Issue #144 Singing the Zahir Away: Lucier Meets Borges

Singing the Zahir Away: Lucier Meets Borges

Alessandro Bosetti

Image courtesy of Alessandro Bosetti & Fatima Bianchi.

Issue #144
April 2024

My fascination with the different mnemotechnical devices designed by Giordano Bruno and Giulio Camillo has often led me to wonder what a memory theater made of sounds instead of images might look like. Bruno, a philosopher, put forward a complex system of astronomical, linguistic, and alchemical correspondences with a neo-Platonic imprint. Giulio “Delminio” Camillo, also a philosopher, imagined a veritable theater of memory, centered around a stage. Technical designs aside, memory itself—“pure memory” as the philosopher Henry Bergson put it—remains an elusive subject.1 In this text, I am interested in how sound memories can be absorbed and replaced by verbal simulacra such as descriptions and titles. To explore this, I put into conversation two figures who have often accompanied me in my reflections: the American composer Alvin Lucier (1931–2021) and the Argentine writer and poet Jorge Luis Borges (1899–1986). I also interpose Bergson (1859–1941) as something of a mediator.

Imaginary reconstruction of Giulio Camillo’s Theatre, seventeenth century.

Linguistic Compression

During my frequent exchanges with experimental music enthusiasts, I am sometimes compelled to guess how a piece of music sounds based solely on a linguistic description of it. Lucier has come up countless times in these exchanges. Lucier’s music, more than that of many other composers, lends itself to being evoked through anecdotes that invariably begin with: “There is a piece by Alvin Lucier in which …” As a result of this opening, and through an exquisitely linguistic analogical and metaphorical process, I have seen entire aural worlds be collapsed into cramped and synthetic verbal propositions. Lucier’s case is ironic in that as a composer he was particularly interested in the materiality of sound.

Even in the case of more classical musical forms, language plays a role in activating recollection: Beethoven’s Third is “heroic,” Mahler’s Eight “gigantic,” Webern’s Lieder series is aphoristic “like a haiku,” Debussy’s symphonic works are “flou” (vague). But in Lucier’s music—as in that of his contemporaries like Alison Knowles, John Cage, George Brecht, Yoko Ono, the early La Monte Young, and in others who produced text scores—the summarizability of the idea seems to be accentuated, while sensation seems to collapse into a sentence or series of sentences. In such work, language is a crucial agent in the process of transmission and remembrance. In the idiom around the works of the above composers, adjectives—which always evoke the possibility of a hypothetical reference object—are replaced by self-sufficient propositions that aim to take the place of the work.

Lucier’s music seems to transpose the memories of its auditory qualities into words. Jorge Luis Borges investigates a similar process for memories, audio or otherwise. Traversing his writings, one finds many allusions to the reduction of memories by language. The idea of the collapse of a lived experience into a linguistic formulation is already fully expressed in his 1947 short story “The Immortal” (published in the collection El Aleph in 1949) in which Borges writes: “When the end draws near, there no longer remain any remembered images; only words remain … I have been Homer; shortly, I shall be no one, like Ulysses; shortly, I shall be all men; I shall be dead.”2 The reason for this progressive collapsing of all memory into the two-dimensionality of a linguistic plane correlates to immortality, implying the infinite repetition of all possible circumstances. In other words, Borges seems to say that everyone will be everyone, sooner or later bound to write all possible books. In this conception of temporal events and their reduction to language, individual lives and consciousnesses are inexorably flattened to an infinitely repeated script: this is the final transformation of every memory into “words”—or sounds, we might add.

In the impassioned conversations among music enthusiasts mentioned above, such reductions into “words” have gradually changed form. Over the decades, they have gone from aggregates of adjectives proper to Romantic and post-Romantic music criticism to more objective utterances: brief descriptions, summaries of text scores, anecdotes apt to substitute themselves for the memory of the musical work they describe.

Well-known compositions by Lucier are summarized in simple colloquial language. To describe his work I am sitting in a room (composed in 1969) one could say: “There is a piece by Alvin Lucier in which a text is recorded, the recording of which is in turn recorded several times in the same room, until the resonant frequencies of the room in question take over and transform the initial utterance into a drone.” However, such simplistic formulas are incommensurate with the physical, direct, temporal experience of listening to these works, even if the formulas are successful in evoking their mechanics. This latter fact indicates that the formulas can be bearers of meaning, more agile and manageable than the composition or score. What interests me here is not analyzing Lucier’s “text-based scores” or examining how he conceives of the way they function. Rather, I’m interested in how, after the piece has been created and performed, it can continue to exist as a memorized “linguistic composition,” an anecdotal reduction that circulates in informal conversations, articles, reviews, essays, and academic discourse. I wonder if, when one remembers or evokes such a composition, the nature of the memory is closer to a verbal formula than to an auditory sensation in the mind of the one remembering.

