Noise, Water, Meat: A History of Sound in the Arts

Noise, Water, Meat: A History of Sound in the Arts

by Douglas Kahn

ISBN: 9780262611725

Publisher The MIT Press

Published in Arts & Photography/Design & Decorative Arts

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Sample Chapter


To write badly is to plunge the graphic message into this noise which interferes with reading, which transforms the reader into an epigraphist.

Michel Serres

Sentient Sound

Noise can be understood in one sense to be that constant grating sound generated by the movement between the abstract and empirical. It need not be loud, for it can go unheard even in the most intense communication. Imperfections in script, verbal pauses, and poor phrasing are regularly passed over in the greater purpose of communication, yet they always threaten to break out into an impassable noise and cause real havoc. As a precautionary measure, such local impurities are subsumed under a communication presumed to be successful, even if many important details and larger associations are lost in the process. The process of abstraction itself, what is lost, is thereby involved in the elimination of noise. Noise in this way is the specific, the empirical, even while "at the extreme limits of empiricism, meaning is totally plunged into noise." The interesting problem arises when noise itself is being communicated, since it no longer remains inextricably locked into empiricism but is transformed into an abstraction of another noise. With respect to sound, noise is an abstraction of sound, and if the "process of abstraction ... is involved in the elimination of noise," then noise is itself a form of noise reduction; it is something done to sound that most often goes unheard. In the following, therefore, the noise brought to bear on noise is the specifics of sound.

    A silent figure of significant noise exists in handwriting. There exists a basic form of letters intended to be read without any problem whatsoever. It is a form similar to the one in front of you at this very moment, lodged long ago in the institution of printing. Between pure legibility and an entirely illegible scrawl there lies a great deal of variability. Significant noise cannot be disentangled front the specifics of such variability; it is a legibility of an apparent illegibility. What in some cases might be considered either undesirable or extraneous—that is, noise—might also be read as a person's style, the result of physiological (sickness) or environmental forces (writing on a bus), and the like. What one considers to be a scrawl depends on who is doing the considering, when, where, and in what capacity. Where a teacher would be intolerant of scrawl, a graphologist would be excited by its wealth of information, and this would not preclude the teacher who moonlights as a graphologist. Instead of inhibiting communication, where noise exists so too does a greater communication. For those with a large investment in noise, this situation poses difficulties because it means that noise is always subject to operations that render it nonexistent.

    Walter Benjamin, a well-known student and teacher of graphology, once wrote legibly enough, "Graphology has taught us to recognize in handwriting images that the unconscious of the writer conceals in it." He found in graphology a propensity for greater communication through presemiotic nonsensuous similarities and nonsensuous correspondences pertaining to what he called the mimetic faculty and the doctrine of the similar, contemporary manifestations of the ancient task "to read what was never written." As such it provides a basis from which to understand Benjamin's own idea of noise and not merely because it provides a general impetus for reading. It may be no accident that a short statement entitled "Noises" is strikingly similar to a statement in "One Way Street" which is key to the understanding of the mimetic faculty. Because they exist in different perceptual registers, before comparing the two I need to set the stage by proposing how sound might provide an appropriate figure to Benjamin's empathetic idea of mimetic functioning.

    The mimetic faculty entails the disintegration of the gulf separating observer and object, a separation usually held in check through representation. In "One Way Street" Benjamin writes, "we sentiently experience a window, a cloud, a tree not in our brains but, rather, in the place where we see it; there we are, in looking at our beloved, too, outside ourselves." Humans perceive the world while being within the world; they are implicated within it and are not somehow outside looking in or on. The object does not extend itself to the waiting individual: the individual finds it. And if meaning and feeling resides there, it is because the individual finds a piece of himself or herself. The person precedes the perception, making the process an empathetic one: the beloved is already loved, the distance has already been traveled. But what might be the sentient means of getting outside ourselves?

    To exist to any degree where we perceive seems perceptually awkward with respect to vision because it is not given to an experience of spatial projection. Although light traverses the space between an object and observer just as readily as sound does between an action and listener, the reflection of light is understood not as an action comparable to one that might create a sound but, because of a constancy of action, as the result of a state. As Naum Gabo and Anton Prevsner ask in 1920, "Look at a ray of sun.... the stillest of the still forces, it speeds more than 300 kilometers in a second.... behold our starry firmament.... who hears it?" Terrestrially, sound is not only experienced as occurring in between but as surrounding the listener, and the source of the sound is itself surrounded by its own sound. This mutual envelopment of aurality predisposes an exchange among presences. Baudelaire hears the wind in a tree as sighs already endowed with empathy through observation: "First you lend the tree your passions, your desires or your melancholy; its sighs and its oscillations become yours and soon you are the tree." Hashish can hasten the experience: "You are sitting and smoking; you believe that you are sitting in your pipe, and that your pipe is smoking you; you are exhaling yourself in bluish clouds."

