Sound Art & Silence

salomevoegelinSalomé Voegelin is a Swiss artist and writer engaged in listening as a socio-political practice of sound. She is the author of Listening to Noise and Silence: Towards a Philosophy of Sound Art. She is a Reader in Sound Arts at the London College of Communication.

 

I stumbled across her book and found a new perspective, that of the Sound Artist, typically an installation driven, or recorded/broadcast genre.  As usual with any art practice, there was much to learn.

Sound Art requires listening and Voegelin explores this aspect of the performance .. performer .. listener … at length …

In the quiet sounds of Silence the listener becomes audible to himself as a discrete member of an audience. Silence provides the condition to practise a signifying language that takes account of its sonic base: it embraces the body of the listener in its solitude, and invites him to listen to himself amidst the soundscape that he inhabits.

She quickly places silence front and centre as a necessary condition of listening …

… discusses silent works and silence in the acoustic environment not as the absence of sound but as the beginning of listening as communication.

Silence, as Voegelin points out is not muteness .. it is not an absence or a prevention of sound …

Sound renders the object dynamic. It makes it ‘tremble with life’ and gives it a sense of process rather than a mute stability. Stability is mute, not silent, but mute.   Silence still involves listening and hearing as a generative action of perception. Muteness by contrast numbs the auditory engagement. It applies a local anaesthetic and disables the hearing process. Stability in this sense is the object minus the action of perception, a state that does not exist but is assumed and pretended by a visual ideology. Sound by contrast negates stability through the force of sensory experience. Listening’s focus on the dynamic nature of things renders the perceptual object unstable, fluid and ephemeral: unsettling what is through a world of sonic phenomena and audible spirits. Sounds are like ghosts. They slink around the visual object, moving in on it from all directions, forming its contours and content in a formless breeze. The spectre of sound unsettles the idea of visual stability and involves us as listeners in the production of an invisible world. This sonic life-world might be silent but forceful, grasping us as we hear it, pulling us into an auditory imagination even if we mistake if for the thing seen.

She discusses Cage’s work on Silence and his famous 4’33” and makes a valid point that most of us know about it, and have not experienced it directly, so we discuss it as conceptual art, not experienced performance.

Cage’s interest in silence lies in establishing every sound within the musical register. It does not invite a listening to sound as sound but to all sound as music.

She claims that silence is not about opening up or locking away sounds …

Silence is about listening, listening to small sounds, tiny sounds, quiet and loud sounds out of any context, musical, visual or otherwise. Silent sounds can be loud, as much as noisy sounds can be quiet, but they do not deafen my body to anything but themselves, and instead include me in their production.

Out of Noise comes silence .. and the ability to listen …

In silence he comes to hear himself and comes to speak about the heard from that central position.

This is a discussion about Sound Art … and Cage is quoted ..

When there is nothing to hear you start hearing things
Behind the work of any creative artist there are three principal wishes: the wish to make something; the wish to perceive something, […] and the wish to communicate these perceptions to others. […] Those who have no interest in communication do not become artists either; they become mystics or madmen.

And again, with another commentator, we get back to silence not being the absence of sound …

When there is nothing to hear, so much starts to sound. Silence is not the absence of sound but the beginning of listening. This is listening as a generative process not of noises external to me, but from inside, from the body, where my subjectivity is at the centre of the sound production, audible to myself. Silence reveals to me my own sounds: my head, my stomach, my body becomes their conductor.

This isn’t a reference to the anechoic chamber experience.  This is written as if the author was sitting in the snow, where it is quiet …

I become the soundscape in me and from me. The explosive centrifugality of noise finds a centripetal motion to match – silence occupies their undulation.

And then … a summary analysis of the value of silence … in a way via a phenomenological lens …

Silence is possibly the most lucid moment of one’s experiential production of sound. In silence I comprehend, physically, the idea of intersubjective listening: I am in the soundscape through my listening to it and in turn the soundscape is what I listen to, perpetually in the present. Silence confirms the soundscape as a sonic life-world, and clarifies the notion that sound is a relationship not between things but just a relationship, passing through my ears. The quiet sounds do not belong to a visual source; they sound out of silence the being of the house and myself as being within it. I cannot encounter them vis-à-vis myself but only through myself. Their autonomy is not spatial, distanced, but aesthetic: they sound the autonomy of the aesthetic moment.

And from the following paragraphs, I can selectively cut and paste to create …

In silence the visual perspective vanishes into sensorial simultaneity. The sound field is compact but potentially infinite. … … … Silence is everywhere near, and I am in that abundant silence all it sounds. In its hushed nothingness I am the simultaneity of listening and sound making. … … …  I am a sensible thing, thinging in the midst of sonic things, thinging with me in silence. … … … Silence emphasizes this fleeting simultaneity of listening. It brings me back to the aesthetic moment of sound, its autonomy, where its materiality is exposed to the ears in an acute way without offering a visual referent, and where my hearing is linked directly to its production rather than guided by an extra-sonic point of reference. Sounds in silence are what I hear. … … … Individual morsels of silence are extended in my hearing to produce micro narratives that stretch around me in the compact hum of nothing.

And then, the dichotomy between noise and silence is summarised, from the perspective of the listening self …

Silence by contrast enters me and pulls on me, inside out, stretching my nervous system through thin layers of skin, hooking my inner flesh to the very outskirts of my body. While noise roots my body on the spot to propel my listening outward, in fragments that fragment the heard in the fantasy of the listening body, silence captures my body within itself: horizontal, thick and all-inclusive. Listening to silence practises the noisy fragments within the body.

Challenging the status quo …

In many ways noise is concealed silence rather than its opposite. It compels the listener to develop the sonic sensibility that silence demands to be heard.

In reference to works that include silence as a component …

In this sense silence places the composer and the listener in corresponding locations: he is the composer as producer and I am the composer as listener. This equivalence explains the responsibility of the listener and his centrality in any exchange about the heard. And thus it renders silence critical in respect to aesthetic discourse, since it shifts the focus of writing about the work to writing about its production in perception.

As a final summary to the section of the book on Silence …

Silence is the place of the ‘I’ in the listened-to world. However, this is not a confident, territorial ‘I’ but an ‘I’ in doubt about his position, for ever awkward about being in the middle of the ‘picture’. This middle is stretched out all over my perception, centripetally into me and centrifugally from me, transparently covering the perceived with its shiny materiality to reveal it and reflect myself within its quietness. This transparent cloak that bares what it covers is silence as the call to listen to the world and to myself, as things in the world.


LINKS

Salome Voegelin website
London College of Communication (University of the Arts, London) page
Salome Voegelin Soundcloud site
Listening to Noise and Silence book


Image courtesy of London College of Communication