Absurd Sounds


Yann Coppier

Absurd (derived from surdus, or deaf, in Latin): that which cannot be heard or is contradictory to reason. 

What if we applied the principles behind conspiracy theories — absurd premises followed by logical developments — to sound art?


Enter Silence

First questions, first answers: what if silence were louder than noise?

The principle behind this absurd question is rather simple: we will record silence in the best possible conditions, then play it back loudly enough so it outperforms any other sound. In this case, is silence the same as noise? Are they one and the same thing? When did one transform into the other? To continue this line of thought, what if there were something louder than noise? And finally, what if silence were a hidden world, deeply covered under layers of noise? From a scientific point of view, the answer to the first question at least is clear: silence is merely a threshold. The sound content and the intensity to which it is performed are two separate things, therefore any recorded silence becomes noise as soon as it is played at a louder level than 0 dB SPL. From an artistic point of view, though, this potentially unfolds a fascinating chapter as we begin imagining worlds beyond our perception, all around us.

In the same way, from a frequential point of view, removing the audible part of the spectrum from a wider recording should also create perfect silence, at least for human ears. But what about the remaining parts hidden below and above that silence, the so-called infra- and ultrasounds? 0 dB SPL might be silence from an amplitude point of view, yet it might be possible to record below it. Likewise, it is possible to record below and above the audible part of the spectrum, showing that silence is not all that silent in the end. Of course, from an artistic point of view, these experiments should at best be considered as clues on our way towards a more exciting resolution of this problem.

Intermediate associations: a meeting with worms

At the beginning of this research process back in 2016, participation in Harvesting the Rare Earth, an art exhibition at Overgaden Institute of Contemporary Art by Jacob Remin, offered an opportunity to solve a part of this puzzle.


The piece presented a speculative near-future scenario, in which a fictive company has pioneered a sustainable biomining technology, using genetically modified caterpillars to harvest rare-earth elements from massive e-waste dumps. The corresponding sound work consisted of four parts: an evolving, generative piece of synthetic music to be continuously played within three associated wooden podiums; a female futuristic voice detailing the company’s business plan through headphones next to the podiums; a six-speaker piece to be played on e-waste speakers within vitrines filled with worms, using recordings of the worms themselves; and a high-level ventilator-like low-frequency piece effectively separating the works in a corridor between the two main rooms.

In particular, the piece centred around the worms raised interesting questions around silence and the artistic possibilities linked to such recordings. But most of all, as is always the case in such questioning when finally linked to practice, it also brought intermediate associations and ideas, triggering the participants’ imagination in original ways, and therefore proved fruitful beyond expectations.

Problems related to the experiment: the paradoxical quest for the real


What do worms sound like? Surprising as it may be, this question relates directly to how we as humans sound. Is it the sounds of our internal organs that define us? Our breathing? Our voice? Our mood? Our interaction with our surroundings? A combination of the whole and more? And if so, how do we capture this combination?


Naturally, there is no good answer to this kind of question, as it will always bring us back to matters of interpretation — and in the case of art, of intention. Also, a definition of the sound produced by worms very much depends on a common fantasy disguised as knowledge: we believe we know what worms sound like because we most likely have heard them in movies, in much the same way we believe we know what spaceships sound like. Or laser guns. Or dinosaurs. The fact is, we believe worms ‘sound’ slimy, moist, and somehow disgusting. However, the Zophobas morio species of worm has a rather hard chitinous shell that is more prone to producing dry sounds — closer to fire, if you will — than wet sounds. So, should we stick to reality and risk disappointing our audience, or should we fulfil our shared fantasy of something sticky and repulsive?