    Moreover, sounds can be heard coming from outside and behind the range of peripheral vision, and a sound of adequate intensity can be felt on and within the body as a whole, thereby dislocating the frontal and conceptual associations of vision with an all-around corporeality and spatiality. Michel Leiris wonders why the foliage of the Square de Vert-Galant and thereby all of reality "remains separate and remote? ... This is understandable where sight is concerned, the most abstract of our senses, the one that constructs all things as things belonging to the outside, projected at our far edges, mounted like a stage set. Up to a point this is understandable where hearing is concerned too, even though what strikes our ears is thereby already penetrating us, insinuating itself smoothly or erupting violently deep inside us." Spatial projection here begins to move between the object, action, and observer in both directions, and here the eye is handicapped because there is no visual equivalent to the utterance of the voice. No matter how the idea of visuality might be activated—whether through the early Greek idea of eyes projecting light (Aristotle would ask of Empedocles and Plato of the Timaeus: Okay, then why can't we see in the dark?) or the evil eye of the objectifying gaze—there is little experiential sense of how the light of sight might be established beyond the corporeal confines of the individual. Our eyes create parallax across the bridge of the nose but are dependent on light from elsewhere to constitute space, whereas our mouths emit sound that can be heard internally and at a distance and can fill its own space. Moreover, the voice is a good way to project perception into the world because it shares sound with hearing. The sound of the voice returns if not in the voice itself then in the union of utterance and audition, and it creates the constitution and collapse of space required of a sentient getting outside ourselves. While the centrifugal trajectory of the voice can return to form the centripetal base for solipsism, the everyday experience of an action at a distance is most palpable in dialogue, where exchanges are formed by statements already framed in anticipation. Through the figure of dialogue, an intimated voice can constitute an acoustic spatiality in which sounds, and by extension their actions and affiliated objects, are imbued with the returning voice of the other. Once this process is mapped on vision, the sentient requirements of mimesis are fulfilled.

    Benjamin's comments from "One Way Street" on the sentient experience of objects as the collapse of distance occurring as one gets outside oneself takes on attributes of eros and desire but especially love. Like the mimetic faculty, love always finds a greater communication, an entranced beholding of the beloved in what would otherwise be perceived as noise, being here the seemingly extraneous imperfections of "Wrinkles in the face, moles, shabby clothes, and a lopsided walk bind him more lastingly and relentlessly than any beauty." He looked directly at the noise, not past it. Flaws and imperfections are part and parcel of this total desiring look:

If the theory is correct that feeling is not located in the head, that we sentiently experience a window, a cloud, a tree not in our brains but, rather, in the place where we see it, there we are, in looking at our beloved, too, outside ourselves. But in a torment of tension and ravishment. Our feeling, dazzled, flutters like a flock of birds in the woman's radiance. And as birds seek refuge in the leafy recesses of a tree, feelings escape into the shaded wrinkles, the awkward movements and inconspicuous blemishes of the body we love, where they can lie low in safety. And no passer-by would guess that it is just here, in what is defective and censurable, that the fleeting darts of adoration nestle.

    His feelings are vision-borne; feelings and sight in flight constitute the means through which he is transported. His gaze silently follows the trajectory of the voice, and she too is silent, without response, as she erotically receives his "fleeting darts of adoration" into her wrinkles. But where is the voice of the beloved? Would it rudely interrupt this docile parade of imperfection and adorable flaws? Would a returning gaze situate him at the point from where he saw? This would be the true test of love, since such agency would break the silence of the beloved, although no word or sound need occur, and she would no longer fall within the sentient experience of objects. It would be possible to test this with Benjamin's life of love and his well-known obsessions and determine what might be required to interrupt his experience, whether the strength of a returned love or just simple agency would introduce too much information into his graphological gaze. But the unfortunate fact remains that sentience predisposes but does not secure love for the empath. Thus, we have competing noises, as similarities in our second passage demonstrate:

Noises. High in the empty streets of the harbor district they are as densely and loosely clustered as butterflies on a hot flower bed. Every step stirs a song, a quarrel, a flapping of wet linen, a rattling of boards, a baby's bawling, a clatter of buckets. Only you have to have strayed up here alone, if you are to pursue them with a net as they flutter away unsteadily into the stillness. For in these deserted corners all sounds and things still have their own silences, just as, at midday in the mountains, there is the silence of hens, of the ax, of the cicadas. But the chase is dangerous, and the net is finally torn when, like a gigantic hornet, a grindstone impales it from behind with its whizzing sting.

