blackbirdonline journalSpring 2015  v14n1

Flight Song

Richard Carlyon’s Flight Song playfully constructs a song of sorts from footage of the mundane act of ascending stairs. Published originally in the inaugural issue of Blackbird in 2002, the piece is in homage to composer and artist John Cage and has been remastered for this presentation. “An Interview with Richard Carlyon” accompanies the original publication of the video. A condensed excerpt of that text appears below.

When John Cage passed away in 1992, just a few weeks before his eightieth birthday, I knew that I wanted to do something in a kind of homage to him. For a long time, I had followed his activities as a composer, as a writer, as a performer, as a poet, as a humorist, and certainly his various activities with sound and noise. I initially thought of doing something, some kind of construction that might include sound and objects and paint, but that seemed fixed. And when I think of John Cage, I think of something that’s fluid, porous, open. He’s not working for closure, he’s working for openness. That’s the sense I have of him as a person and as an artist.

And, one day (this wasn’t in my mind at all) I was walking up the staircase in the Art Foundation building at the VCU campus, and I was the only person in the building. Classes were closed. It was in the break between the end of the spring term and before the summer session began. And as I ascended the staircase—once I got to the top and started to walk down the hall—I heard the echo of the creak of the steps in my head. It was not intended. It’s something that everybody does every day of the week—walk up and down a flight of steps—yet you don’t pay attention to it. But if you isolate the sound you’re creating, according to Cage, it could be thought of as musical. So I decided to do a video.

Initially I thought of engaging someone to walk up and down the steps, and I would record it. But then I was afraid I’d get “arty” with it. I started thinking about the composition of the picture of the person and I decided to do it myself. I would just put the camera on a tripod, fix the focus so it did cover the stairway, and I would just walk up and down the steps for a half hour—which is what I did. And then, since I didn’t want it to be a portrait, I didn’t want my facial features to show in any way. I decided to wear a black linen suit. I was bare-chested and in my bare feet because I didn’t want the image to convey that the weight of my shoes was making this sound or that I was stamping on the steps. So I set the camera up, and I just walked up and down the stairs and I had a half hour of tape. Then I went to the video lab, and I edited out all the images of my walking down the steps. In other words, I just kept the ones of ascending the steps. Once I had that—that was my master tape—I then decided in the spirit of Cage to use a chance-determined structure to compose the piece. Using a simple arithmetical system, I determined, first of all, how long would this piece be, and it came out five minutes and, I think, thirty-three seconds. Then I determined at what point in the thirty-minute tape (well, it was actually down to about sixteen minutes after I edited out the descending), at what point within that sixteen minutes would I enter the tape. Once I found that point on the editor, I determined how long—what would be the duration and how long will this run? Would it be one second, two, three, five, ten, whatever? That was all determined by chance. Then I asked myself, “Is this to be repeated? Yes or no?” And that was determined by chance. If it was yes, then, how many times is it to be repeated? And if no, I just would go on to the next entry point.

I worked on this for about a year and a half, and when I completed it, it came out to exactly the five minutes and thirty seconds. When I edited it, I had the soundboard on, of course, but I didn’t listen to it. I turned the volume down because I didn’t want to be influenced by it. I just paid attention to these dials on the editor and when I completed the assignment I gave myself, I played it. The play between the image of this man’s body walking up a staircase and the various creaks and sounds that are occurring from the weight of the body as it hits these steps going up created the piece. And I felt it was an appropriate homage to John Cage.  

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