Mystical Sounds from One Note

Robert Everett-Green, The Globe and Mail, December 18, 2003

Ad Reinhardt used to claim that his all black canvases were the last paintings anyone could make. By the same serious/playful reasoning, you could say that John Oswald’s 65-minute Aparanthesi marks the end of the line for recorded composition, because it contains only one note.

But what exactly is one note? Apart from pure sine tones, every sound we hear is a messy conglomerate of vibrations that determine not only the fundamental pitch but also the density and flavour of the sound. They are the reason a mosquito sounds different from a violin, though a recording of either can be tuned electronically to one pitch, or subtly altered until the bug seems to be morphing into the fiddle. Apply that kind of manœuvre over a range of 10 octaves, and throw open the studio door to any and all sounds that can be recorded, and you begin to understand why it took Oswald three years to edit his one-note composition down to two versions of roughly half an hour each.

Aparanthesi is a profound and surprisingly dramatic work. Its open octaves claim a kind of cosmic scale, though many of the constituent sounds are minute, or deliberately camouflaged by other sounds. Each transition remains tethered to the core pitch, which in time takes on the grounding quality of a monotone chant. Even before a group of monks made a cameo appearance in aparanthesi B, the piece has enacted the unity of motion and stillness, and hearing it can be a mystical experience.

The two versions cleave to two slightly different pitches: 440 kHz (the A used by orchestras and piano tuners) for aparanthesi A, and 480 kHz (the undertone emitted by electrical equipment) for aparanthesi B. The second version, originally developed for a live performance, is the more theatrical, and the more revealing about its source materials. Both exploit the ear’s tendency to preserve a fuzzy zone of acceptability around a given pitch. The relationship between “in tune” and “out of tune” fascinates Oswald, who has made several tuning pieces for live and recorded sounds, and whose music celebrates perfection and deviance with equal fervour.

Aparanthesi is ultimately about paying attention, to sounds and their qualities, and to the mysterious interrelation of unity and difference. It’s the practical realization of a metaphor coined years ago by R Murray Schafer: the tuning of the world.

More information about Aparanthesi can be found at

Aparanthesi is a profound and surprisingly dramatic work.