    His steps, a voice from the feet uttered on the lower jaw of the ground, trigger the sounds that, like feelings and birds and butterflies, become airborne and ephemeral. Likewise, they then come to rest in silence, in wrinkles, or in deserted corners. The silence in no way means that the hens, ax, or cicadas have left but works instead to affirm their presence, just as she, the beloved, is silent. Sounds dissipate through animal behavior, not among an animism of objects. Nevertheless, through sound the mimetic takes on another register, the register of the other. Instead of accepting his darts a noise impales his net, the operative space of his listening from behind the peripheral plane of vision, of his presence more fully outside himself. Compared to the spatiality of his net, his hearing, a feeling located in the head betrays the visual influence of the text and is only partially remedied as the screen's surface brings on ideas of visual projection. Thus, the actual noise here appears to be what does not appear, what escapes the frontal field of visual control. Benjamin's noise speaks of the implicit dangers of becoming implicated within the world, there is a give-and-take of power, even as it might occur as the absent voice of the beloved suddenly making itself known in another sound.

    In contrast, Nietzsche in section 60, book 2, of The Gay Science has differentiated his noises by gender, and this has enabled him to know where he stands among them: "Do I still have ears? Am I all ears and nothing else? Here I stand in the flaming surf whose white tongues are licking at my feet; from all sides I hear howling, threats, screaming, roaring coming at me, while the old earth-shaker sings his aria in the lowest depths, deep as a bellowing bull, while pounding such an earth-shaking beat that the hearts of even these weather-beaten rocky monsters are trembling in their bodies." He then sees a sailboat silently gliding just offshore and imagines himself in another place amid the clamor, another attitude within life where he could "move over existence." The silence of this sailboat turns out to be "quiet magical beings gliding past"—that is, women. Their proximity to "the Rauschen of the waves" in Rüdiger Campe's words, acts to rhetorically inaugurate Nietzsche's testy discourse on what he knows best for women for the next fifteen sections of book 2. Nietzsche's women are in fact inverted sirens: he stands on shore while they are on the boat, and it is the call of his own bellowing bull noise that drives him into fantasy while they no longer sing but are silent. He is briefly seduced into thinking that a man's better self might dwell among women, but he quickly grabs hold of his senses, or at least his sense of hearing, to acknowledge that noise is inevitable and that a distinction among noises must be made. This enables him—Nietzsche-man—to avoid drowning in his misdirected dream about life: "Noble enthusiast, even on the most beautiful sailboat there is a lot of noise, and unfortunately much small and petty noise." Among the small and petty noises of these silent sirens are yet another class of female sounds derived from antiquity—rumors—that corrosive speech silent to men because it is kept from them, offshore, as it were. He thus answers one of his initial questions; he is not "all ears and nothing else" since the only one to have been covered to completely with ears (and eyes and tongues) was the female grotesque known as Fame or Rumor, and he keeps his distance from the sailboat, from woman, from the source of petty noises. Indeed, Nietzsche finishes section 60 with this warning: "The magic and the most powerful effect of women is, in philosophical language, action at a distance, actio in distans; but this requires first of all and above all—distance." Nietzsche destroyed the sound that would destroy the distance when the sirens' song was rendered silent and maintained the distance with the gendered gulf established between the two noises. Therefore, in these two statements, Nietzsche presumes all women and professes distance, while Benjamin invokes a beloved and invites dissolution.

Interpolation of Noise

The sense of an immersion in noise is guaranteed by the ease through which so much can be perceived within it. There was a proliferation of acts and techniques within the avant-garde for interpolating noise, most of them related to seeing images within visual noise, as innocently as children see animals and faces within the clouds, just a little more intoxicated. Nowhere was this more pronounced than in Surrealism, where such interpolation became elevated through its psychological, psychic, and psychotic associations. While much of the avant-garde was concerned with processes of abstraction, it was exactly the opposite for Surrealism. The interpolation of noise was a means by which meaning was generated from abstraction and thus corresponded directly to Surrealism's larger project of bringing realms of reality hitherto guarded or unknown into mimetic practice.

    Salvador Dalí's paranoiac-critical method, developed in practice from the late 1920s and named as such in his 1933 essay L'Ane pourri, sought to reproduce the "delirium of interpretation" characteristic of paranoiacs who would see something else in something and then something else in that: "A representation of an object is also, without the slightest physical or anatomical change, the representation of another entirely different object." Visual noise overlaps with his method and comes into play in his paintings as a means to generate imagery—for example, how the rocks of his seaside home at Cadaqués provided the contours for the painting The Great Masturbator (1929). Visual noise can be interpolated similarly. The easiest way to think about it is through that well-known optical illusion that switches back and forth between a duck and a rabbit. Dalí established the visual punning in so many of his paintings on the basis of such oscillation—as in The Metamorphosis of Narcissus (1937), where the image of Narcissus resting his head on his knee at the edge of a pond becomes a stone hand holding an egg hatching a flower. Instead of presuming a range if not an infinity of possibilities culled from a field of noise, Dalí's paranoiac-critical method limited its attention to one proper oscillation, lodging the unconscious in the atemporality of painting, a frozen moment within an ongoing state of noise and process of interpolation. Both Dalí's seeing and his painting were conditioned by being an immersion in a discrete field of vision, whereas immersion might be better produced through the spatiality associated with aurality.

