play it by ear

declan long


At the opening of On Photography, Susan Sontag famously declares that “humankind lingers unregenerately in Plato’s cave, still reveling, its age-old habit, in mere images of the truth.” Plato’s allegory concerns a group of prisoners, chained together and facing the interior wall of a cave, their only impression of the exterior world being gained from the flickering images that play on the wall in front of them: shadows thrown by a fire burning behind their backs. It is a story of lasting fascination for thinkers on art: a recurring reference point in efforts to formulate an understanding of reality’s fraught relation to representation.

A cave associated with a different Greek philosopher is, however, the primary influence behind the recent directions taken in the work of Richard Carr. Carr’s fascination is with the cave of Pythagoras — a place of sanctuary and learning, where this pioneering thinker developed a distinctive teaching method, based on the paramount importance of listening. In this secret cave, well away from the gaze of the world, hidden inside the volcanic Mount of Kerkis on the Greek island of Samos, Pythagoras chose to teach his students from behind a curtain, prioritising a method of educational instruction that demanded concentration on the voice alone.  Grounding the motivating concepts of his art in this anti-visual mode of teaching — and on the presumed intensity of this enclosed environment of careful listening — Carr seeks to advocate an art less concerned with the ‘age-old habit’ of creating or studying ‘images of the truth.’ 

Carr’s artistic investment is thus primarily in sound, but also in specially designed scenarios in which sound can be newly attended to. There is therefore a commitment to turning the volume down on visuality, while at the same time retaining a sculptural appreciation of the relation of the body to objects and to broader spatial situations. Central to Play it By Ear — a title which speaks both of the Pythagorian mode of instruction and of a more open, improvisatory approach to appreciating sound — is a compact structure that functions as an in-the-round loudspeaker. Presented in a near-dark space, the object attains a mysterious, monolithic authority, broadcasting a seamless sequence of drifting, droning, sounds that are persistent and looping, but largely unidentifiable.  We might imagine this as a scenario with chapel-like intensity — and our reverent attention is called for in engaging with the sonic transmissions that emanate from the central, amplifying source. The hypnotic sound is both choral and carnal: massed voices harmonise together with disembodied weightlessness, while other sounds hint at the physicality of speech — immersing us in the materiality of communication.

Within the crepuscular atmosphere of this installation-space, Carr is encouraging a heightened manner of listening.  He is perhaps asking, by employing an obliquely mimicked version of Pythagoras’s pedagogical approach, for us to develop new levels of patience in relation to sound, asking us to develop new understandings of its variations, capacities and effects. His experiment calls to mind, in passing, the fascination with ‘microsonics’ that J.G. Ballard plays with in the short story ‘Track 12’  — a story in which a scientist advocates the learning benefits associated with slowing and amplifying sound. Amplified 100,000 times, the process of animal cell division, we are informed, “sounds like a lot of girders and steel sheets being ripped apart” while “plant cell division is an electronic poem, all soft chords and bubbling tones.” Microsonics, the scientist argues, reveals unimagined distinctions and details in the world. As the story progresses, nevertheless, the uses of this experimental micro-listening become increasingly sinister — and it is worth considering, in this regard, a correspondence with the way in which the gothic gloom of Richard Carr’s sound-situation perhaps suggests more disconcerting, unpredictable connotations than his sources in ancient teaching methods might immediately suggest. What is set up by Carr is, therefore, an open situation: one in which we might play, and be played with, in manifold, seductive and unsettling ways.