Monday, June 23, 2008

Some thoughts on voice and modes of listening, Kate Callaghan

Kate Callaghan is currently studying the Graduate Diploma in Communication, majoring in film, at the University of Technology Sydney. She also has a Bachelor of Music (Performance) from the University of Sydney.

If "sound is merely a means by which energy, constantly alternating at great speed between potential and kinetic energy, is passed through air or other medium as pressure waves" (Taylor: 36), then it is a phenomenon which occurs over both time and space. Secondly, this event requires a subject in order to hear via the auditory perceptions of the ear. To use the old example: if a tree falls in the bush, empty of auditory subject, does it make a sound? By our first definition, yes, of course, but by the second due to the absence of auditory subject, the tree is silent.

How then can we understand silence to exist, if silence can only occur in the absence of a perceiving subject? How can we ever therefore perceive silence? In this case silence is equated to death, that is, absolute absence. As Cage noted, as long as there is a bodied subject, there cannot be silence. An anechoic chamber still resonates with two sounds: of the nervous system and of the blood in circulation (Cage: 8). He concludes that the minimum number sounds is two: those of our corporeal body. Since we cannot remove ourselves from our bodies in order to not hear the tree falling in the bush, silence must be what we construct it to be via our perception. Silence is the unintended sound of Cage’s 4’33’’ (Cage: 14). Silence, is paradoxically, sound.

My personal experience of silence also relies on a recreation of absence from myself. As a city dweller, silence requires my removal from day-to-day life, which is full of ambient industrial noise. The bush is silent, a library may be silent, a boat on the harbour, even reading a book in a cafe may be silent: places where there is undeniably constant sound, but where I can feel momentarily removed or Other to myself. If we are constantly surrounded by sound, then what do we hear? In the same way that we do not always see, we make choices about which sounds are valorised and which are "noise". These choices may be made on perceptual grounds - such as noise which is loud and hurts the ears - or on cultural grounds. Fiumara equates the cultural with the "unheard of", where that which we do not accept, which requires too much effort to hear becomes "inaudible" noise (Fiumara: 145-146). Our choices are of course often more complex since the two modes may overlap: as in; silence equated to removal from industrial "noise"; silence created through cultural valorisation of "natural" over urban sound.

If we accept that sounds require an auditory subject, then we can argue about the ways in which this subject can hear within Western culture. There seem to be two fundamental positions from which we can listen: an Hegelian "living among things" and a "pure subject" position (Andrews: 4); the first of these seems more deeply Western. That is, based phenomenologically on the way in which things pass into consciousness via "experiencing [which] means to let an opinion be confirmed by the matter itself. Accordingly, experiencing is a knowledge that is confirmed by someone who goes directly to things and sees them" (Heidegger: 19). Perception is experiential and always positioned. This kind of listening is culturally laden, requiring a priori knowledge of what the sounds being experienced mean, where they are coming from in time and space (such as valorising lower timbre [authoritative] voices over higher pitched [unauthoritative] voices). Ihde suggest a useful explanation of this gap between perception and culture, separating the Hegelian model into component microperception - "sensory, fundamental, and reflexively referring to bodily position" - and macroperception - the "informing of perception by culture which enables us to say that culture is perceived" (Ihde: 75-76). Macroperception is that through which our listening systems are acculturated, for instance, the valorisation of an even tempered tuning system over a modal one, an open-throated singing technique over a nasal one;. That which creates the "unheard of".

I am particularly interested, though, in the microperceptual, which explains to me why sound and musics are so irrevocably tied to the body in Western culture. To hear is to connect with our "bodily position", with what we can sense, because we cannot perceive sound without both time and space. I understand that somehow our assumption and experience of sound’s emotional power rests in its happening in time and space. Just as we imagine our existence to be in both body (time) and soul (space), so sound makes a linkage between them real for us. Just as our person is both concrete and imagined, so is sound. Conversely, silence is equated to death, to absolute Otherness. However, as we have seen, silence perceived is actually sound. And if sound is a phenomenon that occurs and decays over time and space, ever decreasing in intensity, then the human body could also be described in such a way. Whereas we only have to close our eyes to cut off sight, we can only cut off hearing through death, and so sound and musics tied mortality. Because sound decays, it gives us a sense of being there at its vortex, or not being there. Like the human body a decaying sound - a sound moving toward silence - moves into a distance that is marked by its absence from itself. A colloquialism - peace and quiet - demonstrates our culture’s equation of spiritual peacefulness~state of calm~accepting with quietness~absence~death. We begin to see how sound is written on the body, or rather, resonates in and through the body. I find it interesting that Barthes’ experience of Schumann could equally apply to late twentieth century dance music: the beat or rhythm is "whatever makes any site of the body flinch" (Barthes 1985, 304), this is how we can designate a "dance music" a such, and how it can connect to the "beating body" (Barthes 1985, 310). It is perhaps no coincidence that this kind of music, so connected with it audience’s "beating body" generally employs two fundamentals: a pitched voice/tune (nervous system) and a (usually unpitched) bass/beat (blood in circulation). That is, Cage’s minimum number of sounds, the embodied essentials. This may be as close as we can get to a "primal sound" (Rilke: 53). "My body is to the greatest extent what everything is": and so too sound (Merleau-Ponty, The Visible and the Invisible quoted in Andrews: 6). The recognition of sound as a linkage of time and space - where in Western culture we have traditionally tried to separate, and valorise one over the other - automatically provides the possibility of a linkage between many "opposites", mind~body~spirit, conscious~unconscious, me~you, us~them. No wonder then the microperceptual requires a macroperceptual to acculturate the unheard and consequently reinstate it’s "natural" philosophical boundaries!

