In the coming autumn of 2019, the artist and musician Ted Riederer will seal his sonic artwork Persistent Echoes within the walls of the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s new Rudin Family Gallery, where it will remain untouched for at least one hundred years. Persistent Echoes is a vinyl record consisting of varied recordings that the artist produces himself, using a diamond to etch sound waves onto a physical object forever, a process he terms a “transcendental science.” The titles of each individual recording are self-explanatory, describing their own contents. When combined, the titles and sounds become a “tone poem,” constructed by the artist to convey a very specific yet fragmented zeitgeist; an aura of Now. A plaque bearing the complete tone poem will be exhibited on the same wall in which Riederer’s Persistent Echoes is embedded, creating an audio-visual time capsule - an archival artwork.
In his essay “An Archival Impulse,” published by October Journal, critic and theorist Hal Foster writes that the archival artwork “not only draws on informal archives but produces them as well, and does so in a way that underscores the nature of all archival materials as found yet constructed, factual yet fictive, public yet private.” The first chapter of Persistent Echoes, entitled “Our Year of Dissent,” seeks to convey glimpses of life during the divisive “Trump Era,” ranging from highly intimate scenarios (The Heartbeats of My Lover on the Eve of our Marriage) to political protest (The Tax March, April 15, 2017) to the shared experiences of urban dwelling (The Sounds of Trains at Midnight). Persistent Echoes’ second chapter is entitled “Our Year of Accord,” a veritable “B Side” to Chapter 1’s “A Side” and a recurring theme of duality or oppositional binarism that Riederer’s acoustic art practice seeks to unite, both conceptually and physically (via the album itself).
“The soundscape is not simply incidental in our lives...It is thoroughly integrated into who we are and what we do,” writes philosopher Thomas Rickert in his book Ambient Rhetoric. “We consciously and unconsciously depend on sound to orient, situate and wed ourselves to the places we inhabit.” The diverse audio origins of Persistent Echoes speak to a fully contemporary ambient rhetoric, one that attunes to the zeitgeist through ethos and constructs an identity or “home” from disparity, while gesturing beyond one’s self and into the unknown with an inherently cautious optimism.
Mario Kramer, curator of the Museum of Modern Art in Frankfurt, Germany, compares the time capsule to a Wunderkammer - the “cabinets of curiosities” that European monarchs and aristocrats created in their private spaces as precursors to museums:
In a Wunderkammer such as this the important and the unassuming are interdependent, for the mythically charged requires the banal and the rational as a backdrop...The incongruity between the different items taps an energy source that enables us to see emotionally...As an encyclopedia of individual passions, the Time Capsules are the very level of life where heterogeneity predominates. These are the last of the Wunderkammern.
By referring to “seeing emotionally,” Kramer invokes a form of synesthesia that Riederer explicitly attempts to engender through his own artistic practice, generally, and through Persistent Echoes, specifically. William Faulkner once stated that the goal of all art is to “arrest motion, which is life, by artificial means and hold it fixed so that a hundred years later, when a stranger looks at it, it moves again since it is life.” Riederer has adopted this mandate as the premise of his own artistic practice, employing a performative methodology that seeks to enable this aforementioned “synesthesia” - a literal transcoding of the mind - through the intentional compilation of seemingly disparate sounds, images, texts, origins and symbols within the Wunderkammer of his audio-visual time capsule. In this Poetic Echoes equation, Riederer views the vinyl record itself as a mandala, a spiritual and ritual symbol for reflection and meditation- a diagram of the cosmos- and, in this case, the material manifestation of the zeitgeist that it hopes to transmit. The act of creation, as well as the act of listening, becomes an existential transcendental science.
In describing Persistent Echoes, Riederer cites two major sources of inspiration: the 1904 Columbia Records catalogue and NASA’s Golden Record. In the early 1900s, at the “onset of commercial music distribution,” a popular category of ambient recordings was known as Descriptive Specialties. This genre, which featured tracks such as “The Passing of a Circus Parade” and “Two Rubes in a Tavern,” captured an American gothic realism that “defined” the US at the turn of the 20th century, at least according to Columbia Records (later acquired by Sony). Decades later in the 1970s, NASA launched Voyager 1 and 2 into the cosmos, each with its own sonic time capsule - the Golden Record - in the fantastical hope of its eventual discovery and reception by another interplanetary life force.
