infinite sound in the silence of a grain

“We can see that beneath the level of the note lies the realm of micro-sound, of sound particles. These are the building blocks of complex sounds. Like the quantum world of the quarks, leptons, gluons, and bosons, the micro-sonic domain remained invisible for centuries. Now the wave theory of sound is giving way to particle-based theories of sound processing.” – Curtis Roads

Particle-based sound

The beauty of nature is the beauty of discovery. It is impressive to see how disciplines, people, and worlds get related so fast in between. When it comes to sound, many fields of knowledge converge and lots of words and theories have been there to describe it, generally being based in the idea of it as a physical phenomenon that propagates in waves, similar to those in the ocean. But, sonic theory/reality can be also conceived from a different perspective called microsound, which opens the scope to new possibilities in terms of how sound is felt, understood, studied and manipulated.

The word micro (sound) denotes the notion of sonic activity around a scale of time studied in milliseconds, a conception of sound that “follows the tradition of the concrete sound objects by studying the blocks that constitute them” (Osetinsky 71). The sound particle is found and the micro-sonic adventure arises, basically suggesting a conception of sound in quantum, subtle, minimalist, atomic, infinitesimal, microscopic, complex, delicate, infinite, granular, massive, entropic or immersive ways; creating a science on its own (ie: microbiology to biology) dedicated to explore the evolution of timbre phenomenon in the time scales below the object.

It represents a powerful source of new knowledge, paradigms, aesthetic paradises and scientific-philosophical explorations, not only affecting the way we understand the micro-anatomy of the macro-sound universe (in this case based in complex structures of micro-units) but also its appearance and surface, opening the way to an art of detail and texture, a very thin practice; precise, fragile and unique as its own nature.

Microsound is like touching and shaping intricate states of sonic energy in order to lead perception into new notions of reality and information, a new perspective of everything, obtained in the development of an aesthetically enriched science where “a reconciliation of matter and data” is evident (Whitelaw 93) and its consequences over the listening experience are radical.

Granular akousma

“The most important thing to understand, however is that a sound is a sound is a sound is a sound. It is not an example of a pitch class or an instrument type. It is a unique object with its own particular properties which may be revealed, extended and transformed by the process of sound composition.”  –Trevor Wishart (11)

First we need to focus on the listening experience in order to understand the micro activity, contrary to a believing of microsound as a mere child of technology, which is in part true but it’s not in the sense that the real issue of the microsonic discipline is found in the listening act itself; in the arrival to the field of microaudition, an activity whose consequences are not only present in the way we understand the course in which sonic matter gets structured, meticulously defined and microscopically explored; but also on how much this affects the way we relate to it, perceive how it develops in all sides of our consciousness.

Auditory phenomena understand its own materiality supported by an acousmatic relationship with the environment. The term “acousmatic” was modernly explored by Pierre Shaeffer but taken from a Greek concept specially explored in the Pythagorean school; that is the notion of akousma, a very open and special word whose exploration involves valuing the listening act as an ancient practice in a tradition that is not only focused in outer/acoustic phenomena but also on inner/spiritual activity.

Akousma could be “defined” as an imaginary sonic object, an entity able of carrying wisdom, knowledge, memory and language, but not being dependent on those in order to exist, always staying detached of anything that is not the sound itself –with that referring to any kind of association that could be related to what we listen. The interesting point here is when those apparently solid and concrete objects become granular structures that reveal a kind of quantum dimension of sound.

“A single grain serves as a building block for sound objects. By combining thousands of grains over time, we can create animated sonic atmospheres. The grain is an apt representation of musical sound because it captures two perceptual dimensions: time-domain information (starting time, duration, envelope shape) and frequency-domain information (the pitch of the waveform within the grain and the spectrum of the grain).” – Curtis Roads (87, 2002)

The introduction of microsound represents a revolution inside those akousmata networks, where all sound that is created is not only evaluated as a system of objects perceived in their own wholes (which constitute a macro-sonic universe) but also in a more complex way: a new dimension inside the sonic space represented by the grain, a “fourth” component born from the conception of the sound matter’s most basic elements, present in time, frequency and amplitude.

