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Look Away and Listen: The Audiovisual Litany in Philosophy

This is an excerpt from a paper I delivered at the 2017 meeting of the Society for Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy.

“Compressed and rarefied air particles of sound waves” from Popular Science Monthly, Volume 13. In the public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

According to sound studies scholar Jonathan Sterne in The Audible Past, many philosophers practice an “audiovisual litany,” which is a conceptual gesture that favorably opposes sound and sonic phenomena to a supposedly occularcentric status quo. He states, “the audiovisual litany…idealizes hearing (and, by extension, speech) as manifesting a kind of pure interiority. It alternately denigrates and elevates vision: as a fallen sense, vision takes us out of the world. But it also bathes us in the clear light of reason” (15).  In other words, Western culture is occularcentric, but the gaze is bad, so luckily sound and listening fix all that’s bad about it. It can seem like the audiovisual litany is everywhere these days: from Adriana Cavarero’s politics of vocal resonance, to Karen Barad’s diffraction, to, well, a ton of Deleuze-inspired scholarship from thinkers as diverse as Elizabeth Grosz and Steve Goodman, philosophers use some variation on the idea of acoustic resonance (as in, oscillatory patterns of variable pressure that interact via phase relationships) to mark their departure from European philosophy’s traditional models of abstraction, which are visual and verbal, and to overcome the skeptical melancholy that results from them. The field of philosophy seems to argue that we need to replace traditional models of philosophical abstraction, which are usually based on words or images, with sound-based models, but this argument reproduces hegemonic ideas about sight and sound.

For Sterne, the audiovisual litany is traditionally part of the “metaphysics of presence” that we get from Plato and Christianity: sound and speech offer the fullness and immediacy that vision and words deny. However, contemporary versions of the litany appeal to a different metaphysics. For example, Cavarero in For More Than One Voice argues that the privileging of vision over sound is the foundation of the metaphysics of presence. “The visual metaphor,” she argues, “is not simply an illustration; rather, it constitutes the entire metaphysical system” (38). The problem with this videocentric metaphysics is that it “legitimates the reduction of whatever is seen to an object” (Cavarero 176) and it cannot “anticipate” or “confirm the uniqueness” of each individual (4). In other words, it objectifies and abstracts, and that’s bad. If vision is the foundation of the metaphysics of presence, one way to fix its problems is to replace the foundation with something else. Cavarero thinks vocal resonance avoids the objectifying and abstracting tendencies that images and text supposedly lend to philosophy.

Similarly, in the same way that the traditional audiovisual litany “assume[s] that sound draws us into the world while vision separates us from it” (Sterne 18), Barad’s argument for agential realism in Meeting the Universe Halfway assumes that diffraction draws theorists into actual contact with matter while “reflection still holds the world at a distance” (87). Agential realism looks is the view that even the most basic units of reality, like the basic particles of matter, exercise agency as they interact to form more complex units; diffraction is Barad’s theory about how these particles interact. This litany of distance-versus-relationality and external objectivity versus immersive materiality structures Barad’s counterpoint between reflection and diffraction. For example, she contrasts traditional investment in reflective surfaces—“the belief that words, concepts, ideas, and the like accurately reflect or mirror the things to which they refer-makes a finely polished surface of this whole affair” (86)–with diffractive interiorities, which get down to “the real consequences, interventions, creative possibilities, and responsibilities of intra-acting within and as part of the world” (37). But how do we know Barad is appealing to an audiovisual litany? We know because her fundamental concept–diffraction–describes the behavior of waveforms as they encounter other things, and 21st century Western scientists and music scholars think sound is a waveform. When two or more waves interact, they produce “alternating pattern[s] of wave intensity” or “increasing and decreasing intensities” (Barad 77), like ripples in water or alternating light frequencies.

“diffracted hydrogen” by Flickr user candace, CC BY 2.0

Barad appeals to notions of consonance and dissonance to explain how these patterns interact. For example, when diffracting light waves around a razor blade, “bright spots appear in places where the waves enhance one another-that is, where there is ‘constructive interfer­ence’-and dark spots appear where the waves cancel one another-that is, where there is ‘destructive interference’” (Barad 77). This “constructive” and “destructive” interference is like audio amplification and masking: when frequencies are perfectly in sync (peaks align with peaks, valleys with valleys), they amplify; when frequencies are perfectly out of sync (peaks align with valleys), they cancel each other out (this is how noise-cancelling headphones work). Constructive interference is consonance: the synced patterns amplify one another; destructive interference is dissonance: the out-of-sync patterns mask each other. Both types of interference are varieties of resonance, a rational or irrational phase relationship among frequencies. Rational phase relationships are ones where the shorter phases or periods of higher frequencies are evenly divisible into the longer phases/periods; irrational phase relationships happen when the shorter phases can’t be evenly divided into the longer wavelengths. Abstracting from waveforms to philosophical analysis, Barad often uses resonance as a metaphor to translate wave behavior into materialist philosophical methods. However, even though most of Barad’s examples throughout Meeting the Universe Halfway are visual, she’s describing what scientists call acoustic relationships.

For example, Barad argues that “diffractively read[ing]” philosophical texts means processing “insights through one another for the patterns of resonance and dissonance they coproduce” (195; emphasis mine). Similarly, she advises her readers to tune into the “dissonant and harmonic resonances” (43) that emerge when they try “diffract­ing these insights [from an early chapter in her book] through the grating of the entire set of book chapters” (30). As patterns of higher and lower intensity that interact via ir/rational phase relationships, diffraction patterns are a type of acoustic resonance. Appealing to acoustics against representationalism, Barad practices a version of the audiovisual litany. And she’s not the only new materialist to do so—Jane Bennett’s concept of vibration and Elizabeth Grosz’s notion of “music” also ontologize a similar idea of resonance and claim it overcomes the distancing and skeptical melancholy produced by traditional methods of philosophical abstraction.