Produced by Dr. Carl Sagan of Cornell University, the Golden Record is far more artistic and diverse than its Descriptive Specialties predecessor, as it sought to relay the complex multiculturalism and biodiversity of life on planet Earth to whomever could intercept and “reactivate” it. The record contains fifty-five languages, including one whale language, ambient earth sounds, as well as ninety minutes of music (representing different eras and cultures, from ancient to modern) and 115 images encoded into binary form. However, one recording employed an EEG machine to measure and record the brain waves of the Golden Record’s co-creator Ann Druyan as she spoke on the phone with her lover and fellow co-creator, Dr. Sagan. This literal “concept recording” catalyzed Riederer’s desire to sonically capture that which “cannot be articulated,” in this case, the sound of “A Woman in Love.”
Among the individual tone poems that comprise Riederer’s Persistent Echoes’ “Chapter 1: Our Year of Dissent” is A Chord made from the Tears of the Artist. Following a particularly devastating romance, Riederer had his tears analyzed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “My dear friend Loretta ran a sample of my tears through a gas-chromatograph spectrometer,” Riederer explains on his “Never Records” podcast. “The data showed three peaks on a graph, which represented the chemical makeup of my grief. My friend Brian House applied the ratio of these tears to a C-scale.” Riederer then had three custom tuning forks made in order to create the chord, which vibrates with what the artist describes as the “sound of sorrow.”
This recording speaks to Rickert’s observation that, “music and emotion are connected through their emergence within an ambient situation, conceived ecologically and materially as well as socially.” It should also be noted that, by incorporating technological data science in his acoustic recording of a “universal” human emotion, Riederer marries new media with an ancient sonic symbolism. His chord is reminiscent of the sound made by Tibetan singing bowls, themselves simulacra for the cosmos and a type of physical mandala, which, through ritualistic practice and the meditative act of listening, is capable of attuning the listener to their own Dasein within the infinite space of the universe.
My Father With Dementia Trying To Remember is another intensely personal recording from Persistent Echoes: Chapter 1 that nonetheless gestures towards broader themes playing out across the current political stage - a disturbing resurgence in nationalism (e.g. Trump’s “MAGA” agenda) and the consequential (and troubling) revival of tribalism. Through the potentially futile activity of engaging his 86 year-old father with verbal prompts to reactivate his neural pathways, Riederer is commenting on what he terms a “cultural amnesia” and our society’s unfortunate tendency to “relive the mistakes of the past.” It’s thus fitting that, in An Archival Impulse, Foster also asks, “Might archival art emerge out of a similar sense of a failure in cultural memory, of a default in productive traditions? For why else connect so feverishly if things did not appear so frightfully disconnected in the first place?”
The archival artwork is our attempt to actively attune ourselves to our zeitgeist through production, curation and caregiving, while holding ourselves accountable for the present, so as not to forget its lessons. Foster also notes, significantly, that archival art is “rarely cynical in intent.” Rather, it “assumes anomic fragmentation as a condition not only to represent but to work through, and proposes new orders of affective association.” In this sense, the archival artwork allows us to bring ourselves into existential harmony with either our current environment or the past, or both.
According to German philosopher Martin Heidegger, the Thing (in this case, the archival artwork) can manifest what he termed The Fourfold (Das Geviert) - a sacred diagram of Earth, Sky, Mortals and Gods. “Dwelling” - Heidegger’s term for humanity’s existential Dasein, or how we live in (and with) the world - is described by Rickert as “life that takes its bearings from, manifests and cultivates attunement to The Fourfold.” Rickert also stresses the inclusion of “things and places” as having “existential worth and importance.” In Ambient Rhetoric, he states:
Attunement to the world that characterizes dwelling is not passivity. Rather it is an activity that works through and with things as they show up in the world alongside us. Heidegger characterizes this relationship as a dynamic kind of letting be, appearing as forms of shepherding, cultivating, sparing and caretaking.
