Sound and Documentary in Cardiff and Miller's Pandemonium

Recovering Pandemonium

Pandemonium began for its percipients in a peripatetic confrontation with Eastern State Penitentiary. Located in Philadelphia’s downtown Cherry Hill neighborhood, the site was an operational prison from 1829 through 1971 then abandoned and reopened as a prison museum in 1994. [9] Its eleven acres are enclosed by imposing perimeter walls. [10] The penitentiary faces Fairmont Avenue, a broad east-west thoroughfare that turns to parkway half a mile due west along the Schuylkill River, where it winds past two other stalwarts in Philadelphia’s modernizing city infrastructure—the Philadelphia Museum of Art and Fairmont Water Works. One enters the penitentiary at its formidable south wall, a “severe and ordered” surface, 30-feet high and built of “long, very carefully jointed and coursed stone.” [11]  Massive scale and medieval-inspired details like crenelated turrets suggest both fortress and ecclesiastical complex, “[injecting] notes of the heroic and sublime” consonant with its Romantic period conception. [12]
Within the walls, 15 cellblocks, constructed piecemeal between 1822 and 1959, reveal themselves gradually. From the prison yard, the visitor enters the outer limit of a cellblock and traverses its length to a large octagonal space. Here the penitentiary’s radial plan becomes suddenly clear. Cellblocks extend from this central observation room, like spokes on a wheel. Free of partitions, the hub provides sightlines down the central axes of seven cellblocks original to architect John Haviland’s (1792–1852) plan. Haviland conceived this design to promote, “watching, convenience, economy, and ventilation,” for the purpose of administering an especially hygienic panopticon. [13] Cellblock seven, where Pandemonium held court, is the last built under Haviland’s supervision in 1836 and, “arguably the most visually dramatic block at Eastern State Penitentiary.” [14] 

Barrel-vaulted like a cathedral, cellblock seven is 356 feet long, 30 feet high, and crowned by three colossal skylights. 131 cells flank a central aisle at ground level and in recessed upper galleries. According to Cardiff, the artists chose this space for its “high arched ceilings, two storeys of cells and beautiful skylights.” [15] Cells repeat one after another in parallel rows, facing across an aisle. Narrow, rectilinear doorframes echo the orderly balusters of upper gallery railings. A balcony stretches between second-story catwalks, its sweeping vista culminating in a rounded, vertical window above the outer door, a luminous recapitulation of the cellblock’s overall form. The block appears perfectly symmetrical, partitioned into equal, isolated units much as the individual person within was to be smoothed and reformed body and mind to the civic ensemble. Order now crumbles at the level of the unit, however; inside, each cell is a picture of material disintegration. 

Being in the space is only obliquely suggestive of prisoners’ experiences. The site instead provides a visual record of ways in which history folds in on itself. The air is cool and damp, stilled by the museum’s conventional hush made yet more solemn by the subject of incarceration. When operations were suspended in 1971, Eastern State Penitentiary was left to decay until the late 1980s. [16] Its selective restoration as a “stabilized ruin”—a curious, late-twentieth-century adaptation of a Romantic conceit—rendered it accessible for tours in 1994. [17] Now layers of paint peel and plaster flakes from walls. Dust and odd remnants of furniture comingle in the cells, left over from multiple periods in the site’s 142 years as a dwelling. Cells are left in disrepair or selectively restored to approximate appearances at certain decades. Didactic wall panels mediate the visitor’s interpretation, as does “The Voices of Eastern State” audio tour, included in admission, with its blend of documentary detail and sensational information about celebrity inmates and the site’s use as a film set. [18]

Visitors more than likely heard Pandemonium before reaching cellblock seven. [19] Parts of the composition are terribly loud. [20] One might enter the corridor at any point in the sixteen-minute loop, beckoned by its sounds or following a tour route. How to attend, from which vantage and for how long, were decisions largely up to the individual. One person might stand transfixed through multiple cycles, at the entrance to the block or deep within the space. Another might wander up and down the cellblock for one full cycle, turn immediately to leave, or come and go freely, listening at a slight remove. The visual effect of the cellblock is so powerfully stunning, moreover, that taking it in may have, at first, overwhelmed efforts to listen. Pandemonium involved not only listening and looking but also moving the body and feeling vibrations of sound pass from the ground through the feet and through the air to one’s skin and hairs. These many simultaneous modes of sensing the artwork would have been impossible fully to disentangle even when they conveyed conflicting information.

