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
There is no utopia without nature. Life is already a utopia–Mileece
When I heard sound artist and environmental researcher Mileece refer to utopia as she presented on her bio-sound work this past year for MOMA’s PSA1 series “Speculations: The Future Is ____” I was startled and intrigued. When I asked Mileece to delve further into her conception, Mileece explained how when faced with an environment lacking flora–such as on a recent trip to India where she spent a lot of time in a cityscape heavy with apartment blocks–she noticed that finally coming upon a garden outside a temple or other flush area felt like utopia. “I’m referring to an ecological utopian society, not a fictional one.” Mileece told me, “But either way, what we imagine as a perfect society always comes with fruit. Nature makes man right in the head. Without it, things get really rough. With it too of course, but you can see what happens to people deprived of green.” Her participatory art installations explore and communicate her sense of the lushness and sensory surprises of the natural world.
Mileece is a internationally acclaimed, multi- disciplinary sonic artist and renewable energy ambassador. Her work “promoting ecology through technology and the arts’ has brought her international critical acclaim as a composer and installation artist. Formations, her debut album, inspired by cycles and formations in nature (“beautiful, real, musical science,” BBC), was the result of her initial works in computer generated compositions, using Super Collider, an object-oriented programming language.–Decibel festival bio
Mileece and I recently continued our conversation via Skype–she in the city of Jaisalmer in Rajasthan performing camera and sound work on mouthharps, and me in my studio in Lisbon, Portugal–what follows is a transcript of our talk. Mileece had just finished showing in Bhutan, where she created an installation in a dome at their first international festival.
Maile Colbert: Was the installation [in Bhutan] related to the work you did recently in MOMA [at POPRALLY in February 2013]?
Mileece: similar in being an installation with interactive plants and sensors.
MC: And when you are home and in the studio, what does your day look and sound like?
M: That depends on much. The last project I did before leaving for Bhutan was a dome at a school, which had me with a shovel in garden clothes up early onsite, then home late, so I wasn’t in the studio at all. Then I worked on the plant interface for Bhutan and generally to get a public interface finished-hardware and software as pre-made wireless ‘off the shelf’ devices and learning kits that I can distribute to people and artists and do more complex projects with. So at random hours, when my colleague who is helping me with the engineering aspects had a moment, we would sit and quickly go over the builds. I did recently decide I want to do a less intensely computer based project, so completely rearranged my studio, borrowed a loop station, bought a gold guitar and started to ‘jam’. It’s something I’ve never done before. I’ve had days where it’s fourteen hours working constantly in the studio, tweaking buttons and writing code. But it all depends…
MC: So, does each project tend to take you into something new…new tools, new methodology…or do you think you work like that because that’s how you like it, to be an exploration as well as a process?
M: I’m always refining, but the software I wrote is 10 years old now and I’ve been working on the plant project for about 15 years. “Soniferous Eden” is an installation series where interior spaces are transformed into star-studded micro-ecologies, where lush groves of plants generate rich and dynamic soundscapes in response to the touch and presence of the participants, who can saunter barefoot in moist soil amongst them. I’m always working on it, whether the code, concept, or its elements.
M (cont. . .): Every time I do an installation it’s site specific, so never the same, and generally it’s evolved into a variety of different types with focus on various objectives. For example, the dome at the school is a bio-library and sound sanctuary, where I created a pond, dry creek, planted area, and interactive sitting ‘pods’ inside a dome so kids can read and be in a seemingly natural environment, sitting on the ground in a way that is ergonomic and triggers soundscapes when they are still. There is an array of benefits to being around plants and within a ‘high fidelity’ acoustic environment, as R. Murray Schafer would call it (from whose works some of the concepts were modeled)…from helping the parts of the brain dealing with abstract thinking, to developing memory and social skills. It’s argued that attention deficit disorder is a behavioral issue that can be traced to the decrease in natural habitat available to children.
On other projects, such as for Bhutan, more emphasis was on the interactivity with the plants themselves, so I worked on the code of the plant synths, written in SuperCollider, an object-oriented programming language.
I’m not really reinventing at this point, just tweaking and improving. Although, having said that, for these next projects there are significant advancements in the works…it’s like invention. Sometimes I make new sensors and design new sounds, but since my work has spanned quite a variety of stuff from renewables to software to gardens, each one evolves slowly.
MC: Can you tell us a bit about your background and where you are from? And what from this do you think led you to “Tree We’vr”, and working with biofeedback data of plants?
M: I’m from England and grew up in multiple cities (London, New York, Los Angeles) and the countryside equally, so I was exposed to rural and urban environments. I saw The Secret Life of Plants when I was around nineteen, and a couple of years before that Mobius 8 had shown me his work with MIDI and sensors.
M (cont. . .): I had imagined holographic plants (my mum did holography in the 80’s)…which then seemed completely uninteresting since plants THEMSELVES could iterate music.
MC: Have you always had an interest in micro-worlds? What about worlds barely perceptible to us interests you?
