[Thinking Resonance 01] Listening to Inner Voices and Sonic Possible Worlds: An Interview with Salomé Voegelin

[‘thinking resonance’ is a series of interviews with theoreticians, philosophers, and researcher. The series has a double aim: it considers sound as being able to think, and thought as being able to point to sound. That is, to approach philosophical, epistemological, cultural, ecologic and aesthetic processes inside, towards and through sound/listening.]

“If you could hear my voice now you could feel my body in this voice penetrating your ears, immersing you, and inviting you to act on me with your own articulation of your body, and I in turn would continue this play with another sonic gesture of mine and you with yours”. – Salomé Voegelin

imagesalomevoegelin-copyVoegelin has a silent voice, in her writings, her poetry, her sound. We have never talked through our physical voices, but inhabited the imaginary, the inner conversation. She has spoken, in many ways, opening my consciousness and engaging me to not just listen, but to truly live from what I listen, to construct from the heard and recognise my participation in the process of hearing, not only limiting oneself to perceive, but to dialogue.

Being a philosopher and sound artist, Salomé Voegelin explores sound deeply, in a wide realm in which subject and object are so intimately related that sound reveals as a possible paradigm, as sonic fiction, where listening extends not just our conception of sound, but of worlds as such. Sometimes I think she is not just one, but several voices, concatenated in a beautiful yet hunting opening to the sonic; multiple voices delicately painting landscapes of ideas, sounds, silences and movements. She has written two books about sound, towards sound, inside sound, as being sound. Also, by doing performances, talks and orality explorations, an interesting link between all her activities is created, in order to expose a unique perspective around sound; open and attentive, beautiful and erudite, able to finely touch the intellect but also to subtly seduce sensibility and expand our awareness of the sonic experience, here approached as a wide inter-connection of listeners, sounds, pieces, situations.

I had the opportunity to have an inner conversation with Voegelin, focused on several of her ideas, specially some of her books ‘Listening to the Noise and Silence’ and ‘Sonic Possible Worlds’, which I have found very stimulating in many ways, as both are able to trigger a lot of questions and research processes not only in the theoretical side, but also in the practical process of listening, establishing new possibilities in what we can think and feel, what we listen and imagine as sound, right from the act of listening. Voegelin creates a unique invitation to dialogue, connect and contemplate that curious mystery of listening/imagining those things we call sounds: invisible, infinitely possible, constantly fluctuating, being physical and emotive, but also imaginary and silent.

Hi Salomé. What are you currently listening to?

At this moment I am listening to a rather piercing and unceasing song of birds and parrots outside my open window, drowned out periodically by the flange like whine of an airplane, and the constant call of drills and building equipment that sound the march of expanding houses in the suburbs of London.

When listening, are you more concerned with the “how” or the “what”? Or maybe both? an inter-relationship between contemplation and what’s being contemplated I guess? What’s your perspective towards that process?

As a reflex my ears search for the “what”: the source of a sound, like the birds or the airplanes and the drills mentioned above. But when I give myself time and linger in the sound, I start to hear other things, the material, or maybe as you call it the “how” of the sound.

How did you start to explore sound and how has this interest developed until today? What has changed?

As a child and teenager I played classical musical instruments (the piano, the violin and voice) and very much enjoyed the relationship between listening, practicing, hearing and perfecting. Sound was in the first instance musical and its structures offered a way to engage my desire for the right sound. I do not know whether this has to do with being a teenager, when everything is up in the air, uncertain and out of your control. But at the time practicing offered me the certainty of my own sound world in which I could play and repeat until I felt confident. There was a great joy in this, but eventually, as I grew older those strictures did not suit me anymore, and with the help of an Akai sampler and an early Apple computer I started to distance myself from musical language and moved into listening and working with everyday sounds. This is where I am today still. I am interested in all sorts of sounds and how we can hear, talk and write about them to enable a greater sonic awareness and come to understand the significance and consequences of the sonic world. My sound work now is not musical anymore, but it still has a structure and a sense, even if those are more sensorial and contingent rather than related to a genre and a tradition of music making.


