Notes for Douglas Kahn Noise, Water, Meat: A History of Sound in the Arts

Listening through History

Concentrates on generation of modernist and postmodernist aural techniques rather than the theories.

(2-3) The book concentrates on the generation of modernist and postmodernist techniques and tropes among artistic practices and discourses. Some are soundful in themselves, others are contingent on ideas of sound, voice, and aurality. . . . The main ones discussed here are noise, auditive immersion in spatial and psychological domains, inscription and visual sound, the universalism of all sound and panaurality, musicalization of sound, phongraphic reproduction and imitation, Cagean silence, nondissipative sounds and voices, fluidity at the nexus of performance and objecthood, William Burroughs's virus, and the bodily utterances of Michael McClure's beast language and Antonin Artaud's screaming.
(3) By
sound I mean sounds, voices, and auralityall that might fall within or touch on auditive phenomena, whether this involves actual sonic or auditive events or ideas about sound or listening; sounds actually heard or heard in myth, idea, or implication; sounds heard by everyone or imagined by one person alone; sounds as they fuse with the sensorium as a whole.
(4) In short, the sound and the fury never signify nothing or, rather, just nothing. What such auditive states have proven to drown out are the social in sound – the political, poetical, and ecological – and these are what the present text seeks to reinstate.

Prelude: Modernism

Technological advances of modernism created new ways to experience and think about sound.

(4-5) The historiographic interruption of the sound is due in part to technical difficulties. . . . Nevertheless, the mere existence of phonography – its ability to hold any one sound in time and keep all sounds in mind – produced a new status for hearing, which was energetically entered into libraries, laboratories, literature, artistic ideas, and philosophies.
(7) Thus, the voice in its production in various regions of the body is propelled through the body, its resonance is sensed intracranically. A fuller sense of presence is experienced as the body becomes attached to thought as much as the generation of speech is attached to thought. . . . Thus, the presence produced by the voice will always entail a degree of delusion because of a difference in the texture of the sound the speaker hears one voice, others hear it deboned.
(7-8) Thus the social was lost in the sound of Maloror's new born self-consciousness on hearing his own voice – in a fascination with the first sound, the first voice, the first word and in the emphatic sound of the scream. This conforms enough to the features of a new social shift within sound to describe modernist aurality at its own birth for, as we shall see in broad outline, the new ability to hear had the effect of attracting classes of sounds that could both invoke (or be invoked by) and silence the social.

Bone to air to writing transformations of voice.

(8) The voice no longer occupied its own space and time. It was removed from the body where, following Derrida, it entered the realm of writing and the realm of the social, where one loses control of the voice because it no longer disappears. From bone to air to writing, permanence outside the subject invites greater mutability, where the primacy and purity of the voice are subjected to the machinations and imaginations of culture and politics.
(8-9) Humans had always been able to see their own faces, see their own seeing – ever since the moment of species consciousness when some very distant relative looked into a pool. But it was not until the late nineteenth century with the phonograph that people could hear their own voices (or reasonable facsimiles thereof), if not hear their own hearing.

Listening changes with phonography both the experience of hearing ones voice and the range of things heard.

(9) Because phonography did not just hear voices – it heard everything – sounds accumulated across a discursive diapason of one sound and all sound, from isolation to totalization. It wrenched the voice from its cultural preeminence and inviolable position in the throat and equalized it with all other sounds amid exchange and inscription. . . . Modernism thus entailed more sounds and produced a greater emphasis on listening to things, to different things, and to more of them and on listening differently.
(10) Phonography, therefore, existed discursively and most evidently in the idea of all-sound, even as it abandoned any immediate technological association. In this way, at the minimum, it influenced the arts long before actual technological realization could be entertained.

Traumatic global events in twentieth century stunted growth of consistent audio arts.

(10) Some of the most provocative uses of sound occurred during the heyday of the avant-garde, primarily because artists were not hampered by the problems of technological realization. By the latter half of the 1920s, the arts were suddenly better equipped, due to an audiophonic-led revolution in communications technologies involving radio, sound film, microphony, amplification, and phonography. . . . What did occur with audiophonic experimentation, however, never grew to the level of consistent practice, primarily because technology was not the only thing experienced during that time.
(11) Cinema, on the other hand, was more amenable and less defensive. . . . When the principles of montage were applied within the context of asynchronous sound film, sound – once it was no longer tied directly to visual images, speech, and story – was able to exist in a more complex relationship with them. In turn, once sound was no longer tied to cinema, a radical form of sound and radio art was implied. Sound also became radical once it was tightly tied to cinema in the form of animated cartoons.
(12) The redundancies exercised within the media resulted in an increasing accumulation of sounds as they became differentially coded, and a new facility developed for apprehending these sounds at an accelerated pace. Simply put, there were more sounds, and people could hear them more quickly.
(12) But the character of sound, voice, and aurality in the postwar years was also transformed by dramatically different social conditions, especially those impinging on the body and the environment. . . . While people remained religiously transfixed, waiting for peril to be punctuated by a spectacular nuclear event, multiple repressions continued to develop under the auspices of the cold war and its “containment culture,” as the earth itself underwent a slow-motion explosion due to accelerated ecological decline.

Explanations and Qualifications

Importance of John Cage, acknowledged bias of study on Euro-American males through late 1950s.

