Back In The Game Essay

In the game of Telephone, a message gets repeated from person to person in a chain. By the time it comes around again, it's been transformed.

With each repetition, information is lost. Or maybe what happens is that information is added. What we are left with at the end is a degraded image of the original message. Or, perhaps, we should say we end up with a new message, one that tells us something about the members of the chain — their expectations, skills, degree of understanding, attentiveness, etc.

I was at MIT a few weeks ago, at the Center for Art, Science and Technology, attending a conference where I got to hear Alvin Lucier performing his 20th century classic, "I am sitting in a room." The performer — in this case the composer himself — records his voice making a statement about what he is doing. "I am sitting in this room, the same room you are sitting in. I am recording the sound of my speaking voice ..." And so on. This is then played back and recorded again. This new recording is then played back. And recorded again. Each playback sounds like a pretty faithful rendition of what came before.

After about 16 rounds of this, however, what we are given is sound that bears no recognizable relation to the original utterance. The sounds we hear are not those of a human voice. The words are gone. Even the rhythm is unrecognizable as that of speech. Something familiar has been made strange, before our very ears and eyes, simply through the action of copying. The subtle degradations of each recording cycle get compounded in the iteration and reiteration.

It is magical. It is breathtaking. It is heart-stoppingly beautiful. You can hear the piece here. And here is a video of a recent performance:


At the end we must wonder, as we did with the game of Telephone: Are we getting a degraded signal or is the final message a signal imbued with unimagined new content — a disclosure of the room's very own resonant nature, as the artist himself suggests, or of the true essence of sound, or, indeed, of speech?

That's how it is with art. A phenomenon — in this case the basic phenomenon of speaking, expressing meaning in words, and also that of copying or recording what we hear — is laid bare before our eyes. The artist did so much by doing nothing, by letting nothing happen. In one sense, this was a trick. A gimmick. Like the game of Telephone. But a trick so straight forward, and so smart, that it rises to the level of the lyrical, indeed, of the musical.

The composition is also an interesting example of the way technology and art work together. Tape is an old technology. It was not a cutting-edge technology even in 1970, when Lucier first made this work. And yet the work would be impossible without tape recording. In a way, this is a kind of investigation of what tape recording actually is.

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A ferociously ambitious politician who loves the spotlight, he has been a spectator while Britain’s Brexit negotiating position has been thrashed out by Mrs. May, the chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Hammond, and David Davis, the chief negotiator on withdrawal.

“Boris has been sidelined in this negotiation,” said Andrew Gimson, author of “Boris: The Adventures of Boris Johnson.” “And if you are shut out of the great project of our times, you really are sidelined. You become entirely invisible.”

Mr. Gimson said, “This is Boris saying, ‘You can’t ignore me.’” But he noted that Johnson’s article was carefully phrased to avoid overtly contradicting Mrs. May’s policy, even if it struck a markedly different tone, generating days of publicity.

His intervention staked out a clear position in the Conservative Party ahead of Mrs. May’s speech. If she does, as expected, strike a conciliatory tone with Europe, particularly over the payment of tens of billions as a “divorce bill,” that could unlock stalled negotiations with the remaining 27 European Union nations.

With a party conference just around the corner, Mr. Johnson is making himself available as an alternative to a large segment of the party that would see Mrs. May’s softening stance as a betrayal. “He is offering himself as a different kind of leader, who would negotiate in a different spirit,” Mr. Gimson said.

In some respects, the surprise is that Mr. Johnson — who lately has found himself in Nigeria and on a hurricane-hit Caribbean island while colleagues in London debate withdrawal from the European Union, the one policy that matters to him — has been so quiet for so long.

In recent months his low profile has taken him from leader-in-waiting to also-ran, according to one recent poll among the activists of the Conservative party who will ultimately pick its next leader. That showed him to be well behind Jacob Rees-Mogg, a caricature upper-class Conservative who is not even a minister, let alone in the cabinet.

This is where the politicking comes in. Now a pariah to pro-Europeans, Mr. Johnson undoubtedly sees that he needs to be popular among Brexit supporters if he is retain a chance of succeeding Mrs. May.

If and when that contest happens, Mr. Johnson does not need to be the leading candidate, just one of the top two chosen by Conservative lawmakers – a big chunk of whom are Brexit enthusiasts. At that point, the voting goes to Conservative Party members, who also tend to favor Brexit.

Mr. Johnson will have a chance to rally party members to his cause at next month’s annual convention, where he usually gives a humorous and rousing speech to a standing ovation. It will be a much harder occasion for Mrs. May, a poor public speaker who must explain her failure in the June election while reassuring hard-liners that she can deliver a successful Brexit.

That Mr. Johnson remains in his post is a testament to Mrs. May’s vulnerability. She knows it would take just 48 of her own lawmakers to provoke a leadership contest that she would probably lose, and Mr. Johnson has several dozen potential supporters in Parliament.

All this has deepened Mrs. May’s woes over the Brexit talks, which were already legion.

In a sign of the tensions, Britain’s top Brexit official, Oliver Robbins, left Mr. Davis’s department and moved to the Cabinet Office to work more directly for Mrs. May. The BBC reported that there had been tension between Mr. Robbins and Mr. Davis.

Meanwhile, in a stream of Twitter posts, Dominic Cummings, who directed the official pro-Brexit referendum campaign last year, described the situation as a “shambles.”

More pragmatic voices are appealing to Mrs. May to start preparing British voters for the trade-offs that most analysts see as unavoidable if Britain is to avert a potentially calamitous “cliff edge” departure from the bloc without any deal.

Yet a significant shift from Mrs. May — like calling for a lengthy transition period after the March 2019 deadline, during which Britain would continue to pay into the European Union’s budget — now looks unlikely before her party convention, pushing back further a tight negotiating timetable. That will heighten concern for businesses that have little idea of what to expect when Britain leaves the European Union in March 2019.

Given her domestic constraints, Mrs. May’s speech will not go far enough to satisfy European Union leaders, predicted Mujtaba Rahman of the Eurasia Group. He cited Mr. Johnson’s intervention as one of the constraints upon her.

“His article made no mention of a transitional phase and rejected the Chancellor Philip Hammond’s plan to pay for Single Market access,” Mr. Rahman wrote.

“While Johnson’s intervention will inevitably be seen as a leadership bid by his critics,” he added, “it is probably more of a marker; a reminder to the prime minister that she will face a difficult conference and that she should not freeze him out of the Brexit process. “

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