The Book Cooks
Excerpts from
Sinister Resonance: The Mediumship of the Listener

by David Toop
(Continuum; London, New York)

Prelude: Distant Music
(on the contemplation of listening)

Out of deep dreamless sleep I was woken, startled by a hollow resonance, a sudden impact of wood on wood. Was the sound an isolated auditory event within my consciousness — a moment of dream without narrative or duration — or was it a real sound from the physical world? The reverberation time was too long for the sound to have emanated from the bedroom. This would imply a sound coming from somewhere else in the house, an echoing space, mysterious and distant. If that was the case, then I could only assume the presence of an intruder, unlikely as a possibility. The sound came from nowhere, belonged nowhere, so had no place in the world except through my description.

Words fly away; the written letter remains. Sound is absence, beguiling; out of sight, out of reach. What made the sound? Who is there? Sound is void, fear and wonder. Listening, as if to the dead, like a medium who deals only in history and what is lost, the ear attunes itself to distant signals, eavesdropping on ghosts and their chatter. Unable to write a solid history, the listener accedes to the slippage of time.

This possibility — that sound is nothing — is characteristic of sound, perplexing, disturbing, yet dangerously seductive. Distant sounds of unknown origin are enshrined in myths, such as the Swedish legend of the Näcken — naked male water sprites living in rivers and lakes who lure children to their deaths with songs and the sounds of musical instruments. They have no reality as physical beings yet their sound, just beyond reach, is a deadly lure. Sound is a present absence; silence is an absent present. Or perhaps the reverse is better: sound is an absent presence; silence is a present absence? In this sense, sound is a sinister resonance — an association with irrationality and inexplicability, that which we both desire and dread. Listening, then, is a specimen of mediumship, a question of discerning and engaging with what lies beyond the world of forms. When sound, silence and other modalities of auditory phenomena are represented through ‘silent’ media, this association of mediumship becomes more acute. Dwelling in every written text there are voices; within images there is some suggestion of acoustic space. Sound surrounds, yet our relation to its enveloping, intrusive, fleeting nature is fragile (a game of Chinese whispers) rather than decisive.

As a boy I read James Fenimore Cooper’s nineteenth- century novel, The Last of the Mohicans, and became fixated on preternatural hearing, a recurring theme of the book, No footfall is safe from the cracking of a dry stick, no rustling of leaf free from suspicion: night trembles with calls and whispers that demand perpetual vigilance. The name of the central character is Hawk- eye, the scout with raptor vision, yet what I recall, and a rereading confirms this, is the importance of hearing to survival in the forest. Hawk- eye’s companion, Chingachgook, is always alert, head turned aside, ‘as though he listened to some distant and distrusted sounds.’ Cooper wrote frequently of a ‘breathing silence’ through which the harried protagonists must pass, often in darkness or concealment from their French or Iroquois enemies. Though the narrative becomes laborious and barely credible, Cooper maintains interest with vivid descriptions of an intense engagement with a sublime yet dangerous environment. Sight is prioritized — the naming of this engagement falls by default to the eye — but some of the most strikingly affective incidents of the story are auditory. When the fugitives led by Hawk- eye shelter in a cave, the comically pious singer, David Gamut, is interrupted in his impromptu recital of psalmody by a cry, ‘neither human, nor earthly’.

In this context, the cave functions as a vernacular church in which the sonorous tones of Christianity resonate in natural acoustics. Wilderness is reclaimed by holy texts that stir the emotions and raise the morale of the listeners, only to be pulled back into inexplicability by an external sound so strange that even the scout is inclined momentarily to consider unearthly origins. ‘If ‘twere only a battle,’ he says, ‘it would be a thing understood by us all, and easily managed, but I have heard that when such shrieks are atween heaven and ‘arth, it betokens another sort of warfare!’ Though the sound is understood eventually as the screams of terrified horses, its capacity to unnerve and confound is so powerful that only supernatural origins seem adequate as an explanation.

In The Haunting, Robert Wise’s 1963 film adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s psychological ghost story, a harp sounds without any sign of human activation, a sinister resonance. I don’t believe in ghosts, at least not the kind hunted in television programmes like Most Haunted — wan creatures draped in white, clanking knights and headless horsemen that nobody actually sees. But I am fascinated by the spectral qualities of sound, disturbing noises, eerie silences and the enchantments of music. Distant music is the perfect poetic expression for such qualities (another debt we owe to James Joyce), a reaching back into the lost places of the past, the slippages and mirages of memory, history reaching forward in the intangible form of sound to reconfigure the present and future.

