Disappearing Music for Face

The concept is simple enough: a black and white film records an open mouth slowly close. By "slowly," I mean "over about ten minutes."

Over the course of said ten minutes, there is no other change. The shot's angle remains the same. The framing remains the same.

Also, there is no sound.

Link: https://youtu.be/mXkCI6yZlGg

The Experience

Assmuming one hasn't left the room of boredom or shuffled away in anger, vaguely gesticulating while muttering something about "the death of art" -

There's something uncanny about the image. A loose paraphrase of Freud's 'uncanny' - something once thought familiar has become unfamiliar. Like most uncanny things, it's difficult to pinpoint the reason for the reaction. I suppose, if it were easy to digest, the uncanny wouldn't be uncanny.

Interpreting the expression is difficult, for one thing, and it's not for lack of time. The film gives ample opportunity to cogitate over the image and what emotion the performer might be trying to convey. I hesitate to call the expression a smile. A grimace, perhaps? Not that either. It is an expression just shy of "neutral."

We see only the mouth, the chin, and one cheek. The nose, eyes, and forehead (which, by the way, provide valuable information to interpret expressions) are all out of frame. No, not quite. They are obscured by black, the features not just cut out of frame, but absent entirely. Without seeing the face's eyes, we can't gauge the person's gaze to give context to the expression.

Compare and Contrast: a person smiling at a campfire versus a person smiling at a burning building.

Another reaction to the unmoving lack of eyes: we, the viewers, might, at one point, feel as though the mouth gazes at us.

One curious element of the image is its apparent flatness. On one side, the light blows out the image; on the other, the black is somehow too black for us to register as shadows. The eye lacks information to percieve depth which we know should be present. The title is lying in the sense that we do not see an entire face. In another sense, the title is true - we are seeing only a face, detached entirely from a head.

About two minutes pass before any movement occurs; or maybe it takes that amount of time to register the performer is, in fact, moving. The stillness is unsettling. A stranger in a store staring too long at the back of your head. Stillness and flatness gives the impression of a mask, or a doll. As an instructive exercise, count how many horror stories involve masks or dolls. Another perspective: the slow movement leads us to believe we are viewing a something (like a mask or a doll) which should be still, but isn't.

A face which appears to be a mask, a mask which turns out to be a face.

(As an interesting aside - Japan has both masked (Noh) and puppeted (bunraku) theater with long histories. I'd be curious to hear Shiomi's thoughts about the connection between those theaters and this face.)

The image does change, but it changes so slowly it is difficult to discern how or why. Gradually, the sense of "face" gives way to increasingly abstract shapes. These shapes come as much from the change in shadows cast by the changing shape of the lips as they do from a mind desensitized to the image. Semantic satiation - how many times can you say "face" before "face" doesn't sound like "face" anymore?

Eventually, pareidolia sets in. The shadows shift and settle into something our mind interprets as a face, though what kind of face will surely depend on the viewer. I personally saw something like a demented muppet. A kind of double vision sets in as the memory of the image we know to be a face is superimposed by a face we know not to be a face.

Pareidolia may also confirm the earlier suspicion of the mouth's "gaze." The front teeth, at a point, may appear to become eyes. Gaze for long into the mouth, and the mouth gazes back.

After a time, the shadows settle back into a place where we easily perceive recognizably human features. The darkness and ambiguities are dispelled. The mouth, now a mouth again, is closed. The question remains:

What music?

There is No Hear Here

The title promised music. The film is silent.

Technicality: there is a low, buzzing thrum throughout, a sound similar to a fluourescent lightbulb about to burn out. It is possible it is an artifact of the film's creation. It is possible that sound is the music. However, the sound does nothing to attract attention to itself, and my mind quickly categorized it as ambient rather than intentional. While the sound no doubt contributes somewhat to the uncanny effect, I personally doubt the sound is what Shiomi intends us to perceive as "music."

"Disappearing Music for Face" was created in 1965. By then, there was already precedent for "silent music." In 1915, Erwin Schulhoff wrote a piece composed entirely from rests titled "In Futurum." In 1952, John Cage composed 4'33, in which (a) musician(s) perform(s) three movements of silence. Shiomi, herself, wrote an action poem, "Boundary Music," instructing any number of performers to "Make the faintest possible sounds," whether it becomes audible or not.

Comparing Shiomi's "Boundary Music" to Cage's 4'33 gives clues to Shiomi's intent with "Disappearing Music for Face." With Cage's work, the musician's part is marked "Tacet," the instruction given performers to indicate their instrument does not perform during a movement of a larger composition. "Does not perform," but is not "absent," not, at least, unless the tacet players have time to sneak out for a drink or two (bottom of the 9th and the bassists are loaded, and all that).

Cage's intent is to draw the listener's attention away from the performer and towards the ambient sound in the room. The musician's presence is to act as an icon, to indicate to the audience that "performance listening" should be engaged. In 4'33, the listener is expected to give the space's natural, incidental, and accidental sounds the same contemplative, engaged listening as they would bring to a recital of [insert one of the classical B's here]. Important point for the comparison, the musician is not present as a performer (How to Start an Argument: musicology version).

The musicians in Shiomi's "Boundary Music" may or may not make any sound at all, but their presence is clearly performative - attention is directed to the performers rather than to the environment and its ambiance. Audiences listen less than watch as the musicians pantomime the actions of creating sound - bows are drawn, mallets are swung, fingers move. A listener may or may not derive any meaning from whatever sounds are made, but witnessing the act of sound-making without any sound made is laden with significance.

"Disappearing Music for Face" is only a step removed from "Boundary Music." A performative composition with almost no sound to a performative composition with literally no sound. "No sound," but not "no instrument." When I first saw the title, I had assumed there would be music accompanying a film of a face. Expectations successfully thwarted!

Then I came to think of the title in another way, the common naming convention of Western Classical music "genre for instrument."

Sonata for piano.

Concerto for violin and orchestra.

Disappearing Music for Face.

The Endless Ending

When does The End end?

Gustav Holst finishes "The Planets" (1916) with Neptune, our solar system's last* (RIP Pluto) planet. The work's final bar consists of two chords sung by the choir. It is marked "To be repeated until the sound is lost in the distance." Holst's intention is obvious - the suggestion is, the music continues on and on, endlessly, past audibility, a gesture to the boundary of human comprehension.

During the 1950's, the musical fade-out becomes commonplace to meet the time constraints of radio DJs and vinyl records. It did not take long for musicians to adopt the recording practice for their own aesthetic reasons.

Shiomi, between 1963 and '64, conceived and constructed the Endless Box. It is a wooden box which contains 34 paper boxes which spiral inwards and downwards, shrinking to a final point in the center. A physical suggestion of a process which continues to infinity.

What of "Disappearing Music for Face?" It records the final moment of musical expression. The sound has dwindled to inaudibility, but the performance is not yet over. The Planet's conductor's baton is yet held aloft. The audience strains to hear the disappearance and the music moves from moment to memory.

Endless Box suggests a process which begins but has no end. Disappearing Music might suggest an ending with no beginning. Or, perhaps, any beginning. The ambiguous expression appears to the eye how a sound appears to the ear which the attack has been removed - snip off the first milliseconds of a recorded sound and it becomes very difficult to identify the sound's instrumental source. Pull the last few stills of a filmed facial expression and ask someone to identify what preceded it - similarly difficult, maybe impossible.

Either way, point is, it ends.

The baton drops. The record player clicks off. The mouth at last closes.

"Disappearing Music" stops with an unceremonious cut.

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