The title of Marcel Duchamp's little Readymade sculpture, put together in 1916 with the collaboration of Walter Arensberg, contains a total of three words, whether the name is called in English or in French: With Hidden Noise, A Bruit Secret. Duchamp himself gave us a clue about the logic of the piece in a famous note to Arturo Schwarz, referring to it as an "exercise in comparative orthography."

[ Arturo Schwarz, The Complete Works of Marcel Duchamp, Abrams, New York (1969) p. 462. ]

If we are willing to force this logic a little--but no more than Duchamp himself proposed doing with his concept of "playful physics"--reading the French title as though it were meant to be written in English: "a bruit secret," it becomes an oxymoron: the expression, "a noisy secret." The word BRUIT in English usually occurs with the preposition "about." "To bruit about" means "to spread news of," as in "to repeat" a secret. The word probably came into English through the Old French verb bruire, from the vulgar Latin brugere as a variant of the Latin rugere, meaning to roar. In the Tibetan tradition of Vajrayana Buddhism, the coming Buddha--the Buddha of future generations--is called Maitreya, who will be heard proclaiming "with the Lion's roar" the Truth of the Dharma, the firm teachings of Buddha (that is, based on bud, the idea of Enlightenment, from the Indo-European bheudh, to be aware or to make aware.) Alternatively, Ulf Linde has suggested the tinkling sound of the secret object, hardly a roar, might be the milky voice (voix lacte = voie lacte, or milky way) of the Bride, represented by the "acted veil" (voile act of the Draught Pistons in the Large Glass, singing her air in the air.

[ Ulf Linde, "MARie CELibataire," Marcel Duchamp: Ready-mades, etc. (1913-1964), Galleria Schwarz, Milano (1964), pp. 54, 64. ]

In addition to indulging these speculations, we propose to follow the tradition of Renaissance anatomies that bequeathed a spirit of objectivity to modern scientific investigation. From Tamara Blanken we have the following note recording the circumstances of her attempts to make an objective record of the tinkling tone produced by the secret object inside the sculpture housed at the Philadelphia Museum of Art:

I sat down at a table where the piece was sitting in a small cardboard box (no dust). I removed my drawings and measuring devices from my bag as well as the tape and recorder....Melissa put on elbow-length white cotton gloves before removing the piece from the box and setting it upon a thick gray (typewriter-like) pad....We started the recording procedure. I explained what I wanted: one turn every six seconds, nine times....I instructed her to begin with the piece upside down, where the cipher and clue began. We took one take. My mistake--the microphone was on voice activation. In the middle of the second take someone walked into the room talking loudly and making a lot of noise. Marge came in directly after. Then, I think...the phone rang....Marge and I carried our things (she the piece) to a small quiet room across the hallway...anyway, the fourth take was successful.

[ Tamara Blanken, Unpublished notes (September, 1986) pp. 9-11.]

Unfortunately, not all research scholars can claim such success. When, in 1978, the Treasures of Early Irish Art exhibition toured the United States, a written request to ring St. Patrick's bell, sadly, was not accomodated. The bronzed iron bell is possibly identical with the Bell of the Will, one of three relics unearthed from Patrick's grave by St. Columba according to the Annals of Ulster for the year A.D. 552. The traditional date given for the saint's return to Ireland is the year 432 A.D., not from any compelling historical evidence for that particular date, but because of the symbolic importance of the number itself. The erudite and astute scholar Joseph Campbell, in whose intriguing discussions of mythic time are detailed many multi-cultural, numerical cross-references for 432, regards Patrick's traditional date itself as suspect,

since when multiplied by 60 (the old Sumerian sexagesimal soss) it yields the number 25,920, which is precisely the sum of years of a so-called "Great" or "Platonic" year, i.e., the sum of years required for the precession of equinoxes to complete one cycle of the zodiac.