All of us, or should I say those of us equipped from the beginning with the faculty of hearing, begin as eavesdroppers in darkness, hearing muffled sounds from an external world into which we have yet to be born. The film editor and sound recordist who invented the term ‘sound design’, Walter Murch, was intrigued by the paradox of hearing. Four and a half months after conception we begin to hear. This is the first of our senses to function: hearing dominates amniotic life and yet after birth its importance is overtaken by seeing. As a revolutionary sound designer for films such as The
Conversation, THX- 1138, American Graffiti and Apocalypse Now, Murch wondered why this should be so. ‘The reasons, no doubt, go far back into our evolutionary past,’ he wrote in an essay called ‘Sound Design: The Dancing Shadow’, ‘but I suspect it has something to do with the child’s discovery of causality. Sound, which had been absolute and causeless in the womb, becomes something understood to happen as the result of. The enjoyment a child takes in banging things together is the enjoyment of this discovery: first there is no sound, and then — bang! — there is.’ If Murch is right, then sound without apparent source will always return us at some unconscious level to our pre- birth state, but with the added anxiety of awareness, of knowing that sounds should have a cause. If they lack a cause, then our need is to invent one.

‘We are faced with the immense difficulty, if not the impossibility of verifying the past.’ Harold Pinter once said. Places are saturated with unverifiable atmospheres and memory and these are derived as much from sound as any other sensation. ‘How beautiful a London street is then,’ Virginia Woolf wrote in her essay, ‘Street Haunting: A London Adventure’, ‘with its islands of light, and its long groves of darkness, and on one side of it perhaps some tree- sprinkled, grass- grown space where night is folding herself to sleep naturally and, as one passes the iron railing, one hears those little cracklings and stirrings of leaf and twig which seem to suppose the silence of fields all around them, an owl hooting, and far away the rattle of a train in the valley.’

Although this book is more about listening than it is about music, in the first section I list sounds and recordings of music that connect me with that presentiment of reaching back or forward over hidden far distance to hear echoes of an unverifiable past. Some of these recordings have never been released in digital formats, so I listen to them on vinyl. When the stylus connects with the surface of the record the crackle of this contact ushers in a ghost of time, even before music has begun. Like the cracklings and stirrings of leaf and twig heard by Virginia Woolf, this is a transformative sound, a sound that dispels for a moment the visual, tactile reality of the present. Inspired by Jacques Derrida’s neologism, hauntology, a cabal of research, ideas and auditory practice has grown around such experiences, dedicated to exploring the ghostly and nostalgic affect of music. I will leave it to others to unpick the hauntological labyrinth of Derrida’s Specters of Marx, but this haunted aspect of sound is fundamental to my earliest encounters with sound. In the amniotic ocean, all of us are unified by the furtive yet helpless condition of eavesdropping, unable to identify what we hear when its operation is enacted in another space, entirely beyond our experience as unborn beings.

Am I hearing things? Is there anybody there? I began a new phase of enquiry by asking such hypothetical questions. Why, for example, are the various modalities of sound — from silence to noise — associated so frequently with disquiet, uncertainty and fear, with childhood terrors and a horror of the unknown? At the same time, many people seem to be oblivious to noise and resistant to silence. The two positions seem contradictory, but are they inextricably linked?

‘To listen is an effort,’ Igor Stravinsky once said, ‘and just to hear is no merit. A duck hears also.’ Quite why a duck should be singled out as a symbol of unthinking sensory input is unclear (perhaps a misunderstanding over a viaduct and a chicken, though this is a conundrum only a Marx Brothers scholar could untangle). Stravinsky’s point is that auditory discernment demands a certain attentive skill, but never mind the duck, the rest of his terminology could be questioned. Is listening more attentive than hearing, or is it the other way around? Both possess an active sense; neither can be consigned entirely to passivity: ‘listen to your heartbeat’; ‘she’s just hearing things’. Listening may be executed with effort yet result in nothing being heard, whereas hearing may begin as instinct and end in Le Sacre du Printemps. The point is that all hearing individuals are open to sounds at all times. There is shuteye, but no shutear. Our reasons for deciding to listen, or learning to hear, may range from survival to poetry, from sexual desire to jealous desperation, from curiosity to snooping with malice. Developing our listening abilities in order to gain a deeper understanding of complex passages of sound from the entire auditory world — this is a decision that involves a rejection of cultural norms.

I had been thinking more deeply about sound and silence, attempting to separate out the experience of hearing everyday sounds from the act of listening to music. Listening more intently to those microscopic sounds, atmospheres and minimal acoustic environments that we call silence, led me to examine more closely the subtle perceptual entwinement of our senses. I kept notes in a journal, recording ordinary events. In detail, at an emotional as well as a perceptual level, what was I hearing as I walked the dog in local woodland, or listened to the nocturnal murmurs of our house? A pleasurable intensity of sensation grew out of this practice. For example, as a late- night reader, I became more alert to the importance of sound in literature, not only for innovative twentieth- century authors such as James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Franz Kafka, William Faulkner and Samuel Beckett, but in the supernatural fiction and ghost stories of writers like Edgar Alan Poe, Algernon Blackwood, Shirley Jackson, Arthur Machen, Bram Stoker and Wilkie Collins.