“Painter” by Flickr user Flood G., CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

There are also instances of the audiovisual litany in phenomenology. For example, Alia Al-Saji develops in the article A Phenomenology of Critical-Ethical Vision” a notion of “critical-ethical vision” against “objectifying vision,” and, via a reading of Merleau-Ponty, grounds the former, better notion of sight (and thought) in his analogy between painting and listening. According to Al-Saji, “objectifying vision” is the model of sight that has dominated much of European philosophy since the Enlightenment. “Objectifying vision” takes seeing as “merely a matter of re-cognition, the objectivation and categorization of the visible into clear-cut solids, into objects with definite contours and uses” (375). Because it operates in a two-dimensional metaphysical plane it can only see in binary terms (same/other): “Objectifying vision is thus reductive of lateral difference as relationality” (390). According to Al-Saji, Merleau-Ponty’s theory of painting develops an account of vision that is “non-objectifying” (388) and relational. We cannot see paintings as already-constituted objects, but as visualizations, the emergence of vision from a particular set of conditions. Such seeing allows us “to glimpse the intercorporeal, social and historical institution of my own vision, to remember my affective dependence on an alterity whose invisibility my [objectifying] vision takes for granted” (Al-Saji 391). Al-Saji turns to sonic language to describe such relational seeing: “more than mere looking, this is seeing that listens (391; emphasis mine).

This Merleau-Pontian vision not only departs from traditional European Enlightenment accounts of vision, it gestures toward traditional European accounts of hearing. Similarly, Fred Evans, in The Multivoiced Body uses voice as a metaphor for the Deleuzo-Guattarian metaphysics that he calls “chaosmos” or “composed chaos” (86); he then contrasts chaosmos to “homophonic” (67) Enlightenment metaphysics. According to Evans, if “‘voices,’ not individuals, the State, or social structures, are the primary participants in society” (256), then  “reciprocity” and “mutual intersection” (59) appear as fundamental social values (rather than, say, autonomy). This analysis exemplifies what is at the crux of the audiovisual litany: voices put us back in touch with what European modernity and postmodernity abstract away.

“Image from page 401 of “Surgical anatomy : a treatise on human anatomy in its application to the practice of medicine and surgery” (1901)” by Flickr user Internet Archive Book Images

The audiovisual litany is hot right now: as I’ve just shown, it’s commonly marshaled in the various attempts to move past or go beyond stale old Western modernist and postmodernist philosophy, with all their anthropocentrism and correlationism and classical liberalism. To play with Marie Thompson’s words a bit, just as there is an “ontological turn in sound studies,” there’s a “sound turn in ontological studies.” But why? What does sound DO for this specific philosophical project? And what kind of sound are we appealing to anyway?

The audiovisual litany naturalizes hegemonic concepts of sound and sight and uses these as metaphors for philosophical positions. This lets philosophical assumptions pass by unnoticed because they appear as “natural” features of various sensory modalities. Though he doesn’t use this term, Sterne’s analysis implies that the audiovisual litany is what Mary Beth Mader calls a sleight. “Sleights” are, according to Mader in Sleights of Reason,“conceptual collaborations that function as switches or ruses important to the continuing centrality and pertinence of the social category of a political system like “sex” (3). Sleights, in other words, are conceptual slippages that render underlying hegemonic structures like cisheteropatriarchy coherent. More specifically, sleights are “conceptual jacquemarts” (Mader 5). Jacquemarts are effectively the Milli Vanilli of clocks: sounds appear to come from one overtly visible, aesthetically appealing source action (figures ringing a bell) but they actually come from a hidden, less aesthetically appealing source action (hammers hitting gongs). The clock is constructed in a way to “misdirect or misindicate” (Mader 8) both who is making the sound and how they are making it. A sound exists, but its source is misattributed. This is exactly what happens in the uses of the audiovisual litany I discuss above: philosophers misdirect or misindicate the source of the distinction they use the audiovisual litany to mark. The litany doesn’t track the difference between sensory media or perceptual faculties, but between two different methods of abstraction.

Screenshot from Milli Vanilli’s video “Don’t Forget My Number”

This slippage between perceptual medium and philosophical method facilitates the continued centrality of Philosophy-capital-P: philosophy appears to reform its methods and fix its problems, while actually re-investing in its traditional boundaries, values, and commitments. For example, both new materialists and sound studies scholars have been widely critiqued for actively ignoring work on sound and resonance in black studies (e.g., by Zakiyyah Jackson, Diana Leong, Maire Thompson). As Zakiyyah Jackson argues in Outer Worlds: The Persistence of Race in Movement “Beyond the Human,” new materialism’s “gestures toward the ‘post’ or the ‘beyond’ effectively ignore praxes of humanity and critiques produced by black people” (215), and in so doing ironically reinstitute the very thing new materialism claims to supercede. Stratifying theory into “new” and not-new, new materialist “appeals to move ‘beyond’…may actually reintroduce the Eurocentric transcendentalism this movement purports to disrupt” (Jackson 215) by exclusively focusing on European philosophers’ accounts of sound and sight. Similarly, these uses of the litany often appeal only to other philosophers’ accounts of sound or music, not actual works or practices or performances. They don’t even attend to the sonic dimensions of literary texts, a method that scholars such as Jennifer Lynn Stoever and Alexander Weheliye develop in their work. Philosophers use the audiovisual litany to disguise philosophy’s ugly politics—white supremacy and Eurocentrism—behind an outwardly pleasing conceptual gesture: the turn from sight or text to sound. With this variation of the audiovisual litany, Philosophy appears to cross beyond its conventional boundaries while actually doubling-down on them.

