Welcome back to SO!‘s Sonic Shadows series, which focuses on what it means to “have a voice.” In the first post in the series, I considered the role of the novel in sound studies, and how, paradoxically, this led us back to the embodied voice of the writer. In Joseph Conrad’s prose, traces of accent and translingualism shape the sonic space of difference, but also reframe the novel as a social, yet ambiguous act of communication.
This week, I’m happy to welcome Dominic Pettman, who picks up the question of the embodied human voice as it brushes up against the animal in what he calls the “voice of the world.” Next week, the series will conclude with uncanny mechanical sounds of early recording that trouble the voice of the human from within.
— Julie Beth Napolin, Guest Editor
This is the sound of “the loneliest whale in the world.”
Scientists have tracked this mournful creature for several years, intrigued by the melancholy songs, which go unanswered. The call of this singular cetacean, an Internet cult figure of unidentified species, registers at the unusual frequency of 52hz, much higher than that of all other types of whale.
These days, in general, whales have been forced into relatively tiny sonic boxes because of the din created by ship engines and various audio probings of the marine environment by military and industry alike. As bio-acoustician Christopher Clark, suggests, this assault and subsequent diminishment of the whale’s soundscape must be extremely traumatic for the animal, whose overall umwelt has shrunk from large swathes of the watery planet to barely a mile or so in any given direction. The noisier the ocean becomes the lonelier whales are likely to become.
The 52hz whale is a bit like an outsider artist, offering personalized songs to the sub-aquatic world, only to be snubbed by the more “vocal” members of whale community. Cetaceans could arguably be considered the first instance of global communication, many millions of years ago, since their calls could travel astonishing distances – up to 500 miles under water. Songs of the humpback, for instance, can “sweep across the Pacific in just a few years,” as biologists from the University of Queensland explain. “In any given year, all the males in a population sing the same song, but the songs change from year to year. The changes are more than incremental; they represent whole new repertoires.”
Can we really, however, speak of singing in such cases? Many would argue that simply using the organ of vocalization does not equate to singing in that it lacks the element of self-reflection necessary for true expression; for artistry. Others have conversely argued that humans were likely taught to sing by other creatures, especially the birds. These perspectives on the question of the interspecies voice have a long and complex history, crisscrossing epochs, as well as those divergent orientations to the natural world crudely divided into “East” and “West.” In this post, I focus on what it means to try to hear the animal beyond or through human terms, to explore the question of who or what can rightly claim to have a voice – is it a property or capacity that belongs to a subject, even a nonhuman subject? Might we consider voice to include “expression” of the elements themselves? Might the world itself, whatever such a grand phrase might denote, have a vox mundi – a voice of the planet?
Such questions deserve long and careful consideration, [and SO! has housed a series of reflections on acoustic ecology and a singing planet.] But in this brief context, I focus on the historically contested existence of a creaturely voice – one which describes a plurality of vocal expressions, distributed among those species blessed with the capacity to make sounds with their bodies. As Tobias Menely explains in a wonderful new book, the creaturely voice, like the human one, forms the vector of sympathy; and is thus suspended between the individual producing the sound, and the one listening to it. Through “the voice of nature” we understand our essential “creaturely entanglement” with other animals. This perspective pushes Mladen Dolar’s psychoanalytic theory that voice ties self to other to include the nonhuman experience of the animal realm.
Menely argues for a condition of social identity in “creaturely voice,” which is a way of testing the world, and one’s location, role, and value in it. In other words, monkeys, birds, whales, and so on, test their own existence when they emit non-symbolic equivalents of, “I’m here.” “Where are you?” “Are you really there?” “Who are you?” “Marco.” “Polo.” These are the unspoken – and yet at least partially communicated – messages woven into the ever-vanishing, yet always returning, medium of the voice.
