Sound coming from outside the field of vision, from somewhere beyond, holds a privileged place in the Western imagination. When separated from their source, sounds seem to manifest transcendent realms, divine powers, or supernatural forces. According to legend, the philosopher Pythagoras lectured to his disciples from behind a veil, and two thousand years later, in the age of absolute music, listeners were similarly fascinated with disembodied sounds, employing various techniques to isolate sounds from their sources. With recording and radio came spatial and temporal separation of sounds from sources, and new ways of composing music.
Sound Unseen: Acousmatic Sound in Theory and Practice explores the phenomenon of acousmatic sound. An unusual and neglected word, “acousmatic” was first introduced into modern parlance in the mid-1960s by avant garde composer of musique concrète Pierre Schaeffer to describe the experience of hearing a sound without seeing its cause. Working through, and often against, Schaeffer’s ideas, Brian Kane presents a powerful argument for the central yet overlooked role of acousmatic sound in music aesthetics, sound studies, literature, philosophy and the history of the senses. Kane investigates acousmatic sound from a number of methodological perspectives — historical, cultural, philosophical and musical — and provides a framework that makes sense of the many surprising and paradoxical ways that unseen sound has been understood. Finely detailed and thoroughly researched, Sound Unseen pursues unseen sounds through a stunning array of cases — from Bayreuth to Kafka’s “Burrow,” Apollinaire to Zizek, music and metaphysics to architecture and automata, and from Pythagoras to the present-to offer the definitive account of acousmatic sound in theory and practice.
The first major study in English of Pierre Schaeffer’s theory of “acousmatics,” Sound Unseen is an essential text for scholars of philosophy of music, electronic music, sound studies, and the history of the senses.
‘Like many a critical humanist before him, from Michel de Montaigne to Jonathan Swift, Calvino seems to wonder if our best intellectual efforts, even the sciences, fall subject to “the foibles and fancies of humans,” and to the askew narrative logic of folklore.’ I found this wonderful thing via Open Culture. I had to go and find the story on which the animation is based, and when I did, I had to share it with you, at new moon.
The Distance of the Moon
At one time, according to Sir George H. Darwin, the Moon was very close to the Earth. Then the tides gradually pushed her far away: the tides that the Moon herself causes in the Earth’s waters, where the Earth slowly loses energy.
How well I know! — old Qfwfq cried,– the rest of you can’t remember, but I can. We had her on top of us all the time, that enormous Moon: when she was full — nights as bright as day, but with a butter-colored light — it looked as if she were going to crush us; when she was new, she rolled around the sky like a black umbrella blown by the wind; and when she was waxing, she came forward with her horns so low she seemed about to stick into the peak of a promontory and get caught there. But the whole business of the Moon’s phases worked in a different way then: because the distances from the Sun were different, and the orbits, and the angle of something or other, I forget what; as for eclipses, with Earth and Moon stuck together the way they were, why, we had eclipses every minute: naturally, those two big monsters managed to put each other in the shade constantly, first one, then the other.
Orbit? Oh, elliptical, of course: for a while it would huddle against us and then it would take flight for a while. The tides, when the Moon swung closer, rose so high nobody could hold them back. There were nights when the Moon was full and very, very low, and the tide was so high that the Moon missed a ducking in the sea by a hair’s breadth; well, let’s say a few yards anyway. Climb up on the Moon? Of course we did. All you had to do was row out to it in a boat and, when you were underneath, prop a ladder against her and scramble up.
The spot where the Moon was lowest, as she went by, was off the Zinc Cliffs. We used to go out with those little rowboats they had in those days, round and flat, made of cork. They held quite a few of us: me, Captain Vhd Vhd, his wife, my deaf cousin, and sometimes little Xlthlx — she was twelve or so at that time. On those nights the water was very calm, so silvery it looked like mercury, and the fish in it, violet-colored, unable to resist the Moon’s attraction, rose to the surface, all of them, and so did the octopuses and the saffron medusas. There was always a flight of tiny creatures — little crabs, squid, and even some weeds, light and filmy, and coral plants — that broke from the sea and ended up on the Moon, hanging down from that lime-white ceiling, or else they stayed in midair, a phosphorescent swarm we had to drive off, waving banana leaves at them.