Featured image: “soundwaves” from Flickr user istolethetv

Robin James is Associate Professor of Philosophy at UNC Charlotte. She is author of two books: Resilience & Melancholy: pop music, feminism, and neoliberalism, published by Zer0 books last year, and The Conjectural Body: gender, race and the philosophy of music was published by Lexington Books in 2010. Her work on feminism, race, contemporary continental philosophy, pop music, and sound studies has appeared in The New Inquiry, Hypatia, differences, Contemporary Aesthetics, and the Journal of Popular Music Studies. She is also a digital sound artist and musician. She blogs at and is a regular contributor to Cyborgology.

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Botanical Rhythms: A Field Guide to Plant Music

Only overhead the sweet nightingale

Ever sang more sweet as the day might fail,

And snatches of its Elysian chant

Were mixed with the dreams of the Sensitive Plant

Percy Shelley, The Sensitive Plant, 1820


ROOT: Sounds from the Invisible Plant

Plants are the most abundant life form visible to us. Despite their ubiquitous presence, most of the times we still fail to notice them. The botanists James Wandersee and Elizabeth Schussler call it “plant blindness, an extremely prevalent condition characterized by the inability to see or notice the plants in one’s immediate environment. Mathew Hall, author of Plants as Persons, argues that our neglect towards plant life is partly influenced by the drive in Western thought towards separation, exclusion, and hierarchy. Our bias towards animals, or zoochauvinism–in particular toward large mammals with forward facing eyes–has been shown to have negative implications on funding towards plant conservation. Plants are as threatened as mammals according to Kew’s global assessment of the status of plant life known to science. Curriculum reforms to increase plant representation and engaging students in active learning and contact with local flora are some of the suggested measures to counter our plant blindness.

Participatory art including plants might help dissipate plants’ invisibility. Some authors argue that meaningful experiences involving a multiplicity of senses can potentially engage emotional responses and concern towards plants life. In this article, I map out a brief history of the different musical and sound art practices that incorporate plants and discuss the ethics of plant life as a performative participant.



STEM: Music to grow your plants by 

Flowers grow rhythmically.

Henry Turner Bailey, 1916

“Music for plants” is a small footnote in the history of recorded music. However, it perfectly mirrors many of the misconceptions and mainstream perceptions of plant life. By late 1950s, reports on the relationship between plants and music started to surface in popular culture and making the headlines of newspapers for the next decades: Flute Music ‘charms’ plants into growing bigger, better; Silly-looking plants that listen and really care, Drooping Plants Revived by Soothing East Indian Music. These experiments were later compiled and disseminated by the bestselling book The Secret Lives of Plants (1973) that furthered ideas of sentient plants that feel emotions and respond to human thought (what Cleve Backster called primary perception).

Cleve Backster - Primary Perception

Cleve Backster

The book reinforced the music-plant experiments of Dorothy Retallack, that famously claimed that plants exposed to classical and sitar music thrived in comparison to plants exposed to Led Zeppelin and Jimmy Hendrix’s acid rock. The scientific shortcomings of these experiments are well known. Daniel Chamovitz, author of What a Plant Knows, points out that Retallack’s experiments mainly provide a window into the cultural-political climate of the 1960s through the lens of a religious social conservative who believed that rock music was correlated with antisocial behavior among teenagers.  The alleged beneficial plant response to classical music was in many occasions used as an ideological device against youth culture.

Criticizing Music, Dr Max Rafferty, Effects of Rock Music on Plants

Musicians and record companies seized to entertain this new potted audience. Records to aid plant growth could be found in many florist stores in the US.  Their labels promised happy, healthy and fast growing plants with the help of classical and chamber music standards, electronic tunes, sine waves and spoken word. For instance, Molly Roth’s record Plant Talk (1976) gaudily speaks to several indoor plants (English Ivy, Fern, Philodendron…) while giving advice on plant care.

Molly Roth & Jim Bricker, Plant Talk/Sound Advice, 1976:


Dr. George Milstein’s record Music to Grow Plants (1970) uses high pitched tones under a Mantovani-esque orchestration to help improve the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the plants’ leaves. “The music is sugar coating for the vibrations” explains Milstein, “sound vibrations induce the stomata to remain open wider for longer periods, thus plants take in more nourishment and grow faster and sturdier.”

Dr. George Milstein, Music to Grow Plants, 1970:


Music to Grow Plants manifested the human perception of plants as passive and isolated recluses of indoor places. Some of these artists’ efforts came from the genuine struggle to grow plants in big metropolis. However, the veiled nature of plants became attached to personal narratives, tastes and social values. Plants were visible insofar as a canvas to anthropomorphic projections.


LEAF: Green Materialities and the Electrical Plant

Oats… the witching soul of music.

Kate Greenaway, The Language of Flowers, 1884


The sounding materiality of plants was appropriated by avant-garde practices interested in amplifying the noises of everyday life. The sounds produced by acts of physical contact with plants became a new ground for musical composition. Contact microphones attached to plants’ surfaces amplified their inaudible sonic proprieties. Two of John Cage’s percussion compositions Child of Tree (1975) and Branches (1976) call for amplified plant materials like cacti and rattles from a Poinciana tree. Plants provided the quality of chance and indeterminacy as they gradually deteriorate during the performance. The amplified cactus became an icon of indeterminacy music and keeps being plucked by many artists today like Jeph Jerman, So Percussion, Mark Andre, Adrienne Adar or Lindsey French. The Portuguese sound artist João Ricardo creates full soundscapes by conducting an orchestra of over twenty cacti (Cactus Workestra) performed by young students that follow his gestural directions on how to rhythmically pluck the cacti needles.