[ Joseph Campbell, Occidental Mythology, Volume 3 of The Masks of God pp. 459 ff. This "Great Year" is also known as the "Cosmic Cycle," a topic which is destined to come up again in the present study. A good introduction to the significance of the lore of numbers in global culture is Campbell's section on "Mythic Time" in an earlier part of The Masks of God: Oriental Mythology (Volume 2), pp. 115 ff. ]

We would very much like to know if that Irish bell was tuned to the A of 432 cycles per second. Just so, the eighty surviving master violin makers of Cremona would like to hear their instruments tuned to the warmly flat-sounding A at 432-hertz. A recurrent nightmare is that one of the beautiful 300-year-old violins of Nicolo Amati, Antonio Stradivari, or Giuseppe Guarneri del Gesu might suddenly explode.

What people are doing is tuning old violins to new musical fashion. A more passionate view might be that musical treasures are being dangerously souped up to keep pace with unreasonable demands [for a stronger, more brilliant orchestral sound].

The problem begins at A. In fact, that's pretty much the whole problem. When the first Cremonese masters were making their violins, violas and cellos, everybody agreed that the pitch of A above middle C was around 420 cycles per second, or 420 hertz. Since A is the tuning note on which other notes--up and down-- are based, first A is tuned in, then all strings are tightened accordingly. With A at 420 hertz, these instruments, which many say are unequaled for their tone quality, sounded warm and rich among the few other strings in a small chamber orchestra.

But as orchestras and concert halls got bigger, musicians started to tune their instruments sharper, raising the pitch of A and thus all the other notes. The more brilliant, more piercing sound could be heard above other players and delight listeners even at the top of the third balcony.

The more that violinists tightened their strings, the more pressure they put on their violin bodies. Singers had to reach for higher notes, putting more pressure on their bodies, too. By the time Giuseppe Verdi was writing his operas in the mid-19th century, A had sharpened to 435 hertz. That, Verdi thought, was enough for both man and machine. He got an international meeting in Vienna in 1885 to fix A at that level.

It didn't last. In 1939 another international meeting set A at 440 hertz....Many orchestras tune today to 443, 445, or even 450 heretz, stretching strings ever tighter.

"New violins are built for this, but 300-year-old wood can't take it," [say contemporary masters at Cremona's violin-making school.] So concerned are the Cremonese that at a recent conference to mark the school's 50th birthday and the 250th anniversary of Stradivari's death, experts called to a return to 432 hertz as the standard A....

Yehudi Menuhin, the violinist, conductor and teacher, plays a 1742 Guarneri known as "the Lord Wilson" and valued at $2.5 million. [A Stradivarius cello used by Yo Yo Ma was recently sold for $1.2 million.] He [Menuhin] favors a lower tuning, but thinks the pre-Verdi-era 432 hertz is unrealistic. "Our modern ears would consider that rather flat. The consumer wants his music brilliant and glossy."

These days, as soon as he comes off stage, Sir Yehudi loosens his violin's A and E strings completely. But he has given up arguing with conductors about tuning. "It's hopeless. The most you can hope for is that the orchestra plays in tune at all."

[ Philip Revzin, "Violin Makers Fret As Musicians Fiddle With Their A-Strings," The Wall Street Journal, July 1988. ]

We do not intend merely to express an arcane interest in obscure details of cultural systems from distant times, such as the Totca (hummingbird) Kachina's importance for the Hopi, or that the Tarascan pre-Columbian center in Michoacan was called Tzintzuntzan, "Place of the Hummingbirds." Nor is this mere fascination with mindless superstition, as if the numbers had some magical power in themselves. For then, we should seek to uncover whatever cryptic meaning may rest in the answer to the question, "How fast do a hummingbird's wings move? A hummingbird's wings beat at an average rate of 432 times per minute.