The work of Brian Kane[2] is of help here; he describes sound as ‘the effect of a sonic source and a cause’ and aims to bypass many of the assumptions derived from traditional accounts of acousmatic sound. Indeed, in the case of worms, we might not record their voice, their internal organs, their breathing, or the ‘clothes’ they are wearing. Instead we mostly record the material they are crawling upon (the source) and the energy they use to that effect (the cause). Even if our worms don’t sound like worms should, Brian Kane and Michel Chion would agree that associating (or disassociating) sounds and images in terms of referentiality is not quite the dramatic event the acousmatic tradition would suggest. Reformulating their relation, on the other hand, can open new critical and creative possibilities. 


Let’s consider using the actual sounds the worms produced by recording them under laboratory conditions, prior to applying various sound manipulations: when played to both the worms and the audience, the resulting soundscapes will take on a new dimension as they are visually validated by the presence of the actual source that generated them in the first place. Exploring the potentials of realism might help us reach higher grounds as we develop a genuine interest in what the worms have to say.

The expanded field: into non-realism and non-abstraction

The project uses a methodology inspired by Rosalind Krauss’s article ‘Sculpture in the Expanded Field’
[3], in which the author describes the logical evolution of sculpture using a Klein group encompassing landscape, architecture, ‘not-landscape’ and ‘not-architecture’, with sculpture located between the two latter items.

Here, the expanded field will present realistic sounds (the sound of the wind) and abstract sounds (a drone) as opposed to non-realistic (the wind pitched down two octaves and played in reverse) and non-abstract sounds (a drone sounding like the wind). Musique concrète, which uses recording as its main compositional tool, lies between realism and non-realism. Electronic music, meanwhile, uses synthesis at its core and is positioned between abstraction and non-abstraction. Sound design, torn between the two, is often limited between the boundaries of realism and abstraction, with notable exceptions in cinema, when, for instance, the sound of bacon grilling serves as a substitute for rain.


Our absurd sounds can be described as a combination of non-realism and non-abstraction, although they will probably also need realism and/or abstraction in order to initially establish their existence, by creating a context the audience can first relate to. Of course, reality is much more complex, but by placing these practices together we get to show the differences between them, what brings them closer, and, potentially, what is still left to discover (which we hereby call absurd sounds).

Example: oh! It’s snowing...

2/ From that point on, we should be able to work in-between non-realism and abstraction as we later manipulate these sounds in various synthetic ways.


3/ Finally, the context itself will become both non-realistic and non-abstract through another cognitive manipulation: the result will be played inside the vitrines, at low volume, forcing the audience to get closer to the worms and the actual source of the sound. Under these conditions, the worms will sound like themselves again to the visitors, as every performed sound manipulation becomes fully associated with them.


Again, following Chion[5], listeners are accustomed to sonic representations produced by manipulating sounds, even though they do not correspond to what they evoke. Here, although brought very far from the collective idea of what they sound like, our worms have become themselves again.

The experiment: recording below silence

In order to record the worms and presuming that the sound pressure levels obtained might be extremely low, it was decided to use the G.R.A.S. 40HL 1/2'' LEMO Low-noise Microphone System. Indeed, as its technical specifications reveal[6], it measures sound pressure levels well below what remains a psychoacoustic definition of silence. Just as one can explore infra- and/or ultrasounds by recording what lies below and above our hearing range in terms of frequencies, we would in this case explore what lies below our hearing range in terms of amplitude.

New questions: the bottomless pit that lies below the worms

We now venture into a microsound universe, in which silence does not really exist and is permanently obstructed and overwhelmed by our own noisy environment. What lies there is beyond our cognitive perception and might also be beyond our comprehension, as one wonders whose ears are supposed to hear the sounds produced — and when do you experience that kind of silence, anyway? Also, worms do not have external ears and their sense of touch and vibration receptors compensate for this lack. So, who is hearing the sounds that lie below silence? It is worth noting that on a graph showing the perceptions of levels for humans, traditionally low and high levels are considered separately (unlike the frequency mechanism, in which bass can, for instance, coexist with treble): the kind of low-level sounds we are talking about is what you would hear if there were no other sounds, meaning any other sound would cover it. It is therefore a trick the brain plays on you, as any sound left to measure is technically hiding something even smaller.[8]

To add to this intriguing phenomenon, this experience raises also a fundamental difference between visuals and sound. Indeed, visuals fail to represent the invisible – e.g., the wind — without using tricks of some kind, such as dead leaves flying around during the autumn. Likewise, sound cannot represent the immobile without using some tricks: a tree without wind will have to crack in some way in order for us to hear wood.