Creating music through touch and corporal proximity with plant life revitalizes human-plant relationships generating intimacy and knowledge. John Ryan poses the importance of “reaching out towards plants” to create experiences of embodied appreciation and connectivity. A close connection between body, plants and music can be found in leaf music (folded leaf whistle, gumleaf music) practiced by Australian Aboriginal societies who developed an acute ability to select and differentiate the sonic qualities of plant matter. The scholar Robin Ryan describes how leaf music is an intimate and vital part of Aboriginal societies to reflect upon the nonhuman world, as well as, a vehicle of attachment to local “music trees,” bushes, and plants. The Serbian film Unplugged (2013), directed by Mladen Kovacevic, follows two leaf players from rural eastern Serbia and an instrument builder trying to learn the art of leaf music. The simplicity of the leaf instrument deceives the extent of knowledge and practice necessary to master it.



Time and intimacy with plant matter are important components of leaf music. Artists like Annea Lockwood (Piano Transplants) and Ross Bolleter (Ruined Pianos) reversed the equation of the effects of music on plant growth and explored the effects of plant growth on musical instruments by abandoning pianos in outdoor fields and gardens. These works disregard human-time and tune in to plant-time. There’s a special acknowledgement of plant life in art works that tap into plants’ otherness.

Annea Lockwood - Piano Garden [1969-70] photo by Chris Ware

Annea Lockwood – Piano Garden [1969-70] photo by Chris Ware

In many music performances the role of the plant remains attached to an object-like position tied to the artist’s agenda. Musical practices using generative systems stemming from plants’ biological information attempt to take a step forward into the inner life of plants. Sensors attached to plants’ leaves detect bioelectrical potential changes originating from environmental variables like light, humidity, temperature and touch. These micro-electrical fluctuations are converted into MIDI signals that trigger notes and controls in synthesizers. The element of interactivity that these systems allow between public and plant via sound highlights in real time plant responses to sensorial stimuli. The Mexican artist Leslie Garcia sonically demonstrates the sensorial qualities of plants in her project Pulsu(m) Plantae (2012-13) and makes her software available for other artists to use. Similarly, the duo Scenocosme  creates interactive gardens where plants act as sensors to human touch generating cascades of sound. Creative chains linking plants, technology, music and touch can also be found in site-specific installations by Mileece and Miya Masaoka.



Plant-based generative music was pioneered by the British architect and artist John Lifton in the early 70s. Lifton created Green Music, an installation for 6 plants in an environmental chamber connected to an analogue computer and fed to a synthesizer. In 1976, the producers of the film-adaptation of Secret Life of Plants brought John Lifton to San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park to collaborate with Richard Lowenberg, Tom Zahuanec, and Jim Wiseman. The group developed a several day media-performance with sonic translations of brain waves and muscle electrical potentials of 6 dancers mixed with plant-based generative music. The film features few sequences of this performance. However, we can get a better glimpse at Tom Zahuranec’s plant generative music in an interview by Charles Amirkhanian for a KPFA’s Radio Event. Particularly, we can hear audiences’ thoughts on plant life and how widespread were new age ideas of primary perception in plants.


Charles Amirkhanian & audience members react to Tom Zahuranec’s plant music, Radio Event No. 20, KPFA, 1972


These early experiments on generative music were a main influence on the artistic collective Data Garden, which has been releasing plant music and creating immersive audio environments controlled by plants since 2011. After a successful Kickstarter campaign, Data Garden launched a biofeedback kit, the MIDI Sprout, that allows users to easily derive music from plants’ electrical changes. Joe Patitucci, founder of Data Garden, says that since the campaign they have produced 800 units and have 400 users on their forum experimenting with the technology. In parallel, Patitucci has developed an online stream called that continuously broadcasts music generated by a snake plant and/or a philodendron. Data Garden has also released an app that allows users to plug the MIDI Sprout to the phone and hear their plants triggering the sounds designed by the developers.


Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe, performance with MIDI Sprout, modular synthesizer and voice


These methods of generative composition are easing the way for users to creatively relate to plants. However, it’s vital that artists don’t reduce the diversity of plant life into a single aesthetic or into a “music of the spheres” representation. In this respect, the sound ecologist Michael Prime shatters the convention of assigning melodic sounds to plants by creating alien soundscapes generated from the electrical signals of hallucinogenic plants as heard in L-Fields and in One hour as a plant.

Beyond plants’ electrical responses, some artists are using alternative parameters to translate the life of plants into sound. For instance, Christine Ödlund collaborated with Ecological Chemistry Research Group in Stockholm to create an electro-acoustic composition accompanied by a score entitled Stress Call of the Stinging Nettle in which she transposes into tones the chemical signals released by a stinging nettle when attacked by a caterpillar and how the plant communicates with its nearby plant kin (the score can be seen in more detail here). The installation “Oxygen Flute,” created by Chris Chafe and Greg Niemeyer, reveals plant and human respiration through CO2 concertation readings in a chamber filled with bamboo. The fluctuation of CO2 inside the sealed chamber is translated into bamboo flute music fostering in the visitor a heightened perception of his own breath. The sonification of these hidden relationships between plant life and animal life call attention to larger concepts like the greenhouse effect or global warming in a very physical and emotional way. They make graspable what Timothy Morton calls hyperobjects – objects massively distributed in time and space that defy our perception and comprehension.