[ In answer to the question, "Can an insect actually capture a bird?" L. M. Boyd, in "The Grab Bag" (San Francisco Chronicle, August 24, 1991) responds, "One large praying mantis was seen to clutch into con-trol one small hummingbird." In this light, a more sanguine response to the question, "How fast do hummingbirds' wings move?" is "Not fast enough." Boyd also informs us (San Francisco Examiner, August 25, 1991) the praying mantis is the only insect that can move its head without moving the rest of its body. Too bad for that hummingbird. ] The basic idea, as pursued and made popular by Pythagoras in early classical Greece, but which is far older--as Alexander Marshack has argued with his analysis and interpretation of Paleolithic bones--is that number provides a very ancient, accurate, and handy means whereby human consciousness has acquainted itself with some of the deep and formal relationships underlying the secrets of existence.

The cosmic known even more deeply and essentially through number, which becomes audible--as Pythagoras held and as the harps of Ur suggest--in the harmonies and rhythms of music; specifically the number system of:

60--the soss

600--the ner

3600--the sar

216,000--the great sar ( = 60 X 3600)

two great sars yielding that interesting 432,000 of Berossos' eon.

[ Campbell, Oriental Mythology, p. 121. ]

Moreover, the mythographer Joseph Campbell establishes impressive cross-cultural correspondences for 432 and related numbers such as 432,000 which is the sum of years ascribed to the cosmic aion (or, eon) both in India and in the Germanic myths of Odin's warriors at Ragnarok, or Wagner's "Twilight of the Gods," the Götterdmmerung,

all of which points to a long-standing relationship of the number 432 to the idea of the renewal of the eon; and such a renewal, from the pagan to the Christian eon is exactly what the date of Patrick's arrival in Ireland represents.

[ Campbell, Oriental Mythology, p. 459 f.]

The extremist musical composition by John Cage titled 4'33" calls for the performer to sit at the piano (in a mode of addressing the keyboard) for four minutes and thirty-three seconds of "silence." Cage missed the archetypal harmonic by an ace. But as the British artiste Brian Eno jestingly confided, he liked to play "the short version of that: just the hit part." Still, the number 432 in traditional lore (with its multiples and principal factors), signifies the reigns of ten kings of Sumer down to the date of their mythical deluge; and the same number figures intimately in the Genesis account of Old Testament Patriarchs of the time span between the Creation of Adam down to that of Noah's Deluge.

The indication would seem to be, therefore, that the highest concern of the mythology from which these king-lists derived can have been neither history nor fertility, but some sort of order: some sort of mathematically ordered, astronomically referred notion about the relationship of man and the rhythms of his life on earth, not simply to the seasons, the annual mysteries of birth, death and regeneration, but beyond those to even greater, very much larger cycles: the great years.

[ Campbell, Occidental Mythology, p. 120. See, Pamela Z, "Brian Eno: Ambiguity, Yams, and Ju-Ju Spacejazz," Mondo 2000, Issue No. 4, p. 118. For the Cage composition, see Richard Kostelanetz, editor, John Cage {Documentary Monographs in Modern Art}, Praeger, New York (1970), especially pp. 195-196. Originally three "movements" were indicated! ]

This grand system of numerical correspondences depended upon paying close attention to the precession of the equinoxes over long periods of time. Only thus could the slow shifts in the relative position and timing of observed celestial bodies be rectified with the marking of time by those periodicities conventionally established by human society. Modern reckoning, still reflecting these archaic conventions, yields the 60-minute hour and 60-second minute of time, the 360-degree circle, the 60-minute degree and 60-second minute of arc.

The very slow wobble of the spinning earth axis--like that of a toy top--traditionally requiring the 25,920 years for one complete rotation--produces the phenomenon of the precession of the equinoxes. But within only 72 years, the time traditionally allotted for an aion in the sense of a human lifespan, the consequent shift in position of the sun with respect to distant stars may be observed empirically.

