By Anne Lesley Selcer March 13, 2018

In-depth, critical perspectives exploring art and visual culture on the West Coast.

The first time I saw Chris Duncan's sound piece 12 Symbols (2014–17), I sat—as audience members were invited to—inside a spacious circle formed by twelve percussionists playing twelve single cymbals. Performed at several venues around the Bay Area, this iteration was in a disused warehouse space on Mare Island at the Re:sound music series.1 Very tired, I drifted off for a few minutes and awoke midpiece, startled by an enormous, dark block of sound. It had begun subtly, bows slowly dragging the edge of each cymbal to produce slight whining. One by one, each percussionist took up two mallets to forcefully strike their cymbal while walking in rotation around it. Each hit of the mallet left a long, deep, brassy resonance hanging in the air. They played fast. Shimmering layers of sound arose. Resonance relentlessly piled on top of resonance and the heavy thickness built an unimaginable, urgent body of noise. The piece lasted around thirty minutes. This simple score created sound that grew huge, feral.

Chris Duncan. 12 Symbols, 2014–17; 12 performers, 12 cymbals, bows, and mallets. Recording mastered by Andrew Oswald from performance in The Possible at Berkeley Art Museum & Pacific Film Archive, 2014, Berkeley, California.

I was in the countryside once, walking in a field of grass through the normal sounds of insects, wind, sun, green. All at once, I heard a sharp drone, a concert of simultaneous buzzes. I looked down and small bees were swarming in the grass near my feet. The sound surrounded me. Its loudness amazed me. A multitude of low tones piled up formidably atop one another, clipping an enormous racket into the air. The gestures in 12 Symbols are simple and repetitive; the power it raises is inherently social, made by twelve cymbals in unison. The main tool of its maximalism is time. Time amplifies the memory of social sound, wavering and brassy.

A sonic assertion this large requires a degree of submission or sublimation, reframing dissonance—which always feels like a kind of threat—as sublime. So I felt my contours, the cold seal of my hand formed with the raw floor. 12 Symbols does not ask for connections, interjections, or projections from its listener; everything is offered, all of the energy of this art. The sonic power of 12 Symbols borrows the resonance of transformation itself, the energy that appears to make time move. Indeed, its spatial arrangement and imagery are based on solar and lunar cycles. When the piece gradually flamed out, each percussionist increased the speed of drumming considerably before laying down their mallets. Then there was beauty, relief, and the profundity of the transformation back into silence, away from the celestial scale of the sound, back into human social space.

Janet Cardiff. The Forty Part Motet. 2001; installation view, Gallery 308, Fort Mason Center for Arts & Culture, 2015. Courtesy of Fort Mason Center for Arts & Culture, San Francisco, and San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Photo: JKA Photography.

Heightened human space acuminated into an assertion of beauty comprises Janet Cardiff's sound installation The Forty Part Motet (2001). Inside the expansive and cavernous Gallery 308 at Fort Mason Center in San Francisco—a space with polished, concrete floors, warehouse windows, and sailboats knocking together beyond them—the complex sixteenth-century choral composition Spem in Alium emanates from forty small, rectangular, ear-high speakers. Thought to be the pinnacle of early English music, this song braids the voices of eight small choirs of singers. In a complex round, they toss Latin phrasings back and forth. Art made by this many voices is a high feat of humanism, and is easily understood as having aesthetic (if epochal) value. In the early twenty-first century, this feels like a vestigial kind of pleasure to be taking in an art space.

The Motet is spectacularly sculptural when heard from the middle of the room. Listeners can also walk along the edge of the circle of speakers and press an ear to each. Each of the forty speakers then creates an intimate aural frame around a singer's singular voice. One has rare, precious access to the inimitable breath, skill, tenor, timbre, tone, and texture, plus all the unnamable qualities one hears in a human voice. This is technically stunning, but also profoundly intimate, as if each voice in isolation sings to you. In The Coming Community, Giorgio Agamben describes “singularity”:

Love is never directed toward this or that property of the loved one (being blond, being small, being tender, being lame), but neither does it neglect the properties in favor of an insipid generality (universal love): The lover wants the loved one with all of its predicates, its being such as it is. The lover desires the as only insofar as it is such—this is the lover's particular fetishism. Thus, whatever singularity (the Lovable) is never the intelligence of some thing, or of this or that quality or essence, but only the intelligence of an intelligibility.2

Janet Cardiff, The Forty Part Motet, 2015; 40 speakers mounted on stands, placed in an oval, amplifiers, playback computer; 14-minute loop (11 minutes of music, 3 minutes of intermission). Co-presented by Fort Mason Center for Arts & Culture and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

In Western culture, “voice” is a metaphor to describe “presence” in a political realm; its connotation is analogous to “will.” In a recent lecture, philosopher Jacques Rancière contrasted language with the “cry of animals,” which can only express pleasure or pain.3 According to Rancière, “politics” happens when the impossible becomes possible, that is, when the “noisy animals” are perceived to have a position. In contrast, singularity—which is less a “representation” of the self, and more like an irreducible distillation—suggests a different possibility. Art historian and theorist Kaja Silverman says, “The voice is the site of perhaps the most radical of all subjective divisions—the division between meaning and materiality...situated in the partition between the biological body and the body of language, or, if one prefers, the social body.”4 When each singular voice sings from each speaker, it feels like contact, connection. Just as a photograph of a human face evokes a hundred emotional processes—desire, fascination, protection, affection—listening closely to a human voice, especially one at the height of its skill, peaking with others’ voices toward the sublime, feels like a particularly human gift, if not the human gift. I move around the circle, eavesdropping on something undefinable and radically irreducible.