Reaching the end of the process, it was decided that Runar Magnusson and I would perform at an event during the exhibition. As a logical consequence of our previous decisions, we played improvised electronic music, mostly based on the sounds of the worms (and other abstract/non-abstract related sounds), using solely the speakers from the vitrines. Our placement made it clear that we were performing not just next to the worms, but for the worms, as a homage to their patient work and also as a way to acknowledge and celebrate the beauty of our partnership. The direct proximity of the speakers (under some of which many worms were gathered), the glass below their elongated bodies, and all of the e-waste present contributed to a vibrant ambience that the worms were supposed to feel. This resulted in an intimate micro-concert, which the audience was welcome to witness from an estranged, probably all-too-human point of view.


Unfortunately, how much the worms appreciated our efforts was never really clear.

Here, the audible frequential content of an underwater recording made at high resolution (0.1 to 96,000 Hz, to the left) has been deleted (the now-black part, to the right), technically bringing it into the realm of silence as we know it. Notice the sound files have been placed so that they are visually synchronised to their associated spectrograms (in orange, with X: time in seconds, Y: frequency in Hertz, colour intensity: amplitude in deciBel) and waveforms (in blue, with X: time in seconds, Y: amplitude in deciBel).

In terms of sound capture, what is most relevant: the worm, or the container and surface it is crawling upon? The sound produced by the worm, or the sound we are expecting from it?

Using the above approach, four things became obvious:

1/ The worms actually produce a lot of sounds on their own, more than predicted.

2/ As predicted,[7] the sounds which the worms produce are highly dependent on what they are crawling on or the container they’re in.

3/ Different microphone set-ups make the worms ‘shine’ in very different ways.

4/ No matter how silent the recording, there is always more in it than just the worms (until we reach the limits of the microphone itself, which does not invalidate this specific point).


Indeed, as the worms crawled under our two sets of microphones, it was the containers of wood, glass or plastic, and their associated shapes, that coloured most of the recorded sounds. It was therefore decided to use the most neutral recordings, i.e. those producing the lowest amount of resonance due to the material. At the same time, we kept the more grainy/structured surfaces on which the worms had a grip, as they would also produce more sounds. As counter-intuitive as this may appear, it allowed the art installation to feature more of the worms, yet in a less coloured way.

However, as the acousmatic experience suggests, sound is very efficient at representing what you cannot see, what is not present physically — and, in this case, things you technically cannot even hear if not considerably amplified. Diverse ‘sound microscopes’ reveal that there is no such thing as absolute silence, at least as long as a few molecules of air are left in the recording room.

Artistic developments: worm sound mutations/conceptual hi-fi performance played on six e-waste speakers


Manipulating the resulting sounds and bringing them into a room filled with worms feeding on e-waste is a delicate task on several levels:

—   The Zophobas morio worms are small and slow movers, even though they are commonly called superworms. Still, because of their importance for the concept, they must attract attention.

—    Worms do not make a lot of sound on their own, to put it mildly, and any other noise will cover the sound they produce.

—    Performing with worms implies a high level of interpretation from the sound artist.


The compositional sound manipulations were made by Icelandic sound artist Runar Magnusson, who performed all kinds of granular and spectral manipulations on our recorded sounds. Resulting pieces such as There is a Rave in the Woods, Worm Beatings, or Worms on Longwave would all address the original sounds through progressive, yet occasionally massive transformation. Still, the character would remain sufficiently intact to allow the worms to recognise themselves somehow — if they could, that is.


