“Eat a Word” – Miles [Silent Sound Art]

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“Eat a Word” is an instructional text that guides the reader through a process of mentally digesting (i.e. eating) a word. This process foregrounds a shift from external (spoken) to internal (thought) speech. Through an implied diminuendo, it encourages the reader to modulate her internal voice as she would her spoken voice. The participant investigates particular qualities of imagined sounds, as they work with and in opposition to sounds in the physical world.

This instructional text or “event score” draws inspiration from two primary sources: (1) conversation, (2) the writing process. To the second one, as I compose and proofread this text, my speech alternates from whisper to thought. This shift is ordinary in conversation – in fact, it occurs whenever we “think before we speak”. These examples, which encompass thought in response to speech and speech in response to thought, demonstrate the technology of language operating at a low level. It is this technology that enables us to capture and externalize fleeting internal impulses in words. Insofar as it centers on the low-level processes of language – as opposed to its semantics and semiotics at a higher level – “Eat a Word” is a tech demo.

The work has precedent in process based performance pieces like Bruce Nauman’s “Body Pressure,” which exists as a sheet of instructions to a performer. Like “Body Pressure,” the text itself is not really the point here, but rather, the physical act of carrying out the instructions. It isn’t important that the text is followed precisely; the instructions are meant to set the conditions for an investigation into physical and imagined sounds, and the participant’s actions will inevitably (conscious or not) diverge from the instructions.

The meditative and intuitive qualities of the performance – as well as the concentration that it demands of the performer – are features that connect “Eat a Word” to Pauline Oliveros’ “Sonic Meditations” series. The notion of evaporating or eating thoughts through sustained attention is an idea borrowed from meditative practice in general.

Additionally, the sparse prose here recalls Yoko Ono’s “Grapefruit,” a book of performance instructions. A more contemporary influence is “Do It,” another series of instructions or “event scores”, compiled by the curator Hans-Ulrich Obrist. The latter book likely influenced the visual design considerations of “Eat a Word,” which are meant to distance it from a superficially similar form: the poem.

Earlier versions of this piece resembled poems, due to their vertical column format and the stanza-like grouping of lines. This was problematic, since I wanted the text to be read with a particular attitude (meditative) and at a particular pace (slow). Instead, this format suggested that the text be consumed in one unbroken glance. To address this glitch, the final version features white spaces between lines that signify pauses between actions. These empty gaps are smaller where lines are meant to be read in quick succession, and larger when lines are meant to be read one at a time. Again, there is no ideal tempo or rhythm: the gaps are just meant to encourage the reader to define a relative pace, and to consider certain groups lines (e.g. the “keep thinking, softer each time” lines) together. The opacity of the text, ranging from solid black to invisible, suggests a dynamic or gradient of dynamics for speaking or thinking.

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One thought on ““Eat a Word” – Miles [Silent Sound Art]

  1. Hi Miles,

    This idea is quite poetic. The simplicity of the instructions, and the visual cues of the fading text are both key elements in creating an effective experience. These allow the text to get out of the way so that all attention is on the experience of carrying out the instructions.

    Nicely done.
    Abby

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