this, that, and the Other

identity, alterity, and everything in between

Month: September, 2010

sounds beyond us: the divine and uncanny in the womb

Sound is resonance. No sound occurs truly spontaneously, but is always the coming together of objects—the breath vibrating the body, vibrating the horn whose brass in turn sings, the bow on string, mallet on drum or cymbal. There is the action, breath, and the space that contains and responds to the act, the body of the instrument. Word likewise is the breath bringing forth sound out of space. This is the word of the Judeo-Christian god, the god who speaks into being, the breath made flesh in the speaking, the breath bringing shape to the void—sound that creates. The god cloaked in shadow whom to see is death can still be heard if given the space to resonate. Where there is no space to resonate there is no voice to be heard. Space is the home of sound.

We rarely think about the fact that our ears become fully formed in the womb. Before we have any sense of placement or vision beyond our own bodies we hear the world around us, objects devoid of placement or presentation, a content-less form. In this our mother acts as our resonating chamber, like the body of the stringed instrument or piano, the sound we are first attuned to. She is our shelter from the outside and the foreign, while yet introducing it to us by its resonance, its distance. Before we can see beyond ourselves we listen. Freud was not so far off then in saying we desire to return the womb, the pure dependability and attachment of our first home. The mother is really the first appropriated other, the first thing we experience beyond ourselves yet feel entitled to. What confusion must have struck us at birth! To move beyond the self and into a world of sharing, sacrifice, hierarchy, rebellion. To be on the very fringe of language and aural intelligibility—the sounds of the outside before we ever knew of an inside or outside. What to do but cry? What to do but mimic those unknown resonances of beyond-the-womb, the inner workings and intimacy of the mother’s body, the tapping of the hand to the belly, the words and songs of comfort or distress. I wonder if those first attempts at sound are a child’s first grasp of language, the opacity of the cry signifying an infinity of meaning. Signifying perhaps the splitting of single, simple existence into polyphony, alterity, the sudden shock of distinction: inside and outside, here and there, sounds to objects, and the self to other.

The womb as chamber of resonance then is where we learn the notion of the voice of god, or where we first experience it—a sound without a body, pure resonance. This takes the form of the god of hope just beyond my immediate viewpoint, the god at the horizon who is always beyond and orchestrating the seeming chaos. This can also be the sinister god though, the spider-god, the noises that go bump in the night whose body is beyond imagining. This is the noise of the ghost. Bodiless sound is both the trace of the divine other as well as the haunting of the beyond. Conversely, it is also where we learn what a home is, what it means to have a space bound up with who we are, a place of repose that if disrupted in some way works back upon the self. An insult to the home is an insult to the ego; an infestation of the home reflects a breech of self; a cluttered home, a cluttered mind, etc. Before we knew of an outside or saw the other face-to-face we felt and heard the sounds of the uncanny and ecstatic resonating all around us, the divinity and horror latent in sound.

Gaston Bachelard said, “the world would get along better if pots and covers could always stay together.” I am inclined to agree—every coverless pot is nothing more than a bowl, a space devoid of mystery or a timbre of its own, any sound it can make a reflection of what is put into it. A covered pot however resonates back on itself, a single tap revealing a whole aural world, resonating and re-resonating. A covered pot is filled with mystery and imagination, a womb-home, pregnant with infinite possibility. From the covered pot sounds a voice beyond-the-self, beyond the mere touch which aurally “opens” the pot—releasing a Pandora’s box of divinity and horror.


Heads up on New Blog

I think because of my current postings on listening are slightly more relevant to my new blog, I’ll be posting the rest of my “What is Listening?” series on that blog, reserving this, that, and the Other for non-music related essays and poetry. Thanks!

New Blog

Started a new blog where I hope to post my thoughts on whatever music I happen to be studying. Hoping for it to be a phenomenology/musicology cross-over thing. Anywho, hope you get a chance to check it out and that I can keep it up.

What is Listening, prt. II

When did I first listen? This question can have no definitive answer and is as unfruitful a question as “what and when was the first word spoken?” From the moment I had ears to hear within the womb my body heard and vibrated to the natural rhythm of my mother’s pulse. It was from the womb I first experienced aural space, reverberation, the echo, and “entered” into listening. The ethnomusicologist John Blacking notes that just as the child never had to learn the formal structure of language before he began speaking, so too the child responds to aural organization “before he has been taught to recognize” the sounds as such. From our very first memories we are creatures that listen.

Listening is a finding-an-order to sounds, a making sense of the natural depth of the world around us. Because we have listened from such a young age and have learned what to listen for, we often take for granted how complex this finding-an-order is. Dr. Oliver Sacks in his recent book Musicophilia expounds upon the phenomenon of musical hallucinations, when music sounds to an individual seemingly out of nowhere. These hallucinations are usually brought on by a hearing loss and can last for many years—the patient constantly hearing the playing of music, often spontaneous and “composed,” for his or her entire conscious existence. Such hallucinations can also temporarily be induced by stroke, ischemic attacks, or cerebral aneurysms.