Since the rate of the precession could be approximated at fifty seconds of arc per year, to precess a full minute of arc takes slightly more than a year; and to precess one full degree of sixty minutes takes seventy-two years. A full cycle of 360 degrees thus requires 360 X 72, or 25,920 years. But the natural revolution of the Earth around both the sun and its own axis describes a complex pattern of perturbations. It has long been known that one of the periods of oscillation is approximately every 432 days, while another--related to variations in atmospheric pressure--lasts about a year. Yet, only recently atmospheric scientists determined that the great cycles also manifest as harmonic oscillations at higher frequencies, with fluctuations from several months to a cycle of only two weeks.

The constant shifting of a restless atmosphere is making the Earth wobble like a clothes washer with an off-balance load....

Roving masses of air pushing on the planet's surface cause at least some of a recently-discovered wobble in the Earth's axis of spin, researchers said. An analysis of the wobble appears in today's [July 14, 1988] issue of the British journal Nature by [T. Marshall] Eubanks, of the U.S. Naval Observatory in Washington, D.C., Alan Steppe and Jean O. Dickey, of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, and scientists at Atmospheric and Environmental Research, Inc. in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

They found that, over three years, the wobble was related to changes in air pressure around the globe. Air pressure changes are created by the shifting in the atmosphere, and Eubanks said fluctuations as slight as one-tenth of 1 percent to three-tenths of 1 percent of normal atmospheric pressure appeared to contribute to the wobble.

[ Associated Press, dateline New York, "Why the Earth Wobbles Like a Clothes Washer," San Francisco Chronicle (July 14, 1988). ]

The subtlety and precision with which ancient poets used to mark the seasons and the phases of the moon apparently were tuned to the objectively experienced oscillatory vibrations of our planet. For, TRUE poets, in a tradition descending from the oldest oral transmissions of human consciousness, have always been sensitive to the harmonies not just of life, but of all being. Accordingly, societies that retain their basic sanity continue to value the arts and letters which express truths every bit as grand and finally as real as those of science. When it is otherwise, artists find it dangerous to show their views, while both the poets and scientists may find themselves hard pressed to tell which way is up.

The experts also condemned Snorri's comparison between Ragnarok and the Fall of Troy: the logical outcome of their conviction that "poetry" is some kind of creatio ex nihilo, whence the one question never raised is whether the poets might not be dealing with hard scientific facts.

[ Giorgio de Santillana and Hertha von Dechend, Hamlet's Mill: An Essay On Myth and the Frame of Time. David R. Godine, Boston (1977), p. 156 (Note 13). ]


As we approach Duchamp's original sculpture sitting on its pedestal in Philadelphia, we bring certain visual and kinesthetic expectations. One bias is our assumption that things stand on legs, doubtless derived from the way we so frequently see furniture set up on legs, and ultimately an extrapolation of the way we perceive and experience our own human body standing on legs. There is, of course, no compelling reason why we should automatically assign this "standing on legs" paradigm to the piece of sculpture in question. Quite the contrary, for if our new, upsetting theory should prove true, then With Hidden Noise would "logically" have to be shown "upside down"!

Hoping to divine the answer to our riddle, we do have our choice of styles: if methodologies modeled on science produce no conclusive solutions (or even if they do!) we may augment our approach with poetic perceptions, including some of the modes of "magic" like intui-tive guesses at the identity of the secret object, rationalized by appeals to coincidence. Since the most general exterior aspect of the piece is a cube, we might expect the form of the small secret object inside to recapitulate the outside cubic form. Applying such a theory,the Hidden Noise-maker might express the unity of the whole piece in an "imaginary" form inhabiting what was originally a "void" inside the ball of twine. The crucial question about orienting the six external faces of With Hidden Noise is simply, "Which way is up?" This revives an old canard about modern art, as when the staff of New York's Museum of Modern Art, fooled by the arbitrary nature of a Matisse, discovered (December 4, 1961) it had been unwittingly exhibited UPSIDE DOWN.

