A Row of Trees

The Journal of The Sonic Art Research Unit

Joseph Clayton Mills – Rose Mary Woods (for Adam Sonderberg)

Rose Mary Woods (for Adam Sonderberg)


This piece is constructed from repurposed public domain audio recordings made in the Oval Office of the White House on June 20, 1972, and April 14, 1973, using the system of hidden microphones installed by US president Richard Nixon to secretly document his conversations.

In 1971, on the orders of the president, seven microphones were placed in the Oval Office, with five located in the presidential desk and one positioned on either side of the fireplace. The original intent of these recordings was to obtain a historical record of the president’s conversations to aid in the eventual writing of Nixon’s memoirs. The existence of the recordings was eventually discovered, and in 1973 and 1974, the Watergate Special Prosecution Force subpoenaed 60 hours of tape excerpts related to the Watergate burglary and subsequent cover-up.

Rose Mary Woods, Nixon’s private secretary, was given the responsibility of transcribing the subpoenaed recordings before releasing the tapes to prosecutors. When the tapes were reviewed, however, an 18.5-minute gap was discovered in the middle of a conversation recorded on June 20, 1972, several days after the Watergate break-in. Buzzes, intermittent clicks, and a low hum were all that remained of the erased audio. Woods subsequently testified that, while using a Dictaphone to transcribe the recording, she had been distracted by a telephone call and had accidentally erased a portion of the tape.

On the afternoon of April 14, 1973, the US Marine Band—nicknamed “the President’s Own”—was rehearsing on the White House lawn for an evening performance. Within the Oval Office, Nixon was engaged in a discussion of the deepening Watergate crisis with several advisors. On numerous occasions, the conversation lapsed into prolonged, painful silences in which the sound of the band, filtering faintly into the room, was picked up by Nixon’s hidden microphones. On several occasions, the president—who was himself an amateur musician—could be heard tapping on his desk in time with the music.

Rose Mary Woods attempts to fuse these two disparate silences—the conversational silence that had allowed the band to be audible, and the silence created by the act of erasure—into a single piece of music. Taking the audio residue of the erased tape as a compositional starting point, I excerpted, looped, and layered faint traces of the US Marine Band’s rehearsal to create a recording of equivalent duration. The recordings from the two days were subsequently combined, interwoven, and further reworked to create the finished piece.

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