Nigel Helyer’s Silent Forest by Doug Kahn

Nigel Helyer, a major sculptor and sound artist, has been a key individual in the development of an active and sophisticated sound arts in Australia, through his example certainly, but also through the energies of his activism and teaching. Another key individual has been Tony MacGregor, of The Listening Room audio arts programme of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, who assisted with the sound in the installation Silent Forest, a work about Vietnam, is to collaborate with Helyer on the radio art version of this project.

Australia is an oddly European continent in the region it inhabits, with a tropic on its northern side that provides a continuity into Southeast Asia in the same way an Arctic air mass melds the heart of Canada with the Midwest. Australia’s colonial record is complex, but it was first exercised through criminals, or what the Brits thought were criminals, not through puritans, and all those religious roots have sprouted. And although the Australian government still does all it can to serve up the region to huge national companies like BHP, whose coal operations are to global warming what the Pope is to overpopulation, the simple fact remains that the French still confuse atolls with nuclear bomb craters, and the Pacific could never have been an Australian lake. Australia could only aid and not inaugurate imperialist incursions upon Vietnam.

This has set up a conflicted mode of observation wherein Australia may have a closer geographic proximity than either France or the United States, and has generally seen Vietnam through this distant pair of Euro-American blinkers, it nevertheless it has had a position of greater detachment as they have proceeded to impose themselves directly with clout, with am imagined impunity, upon the region. The French are still in the region and the long stay has blurred their vision, for over the past year they have had great difficulty telling the difference between an atoll and a nuclear bomb crater. The United States must think it knows something about Vietnam but the bulk of its contact with Vietnam was nothing more than the repressed touch of aerial bombing, after which it snapped back across the Pacific in great embarrassment and a mea culpa or two drowned out by disco. Subsequently, it has proven difficult in the United States, especially within public political discourse (such as it is) to talk about Vietnam without the discussion actually being about the United States. A recycling program of sorts. Silent Forest is clearly not from Vietnam, and is about Vietnam only in a restricted sense. Helyer may indeed still look upon Vietnam and see only the remnants of Western society. It is about Vietnam to the extent he looks at the residue of distant relatives, and not in a mirror.

As an artist long involved with the politics of culture, architecture and sound, Helyer positions his installation as a paradigmatic acoustics of imperialism: the social wail of air raid sirens and the ecological silencing of Agent Orange. When the HaNoi Opera House jettisoned its divas and barrel-chested boys when the French left in the mid-1950s, the bombast of Western song stylings once housed inside was supplanted by the sounds of a set of sirens perched atop the building. The sirens had first been placed there during WWII by the French to alert against Japanese attack and were put to good use during the American bombing raids. How would the staged tragedies of gape-jawed baritones and screaming sopranos compare with the American hi-tech eradication an individual’s friends, family and society, or with the scouring of other species from fields and forests during carpet bombing, or with the lingering chorus of generational suffering from the genetic damage caused by Agent Orange?  The actual sirens atop the HaNoi Opera House might have mixed with the sound of exploding bridges, anti-aircraft batteries or a B-52 nose diving into the city. In Silent Forest, we hear them displaced in time and place, mixing with opera from the time of the French, with traditional music silenced or sent literally underground, as the sirens herald another U.S. attack.

Operatic sounds and sirens have mixed historically at the point where the voices of women are heard. In the Odyssey the sirens’ sweet song forms a melodic line along which a ship of men follows its rudder toward seduction and destruction. After the ordeal the crew finds the surface of the wax they put into their ears has been inscribed with spirals mimicking the nautical shape of cochlea, which unfurls and has hairs inside; the wax historically hardens into the early design of the phonograph, which captures voices in a rotary action like the crank of a klaxon, exerting control over their ephemerality.

Are divas as diabolical in the “Myth of Er” section of the Republic? Plato portrays the universe as revolving around a huge spindle upon which eight discs are attached, each a different colour and upon each is seated a siren singing one note of the scale of harmony, an overture to the music of the spheres. In the Platonic universe, therefore women’s voices structure the cosmos in a vibrational totalization characteristic of Western rationality. Their harmony does away with those persnickety noisy differences and different noises in a consideration, no less, of absolutely everything produced, other than by the single string, no more, of the kanon, the Pythagorean monochord.