FOREST: Plant Bioacoustics and Acoustic Ecology

Sit by the trees – what kind of tree makes what kind of sound?

Pauline Oliveros, Country Meditations, 1988


One could argue that the only sound that is ecologically relevant is the sound of the plant itself. The realm of vibrations occurring on the plants’ surfaces that manifest the plant’s own agency and connectivity to its surroundings. In short, plant bioacoustics aims to study plants’ adaptive strategies that employ the use of sound. A common example is the process of buzz pollination in which plants only release pollen when vibrating at a specific frequency by pollinator bees. Plants can also respond selectively to the mechanical vibrations generated by the chewing of insect herbivores eliciting defensive chemical responses. A study by Monica Gagliano revealed that young roots of corn grow towards the source of continuous tones and respond optimally to frequencies of 200–300 Hz, which is within the frequency range of the clicking sounds the same roots emit themselves. Also, Gagliano and her team have recently shown that the roots of pea seedlings are able to locate water sources by sensing the vibrations generated by water moving. Gagliano has been one of the forefront voices advocating for the need of more research in plant bioacoustics to understand the ecological significance of sound in plants.




So far, it is not completely clear how plants use “sound detection,” and if sounds are used as signal or are merely by-products of their physiology. Nevertheless, is important to recognize them. These sounds have been the focus of some practices that articulate artistic and scientific points of view. Inspired by Gagliano’s studies, Sebastian Frisch created the installation Biophonic Garden that recontextualizes a lab setting where a group of corn seedlings are suspended in a water tank that grow towards a constant sine tone of 220 Hertz. A set of headphones allows one to tune into the roots’ acoustic environment amplified by two hydrophones.


Photo of Biophonic Garden, with Authorization by Sebastian Frisch

Zach Poff’s project Pond Station invites us to eavesdrop on the sounds of underwater plants of a small freshwater pond in Upstate New York. During an artistic residency at Wave Farm, Poff built a floating platform that operates from dawn to evening using solar-charged batteries. The Pond Station uses hydrophones to amplify the sounds of underwater life and broadcasts them via online web stream. The underwater soundscape goes through cyclical changes according to seasons and time of day. In the mornings, Poff describes a photosynthetic chorus of bubbling as plants begin to produce oxygen. Recently, an invasion of duckweed covered the surface of the freshwater pond affecting its soundscape. I asked Zach Poff about the sonic consequences of this invasion:

Duckweed taught me a lesson about biophony as an indicator of biodiversity. For an entire year I struggled with rebuilding hydrophones and upgrading electronics, trying to get back the poly-rhythmic diversity that I heard during the first year of listening. Then I realized that the duckweed could reduce oxygen levels enough to cause fish kills, and block sunlight from reaching other aquatic plants.

Pond Station in the Morning by Zach Poff, Reproduced with Authorization

Photo of Pond Station in the Morning by Zach Poff, Reproduced with Authorization

Poff finds a parallel between the lack of density and variety in the underwater soundscape of the pond and Bernie Krause’s recordings made in California’s Lincoln Meadow before and after selective logging occurred:

From a distance the visual field was unchanged but the biophony was basically gone after the logging. The pond duckweed looks like a benign blanket of green, but all that’s left of the sound is the slow bubbling that I attribute to decaying organics on the pond bottom. It’s jarring.


FRUIT: Plant Ethics and Speculative Botany

There are many ways to love a vegetable.

M.F.K. Fisher, How to cook a wolf, 1942

The sonification and acoustic amplification of plant life evoke both a sense of connection and the realization of an ontological fracture. The translation and artistic representation of plant otherness into sound or music brings ups vital ethical considerations. Michael Marder, author of Plant-Thinking, argues that techniques applied to plants to derive meaningful information from a human standpoint occlude the meaning of the plants themselves. Once we engage with the electronic menagerie, the plant starts to disappear. Alternative ways of thinking with and of being with plants are called upon by Marder, specifically, artistic practices that vibrate with the self-expressions of vegetal life. In Grafts, the scientist Monica Gagliano states that it is inaccurate and unethical to answer the question “How do plants sound?” by transposing vegetal processes onto musical scales. The concern is the override of plants’ natural voices with familiar harmonic sounds, the same way time-lapse photography rips plants of its own temporally.

The work of the Slovenian bio-artist and researcher Špela Petrič delves into the frontiers of plant otherness and problematizes plant ethics. In 2015, Petrič performed Skotopoiesis, a durational piece in which the artist faced a germinating cress for 19 hours. The artist figure casted a shadow on the cress contributing to the etiolation (blanching, whitening) of the plants. Petrič wrote that the 19-hour period of active inactivity was her way of surrendering to the plant. I asked Špela Petrič’ about her perspective on ethics and performative plants:

I think the reason so many people started asking about the ethics of plant use stems on one hand from an increasing pool of knowledge that suggests plants are very much a complex, sentient beings, and on the other because we find ourselves in a spiraling loop of exploitation of all living beings, which provokes questions like: how did we get here and what can we possibly do to change our cosmology to be conducive of a livable world?

For Špela, plant ethics is not tied to artists’ treatment of plants but rather what kind of story the work tells to the audience. Špela confesses:

This part – the way an artwork is perceived – can be tricky and that is why I write about the trap of interfaces. I’ve struggled with it myself; in my best attempt to forefront the relationship between humans and plants I sometimes had to admit to being overpowered by the technology I used. Technology wants to tell its own narrative – the medium is the message – and we should be aware of that.

As to the risk of creating an anthropomorphic experience with plants, Špela sees an opportunity here:

I don’t think anthropomorphic experiences as a point of entry into the plant world should be a priori avoided, we might even say that anthropomorphism is one of our greatest tools for connecting with other species, but the task for artists is one of editing, of observing and of being mindful to what the artwork is saying.