    The images Dalí found in the seaside rocks of Cadaqués, Antonin Artaud found among the rocks and mountains in the land of the indigenous Tarahumara on his 1936 trip to Mexico:

When Nature, by a strange whim, suddenly shows the body of a man being tortured on a rock, one can think at first that this is merely a whim and that this whim signifies nothing. But when in the course of many days on horseback the same intelligent charm is repeated, and when Nature obstinately manifests the same idea; when the same pathetic forms recur; when the heads of familiar gods appear on the rocks, and when a theme of death emanates from them, a death whose expense is obstinately borne by man; when the dismembered form of man is answered by the forms, become less obscure, more separate from a petrifying matter, of the gods who have always tortured him; when a whole area of the earth develops a philosophy parallel to that of its inhabitants; when one knows that the first men utilized a language of signs, and when one finds this language formidably expanded on the rocks—then surely one cannot continue to think that this is a whim, and that this whim signifies nothing.

Within this land where "Nature has chosen to speak" he saw "a naked man leaning out of a large window. His head was nothing but a huge hole, a kind of circular cavity in which the sun and moon appeared by turns, according to the time of day," and "heard" a Kabalistic "music of Numbers ... which reduces the chaos of the material world to its principles, explains by a kind of awesome mathematics how Nature is ordered and how she directs the birth of the forms that she pulls out of chaos. And everything I saw seemed to correspond to a number.... The broken-off busts of women numbered 8; the phallic tooth ... had three stones and four holes; the forms that became volatile numbered 12, etc." He had walked into hills where the frothing noise of the rocks had been frozen into Herder's Book of Nature. Artaud read this book and wrote into another one, whereas Dalí could observe figures in the visual noise and then reproduce them in painting, replete with noise.

    Max Ernst also drew images out of visual noise, unlike Dalí and Artaud, who culled from a preexisting field of noise, his technique of frottage generated the noise in the first place. His discovery of this technique was nevertheless dependent on a preexisting noise. As the legend goes, while at an inn on a rainy day by the seaside, he looked down on the floor and was reminded of his childhood and how a piece of imitation mahogany produced, as he prepared to fall asleep, a repertoire of images. He took a rubbing of the floorboards and found within the scratches, pits, and grain all manner of images. These images recommended themselves because they were wrenched from an "irritated" mind far from the complacent crowd of "Renoir's three apples, Manet's four sticks of asparagus, Derain's little chocolate women, and the Cubists' tobacco-packet." Just as Artaud was required to travel across the Atlantic to read nature in the noise, Ernst used noise to remove himself from genteel Europe. Nevertheless, amid his self-generated nature the image of Ernst's Loplop was often divulged phoenix-like from the noise, a creature with an uncanny resemblance to Ernst's own bird-like countenance. As with so many techniques of interpolation, nature refracts.

    Surrealism did little to shift from a visual to an auditory mode for perceiving the world, despite its roots in the chattering unconscious of automatism. There was, after all, a certain prohibition against the auditive supported through the Surrealist antipathy toward music. André Breton wrote that "Auditive images ... are inferior to visual images not only in clearness but also in strictness, and with all due respect to a few melomaniacs, they hardly seem intended to strengthen in any way the idea of human greatness." He, of course, was speaking of Western art music, if not all "musical expression, the most deeply confusing of all!" As he continued, "So may night continue to fall upon the orchestra, and may I, who am still searching for something in this world, may I be left with open or closed eyes, in broad daylight, to my silent contemplation." Breton would have found his antipathy toward Western art music confirmed by the scene in Buñuel and Dalí's film Un Chien andalou where the protagonist's frustrated desire is represented in his attempt to return to the woman, pulling a contraption consisting of ropes over each shoulder towing two bound priests and grand pianos with dead donkeys draped across the strings, their heads spilling out over the keyboard. Dalí, who placed music at the low point in the hierarchy of the arts, cut back the lips of the donkeys to stress the visual pun between their teeth and the keys of the piano.

