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Before Language

March 5, 2008

Intrigued by sound artist Alessandro Bosetti‘s descriptions of Mask Mirror–his talking computer program–during a recent interview, Noise headed out to his Saturday performance at the Red Room at Normals Books and Records imagining some next-level, avant-garde Speak n’ Spell. Turns out, this thought was not too far off the mark, though Mask Mirror was more akin to William S. Burrough’s “cutup” writing technique than a children’s educational toy.

The evening began with a series of pieces from Berlin-based composer and artist Christian Kesten that turned the notion of performance inside-out. You could not help feeling a bit like Alice sitting down to tea with the Mad Hatter during Kesten’s multilingual and even protolingual pieces, such as “Untitled: Breath and Lips,” 24 minutes, he claimed (though Noise didn’t time it), of Kesten exhaling softly into a microphone. Sitting behind him, on a small table, was a white vintage floor heater, and when the Red Room’s own heating system whirred into life, the suspicion crept up that Kesten was, in fact, both impersonating and in conversation with these units.

About three-quarters of the way through the piece, the audience started fidgeting en masse, and a quick look about revealed a number of flummoxed expressions on attendees’ faces. In eerie contrast, Kesten remained unnaturally stock-still the entire time, as he had during another piece, “Resting the Tongue,” which consisted entirely of him waggling his tongue about like some slow-probing bivalve mollusk mating dance, accented by wet clucking noises. As Kesten offered no context or explanation for these pieces, you couldn’t be blamed for wondering if he was playing a grand trick on the audience by making its reaction the true performance. Like those waggish norm-violation experiments so popular in introductory sociology courses, Kesten’s inexplicable pieces induced a playfully awkward sense of WTF?! In this respect, he was a great primer for appreciating the evening’s finale, the bewildered mumbo-jumbo of Mask Mirror.

The Mask Mirror performance kicked off with Kesten posing quasi-philosophical questions to the tight-lipped program, which answered in a series of single words: yes, no, what, and why? Just as the novelty of watching this began to wear, the musical accompaniment kicked up: snippets of improv drum skitters and a strummed guitar that prompted the program to spit out all manner of words, in Bosetti’s own Italian-accented voice. Kesten, again, commenced with the breathy exhalations and squelching back-of-throat vocalizations, giving the performance a white noise, static effect, like the disorienting junctures on the radio dial where two stations–say, a local jazz program and a call-in talk show–hissingly blur together.

Common sense aside, it was difficult not to treat Mask Mirror, with its randomized garble of words, as a willfully cryptic Oracle of Delphi reincarnated as an Apple laptop. While Bosetti had described the project as “about the aboutness of being about”–the sort of vague proffering that makes little sense until witnessed firsthand–what Noise got out all of this is that it’s devilishly hard not to seek meaning even where it’s clear none is forthcoming. Not until the program, in a moment of absurd hilarity, spit forth the word “hamburgers” did it all click: Mask Mirror is a tool for shearing all meaning from language. It’s a liberation, of sorts, like the sound version of Rorschach tests: The mind is encouraged to wander freely and delight in words purely for their sound. In the information overload of contemporary times, Mask Mirror’s playful rupturing of sense–its nonsense, in other words–is a welcome respite.

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