An isolated telephone operator connects calls alone in her exchange. She has never existed outside of this booth and her only understanding of the outside world is through the subscribers who call in and the connections she makes. How close to this outer “reality" can she ever reach? And what happens when she receives a call which doesn’t appear to be for anyone at all? Vocalist/cellist Laura Moody and sound artist Clay Gold collaborate in this immersive, theatrical exploration of neuro-philosophy and theories of consciousness.

A short, video introduction to Parallelist, made by Aldeburgh Music, March 2016.

Laura Moody and Clay Gold, promotional photograph by Sam Murray Sutton.

Laura Moody and Clay Gold, Parallelist, photo by Sam Murray Sutton

Image from The Human Connectome Project and Brain Mapping
Human Connectome Project

The Human Connectome Project -

'Parallelist' considers an imagined new music, physical theatre performance and fixed duration sound installation; a performance based upon metaphor and analogy. It is intended that Laura Moody, representing a telephone exchange operator, in turn representative of human consciousness, is isolated at the centre of a system of sonic information (relayed through a diverse collection of tape machines and loudspeakers plus a working telephone exchange), representing signals which emanate from any material environment. This audio information will be composed of 1) a basic Ground of crackling noise, such as experienced beside a fire, or whilst listening to an early “talking-movie”; 2) a Field or habitat; a series of compositions created with both live and acousmatic telecommunications equipment and other unconventional musical sources; 3) a collection of “found” answer-phone recordings made twenty years ago by a girl in a stream-of-consciousness or “live diary” style, and 4) an Underground segment; information only available to those members of the audience who pick up a telephone receiver and listen. This complete soundscape will operate as a kind of “machine orchestra” in support of Laura's song-based drama which draws upon interpretations of the answer-phone messages, the experience of a female telephone exchange operator in the early twentieth century, and the fluctuating theories of consciousness and neuroscience of the last one hundred years.

The origin of the idea of a telephone exchange clerk as being representative of human consciousness stems from a chapter in the book 'Grammar of Science', by mathematician and biometrician Karl Pearson, written in 1892, just fourteen years after the world's first physical telephone exchange was created. In support of the theory of Parallelism, which upholds the separation of mind from matter, Pearson writes:

“We are cribbed and confined in this world of sense-impressions like the exchange clerk in his world of sounds, and not a step beyond can we get. As his world is conditioned and limited by his particular network of wires, so ours is conditioned by our nervous system, by our organs of sense. Their peculiarities determine what is the nature of the outside world which we construct. It is the similarity in the organs of sense and in the perceptive faculty of all normal human beings which makes the outside world the same, or practically the same, for them all.”

“If our telephone clerk had recorded by aid of a phonograph certain of the messages from the outside world on past occasions, then if any telephonic message on its receipt set several phonographs repeating past messages, we have an image analogous to what goes on in the brain. Both telephone and phonograph are equally removed from what the clerk might call the "real outside world," but they enable him through their sounds to construct a universe; he projects those sounds, which are really inside his office, outside his office, and speaks of them as the external universe. This outside world is constructed by him from the contents of the inside sounds, which differ as widely from things-in-themselves as language, the symbol, must always differ from the thing it symbolises. For our telephone clerk sounds would be the real world, and yet we can see how conditioned and limited it would be by the range of his particular telephone subscribers and by the contents of their messages. So it is with our brain; the sounds from telephone and phonograph correspond to immediate and stored sense-impressions. These sense-impressions we project as it were outwards and term the real world outside ourselves. But the things-in-themselves which the sense-impressions symbolise, the "reality," as the metaphysicians wish to call it, at the other end of the nerve, remains unknown and is unknowable.”

“Pent up in his office he could never have seen or touched even a telephonic subscriber in himself. Very much in the position of such a telephone clerk is the conscious ego of each one of us seated at the brain terminals of the sensory nerves. Not a step nearer than those terminals can the ego get to the "outer world," and what in and for themselves are the subscribers to its nerve exchange it has no means of ascertaining. Messages in the form of sense-impressions come flowing in from that "outside world," and these we analyse, classify, store up, and reason about. But of the nature of "things-in-themselves," of what may exist at the other end of our system of telephone wires, we know nothing at all.”

Pearson states that:

“consciousness is associated with the process which may intervene in the brain between the receipt of a sense-impression from a sensory nerve and the despatch of a stimulus to action through a motor nerve”.

He describes this interval as:

“being filled, as it were, with the mutual resonance and cling-clang of stored sense-impressions and the conceptions drawn from them.”

These words and others from 'Grammar of Science' provided the stimulus for the collaboration, initially conceived as a “dual-mono” album recording, in which the soundscape appears in one speaker and Laura's song-drama in the other. This dual-mono recording is still an intended outcome for the project, as is a special 5.1 surround sound edition and separately issued stereo recordings which can be listened to independently or together, played on different systems. Ultimately though, Karl Pearson's analogy almost describes in itself a performance/art installation using sound as a metaphor for all the senses. His late nineteenth century comparison has presented Laura and I with the perfect launchpad from which to explore areas of our own practice and thinking, which include: new approaches to songwriting and storytelling, adopting techniques from physical theatre for music performance, and incorporating the audience into the work.

An early example of a telephone exchange in Sweden,
where every phone had its own direct line to the exchange.

Sweden - early "direct connection" telephone exchange.

Original storyboard for Parallelist, with sound notes.

Storyboard 01

Storyboard 02

Initial floorplan idea for Parallelist installation.

Installation Plan