Take, for instance, the parrot or cockatoo. We humans have been fascinated by these birds, largely by virtue of their perceived organic capacity to “record” our own voices, and throw these back at us, like trickster ventriloquists, long before the invention of the phonograph. Certainly, this can create an uncanny effect in the human listener: hearing our own voice echoed back from the larynx of a creature so different from ourselves – a creature that may or may not have its own mind or soul. Historically speaking, many people who had their figurative feathers ruffled by the impertinence of parrots deflected the discomfort they felt, upon hearing their own words screeched back at them.
This pet parrot, who had clearly been in the room when its owner was watching X-rated material, recently became famous. The instant mirth, and/or discomfort, that this clip produces is a function of hearing ourselves, as humans, echoed back by an animal. Our words are “rebroadcast” back to us by an entity that has no sense of irony or decorum. It is literally obscene. It is as if the world were engaged in objective parody of the planet’s most arrogant animal: revealing one of our most sacred activities (“making love”) to be little more than a kind of crude ventriloquial trick. This parrot is not deliberately lampooning us, yet, the refrain created by the bird’s imitative tendencies means that we are lampooned nevertheless.
Another famous pet cockatoo was given to a new couple after a bitter divorce obliged it to find a new home. The details of the break-up remain obscure to the second owners. However, this (traumatized?) cockatoo re-enacts the tone, pitch, and vehemence of the arguments that it was obliged to witness in its previous life. While most of the “words” the cockatoo screeches are not clear enough to be translated, the emotions that initially launched them are obvious to all within hearing distance. The bird even bobs its head, and spreads its wings, in imitation of the angry body language of a wife scorned, spurned, or otherwise so aggrieved that she can only incessantly shriek at the man who made her so miserable. Whose voice is this, then?
Parrots are like children, some might claim, squawking back syllables they will never comprehend. One might as well yell into a cave, and be astonished that the words return as a consequence of physics. Bird songs, according to such a concept, create what Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari call “a refrain,” which in turn generates a territory through the act of sonically diagramming it. This operation is not limited to the natural world, however, since we may say the same about television sets or saxophones.
Consider how children, or lovers, playfully imitate the speech of the other. In doing so, they assert their own identity, while also putting such an identity under erasure. Many animals (including humans) may thus be creatures who continue to flesh themselves out in(to) this territory. But instead of the animal echoing back the human, what about the reverse? As a final example, consider one famous instance of simulated human suffering, “devolving” into a creaturely register; namely, the old literature professor, Dr. Immanuel Rath, who experiences a nervous breakdown when he succumbs to intense jealousy and a broken heart, at the climax of Josef von Sternberg’s classic film, The Blue Angel (1930).
Just as the full weight of his rejection, at the hands of Lola Lola (Marlene Dietrich) is being registered in his psyche, the professor – who has quit teaching to follow his beloved in the cabaret world – is ushered out onto the theatrical stage, dressed as a clown. The audience waits in skeptical anticipation of an amusing performance, but the haunted ex-professor can only unleash a torrent of repressed anguish at his broken heart, and his humiliation at the hands of the vulgar mob. The horrible sound he releases, silencing the crowd, is part spurned lover, part rooster, and wholly abject. The professor seems to lose almost all his humanity, which was once verifiable in his composed and authoritative teaching voice, but is now some kind of demonic bird, screeching in misery, fury, and defeat. As this seemingly mindless force of vengeance tries to strangle his romantic obsession backstage, and as he continues to struggle against those who restrain him, the ex-professor has become creaturely: a supposedly subhuman status signified more by his inhuman voice than by anything else.
And yet, as we have seen, there is no simple hierarchy here, where the human occasionally – in times of great distress – finds themselves, by this logic, reduced to being “an animal.” We might call this the vox mundi – the voice of the world—in which, like the shadowy depths of the ocean, there is a swath of sound shared by human and animal. The creaturely voice can be sweet, like the nightingale. Or it can be harsh, like the traumatized cockatoo or the green-eyed professor-clown. There is an intimate link between the voices of animals and those of humans, which cannot be reduced to a concept like “communication,” but which nevertheless impacts and influences all those in hearing distance.
That is, unless one happens to be a whale, singing at 52hz. In which case, we are likely to keep singing into the inky darkness, without any reply.