    Breton did celebrate films that were innovative in their use of sound, such as Luis Buñuel's L'Age d'or, in which mad love is accompanied by the sound of cowbells. Back home after having been separated by the crowd from her lover Don X, the daughter of the bourgeois walks into her room to find a large bovine on her bed. Sternly instructing it to leave, the cow bell lingers long after the creature has toppled off the bed and sauntered out of the room. As the woman reflects in front of the vanity mirror on Don X being led down the street by two officials, the dog barking at him mixes with the sound of the bell. then both sounds join gently effusive music combined with the sound of the wind as the woman, her hair blowing back, looks into the mirror filled with sky.

    Breton seems to have associated the auditive too closely with the musical and thereby restricted the possibilities for techniques for interpolating auditive noise. Such techniques were, nevertheless, just one small step away from Surrealism, give or take a few centuries. Ernst found precedent for his noise-generating techniques in Leonardo da Vinci's Treatise on Painting, in which he proposed throwing a sponge soaked in different colors up against a wall and finding landscapes in the blotch of paint. Where Ernst remained within a visual register, Leonardo himself related this technique to how one could hear a multitude of voices in chiming bells. Under the sectional title What to augment and stimulate the mind toward various discoveries, Leonardo wrote:

I shall not fail to include among these precepts a new discovery, an aid to reflection, which, although it seems a small thing and almost laughable, nevertheless is very useful in stimulating the mind to various discoveries. This is: look at walls splashed with a number of stains or stones of various mixed colors. If you have to invent some scene, you can see there resemblances to a number of landscapes, adorned in various ways with mountains, rivers, rocks, trees, great plains, valleys and hills. Moreover, you can see various battles, and rapid actions of figures, strange expressions on faces, costumes, and an infinite number of things, which you can reduce to good, integrated form. This happens thus on walls and varicolored stones, as in the sound of bells, in whose pealing you can find every name and word you can imagine.

The exceedingly complex and ever-changing acoustical patterns within the sound of bells set up a field of auditory noise out of which Leonardo heard voices. Although he mentions voices in the most dispassionate, technical manner, a passionate person like Joan of Arc could hear angelic voices. The fact that angels filled bells is in itself significant, for in these emblems of the church one person might hear hosannas while another might hear the rustling straps before a flogging. The call to community can be for the purposes of a stoning, just as rough music could celebrate a wedding or punish a sexual transgression.

    By 1944 Breton began to revise his position. When asked by Virgil Thomson to assess his position on music for publication in Modern Music, he took the opportunity to reassess it. In his essay "Silence Is Golden" he proposes an auditive practice that, in its fusion of music and poetry, would "unify, re-unify hearing to the same extent that we must determine to unify, re-unify sight." This does not mean a "closer collaboration between musician and poet" because that would be only more examples of poems set to music, and they are almost as pathetic as the "silly nonsense of opera librettos." Instead, he celebrated the way surrealist writers have already discovered the tonal value of words, not in their external auditive characteristics but at the point of their psychological generation where "the `inner word' is absolutely inseparable from `inner music'" and where "inner thinking is free to tune itself to the `inner music' which never leaves it." Thus, he writes, "Great poets have been auditives, not visionaries." However, musical practice is still awaiting its commensurate fusion with the poetics of "inner words" and Breton, lacking the vocabulary to speak with musicians, is unable to point them in the direction of "the virgin soil of sound."

Protean Noise

Interpolating significance from a field of noise can be a private affair, perhaps communicable only through debased means if at all, its techniques breaking down along lines of perception and media. Cadaqués is immediately perceptible in Dalí's The Great Masturbator, but we must take Artaud's word for his vision in Mexico. Hearing voices or sounds within auditory noise becomes another matter altogether. Breton might compare Apollinaire's laugh to "the same noise as a first burst of hailstones on a window pane" but hundreds of bursts of hailstones on hundreds of window panes would never pry it from metaphor. Nevertheless, when it comes to hearing voices in water, the experience is so common that the manner in which the call and response takes place within the white noise is significant in itself. Away from the sustained noises of waves, the human voice dominates the social enclaves of the arts; once the voice engages the sea, it declares its designs on the nature of utterance and audition. The full conceit of the human utterance was demonstrated in F. T. Marinetti's early poetry, where the loudness of the sea was a test of Demosthenean oratorical power and the sea's sustained sound stretching over the horizon an expanse given over to one's dominance and immortality. But when it comes to listening, so many things are heard in the noise of the sea and waters that it is no coincidence that Proteus, the quick-change artist, is also the old man of the sea. While in the New Testament the voices of the multitudes are to be heard in the turbulent waters, Vicente Huidobro listened to sea sounds in Altazor and heard the voice commanding all multitudes speaking, casually:

Then I heard the Creator speak, nameless, just a simple hole in space, as beautiful as a navel:

    "I made a great noise and this noise made the ocean and the ocean's waves.