The central trigger for this multisensory experience was music pulsating in the space. On the extant recording, Pandemonium’s compositional structure sounds deliberately untidy and ambiguous. [21] It progresses sequentially, indeed musically, with repeated, contrapuntal themes that build to a unified climax, but it also intermingles ambient noises to such a degree that the percipient wonders at moments if her ears might be tricking her into making sense of unintended soundings. Pandemonium begins with bass objects tapped in call-and-response patterns up and down the distance of the corridor (Track 1A 00:09–1:03), followed by a similar conversation between treble things (Track 1B 1:04–1:39). This code-like rapping becomes a pulse for the piece, taking up residence in other themes and resurging between later passages. Next, taps diffuse into environmental noises that only tentatively suggest settling foundations, clinking wind chimes, or rattling steam radiators (Track 1C 1:40–2:22). These aimless, abstract sounds, so at home in a stabilized ruin as to seem meaningless, pervade the composition as much as the tapping, returning repeatedly to temper its associative power.
Soon, these two modes blend. Sounds seem at one moment random and the next urgently significant. (Track 1D 2:23–3:20). This urgency takes firm, narrative hold for a minute as bass objects crack like gun shots and mount to an alarming volume in the company of rattling treble, but it diffuses just as suddenly when they die off (Track 1E 3:21–4:15). After a few seconds of near-quiet, a double beat of bass drums advances. It reaches a pace like an adrenaline-fueled heartbeat and then ceases (Track 1F 4:16–5:25). An indeterminate, open period follows. Muffled stretches bring to the fore sounds of pigeons flying in and out of the ruin, but a moment later the corridor fills again with indomitable tapping (Track 1G 5:26–6:20). Discrete, repetitive knocks morph gradually into more grooving rhythms, overlapping as they build a dance beat (Track 1H 6:21–7:06). Suddenly, the dance theme is undeniable (6:33). As Cardiff described, “it feels like you’re in a rave, like dance music, like boom-chicka-boom.” [22] This brief, exuberant interlude, teases the percipient then concludes abruptly with four rounds of rhythmic pounding (6:55–7:06). 

Methodical ticking ushers in a resonant, repetitive gong like a clock tower counting the hour 24 times (Track 1I 7:07–9:20). Midway through, its timbre transmutes into a low rumbling, and its rhythm slows to an elegiac crawl. After a long silence, a low, clattering glissando rolls up and down the cellblock like batons dragged across bars then beat against an arsenal of timpani (Track 1J 9:21–10:10). An open, transitional period follows, this time featuring indeterminate noises that grow threateningly loud and seem to congregate (Track 1K 10:11–11:20). An eight-beat treble striker counts off, like a conductor or click-track, slowly at first and then once more at twice the speed, initiating a raucous, extended reprise of the ebullient dance theme (Track 1L 11:21–13:54). The dance beat rolls up and down the block in a second glissando, dissipating into ambient noise. Repetitive, unison blows fill the space and accelerate into Pandemonium’s climax (Track 1M 13:55–15:49), which sounds ultimately like a riot fueled by the libidinal release of the dance. Dance beat and militant noises engage one another in a master-level call-and-response before sounding a double beat and coming to an end. Charged silence follows (Track 1D 15:50–16:02)  until the tapped exchange signals another loop. [23]  