There’s one sentence from your book Listening to Noise and Silence: Towards a Philosophy of Sound (Continuum, 2010), which I find particularly beautiful: “When there is nothing to hear, so much starts to sound. Silence is not the absence of sound but the beginning of listening”. In this sentence you reveal, among other things, the amazing subtlety of sound, and the importance of small sounds that happen in our ‘silence’. You point not only to the fact that we always sound, but also make us aware of ourselves as existing in sonic relationships. How important is the search for those details and subtle sounds for you, and how do you think that initial silence affects the whole process of listening and our position within it?

In the first three chapters of Listening to Noise and Silence I try to work through different extremes, or perceived extremes, of sound, such as noise and silence, to explore their material and relationships. Silence, which is in the first instance articulated as the (relative) absence of sound, leads me to consider our doubt in what it is we hear, and allows me to make the suggestion that silence reveals the imprecision of sound, as object and as form. This vagueness triggers an auditory imagination which is not against listening but contributes to what it is we hear: small details, subtle movements become amplified, their source distorted and confused, and thus reality and imagination start to mix to produce a different, a sonic sense of things. However, it becomes quickly apparent in the book that noise and silence are not opposites but exist on a continuum and thus they do not represent extremes but show attributes shared by all sounds. In this sense the absence of sound in silence is present in all sounds, it mobilises doubt in the perceived and invites an auditory imagination to contribute to reality with the details and subtleties of listening when things are quiet.

You write about, within, around, based on and directed towards sound. It appears that your interest is not just with writing about sound as content, but about valuing writing almost as recording or composing, as you mention in an interview for EAR ROOM. How do you think we could expand our conception and practice of writing in terms of sound and also how do you think the listening experience varies and gets affected by that process of writing?

Yes, definitively, writing about sound is not only about sound it is always also about writing, about language and what it enables us to express and communicate, and where it limits what we might experience and understand. Language is not a neutral device; it has its own ideological and socio-political norms and boundaries. Indo-European languages at least, are also terribly vision-focused with their preference for the noun and the deferral of sound to the attribute. My practice is heavily involved in expanding how language can be understood and used, and sound and listening are useful tools in this project. The ephemeral temporality of sound queries the primacy of the noun; it questions the substantive and challenges conventions of description. Thus it defies the constraint of language within the compromise of objectivity and communication and opens new possibilities for its expression. The relationship between writing and sound is reciprocal. Writing about sound when we are not content to simply describe it as an attribute, challenges grammatical and ideological norms of language, at the same time it awakens a different listening and makes us hear more than a source based listening might reveal, and this more, this heard beyond description, in turn demands a different language to access what it might mean.

Some months ago you published an interesting article on The Wire, which you conclude by saying that “the future of field recording lies in the tension created in transforming the heard through participation, collaboration, expansion and play”. How and in which ways do you think it is possible to expand the idea and practice of field recording as expressed in the means of art, collective sharing and ways of “renegotiating reality” as you note?

Traditionally, field recording as established by the Naturalists at the beginning of the 20th Century, understood recording as producing an objective capturing of the real without considering the impact of the recordist or the distortion of the intervention on the thing thus recorded. The concurrent believe in the neutrality of technology and the very humanist approach to the world and natural life as dominated and ruled by man, ready to be collected and archived by him, meant that the presence or identity of the recordist was not considered to have any influence on the recording thus produced. Judging from the responses to that article there are still a good number of field recordists out there who subscribe to that idea. However, I don’t. In a more post-humanist era field recording is not just a capturing but an intervention, and the recording always bares the marks of this intervention and reveals possibly just as much about the recordist as it does about the thing/event recorded. I mention a few field recordists in the article, such as Mark Peter Wright, Felicity Ford, Davide Tidone among others, who embrace their presence in the field quite deliberately and who play with the participatory nature of recording as intervention. I find that very exciting and feel it expresses a more responsible position of the recordist in a reciprocal and consequential relationship with the field. I do not have particular ideas of how this should be expanded and developed, but I certainly hope it will, as these works provoke a new engagement in acoustic ecology that is radical and can contribute to a better understanding of the world not as a humanist field for study, but as a place we inhabit together with other things and beings.

