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Listening to Noise and Silence: Towards a Philosophy of Sound Art
by Salomé Voegelin

Reviewed by Devin King


Published:

Published by Continuum, 2010   |   256 pages

About a quarter of the way through the first part of Don Quixote —after the windmills but before The Man who was Recklessly Curious —Don Quixote and Sancho Panza come upon an odd sound, “the sound of rhythmic pounding, along with a certain clanking of iron and chains that, accompanied by the fury of the water, would have put terror in any heart other than Don Quixote’s.”

The night, as we have said, was dark, and [Don Quixote and Sancho] happened to walk under some tall trees whose leaves, moved by the gentle breeze, made a muffled, frightening sound; in short, the solitude, the place, the darkness, the noise of the water, and the murmur of the leaves all combined to cause panic and consternation, especially when they saw that the pounding did not stop, the wind did not cease, and morning did not come.

Knight and squire go to investigate the noise. After turning a corner, “there appeared, clear and plain, the unmistakable cause of the terrible-sounding and, for them, terrifying noise that had kept them frightened and perplexed … it was … six wooden fulling hammers that with their alternating strokes were responsible for the clamor.” Sancho begins laughing and Don Quixote becomes sad and melancholy—no adventures here, only embarrassment at their mis-hearing. The knight mistook the sound of machinery for that of a giant.

Quixote’s most famous adventure is that of the windmills—where his mind misunderstands his sight. These misapprehensions beg the questions: What is the relation between sound and action, between sound and the world? How does hearing rethink sight? How does hearing rethink the subject?

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Sight is generally taken to be the primal sense, that which engenders experience for the human in the world. Accordingly, there are a number of books on the philosophy of sight, the aesthetics of seeing. Far fewer philosophers have taken sound as a starting point in their aesthetics, or understanding of the world; most begin with the painting, or the photograph, or the movie.

And yet contemporary philosophical analysis of perception has forced philosophers to reconsider whether sound may play a larger role in our embodiment than previously thought. In hindsight, it seems so obvious.

For Salomé Voegelin, a Swiss-born, UK-based sound artist and lecturer, there is something fallacious about seeing. She begins her first book, Listening to Noise and Silence , with not so much a critique of a philosophy of sight, as an attempt to show how conservative a philosophy of sight must necessarily be:

Eyes work well as an ordering tool: segregating according to differences and aligning references to build meaning within the field of vision. Even in motion the visual focuses on relationships and differences and derives its meaning from them.

For Voegelin, the most salient aspect sight affords the subject is perspective—that “visual trait” that “organizes and hierarchizes” what the subject perceives. Organization and hierarchy, by their very nature, are processes of ranking, of privileging. They are also, more fundamentally, processes of differentiation. Voegelin’s critique of sight is centered here, for she finds in this privileging of order and difference the origin of the sense of separation between subject and object that permeates Western society, a sense that she believes to be both incorrect and calamitous.

Articulating a theory of music is a difficult task, as Voegelin readily acknowledges. Much of her language and argument is adopted from Theodor Adorno, the social theorist and Frankfurt School member. Famous as much for his steep criticisms of jazz, pop music, and the culture industry as he is for championing the new classical music of the twelve tone theorists, Adorno is an important touchstone for much contemporary music theory, as he helped envision a way of thinking about music that foregrounds the moment of hearing as, foremost, the place to re-think the nature of the subject in the world. Part of Adorno’s project was to devise a language for criticism that began in sound and turned away from pre-existing vocabulary—”elite discourse”—based on an experience of the world that emphasizes hierarchy.

Adorno’s views permeate Voegelin’s book. Listening, she suggests, “produce[s] the artistic context of the work/the sound in its innovative perception rather than through the expectation of an a priori reality.” But she goes further: listening does not only turn away from elite discourses but also creates both listener and object in the moment of hearing. She writes:

Listening is intersubjective in that it produces the work and the self in the interaction between the subject listening and the object heard. The listener stumbles blindly in the darkness of sound, and is himself revealed in any light generated.

Listening, in bridging the subject and object, is understood to affect the embodiment and conjunction of both self and world.

The French phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty is another critical influence on Voegelin. Phenomenology, a school that achieved critical velocity through the works of (the likewise French) Edmund Husserl, took as its premise the idea that human perception categorically structures the world as perceived. Phenomenology’s next, and more controversial assumption, was the idea that by factoring in the structures of our perception one could “bracket” them out so as to enable the perception of “naive” experience. Voegelin’s adoption of phenomenological practice and terminology enables her to flesh out a defense and portrait of hearing that is strikingly intuitive.

Voegelin’s readings (hearings?) of famous and often not so famous works of sound art—grounding her, at times, heavily theoretical writing in a more unassumingly journalistic arts prose—are the most enjoyable aspects of the book. In a chapter on noise she jumps from a description of noisy neighbors to a rave in 1993, to a noise show with Otomo Yoshihide, to the minimalist composer Charlemagne Palestine. Here, she writes on Peter Cusack’s Chernobyl (2008), a work of simple field recordings from the site:

Peter Cusack records dangerous locations to produce a sense of place through sound. […] Where at first I fill [Chernobyl’s] sounds with cultural references, abundant on the subject of catastrophes, nuclear and otherwise, those get relinquished in a close hearing, and all that is left is what I hear. […] The act of evacuating cultural references leave the birds sounding odd and different no more like nature recordings but laden with the evacuation that made them audible in the first place. […] Phonography needs to be talked about not for its sounds, but for the effects its recordings produce.

For Voegelin, hearing is conceived of as a counter sense to the rigid hegemony of sight. Engagement with sound is “worked out in the agonistic moment of [its] perception.” Which is to say—sounds, unlike the concrete objects of sight, are less objects than processes. Listening itself is a process: connections are built rather than destroyed. In the moment of hearing, sound shifts the philosophy of critical listening from an Idea (or Ideal) to an engagement. In so doing, Voegelin argues, listening becomes an ethical action, one of engagement with, rather than estrangement from. All sensing becomes ethical. All aesthetics become political. Giants become fulling hammers.


Devin King is a writer, musician, and teacher working in Chicago, IL. His long poem, “CLOPS,” is out from the Green Lantern Press, Chicago, where he is now the poetry editor. A new chapbook, The Resonant Space , is out from The Holon Press, Chicago. Both are available at http://thepapercave.com. More at http://dancingyoungmenfromhighwindows.com.

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