Sonic Possible Worlds: Hearing the Continuum of Sound - Salomé Voegelin. London: Bloomsbury, 2014


By Marcel Cobussen

Salomé Voegelin’s second book Sonic Possible Worlds: Hearing the Continuum of Sound is composed of philosophical reflections (mainly on Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology), personal listening experiences, excerpts from her own blog and descriptions of numerous sound art and music examples: from Francisco López to Nadia Boulanger, from Claudia Molitor to Eisuke Yanagisawa, from Shilpa Gupta to Henry Purcell, etc. Don’t think the book is not meant for you if you don’t know any of these names: in an engaging way, Sonic Possible Worlds introduces you to relatively unknown sound artists and musicians, somehow similar to what David Toop did in Ocean of Sound (Serpent’s Tail 1995) and Haunted Weather (Serpent’s Tail 2004). Don’t be daunted either by terms such as “possibilism,” “sonic or phenomenological materialism,” or the “possible-impossible-thing-of-sound,” even though they appear regularly in each of the five chapters; throughout the book, Voegelin elaborates on them, introduces and re-introduces them, contextualizes and recontextualizes them.

The book takes its inspiration and basic points of departure from the possible worlds theory, as formulated by the American philosophers David K. Lewis and Saul Kripke, as well as literary theorists such as Ruth Ronen and Marie-Laure Ryan. The foundation of the possible worlds theory is the idea that reality, conceived as the sum of the imaginable rather than as the totality of what exists physically, is a universe composed of a plurality of distinct worlds. And perhaps it is specifically readers of fiction who are most often exposed to and immersed in such a variety of actual possible worlds.

Voegelin’s main hypothesis is that listening to sound art and music can also open access to such possible worlds. However, these sonic equivalents are not completely similar to the fictional worlds of literature, poetry, or other texts; the principal difference is that these worlds are not – in a way – disconnected from or running parallel to the real world. On the contrary, the fictions of sound worlds illuminate the plurality of the real world. Voegelin calls this a non-ontological phenomenological possibilism (48). Through sound we can inhabit worlds of “what could be,” instead of what is often presented by “God and science” as “what is.” She stresses that the indefinite nature of sound does not present an untrue counterpart, opposed to the unmistakable reality of an actual truth, but prizes open a window on the ambiguity and uncontrollability of the reality of the actual world (49). Sound, sound art, and music do not present a fictive world existing next to the real world; rather they can add other dimensions to this real world; they transform our view on the real and make us rethink the singularity of one actual world (46). Hearing other possibilities, encountering new relationships, references, notions of truth, and alternative realities do not confirm and preserve actuality, nor do they find the truth about an actual place, but they make it possible to explore a plurality of possible realities.

What is needed to experience these audible as well as inaudible (think for example of ultra- or infrasound) possible worlds is a sonic sensibility (13, 29, 47, 153), a sensitivity to emerging alternatives to our current actual world and an openness to sounds as they seduce listeners into their own auditory imaginations (65).

It will not come as a big surprise that this contact with sonic possible worlds, this sonic sensibility, takes place through listening. Voegelin introduces and immerses her readers into a rather daring and new phenomenology of listening, the germs of which can already be traced in her first book Listening to Noise and Silence (Continuum, 2010). Her ideas about listening deviate from Pierre Schaeffer’s acousmatic listening, with its focus on the intrinsic qualities of the sounds themselves; neither does she advocate a listening attitude which tries to detect and identify the sources which produce the sounds; and perhaps least of all is she interested in naming and framing the sounding art works, of classifying them according to style or genre.

Voegelin advocates a listening in which we do not move

along historical and canonical lines but through material trajectories, which do not exist before my listening but which I create through my inhabiting of their possibilities in a contingent practice of participation. This is an unpredictable listening that does not know what it will hear and what it is listening out for, but aims to at once hear and reflect on the heard without prejudices (83).

Listening thus becomes a participatory practice, not trying to recognize the sounds or attempting to discern what they might represent (the hidden potential that preexists perception), but exploring contingent possibilities and creating possible worlds activated in the act of listening. Of course this cannot be successful without producing in the listener’s imagination, her phantasms and dreams, her conceptions and misconceptions of what it might have been that she heard (1). Emotions, sentiments, personal references, private anecdotes, and memories should be admitted, Voegelin writes, silently echoing the more empirical research on listening attitudes as in, for example, John Sloboda’s Exploring the Musical Mind (Oxford UP 2005) and Ruth Herbert’s Everyday Music Listening (Ashgate 2011).

However, she adds, this openness in and through listening, this emphasis on imagination as well as the inevitable influence of the plurality of private life-worlds that (co-)determine the contingency of those possible sound worlds, are no license for an “anything goes” attitude. It is the concrete materiality of the sounds and their perception, of capturing the art works in their unfolding by being in the midst of the work’s world, which must be the starting point. Voegelin calls this inhabiting, inhabiting the work’s temporo-spatiality, traveling into the work as a world (62), listening as an ethical participation in a continual engagement with the work’s materiality (75).

Although publications on sound, sound art, and music are still booming, very few dare to deal with the (non-)ontology, phenomenology, epistemology, and/or ethicality of sound or listening. Voegelin’s Sonic Possible Worlds is a rather provocative and challenging endeavor to take this necessary discussion to a high scholarly level without losing the connection with the art works themselves. On the contrary, these concrete works serve as indispensable starting points for her philosophical investigations. Although I have to admit that her discussion on the musical sublime is rather limited – instead of relying only on Kant, she could have paid attention to, for example, Freud or Lyotard as Kiene Brillenburg Wurth does in Musically Sublime (Fordham UP 2009) – and that 175 pages (notes, bibliography, etc. excluded) was perhaps a bit too much – the book has no linear structure, is not building an argument over its five chapters, and in fact divulges its most important ideas already in the introduction – it should be compulsory reading for anyone interested in listening and the counterpart or supplement to new materialism, sonic materialism. Additionally, it is one of the few books which deals with both sound art and music, thus contributing not only to the discourse on sound studies but also offering new perspectives for musicologists, e.g. through what Voegelin calls an “unprejudiced listening” (122), a listening outside, before, or beyond conventional knowledge and conceptualizations, a listening which is formed, informed, and transformed by possibilities.