The link between micro and macro perception is "naturally" made through language, our innate ability to sound ourselves. To write on our own bodies, and those of our offspring, who naturally learn our manner and mode of speaking. "Mortals are they who can experience death as death. Animals cannot do so. But animals cannot speak either. The essential relation between death and language flashes us before us, but remains still unthought (Heidegger, "Introduction" Language and Death quoted in Agamben: 31). That is, the relationship between microperception (bodily position or mortality) and language, and that relationship is given voice through Voice. And, of course, that language in turn creates the acculturated, the macroperceptual. If we come to understanding via our perception we also conversely express that understanding through our sense. To speak is assert and therefore be assured of ones existence. And the vehicle for speech is voice. Linguists have noted how the voice - that is, the speaker - fundamentally grounds any discourse, "the utterance and the instance of discourse are only identifiable as such through the voice that speaks them" (Agamben: 32). This voice, the "I" places that discourse in that moment, and the "I" is only appropriate at that time. In this context, we cannot understand any discourse and hence any culture without the Voice. Is there something in the voice a - paradoxically - fundamental individuality that allows Voice, as in to voice one thoughts or ideas?

"Language is divine because language is absolvent, because language detaches us from one-sidedness and allows us to state what is universal and true" (Heidegger: 64). That is, language is essentially mediating and consequently universal. What we intend by - this - we cannot say with - "this" - and the result is a universal - this - (eg happy/sad). Perhaps then, it is the voice that is fundamental: to be able to voice our fundamental, pure momentary selves (by any means possible - think talkback) is a preoccupation of twentieth century Western culture because "in demonstrating the instance of discourse, the Voice discloses both being and time" (Agamben: 35). The voice, as most fundamental and consequently purest sound, acts as a vehicle, makes the link between mind~body~spirit, conscious~unconscious, us~them.

No surprises that the Christian culture from which ours springs is based around a circuit in which the voice is the medium of divine transference: there was The Word; The Word made flesh, and Spirit or Breath (Dyson 1992: 24). Though the word has meaning, it is the voice which is able to carry that meaning in all manner of contexts. In fact, the transcendent abilities of voice seem to be cross-cultural. In traditional Karelian/Finnish lamenting, the lamenter is "a magico-religious practitioner" who assists the souls of the dead to their resting place, and carries messages between them and the land of the living (Tolbert: 181). Chatwin tells of Australian Aboriginal creation by totemic beings who walked to earth "singing out the name of everything that crossed their path...and so singing the world into existence" (Chatwin: 2). Dyson cites studies by Marcel Griaule and Genevieve Calame-Griaule of the Dogon people of North-West Africa whose creation myths are also grounded in the voice/word as creative vehicle: "...the Spirit...imparted his Word by means of a technical process, so that all men could understand. By doing so he showed the identity of material actions and spiritual forces...[the words] were woven in the threads...they were the cloth and the cloth was the Word" (Marcel Griaule Conversations with Ogotemmeli quoted in Dyson 1992: 25). How can voice be fundamentally transcendent and creative? How can it also be individual? Because voice is primal sound, a resonance created by our most basic of animal functions, breathing. Perhaps this is our constant desire to find ourselves both completely the same as and completely different to the Other, whatever that Other may be, to find silence where there may be none.