    "This noise will be tied to the sea's waves forever and the sea's waves will forever be tied to it, like stamps to a postcard."

A little later the Creator "drank a little cognac (for the hydrography)." It was this creator who sat down with Jack Kerouac, ample sweet wine in hand, for a conversation in wavespeak in his autobiographical novel Big Sur (1962). Kerouac, former merchant marine and close reader of Melville, was already an alcohol-sodden victim of fame when Lawrence Ferlinghetti, fellow Beat and editor of City Lights Books, invited him to stay in his cabin in Big Sur, just south of San Francisco, to dry up and find his bearings in the midst of nature. But Kerouac would become as uncomfortable with isolation as he was with fame, finding voices of the multitude where there were none. The more benign voices arose from the most powerful source, the ocean waves crashing on the rocks and shore, just a short walk down from the cabin:

I'd go to ... my corner by the cliff not far from one of the caves and sit there like an idiot in the dark writing down the sound of the waves in the notebook page (secretarial notebook).... —One night I got scared anyway so sat on top of 10-foot cliff at the foot of the big cliff and the waves are going "Rare, he rammed the gate rare"—"Raw roo roar"—"Crowsh"—the way waves sound especially at night—The sea not speaking in sentences so much as in short lines: "Which one? ... the one ploshed? ... the same ah Boom" ... Writing down these fantastic inanities actually but yet I felt I had to do it because James Joyce wasn't about to do it now he was dead.

    His onomatopoetic record of this interpolative immersion melding his "noisy brains" with the voices of the waves was formed into the poem "`Sea': Sounds of the Pacific Ocean at Bug Sur" of which the following is an excerpt:

Reach, reach, some leaves havent hastened near enuf—Roll, roll, purl the sand shark floor a greeny pali andarva —Ah back—Ah forth— As shish—Boom, away, doom, a day—Vein we firm—The sea is We— Parle, parle, boom the earth—Aree—Shaw, Sho, Shoosh, flut, ravad, tapavada pow, coof, look, roof,— No, no, no, no, no, no— Oh ya, ya, ya, yo, yair— Shhh-

The other source of water was from a creek that ran by the cabin. At first Kerouac would sit and listen contemplatively, much like Gochiku, whom he had no doubt come across in Allan Watts's The Way of Zen:

The long night; The sound of the water Says what I think.

But the little sounds and voices of the creek would eventually taunt him as he moved closer to a nervous breakdown:

The creek gurgles and thumps outside—A creek having so many voices it's amazing, from the kettledrum basin deep bumpbumps to the little gurgly feminine crickles over shallow rocks, sudden choruses of other singers and voices from the log dam, dibble dabble all night long and all day long the voices of the creek amusing me so much at first but in the later horror of that madness night becoming the babble and rave of evil angels in my head.

    He had intended to dry up amid the natural environs of Big Sur, but a steady diet of sweet wine and little food—one friend reprimanded him for being the only Frenchman without a taste for dry wine—would prevent him from transforming into one of Alfred Jarry's dreaded "dipsomaniacs of aquatism" and fuel his paranoid hallucinations. Just as weeks before, during an alcohol stupor in a San Francisco fleabag hotel, he was unable to distinguish between the moaning of the other drunks on the floor and his own, the sounds of the creek became a menacing stream of consciousness, as though the sounds met and melted in his liver in an embodiment of Platonic acoustics: "And now a babble in the creek has somehow entered my head and with all the rhythm of the sea waves going `Kettle blomp you're up, you rop and dop, ligger lagger ligger' I grab my head but it keeps babbling." Because "everything is over—everything is swarming all over me" the babble becomes an enlightened harbinger of death, an auditory Doppelgänger, begging Kerouac to cut it out of his forehead with the same lobotomy that had been performed on Allen Ginsberg's mother (Ginsberg silenced his own voices through chanting). Unlike the loud, dazzling sound of crashing waves, the creek babble was too soft to drown out his noisy brains ("my mind is just a series of explosions that get louder and louder and more `multiply' broken in pieces some of them big orchestral and then rainbow explosions of sound and sight mixed") and too pathetic to be recuperated into poetry ("Ah the keselamaroyot you rot"). He was immersed in water voices on his own level, and as he degenerated, so did they. Like Nietzsche knee deep in the Rauscben of the waves, Kerouac could answer the threats of the old earth shaker but was overrun by gentleness and silence.

