There is considerable debate about where sounds are located. When we hear a sound, do we directly or indirectly locate the source? Addressing this question in their introduction to “Sounds and Perception,” Casey O’Callaghan and Matthew Nudds (O’Callaghan and Nudds 2009) have stressed one’s awareness of sounds. If that “one” would be a nomadic listener, the awareness of an unfamiliar or semi-familiar sound would be debatable, making the sound difficult to locate at a source except as it relates to the listener’s own lived auditory experiences, which include memory, triggered thoughts, and further contemplation. O’Callaghan and Nudds (O’Callaghan and Nudds 2009) elaborate in their essay on the question of whether, in addition to the sounds, we hear sources separately, suggesting two different approaches in understanding the issue of the location of sound: a source-based account of sound and a wave-based account of sound. The latter offers an explanation that locates sound in the medium itself and suggests that sound travels to occupy different locations over time (O’Callaghan and Nudds 2009). On the other hand, the former approach insists that sounds travel only if their sources do. This on-going debate seems to stem from the experiential constraints of sound, making the plausibility of locating sounds in their physical sources tend toward verification, which otherwise would potentially lead to “wholesale illusion.” In “Sounds and Perception,” O’Callaghan and Nudds (O’Callaghan and Nudds 2009) express this doubt:
Our access to sounds is through auditory experience, and our conceptions of sounds are grounded in experience. An account of sounds should be an account of things it is plausible to identify with sounds as we experience them to be. How our experiences of sounds present them to be thus constrains what account it is plausible to give of the nature of sounds. […] An account of sounds should entail that auditory experiences of sounds are for the most part veridical; all else equal, it should not imply that experiences of sounds involve wholesale illusions. (…) Avoid attributing unnecessary illusions. (O'Callaghan and Nudds 2009, 7)
Even if not wholesale and unnecessary illusion, it nevertheless seems that a sonic phenomenon develops a problematic relationship to its locative source once it is perceived and deciphered at the listener’s end. Traditional discourses on sound and environment have already acknowledged this epistemological problem. In The Soundscape, R. Murray Schafer (Murray Schafer 1977) has referred to the trajectory of sound as a journey from its locative source to its point of reception via reproduction through the multi-level processes of recording, storage, and transmission. However, it is the sound’s ephemeral character that ensures this journey from production to reception while being “dislocated” from the object or the source. Sound elements are recognized at different stages of reception when the object frees itself from its source. Thus, sound, by its very nature, implies subjective interpretation in order to establish the reception and recognition of sonic identity in deciphering information and knowledge about its locative source. In Sound Theory/Sound Practice, Rick Altman (Altman 1992) has claimed:
By offering itself up to be heard, every sound event loses its autonomy, surrendering the power and meaning of its own structure to the various contexts in which it might be heard, to the varying narratives that it might construct. (…) Sound is not actualised until it reaches the ear of the hearer, which translates molecular movement into the sensation of sound. (Altman 1992, 19)
What I listen to and what you listen to might be different from each other in their perceptual levels. Every such perception of a sonic phenomenon is registered in the mind of the listener with a certain identification and realization of a source. When I hear a new sound that I have never heard before, my mind records the texture, tone, and quality and relates it to an imagined source or recognized object from which the sound may emanate. Film theorist Edward Branigan has elsewhere (Branigan 1989) argued that:
We think of sound as coming from a source, from an object: a radio, a door, a boot. Color is (seemingly) possessed, but sound is made. Thus we tend to hear sound as transitory and contingent - an on/off phenomenon. (Branigan 1989, 311)
We find resonance with this line of thinking in Hamilton’s arguments that we hear only where the travelling sounds have come from rather than where they are. Therefore, we hear, veridically, only a subset of the locations of sounds (O’Callaghan and Nudds, 2009).
Here, if I take the liberty of converging the plural “we” into a singular “I”– a practice I engage in deliberately to ensure the first-person, subjective experience of sound (in keeping with a phenomenological approach to sound and listening) – I can talk about myself, that I tend to think and imagine a source of a sound event that easily goes beyond its locative source identity. If it is a problem, then my problem is: I do not always locate a sound within a definitive identity of its own drawn from its locative source. What I hear, concentrate on listening to, and try to make sense of in relation to its place of origin is juxtaposed with numerous other places and locations from which the sound event may emanate or what might cause the sonic phenomenon. For example, when I hear the distant sound of what may be a horn, it reminds me of numerous other horn-like sounds from different cities that I have heard, but I may not necessarily relate the sound to a car passing by the locale in which I currently find myself. Another example would be a certain recurring motif in sonic texture that repeats itself irrespective of any physical place with a specific cultural root, such as the sounds from construction sites, which are quite similar in all parts of the world. I decipher a certain mood of restlessness and perpetual motion when encountering and listening to sounds coming from these sites on my travels. The mood has nothing to do with locating and identifying a specific construction site concerned.