Artistic practices with plants through music or sound can open the hidden territories of vibrant plant matter and an underground mesh of rhythms and patterns. The act of listening to plant life is an act of acknowledgment, a possibility for emotional identification and empathy rendering plants visible.

Featured image: “Music to Grow Plants By,” compilation by the author

Carlo Patrão is an independent radio artist based in New York City.

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The Idea (of an Idea) of North (Of the North): Glenn Gould’s Piece at 50


On December 28, 1967, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation debuted a radio piece by famed pianist Glenn Gould, titled The Idea of North. Opaque yet spacious, this experiment would become the first in a trio of ambient documentaries to be produced over the next decade. Each episode explores the theme of solitude from a different geographical vantage, co-implicating form and content; for, as Gould demonstrates, telegraphy had long since complicated isolation as a lifestyle. But Gould’s obsessive pursuit of this ideal produces a multiperspectival portrait of settler consciousness, at the same time as it thematizes and intervenes in its medium as a technical means of colonial expansion.

With an ear to Europe, these radio pieces were assembled after the fashion of major postwar developments in tape music and collage. Stylistically, The Idea of North seems conspicuously stricken with an anxiety of influence befitting of an incipient nationalism; for it was clearly Gould’s intent to furnish his avant-garde composition a local character. As to whether Gould meant to modernize Canadian content, or to Canadianize modern form, his approach presumes ambiguity, to make strange a standard broadcast format. In Gould’s hourlong intervention, the soothing probity of the professional narrator’s voice is edged out by so much overlapping and uncertain talk. While certain formal precedents for this collaged approach de-emphasize semantics in favour of timbral and or ‘purely musical’ characteristics of source sounds, Gould’s regionalist reply preserves the referentiality of each sound as recorded; if only to sublate them altogether in a narrative tapestry.

Would it have been uncomfortable for general interest listeners—a postulate from which proceeds the mandate of national radio, but who actually identifies with this mean temperament?—to encounter The Idea of North in 1967? At the time of the original broadcast, it had been more than three years since Gould’s last public performance, during which hiatus he had come to champion recording as a frontier, commending radio to his purposes. But where these compositions are concerned, Gould’s method of assembly sought to bewilder certain basic expectations of the medium, and moreover, the idiom, of public radio. In North of Empire (2009), Jody Berland extols the eclectic texture of a favourite radio drama; yet even as she praises its narrator for imbuing each of his characters with individual depth, her attention, she tells us, remains fixed on a voice “replete with storytelling pleasures and the sonic signature of the CBC.” The voice of radio itself is most salient; a guarantor of sense and place.


Gould’s Solitude Trilogy evokes three differently isolated places; the Northern territories, a Newfoundland fishing village, and a Mennonite community on the prairies. The first-person accounts of each terrain that Gould collects are often contradictory, and left alone; for any commentary would thwart the sought-after intimacy of the vignette. Each is a sampleyet none an apt synecdoche—of a nebulous “Canadian” identity. For this reason, Mark Kingwell suggests in his biography of Gould (2009) that Gould’s evocation of the fugue is a red herring, for his radio works defy the expectation of resolution that defines the form. As Kingwell notes, Gould himself uses a critical alter-ego to offer that “the real counterpoint is ideological, between the exercise of individual freedom and the ‘tremendously tyrannical force’” of the social, which one must overcome in order to gain from solitude. (131)

The Idea of North enacts a tussle with a landscape too variously vast to be interiorized as home. This fact appears an obstacle to any attempt to forge or describe a monolithic Canadian identity; so it is encouraging that Kingwell finds in Gould’s radio work a not-so-covert theme of hospitality, an openness to the “novelty of the unknown person” thrust upon one in an unknown clime. Even so, the North, cast as a contiguous and unfathomable neighbour-threshold, exists for the southerner Gould “to dream about, to spin tall tales about, and in the end, avoid.” In this regard, a reactive refusal of hospitality is geographized so as to obscure the political stakes.

Screen Capture from the CBC television adaptation of The Idea of North

To rethink Canadian identity on the model of hospitality is to name an obvious standard by which to flunk the extant state. Following the work of Toula Nicolacopoulos and George Vassilacopoulos in Indigenous Sovereignty and the Being of the Occupier (2014), one might suggest that hospitality requires a frank response to the question “where do you come from?” Any such self-accounting is specifically repressed in the conscience of the settler, and the romantic conception of North America as a vast wilderness, untrammelled and unpeopled prior to European influence, is an outcome and requirement of this repression. It is possible, and moreover desirable, to think the contrapuntal weft of voices comprising Gould’s radio play as a practice of hospitality; but first one must acknowledge the degree to which, after the means of its realization, this open narrative remains a one-sided overture.

According to Avital Ronell’s The Telephone Book (1989), what operates behind the radio in its appeal to “a tremendous national ear” is an obscure sense of the absolute priority of the other to oneself. (21) As seen above, a latent dialogue haunts every monovocal broadcast. However, one should complicate the too-readily metaphysicalized trope of the other with reference to the specific preoccupancy of a specific space by specific people, rather than fetishize otherness as a philosophico-poetic model for the production of pleasurable moral quandaries. Gould’s radio play would suggest as much, if negatively.


The fascinating effect of radio, R. Murray Schafer observes in The Soundscape (1994), has to do with the manner in which “broadcasting is separated into independent information channels so that the confusion of simultaneity, so often present in the soundscape at large, is absent.” (234) This facilitates the “deliberate attempt to regulate the flow of information according to human responses and information-processing capabilities.” (ibid) In short, radio functions as a half-conversation, an analysis turned in on itself, facilitating fanaticism and transference. Its domineering guise is the voice on which Berland fixates above, a sonic signature eliding content.