Roland Barthes named this individual voice-magic the grain of the voice. The grain is imparted in the "very precise space of the encounter between a language and a voice" (Barthes 1977, 181). In this sense, the voice is "pure indication", pure meaning to mean, pure universal transcendence (Agamben: 32). But where is the place of the voice if the hearer does not understand the language is question? The expectation of a contemporary opera audience hangs on exactly this assumption - that the grain of the voice will carry enough meaning to the ear, so that we do not need to understand the Italian/German/French/Russian. "The more the word is known, but not fully known, the more the mind desires to know the rest " (Augustine, quoted in Agamben: 292-3). Augustine equates this desire with the desire for knowledge: interesting since I pose that voice, by facilitating language, bridges the gap between microperception (phenomenological knowledge) and macroperception (cultural knowledge), between experience and thought. But the listener in this and the operatic case must accept that there is something in the grain of the voice which carries meaning between the signifier and the signified.

If this space between the sound and its meaning, or between our micro and macro perceptions of it "opens a new field of though [and], therefore, singularly close to the field of meaning of pure being", it has been articulated via a body and its breath/spirit/voice (Agamben: 34). No wonder then, it is difficult to listen to or for this space in the Others voice, the "unheard of". Perhaps it is here that we begin to understand the connection between language (sound) and death. For if to experience is to comprehend, then to comprehend the space of "pure being" in a voice is also to experience its complete Otherness. It is to experience in real time the gap between the word and its sounding (Dyson 1995, 40-46). The voice of an animal certainly places it, but can in no way realise that moment of discourse (Agamben: 35), hence the essential relation between death and language flashes up before us...

A culture is creates out of a number of people agreeing about certain ways of organising the world and this is achieved through speech. Hence language is the bridge between the micro world of perception/body and consequently death to the macro world of the universal and divine language which becomes culture. The voice is its vehicle. Our obsession with voice is actually an obsession with the mind’s eye the subconscious, the self-conscious. We get from internal to external via the voice. Therefore we find the voice magical - it can exist in both realms, and must therefore be universal - that is, we all live and we all die. "As pure auto-affection, the operation of hearing oneself speak seems to reduce even the inward surface of one’s own body; in its phenomenal being it seems capable of dispensing with this exteriority within interiority, this interior space in which our experience or image of our own body is spread forth" (Derrida, Speech and Phenomena quoted in Andrews: 9). We can also consequently find the voice extremely threatening. Dunn notes that essential to the depiction of Ophelia’s madness in Hamlet is not only her speech, but her song: she exposes the grain of her voice, exposes the gaps between her internal and external worlds. It is interesting then that speech and particularly singing are markers of madness. On the one hand this is not surprising since it is through language (and consequently voice) that we communicate. But the samples we take are often too small to allow any real communication. Oftentimes someone singing or talking in public space is enough to assure us of their madness. Why? Because they are exposing their metaphysical medium of transference, their voice: as offensive as exposing our physical medium of transference, the body.

If this first, particularly phenomenal mode of listening relies on voice to express and interpret it, what of a second "pure subject" position? Perhaps this mode Cage describes; "letting sounds be themselves", by giving up the desire to control sound" (Cage: 10). Stockhausen’s "different shapes in a constant, all-permeating light", rather than a structure that favours one sound, or one musical voice over another (Stockhausen: 30). Perhaps this second position of listening approaches the more cross-cultural because here "a listener can only ‘enter’ in a way which is at once paradoxical and committing: by ‘taking leave’, by standing aside and making room" for the sound to make itself known. (Fiumara: 144). This kind of listening is, in other words, closer to silence and therefore closer to the Other. It would seem then, that this mode of listening occurs through a kind of even spreading of experience throughout the body and its sensorium, something closer to a meditative state where sound and feeling wash over you without mediation. Consequently, "when the whole body is like an ear, while hearing you do not hear" (Engo).

I wonder if this second kind of listening doesn’t also require the voice as medium of transference. For instance, how else is one able to make friends across language and cultural barriers? How is it than we can hear enough to like each other, without this grain , this pure meaning to mean? In this place, the voice allows movement between listening modes, between an Hegelian and pure subject or non-judgemental mode. Perhaps then, our obsession, my obsession with Voice exists because it seems to be the closest vehicle we have for moving between subject/listening positions, to extend beyond and through our physical momentary selves into a more meditative state. Obviously, through our voices, through language, we explain ourselves both conscious and unconscious to the outside world. But over and above our linguistic capacity, there would seem to be a grain to our voices, the kind of grain that allows us to make friends in a foreign language. Perhaps the obsession springs from the seductive notion of concurrent universality and Otherness, of hearing without listening. But my fascination with voice is a fascination with trying to listen democratically, without a priori knowledge, trying to find "a way of thinking which is a commitment to what is problematic and ‘worthy of being asked’" or heard (Fiumara: 157).


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