In the first case: even if I recognize the sounds of a horn coming from, let’s say, a passing truck, I cannot readily connect the sound to the truck, thus refusing to accept a structured understanding and epistemic knowledge of that sound event emanating from a passing truck, but I do relate the sound to a memory from my childhood of numerous other trucks that passed by our house on a distant road in the countryside. The recollection generates a mood of nostalgia and melancholia rather than specific knowledge about the source of the sound. In the second case: in accordance with my memory and imagination of the sound content of numerous construction sites I have come across as a traveller in various cities, hearing such sounds allows me to relate to the mood of mobility rather than the actual meaning and source identities of the sounds. In both cases, my understanding of the sound event goes beyond its source identity to generate thought processes that engage my imagination and the memories embedded in my mind from previous subjective experiences with similar sonic phenomena. As an increasingly migratory being, my interactions with various places have resulted in a wide variety of sound memories that disorient my future interactions with sonic phenomena and disrupt my attempts to decipher their meaning, recognize their source identities, or extract specific knowledge about them. These sonic interactions have occurred in fleeting and transitory ways, considering that the sonic events originated from physical places and locations and have been evolving spatially and temporally towards becoming illusory and disorienting auditory situations.
Why do I consider such situations illusory and disorienting? How do I differentiate between a physical location and a perceived auditory situation? John Perry and Jon Barwise in their ground-breaking work, Situations and Attitudes (Barwise and Perry 1999), have proposed that, from both an epistemological and a metaphysical point of view, reality consists primarily of situations, while physical locations arise as uniformities across such situations (Barwise and Perry 1999). In her article Situation Semantics (Stojanovic 2011), Isidora Stojanovic comments on their radical views of mind and action:
The idea is that agents get attuned to various kinds of uniformities, which allow them to classify the reality in ways that enhance their capacities for action and help them 'cope with the new situations that continually arise' (p. 10); constraints are then seen as uniformities that arise among the ways in which situations relate to one another, while attunement to such constraints enables cognitive agents to 'pick up information about one situation from another'. (Stojanovic 2011, 3/20)
In view of situation theory, an agent will look for uniformities across constantly arising situations in order to locate the situations as physical places. However, in the case of a nomadic listener, such uniformities would be increasingly sparse due to their ubiquitous mobility. By becoming nomadic (Braidotti 2012), these situations appear to a drifting listener, such as me, as liquid and amorphous, like a “nowhere”: hybrid spaces juxtaposed to newly heard sounds with embedded sonic memories trigger the aural imagination. I lose contact with physical places and locations, and my knowledge about these sound events becomes disfigured, contributing to the problematic relationship between sound and its locative source once it is perceived and deciphered at the listener’s end.
Therefore, as a sonic nomad, I cannot acquire concrete knowledge about a sonic phenomenon occurring at a specific location. Rather, sounds at a particular place with different layers of infinite sonic events (Altman 1992) trigger an emotive context within me, a kind of mood generated by a traveller’s memory associations. How can I then decipher the meaning of such an auditory situation from its locative source and its identity? As an active and radical listener, I may relate to these situations through thought processes generated within my mind by means of auditory cognition, immersion, and presence in the context of an on-going interaction with the sonic phenomenon occurring at the location. Mere recording, documenting, or describing the sound of the location will be unable to measure, scrutinize, and articulate the situation that has triggered the listener’s complex emotive context, imagination, memory associations, and mood.
The sound of my apartment’s doorbell transforms into the distant gong of a Buddhist temple; my thoughts and recollection invite a contemplative mood that is interrupted by shouts from the park, where kids are playing football. The shouting eventually dissolves into melancholia. The park, the kids, and the impatient doorbell do not seem to be mere sonic objects. They offer an entryway into a poetic contemplative mood in which a constant traveller of the phenomenal world may indulge. Instead of articulating corporeal “things” in the physical space of the world, the traveller prefers to remain detached as an onlooker and engage with thoughts triggered by the infinite sonic events emanating from the phenomenal world into the domain of a metaphysical “nowhere” and mindfulness of “nothing.”
Standing at the proverbial doors of an impending nothingness, I intend to explore the apparent nihilism of an auditory situation through the intuitive and introspective potential of thoughts that transcend mere epistemic comprehension of the sonic phenomenon involving my wandering “mind” or “consciousness” as a wayfaring listener. These thought processes, when textualized, produce much more than a knowledge-structure about sound by means of the subjectivity, poetics, and moods involved with the unwrapping of an intangible auditory situation insofar as it appears and dissolves into another.
Admittedly, it is not my intention in this essay to structure a theoretical framework of the triangular relationship between sound (event/medium/wave), location (physical/mental/virtual), and listening (perception/cognition/meaning). Rather, I am more interested in an understanding within myself of the ever-evolving auditory situations and their ramifications in the mind of the travelling listener. The driving motivation behind this essay, therefore, is to introduce my project “Doors of Nothingness” and the specifics of its methodology, which aims at finding a set of new explanations and triggering further discourses on how agents like me can both epistemologically and metaphysically relate to the fluid world around us. The “us” here necessarily refers to the emerging community of nomadic individuals and entities.
The on-going project “Doors of Nothingness” frames and textualizes temporal thoughts that emerge from certain immersive but evanescent auditory situations. Essentially contemplative and personal in nature, this project explores the pervasive interaction between constantly migrating man and his contextual sonic environment, using as its entryway perceptual and cognitive processes. Working from these sets of assumptions, the methodology of the project incorporates fieldwork in places where the listener/artist acts as a mobile and migratory being. The everyday life of the nomadic listener/artist offers such situations in random urban spaces. The fieldwork includes ubiquitous recording and simultaneous writing of thoughts to develop an archive of sound and text in close relationship with each other. This collection of automatic writings as well as binaural sound files (scribblings of thoughts and their corresponding audio recordings) make up the body of the archive, which becomes the definitive repository through which the process and production of artworks (and other forms of presentation that the project envisions) take place.