This is how we did the job: in the boat we had a ladder: one of us held it, another climbed to the top, and a third, at the oars, rowed until we were right under the Moon; that’s why there had to be so many of us (I only mentioned the main ones). The man at the top of the ladder, as the boat approached the Moon, would become scared and start shouting: “Stop! Stop! I’m going to bang my head!” That was the impression you had, seeing her on top of you, immense, and all rough with sharp spikes and jagged, saw-tooth edges. It may be different now, but then the Moon, or rather the bottom, the underbelly of the Moon, the part that passed closest to the Earth and almost scraped it, was covered with a crust of sharp scales. It had come to resemble the belly of a fish, and the smell too, as I recall, if not downright fishy, was faintly similar, like smoked salmon.
In reality, from the top of the ladder, standing erect on the last rung, you could just touch the Moon if you held your arms up. We had taken the measurements carefully (we didn’t yet suspect that she was moving away from us); the only thing you had to be very careful about was where you put your hands. I always chose a scale that seemed fast (we climbed up in groups of five or six at a time), then I would cling first with one hand, then with both, and immediately I would feel ladder and boat drifting away from below me, and the motion of the Moon would tear me from the Earth’s attraction. Yes, the Moon was so strong that she pulled you up; you realized this the moment you passed from one to the other: you had to swing up abruptly, with a kind of somersault, grabbing the scales, throwing your legs over your head, until your feet were on the Moon’s surface. Seen from the Earth, you looked as if you were hanging there with your head down, but for you, it was the normal position, and the only odd thing was that when you raised your eyes you saw the sea above you, glistening, with the boat and the others upside down, hanging like a bunch of grapes from the vine.
My cousin, the Deaf One, showed a special talent for making those leaps. His clumsy hands, as soon as they touched the lunar surface (he was always the first to jump up from the ladder), suddenly became deft and sensitive. They found immediately the spot where he could hoist himself up; in fact just the pressure of his palms seemed enough to make him stick to the satellite’s crust. Once I even thought I saw the Moon come toward him, as he held out his hands.
He was just as dextrous in coming back down to Earth, an operation still more difficult. For us, it consisted in jumping, as high as we could, our arms upraised (seen from the Moon, that is, because seen from the Earth it looked more like a dive, or like swimming downwards, arms at our sides), like jumping up from the Earth in other words, only now we were without the ladder, because there was nothing to prop it against on the Moon. But instead of jumping with his arms out, my cousin bent toward the Moon’s surface, his head down as if for a somersault, then made a leap, pushing with his hands. From the boat we watched him, erect in the air as if he were supporting the Moon’s enormous ball and were tossing it, striking it with his palms; then, when his legs came within reach, we managed to grab his ankles and pull him down on board.
Now, you will ask me what in the world we went up on the Moon for; I’ll explain it to you. We went to collect the milk, with a big spoon and a bucket. Moon-milk was very thick, like a kind of cream cheese. It formed in the crevices between one scale and the next, through the fermentation of various bodies and substances of terrestrial origin which had flown up from the prairies and forests and lakes, as the Moon sailed over them. It was composed chiefly of vegetal juices, tadpoles, bitumen, lentils, honey, starch crystals, sturgeon eggs, molds, pollens, gelatinous matter, worms, resins, pepper, mineral salts, combustion residue. You had only to dip the spoon under the scales that covered the Moon’s scabby terrain, and you brought it out filled with that precious muck. Not in the pure state, obviously; there was a lot of refuse. In the fermentation (which took place as the Moon passed over the expanses of hot air above the deserts) not all the bodies melted; some remained stuck in it: fingernails and cartilage, bolts, sea horses, nuts and peduncles, shards of crockery, fishhooks, at times even a comb. So this paste, after it was collected, had to be refined, filtered. But that wasn’t the difficulty: the hard part was transporting it down to the Earth. This is how we did it: we hurled each spoonful into the air with both hands, using the spoon as a catapult. The cheese flew, and if we had thrown it hard enough, it stuck to the ceiling, I mean the surface of the sea. Once there, it floated, and it was easy enough to pull it into the boat. In this operation, too, my deaf cousin displayed a special gift; he had strength and a good aim; with a single, sharp throw, he could send the cheese straight into a bucket we held up to him from the boat. As for me, I occasionally misfired; the contents of the spoon would fail to overcome the Moon’s attraction and they would fall back into my eye.