The use of sirens in Western art music over the last century has been scaled down from the cosmic to the terrestrial. Nevertheless, there still remained an attempt to formally describe absolutely everything through simple, singular means. Ferruccio Busoni wrote an article “Insufficiency of the Means for Musical Expression” (1893) he attacked the inability of keyboard instruments to produce a true diapason, when “Nature created an infinite gradation – infinite! who still knows it nowadays?” His student Edgar Varese went on to use the sirens made popular by the scientist Hermann Helmholtz in order to include what was excluded by the segmentation of temperament, with the infinity of tones contained in the line of a glissando. The only warning these sirens sounded was heard by certain audience members as the time to fend off the encroachment of new music, but for a number of important modernist composers – Luigi Russolo and his rotary-induced enharmonicism, Henry Cowell his fingers running along the length of strings inside the piano, Percy Grainger and his machines for producing Free Music, John Cage and his test-tone recordings at variable speed in Imaginary Landscape No.1, the glissando was a line of plenitude. Moreover, in every case these glissandi arose from compositional projects seeking support through figures of the totality of worldly sound, nature in all of its infinite gradation.

Just as these composers brought sirens down to the space of earth, the sirens in Nigel Helyer’s Silent Forest have gone the next step by restoring them to historical time and place. There is no single string or gliding line just divas and air raid sirens, no single cosmos or Nature just the French and Americans and now a ravenous multinational capital, making themselves manifest in Vietnam. The beauty of musicalized parabolas and hyperbolas of the sirens gives way to the ebb and flow of Western imperialism, militarism and culture, upon the shores of Vietnam. The glissando as the line of plenitude gives way to the wail of a siren signalling impending violence. The continuity of tone is not traced to rebuke temperament but is designed as a way to assure that the hearing hear the siren’s protracted scream be hear by all among the hearing, no matter where their audible range may drop out. The siren also has mechanical lungs that allow its scream to reach a low pitch, which normally signals the exhaustion of other screams, and then gather a second wind. The siren’s scream, most importantly, demands attention while its stylization act to temper any adrenalated response which could obstruct a move toward safety.

One’s experience of sound in the installation itself is quite overwhelming, or rather, it is powerfully overwhelming, at once a total immersion in the pervasive pressure of the sound and the tragic sinking feeling from the downward sweeps of innumerable glissandi blending imperceptibly with one another. The connection with one’s body is palpable, as though a fearful gasp into the gut, the one that initiates the bend toward a foetal curve, ebbs into an ocean of inexhaustible lament.

Within the reach of the sounds of the sirens lies an aluminium forest, a deracinated stand containing the clarified stratum of an already cruelly reduced forest. This forest has then been uprooted. These are trees reduced in size by the vantage of a distant aeroplane, small enough for a fetishistic glaze of napalm. At eyelevel the trees appear to be sustained by a substance as gelatinous as napalm, coagulated blood sapped of its colour, beakers of plasma, suspended with the detachment of souvenirs pickled as laboratory specimens. The American war in Vietnam was waged against on all plants and animals. An ecological time frame much longer than national interest was punctuated by the sounds of dioxin-based defoliation, loudly interrupting the pulse of the forest for years to come. In the sound in this part of the installation, designed in conjunction with Tony MacGregor, we hear the craggy surface noise of old 78 rpm records, a rhetorical device which tutored a generation to ignore technological surfaces in order to gain their pleasure. If filtering out the immediate surface presence of the unwanted could so easily produce pleasure, then the difficulties of knowing the depths from which the postponed noises of carcinogens, the submerged mutagenic tracks to future generations, the slow rot of immiseration arise, should be capable of producing ecstasy. We also hear a rain forest frog, or at least the nostalgia of an archival recording; like all frog sounds nowadays, it is the sound of a canary.

Helyer has said that the installation is comprised of “zones of cessation, an inertia of smothering….traces of suppression and marginalisation…multiple silences and loss” that are part and parcel of “negative spaces generated by political and cultural events.” The political reality he has observed is well known; what he has demonstrated here is that sounds exist in a vacuum.

© Douglas Kahn 1996.