Ears of Dead People
12 July 2005,
This recorded music is for the ears of dead people
I offer and hope, with love and respect, to make
carefully prepared short recordings of acoustic
saxophone music, composed for the purpose, each one to
be played back once only through headphones worn by a
particular dead individual. The recordings will then
Neither I nor anyone living will ever hear these
recordings and even I won't know what they sound like,
because the microphone will be placed far inside the
saxophone, in an acoustic microcosm that human ears
Please contact me if you would like to commission a
18 July - 1 August 2005 , London (UK)
Having this idea wasnít the hard thing. trying to
contain it and then explain it - thatís whatís going
to be hard.
I wrote down the barest outline, a description of
what, physically, should happen. I felt proud of my
accurate simple statement about a process. Usually
knowing intentions weakens the idea and its audience,
and stating intentions is almost a definition of
But night after night I couldnít sleep for thinking
about this idea and for wondering how I would feel if
someone I love died and I read this bald text offering
to play unheard music to them through headphones.
I realised that itís not enough that those who choose
to put this idea into practice should accept it,
because we all die and anyone who sees the text might
be grieving. I must do all that I can to persuade
everyone that my suggestion, a mild but heartfelt
protest against death, is not only born of respect and
sorrow for the dead, but in a small way exemplifies
this respect. I also decided to suggest that other
people than myself might make recordings like these at
the request of their loved ones; and to offer what
help I can to such people, including as extensive an
explanation as I am able to make.
Recordings peel away like outgrown skins from the
moments they are born with, though a lizard-skin,
having been part of its former possessor, would tell
you more about the lizard than any recording would
about its subject. Sound or vision recordings made in
instants often outlive (or outlast - recordings have
little need to aspire to life) the people who feature
in them, and those who initiate them, and the
intentions of all. This, along with the identification
many listeners or viewers experience, of the recording
with its subject rather than with a time and
point-of-view, means that recordings chip away at the
relevance of the real complete flesh-and-blood human
individuals who feature in them. Recordings almost
always depend for their own relevance on a presumed
continuity - not among those recorded, the significant
aspects of whom are tacitly or overtly assumed to be
preserved, but among the listeners or viewers, who are
not recordings and therefore are vulnerable to change.
There is a heartless complacency in taking for
granted overall continuity among the consumers.
These living consumers and creators of recordings
constantly seek to acquire more up-to-date recorded
sounds and images, generating a continual reprinting
and multiplying of each frame of the recent past -
prints aglow with the pathos of novelty, instantly
outdated and replaced. Access to recorded media
necessarily means that our faculty of memory is in
part externalised as we store in recordings
information which previously weíd have had to choose
to remember, or been forced to forget (who really
remembers the precise contours of even much-loved
voices and faces from their distant past?). We also
import recordings into our neural memories, installing
their second-hand images as experiences alongside
those from our non-media lives.
What Iím trying to say is that functionally,
recordings are OF the dead and FOR the living. I mean
that even where the subject of a recording is still
alive, the recording exists independently and
indifferently; the audience is presumed to continue
even though individual members die or come to harm,
even between recording and dissemination.
This seems to me unjust to the living as well as to
the dead, and although we cannot really redress the
basic injustice, maybe we can give the dead something
which is usually reserved for the living.
It is possible to make a recording that outlives its
parent moment only briefly, ensuring that it doesnít
leak into the limbo of undifferentiated digital or
other information. Perhaps not quite a living
recording, but one renouncing too lengthy an undeath.
And it is possible to choose to play that recording
only to the ears of a dead individual who had asked
before dying to have it made.
explanation of the parameters.
This should be a private act, not part of the public
celebration of the life of the person concerned, and
distinct from, for example, choosing recordings to
play at such celebrations.
It is only to be undertaken if the person who has died
has specifically asked that it should, and if the
grieving survivors accept this.
The recordings should be made as close as possible to
the time that has been chosen for playing them back.
The recordings should be fairly short - perhaps
between three and ten minutes.
It is important that the recordings should be of music
rather than of speech, which is too coded and
accessible to the speaker and other survivors.
It is important that the music recorded be original,
because it ought not to have been heard before. And it
is important that it be played acoustically, so that
it comes from the body of the person performing it -
and so that there is not the danger of using pre-set
The machine/s used to make and play back the recording
should be portable and have an input for an external
microphone and a headphone output - mini-disc, audio
or videocassette (without vision), DAT, or stand-alone
hard disc recorder.
There are several ways to ensure that the performer
does not hear what they do in the same way as the
microphone does (in fact, no mic ever hears what the
player or the acoustic listeners hear anyway...).
Please use a small microphone and if possible, place
it far inside the instrument (including in the mouth
for voice). Feel free to experiment with trial
recordings to find techniques and levels appropriate
for these mic placements, to avoid distortion as much
as possible. If you find that these trial recordings
are too similar to what you are hearing as you
perform, try wearing earplugs to block some of the
sound you are receiving. (obviously, avoid monitoring
your performance through headphones; monitor by
checking the levels on the meter)
The chosen recording should be brought to where the
dead person is and played once at a moderate volume
into their ears using closed headphones. If it is felt
that headphones are not appropriate, the recording
could be played through loudspeakers placed in the
same room as the dead person, after other people have
left the room.
When it has been played, the recording should be
erased as effectively as possible, preferably by
filling the medium with recorded silence (ie:
recording with the input level at minimum). Some
digital media retain information after instructed to
erase or delete it - be aware that a computer, for
example, may still contain some of this information
right up until you get rid of the computer and beyond.
I suggest erasing the material in order to ensure that
it will never be played or heard again - if it were to
be buried, for example, itís conceivable that it might
be dug up and heard sometime in the future; whereas
destroying the medium seems unecessarily rough
Please feel free to contact me if you would like any
help - Iíll do all that I can.
If youíd like me to make such a recording for you,
please let me know.
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