In some studies, acousmatic and phenomenological listening approaches are often opposed to contextual or non-cochlear perspectives. Do you think it’s possible to find connections between those different sides?

I would not find it helpful to oppose the phenomenological and the non-cochlear. Indeed even a non-cochlear perspective can draw on phenomenology, and a phenomenology might want to be non-cochlear, reducing its experience to that which cannot be heard. Phenomenology is all about reduction in order to get to the essence of the experienced, and to leave listening and hearing out of the theoretical frame, as for example Seth Kim-Cohen does in his book In the Blink of an Ear: Toward a Non-Cochlear Sonic Art (2009), can of course be read as a phenomenological reduction: a bracketing off of sound to get to an experience of the work without it.

I understand and agree, and in fact, influenced by your reflections on Kim-Cohen, I’m interested to know more from you about your phenomenological perspective in relation to the exclusion/relation between the acousmatic sound-in-itself and the contextual sound-out-of-itself. I think your work goes beyond that dichotomy by considering important ontological and epistemological consequences of our notion of sound. So, if not from an opposition between these two, how would you think we should conceive of the sonic as such, and how should the listening process be reformulated as a mediator in that dialogue? (To mention a practical example that comes to my mind, which is in fact mentioned in Kim-Cohen’s book, is Stephen Vitiello’s World Trade Center field recording project, which even when it was initially conceived as a sound-on-itself exploration, got a whole intertextual non-cochlear significance given the destruction of the WTC towers.)

I think the experience of sound-in-itself, (not as an essentialised position but as a temporary bracketing off in order to re-hear the context), in as much as that is indeed possible, is a vital moment within the trajectory from listening to hearing. As an example I am thinking of the Deep Listening workshops and principles of Pauline Oliveros, whose philosophy encourages a focus on small sounds, particular sounds, divorced from their context in order to hear oneself inside and out in a new context. Sound-in-itself is thus part of the process of hearing, it enables a new realization of details and nuances, and generates our own being as nuanced and detailed in its reciprocity. Of course in order to get to language from that detail, from that momentary and fragile moment of listening and being in sound, you have to get back to context: the context of language, the cultural and the linguistic context, and the socio-political context of the event, which in your example is the bombing of the World Trade Centre. In this sense the non-cochlear, the structural and historical reading of the event in context, and the phenomenological experience of the contingent detail, bracketed off from its context, expand and continue each other. In fact they depend on each other. Only if you have no interest in communicating the heard, or of experiencing it in relation to other events can you remain within the bracketed sound; but equally, only if you wish for reflection to remain untouched by experience and accept the loss of material and emotional information thus suffered, can you pretend that the non-cochlear alone achieves a useful truth of the situation. Phenomenology is always about the meeting between reflection and experience, that is where its rigour is produced, and the structuralist project equally cannot avoid the impact of experience, which is always and necessarily part of the context and of its reading.

9781623568009I also wonder how do you think listening to the inaudible and imaginative sound can be approached. This is something you explore mostly in your book ‘Sonic Possible Worlds: Hearing the Continuum of Sound’ (Bloomsbury 2014), where those mental, imaginary, non-audible sounds come to play. You do an interesting consideration regarding the relationship between audible and inaudible, which you value not as a mere dialectic perspective, but one in which “the inaudible acts not as opposite of the heard but the extension of its audibility” and even “extends the visibility of the visual”. If not as extremes of sound, or as opposites, how should inaudible and audible be approached? Could you expand for us the notion of non-dialectic extension of the visual and its relationship with the imaginary?

