuff that is “out there” that we haven’t found a way to detect.

When they look back from the vantage point of success, many artists, entrepreneurs, craftspeople, and others who may be searching for their destiny–have become grateful for “empty” periods in their lives–those seemingly interminable times when they felt they were wandering without aim or purpose in an inhospitable wilderness–because those moments led them to a greater understanding, a new direction or, at least, helped them decide not to do what wasn’t working previously.

And, as soon as we have received the gifts such emptiness brings, we are certain that the path ahead will contain nothing but abundance. We are so certain that we will never be uncertain, confused or forced to find the meaning, beauty or necessity in emptiness, again.

Until it happens. I find myself empty as a teacher. Two previous gigs to which I was looking forward vanished at the last minute. Attempts to gain a third has bogged down in mysterious tedium that will not lift for several months.

As in most periods of emptiness, I find myself trying to cope with the fact that none of this is my fault.

And I am not in the same wilderness I experienced when I was younger and teaching–writing, journalism, history, martial arts–became meaningful. I can welcome this one a little bit, and spend more time writing and reading. Perhaps a new, and better preoccupation will arise.

Until then, I am learning how to listen.






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