[ Lynda Barry and Heather McAdams, Heap Big Dysfunctional World Calendar 1991, Harper Collins, New York (1991). "Full of facts! Mostly true! Mostly accurate!" Ms. McAdams did all the even days. ]

Not that such topsy-turvy misadventures should necessarily cause shame or embarrassment, recalling the circumstances under which a pure and deliberate approach to abstract art (or rather, to non-objective painting) first came to be made (in 1911) by Wassily Kandinsky. After working at the easel with a painting on its side he left the studio for a while; upon returning he did not recognize the piece--having forgotten that he had left it on its side--and instead saw it as an entirely new, totally abstract composition. Discovering this secret of abstraction stimulated a crucial shift in his habits of vision, enabling Kandinsky purposefully to set about painting the first series of non-representational works in the history of modern art.

Displaying With Hidden Noise with its "legs" in the air would underscore the aesthetic audacity and iconoclastic humor of the Readymade. But some sort of directional logic seems to demand this, based upon careful inspection of the original piece and an objective reading of the inscriptions. A "showing" seems essential, as in the theater where a reading alone cannot engender the response that comes from a hearing and a viewing together. Yet, at Philadelphia, we can only view the inscription on the underside by looking in the mirror upon which the piece sits. This stratagem of display might have appealed to Duchamp's sense of the ironic, making the clue in mirror-reversal all the more difficult to read. But the piece is not called "With Hidden Clue." Logically, therefore, the clue inscribed on the "lower" plaque should be read first because it tells us what to do: how to manipulate the piece in order to read the cipher in the matrix.

While it ususally rests quietly like any other static work of art upon its pedestal in the museum, With Hidden Noise becomes dynamic and sonorous if picked up and rotated in space. One would be prudent to propitiate the curatorial spirits first, or slink from the eye of the watchdog guards, but it is NECESSARY to pick up With Hidden Noise in order to enact the explicit injunctions, following the directions which the artist, himself, inscribed directly on the work of art. Otherwise, we are worshipping an idol, like a Stradivarius violin which no one ever hears being played. Indeed, one must turn the piece over and over. Actually, eight turns are required in order to read the full text of the inscriptions, to perform the substitution cipher, then returning the piece to its original position.

Hoping to clarify further the logic of "inner qualifications" we must decipher the writing with which the surface of With Hidden Noise is graced. The words formed with the cipher letters and dots have been deemed cryptic and puzzling (as we know), but actually three distinct kinds of writing appear on various surfaces of the two brass plates:

1. The clue: an injunctive sentence engraved (by Duchamp in a cursive hand) in a single horizontal line over each of the two plaques, beginning with a capital R on what is usually called the "lower" plaque; and at the end of the first half-sentence, an arrow indicating the continuation on the "upper" plaque.

2. The cipher text studiously painted by Duchamp in white (now yellowish) paint, composed of 88 separate capital letters, 20 dots and 2 commas, set in a matrix or grid pattern of 3 x 20 spaces on the "lower" surface (on which the text begins: .IR. CAR.E...), and 3 x 25 spaces on the "upper" surface (on which the text continues: P.G .CIDES...).


3. The inscription, signature and dates engraved (by whom but Duchamp?) on the underside of the "upper" plaque. We have not yet conclusively determined if any writers have noticed these details before, but neither the dates nor reference to the two names seem to be mentioned by the standard works on Duchamp.

There is an obvious sense of order, a logical sequence, for reading the inscriptions: the clue comes first, then the cipher text painted in the matrix, then the curious names and dates apparently comprising the signature. But if we start reading at the beginning of the "clue sentence," we may naturally assume the zero-state of the sculpture to be with its legs sticking up in the air. Clearly, the sentence begins on the lower plate as indicated by the common convention of the capital letter "R" in Remplacer. Some authors are misleading on this point because (contrary to the way it sometimes has been transcribed) the word "convenablement" does NOT begin with a capital letter. Although it has been referred to before, here again is the text of the "clue":