In the literature of acoustics and signal processing, many terms refer to similar microsonic phenomena: acoustic quantum, sonal atom, grain, glisson, grainlet, trainlet, Gaussian elementary signal, Gaussian pulse, short-time segment, sliding window, microarc, voicel, Coiflet, symmlet, Gabor atom, Gabor wavelet, gaborette, wavelet, chirplet, Liénard atom, FOF, FOG, wave packet, Vosim pulse, time-frequency atom, pulsar, waveset, impulse, toneburst, tone pip, acoustic pixel, and window function pulse are just a few. These phenomena, viewed in their mathematical dual space –the frequency domain– take on a different set of names: kernel, logon, and frame, for example. – Curtis Roads (22, 2002)

The grain is a new axis in the equation of the sonic cosmos, the birth of micro-timbre, where sounds have a particular morphology based on the creation of single objects (or groups of them) which are able to function as cloudy structures that in our regular perception can appear to be assembled and have certain consistency, but during deep analysis and research around the micro scale, all of them reveal an impressive amount of internal processes, an entropy of particle-based networks born from the accelerated activity achieved by massive microsonic universes collapsing just in the blink of an eye a grain.

Molecular listening

“It is my belief that this state of “imaginative-perception” is missing in sound art today, and that in order to revive the project of world-building in art, it is first necessary to resurrect this state of awareness.” – Kim Cascone

This faculty of perceiving infinity inside small units can leads us to think micro-events and microsound processes as a kind of inter-molecular activity of sound materials; lots of micro-rhythms contained in a second, like cellular scaffolding whose entire life can be just some milliseconds. And what about the space a micro-organism occupies?

In the case of sound, in order to explore what happens inside those “tiny” environments, we need to enter into a particular way of thinking about silence, which is the medium that allows not only to isolate and extract elements of sound but also to listen to them, to be able to print their images in our reality. As artist/writer Salomé Voegelin points, silence “is not the absence of sound but the beginning of listening”, specially evident when “listening to small sounds, tiny sounds, quiet and loud sounds out of any context, musical, visual, or otherwise” (Voegelin 81).

Silence forces the limits of perception, creating not just a frontier within sound but also a calling about what is being and not being heard. This barrier affects our perception of frequency, amplitude and time. Our perceptual limits are really what create the shape we perceive. There, what we call silence becomes just the same thing as sound, at lest in terms of listening, where both silence and signal are faces of one same symbiosis in order to create the sonic experience.

A mind that searches for “sonic silence” –not just for sound– is near to an ideal state of listening. In terms of subtle and micro sound atmospheres, the process is more intense: silence becomes a creative element that allows to compose/design in delicate environments. The perceptual limits go into microscales of harmonics, subtle clouds and shorts frames of time. All the axis present in the construction of timbre get granularly listened, dissected and transformed. That process has radical consequences not only in the perception of sound but time, space, and reality itself; a sense of miniature reality.

Microsound, as artist Thomas Phillips states, “nurtures perception in the listener by way of its investment in relative silence and minimalism”, building its path as an invitation to a special state of consciousness that requires profound attention and immersion, faculties obtained in the act of resting in listening, a meditative practice for “embodied self-awareness” that simultaneously functions “as a praxis of embodied listening” (Phillips 244). And that’s precisely one of the most intricate aspects of microaudio: to listen, think and/or look at it in an active experience that gets into  sonically silent realms of being; fine lines able to reflect the infinite states of the microcosmos.

Thereby, the idea of microsound transcends, by passing of being just a mere media category, a musical movement or technological discipline, to a wider conception obtained right at the experience of listening to any kind of sound, in any kind of moment and place. This way of micro, subtle, delicate and molecular listening should not be based in the premise of an external element, but an inner faculty, a perceptual/aesthetic reality that is natural to any human –not technology-dependent but inherent to our condition. It’s not just present in scientific or artistic environments, but anywhere, into the most common places and everyday soundscapes; all of them are plagued of micro-acoustic activity.

“Once we listen 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” – David Toop

Although we mentally process sonic particles and subtle frequencies in ways that differ from those available in the computer, we can realize (during the listening process) that it’s possible to obtain a wider perspective where both acoustic/organic and digital/synthetic aspects are present and where the machine becomes an extension, a part of the big system that is found in the silent activity of quieting the mind, ultimately leading to the discovery of new organs of perception that give us a new way of talking with the tool,  letting art “flow through technology rather than from it(Cascone).