I still haven’t told you everything, about the things my cousin was good at. That job of extracting lunar milk from the Moon’s scales was child’s play to him: instead of the spoon, at times he had only to thrust his bare hand under the scales, or even one finger. He didn’t proceed in any orderly way, but went to isolated places, jumping from one to the other, as if he were playing tricks on the Moon, surprising her, or perhaps tickling her. And wherever he put his hand, the milk spurted out as if from a nanny goat’s teats. So the rest of us had only to follow him and collect with our spoons the substance that he was pressing out, first here, then there, but always as if by chance, since the Deaf One’s movements seemed to have no clear, practical sense.
There were places, for example, that he touched merely for the fun of touching them: gaps between two scales, naked and tender folds of lunar flesh. At times my cousin pressed not only his fingers but — in a carefully gauged leap — his big toe (he climbed onto the Moon barefoot) and this seemed to be the height of amusement for him, if we could judge by the chirping sounds that came from his throat as he went on leaping. The soil of the Moon was not uniformly scaly, but revealed irregular bare patches of pale, slippery clay.
These soft areas inspired the Deaf One to turn somersaults or to fly almost like a bird, as if he wanted to impress his whole body into the Moon’s pulp. As he ventured farther in this way, we lost sight of him at one point. On the Moon there were vast areas we had never had any reason or curiosity to explore, and that was where my cousin vanished; I had suspected that all those somersaults and nudges he indulged in before our eyes were only a preparation, a prelude to something secret meant to take place in the hidden zones.
We fell into a special mood on those nights off the Zinc Cliffs: gay, but with a touch of suspense, as if inside our skulls, instead of the brain, we felt a fish, floating, attracted by the Moon. And so we navigated, playing and singing. The Captain’s wife played the harp; she had very long arms, silvery as eels on those nights, and armpits as dark and mysterious as sea urchins; and the sound of the harp was sweet and piercing, so sweet and piercing it was almost unbearable, and we were forced to let out long cries, not so much to accompany the music as to protect our hearing from it. Continue reading
“No man is an Iland, intire of it selfe; every man is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine; if a Clod bee washed away by the Sea, Europe is the lesse, as well as if a Promontorie were, as well as if a Mannor of thy friends or of thine owne were; any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.”
– John “I’m done” Donne. Meditation 17, from Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, 1624
It’s weird how the recording industry warps experience. We can sometimes forget that every recording is only one iteration that was captured and set in stone as “The” Definitive Performance, when really it just happened to be captured that particular time among many, many other possible times. Records, like photos, pluck moments out of time and concretise them… And they are the only thing we’re left with later to glimpse a whole era. That’s why densely detailed archives such as Ian Bruce Huntley‘s, where there were many recordings of the same bands made during the same era, are so interesting. I’ve posted here, and in the preceding post, recordings of the same band on two consecutive nights.
One of the lovely things about everyone having a camera in their pocket on their phone is that this is not something that is rare anymore, and the democratisation of shared experience is a very powerful and positive thing. One of the horrible things is that there is just such a volume of recorded stuff (much of questionable quality) being generated that the brightest nuggets of wonder can be drowned in the dross… Too much recording and we have a shaky, pixelated backup of every moment kept on hard drives, that no one ever has time to live through twice, to the extent that everything melts into undifferentiated, indigestible “big data” and can only be apprehended as statistics. I feel very ambivalent about it.
