“The Radical Songbirds of Islam” by Jonathan Borofsky (1987)
Borofsky has been singing and writing music almost as long as he has been painting; that is, since he was a child. But this audio tape bears little resemblance to a children’s song. Partly influenced by Islamic prayer chants the artist heard over a radio while in Jerusalem, The Radical Songbirds of Islam is a collaboration between Borofsky and composer/performer Ed Tomney. The sounds were taken from a library of tones sung by Borofsky over a three-year period and were edited on tape according to a score generated from a computer program written by Tomney, based on Borofsky’s continuous counting toward infinity. There is no rhythmic structure to the music, no beginning and no end. It fills the space and bounces back and forth from speaker to speaker, emphasizing one area then another, sometimes passing from one to the next and back again. In this respect, and not unlike the artist’s experimentations with light in I Dreamed I Found a Red Ruby, the audio tape is a kind of dematerialized sculpture, engaging space and shaping our experience of it.
Borofsky lived in New York from the mid-1960s through the 1970s, when composers like Philip Glass and David Tudor were experimenting with computers and writing and performing computerized tape-sound pieces. They had been encouraged by the writings and compositions of John Cage, who had said as early as 1958: “New music: new listening. Not an attempt to understand something that is being said, for, if something were being said, the sounds would be given the shapes of words. Just an attention to the activity of sounds.” And in that same year: “The strict division of parts, the structure, was a function of the duration aspect of sound, since, of all the aspects of sound including frequency, amplitude, and timbre, duration, alone, was also a characteristic of silence. The structure, then, was a division of actual time by conventional metrical means, meter taken as simply the measure of quantity” (quotes are from John Cage, Silence, Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1973, pp. 10 and 18). Both the emphasis on music as sound activity and the understanding of structure as simple duration are evident in The Radical Songbirds of Islam. The chant-like sequence of tones sung by Borofsky and distributed through the space of the room in which one hears them is a sequence that could begin anywhere and finish nowhere. It is in itself a kind of march toward infinity, of which one hears a part, only a part, any part. (james cuno)
(suggested by llp)