This being said, when looking at the installation of many worms in a few vitrines, placed in the middle of a large exhibition space, another question emerged. Should we make the audience feel as though they were inside the vitrines, by playing loud sounds in a surround set-up that would emulate the worms’ environment and interaction? Or should we instead perform sounds at the level of our soft friends, making the audience realise the fundamental difference of size at which this process is really happening? The latter option seemed an obvious choice as it would allow our audience to get very close to the worms in order to observe them, thus bringing focus to what is happening inside the vitrines rather than what is happening inside the listener’s head. It also allowed us to stay conceptually coherent, as it did not require any expensive well-functioning gear, but merely some discarded e-waste speakers the worms might learn to eat in the end.

Interestingly enough, and as originally predicted, no matter how the sounds were transformed, they would be immediately associated with the worms as soon as they were played inside the vitrines. This led us to use a combination of three stereo tracks mixed on five of the available prepared e-waste speakers, leaving the last one for the original sound of recorded worms so the audience would never lose the reference. Once again, using high precision recordings of worms made in an anechoic chamber with one of the most precise microphones available worldwide, and then performing the recordings on electronic waste worth nothing, might seem like a dubious choice — at least from an engineering point of view. From an artistic and conceptual point of view, on the other hand, it dramatically enhanced the experience of the patient work of the worms by emphasising their ‘voice’ and by bringing the audience physically closer to the vitrines.



The very notion of absolute silence depends on human perception and is as such only defined by psychoacoustics, which is the branch of science studying the psychological responses associated with sound (including noise, speech, and music). One of the early goals of psychoacoustics was therefore to determine the physical limits of human hearing, as opposed to acoustics, a branch of physics that deals with particle vibrations within an elastic environment, which ignores these limits.


Within psychoacoustics, then, the tiniest sounds the human ear can perceive between 1 and 4 kHz (the frequency range we are most sensitive to) correspond to an acoustic pressure of around 20 µPa (twenty micropascals), a value which has been chosen as the zero-reference level for loudness in dB SPL (decibel sound pressure level). 0 dB SPL corresponds therefore to what we know as silence[1], all audible sounds being louder than that and their corresponding loudness being measured as positive numbers: a regular conversation, for instance, varies for its participants between 60 and 80 dB SPL.


While the above refers to amplitude, on another scale, human audition is also limited to frequencies lying between 20 and 20 000 Hz (Hertz, or vibrations per second), so that anything below or above this range (which we call infra- and ultrasounds) is as unlikely to be perceived by human ears as levels below 0 dB SPL are. It should then be noted that in all cases acoustic vibrations that are inaudible to humans do not technically break silence: they still belong to the physics of vibrations, a study domain upon which acoustics is based.

‘Harvesting the Rare Earth’, an art installation by Jacob Remin.

Tracks based on the recording of worms by Yann Coppier.

Composition and sound manipulations by Runar Magnusson.

Press to play the video


One quickly and easily gets lost between realism and abstraction when a recorded worm does not sound the way a worm ‘should’ sound. In this specific case, establishing the existence of absurd sounds will happen in three steps, using observation combined with a poetic approach as a source of inspiration.


1/ We first need to acknowledge the cognitive manipulation that movies typically exert on their audience, as discussed by Michel Chion in Audio-Vision[4] when he writes ‘we never see the same thing when we also hear; we don't hear the same thing when we see as well’. Our realistic worm sounds are likely to be considered non-realistic without the actual presence of the worms.

To avoid parasite noise from the environment, the recordings were carried out in an anechoic chamber at Aalborg University in Copenhagen. There, every surface, including the floor, has been treated with sound-absorbing material which will leave the room as dry and free of acoustic/electromagnetic disturbances as possible.


The set-up consisted of the aforementioned G.R.A.S. microphone and a pair of Schoeps CMC64, which are usually used for studio, classical concert, and field recording applications, in order to create a stereo field and enhance the musical quality of the high-frequency content.