Glenn Gould publicity photo for The Idea of North, courtesy of Canada’s BiblioArchives/ LibraryArchives

Gould bewilders this unitary vision, insisting upon crowded conditions, interruption and subjective chafe. In this regard, his programme is not only contrapuntal, as argued by Kingwell, but enacts a spatial intervention directly analogous to those undertaken in modern music. Schafer explains that the radio technician must account for perspective. The technician, he writes, conceives of the sound-scene in three main parts—the Immediate, the Support, and the Background—the interaction of which permits the listener to hierarchicalize and excerpt information. “The three-stage plan of the radio technician corresponds precisely to the classical layout of the orchestral score with soloist, concertino group and tutti accompaniment.” (234) Gould, after the fashion of his maverick performances, which involved a kind of escalating competition between the orchestra and the soloist, revels in conditions of uncertainty as to which features of the soundscape are ground and which are figure. At crowded moments, the determination of semantic signal and ambient support, is at the listener’s discretion.

“I was fascinated by the country as such,” The Idea of North begins; and this abstraction collapses back into the desire that it originates, for the speaker’s geographical cathexis manifests a country from above, a mottled sublime: “I felt that I was almost part of that country, part of that peaceful surrounding, and I wished that it would never end.” The “almost” of this encounter is Gould’s theme. One speaker contradicts himself in tracing the evasiveness of an imaginary terrain: “I can’t conceive of anyone being in close touch with the North, whether he lived there all the time or simply traveled it month after month, year after year. I can’t conceive of such a person being really untouched by the North for the rest of his life.” By this conflicted account, one can neither touch, nor remain untouched by, this terrain. That the idea of the North will never coincide with any terrain seems logically apparent; for the object under discussion is designated by a cardinal direction, an expression of spatial relation. One must be south of North to perceive it as such: the idea would be necessarily southern.

Gould frequently qualified his vantage over the course of his life: his composition was ineluctably nostalgic, shaped by southern biases, and so on. This modesty is itself a token of mandatory modernity, mediated by professional politesse. But the work largely concerns the composer’s own difficulty before intransigent material. “It’s not da gold, it’s de finding da gold,” one speaker quotes in order to affirm his own designs upon the landscape, and the phatic article before the questing verb suggests a more salient problem of definition: “I think the North is process,” the ruminant continues, without specifying the (innocent or sordid) processes in which one’s fantasy may be enrolled. “North is multiple, shifting, elastic,” Sherrill Grace writes in her book, Canada and the Idea of North (2007), suggesting that Canadians can change their ideas of this destination, in spite, or because, of their unseemly and persistent attachment to myriad partial representations. (17)

Screen Capture from the CBC television adaptation of The Idea of North

In 1967, however, Gould’s panel reproduces a paternalistic depiction of the territories and their denizens. “Considering a place romantic means that one doesn’t know too much about it,” our first speaker opines, professing helplessness before communities she had intended to rescue. At this telling point in the collaged “discussion,” which evades a certain burden of representation by evacuating the narrative center, a pointed racism crests, albeit in a version intended to ambiguate pernicious stereotypes by distributing them across so many unreliable voices. But the denominator of this chorus is all too Canadian. However multiple, the voices that were selected to depict a democratic and multi-perspectival clamor did not have the least moral difficulty ruling upon the communities that they encountered in pursuit of their own obscure desires.


Grace titles the penultimate section of her book “The North Writes Back,” attempting a theory of Northern discourse to broadly refute colonial description. The voices presented here run counter to the documentary attempts of Glenn Gould, Pierre Berton, and so many others outlined in the first chapter, “Representing North.” Inuit artist Alootook Ipellie furnishes an epigram: “Let us put, without hesitation, a voice in the mouth of our silent mind.” (227) This rebukes the repeat characterization of (the idea of) North as a state of silence, vacancy, or isolation; and the secondhand zen of the willfully itinerant settler, determined to meditate unto epiphany upon any unassimilable strangeness. The silencing conditions to which Ipellie addresses himself may well be the din of interlopers and their presumptions, rather than the manifold soundscape of their common destination. To place voice in the mouth of mind is to reply to silencing conditions: the operative distinction between voice and mouth evokes a talk-back capacity implicit in receipt, if unrealized.

Artist and DJ Geronimo Inutiq’s 2015 work, ARCTICNOISE, commissioned by curators Britt Gallpen and Yasmin Nurming-Por, responds directly to Gould’s radio play. A multilingual, multimedia portrait of the sovereign voices of an irreducible North, Inutiq’s installation extends the discursive counterpoint of Gould’s composition, spanning platforms as well as perspectives. As Sydney Hart remarks in his essay, Reading Contrapuntally (2016), Inutiq’s formal extrapolation of Gould’s structure resonates with Edward Said’s musical thoughts on postcolonial literature and its plurality of voices. Contrapuntal reading entails a “simultaneous awareness both of the metropolitan history that is narrated and of those other histories against which (and together with which) the dominating discourse acts.” (62)

“ARCTICNOISE” Still from 2015 Installation, image by Trinity Square Video and imagineNATIVE Film + Media Arts Festival

In Inutiq’s installation, multiple video projections appear at cross-rhythms to each other, abstract digital art contrasting documentary interviews and archival footage. This juxtaposition aptly demonstrates the uneven contours of international development, mapped over the immersive course of Inutiq’s multipanoramic presentation. The context is combined and contradictory: resource extractive projects impelling settlers North, technological and military expansion into contested space during the Cold War, and a gallery-backed effort to create and claim Inuit artistic production, ready to market, as a national treasure, all play a part. These angles on the North are strategic abstractions, too; but to map them in simultaneity allows for a concerted, and concrete, critique.