M: Yes, micro-worlds…love that. In Suffolk, where I grew up for some time, we had this greenhouse and I remember making this tiny micro-garden in it. I LOVED it and was just mortified when my father told me it needed to be torn down for being unsafe, which he did by getting riotously pissed with his best friend and driving the Range Rover through it.
I have great respect and love for the world and living things. I truly ache for the well being of plants and animals and most people so overall I am dedicated to helping support a healthy ecology, in the holistic sense of the word. And sometimes these ‘hidden things’ are what makes the link to show up the ‘livingness’ and connection we are lacking…the ‘magic’ we need to see and touch to remember that we are a spinning spool of intangible energy organized and perpetuated only by our own existence.
MC: Do you feel your sonification with plants as an instrument, or translation? Can you describe the connection you have with a plant when working with it…is it emotional, scientific, intellectual curiosity…a mix? Is it a dialogue?
M: Nail on the head. My work as an artist is to find the balance between the two. I call it aesthetic sonification, as what you are looking to do is relay data in a way that people understand it, which isn’t necessarily how it iterates, as there are psychoacoustics and other human factors as to how we interpret sound that need to be considered when you are translating information into the sonic realm. So you find a way to relay the information, then make it beautiful for both the human and the plant to be able to enjoy, which is key to art being successful. It’s a balance, and that is my job. That is where I see the necessity for artistry and mastery, and where I try to get it right. The rest is understanding the technicalities.
M (cont. . .): An instrument holds potential as a set of elements and offers a composer/musician that spectrum of potential to weave from. The limitations are the possible manifestations of that potential as choreographed by the degree of expertise of the musician/composer. Sonification doesn’t care about weaving potentials, it wants to be direct as possible. The degree of articulation of the information is a strictly technical matter. So I am somewhere in there, where the sonification is the limitation of the instrument, and the instrument is the plant and interface.
MC: Do you find people understand your work? How much of understanding what you do is important for you to have from your audience?
M: b A whole spectrum of folk come and make use of the installations. Though perhaps not many thoroughly understand my work, most understand the consequence. When I explain what I’m doing I don’t usually get vacant stares, most people follow. I don’t really have an audience, I have participants, so people do a thing, and a thing happens…then they wonder how, and they can find out. Their curiosity leads them on that journey of discovery, and it doesn’t really matter, the issue is plants are alive more than we thought. So long as someone walks away with that, that’s right and good. And if the music and ambience moves them, that’s best.
An instrument holds potential as a set of elements and offers a composer/musician that spectrum of potential to weave from. The limitations are the possible manifestations of that potential as choreographed by the degree of expertise of the musician/composer. Sonification doesn’t care about weaving potentials, it wants to be direct as possible. The degree of articulation of the information is a strictly technical matter. So I am somewhere in there, where the sonification is the limitation of the instrument, and the instrument is the plant and interface.
MC: You mentioned once plants “lacking representation”…I find this intriguing, can you tell us more about this concept?
M: There really isn’t one part of our economy that doesn’t rely on the exploitation of plants, either themselves or their habitat. We have rights for animals, rights for people, and we know we abuse them often, as there are representatives who tell us so. But we don’t often think about the plants, and the plants are also living. They support life, all life almost, so we have to start thinking about that. They are now using ‘excess’ plant energy to power devices. I find this idea of ‘excess’ interesting, like over 90% of our DNA is junk, and 94% of the Universe is ‘dark’. I wouldn’t like to be so assertive.
MC: What tends to happen with the sound from the plants when they are touched? Does it depend on the kind of touch? Does it depend on the kind of plant, or where it is touched? Do plants scream? Or is this anthropomorphizing?
M: Plants emit indicators, best known to be chemical, when they experience threats or distress. The smell of freshly cut grass for example, this is a chemical emitted by the plants to express distress. So ‘screaming’ is an anthropomorphic viewpoint on that possibly unemotional ‘response,’which is what plant biologists would commonly call it. This is because we don’t understand plant biology well. They have systems to take in a calculate information, make decisions, and produce self-regulated results, but we have a hard time figuring that out since it isn’t in the form of what we say is required of sentient beings… a nervous system and a brain. But no, it doesn’t matter where you touch a plant, that doesn’t make different sounds, at least that I can tell. I don’t have scientific instruments, I have arty ones, so they aren’t accurate enough to make precise measurements or declarations. I’m in the experience, not research department. The synths I’ve written are modulated by the current from the plant, so the sound changes in direct function of the modulation of the current, which changes with touch or presence and general livingness.
[. . .]
MC: You go way beyond trend or gimmick, you have been doing this a while. Where do you think your work is going? Do you have more in this vein to explore…is it leading somewhere you can share with us?
M: I’m currently working with Eden Labs and some other partners at UCSD on a project engaging custom made technology to hybridize with living systems, forging lucid and direct connections between the inner city and wild ecologies in real time.
All images courtesy of the artist
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!