Dominic Pettman is Chair of Liberal Studies, New School for Social Research, and Professor of Culture & Media, Eugene Lang College. He is the author of several books, including Look at the Bunny: Totem, Taboo, Technology (Zero books), and the forthcoming Infinite Distraction: Paying Attention to Social Media (Polity).
Featured image: “Humpback Whales” by Flickr user Christopher Michel, CC BY 2.0
REWIND! . . .If you liked this post, you may also dig:
Animal Renderings: The Library of Natural Sounds — Jonathan Skinner
Sounding Our Utopia: An Interview With Mileece — Maile Colbert
This is the conclusion to a two-part post by SO! regular writer Maile Colbert. Read Part One from Monday, January 12th here.
As we are primarily a visual culture, no longer connected to what environments can tell us through sound, we’ve lost aural acuity once central to the dynamic of our lives.
From what we have just begun to see, it appears that ancient human beings had learned well the lessons imparted by natural sounds. Their lives depended as much (if not more) on their ability to hear and understand the audio information imparted by their surroundings as those given by visual cues. –Bernard Krause, Ph.D The Soundscape Newsletter 06, June, 1993
All newborns emerge with the same cry, it is near impossible to distinguish one from another, even as a mother. This could be for many reasons and serve many purposes. Should something happen to a birth mother, the indistinguishable cry may help draw attention from another. It could be that, considering niche effect (in which animals adapt their calls to a frequency less populated by other environmental sounds), aside from biological reasons, a newborn’s cry is shaped by the wombscape from whence it came, and I speculate that generally speaking one wombscape is similar to another. Primarily what a fetus is hearing is low frequency. So it would serve that they would have an instinct to initially call out in a high frequency range. The baby then develops its cry according to its surrounding, such as a household in the city versus a country, a household with other children or not, a household with constant media sound.
My daughter has the most incredible earsplitting high frequency bark when she wants attention. If this doesn’t work (such as when “Baby, Mama has to wash the garden manure from her hands before she picks you up”), she’ll roll into a gritty horrific low growl that sounds like she’s being strangled. One of these always works, and I often wonder about these sounds’ relationship to the white noise (her specific mix in a more mid-range involving pink noise and a “rain on roof” recording) that has been a constant since her birth, and is still used for naps, some feedings, and bedtime.
Sound Machines and Noise
From my late pregnancy insomnia, to creating a calming environment in the labor room at the hospital, to keeping a consistent calming environment in the recovery room, to using that sound as a signal that it is time to calm, time to sleep…a sound machine has been a constant already in my daughter’s new world. It started with an app in Paris, at a festival during my third trimester, my waddling condition wouldn’t allow me to walk around much nor meet friends for drinks, etc. So I choose to stay in the hotel room and read. The fetal babe wasn’t in the mood to read, kicking and dancing, perhaps excited from the music at the festival. For a little while I played with her, her kicking in response to my pokes and prods. But soon I knew we both needed to both settle down. I was always fascinated by my parents’ sound machine as a child, it seemed something magical. I found and downloaded an app that allowed you to create your own mix, and so it began.
But recent research poses the question of whether a sound machine can actually affect hearing development. Some researchers have questioned if prolonged exposure to consistent sound could affect auditory pathways to the brain. I wonder what then of infants who grow up near, say, the ocean…or like my mother near a stream and small waterfall, a constant sound in her childhood and soundtrack to her memories from then. Or near a busy road or even walkway. Of course I want the babe to grow up to enjoy and focus on a varied soundscape. But at certain points, the noise has been a lifesaver! It’s been especially useful now combatting construction sounds, as babies tend to focus on background sounds, most likely for survival:
Of course it is very important to be aware of the strength of the sound a baby is exposed to, all too easy for our very visual culture to ignore. Even a sound machine with the volume too high, or the proximity too close, could reach decibels over 80, a threshold that could cause the tiny hair cells in the ear needed for hearing to die. As we lose these, we start to lose our hearing. The amount of energy in a sound doubles with even just a three decibel climb. If any sound makes it difficult to hold a regular conversation, chances are it’s past this threshold and could be doing damage. Our world is in many ways getting increasingly louder. As our cities grow, its sounds grow, and we are exposed to more constant and louder soundscapes. Will an accidental evolution be for us to adapt to losing our hearing? For me of course, this is a very bleak thought.