I think it’s really important that, whenever possible, we still have experienced photographers, videographers and sound recorders assigned to do this stuff, so that in years to come what we are left with are some beautiful and considered recordings, and not just a haunted avalanche of muddy glimpses.
Sympoiesis, not autopoiesis, threads the string figure game played by Terran critters. Always many-stranded, SF is spun from science fact, speculative fabulation, science fiction, and, in French, soin de ficelles (care of/for the threads). The sciences of the mid-20th-century “new evolutionary synthesis” shaped approaches to human-induced mass extinctions and reworldings later named the Anthropocene. Rooted in units and relations, especially competitive relations, these sciences have a hard time with three key biological domains: embryology and development, symbiosis and collaborative entanglements, and the vast worlds of microbes. Approaches tuned to “multi-species becoming with” better sustain us in staying with the trouble on Terra. An emerging “new new synthesis” in trans-disciplinary biologies and arts proposes string figures tying together human and nonhuman ecologies, evolution, development, history, technology, and more. Corals, microbes, robotic and fleshly geese, artists, and scientists are the dramatis personae in this talk’s SF game.
For Donna Haraway, we are already assimilated.
“The monster opens the curtains of Victor Frankenstein’s bed. Schwarzenegger tears back the skin of his forearm to display a gleaming skeleton of chrome and steel. Tetsuo’s skin bubbles as wire and cable burst to the surface. These science fiction fevered dreams stem from our deepest concerns about science, technology, and society. With advances in medicine, robotics, and AI, they’re moving inexorably closer to reality. When technology works on the body, our horror always mingles with intense fascination. But exactly how does technology do this work? And how far has it penetrated the membrane of our skin?”
Go HERE to read the rest of this article about Donna Haraway from way back in 1997.
The Wits Anthropology Department is pleased to reopen its Museum collection with
If we burn there is ash
An exhibition by Talya Lubinsky
with contributing artists Meghan Judge, Tshegofatso Mabaso and Thandiwe Msebenzi
and performances by Lebohang Masango and Healer Oran
Wits Anthropology Museum
Wednesday 7 September 2016
Walkabout with the artists Thursday 8 September 11:30-13:00
On Christmas Eve of 1931 a fire broke out at Wits University’s Great Hall. At the time, the façade of the Great Hall had been built, its stone pillars and steps creating a striking image of the university in the young colonial city. But the University had run out of funds, and the building that would become Central Block, had not yet been built. Erected behind the grand façade of the Great Hall were wooden shack-like structures, which burned in the fire. These wooden structures housed the collections of what is now called the Cullen Library, as well as the Ethnographic Museum’s collection. Initiated by Winifred Hoernle, head of the Ethnography Museum at the time, the collection was largely comprised of pieces of material culture sent to her from the British missionary, William Burton, while stationed in the ‘Congo’ region.
The fire burned hundreds of books, paintings and artefacts. Some of the only objects that survived the fire are clay burial bowls from the Burton collection. Able to withstand the heat precisely because of their prior exposure to fire, these bowls remain, but are blackened and broken by the 1931 fire.
The exhibition, If we burn, there is ash centres around this story as a place from which to think about the value of colonial collections of material culture. While the origins of the 1931 fire remain unknown, it nonetheless provides a space in which to think about the potentially generative qualities of fire.
Ash, the material remains of fire, however elusive, does not disappear. Even when things burn, they are never fully physically or ephemerally eliminated. Ash is not just the physical remains of that which has been burnt. It is also used as an ingredient in cement mixtures. It is literally transformed into a building material.
Using ash and cement as a poetic relation, this exhibition asks about the potentiality of burning in the project of building and growth. Ash and cement serve as a provocation on the question of what is to be done with the material remains of a violent colonial past.
For further information, please contact Talya Lubinsky (firstname.lastname@example.org) or Kelly Gillespie (Kelly.Gillespie@wits.ac.za)