Atrophy In The Key Of Dreaming Books

A musical performance by Gisle Martens Meyer based on the sound of knowledge – books, paper, words, shelves, libraries.

The concert uncovers a hidden universe of fantastic microscopic sounds, mysterious textures, quirky rhythms and lively swarms of dancing letters – gently haunted by a gentle digital ghost – does it want to play along, or scare us? Maybe it doesn’t know itself.

The musical battle between analogue and digital information unfolds itself through a captivating live audiovisual performance.

What’s it like, a concert of “books” in a library?

It is surprisingly rewarding – to be immersed in the sound of books in the dark amongst the shelves… a rich universe of sound and melody patiently reveals itself. There are quirky musical tones, tome-based beats, paper-thin flickering microsounds, skitterish fragments of fingers running in search over words, letters, the atmospheres and soundscapes bursting from the stories awaiting behind a spine.

In a way its kind of a musical version of the Blade Runner “enhance-enhance-enhace” trick – we’re endlessly zooming into more and more detail, the deeper we go, the more surprises await us.

Excerpts from “Atrophy In The Key Of Dreaming Books” – a book symphony from GMM on Vimeo.

There is a short introduction, and a subtle story-based structure to help exposing what the sounds “are”, but it is not necessary to enjoy it at all. It’s a great experience to just let the sounds, rhythm and music wash over us. Like a regular symphony, where we’re drifting in and out of details, it has a huge landscape to explore. But this time the musicians are books, letters and libraries – not strings and bows.

How did you come up with the idea of making music of books?

I’ve always been very fond of books and libraries – books are my best friends, and libraries a safe panic room. As a child I discovered the Norwegian sci-fi series “Starship Alexandria” by Jon Bing, young adult sci-fi about a library starship travelling the stars and trading in information and knowledge. This series, and its love for sharing and caring of knowledge while also being respectful of its power, profoundly influenced me.

I was also very fond of Michael Ende’s “The Never-Ending Story”, with its message of caring for stories and fcitional realities, and of course the opening scene of Ghostbusters (1984) with the creepy librarian going nuts with the archive cards. All these sources kind of seeded this project in me already back in the 80ies. So its primarily a project of childhood passion, simmering in me forever. I finally now felt ready to undertake it.

But also as an adult artist working with how digital technology and culture influeces us, I was interested in exploring the sound – the real concrete sonic texture – of information, knowledge and wisdom. Especially since we are now building a future where information is taking on an increasingly ephemeral, digital state. Change of form changes the content, that is inevitable, but in that process I want to explore the sonic consequences of this. What is the change in sonic properties regarding knowledge, and how does this affect both us and the knowledge itself?

By exploring and exposing the “music” hidden in the sound of knowledge, and the various shapes it can take, I’m trying to look at this from a playful and engaging perspective, possibly revealing consequences we can’t see from the regular angles.

How was this project created, how does it all work?

There’s a making-of video that explains how its all put together:

I spent a lot of time in libraries, making very quiet recordings, a lot of the work “under-cover” hiding in corners and behind shelves to record something. Most of the recording of sounds and video was done in italian libraries, mostly in Rome during an artist residency at Circolo Scandinavo.

The sounds were then painstakingly prepped, catalogued and processed – with the use of modern digital sound technology, cleaned and “enhanced”. But nothing is added, only noise is taken away to reveal the pure tonal elements of sounds. This way they work tonally as musical instruments, but still retain their “soul”, you can recognize them: A bouncy pageflip becomes a wooden piano-ish sound, and can play complex musical phrases but it still very much sounds like “a book”.

After building a full orchestra of these book sounds, the music is then composed, and the visuals – also from the same libraries – are set up as a responsive, audiovisual motion graphics work, that responds in realtime to the notes and sounds being performed. The live performance then uses all of this in a live context; I’m performing both the sounds of the books and images and videos of them, everything coming alive in their original shelves.

The project results in a music video, and a live performance that performs in libraries, museums, theatres (and also fantastic places, like swimming pools and mountain cabins!).

The production was funded by NOPA, TONO and Bergen Kommune, and a Norwegian library tour was funded by Fond For Lyd og Bilde and Hordaland Fylkeskommune. I also got a lot of support and assistance from the team at Circolo Scandinavo and especially Pia at Villa Lante.

Here’s a bunch of stills from the video, performances and production: