Listening to Noise and Silence: Towards a Philosophy of Sound Art - Salomé Voegelin. London: Bloomsbury, 2010


by Daniela Cascella

I would like to focus my attention on what has been left, in previous reviews of Listening to Noise and Silence, in the margins: the writing voice of Salomé Voegelin. I would like to consider this writing voice as the embodiment of Voegelin’s philosophy of sound – not a separate element, but one ingrained in her modus operandi. By doing so, I would like to support and expand on Voegelin’s claim for a renewed approach to listening, one that necessarily affects the approach to writing: ‘A philosophy of sound art must remain a strategy of listening rather than an instruction to hear, and thus its language itself is under scrutiny’ (Voegelin, xiv). I would like to look at what happens if the activity of writing is considered parallel to the activity of listening, defined by Voegelin as ‘the invention of sound’ – where writing appears as yet another layer in such an invention.

Voegelin’s argument for a listening practice as ‘the generation of the unexpected’ (17) is deeply rooted in a specific language, a language which shakes the safety and self-assuredness of the discourse around sound that arises from its particular form. And of course it is never only a matter of form, especially when dealing with something so elusive as sound: the form of Voegelin’s book ensues from her ideas around listening. Its juxtaposition of theory-driven pages with sections written in response to specific soundworks stems from an internal resonance of thought and experience, from a subtle modulation of the same voice rather than from two separate registers: each new idea introduced by the author across captivating textual meanderings is also employed in the descriptive parts, whose clusters of words in turn reappear at later stages to inform the following step in theory, and so on, in a densely elaborated, self-generating process wherein both the theory and the practice of listening are filtered through the same language, rhythm and lexicon. The form of Voegelin’s book ultimately embodies, actually writes her call for ‘not listening to, but listening in’ (29); language investigated through sound, sound through language is the chiselled, polyphonic methodology adopted to shape a listening self that is ‘complex, sticky and involved’ (23).

There is a strong claim throughout the book for a criticality in listening that does not take shape according to pre-existing modes but creates its own modes in its transience and profound engagement: ‘If I refuse to listen’, Voegelin argues, ‘the work becomes an archive rather than a sonic piece of work, catalogued and taken note of, but rarely heard’ (29). Such an approach is further elaborated upon when she states: ‘We share listening, not however the heard. Our meeting point is more poetic, fleeting and full of misunderstandings’ (90). Likewise, the writing that follows the singularity of each experience of listening necessarily mirrors its transience and is permeated by its intangible condition, its impermanence, and its intensity: it cannot be linear and always concluding, rather it is pervaded by moments of loss, dead ends, misleading turns, loops, returns, as well as sparks, sudden moments of awareness or close-up explorations of the aural dimension.

Writing following a listening experience means to locate oneself at numberless degrees of proximity to sound, yet aware of being involved with an absence, with a distance from the space of listening. Words fill in the space of that distance; they inscribe it whilst remaining separate from it; they create it anew, in writing. This is also the case with Voegelin’s book: at its utmost theoretical extremes, in the arabesques of reasoning, in the descriptions of listening experiences, hers is not the standardized, predictable and crystal-clear voice of linear thought. Consider her sentences: some broken, some off-center, some deliberately repetitive, some durational, between hiccups and jolted lines, accumulations and returns. To write the instability of listening is the challenge, met by Voegelin by working on the form, rhythm and structure of the text as generators of meaning-as-experience, engaging with the many shadings, edges, overtones and refrains of listening: sometimes it can be a lucid and edgy train of thoughts, sometimes a tortuous line of words; sometimes it works like a locked groove, and all of this constructs meaning in transit.

Comments and reviews of the book reveal how readers are baffled by the use of the pronoun ‘I’, as if it implied a self-absorbed manner too singular to be able to speak out. On closer reading though, Voegelin’s ‘I’ appears as a rather protean element, mutable and unpredictable, that opens up a potential space for listening rather than closing it within pre-set impersonal and allegedly neutral formulas: this ‘I’ builds up Voegelin’s point from the inside of her writing process. It acts as a mirror for the reader: it can become my ‘I’ in listening; it can become the opposite of mine, coincide with or be distant from as well as touch upon all the degrees in between – between my many ‘I’s as well as hers. It is not monolithic but tentacular; it is not authoritative but invites response; it does not channel safety but dares and probes; it stands for the elusiveness of each experience of listening rather than for the self-absorption of predictable formulas. Voegelin calls it ‘intertwined I’: ‘not a solid identity but an ever passing and evolving subjectivity that drifts in and out of certainty from the doubt and experience that form it continually and contingently as a formless sonic self’ (93). The textual fabric of the book, reflecting such a changeable ‘I’, exudes the lack of a firm, shared ground in listening: the impossibility of understanding one another if not through fleeting, brief encounters.

The doubt often raised by reviewers – is there anything the reader may share with or get from the accounts of the soundworks, presented in such a subjective manner? – is in fact the thriving core of Voegelin’s thesis: daring and direct, she states that often in listening there might not be much to share according to what we might term a permanent set of values, but a lot to say and to hear in metamorphosis and in motion. Despite the consolidated systems and hierarchies that establish which works are worth being shared permanently, she affirms that in sound we deal with opacities and mutability and that even the periodic degrees of lucidity can never function as encompassing and lasting revelations. That in each and every experience of sound there might be no meaning for one of us while a world of meaning might open for another, and that the criticality of listening lies in this variability rather than in rigid formulas. That there is not one single, univocal answer we receive from sound when we listen, but a multiplicity of signs: like oracular responses, they might be totally opaque or reveal something crucial; it is up to us to give them meaning.

Listening to Noise and Silence touches on major issues concerning the nature of what we do when we engage with sound and set out attempting to write about it. It intimates that if sound has not yet gained enough visibility in the debates around art today, it might be also due to the fact that it is often discussed through normalized forms of argument: they manifest the consolidation of visually-driven forms of authority in criticism rather than answering the challenge of permeability inherent in listening. Such established language is a matter of convention that few bother questioning: it is nearly transparent, so when something like Voegelin’s book appears it creates a sense of uneasiness, the same sense of uneasiness provoked in us any time we experience something unpredictable and outside a canon, the very sense of uneasiness essential to the listening I. The whole book goes on boldly against a canon. In the true spirit of research, it is not concerned with calcifying the known: instead, it scrutinises and undermines it. In the true spirit of listening, it is a process of layering and discovering at once: ‘[Sound] does not start in language but searches for it’ (178) through ‘a contingent production of the heard’ (179) upon an uneven, indefinable ground on which ‘emotions […] must be debated centrally’ (179). The way to do so cannot be consequential, directional, all-inclusive. Rather, it embraces uncertainty; instead of telling and unveiling, it engages with obscurity and the doubts of questioning, with impressions given and experienced rather than explained. ‘Critical language not as a structural system but as sensorial material […] does not allude but produces the said’ (108–109). Writing sound ultimately is an act of fabulation, a self-standing entity, rather than a transposition of a lost, original truth: it does not imply a retreat into hermeticism or the frustration of a derivative practice, but a creative opening that moves forward, in a polyphony that is as engaged as it is mutable, that adds nuances to the evolving process of listening and writing. If sound is elusive, penetrating, dangerous and ambiguous, then the words that speak the sound must be likewise.

Voegelin the writer-as-listener performs a self-challenging ‘I’, body and mind, showing at once vulnerability, process and presence. Voegelin the listener-as-writer is not concerned with making sense univocally, but with creating fluctuating spaces and exploring possibilities for meaning. Far from prescriptive, her thesis in its very openness gives each individual self the freedom to access sound, regardless of any lack of information previous to the moment of listening. ‘A shift from the rigour of writing art theory to the rigour of writing the experience of art. This implies a foregrounding of the ethics of engagement through the responsibility of the writer as listener, and includes the pathetic trigger of memory as a differentiated subjective objectivity that affects the production of the work in the extensive duration of its perception, always now’ (189). This does not imply the zeroing out of sheer relativism, rather it is a call to action, a radical and loaded call for freedom and responsibility together: because to be free of prescriptive ways, to engage deeply with one’s own experiences of sound, means to make a step forward to bring one’s own portion of cultural and personal history to the surface, to shape one’s words from the genealogy of one’s culture and story.

‘Aural stories preserve. Sound rather than the image preserves the human subject as a maker of culture and therefore preserves culture as a dynamic production, rather than as concluded artefacts. The critic of sound is invited to consider the dynamic of perception rather than the monument of its materiality. He does not conclude the story but keeps on narrating and enters rather than observes cultural production’ (100). Although centered in sound and its specificity, Voegelin’s research on listening and writing embraces crucial points concerning culture and the possibilities of relating to the other, not paralysed by power-retaining hierarchies of knowledge. Against the feeling of helplessness when attempting to channel something entrenched within the layers of one’s non-hegemonic culture, against the inclination to stay silent because one’s voice might not coincide with the predominant voice, widely recognized, decoded, integrated, Voegelin exhorts to say something nonetheless, to reach out and become part of culture as process, to engage with listening every other today.

The question of reference in listening and writing comes to the fore. In discussing Chernobyl (2008) by Peter Cusack, Voegelin writes of what happens if one tries to listen to the sounds in this piece while not considering the connotations of the site: ‘A lot of these sounds are terribly beautiful. [They] expose the discrepancies, the inability to judge and to know what danger is’ (159). How do we handle reference in relationship to the thing heard, also considering Voegelin’s view of ‘the listener as a maker of culture rather than as witness to its monumentality’ (179)? While listening, the point is not about what we may not know (those sounds were recorded in Chernobyl) but about what we discover in our proximity to the sonic thing (the sensorial texture of the sounds, the uncertainty as to how to frame it). In Latin the verb ‘referre’ means ‘to bring back’; what do we bring back, through reference, when listening – and where do we bring it back to, when writing after listening? Reference shapes the process of listening and writing, as it is built from within that process, ‘bringing back’ a number of impressions and memories accumulated in time, in what Voegelin calls ‘the formless motion of my excavation of it’ (133): a shifting set of experiences attached to our perceptions and words every time we listen and write, amassed into each now with its full load of then’s. Reference is not a framework of legitimacy, an established authority superimposed on the aural experience: the to and the from of the ‘bringing back’ in reference are extremely unstable, and they are modulated by the listening subject in his or her contingent presents. It is a methodology at work, not a diktat. Throughout her book, Voegelin brings her vast array of references – from Maurice Merleau-Ponty to a beach in Wales – back into the writing of her listening scenarios and back inside her thought. She rewrites them and moves away from them. She unfolds a method, not implying that her references are the only pillars that may support a philosophy of sound art: any other will function in the same way, for every other person who engages with listening across the fabric of their own experiences, their own history.‘Sound describes my movement not against a permanent landscape but generates a fleeting permanence as the continuity of my production’ (153). The key issue in Voegelin’s book revolves around listening as an activity that starts from each unique experience and that builds its authority from within its own construction: the sensorial is the foundation of a knowledge in the making. Around eighty years ago, in his Prison Notebooks, Antonio Gramsci wrote of ‘a shift from knowing to understanding, to feeling, and back, from feeling to understanding, to knowing’ (Gramsci 1975: 67). These words resonate strongly today with Voegelin’s appeal for listening as a knowledge-making founded on the sensorial, grasping a profound and singular sense of place, of self, of stories. Listening and writing across knowing, feeling, understanding are self-specific and yet open; they do not correspond to a rigid concept but create each experience anew; they articulate an expansive, non-normative activity that embraces diversity.

There cannot be a concluding remark to encompass Listening to Noise and Silence. You might not even completely ‘understand’ it if you refuse to ‘feel’ it and ‘know’ it or if you aim at making ends meet evenly. It will question you, it will confuse you, it will exhilarate you. It will prompt you to reinvent it over and over: in listening, in writing.


Gramsci, Antonio (1975). Quaderni del carcere (ed. V. Gerratana). Turin: Einaudi.