Persistent Echoes physically, conceptually and ritualistically manifests The Fourfold - ‘Earth’ is represented by the recorded sounds, ‘Sky’ is represented through the transcendental science of capturing invisible sonic frequencies and sound waves. Mortals refers to us, the “content creators.” Through our mortal passing, however, we become the Gods, with the vinyl record acting as a kind of oracle for our ancestral message, our acoustic legacy.
Persistent Echoes continues Riederer’s recording-as-performative-art-practice, which he began in earnest with his ongoing Never Records project. Since 2010, Riederer has cut over 500 vinyl records from impromptu performances across the world, which are then gifted to the active participant(s). He has traveled to Kansas City, Liverpool, London (sponsored by the Tate Modern), New Orleans, Amman (Jordan) and elsewhere, offering the individuals and communities he encounters an opportunity to tell or sing their stories, etched sonically forever into vinyl, for both themselves and posterity. “Any bit of language, any code, or any set of meaningful practices has the potential to enact effects in the world,” write Sarah Kember & Joanna Zylinska in their book, Life After New Media. “Performativity is an empowering concept, politically and artistically, because it not only shows how norms take place, but also shows that change and invention are always possible.”
Riederer’s all-encompassing artistic practice, his Gesamtkunstwerk, reflects the artist’s ethos- one of production and stewardship, curation and connection, an attunement to The Fourfold and a “dynamic letting-be.” As Rickert says: “character and credibility emerge from a way of life that is itself already embedded within locations, communities, societies and environments and hence ‘spoken’ by them even as we create and transform them.” With art as his existential compass, Riederer’s ethos preserves the integrity of these diverse communities while allowing for new forms of relationality to emerge, through both the cultural artifacts he produces and the ongoing digital archive of his Never Records podcasts.
In 2008, during a difficult time in Riederer’s life, he decided to “join the opposite sides of the earth and the day in a song.” To do so, he traveled to Cape Leeuwin, Australia, “the closest land to the geographic antipode of New York,” where he spent over a week creating music and field recordings with an electric guitar and a battery powered amplifier at sunrise. He joined these with recordings made during sunset in New York, creating (again) an A Side and B Side of a vinyl record that unites, sonically and materially, seemingly oppositional binaries. While Ted was recording in Australia, he noted the turbulence of this specific environment, where the Indian and Arctic Oceans meet, resulting in incredible wind and violent surf. He observed that:
These bunches of cliff grass were whipping around like lint in a vacuum. I noticed that drawn in the sand, around these bunches of cliff grass, were perfect circles because the blades of the grass had become compasses. And I started thinking about this quasi-Shinto philosophy I have about art, where if you are true to yourself and true to the idea then you can be a conduit of the divine. You can be an instrument that these forces and ideals are using to become manifest. I talk about all these things to try to re-enchant the world a little bit...because if a diamond shivering can etch soundwaves onto an object forever and if perfect circles can be drawn on a turbulent landscape that seems totally chaotic, what else can happen in the world? Anything can happen, really.
This sentiment echoes Dr. Carl Sagan, who wrote that, “The significance of our lives and our fragile planet is then determined only by our own wisdom and courage. We are the custodians of life's meaning...If we crave some cosmic purpose, then let us find ourselves a worthy goal.” In his pursuit of connection, truth and enchantment, Riederer’s work embraces Sagan’s directive. As such, Persistent Echoes is more than an audio-visual poem or a sonic archival artwork. It bears witness to our zeitgeist and testifies to our aura, offering hope (and proof) that, as Riederer says, “anything can happen.”
OUR YEAR OF DISSENT (2017)
The Sound of Trains At Midnight
My Father with Dementia Trying to Remember
My Friend the Undocumented Immigrant Speaks a Dead Language
A Chord Made From the Tears of the Artist
The Heartbeats of My Lover on the Eve of our Marriage
The Tax March, April 15th, 2017
The Evening Call to Prayer Heard from the Citadel at the Center of Amman
OUR YEAR OF ACCORD (2018)
The Heartbeats of My Son Hours Before His Birth
An Artist Gives a Sermon with His Last Breath on Borrowed Lungs
Playing the Brooklyn Bridge Like a Musical Instrument
A Poet Crosses Into Brooklyn
A Song of Incarcerated Youth
A Verse from The Undocumented
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