The video installation The Visitors (2012) by Ragnar Kjartansson also plays with singular and collective voices. It too borrows elements of the round. As part of SFMOMA's Soundtracks exhibition (July 2017–January 2018), the piece is shown in a darkened room lined by several screens. Each depicts a different room of a house wherein a single musician is situated: a cellist, a guitarist, a pianist, a banjo player. They are plugged into mics and recording equipment. Each hears the others through earphones, and they collectively sing a repetitive folk song adapted from a poem written by Ásdís Sif Gunnarsdóttir. The poem–song is plodding, slow, and emotive. “Once again I fall into my feminine ways” repeats, and repeats, and repeats. The work is durational; the light begins to die around the musicians, crickets come out.

Ragnar Kjartansson. The Visitors, 2012;nine-channel HD video projection with sound; 64 min.; dimensions variable; installed at SFMOMA as part of Soundtracks, 2017. Jointly owned by San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and Museum of Modern Art, New York.

There is overarching pleasure in the aesthetics of the environment, a borrowed mansion, where each room/screen is set up like a Dutch still life, with antiques, rich textures, and gorgeously patterned upholsteries framing each musician. It is wonderful to observe each musician steeped in skill, responding to others out of frame who we can see on the next screen. The musicians themselves are sometimes clad in lingerie, sometimes in a bubble bath, sometimes smoking as they pound a piano, sometimes strumming a guitar on the edge of a bed that contains a naked woman contoured sleepily under a thin sheet. It is delicious and references a 1960s fantasy of freedom and bohemia. The song builds for a full sixty-four minutes. Its old-timey ramble underlines the languid aesthetic. The earnestness of each of the subjects becomes truly beautiful when they sing together separately, and then eventually get up from their individual rooms and tumble, stumble, pop a bottle of champagne, and find each other in the drawing room, or out on the porch, where a sloped, curved friendship alights upon all their shoulders and upon all of us.

Inside the enclosed installation space of The Visitors, we are party to a certain kind of “being-together.” In this way, the piece is deeply nostalgic. What is evoked is something like a gorgeous commodity: communalism, singing together, the value of one's unique voice. Here, the personhood of the voice is revered. The work seethes with individualism but contains the spirit of camaraderie—a coming together as a band of musicians, outliers, and artists. “Folk” is brought into the gallery space; everything is fluid, spontaneous, celebratory. In contrast to The Forty Part Motet, informality is framed. In this dear and enviable temporary utopia, each subject brings their own voice, masters their own instrument, is accepted in their quirks and clothing choices. The multi-gendered crew is free to sing about their “feminine ways.” If The Visitors enacts a bohemian exceptionalism made possible by a certain set of twentieth-century, first-world conditions, one that is often naturalized as an ideal in the Bay Area, it might be worth nothing this artist is Icelandic. What we come to relish about this piece—its apparent spontaneity and earnestness—is its design to evoke a specifically epochal love and longing.

Chris Duncan. 12 Symbols; 2016; 12 performers, 12 cymbals, bows, and mallets; from the Re:sound music festival in Mare Island, California. Courtesy of the Artist.

Each of these works of sound-based art constitutes subjectivity differently. 12 Symbols subjects listeners to the mightiness raised by the simultaneous percussive use of repetition, sound waves, and time. The Forty Part Motet starts with collective perfection but zooms out to frame the subjective singularity of the voice. The Visitors reveres the voice, relieves it from its loneness, but not its uniqueness. The collectivity Kjartansson creates restates and reinstates the sanctity of the individual voice against the modern horrors brought by the radical shift to the factory. It posits the aesthetic itself against the dehumanizing automation of life. As emotionally powerful as this move feels, especially raised in languorous song, the more pressing tension today is the algorithm: those sets of data that base their very power on harnessing that which is most individual about our individuality—the measurements of our facial features in relation to one another, biometric iris recognition, and especially the voice.5

During the Occupy protests of 2011, resonance, sound, and musicality were often words used to describe the spread of revolutionary information between disparate masses. This language reflected a magical begetting, as if something could be made from nothing. As power increasingly asserts itself through biopolitical means, adding layers of risk and precarity to the most basic human contingencies—water, air, shelter, food—unlimiting the possibilities of the senses is one way the self, subject, and collectivity can continue to be reworked. When I began to write, I unwittingly began in manifesto mode. I scrawled, “The useless apocalypse of 12 Symbols is a rehearsal for art which is non-productive but transformative”; I wanted art with that much largess. The third time I experienced Duncan’s performance, not from emotion, association, or content, my eyes began to produce a significant amount of tears. I have no sonic science for this. This is not social change, but it is impossible to deny it is change.


  1. Duncan will do an expanded 12 Symbols exhibition and performance series on March 23–31 while in residence at Human Resources in Los Angeles.
  2. Giorgio Agamben, The Coming Community, trans. Michael Hardt (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1993), 2.
  3. Jacques Rancière, “Shifting Borders: Art, Politics and Ethics Today,” lecture, Rhetoric Spring Colloquium at University of California, Berkeley, Berkeley, CA, February 20, 2018.
  4. Kaja Silverman, The Acoustic Mirror (Bloomington: Indiana University Press,1988), 44.
  5. Ava Kofman writes: “The technology works by analyzing the physical and behavioral features that make each person’s voice distinctive, such as the pitch, shape of the mouth, and length of the larynx. An algorithm then creates a dynamic computer model of the individual’s vocal characteristics. This is what’s popularly referred to as a ‘voiceprint’... Although the NSA is known to rely on finger and face prints to identify targets, voiceprints, according to a 2008 agency document, are ‘where NSA reigns supreme.’” In “Finding Your Voice,” The Intercept, January 19, 2018,

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