The cellblock announces itself as a totalizing visual experience, but Pandemonium coaxed visitors to look about themselves differently, in more localized ways, as they tracked the sources of these sounds. This iterative process of looking called into question the efficacy of the penitentiary’s visual schema in real lived experience, concentrating its possible nuances and uneven qualities. As Torchia observed, “Visual access to the cells is limited. Those on the second floor are completely out of reach and those on the ground floor are unusually dim.” [24] The grandeur and scale of the space solidified its impression of stillness, unperturbed by whatever was causing the sounds yet the sounds themselves exposed the falseness of this impression. [25] In her review of Pandemonium for Art in America, Carol Diehl corroborated a tension between the immediacy of the sounds and fact that they emanated from “unobtrusive,” “hidden,” and “unseen” sources. [26] In spite of its sublime reserve, the building itself was producing these noises, displacing its intended flows of power away from the singular center toward a plethora of actors emitting trajectories of sound in every direction.  

Black cords “trailing out of all the cells on both floors” compelled visitors to “walk down the corridor to investigate” the source of these sounds. [27] Their live quality was apparent, and percipients soon caught their makers in action. A single robotic ‘beater’ stood in each cell, snug to its object. Each robot had a distinct visual character, comprising an armature of varying height such as a microphone stand or metal bucket rigged to a wooden drumstick or pedal, Plexiglas wand, metal screw, or felt-wrapped mallet. These strikers were controlled by PianoDisc solenoids, little motors used in player pianos. The thin black cords snaking out of the cells wired the solenoids to a MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) system with two computer-controlled, pressure-sensitive keyboards. Thick bundles of cable converged on one upstairs cell, revealing the presence of this central system there. Sinuous, rubber tubes spilled over the threshold with a menacing, organic character, like the tentacles of some nesting, alien man o’ war. [28] At the same time, their obvious electronic function suggested artificial intelligence, a DJ booth, or central command on a submarine or spacecraft. The robotic beaters were similarly evocative hybrids. They comprised disparate prefabricated materials, industriously screwed together to perform their singular functions. Posted one to a cell, these automatons became semi-anthropomorphic presences, their appendages thwacking objects with apparent deliberation. 

The keyboards each controlled one side of the aisle. They were wired so that each key sent electrical energy to a single solenoid, which converted it into magnetic force of a predefined pressure along a gradient. The pressure flipped a mechanical switch that pushed the striker into action to make contact with its object with a tap, bang, or crash depending on its setting. As Miller explained:

It’s a mechanical thing. Every sound you hear is an acoustically produced sound, no speakers. A computer controls all these, we call them ‘beaters,’ that hit different things in each cell. And the way we composed it was that we had two keyboards connected to the system and every key was for a different room. [29]

Miller inventoried objects and charted their relative pitches. He added steel drums tactically to a dozen spaces to increase possible volume. His notes translated into a coding system for the keyboards that made legible their connections with the beaters. With Tonmeister Titus Maderlechner, the artists composed the sequence for the beaters to perform together and programmed it on a loop. [30] 

Pandemonium’s noise multiplied and metamorphosed in dialogue with both the architecture of the cellblock and the bodies of its visitors. Drawn in by suggestions of a ghost story, percipients found themselves instead in the company of robots. Though clearly functional objects, the beaters were uncanny in their own way, seeming individually incommensurate with the force and tenacity of their collective output. They caused mute objects suddenly to resonate, and those vibrations traveled up and down, back and forth through the volume of atmosphere contained in the corridor until deflected by a wall or channeled beyond the block. With hard, angular surfaces, the acoustic environment was bright but also modulated with the fuzzier sounding-boards of visitor bodies, curving vaults, and moist dust piles. [31] Glissandi occur twice in Pandemonium, and in those moments, “every object in every cell [seemed] to be struck in quick succession up and down the block . . . like an x-ray passing through whatever and whomever stands in its way.” [32] Pandemonium offered a remarkably visceral experience of this environment, bringing visitors bodies into intimate contact with a building and world of things that could otherwise feel remote. 

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