Music for Writers 4: The Sound of One Face Flapping and the Slow Unfolding of Prisoner Time

flababble 1 from Jaap Blonk on Vimeo.

The remarkable Dutch vocalist, writer, composer, and sound poet, Jaap Blonk, has recently began exploring video. The little piece posted above is a funny and fascinating exploration of the secret performances of the face.

Much of what happens in the world and in our bodies is invisible or unknowable. Slowing things down, whether through the technology of a haiku (eg. isolating a frog jumping into a pond) or through the slowed down playback of a video (as in this examination of the horizontal flapping of a face going buh-buh-buh-buh) takes us into another world, one different yet parallel from our own. Time is the only difference here. What else don’t we see? The wings of a hummingbird? The moment before someone pulls a trigger? The almost instantaneous spread of a cultural meme? How many of us do silly or extreme things in front of a mirror? In front of a camera?

When we first see this video, we can’t figure out what is happening. How can a face be so malleable, how can it shake so, the flesh so far away from the bone? Is Blonk a physiognomical virtuoso? Then we realize. It’s slow motion. It actually a very common kind of movement. The result is grotesque, playful, humourous, and strangely mesmerizing and unsettling. And what is that sound? It’s not a giant killer hummingbird. It is Blonk’s voice making the sounds which accompany such facial movements.

What is the sound of one face flapping? What would it look like if our perceptions existed in a different temporal plane than the events before. This is, I understand, how some animals see things. How astronauts gazing back at the citizens of the world see, looking back at us all shaking our heads, “no, no, no.” Maybe we’re all in disagreement. Maybe we’re amusing a small child. Or ourselves. Maybe we’re trying to shake loose of our own bodies. Or time.


Coming Together, by Frederic Rzewski, performed at RPI 2008 from Michael Century on Vimeo.

The American composer Frederic Rzewski frequently engages with political issues in his work. His monumental piano piece in an accessible style, The People United Will Never Be Defeated is a set of variations on the famous Chilean leftist liberation hymn. His music, however, not only explores radical political ideas but often explores radical musical forms and relations between the performers and the composer.

The video which appears above is a performance of his piece, Coming Together which is based on letters written from Attica State prison, in upstate New York, by the anti-war protester and member of the American radical left organization, The Weather Underground Organization, Sam Melville, during the first months of his incarceration in 1971. The piece is quite simple. A repeating minimalist instrumentalaccompaniment of a spoken text. However, a powerful and slow building tension  is created over time by the repetitive gradually changing text and music. This reflects the narrator’s battle with self-control, anger, boredom, sanity, and the prison experience. Prisoners experience a difference sense of time, and listening to this piece, we experience that, too.

The above performance is performed by Kevin Craig West, (vocalist), and the Rensselaer Contemporary Music Ensemble in a performance led by David Gibson.


Gary Barwin is a writer, musician, and performer. His PhD disertation, Martin’s Idea (listen here) was a composition for reciter, interactive computer system, and MIDI keyboard. Some of his other music with spoken text can be found here. His new books are The Porcupinity of the Stars (Coach House, 2010) and The Obvious Flap (with Gregory Betts), just out from BookThug.

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