A Row of Trees
The Journal of The Sonic Art Research Unit
Many times over the years, I have wondered how to approach the study of sound by its nature not only in content, but also in practice.
It always seemed to me that I had to circumvent structures, crystallisations, and methodologies.
Just as it is difficult to write about sound, it is equally difficult to study it without falling into the nets of the psyche, which capture it and weigh down its mysterious and elusive nature.
How to make a sound without thinking about it?
A Koan that pushes us to the edge of meaning, and invites us to go beyond it.
How to make a sound without thinking about it? How to listen a sound without thinking about it?
And what can listening free of conditioning, restored to its essence, become?
With an imaginative effort I let an intuition take hold that I will call with a term coined by Brandon Labelle, “joyful permeability”.1
I am moved by this expression because it manages to stitch together, with surgical precision, the contrast between the Dionysian openness of the body and the vulnerability of the encounter with the Other.
With this term, Labelle tries to define the feeling of intersection of bodies in the world weft.
Between my mouth and your ear, the distance, which is filled,
In this perspective, the interaction between subjects becomes a constellation of resonance, continuously active and pulsating.
The source of the sound is in no way separated from the ear that receives that sound, or the belly that absorbs it.
In Italian, the word that defines the ‘source’ of sound, can also be translated
as ‘spring of water’.
I imagine a fountain of vibration, whose flow increases every time cupped hands draw from it.
I think of the legend told by Carolyn Chen, a Guquin player.2 In the Legend, Boga, a famous Guquin master, meets a lumberjack, Zhong, in whom he recognises his ideal listener.
Zhong, as a matter of fact, receive the musician’s mental images through listening: when Boga playing thinks of high mountains, Zhong does the same, when Boga images streams of water, Zhong imagines streams of water.
When the lumberjack dies, Boga breaks his instrument and decides not to play anymore.
The joyful permeability had gone out.
The joy did not belong to either Boga or Zhong, but was the truth between them, the shared sound.
This legend not only makes one reflect on the co-responsibility of musician and listener in the creation of music, but opens up fabulous possibilities on the potentialities of collective imagination spaces.
The boundaries of Zhong and Boga’s bodies, and minds, were so fine and faded that they overflowed and spilled into each other, probably extending as far as the sound itself.
Who knows how many other creatures had been touched by the images created by Boga’s sound, by the, now silent, spectres of his musical gesture.
I cultivate the hope that my ideas are nothing more than musical images, from other epochs, other countries, that continue to flow in a silently way, and eternally, that pass through me as if hypnotised by their own journey.
The joyful permeability goes beyond the human.
I think for example of the saints who were able to communicate with animals, making their words pure musical power through the porosity of the existing.
I therefore wonder, whether through resonance, the process of knowledge exchange, so hierarchised and regulated by our culture, cannot be rendered horizontal, devoid of power structures.
A good example of this, might be the long and arduous training to which aspiring shamans are subjected when singing muga, the songs of Korean shamanism.
The muga are ritual songs, which contributed to the birth of the pansori 판소리
– laterale translatable as the combination of ‘place where many people gather’ and ‘sound’ – a type of performative storytelling, a kind of entertainment that, for centuries, has been widespread in Korea.3
The connection between the two styles of music, shamanic chanting and pansori entertainment stories, is one of love.
Pansori entertainers were often married to shamanesses, who had the same low social status. In the terminology of Korean shamanism, the musician-husband of a shamaness was called changbu or mubu. He served her as her accompanist on the drum and could perform as a singer himself.
The permeability of the love relationship made the pansori male the rhythmic structures of the muga its own.
Knowledge expanded without pupils or masters, without schools or methods, but through the intuitive wisdom of loving permeability.
The same permeability that guides the shamaness in her initiation rite of singing:
The teaching wants the future chanter to go on a solitary pilgrimage to a mountain, where she must sing to a waterfall, for years, consecutively.
The shamaness must camp beside the waterfall, feeding herself on berries and renouncing all other activities.
Her ears cannot escape the sound of the waterfall, nor can other human voices interrupt its long monologue.