These awaken states of sonic consciousness allow to deal with sounds in diverse approaches, both in the computer and the imagination. In this case, the crossing reveals a path for conquering the aesthetics of detail, a deep journey into the layers of sonic delicateness and with that, the beginning of a silent challenge found in the act of paying attention to the subtlety of auditory images, revealing new sonic territories where the notion of micro-time, micro-form, micro-space, etc is evident. Sonic fractals, a portrait of life as an infinite cosmic network, drawn in order to expose the complexity behind the simplest, the universal law that’s being established everywhere regardless the evaluated scale.

In short, we can note that this micro-listening model is found in the nature of sonic phenomena itself. We have discovered/named its existence, but microsound is not a “human invention”. It’s like the atom, we didn’t invent it, although we have named and studied it in ways that have allowed us to establish a dialogue with the atomic realm. It’s the same with microbiology: the microscopy is crucial for that science but not for the existence of cellular activity, micro-organisms, etc.

Microcosmic encounters

“Listening is intersubjective in that it produces the work and the self in the interaction between the subject listening and the object heard. The listener stumbles blindly in the darkness of sound, and is himself revealed in any light generated.” – Salomé Voegelin (28)

In the act of giving importance to what is being created in those silence-driven levels of audio, an awareness for the delicate is needed, established, and developed as a sense for the microsonic, assembled with granular faculties and enabled to conduct the mind into unexplored territories, thus creating an introspective and profound experience.

Listening to microsound implies a special concentration, an encounter with a new relationship with sonic events. It transforms the listener as sound transforms itself, constantly– in this case by the flow of (few or billion) particles, frequencies and clouds present in all scales of time; the revealing of a quantum sonic reality present in the contemplation of microsonic massiveness and infinity.

To train the ears in order to make them aware of those perceptions, represents a process of connecting our regular sonic realm with a thin and subtle territory of our consciousness, resulting in a special mind state based on deep listening methods and built as a way of “developing an intuitive awareness, a heightened sensitivity to the world around you” (Cascone). There, the listener becomes able to identify the subtlety of the cosmos, based on the joint of sounds that are not yet sounds, but a landscape of apparently silent sound particles.

The arrival to microsound realities is a face-to-face encounter with new organs of silence and listening; it awakens the mind in order to make it susceptible to the infinity that is found in any micro or macro aspect of reality. The grain is natural to the ear as the object, and in the same way the conception of the object represents fragmentation and diversity of the soundscape, the grain does it from the micro-time level, opening path to a “lowercase universe based in the idea of “sound concerned with the subtlety and the quiet activity of listening” (Roden).

In fact, in the smallest sounds is where the most impressive amount of possibilities can be found, millions of signals in almost silent –but sonic– spaces.

Shaping the inaudible

“Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought” – John Keats

Microsound denotes “a sort of reduced listening, but the means through which listening is divested of its external associations are more radical (through the use of extremely small grains of sound) than in traditional musique concrète” (Demers 82). And when designing sonic events, this complex faculties are evident in the most basic sounds and even when granular sound methods are present on many of today’s sound design/music works, not all who work with those tools area exactly exploring the micro scale in depth.
Microsonic exploration, in detail, implies the process of going deep into the analysis of the silence-particle interaction. In order to listen to sonic atoms, “big” amounts of inaudible materials are needed, imposing a walk over invisible but yet audible territories where only one grain is needed in order to silently reflect all the sound that is possible in the universe.

In microsound, the importance of silence is more evident than in any other sonic discipline, since the micro scale gets its place in a very special point, full of silent sounds and sonic silences, introducing the artist into the aesthetics of emptiness, inviting to learn methods for shaping auditory phenomena not only based in the sonority of sounds but also its inaudible qualities. In the Indian music tradition, for example, there’s a concept for the played note (ahata) and another for the unplayed note (anahata) and there are schools that actually give more importance to the latter (Berendt 119), as if sound composition could be understood from its absence, leading to think about the role of organizer of silence.

In fact, the conception of the grain, implies the conception of the object as space for microsonic universes, which suggests its existence in the realm of texture and conducts the ears into a kind of sonic alchemy in the meso scale. That’s commonly understood in terms of the audible elements but it is completely valid to think about it in terms of the inaudible, non-form, a way of pointing to a material silence that is always along the object and is actually the basis for the micro-montage practices: a creative use of sonic absence, like if it could be possible to deal with inaudible particles that are inhabiting the apparent vacuum of the sonic atom, something like silence composition applied in the sound composition process, at the same time.