Grace’s attempt to consolidate a “Northern” reply to a southern settler’s imaginary stalls upon qualification, as her ungrounded anthropology finds an innocuous “topographical and meteorological diversity” recapitulated at the highly localized level of attendant practice. By comparison, Inutiq’s ARCTICNOISE foregrounds interference in its very name. To call the multidiscursive clamour of the landscape ‘noise,’ an antecedent backing of any strong signal, is a totalizing gesture in the negative; at least where the transmissibility of identity to the state is concerned. In As We Have Always Done (2017), Nishinaabeg scholar Leanne Betasamosake Simpson cites nêhiyaw (Plains Cree) and Dene Suline scholar and artist Jarrett Martineau, describing Indigenous artistic practice as “noise to colonialism’s signal.” (198) This work, Simpson says, operates at an “elegant level of protection and disruption,” declining any susceptibility to a settler’s interception or interpretation, such as I cannot render here.

“ARCTICNOISE” Still from 2015 Installation, image by Trinity Square Video and imagineNATIVE Film + Media Arts Festival

This complicates the philosophical trope of counterpoint, which requires the horizontal elaboration of two or more mutually dependent themes, as well as their vertical separation in space for clarity. Settler colonialism and capitalism alike oversee any number of encroachments, such that this meaningful categorical distinction lapses into convolution. If Gould’s ideal is a melodically assured phraseology, each soloist empowered to give a self-account, Inutiq’s challenge restores a prerequisite space to the arrangement of voices. The additive model of liberal civics—the progressivist notion that we only need for more diversity of talk-for-trade—swaps the necessity of a collaborative space for more and greater time, in which span all will be forgiven. To visually recompose Gould’s ad hoc townhall, with greater geographical and cultural specificity, is a powerful reminder that the purposes of any settler-artist’s pilgrimage may coincide with a place of their choosing, but never essentially.


What does the radio voice shore in a Canadian context? Gould’s selective chorus is a demonstration of certain normative commitments, formally reiterative of an impasse of representation. The difficulties implicit in broadcast cannot simply be addressed at the level of more and authoritative voices, for it is not the radio voice that is the problem here so much as the body from which it is presumed to emanate.

Screen Capture from the CBC television adaptation of The Idea of North

“I am indeed a Northern listener then,” the Virgilian surveyor McLean proclaims late in the broadcast, “and the pity of it all is that I’m not always able to select what I want to hear. I hear what other people inflict upon me. You know, the noise, the noise of civilization and its discontents.” In this vulgarized Freudian remark, the speaker identifies ‘noise’ as a claustrophobic condition, from which one might escape. While Freud’s text details the aversive attempt by an individual ego to differentiate itself over-against bracing reality, Gould’s soloist attempts identification with a synthetic perspective straddling this opposition: “I do believe able to reflect on that selection makes you more than the mere analyst that most of us claim we are [. . .] in detaching and in reflecting and in listening I suppose I’m able to synthesize, to have these different rails meet in the infinity that is our conscious hope.” However multiply determined, this identification—of transportation infrastructure with a vastly collective desire—remains laudably materialist, emphasizing the production of heretofore unheardof proximities in space.

In heavy handed analogy to symphonic form, The Idea of North ends more or less where it began, generically elsewhere. The metaphorical journey by train concludes with the armchair philosophical pontifications of panelist W. V. MacLean, backed with a defamiliarized recording of Sibelius’ fifth symphony, which threatens at moments to swallow MacLean’s climactic speech. Paraphrasing William James, MacLean posits struggle against provisional alterity as a psychological necessity and subjective virtue. Today, he posits brazenly, “the moral equivalent of war is going North.” Gould concludes the piece with this bon mot, a surprise analogy that relies for its effect on the presumption that Canadian designs in this direction are more often peaceable than not. This is far from certain, and Gould’s finale reminds the listener that the vehicle of this idea is itself susceptible to weaponization, as radio develops in periods of conflict and conquest. Then the least technologically contingent aspect of Gould’s epochal docudrama would appear the most bizarre today—the desire to test one’s conflictual mettle in flight.

Screen Capture from the CBC television adaptation of The Idea of North


How these examples speak to today’s post-broadcast episteme would require another survey altogether. Surely today’s ideological counterpoint would sound far more dissonant, a disputatious and often collaborative din. But this idealized polyvocality may itself manifest a one-sided desire, a dialogic fantasy of which agenda national radio is but one diagram. Practical matters, of land and its capture, are obscured by this restaging of the stakes of colonialism as a conversation rather than an occupation.

A key theme of The Idea of North would be the practice and depiction of utopia for loners, but a counter-message sounds as clearly: that wherever one travels to find oneself, one is forever destined to find other people in their place. There are no definitive arrivals, and everything depends upon what happens next—on hospitality contra the arrogance of occupation. One historical staging of this quandary has been named “Canada,” and Gould’s mythopoetic play for voices is a crucial document of its becoming, flaws and all. As with any broadcast, it is up to each listener to imagine a possible reply.

Featured Image:Screen Capture from the CBC television adaptation of The Idea of North

CAM SCOTT is a poet, critic, and improvising non-musician from Winnipeg, Canada, Treaty One territory. He performs under the name Cold-catcher and writes in and out of Brooklyn. His visual suite, WRESTLERS, was released by Greying Ghost in 2017. 

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