I revisited John Berger’s Ways of Seeing (asking myself why there was no equivalent Ways of Hearing) and found myself questioning aspects of his emphasis on seeing, particularly his belief that seeing establishes our place in the surrounding world. Yet from Berger’s inspired reading of time and silence within the physical surface of Woman Pouring Milk by Vermeer it was possible to imagine a sound world within ‘mute things’, as Nicolas Poussin once described his profession of painting. For some years I had been conscious that my own ways of seeing had atrophied. I wanted to look again, with the same attention to detail that came naturally when I was an art student in my teens, before music and sound took over.

Then I visited the Wallace Collection in London, finding there a hushed atmosphere underscored by the gentle roar of air conditioning, the ticking of ornate eighteenth- century French clocks, and a quiet but insistent background note of chimes emanating from a sound installation by Leora Brook and Tiffany Black (otherwise known as brook & black). As I walked through the galleries, paced by time and broken time, floorboards creaked and echoed under the pressure of my footsteps. I had been there before, yet already there was a prickle of anticipation, a feeling described by Freud as ‘the uncanny’ in his 1919 essay of the same name.

One particular work in the collection began to link all these disparate threads. The painting was called The Eavesdropper, by Nicolaes Maes, a seventeenth- century Dutch artist who had joined Rembrandt’s studio in his teens, then later became a highly successful portrait painter. The Eavesdropper is one of his early genre scenes, one of a series of six works on the same theme. What all of them show is a moment of surreptitious listening, a prolonged instant of collusion between the central figure within the painting and the person looking at the painting. Both of these protagonists silence themselves in order to hear sound from another space within the painting’s frame. This led me to consider sounds as phenomena that are difficult to control or subdue, signals that may seem to come from nowhere, or an unknown source, then fade and die. In many circumstances, sound and silence are uncanny. That may be because we live in a visuocentric culture, so sound seems disturbingly intangible, indescribable or inexplicable by comparison with what we can see, touch and hold. It may also be a reaction to noise pollution, through which the rarity and unfamiliarity of clear listening environments can attach strange associations to quiet places or odd sounds.

On the day I finished revising the first draft of this book I read an interview with an American band, Animal Collective. One of the members recounted an epiphany, experienced when he first saw Stanley Kubrick’s film, The Shining. In particular, the peculiarly conservative avant- gardism of Wendy Carlos’s electronic music score was a revelation. ‘It’s strange,’ he said, ‘how abstract, non- musical sounds can have a really intense effect on you emotionally.’ Kubrick’s use of music and sound in The Shining was exemplary in this respect. For cinema of such reach and ambition, it was revolutionary. The alien atmosphere of Carlos’s synthesized sounds heightens the eldritch power of Krzysztof Penderecki’s De Natura Sonoris No. 1, the eerie suspended tension of Gyorgy Ligeti’s Lontano, the crunching of snow, the bounce of a ball, the noise of Danny’s small car as he races over the hotel’s various floor coverings, or the distant echoes of old music by Henry Hall, Ray Noble and Jack Hylton that may be seeping through solid air to be heard by a disintegrating mind, or simply the sinister resonance of a ghost. Their cumulative emotional effect is overwhelming; the question of whether one or other of them is music, noise, ambient sound, real music or good music is hardly an issue.

A line was cast into the dark, a search for similar memories of this emotional affect from my own childhood, particularly my acute fear of strange sounds heard within eerie silences, those things that go bump in the night. Looking at Dutch paintings of the early modern period stirred a realization: many of these painters were representing sounds, noise, silences and moments of listening through visual means. In other words, they were using one of the only means available to record auditory events for future centuries to decode. From that point I began to listen more closely to visual media from all periods. In many cases I heard nothing, but in artists as diverse as Juan Muñoz, Georges Seurat, Marcel Duchamp and Ad Reinhardt, I encountered rich soundworlds. This unexpected sensation of clairaudience, of hearing inaudible sounds, either from remote history or recent times, struck me as uncanny, as if I could suddenly hear the grass growing or listen to the inner thoughts of a stranger.

The thought is not so strange. In The Invention of Solitude, Paul Auster describes something similar in relation to the crystalline silence of Vermeer’s Woman in Blue: ‘A. stares hard at the woman’s face, and as time passes he almost begins to hear the voice inside the woman’s head as she reads the letter in her hands.’ Samuel Beckett wrote about looking at a painting by Emil Nolde, wanting to replay it over and over as you would a recording of music. All of these paintings in the Wallace Collection were silent recordings of auditory events, some more silent than others. Sound haunts their silence as a spectre of history that can never be heard in full, yet its presence is buried within their creation.

