There is nothing like the ethereal monotonal droning of bow on string to amplify the dismal cacophony of human tics, our collective bodily disquiet. At Thursday night’s SYSTEMA OCCAM performance, held at the French Institute Alliance Française’s Florence Gould Hall, harpist Rhodri Davies performed OCCAM I, a composition by Eliane Radigue. Together with the mesmerizing kinetics of Xavier Veilhan’s durational performance, the piece forms the sonic second act of the interdisciplinary SYSTEMA OCCAM. Seguing from Veilhan’s meditative arrangement of light and movement, Davies took to the harp in earnest, floating from overtone to overtone, at times wielding two bows, a more perfect union of unflinching drone.
Soon the seated audience, which tended to the higher reaches of middle age, began shifting uneasily in their seats; pandemics of muffled coughing and other such respiratory fulminations gurgled forth. A man behind me chuckled uncontrollably, as if the monument before him profaned the sanity of his attention. I could only imagine his face, consumed and contorted by this primal affront to the senses. At one point, Marine Varoquier, one of the six artists performing in SYSTEMA, began pouring a dark, viscous liquid onto a square of plywood. The harp paused then resumed, an immodest reprieve. As the liquid issued from the large glass beaker tilted in her hands and formed a lugubrious pool on the wood, a visual analogue to Davis’ harp was made corporeal. There it was, this ink-black sludge, familiar and foreign, elemental, haunting, whose pooled diameter inched inexorably outward, to the edge of the wooden surface, yielding its creep only at the last moment.
This went on for a long while. But such virtuosic dilation of time resists chronometric measures — it could have been five minutes, or five hours (it was more like thirty minutes). Some ambient sound artists capture the might of unmolested nature, goading the noise into an aural sculpture, like Jana Winderen’s sixteen-channel “Ultrafield” (2013) at the Museum of Modern Art’s Soundings. But the droning minimalism that is Radigue’s bailiwick is of a different order altogether, an Occam’s razor of noise. It’s the sonic void distilled, concentrated, and inescapable, and its command to stillness is unyielding. Much like the medieval peasants stunned into reverence by the incomprehensible scale of cathedral architecture, the smells and bells, the viewers and listeners at Gould Hall were cowed by a different sort of frisson: the crushing imperfection of the bodily mechanism, its endless tragic little burps and tics tuned to a deafening roar.
SYSTEMA OCCAM took place at the French Institute Alliance Française’s Florence Gould Hall (55 E 59th St, Upper East Side, Manhattan) on September 19 at 8 pm as part of the institution’s ongoing Crossing the Line series and in partnership with the Hermès Foundation’s New Settings program.