In another story from El Aleph, “Averroës’s Search,” Borges imagines the sage Averroës—at a time when the Iberian Peninsula was still called Al-Andalus—welcoming the merchant Al-Bucasim into his home in Cordova after the latter has returned from a long and fantastical journey. “What could he tell? Besides, they demanded wonders of him and marvels are perhaps incommunicable; the moon of Bengal is not the same as the moon of Yemen, but it may be described in the same words.”3 Here Borges poses questions about language and memory that are similar to those we are posing about language, sound, and memory. Think of the respective moons evoked in Debussy’s “Clair de Lune” and Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata; though the same celestial body is referenced in both pieces, the aesthetic renditions are very different. Without listening to these compositions, however, one might think there is only “one moon” in both pieces of music. In other words, though the moons would not be confused by the ear of a listener, they might be confused by the mind of a rememberer.

The advantage of collapsing a sound event into a linguistic formula is that such an event might not actually involve sound as conventionally understood—i.e., the moon has no universal sound, just as La Monte Young’s Composition #5 (1960), whose score reads “Turn a butterfly (or any number of butterflies) loose in the performance area,” produces (almost) no sound but forces us to imagine a sound beyond auditory perception. Lucier uses this very composition to distinguish between text scores that consist of instructions for realizing a composition (such as I am sitting in a room) and others “that simply present an idea, an interesting idea to think about.”4 This distinction may be valid when it comes to text scores, but it’s less useful when examining how the thought or memory of such works may linger in the mind when they are realized.

Until now we have inquired about sound experiences that collapse into linguistic utterances in the context of interpersonal communication. It’s also interesting when such a collapse occurs in the intimacy of a sound memory internal to and possessed by only one person. It’s legitimate to ask to what extent, in order to remember something—in this case a sound—one must go through a mental description, conscious or not, that is made up of “words.”

The Dark Realm of Pure Memory

Again in “The Immortal,” Borges—a writer intimately aware of language’s immense manipulative and ontologically hegemonic power—goes further in sketching a world without memory, one that curiously resembles the dark realm of pure memory described by Henry Bergson. Borges writes: “I imagined a world without memory, without time; I toyed with the possibility of a language that had no nouns, a language of impersonal verbs or indeclinable adjectives. In these reflections many days went by, and with the days, years. Until one morning, something very much like joy occurred—the sky rained slow, strong rain.”5 The secant line that succeeds here in crossing the shadow zone of pure memory is emotion, in this case the joy of morning rain. Such emotions are impossible to measure except by what David Lapoujade calls the dark number of quality, a nonquantitative number peculiar to poetic images, evocative of a whole that is seemingly impossible to remember (infinite memory would be required), but which nonetheless is perhaps the only thing truly remembered.6

In the case of a sound memory, we also ask whether it’s necessary to arrange the memory on the plot of linear time in order to perceive it, or whether it can be sensed instantaneously instead. Elsewhere I have suggested that while the sound recording presents itself as a powerful avatar of sound memory, reconstructing a sound memory from a recording forces us to unfold it in linear time, nailing us to a timeline, that is, to a spatial metaphor—what Bergson would call a “mix mal analysé” (poorly analyzed mix).7 The recording does not capture the emotional secant, the dèjà vu that encapsulates a crystallized whole and allows us to instantly recall something that would otherwise have a linear duration extended over a time measurable in seconds, minutes, hours. How much of a piece like I am sitting in a room can we instantly recreate in memory without the aid of a recording? To what extent might such a memory resemble an aural perception—while not unfolding in linear time—rather than a mere verbal description, encoded in language out of time, of a virtual rather than actualized experience? To what extent should this recollection extend in the chronometric and linear time of brain activity?

Detail of Frances Yates’s reconstruction of Giordano Bruno’s memory wheel from De Umbris Idearum, 1582. Warburg Institute.

