Duncan MacDonald

16 January 2003 - 22 February 2003
Opening Reception 16 January 2003 8pm

Back Gallery:


For his solo exhibition buzzscape, Duncan MacDonald has created three new audio works. The first two works explore the sonics of mechanisms that create and deliver music: Self-recorded record documents the process of fabricating a blank record; the subtle noises that a cd-player makes as it randomizes through 99 tracks are isolated and recorded onto a cd-r in shuffle 1-99. In the final work, tritone, musical theory is investigated using unlikely means when an insidious tritone chord (a two-note chord with an interval of an augmented fourth comprising three wholetones) is generated by two domestic appliances.

Brochure Text, Vicious Circle by Daniel Olson

Some time ago I read an essay by the poet Rainer Maria Rilke describing an incident from his youth: a physics lesson on phonography. After the theory is outlined, the students build their own phonograph: a horn with a flexible membrane at one end, on which a needle is attached and rests on a wax-covered cylinder, with a hand-crank to rotate and advance the cylinder along a spindle. The horn directs sound waves towards the membrane that transfers them as vibrations to the needle, which inscribes an irregular but continuous, spiraling groove on the wax surface of the moving cylinder. Next, the wax is hardened with shellac, then the cylinder and needle are repositioned at the starting point and the hand-crank is turned to replay the sequence in reverse: the needle, picking up irregularities in the groove on the cylinder, transfers them as vibrations in the membrane, creating air pressure fluctuations that cause a facsimile of the original sounds to emanate from the horn. Rilke describes the first operation of their device: carefully turning the crank as the teacher spoke gravely into the tube; evenly applying the shellac and impatiently waiting for it to dry; anxiously resetting the cylinder and the needle; and excitedly hearing the master’s voice speaking out of the recent past.

Rilke then takes a metaphysical turn, shifting into a conjecture about what we might hear if cracks on the surface of a human skull were translated into sounds through phonography. However interesting, his conjecture failed to hold my attention; I was ready to construct my own phonograph. I wanted to create my version of the dictaphone into which Fred MacMurray recites his confessional voice-over in Double Indemnity, Billy Wilder’s 1944 film noir classic. Following in the poet’s footsteps—not worrying whether I also risked the ultimate demise of Double Indemnity’s doomed protagonist—I began assembling odds and ends in the studio, and after a few trips to the hardware store I had my own contraption, with all the working parts as detailed by Rilke.

I was confident the device, although somewhat makeshift and certainly too fragile to be moved from the desk on which it sat, would function. I set about putting it to the test: turning the crank as I spoke into the horn; applying the shellac and waiting for it to dry; and finally resetting the mechanism. This was the moment of truth, the essential hour of desire and gratification. I began turning the crank, fully expecting my voice to return from the past, but I heard nothing. I leaned in closer to the horn, but still no voice from the past. The poetic words I had uttered were gone forever, destined to survive only in legend as Twenty Minute Life: The Lost Monologue of Leo Danielson. Given the subsequent turn of events, I cannot recall the text although I assure you it was an eloquent rendition of my life story.

Then the most peculiar thing occurred. Deciding to give it one last try, I heard something else: an audible presence that I hadn’t noticed before, having been so intent on hearing my own voice. Listening carefully, I realized there was definitely something there, perhaps faint, but clear: a slight rasping sound, as of a sharp object dragging across a surface not quite resistant to its touch; a complex of whirring and grinding sounds, mechanical, but with a human rhythm; and even fainter, an ambient sound just above the threshold of hearing.

Once attuned to its subtleties, each time I played it back the effect was complete. I could clearly hear the sound of the needle moving over the wax, the sound of the crank turning, the sound of the drum rotating and advancing on its spindle, and just below that, if sufficiently attentive, I could make out the room tone. I had unwittingly made a device that recorded and played back, in perfect replica and with no loss of detail, the sound of its own operation and context. What had initially seemed a failure was in fact an astonishing success—I had created a perfectly self-referential machine worthy of Roussel or Duchamp, a mechanical embodiment of the mathematico-philosophical concept of the tautology. My lost, poetic self-explication was worthless by comparison. After all, I’m just a man; what does it matter what you say about a person anyway?

It seems that Duncan MacDonald learned my lesson in advance. He doesn’t need to hear himself speak, or to implicate his life story in the moment of recording; he already knows the apparatus is self-sufficient, so he lets it speak for itself. With bloody-minded simplicity—in a gesture that is almost idiotic, yet strangely profound—he collapses the ends and means of representation, folding them back in on themselves. Trapped in this vicious circle, perhaps we’ll hear the ghost of John Cage in the machine. If we do, I’m sure he’ll be laughing.

(Primal Sound, written in 1919 and first published in “Das Inselschift”, 1919/20, re-printed in “Selected Works: Volume I, Prose,” translated by G. Craig Houston; London, The Hogarth Press, 1954.)