“Find the highest tone on the circuit board of a digital delay pedal. Try to move as little as possible.” These are the instructions for Salon De Flato, a 33-minute piece of minimal electrical improvisation by the San Diego-based artist Steve Flato. As instructions go, they’re pretty direct. But it’s the awareness of limitation lurking beneath that is captivating. “Try to move as a little as possible.” An implicit acknowledgement of the frailty of the human machine, almost like Beckett in its pained resignation. “Try”. You can only try, because you won’t be able to hold steady forever. You will fail.
I guess you could call Salon de Flato a process piece – albeit with a process that is, well, minimal – although Flato’s instructions to the performer also remind me of Manfred Werder’s text scores, with their elliptic meditations and oblique instructions. And, while there’s less room for interpretation in Salon De Flato than in Werder’s work, it’s the humanity and pathos implicit in Flato’s instruction that gets me. I mean, you could set all this up using a computer, right? And you’d be certain of getting a nice steady signal. But that would be a lot less interesting. “Try to move as little as possible”. For how long? Forever? Because, at some point your arm will ache, you’ll develop cramps, your ass will start to go numb, whatever. You will fail, although it will be a heroic, pathos-ridden failure. Because “as little as possible” in reality is never little or long enough.
Salon de Flato is fascinating in its minimalism. There’s almost nothing going on except for that high-pitched tone, somewhere between a whine and a squeal. It’s almost too high to hear, mostly, seeming to vibrate around the top and back of my skull rather than floating into my ear canals (I’m sure that if I had a dog, there would be canine freak-outs a plenty). Nevertheless, this reduced soundworld holds within in it a remarkable way of focusing attention. Listening to it is like staring at a single pebble for half an hour. Just as the pockmarks and cracks on the pebble’s smooth surface take on an epic significance, the geological upheavals of the planet in microcosm, Salon de Flato’s minute fluctuations and flickers in signal become events of sonic drama. Listen to the glitches and snaps at around 14:45. Are they the result of the all-too-human operator losing control of the circuit board, signalling an unavoidable decay as the human machine declines? There does seem to be an increase in the bursts and splintered fuzz in its second half …can’t … hold … on … any… more … Cap’n … she’s … gonna … blow … Or are these buzzes and blisters in fact ghost voices leaking out from the PCB, nano spirits fleeing from their semiconductor prison, that we listeners catch on the wind, like latter day Wichita Linemen? … I hear you singin’ in the wire … I can hear you through the whine … Perhaps we grasp them only for a fleeting moment before they dissipate into the air, anonymous molecules at one with the universe, borne on the endless gravity waves of the cosmos.