Although Dr. Sacks says little in the way of interpreting this phenomenon or what it “means” to how we as human beings listen, one patient does comment that when mowing the lawn, “a motif starts up in my head which I recognize as only happening when the mower is on.” Many of the patients experience similar occurrences, like a high ringing before slowly changing into a recurring theme. The hallucinatory music then is a finding-an-order but to a cognitively dissonant extreme. Whereas most of us notice musicality in sounds, the rhythm and loud voice of the lawn mower for instance, the patient literally transcribes or arranges these sounds into music. Just as visual hallucinations are a way of “making sense” of disconcerting visual phenomena, so too musical hallucinations are an ordering of sound that reveal how listening is an ordering of sound.

Sounds not only arouse the cerebellum, basal ganglia, or any other one portion of the brain, but like language, vast portions of it. These sounds in turn lead to rhythmic motor function, whether that be playing or singing along with the music, tapping, or even sitting still—for listening attunes us to what we are listening to, we vibrate to it, reverberate it back. These aural rhythms felt throughout our body are in turn taken up by the mind. We take up musical structures both on the psychological level of anticipation/fulfillment or appropriation/denial, as well as on the neurological level. Our motor rhythms influence the rhythm that our neurons fire in, taking the rhythms up as a temporal template. Listening as finding-an-order literally influences how our brains “move” in time. As in Plato’s Republic the “rhythm and harmony [of music] permeate the inner part of the soul,” ordering our thoughts and the sounds of the world around us.

Thursday: and I thought of Summer

There are times, you are quite certain, when
these things don’t matter terribly much—
when the lack of a baton in Basic Conducting

you more than likely left at your girlfriend’s house
carries no Freudian significance, or the feeling
you get when the fast food restaurant won’t let you

substitute a veggie patty for equal price (thus
discouraging people you imagine to give up meat or
at least marring it somehow). And there are times,

such times as these, where the meaning, like the lilt
in the step of the woman in the summer dress or the
last few cubes of ice rattling into water in the bottom

of your cup seems so far away from the thing, yet
so terribly tangled up around it and behind it—
the silence in the face of the one you reach out to from

behind, the meaning that to utter is to distance
yourself further from the one you love, the distance
we carve out of things only to fill and empty and fill

again. The sort of meaning that can’t help but remind me of
that passage from the Tao, the one about the master
obsessed with profit and success, the one who only need

have faith in the world as the faith we have in ourselves,
the one who needn’t hope or fear, the one in short,
who need only love himself: he could love the world.

What is Listening? prt. 1

All of us listen. Even the deaf feel the rumble of the passing train or the low humming bass of the rock concert and are alarmed or drawn by these noises. Who has not shushed another for talking during a concert or movie? We take such offense because something about certain sounds calls us to listen to them. My roommate who begins chatting during Casablanca offends me because he is interrupting something I feel called to listen to and, by my showing him the movie, I want to share with him. We all have favorite songs or sounds or passages of music we “take up with us” throughout our day, certain listenings that become part of who we are. What is it about the human mind that transfixes itself insatiably on melodies, rhythms, and timbres? And how does this affect our bodies and those around us? What is listening?

The ears do not have eyelids. This simple observation has lead some, like Peter Szendy, to make a distinction between listening and “hearing or perception.” Hearing is the aural background of noise you cannot stop taking in, the buzz of the fly or gentle hum of the air-conditioning unit. Although one can listen to these, they seem to rarely “call” to be listened to—unless the fly interrupts our train of thought or the air-conditioner suddenly turns off. We tend to listen to what is marked by an existential order—the event organized into meaning. We listen to conversation, the music bearing the trace of another, or the sounds of the tide that seem marked by a natural order. Listening then we will define as a certain focus of hearing that is usually, but not always, intentional and active. And how to define music? In the hopes to include all sorts of music and sound-art we will define music as composer Edgar Varese did, as “organized sound.” At times however reference will be made to traditional or tonal music, which is music consisting of melodic structure, rhythmic pulse, and pitch.

Music does not exhaust listening, but it exemplifies it and helps us to see the phenomenon better. In the same way hearing and listening impairments through their negation help us to clearer see the importance and depth of listening. Many of these are neurological, like musically induced seizures, which help show that listening is not necessarily seated in the motor functions of the ear, but often in the mind. Some of these conditions will be sketched out later to show how listening for organization is an essential dimension of existence like language, critical for developing proper brain function and intersubjective relations. Also the importance listening has on the body will be expounded on. For listening gives us a spatial opening on the world, what phenomenologist Don Ihde calls a “field-space,” which not only gives us a sense of presence and interior depth but also is an integral part of motor-balance and equilibrium. Music, specifically through rhythmic pulse, also similarly “places” our bodies in and with a sense of time, allowing for synchronization between music, our bodies, and other people. Which leads finally to the importance of common sound-experience, how music and sound elicit similar reactions in the brains of diverse people, allowing them to “share” listening with each other. Thus we will come to see how sounds in the world, the self, and others can cohabitate the same aural space through the act of listening.

before fully awake

because cool water in the light of pale curtains
because ammons and morrison
because new blue jeans and hair naturally curled
in those first few lines of morning’s push and
because the play of paint on canvas in what we called
a neighborhood of oil or acrylic on fabric otherwise
common was rounding the corners of the room and because
this morning was altogether ripe with possibilities
I had to stop and look for something to say