The recorded versions of I am sitting in a room that I know of range in duration from twenty-five minutes—from one of Lucier’s last performances before his death in 2018—to forty-five minutes (1981).8 Should the act of remembering these therefore last twenty-five and forty-five minutes? Or just one instant? Would it suffice to evoke the formula of I am sitting in a room, in the form of a brief synopsis, to retrieve these memories? A fictional ethnomusicologist created by the pen of Claudio Morandini tackles this dilemma. He discerns the deceptive and fallacious nature of sound recording, which is nonetheless intended as an honest receptacle for sound memory. Dependence on the metaphor equating sound memory and sound recording, however, is so strong that getting rid of it requires a feverish delirium:

Some composers are known to be able to perform an entire piece note for note after listening to it only once. Well, I can do that too, recorder be damned. I’m listening: I’m gathering information, I’m visualizing notes on that series of staves that is my mind. In fact, I am not delirious at all, the fever that is plaguing me makes me perfectly lucid: I am nothing but a brain, I can perceive what others cannot even imagine exists. I transcribe into my memory an entire encyclopedia of songs, verses, calls, sobs, screams, and cries. I compose a symphony, indeed a cycle of symphonies, a twelve-hour oratorio, a four-day melodrama. And every sigh in this collective performance speaks to me, is endowed with meaning, as distinct as a syllable uttered by a good speaker on the radio.9

Whether the rememberer is delirious or not, memory seems to breathe, to oscillate between a linguistic compression of a few words (phrases folded in on themselves until they occupy very little space) and a perceptual decompression, in which pure memory, desiccated and shriveled like a dehydrated rag, rehydrates, reoccupying a volume and regaining form. In such an unfolding, it’s hard for us to say how much of the regained form is an invention (or an accident) and how much is the faithful redrawing of the original outline. This is made even more difficult because that form is nothing but consciousness itself, and perhaps it’s only within it that one can conceive of a recollection, avoiding the paradox of constant rebirth at every moment that would leave us amnesic and unconscious of our enduring in time.

Mix Mal Analysé

Bergson invites us to think of memory and time as detached from spatial and temporal metaphors. In being pure “duration,” memory and time are outside linear time. Memory is eternal in the sense that it’s neither prior nor posterior to the present, but coexists with it. Bergson’s pure memory resembles the argument of the Greek theologian Irenaeus, from the second century CE, that eternity is outside the passage of time. Borges speaks at length about Irenaeus in his essay “A History of Eternity,” and it’s no coincidence that the protagonist of his 1942 short story “Funes the Memorious” is named after the theologian from antiquity. The case of Funes is extraordinary: ever since a fall as a young man, he has remembered everything. His consciousness has become infallible. For him, “the present was almost intolerable in its richness and sharpness, as were his most distant and trivial memories … We, at one glance, can perceive three glasses on a table; Funes, all the leaves and tendrils and fruit that make up a grape vine.”10 The narrator of the story tells us that because his memory is not as powerful as Funes’s memory, the narration is nothing but a reminiscence. This reminiscence begins with a sonorous recollection of Funes’s voice: “I clearly remember his voice: the slow, resentful, nasal voice of the old-time dweller of the suburbs, without the Italian sibilants we have today.”11

How might Funes recollect a version of I am sitting in a room that he had heard? Ostensibly, it would last exactly as long as the performance itself; he would remember every detail, every accumulation of frequencies, every progressive increase in volume in a particular part of the spectrum, every individual appearance of some sonic reflection in some corner of the room. Funes’s experience of the piece would be totalizing, suffocating—all the more so because a particular frequency does not appear at a precise moment but rather emerges progressively dal niente (out of nothing). Perhaps Funes’s powerful memory is intolerable because, as Borges figures it, it is spatial and extended—a mix mal analysé. He remembers everything but not the whole, and is not able to sublimate such immensity into a set of emotions. As his memory takes up space, it ends up killing all feeling in him. The last line of the story tells us, coldly, that Funes died of lung congestion. But readers will have little doubt that it was the overflow of his outsized memory that killed him. Cognitive scientists might wonder, thinking of Funes, whether forgetting is purposefully undertaken by the brain to free up space and avoid existential asphyxiation.

I am inspired by this idea to propose a possibly impossible exercise in sound mnemonics: to imagine a potentiometer that, once a sound has been turned into a memory, adjusts its inner intensity and volume. At minimum, the potentiometer coincides with oblivion (the sound has been forgotten). At maximum, it coincides with an auditory hallucination (we are no longer able to tell whether it’s an imaginary sound or really heard).

It’s very interesting to listen to Borges speak in the recorded lectures that are online, because his blindness forced him to speak from memory. We sense how the subject matter has been prepared and a certain sequence of the talk is followed. However, he is also free to deviate from the path slightly and make each memory come alive in a different way. We perceive a memory that is present, alive, active, and above all capable of synthesizing, of reducing complex feeling to a few concise sentences that project dazzling poetic images.