Remplacer chaque point par une/ lettre --> (arrow)

convenablement choisie dans la même colonne

Replace each dot with a letter --> (arrow)

conveniently chosen from the same column

The semi-superscript stroke "/" scratched into the brass following the "e" of the French word "une," is possibly a glyph of the numeral one, or perhaps just a scratch. Together with practicing our respect for accurate observation and precise description, however, the important thing for us is to know if/when we are being told (or telling someone else) to DO something. School teachers frequently complain about pupils who are not able to follow directions. Still, many students do eventually learn to distinguish between injunctive and descriptive language, when the crucial importance of understanding this distinction is revealed to them by activities such as competitive athletics, military service or computer programming. Duchamp, not to put too fine an edge on it, plainly enjoins us to act, to DO something, to "Replace each dot [or `point' or `period'] with a letter." In his monograph, Arturo Schwarz quotes Duchamp himself:

The words inscribed were nothing but "an exercise in comparative orthography (English-French). The periods must be replaced (with one exception: débarrassé[e])by one of the two letters in the other two lines, but in the same vertical as the period--French and English are mixed and make no `sense.' The three arrows indicate the continuity of the line from the lower plate to the other [upper] still without meaning."

[ Schwarz, cited as "Letter of Duchamp to the author," p. 462. ]

There is actually a fourth arrow--as indicated above--scratched in after the word lettre, obviously also indicating that this sentence is to be continued. When we pick up the piece and turn it over we discover, written in the same style in the same relative position on the other plate, the continuation: "conveniently chosen from the same column." This sentence/clue tells the cryptanalyst (how) to perform the substitution cipher. It seems obvious that each of these lines must begin on the face FROM WHICH the arrow directs the examiner to turn the piece over; then the continuation may be read on the other face; and finally the piece should be turned back again to begin the sequence with the start of the next line. Thus we are made to shake the rattle, discovering that in order to read the text (two lines of indications and six lines of ciphered words) we need to make seven turnings of the piece. An eighth turning allows us to read the signature and dates, and also restores the piece to what we should take as the original zero-position, threaded legs in the air, as some would see it, like the Hanged Man of the Tarot pack.

The clear-cut form of injunction provides the essential clue--enjoining action--and the consequent manipulation of the piece when the clue is followed (when the injunction is acted upon, or obeyed) are both purposeful, intrinsic functions of kinetic sculpture. In fact, they help to establish Marcel Duchamp's With Hidden Noise as one of the pioneering pieces of interactive kinetic sculpture in the history of modern art. Duchamp receives credit from 20th century art critics and historians for having coined the term "mobile," while specifically describing the work of Alexander Calder in the early 1930s. Now we canappreciate the fact that already some two decades earlier, Duchamp had a keen interest in ideas about kinesis in art, involving movement that could be real or imaginary, actual or theoretical, or even hypothetical as in his speculations about the fourth dimension.

To recapitulate: these concerns were first demonstrated in his paintings of the Coffee Grinder (1911) and Nude Descending a Staircase (1912), in which motion is described or indicated only symbolically. Following these exercises came the incorporation of actual kinesis in the proto-Readymade Bicycle Wheel (1913)--we use the prefix "proto-" because Duchamp only invented the term "Readymade" in 1915. Real kinesis and four-dimensionality are more cunningly implicit in The Large Glass begun around this same time (1913), because the choice of glass as a medium implies the future interactions of regardeurs for whom the "background" will inevitably move.

Then in 1916, inscribed on With Hidden Noise, he actually gives the "spectator" directions to read: and if those injunctions are to be obeyed, the piece must be turned over several times, reading the ver-bal directions while following the graphic "directions" of the arrows. Such an interactive process consequently produces another order of internal kinesis: that of the mysterious object moving about within the secret space of the ball of twine between the two brass plaques. The whole complex of these motions generate the "Hidden Noise." Although this account might seem uncommonly tedious, it is intended to respect the criteria of subtlety and precision worthy of both modern science and the meticulous sensibilities of the ancient masters.