    Kerouac is best known for having listened to jive and jazz and incorporating them into his writing style. He is less known for listening to the deep bass and hiss of pounding seas, the slurred sibilants of the waves, the vicious babble of other waters. Nevertheless, the "voice" associated with his style may have been close to immersion in the sound of waters all along. Allen Ginsberg said that Kerouac's most important attribute was "a reason founded on sounds rather than a reason founded on conceptual associations," an auditory "modality of consciousness" that occurred at the point of transformation when "he was suddenly aware of the sound of language, and got swimming in the seas of sound, got lost swimming in the seas of sound, and guided his intellect on sound rather than on dictionary associations with the meanings of the sounds." Indeed, in his own "Essentials of Spontaneous Prose" Kerouac modeled his consciousness on the sea: "Not `selectivity' of expression but following free deviation (association) of mind into limitless blow-on-subject seas of thought, swimming in sea of English."

Oscillator Noise

Kerouac's consciousness may have developed through swimming in a sea of English. His technique of interpolation nevertheless took place in a sea of sea sounds. Yet what happens when such privatized audition occurs within a sea of language as incomprehensible as the noise of the sea? People with hearing difficulties live with processes of significant noise on a daily basis. Where the graphologist might find greater communication in noise, for individuals who are hard of hearing it is often difficult to determine the first line of meaning. Partial deafness and noise breed and feed on homophony, a device that almost always operates unconsciously as a salvaging maneuver but that can also be used more deliberately as a source of enjoyment. While resourcefully weaving phonemes and vocables through anticipation and recursion, generating options and making choices of what may be appropriate or at least plausible in the context, the range of communications can be an arena for play and for entertaining difference toward whatever ends. 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.

    The most sustained exercise within English of interpolating significant linguistic noise is to be found in Louis Zukovsky's homophonic translations, or transliterations, of the Book of Job in his poem A-15 (1964) and, with his wife Celia Zukovsky, Catullus (1958-1969). Working with the original Hebrew and Latin he misconstrued the sound of the language with the dual purpose of supplying a certain synopsis in English of the original (translation of sorts) and simultaneously fulfilling his own poetic agenda. In the preface to Catullus the Zukovskys wrote: "This translation of Catullus follows the sound, rhythm, and syntax of his Latin—tries, as is said, to breathe the `literal' meaning with him." And among these, according to Robert Creeley, "his first and abiding purchase on the text is its sound—much as if one were trying to enter the physical place of language, making sounds like `they' do, trying to inhabit the gestures, pace, and density of those (`objective') words." Zukovsky himself, in reference to Catullus, once characterized the process more roughly, and not coincidentally in the dual figure of deafness and a tourist hailing from an officially monoglottal country, when he told a college audience, "I'm trying to read the old passionate guy's lips like an ignorant American."

    Sometimes a familiar language can degenerate into linguistic noise, and the experience may not be a comfortable or productive one. It may instead reject the listener, driving the person back into a private realm, perhaps retreating into a more serious threat. Under the influence of hashish in a bar filled with a din of voices, Walter Benjamin heard perfectly good French slip over into a new dialect. He related this to a statement by Karl Kraus that pertained to the visual process of reading: "The more closely you look at a word the more distantly it looks back." This is an obstinate orthography repulsing every graphological attempt to find meaning. The increased unintelligibility encountered by Benjamin may not have been an alienation resulting from a hashish-clouded comprehension but could have resulted from the drug's enticement to listen, an attunement to the noises of café banter. Foreignness could have been created as the language spoken by an individual was atomized by a spatialized din of combined voices, spreading quickly as a dialect back through the room. Whatever the case may be, the transformation of speech into linguistic noise under the influence of hashish was mild when compared to the threat facing René Daumal under the influence of carbon tetrachloride. What could be more frightening than to finally realize that the noisy speech he heard was emanating from his own voice, that the voice that was meant to give him the comfort of presence was either unwanted magic or hopeless babbling? Only the proper cadence of an incantation sounding his being in a battle of attunement and alienation could ward off the truly remote from breaking through past the infinitely close:

And all space was endlessly divided thus into circles and triangles inscribed one within another, combining and moving in harmony, and changing into one another in a geometrically inconceivable manner that could not be reproduced in ordinary reality. A sound accompanied this luminous movement, and I suddenly realized it was I who was making it. In fact I virtually was that sound; I sustained my existence by emitting it. The sound consisted of a chant or formula, which I had to repeat faster and faster in order to "follow the movement" The formula (I give the facts with no attempt to disguise their absurdity) ran something like this: "Tem gwef rem gwef dr rr rr," with an accent on the second "gwef" and with the last syllable blending back into the first; it gave an unceasing pulse to the rhythm, which was, as I have said, that of my very being. I knew that as soon as it began going too fast for me to follow, the unnamable and frightful thing would occur. In fact it was always infinitely close to happening, and infinitely remote ... that is all I can say.