Silence composition, silent composition

“Sound is absence, beguiling; out of sight; out of reach. What made the sound? Who is there? Sound is void, fear, 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. (…) Sound is a present absence; silence is an absent present. Or perhaps the reverse is better: sound is an absent presence; silent is a present absence?” – David Toop

One of the most beautiful inventions of technology is the possibility of “shaping” digital silence, not understood in the idea of it as an absolutely empty space with no sound, which is not possible (Cage 7), but in the conception of a completely inaudible sound, a zero signal, audible absence in space.

That’s from where microsound takes benefit, because once the sonic particles are discovered, composition goes further by not leaving the interests only in the sonority, but also in the silent microactivity. Silence there becomes a natural impulse in charge of selecting particles and making them to be always interconnected, forming a constantly evolving acousmatic territory that can be explored in concrete, imaginary, acoustic or digital domains but exists as a reality on its own, an independent and only sonic universe.

The interesting fact in there is that at some point, sounds become silent, so ephemeral that are never there; becoming just the same as the “silent objects”. Sounds live and die in the present moment, developing a bridge where there is no separation between what we think sound and silence are. In the listening experience, both shape and composition are being directed by the two sides. This leads to think about the acousmatic realm as a infinitely silent universe, an abysmal and inaudible cosmos that is never empty but the contrary: full of absent forms, silent shapes, akashic silhouettes that appear to perception as naturally as sound does, being elusive and intangible, like astral signals in the mutation of totality.

This sound-silence object would be something similar to the shape you see in the sky in contrast of a mountain. For perception, ¿is it the shape of the green mountain or is the form of the blue sky? ¿Is sound a silent form or is silence a sonic one? In microsound is the same and way more evident: silence, besides of building its role as a model of listening is also a material quality of sound itself, a baleful but beautiful feature that makes the shape to be found both in the audible and inaudible environments, no matter the direction. What matters at this point is not the objets sonores “but the spaces between them”, as sound artist Richard Chartier states.

Any grain, any fine point of frequency, becomes crucial because the starting point is a silence that is already making shapes without being one of them. The ability to use computer algorithms in order to register, store, visualize, reproduce, manipulate and explore sound represents a revolution in the methods sonic matter can be conceived, understood and controlled. Digital technology is, to the sound artist/designer/researcher, a wonderland, as Curtis Roads calls it, “a golden era for sound”. But the same reading can be done with silence, founding that, in some way, it can also be created, registered, stored, visualized, reproduced and composed, always preserving an unavoidable relationship to sound.

When sound is being recorded, silence is being registered as well and if silence is in the place, sound will be as well. For instance, it’s not possible to imagine the listener (sound) without listening (silence). Activity is and is not.

Infinitely inaudible grain

To think about a grain built from sonic matter only, would be like imagining an atom without the vacuum. We can find that this inaudible sound or sonic silence is what gives life to sound materials. It’s not “lacking of form”; it’s what forces matter to come and leave, to be and not be there. For example, in order to listen to a sound particle, an infinite chain of silence is need to be created by the rest of sound that could be there for the ears, but is not, so we could listen to a grain alone.

The possibility of creating sonic absence in a computer program is crucial to the sound craft itself because it constantly changes the way we relate with sound and how we develop the experience of listening, taking it into new frontiers where between technological processes of sound reproduction and transformation, new states of form and space are also being developed, in silence, feeding the imaginary capabilities of both ear and mind, and whispering about the transforming listening activity.

That makes microsound a very special discipline, constructed in a cyber-spiritual process that takes its roots on the ancient (listening, inner technology) but merges with the current (digital, outer technology). Inside the machine, silence and sound are just the same mysterious but “plastic” phenomena, as it should be for the mind. Silence is there a force in the sound object, present on it instead of outside of it, the latter being a false believing of silence as “anti-thing” and sound as “thing”, as David Toop says when relating the silence-sound dichotomy with the way writer Ōoka Makoto examines the japanese word “ma”, which denotes a notion of what “because of being shapeless, can be the source of all shapes”, a force that makes all things happen in nowhere in the same way “sound grows up in silence” (Toop 42, 2004)

Silence is present in any sound shape in the same way sound is found on any silent shape. They are one same relationship, never separated. Silence can be applied to any sound just as sonic matter can be applied to silence. In terms of auditory phenomena (not just acoustic) there’s not such thing as absolute absence of sound since we ourselves are sound, but we can think about “partial silence” developed from a sense of perceptual boundaries that in this case reflect absence as a material quality of sound, a force of “repulsion to the objects” (Roads 342, 2002).