This is again an extremely challenging question which goes right to the heart of my motivation for writing about sound: the desire to find alternatives to a dialectical thought process and its quasi objectivity. The dialectical principle ‘this is not that’ points to a believe that things are separate and autonomous from their appearance, positioned within the ‘container’ of the perceptual field, rather than generating it, and that they exist within a tension of necessity that drives towards resolve into a certain recognizable shape. Sound does not offer itself in this detached clarity, and does not drive towards a singular resolution. Thus I find it useful to think of it as neither temporal nor spatial but as spatiotemporal, generating the timespace co-ordinates of itself as a generative moment that exists not in opposition to another such moment, but always continues the last into the next. In this expanded non-dialectical existence the inaudible is not the opposite of the audible but is its extension, its possibility or maybe even its impossibility. The inaudible is impossible in that ‘it cannot be’, that it does not fulfil our expectations and norms of what is. It is that which we do not hear even if we are listening. This non-hearing can be physiological or aesthetic, but it can also be ideological and political, pointing at what we do not want to hear, highlighting that which cannot make a strong enough impression upon the appearance of reality to make itself count. If we accept that the sonic world is not dialectical but that it produces a generative continuum, this inaudible is not the other but the self in another appearance. This has consequences for all sorts of discourses and discussions on subjectivity, identity, self as well as for notions of truth, objectivity and reason. Nevertheless I do not see the inaudible as an extreme but as offering us different and pluralised illuminations of what we think we see and hear.

As a consequence, it seems important to me that any acoustic ecology, sound art and sound study that aims to develop an acoustic sensitivity and promote listening, should include the inaudible in its repertoire of expected sounds so that we can at least learn how to listen out for it, even if we do not hear it yet.

I love your perspective towards the exploratory and active aspect of listening, not understanding it as a mere reception of signals, since, as you say, “listening discovers and generates the heard”, opening a way for revealing aspects not just of sound, but reality itself. And more than simply revealing, you focus on a transformative aspect of listening and what the actual experience of sound is able to offer, expand and create in terms of reality, which has been clearly dominated by the visual. So, given the lack of attention to listening in our societies, or at least the dominance of visual stimuli, the proposition of sound and listening truly represents an encounter with those new possible worlds, as a way of “re-thinking” or “renegotiating” our reality. I wonder if you could introduce us to that idea of reconfiguring the world through the listening/sonic experience, like when you say that “listening allows fantasy to reassemble the visual fixtures and fittings, and repositions us as designers of our own environment”. Which are the horizons opened by that process?

This question touches on the central tenet of almost all my writing and it is a challenge to answer it in brief. It takes me almost two whole books to come to some articulation of what this sonic possible world might be, what it proposes and what its consequences are. But the principle of my interest in listening and sound stems from an appreciation that our sense of actuality, that which we consider to be real, is not the only way the world could be, or rather, is not the only way the world is. Many aspects and perspectives are left out in that singular actuality, some for expediency, some for physiological reasons, others for ideological or political reasons, because we simply do not want to look at and consider them. I argue that sound, its invisible mobility, illuminates the seen in new ways and demands we engage in the possible as well as in the actual. It challenges the notion of singularity and shows us that things are as verbs, as actions and as dynamics a multiplicity of ways, and once we realize that there is this plurality we have to become responsible and participate in how it takes part in the actuality of what we consider to be real. In this context, sound is not positioned as an essentiality, something in itself, but as a material that through its invisible ephemerality demands our engagement, our imagination and fantasy to become part of the real as a multisensory real. The notion that we are designers of our own environment does not imply an anthropocentric creationism but hints at the responsibility we have in deciding what counts and what does not count in the dominant representation of the real.

Could you please tell us how you approach workshops and specially talking about ‘Points of Listening’, what’s behind it, how has been its development and what responses have you received?

Points of Listening is a monthly listening workshop, activities and discussions based in and around London, which I co-convene with Mark Peter Wright (www.pointsoflistening.wordpress.com). The impetus for this series was a desire for a shared listening, to promote and perform listening together, to make room for the experience of sound outside academy and beyond art in the everyday. The series has proven to be very popular. It has a dedicated following of regulars, with other listeners joining us occasionally, or for a one of. It is wonderful to be a community of listeners and find connections, points of listening and points of discussion.