Your words are preserved in the tin foil and will come back upon the application of the instrument years after you are dead in exactly the same tone of voice you spoke in then. . . . This tongueless, toothless instrument, without larynx or pharynx, dumb, voiceless matter, nevertheless mimics your tones, speaks with your voice, speaks with your words, and centuries after you have crumbled into dust will repeat again and again, to a generation that could never know you, every idle thought, every fond fancy, every vain word that you chose to whisper against this thin iron diaphragm.
-Edison’s Ars Memoria, concept for the phonograph
A recorded sound transcends time. It allows a listener to share a space and perspective with the recordist. It allows a future people to hear the songs of people passed, and of their shared past. It allows for an extinct bird to call into the future, for a child to hear that bird and wonder, and question, and to have that question affect her future and therefore perhaps the future of others. I often think about what soundscapes or sound I have experienced that my daughter might not have the opportunity to experience when she’s older. Already since my childhood growing up in part in Hawaii, three birds I knew, I had heard, that my mother grew up with, that her father grew up with, that his parents grew up with (and so on)…are no longer calling in the wild. But what the world and I can share with her and her generation, can give her, can leave her, are recordings.
Kaua’i `O’o: http://macaulaylibrary.org/audio/6031
Hawaiian Crow: http://macaulaylibrary.org/audio/13434
The library I am constantly creating, shaped by my choice and perspective…where to hit start, when to stop, where to point the mic, what equipment to use, how to frame this aural moment that captured me and invoked the desire to save and to share.
I think of this very often these days, as a friend and great soundscape ecologist and composer has passed. Steve Miller (www.stevemiller.net ) left a wealth of music, sound, and writing that his daughter and family can share. His daughter will be able to put on headphones and share a space her father formed with his perspective, his choices, his interests. A sharing active with him.
A sharing that transcends time and space.
Future Memory, for Odette
Sound has a hold over my daughter in a way I wasn’t quite expecting. It’s almost a punch line that the daughter of two parents that work with and study sound would have such sensitivity. The smallest sounds can pull her from sleep, can pull her from eating. They can be a character for her, making her laugh, cry, yawn, widen her eyes in amazement.
It was only natural my partner and I decided to make an album as a gift to our daughter. We had wanted to do the same marking our history together years back, and had various sound recordings and unfinished ditties in a library marked “Future Memory.” The idea behind it was an aural coming together of our history and feelings expressed and translated through sound and song. We realized, of course, in many ways this was Odette’s history as well, and she our future.
The album became Future Memory, for Odette, a lullaby album in dedication and celebration to her, and including sounds from her growing in the womb, soundscapes we hope will be a part of her life, and in recording them in some way ensuring that, a score written for her while I was in labor from a friend, songs her father and I began and finished together during the stages of pregnancy, birth, and her first year, and collaborations and contributions in sound and music from family and friends would be her legacy.
This is her first song:
Dedicated to Odette Helen, and to the family, daughter, and memory of Steve Miller
“Future Memory, for Odette” to be released in 2015 through Wild Silence (www.wild-silence.com ). A dedication album to a new born daughter…a mix of her parents’ recorded and shared sounds, memories, hopes, and dreams towards a future with her. Sounds of her womb-scape, birth, and first year…music in collaboration with friends and family across oceans and land…an album of lullabies for Odette.
Maile Colbert is a multi-media artist with a concentration on sound and video who relocated from Los Angeles, US to Lisbon, Portugal. She is a regular writer for Sounding Out!
REWIND! . . .If you liked this post, you may also dig:
On Sound and Pleasure: Meditations on the Human Voice– Yvon Bonenfant
This Is Your Body on the Velvet Underground– Jacob Smith