Sonic shapes are both audible and inaudible, simultaneously, in the same way a coin has two sides, but it’s never two coins and not even a mere dialectic opposition. The inaudible feature of sound creates, defines, delimits, opens, directs and focuses the signal directly. These ghostly objects rely on a natural silent force present in everything that sounds in the universe –whether is heard or not– and involves conscious attention to the listening experience, aiming to create a link between the frontiers of existence, where a unified experience awaits as a point where both sound and silence are needed in order shape imaginary landscapes.

To compose with sound particles is to treat with silent particles as well, which are just the same as the sonic ones, but inaudible, being able to stay without staying. And that’s why silence as a creative element is not about composing nothing, but about giving use to sound’s inaudible features in order to say without saying and choose without choosing. Silence is inaudible form present in the audible form, manipulated as a cosmic substance able of building delicate spaces for detention, contemplation and aural awareness.

“Until I die there will be sounds. And they will continue following my death.” – John Cage (8)

Silence, in terms of something separated of sound is not possible just because there will be always vibration in life. In terms of materiality, silence is always “pregnant with sound” (Cage 137) and when it comes to what is audible, it can get valued as that present absence, just a different way of looking at auditory phenomena, maybe more realistic, since it values the ephemeral quality of sound at the point of recognizing the detail of its dissolution in time, making the auditory phenomenon a direct reflection of impermanence, a mirror to the transience of everything.

That fragility makes sound matter to be very special, but at the same time creates a singular encounter, “sinister” as Toop greatly defines it: as “a haunting, a ghost, a presence whose location in space is ambiguous and whose existence in time is transitory”. So at the end, both the audible particles in the grain and the inaudible infinity accompanying it, are both sonic territories, just different because of the limits of perception, but not really in the listening act.

Based on perceptions of that kind, we can identify silence as the force that makes sonic objects leave their footprintssilent objects that sing over memory mimicking what sonic objects appear to do. They are unrecognizable, sides of one same illusion. In fact, in apparently empty places is where actually more noise can be found, way more than what’s found in the territories that suppose to be full of something. A grain has the whole sonic cosmos inside, not just because of the endless energy frame that makes its sound, but the massiveness of the emptiness present on it.

Only in silence, can sound be infinite.

Written in 2014 by Miguel Isaza, in Medellin, Colombia.


BERENDT, Joachim-Ernst. 1985. The third ear. Henry Holt Books, New York.

CAGE, John. 1985. Silence.

CASCONE, Kim. The grain of the auditory field. Infinite Grain.

CASCONE, Kim. 2013. Subtle listening: how artists can develop new perceptual circuits. Infinite Grain.

CASCONE, Kim. 2014. Transcendigital Imagination: Developing Organs of Subtle Perception. Infinite Grain.

DEMERS, Joanna. 2010. Listening through the Noise: The Aesthetics of Experimental Electronic Music. Oxford University Press.

OSETINSKY, Paul. 2010. Stratosound. Dartmouth.

PHILLIPS, Thomas. 2006. Composed Silence: Microsound and the quiet shock of listening. Perspectives of New Music Vol. 44, No. 2, pp. 232-248.

ROADS, Curtis. Micro-sound: history and illusion. University of California.

ROADS, Curtis. 2002. Microsound. MIT Press.

RODEN, Steve. 2001. Forms of Paper. Line Imprint.

TOOP, David. 2004. Haunted Wheather. Music, silence and Memory. Serpents Tail, London.

TOOP, David. 2010. Sinister Resonance: The Mediumship of the Listener. “Prelude: Distant Music (on the contemplation of listening)”

VOEGELIN, Salome. 2010. Listening to Noise and Silence: Toward a philosophy of sound art. Bloomsbury.

WHITELAW, Mitchell. Sound particles and microsonic materialism. Contemporary Music Review 22(4) 93-100. (Nov 2003)

Miguel Isaza M

Listener, speaker.