Exploration of Katharine Norman’s “Window”
An exploration by Jacob Harn
“Window” is a piece exploring the subtle, sensory exposure we experience throughout the course of a year. It was inspired by artist John Cage and acts as a sort-of tribute to him. After navigating to the page, the reader is presented with four choices to decide how to begin the piece: “Dark,” “Text,” “Words,” and “Day.” Depending on which of the four you choose, the piece may start off in total darkness with the only sensory experience being the collage of sounds. You might start by viewing images, which transition so smoothly you might not notice they’re changing. A third option allows you to view the text author Katharine Norman includes with each month, in which case the words are layered on top of the now filtered and diluted images. However, once in the piece, a task bar lets you transition between the four settings, and little mobile light-flares can be dragged around the screen to adjust the levels of the various sounds. The piece is overwhelmingly expansive in the variation with which you can experience these subtle and seemingly insignificant stimuli.
This slew of mediums is used to demonstrate the intimate relationship between sound, environment, and ourselves. The piece becomes a meditation on what exactly we pay attention to and value in our lives, day-to-day and year-to-year. For Norman, ordinary, peripheral sounds become paramount and tracking the moods of the same tree in different light becomes a priority.
It seems Norman is trying to focus on the every-day auditory and visual experiences we take for granted. We wake up to these banal sounds; they accompany us through the day, lull us to sleep, and are still there for us when we wake. Norman uses this piece as well as her words to convey the importance of sound and slight changes in our habitual environment.
While the sound and images were the focal point and subject of the piece, Norman’s words gave the piece meaning and context for the sensory experience. There were many moments of beautiful writing, and even points with moving insights. The sections of each month bounce between memories of John Cage and his philosophy, descriptions of what Norman is viewing, and points where she synthesizes the two; this produces some very profound sentiments.
Because this piece is attempting to make ourselves aware of our surroundings, all of our background sensory experience, I find it difficult to define the element in the piece I most admire. In the “June” section, Norman recounts a performance where John Cage recited stories and observations while a pianist played pieces of Cage’s music in another room—out of earshot from Cage himself. Norman then says, “Cage’s life and work often seems to me a series of superimposed layers, each capable of being either art or unremarkable quotidian experience, or of being both.” I believe this remark is the heart and driving inspiration behind “Window,” and is itself a beautifully constructed sentence. Just as Cage believed unheard musical frequencies could affect his performance, or that there was layering significance in the two pieces going on simultaneously and unaffected by each other, Norman believes the interplay of often mundane sound and light (images) can be overwhelmingly beautiful. “Quotidian” experiences, or daily unremarkable events, in our lives can be just a few words, images, or sounds away from being art. And certainly Norman did not use the word quotidian accidentally—every sound recorded and picture taken, just about every day for a year, was done so from a window of her house. How mundane! Yet, we see how beautiful it looks and sounds, and how profound such ordinary experience can be when the right light, pitch, and words are shed upon it. The way this sentence serves as a thread which connects so many different stimuli into a cohesive and comprehensible piece. The “layering” of the piece connects sight, sound and contemplation of these moments. Norman created a piece that mimics the experience we have when paying undivided attention to the sensory stimuli at “the edges” (September) or fringe of our lives.