    The experience resembles certain types of aphasia, the hell of language where one's own meaningless speech is propelled along an irrepressible urge to communicate. If a meaning might manifest itself fleetingly here or there, it is only in the form of one or two frustrating words that are one's coded appeal to what might make sense out of life; this equals an attempt at a pathetic magic. Everyone else follows the rules of communication—syntactical progressions and inflectional trajectories—but their speech too is totally incomprehensible, even though they are your closest friends. They suddenly speak another language. Your home has become a foreign country, however hospitable. For Daumal, what was close was the assurance of the voice per se, asserting itself through his being as it corporeally produced the repetitive and pulsing meaninglessness, holding unknown consequences in check. What was remote and frightening was to be driven by communication and totally incapable of it and not to know whether each attempt was taking you further away or closer to an unfettered psychosis on the other side of noise.

    When one's own speech is not implicated, the noise returns to more peaceable settings. Walter Benjamin recommends that writers at certain phases within the production of a work seek out complex sounds: "In your working conditions avoid everyday mediocrity. Semirelaxation, to a background of insipid sounds, is degrading. On the other hand, accompaniment by an étude or a cacophony of voices can become as significant for work as the perceptible silence of the night. If the latter sharpens the inner ear, the former acts as touchstone for a diction ample enough to bury even the most wayward thought." Jean Cocteau, on the other hand, pleads with an American audience not to read his letter to them "while your radio is broadcasting a programme of music with the title `Music to Read By.'" The speech of the raucousness of cafés and other such haunts produces in itself a figure of the social where poets and writers in midst of the craft need not feel so alone. The dish and din can provide a peaceful home for the overriding conflict within the very act of writing—the gregarious motive of communication versus the solitude of its execution—by providing a chatty noise within which a collectively discursive interlocutor can be divined, a nascent public imagined. Café noise also models the supple field of exchange between inner speech-sounds and those of the world and, thus, situates the writer. Similarly it is commonplace for even the most dedicated musical aesthete to listen at times more concertedly to the psyche than to the concert as he or she prefigures a particular passage with an expectation about how it should or has sounded in the past, associates a passage with another work or with matters of the world adjusts breathing to take in an emotive rendering or suppresses a cough—all those apperceptual processes that constitute listening. Baudelaire's experience on hashish was but an amplification of an infinite number of conditions and settings where the same takes place: "I will not try to tell you that I listened to the players; you know that's quite impossible; now and then, my stream of thought would seize on some sentence fragment, and, like an able dancer, would use it as a trampoline, to spring to distant dreams."

    Oscillating between stage and seat, constantly interrupting or melding in a mix that is, ironically, the means through which an idea of unity is negotiated. Again, Baudelaire confirms this as he continues his description: "You might suppose that a play heard in this way would lack logic and connection; allow me to enlighten you; I found a very subtle meaning in the drama spun by my distracted state of mind. Nothing fazed me." There is a constant state of interruption, shattering the continuity of the music because the "stage" is always oscillating from one location to the other, at times entirely masking one or ephemerally fusing the two. Moreover, this mix is the very process through which some idea of a unity is brought to bear on the actual profusion and disparity of phenomena. In other words, it is through interruption that the semblance of a continuous integrity is established; it is only through noise that the famed ephemerality of music is secured as ephemeral. In the café where the sound is not the object of thought, the mix is exteriorized and thus brings unity to an inaudible intellectual life by providing an atmospheric dispensary for tangents as a stand-in for sociality.

    Elsewhere, Benjamin mentions this occurring outside the café: "When Dickens went traveling, he repeatedly complained about the lack of street noises and activities which were indispensable to him for his production. `I cannot express how much I want these [the streets],' he wrote in 1846 from Lausanne while he was working on Dombey and Son. `It seems as if they supplied something to my brain, which it cannot bear, when busy, to lose.'" Benjamin then cites George Simmel in noting a silence and a silencing of the social operating through the modern city's predilection for visuality:

Someone who sees without hearing is much more uneasy than someone who hears without seeing. In this there is something characteristic of the sociology of the big city. Interpersonal relationships in big cities are distinguished by a marked preponderance of the activity of the eye over the activity of the ear. The main reason for this is the public means of transportation. Before the development of buses, railroads, and trams in the nineteenth century, people had never been in a position of having to look at one another for long minutes or even hours without speaking to one another.

Ostensibly, the reduced social products of a preponderance of sight would give way to the gregarious texts written alone among the sounds of bohemian hubbub. Fields of significant sound constituted by café speech may indeed suffice, as may the less homogenous sounds of big city streets, because they invoke the phenomenal depths articulated by language, as opposed to the surfaces of visual imagery, signage included. But they only go so far. They only offer better aid than none since, as Leonardo says, "those stains give you inventions, they will not teach you to finish any detail."


Excerpted from "Noise, Water, Meat: A History of Sound in the Arts" by Douglas Kahn. Copyright © 2001 by Douglas Kahn. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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