Sound and silence have become the recent focus of a rapid expansion of interest. As if now worn out, the century of cinema, television, photography and audio records relinquishes control to less tangible sensations of a new time. But this sudden growth suggests that the phenomenon of sound in itself, distinct from music and speech, has been neglected in the past. I hope to show that sound — and by sound I mean the entire continuum of the audible and inaudible spectrum, including silence, noise, quiet, implicit and imagined sound — can be identified as a sub- text, a hidden if uncertain history within otherwise silent media. It’s not so much that sound has been neglected. A profound engagement with sound runs though all aspects of human culture and yet in many cases that engagement goes unrecognized. Neglect invariably engenders a counter movement, so sound and silence (and even noise) can be idealized as the most pure and positive of all sensory impressions. This, it seems to me, reduces the fullness of sound, ignoring its darker attributes as trespasser, invader of territory, agent of instability, unreliable witness. ‘I confess my predilection for the silent arts,’ wrote Eugene Delacroix in his journal, ‘for those mute things of which Poussin made profession, as he said. Words are indiscreet; they break in on your tranquillity, solicit your attention and arouse discussion.’ Exactly these irritants may be the reasons why sound is valued — Delacroix also claimed to prefer the society of things to that of men. ‘Silence is always impressive,’ he wrote, ‘even fools look respectable when they are silent.’ But surging beneath this respectability there are the problematic properties of silence as chaos, lacuna, intangible presence. Sound is energy unleashed, yet also the perpetual emerging and vanishing, growth and decay of life and death — the perfect metaphor for a ghost.

Freud’s description of the uncanny as eerie or frightening, the unhomely sensations arising from that which is unfamiliar and uncertain, particularly when they are once familiar feelings that have become secret or repressed, extended to the uncanny nature of silence and darkness. Inconclusively, at the end of his famous essay, he attributed this to infantile anxieties that none of us fully overcome. Such fears may be childish, but they are rooted in very deep memories of unknown sounds and eerie silences overheard in the dark. Perhaps this returns us once again to the womb, floating in darkness, eavesdropping on mysterious sounds from the unknown world outside. These anxieties are not easily overcome, so when a writer or director needs to evoke atmospheres, administer shocks or summon the uncanny, sound is powerful in its capacity to disturb, to unsettle and install dread.

Just as a silent reader is implicitly a containment of sounds, so the letter itself, the silent speaker, can become a listener. ‘The door was shut; and to suppose that wood, when it creaks, transmits anything save that rats are busy and wood dry is childish’, wrote Virginia Woolf in Jacob’s Room. And yet, a letter, personified as Jacob’s mother, sits waiting on the hall table, eavesdropping on the faint sounds of her son (his unthinkable sexuality), ‘stretched with Florinda,’ on the other side of the bedroom door. ‘But if the pale blue envelope lying by the biscuit- box had the feelings of a mother, the heart was torn by the little creak, the sudden stir. Behind the door was the obscene thing, the alarming presence, and terror would come over her as at death, or the birth of a child.’ Sounds, along with silences, are invoked frequently as signs of the uncanny. Writing about his drawings, Odilon Redon said that they place us, as does music, ‘in the world of the ambiguous and the indeterminate.’ This is not dissimilar to ideas expressed by Walter Murch, who believed that contemporary cinema is diminished by its technical capacity to show everything imaginable under the sun.

What comes together through sound is emergent and passing time — a sense of duration, the field of memory, a fullness of space that lies beyond touch and out of sight, hidden from vision. Sound must be trusted, cannot be trusted, so has power. When sound that should be present seems to be absent, this is frightening. Through silence we come face to face with ourselves, but into silence sound may enter, intruder again, a question directed at tangible, visible reality. ‘One can look at seeing;’ wrote Marcel Duchamp, ‘one can’t hear hearing.’ Through that strange anomaly of the senses, the way we perceive the world and the ways in which we represent those perceptions, we strain to hear what can never be there.

Sinister Resonance begins with the premise that sound is a haunting, a ghost, a presence whose location in space is ambiguous and whose existence in time is transitory. The intangibility of sound is uncanny — a phenomenal presence both in the head, at its point of source and all around — so never entirely distinct from auditory hallucinations. The close listener is like a medium who draws out substance from that which is not entirely there. Listening, after all, is always a form of eavesdropping Because sound vanishes into air and past time, the history of listening must be constructed from the narratives of myth and fiction, ‘silent’ arts such as painting, the resonance of architecture, auditory artefacts and nature. In such contexts, sound often functions as a metaphor for mystical revelation, instability, forbidden desires, disorder, formlessness, the supernatural, for the breaking of social taboos, the unknown, unconscious and extra- human.

Sound Studies titles from Continuum

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