A short text I’m working on at the moment ends like this:

Then you can start to group the amended inhabitants into a number of parts and tell each part the names and orders of certain musical notes part by part, and you can tell them how many beats they can have in each second. Part by part you can count each group briefly and very quietly back into the general song and when you have told everyone to play there can be applause.

The text is a set of less than explicit instructions that repeatedly uses the form “you can” to explain how to commandeer the frequencies of local short-wave radio stations and then how to instruct the listeners at home to communally play a piece of polyphonic music using constructions they can make from household objects.

Each in their separate buildings, these potential listeners are unable hear what one another are playing, if indeed any of them choose to play. The potential reader/speaker who voices the instructions is unable to monitor the consequences of the broadcast, and likewise the writer of the text has no assurance it will even be read, let alone acted upon. The communal sound projects outwards inaudibly, and it is the silence of the sound that allows it to exist at all, in potential form.

Throughout the written text, instructions to the reader/speaker advise that “you can almost altogether avoid being part of the sound” by announcing the number of beats per second and the names of musical notes to be played, rather than tapping rhythms or humming melodies, and further by announcing that listeners “can synchronize the second hands of their clocks with yours”, to avoid the need for beats to be marked out in real time as the listeners play.

In this way, the speaker can try to maintain distance from the possible piece of music played by the possible listeners, just as the writer tries to maintain distance from the reader through the indeterminacy of the written instructions. The more slight the joints between them, and the more scarcely the joints are handled, the more quietened the sound of the work, and hence the greater strength of its potential. (Or you could say – thinking about it – the greater the lack and hence the greater the desire.)

It’s unfortunate, then, that none of the work can work without at least some joining between its diverse actors. The current of information needs to be passed between them or there will be nothing there at all, and nothing there at all isn’t the same as a thing with barely any presence. A thing with barely any presence must still be there. It must still be distinct from the air around it: a segment of worked air, hewn from the general space and worked into a texture of thickened air that catches the light differently; but is nevertheless only noticeable and worthy of note because the rest of the air around it – the unworked air – does not catch the light in this different way but in some other way. (Though perhaps it additionally follows that the rest of the air – the general space not thickened into the texture of this work – is portioned into other segments, also worked but differently, and that my particularly worked segment of air is no more particular than any other.)

Something has to be done to a segment of air to make its texture change: to make it catch the light in a different way and refract it oily or translucent or webbed or through any other configuration of particles. The unfortunate thing is that I don’t know how to make air segments do that on their own, without my doing things like writing about them, or getting somebody else to talk about them, or getting still other people to rearrange household objects around them.

I would like it if the change could consist entirely of the air and its personal activities, but then there would be nothing to it. It would have no edge, no texture. It wouldn’t show. And (perhaps it doesn’t matter but) I wouldn’t have done anything. The handling of the work is necessary to its creation, but once it’s created and has its own logic, the retrospective fact of its being handled feels like a violation.

And so to return to the end of the text. When sufficient instructions have been given for the listeners to continue their playing uninstructed, “there can be applause”.

What is there to applaud? The effort of the writer? The effort of the reader/speaker? The efforts of the listeners/players? The effort of the music itself? And who is to applaud? If the players applaud their playing will stop. Later on I’ll write about the implications of a writer building into their work a round of applause for the work itself. It’s relevant here, and it also makes me think of Kafka, whose Burrow story has been an oblique influence throughout this text.

For the time being though, I want to think about the applause as a rustle of acknowledgement for the smooth working of the work itself. This is Barthes in The Rustle of Language (1975)

“The good functioning of the machine is displayed in a musical being: the rustle.

The rustle is the noise of what is working well. From which follows this paradox: the rustle denotes a limit-noise, the noise of what, functioning to perfection, has no noise; to rustle is to make audible the very evaporation of noise: the tenuous, the blurred, the tremulous are received as the signs of an auditory annulation.

Thus, it is happy machines which rustle. […] For the rustle […] implies a community of bodies: in the sounds of the pleasure which is ‘working’, no voice is raised, guides, swerves, no voice is constituted; the rustle is the very sound of plural delectation […].”

Once the instructions are all given and are available to be followed there remains nothing extraneous. Everything is working. And so the sound of the music, functioning to perfection, voices its own rustle. The rustle stands for and is the perfection of the communal sound, and as such it consists completely of its own applause.

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