Salome Voegelin: Listening to Noise and Silence: Towards a Philosophy of Sound Art (London & New York: Continuum Books, 2010)
With this book, the author sets out to create a philosophy of sound art grounded in the real-time experience of listening. The book is divided into chapters on listening, noise, silence, time and space, and the now of perceptual immediacy. Each of these individual chapters provides one part of a multifaceted perspective on the reception of sound art.
Central to Voegelin’s approach is an examination of a number of works of sound art. These serve her as platforms for discussing the philosophical problems she sets herself. She casts these problems in terms of the relationships of meaning and communication that bind the listening subject and the sounding object. The works she considers include field recordings, radiophonic works, and sound installations—a varied group encompassing, among others, Bernard Parmegiani’s “matieres induites;” Cathy Lane’s “On the Machair;” Christof Migone’s “Quieting;” Ed Osborn’s “Parabolica;” and an account of a rave party the author attended in 1993. She doesn’t provide a critical evaluation of the works but rather explores them as events giving rise to experience.
One work is essential to her engagement of these compositions and performances, and of sound in general. That work is John Cage’s epochal “4’33”.” Seen from one point of view, “4’33’’” is about what it is that makes music possible: Attentive listening. For Voegelin, silence is the “basic condition” underlying listening as a ground of communication. From here, silence—and Cage’s placing a deliberate silence before concert audiences–can be understood to open out to the phenomenon of listening outside of a musical context. But because Cage’s composition is performed in venues associated with the traditions of art music, and foregrounds one of the constituent material elements of musical phrasing—silence–it also is at least implicitly about the conditions, social as well as technical, that make music and sound art possible. In this regard it was a precursor of the conceptual art of the 1960s, as Voegelin makes clear with an apt comparison of Cage and the visual artist Mel Bochner. The work of both was significant in bringing attention to the institutional and material underpinnings of their respective arts.
Drawing on a reading of Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenological study of perception, Voegelin posits listening as an activity that occupies an intermediate zone between the listener and the sound-producing object. In this intermediate zone sound is received and structured by such factors as the listener’s bodily orientation, focus of attention, and pre-reflective associations. The upshot is that sound is not simply a bare perceptual given, but is something that is taken and made sense of as well. Implicit here is a reception theory of meaning: Meaning is as much produced by the listener as by the creator of the sound work.
Voegelin suggests that the meaning of sound is characteristically colored by emotion. This is because she holds sound to be an immersive phenomenon that envelopes the listener with a directness unique among perceptual objects. This directness acts as what she calls a “pathetic trigger.” In acting directly on the listener, sound inherently provokes an emotional response–it cannot help but produce feeling. Noise, for its part, is a limiting case of sound—it takes the immediacy of sound and multiplies it aggressively. It is sound forcing itself on attention and demanding to be exclusive of other sounds. In Voegelin’s evocative image, noise holds the listener hostage to his or her own listening.
Although written in a sometimes opaque academic style, Listening to Noise and Silence contains many moments that sound artists and others will find insightful.