My memory is much less powerful than Borges’s (not to mention Funes’s). It’s slippery, as crumbly as a downhill dirt road prone to landslides. Like many others I have a certain neurotic tic that makes me forget whether I really closed the front door when I left the house. I walk down the street and doubt assails me. I retrace my steps, I perform the same gesture cognitively, but my mind won’t cooperate. I replay leaving the house, but once I reach the street in my mind, doubt appears. The memory of an imaginary or repeated past and the perception of the present become confused. It’s not enough to utter the phrase “I locked the door,” since I no longer know at what moment, on what day, in what life I did so. To listen to music or sound is already to remember, to perceive a change from within, to recognize the new as already past. Sound memory is present, alive, active, and above all capable of reducing a complex feeling to a crystallized whole.

Rendering Zahir

Lately I have listened repeatedly to Rendering (1989/90), a composition by Luciano Berio based on an unfinished work by Schubert. Where Schubert left empty spaces, Berio completes them in his own minimalist style. In Berio’s version, a celesta (a keyboard similar in sound to a glockenspiel) announces the places in the composition where Schubert left caesuras. But when listening to Rendering it’s nonetheless hard to discern where one composer leaves off and the other takes over. I have listened obsessively to the recording, searching for the moments of caesura. As with the house door, here too something magical distracts me at the very moment of transition: one moment we are in Schubert’s world, the next in Berio’s. But at what precise moment I cross this threshold, I cannot remember. Funes, on the other hand, would have no trouble remembering. But would he understand the music and enjoy it? Is unknowing part of the joy?

What makes Rendering into music is this elusive moment when things change, a moment that stubbornly eludes my memory. It’s the opposite of what Borges describes in his short story “The Zahir”: “Zahir in Arabic means ‘notorious,’ ‘visible’; in this sense it is one of the ninety-nine names of God, and the people (in Muslim territories) use it to signify ‘beings or things which possess the terrible property of being unforgettable, and whose image finally drives one mad.’”12

The moments in Rendering when the music changes from one composer to the other are in themselves unrememberable. Their fundamental property is decay. In a sense, all music struggles against the “Zahir,” against the “property of being unforgettable.” It does this by using a strategy described elsewhere in Borges’s story: “The Sufis recite their own names, or the ninety-nine divine names, until they become meaningless. I long to travel that path. Perhaps I should conclude by wearing away the Zahir simply through thinking of it again and again.”13

The obsessive repetition of the statement “I am sitting in a room” goes down the same path as the caesura moments in Rendering. They wear down the meaning of a remembered formula by using the repetition and redundancy of formants to turn it into something unique. Whether it succeeds is up for debate.


Bergson, Matter and Memory, trans. Nancy Margaret Paul and W. Scott Palmer (Dover, 2004).


“The Immortal,” in Labyrinths: Selected Stories and Other Writings (New Directions, 1964), 118.


“Averroës’s Search,” in Labyrinths, 151.


Lucier, interview with Matthieu Saladin, La même et le different (Éditions MF, 2023). My translation. A similar distinction is made by John Lely and James Saunders: “There are several kinds of verbal notations. There’s the kind that gives more or less accurate instructions to the performers. Others are merely suggestive or poetic. They are often unperformable and merely present an idea to ponder.” Lely and Saunders, Word Events: Perspectives on Verbal Notation (Continuum, 2012).


“The Immortal,” in The Aleph and Other Stories (Penguin, 2004), 12.


Lapoujade, Puissances du temps: Versions de Bergson (Éditions de Minuit, 2010).


Cited in Gilles Deleuze, Le Bergsonisme (Presses Universitaires de France, 2004).


The 2018 version is available on YouTube . The 1981 version is on Lucier’s record I am sitting in a room, Lovely Music, 1981.


Morandini, Gli oscillanti (Bompiani, 2019). My translation.


“Funes the Memorious,” in Labyrinths, 63.


“Funes the Memorious,” 59.


“The Zahir,” in Labyrinths, 161.


“The Zahir,” 164.

Music, Literature, Avant-Garde
Fiction, Memory
Return to Issue #144

Alessandro Bosetti is a composer and sound artist with an interest in the musicality of spoken language and the relationship between sound and memory. Recent works include the voice archive Plane Talea (in progress), the radio performances Je ne suis pas là pour parler (2019) and Consensus Partium (2020), the cycle of compositions Pièces à pédales (2021), and the musical theater pieces Journal de Bord and Portraits des Voix with Neue Vocalsolisten Stuttgart (2018 and 2021). He has released numerous record on labels such as Xong, Kohlhaas, Errant Bodies Press, Holidays Records, Unsounds, and Monotype. His book Thèses/Voix, a collection of texts between theory, poetry, and score, was published in 2021 by Les presses du réel. He lives and works in Marseille, France.


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