In many of your ideas, there is an important invitation to valuing listening as an inter-subjective experience through which one could assume the soundscape itself as an inter-subjective continuum, not as an external space or object, but a more dialogic or inter-related result. What do you think would be the implications of this way of thinking in order to change our notions of the soundscape itself and the ecological, psychological or political aspects of the it? How does this lead the listener to an expansion of possibilities, since, as you say, “the project of acoustic ecology pursues the subject directly, willing us to listen and to engage”?

A lot of my writing strives to bring phenomenology and listening together. Most western philosophy has not made much room for sound and listening, and phenomenology is no exception. But I feel strongly drawn to Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s interpretation of phenomenology, which is a psychological phenomenology, as opposed to Edmund Husserl, say, who pursued a mathematical phenomenology. Listening practiced as a reduction, as a bracketing off of the visual experience to focus on the invisible, offers me a useful contemporary reinterpretation and application of Merleau-Ponty’s work. In this context, his notion of intersubjectivity considered through sound and a sonic sensibility achieves a more expansive intersubjectivity: it comes to be defined beyond the relationship between subjects, human bodies only, as the reciprocal bond between the ‘bodies’ of all things in the world. In this way it offers a very relevant contribution to a contemporary political, ecological and social understanding of the world and our being in the world.

Phenomenology is often accused of being subjective and human centred. I think and hope that via sound and listening it becomes apparent that in actual fact its project was aimed against a humanist objectivity of science, towards a much more humble and questioning position of humans in the world, where we do not know before hand, neither ourselves nor the other, but where we have to engage, at every moment, through doubt and uncertainty, to understand how something is and how I am within that which it is. The soundscape as the “that which it is”, in its invisible and dynamic nature, demonstrates this uncertain relationship quite well, and in turn a sonic phenomenology, or maybe we should call it a post-phenomenology, can contribute to a current relevance of acoustic ecology, which has to be an acoustic ecology that understands the reciprocity and intersubjectivity of the listener and the heard, as an equal and non-hierarchical difference. In other words, a contemporary acoustic ecology has to start from the relationship of the field recordist, the listener, to his intersubjective generation of the field, and understand any interpretation as contingent to that encounter rather than as an objective representation.

There is also this interesting conception of the sonic element as event, as fluid, rather than as a mere object-based element; in your language would be the pass of sound as noun to sound as verb (please correct me if I’m wrong). You mention that in both of your books for example when taking Heidegger’s notion of the Thing thinging or in the conception of the “sonic continuum”. How do you think these concepts affect the way we conceive sound and its materiality, which turns to be ephemeral, liquid, as a process, also revealing the listener as temporary, for example when you say that “the sonic subject belongs in this temporal flow”. How is that temporal element key in the actual process of listening/identification of space, materiality or morphology?

I hope that my answer to the question above on acoustic ecology has gone some way towards introducing my ideas on the reciprocity between the listener and the heard and on the ‘non-objectivity’ it promotes. Sound challenges our perceptions of fixity and certainty. We can never be quite sure what it is we hear, and thus what we hear contains elements of our auditory imagination that always remain unverifiable, maybe untrue even, if you insist on a correspondence theory of truth. However, it is true for the listener as the truth of her experience at that moment, validated through its process, rather than as objectivity. If you agree with me that our reality is intersubjective, and if the thing you experience yourself vis-à-vis from is sonic, then you engage with that sound on its own terms, you are through it and it is through you that moment of perception, and subsequently you come to understand your sonic subjectivity through that exchange. In this way sound gets us to a new materialism of flow, not through a mystical transformation, but through the engagement of material as process, as thing thinging.