(13) John Cage appears throughout the book and is the subject of an entire section. He would occupy a central position within any discussion of sound and art in this century because of the importance and influence across the arts of his music, writings, and ideas about sound throughout his long and prolific career.
(13) By ending in the late 1950s and making only scattered forays into the early 1960s, the book produces an imbalance weighted on the side of Euro-American males.
(14-15) With respect to the many ideas of what
techniques are, please note that in the present text they are not servants to meanings, content, reception, and social situation but are instead already infused with these very properties as artists finesse the material – conceptual, social, political, aesthetic, and poetical – in the seemingly most insignificant moments wrought within a work.
(15) I work under the assumption that the history of the arts using auditive technologies, including those in concert with vision, constitute a large, rarely acknowledged portion of the history of the media arts, and while I do not draw out the implications for present-day artistic practice, I believe it would be possible to do so.

Inscription and transmission so crucial to Hayles (add incorporation).

(16) Technologically, the book concentrates primarily on ideas of phonography, by which I mean all mechanical, optical, electrical, digital, genetic, psychotechnic, mnemonic, and conceptual means of sound recording as both technological means, empirical fact, and metaphorical incorporation, including nineteenth-century machines prior to the invention of the phonograph. Moreover, I approach phonography primarily in terms of inscription. . . The figure of vibration was upheld by the Pythagoreans, refurbished by neo-Platonic and neo-Pythagorean thought centuries later, and invigorated by scientific, Eastern, and spiritist thought in the West in the nineteenth century. . . . The inscriptive attributes of phonography became coterminous with the legacies of writing, universal alphabets, and langauges, as well as other inscriptive practices, while the telegraphic, telephonic, and radiophonic attributes of transmission became coterminous with a range of mythological, theological, and literary instances where the communication at a distance produced compensatory and exaggerated relationships among objects and bodies.
(17) The book ends with a contrast between the manner in which, with Burroughs's virus, inscription has been sunk from the surface of bodies into each and every cell (a shift that itself should complicate notions about writing or inscribing on bodies), and the energetic configuration and situation of bodies and environments found in Artaud's post-Rodez work and McClure's meat science.
(17) On undertaking an investigation into what the avant-garde meant by sound, I was surprised to find that it was repeatedly recuperated into musical sound. There was an historical unwillingness to allow certain characteristics of sound into compositional practice that contradicted the transgressive rhetoric of noise and the emancipatory claims of an openness to the world of sound, among other positions. The banishment of these characteristics was due primarily to the fact that they
(18) Among the intellectual disciplines, there were a number of important texts, but it was left to the film and media studies to provide examples of how sound and signification could be approached.
(19) Indeed, despite the din we are in, it seems like the early days of sound.

Part 1
Significant Noises

(20) Of all the emphatic sounds of modernism, noise is the most common and the most productively counterproductive.

Sentient Sound

Compare handwriting noise to the grain of the voice?

(26) A silent figure of significant noise exists in handwriting.

Interpolation of Noise

Protean Noise

Oscillator Noise

Attempt to make meaning from oscillator noise like listening to a foreign language: compare to making sense of streaming data, hex dumps, noting VCS trick of displaying memory contents.

(40) A similar thing happens when one encounters a foreign language. Although at times a person may listen very intently and yet go away with few tangible rewards, it nevertheless demonstrates that the urge against all odds to continuously make meaning from linguistic noise is very strong.

(45) Noise music, noise making, and even sound poetry and simultaneous poetry in Dada fell under the term
bruitism, and although bruitism was varied and used any number of noise-making devices, its emblem at the Cabaret Voltaire was Richard Huelsenbeck banging on the big drum.
(47) It is only because certain types of people are outside any representation of social harmony that their speech and other sounds associated with them are considered to be noise.

Compare polyglot practice to symposia cacaphony.

(48-49) To this can be added Ball's vigorous support of the poetic codification of polyglot practice: the poem “L'amiral cherche une maison a louer” (The Admiral is looking for a house to rent). It was simultaneously recited in German, English, and French (as well as in nonsense words, vocables, singing, and whistling), moving in and out of relations of translation, by Richard Huelsenbeck, Marcel Ianco, and Tristan Tzara at the Cabaret Voltaire on 29 March 1916. Again, the polyglot has lost its specific qualities to become the voice, in this case, at risk in a world of noise.

Noise and Simultaneity

The Future of War Noises
(56) The most important single achievement in the early history of avant-garde noise was the Italian Futurist Luigi Russolo's
art of noises. Indeed, under this term were his manifesto of 1913, a book of 1916, the music he developed through the design of his new noise-intoning instruments, the intonarumori, and a new form of notation.

Compare balloon vantage point to decontextualization of foreshortening of hypertext.

(61-62) Another new technology of modern warfare was the observation balloon equipped with wireless telegraphy, both the vantage point of the balloon and the collapsing of distance in telegraphy having the same capacity for foreshortening and abstraction.

Benjamin wooing of the cosmos involved in sounds of modern warfare.

(64) The experience of combat engenders a new relationship a person has with the earth, animals, other humans, as well as what Walter Benjamin called the unwitting wooing of the cosmos involved in modern warfare.

Kahn, Douglas. Noise, Water, Meat: A History of Sound in the Arts. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 1999. Print.