Four years ago, Mikel R. Nieto released Dark Sound, a black book with black type and a black CD that served as a meditation on noise. A soft hiss of this world is the yin to its yang, a white book with white type and a clear Flexi-disc that addresses silence, sound and snow. The two form a fascinating diptych. Dark Sound is the more political, an indictment of the intrusion of noise from profit barons and non-indigenous people; in this stark context, silence implies silencing. Yet while A soft hiss of this world is less overt, its societal implications range from the censorship of speech to the extinguishing of languages. Just as snow can muffle or amplify, and the color white can mean all colors or none, the winter landscape ~ and in this case, soundscape ~ is transformed into a tabula rasa.
Again, those who purchase the bundle will need to deal with some necessary frustration. The type is best read on an angle in direct light (sunlight being better than artificial light in this instance). The Flexi-disc ~ which fortunately does not need to be cut from any mooring ~ is the only sonic document, serving as a parable of abrasion. As the label writes, “each listening destroys the sound” (italics included). In short, don’t look for it on Spotify or iTunes. Once upon a time, this was the way we listened to music, and there’s an invisible reward to such tactile interaction, along with a certain sadness: this is fragile, this is temporary, this is already changing as a result of my touch. Nieto underlines the point in a visual experiment, portraying first the code of lost files and then John Cage’s “Lecture on Nothing,” erasing all but the punctuation and final sentence.
Before we reach that point, a series of essays prepares for the experience of sound. Tim Ingold contributes “Sounds of Snow,” a thought exercise that emphasizes the properties of precipitation, accumulation, and deterioration (the life cycle of Frosty the Snowman). The wind becomes a supporting character, along with the ice, decorated with dirt and bubbles of air. From here, Ingold branches into the sound of interacting, which for humans is mostly walking on snow (though the author neglects to mention shoveling!). And then there is a beautiful section on the Finnish language’s 40+ words that refer to water, snow and ice. Carmen Pardo Salgado follows this with “Crystals of Silence,” expanding from the photography of Snowflake Bentley to the paintings of Kandinsly to Debussy’s “The Snow Is Dancing” to Walter Benjamin’s prose and eventually to Citizen Kane, focusing on “a new silence,” once described by Wallace Stevens as “the nothing that is.” Selgado’s final section contains a light language barrier, as the North American reader soon realizes that “snow ball” means “snow globe” and not the thing we throw at the heads of people we love. And then Nieto leads us to the recording through “This is nothing,” a lovely extended poem that meditates on snow and scale, sound and silence.
And now, the moment you’ve all been waiting for: what does the recording sound like? A soft hiss of this world is not as soft as the title implies, but it’s fascinating. The timbres include squeaks and squeals that are akin to the yanking of a photograph needle, and below that a light static and pop (or is that the needle? It’s impossible to tell). The overall impression is of paratrooper flakes landing on an ice field in a moderate wind, which is something like one might expect given the photo on the right. The twist is that when one thinks of snow, one thinks of sight rather than sound, and the only way to catch this sound is through amplification. This is less Christmas card snow than glacial melt. The “nothing that is” may one day be the nothing that isn’t, melting away like the static below the needle as it reaches the end, producing something that sounds like what we would imagine snow to be, although ironically it’s the only part that isn’t snow at all. (Richard Allen)