I am very curious about this relationship with the sonic flux you note and particularly I wonder about the ecological consequences of it, as you mention in the last two answers. Do you think this new ecological engagement should have some radical consequences to the concepts around acoustic ecology? For example, the term ‘soundscape’ comes to my mind, which is sometimes assumed as counterpart of the visual landscape, or an objective set of things and fixed elements, rather than what you explore around this event-based continuum/fluid in which our affection and agency are intimately inter-related with the sonic phenomena. That concept of ‘soundscape’ would change completely given this post-phenomenological standpoint, since what you propose actually not only helps when questioning the frontier between subject and object, but also invites to reconsider those terms in new ways. Is that in some way related with the socio-political aspects of sound and listening you have been exploring recently? Because it seems to me that all of this is something to do with concepts such as ‘acoustic territory’, which, as Brandon Labelle points out, is about a reconfiguration of space, something I find strongly related to your perspective of renegotiating the listening experience, and in my opinion calls for a particular way of engagement where the socio-political and ecological meet. Please correct me if I’m doing a wrong interpretation.

No you are absolutely right, the aim and motivation of my interpretation of the soundscape is to identify and promote the contemporary relevance of soundscape study, field recording and acoustic ecology, which I think the practices of the artists I mention above for example all demonstrate. I know there has been a push to abandon the term soundscape, to replace it for example with ‘atmosphere’ (Jean-Paul Thibaud). I am not normally shy to use neologisms or to create new terminology, but in this instance I think it might be fruitful to stick to the term and renovate it from within. The terms soundscape and soundscape studies have an interesting and very eco-political history. We might not agree with its initial aims anymore, or think its processes need an overhaul, of course, but I still feel the initial impetus is worth preserving as a background on which we build and develop a contemporary practice and theory. Likelihood is if we just shift into new terminology, eventually we just do the same thing under a new name because we have forgotten where we came from. I still really like the term soundscape. I understand Tim Ingold’s and others epistemological arguments against the notion of the scape and their unease about putting sound next to the land, but it is the claim to a location, and its relationship to the visual terminology of place that I think gives the term the authority to argue and redefine that land and that place through a sonic view. In other words, instead of renaming the soundscape atmosphere in order to allow for the ephemeral, multisensory and invisible nature of sound, we could insist that the soundscape demonstrates the ephemeral, multisensory and invisible nature of the landscape. In this sense Brandon’s term ‘acoustic territory’ challenges our thinking about territory more than it engages in sound. Sound becomes a device to rethink and re-own colonial and cartographical thinking and structures that are implicit in the terminology. Consequently, as you point out, the subject-object relationship that plays out in this ephemeral, multisensory and invisible sonic landscape is also open for reassessment particularly in relation to ecology, responsibility, ethics and the socio-political.

What are you working on right now?

At this moment I am doing all sorts of smaller writing projects while starting work on a third book for Bloomsbury to be published in 2017/18, which develops the socio-political ideas and consequences arrived at in my last book Sonic Possible Worlds through a series of essays. At the same time my practice is focused on my collaboration with David Mollin, we have had a major show of our work at the Kunst Raum Riehen, Switzerland earlier this year, and are currently preparing a work for the Marrakech biennale.

Last but not least, could you please recommend us something to read and/or listen to that has attracted you recently and you think our community will appreciate?

A book I have recently read that excited me very much was Frances Dyson’s The Tone of Our Times: Sound, Sense, Economy, and Ecology, MIT Press 2014. Dyson’s book is relevant to my own thinking about listening as a socio-political practice of sound. She writes through listening to religious rituals and acclamations and explores the tenor of the voice and its media-political reality as echoes of economy and ecology in the contemporary soundscape.

A piece of work I have come across recently that really inspired me was Anna Raimondo’s Mediterraneo, a video work that was part of All of Us Have a Sense of Rhythm at DRAF David Roberts Art Foundation, in London, earlier this year: a glass of water is filled, drip by drip, with a blue liquid to the sound of Raimondo repeating Mediteraneo Mediteraneo Mediteraneo, until her voice drowns slowly and invisibly in the blue liquid. This work represents to me so powerfully the fear, hope, desperation and death that defines the Mediterranean as the treacherous liquid border between Africa and Europe today.