The shamaness sings, screaming with all her energy, with the necessary passion and desperation.
Every attempt is crucial.
Traditionally it is said that the purpose of this exercise is to break the voice, revealing its truth.
I see in this practice a slow but profound compenetration between the frequencies of the shaman’s voice and those of the waterfall. After years of dialogue with the waterfall, the singer’s body acquires the qualities of the roar of the rushing water, without the mediation of anyone, without any linguistic-musical structure to create a grammatics of sound.
Returning to the sonorous and vibrating nature of our bodies allows us to recognise ourselves in the other, and transform the act of knowing into the act of remembering.
Can you sing something you have never heard?
Another Koan, to be observed at length.
In this case, someone has attempted to give an answer within the boundaries of reason.
According to Alfred Tomatis, a French otolaryngologist and founder of audio-psychophonology, this is impossible.
According to Tomatis, a person’s voice contains only those frequencies that the ear is able to hear.
Based on this discovery, he built an “electronic ear” in the 1950s, an immersive device that retraces the individual’s listening development and stimulates the frequencies to which the ear is closed, in order to improve the spoken and sung voice.
The patient positions himself in space and is surrounded by music, modified to produce sounds that regulate tympanic tension.
The sound sources generally used are: Mozart’s music – string concertos and works written in the early part of his life-, Gregorian chants from Solemnes Abbey and the mother’s voice, transformed to give it the same characteristics as when the foetus heard it in the mother’s belly.
The healed person is acoustically reborn.
A baptism at the spring of sound.
The more we listen to the world around us, the more we contain it in our voice.
To explore this conclusion is to expand the concept of identity, in a way that is as concrete as it is vertiginous.
My voice contains everything I hear.
My identity adheres to everything I hear.
I have not yet found my guiding sound, my master, what for the shaman is the waterfall.
An ordering principle in my voice that I can absorb.
I like to imagine what my Master sound might be
immense waves crashing
against the rocks
roars of great bored felines
thunder in a valley
None of this resembles my city life, which since childhood has always had to do with the sounds of my thoughts, and small domestic actions.
My great adventures, the prairies or the oceans, have always been the product of my mind.
However, my imaginary worlds are now as much a part of my memory as the spaces and events that actually happened.
For now, my sound guides exist there, in the poetic ambiguity of the non-existent.
I hear them with my secret hearing, and I guard them.
Secret Hearing is a precious expression, which I picked up and made my own, after reading that Nadezhdah, Mandelstam’s wife, defined the sensitive hearing of the Russian poet.4
In the gulag where Osip Mandelstam spent the last days of his life, a legend had spread of a poet who consoled the inmates in the evening, in front of the fire, reciting, almost singing, his translations of Petrarch.
He sang, because of Petrarch, and even more so of Dante, he loved the sound of their words.
As Nadezhdah explains, his passion for sound is closely linked to the nature of his creative process:
“Mandelstam’s poetry can be read as the document of one who trying to hear, simply trying to hear the world, beyond the dizzying and deafening noise It carries on his shoulders […] According to Nadezhdah, Osip’s poetic practice begins with an inner image, resonating in silence, to which he would listen intensely and at length.”
[Osip] The poem is alive with an inner image, in that resonating impression of the form which anticipates the written poem. There is not one word yet, but the poem already sounds. This is the inner image; this is the poet’s hearing touching it.
[Nadezhda]: Like a whisper the inner voice is quiet, and it is flat like a whisper.
(The vocal cords are not included – hence the absence of sonority) This inner hearing/voice is then moved to the lips, into a formless babble.
[Osip]: How nice it is for me and how burdensome when the moment approaches, and suddenly the stretching of an arch sounds in my mutterings…
Together with Mandelstam, I cling to the miracle of inner life, and I tell myself that while I wait for my guide, a sound that reaches me,
I can let
My joyful waterfall resound in the silence.
1. The Middle Matter: Sound as Interstice. Oscillation Festival. 2019.
3. Marshall R. Pihl. The Korean Singer of Tales. Harvard University Asia Center. 2003.
4. A chirping of stars is tickling my thin ear, sourced via Matt Marble.