MAXIMUM VOLUME YIELDS MAXIMUM RESULTS 
6 September 2012, 10pm
The windowless room slowly fills with synthetic fog, obscuring first the dimly backlit stage with its wall of amplifiers, then each cluster of the motionless audience. Everyone is eerily quiet; there is no chanting of the band’s name, no clapping, not even chatter. A shadowy, robed and hooded figure appears on the stage, heavily silhouetted against the fog, and plucks a single string on his electric guitar. The sound that fills the space, obliterating all other sounds, is thick and chunky, dense and low with a tight buzz. We all know this sound, and we wait for that sound to morph into the beloved rhythmic chug-chugging that structures heavy metal. Several seconds pass without change, until this same sound, so familiar and common, suddenly doubles itself an octave down and punches us in the gut. Mouths drop open in disbelief and eyes scrunch closed in discomfort as an alien, disturbing buzzing fills our bodies. A sound we thought we knew makes a renewed invasion of not only our ears, but our entire bodies. It shakes us, and our understanding of music, from within.
A minute passes, and so far, the guitar’s string has been plucked only once, but the sound filling the room beyond comprehension grows ever richer and more complex. The shifting overtones create a counterpoint with the pulses of sub-bass vibration. Somewhere in this maelstrom of sound, the fundamental wobbles and continues to send its signal through the circuitry. After a few minutes, there is a discernible chromatic stepwise descent of a minor third, sending the already unbearably low sound even lower, and this impossibly deep sound thunders into the crowd with renewed energy and even more gut-wrenching vibrations. As the ritualistic improvisation slowly begins to unfold, single large-scale tones generate a complex of sounds – a swelling and diminishing of feedback and distortion that develops its own sense of pulse. This series of peaks becomes a rhythmic motive, the “wah-wah” of canceling wavelengths, shaping a complete musical sub-architecture within what seems like a single note with respect to the guitar.
It is a warm September night in NW Washington, D.C. The band is Sunn O))) (pronounced “Sun”), a group that perches on the fringe of the extreme metal underground, in some ways more closely associated with the musical avant-garde.  Their name a typographical representation of the brand logo on the vintage amplifiers they use, Sunn O))) creates 75-90 minute mostly-improvised sets that focus on bass (60-300 Hz) and sub-bass (20 - 60 Hz) tones,  played at a volume of about 120 dB(A)  – quite near the threshold of pain (approximately 130 dB(A)).  In the sub-bass range, the hearing of the average adult is weak, but if these sounds are produced at sufficient amplitude, they will be felt in the body as vibrations. Within the ear itself, sounds at very high pressures can cause a variety of sensations, for example, “touch,” or ”pricking,” for sounds with a frequency of < 100 Hz, at a pressure of > 120 dB (Truax 1999). Operating under the motto, “Maximum Volume Yields Maximum Results,” loudness is Sunn O)))’s musical content, and the droning, low tones they project require multi-sensory interpretation. Feeling and music are freely associated, but feeling Sunn O)))’s music is not a metaphor – it is an inescapable physical reality. 
Focusing inward, trying to account for the massive array of sensations the sub-bass is pumping through me, I become aware of my body as an impressive aural-tactile organ.  There is a sound that manifests as a knocking on my sternum, and another that buzzes in my sinus cavity. The beer glass vibrates in my hand, then passes the vibrations down into the floor below me. My ribcage rattles, and my teeth shiver slightly against my jawbone. Initially, the experience is shocking, even slightly nauseating. The throbbing bass competes with my heart for control over my bodily rhythms, and my chest feels tight and fluttery. I wonder if I can last an hour, or even twenty minutes. But as each sound spins through me, pulsing and reverberating in all my hollow spaces, the slowly shifting vibrational scheme takes on a sinuously soothing character. I am overcome by a strong urge to lie down and close my eyes; the sound envelops my body, cutting me off from other sensations, making me safe. Closing my eyes, I sway slowly from side to side to the slow beat of the vibrational pulses. I am touching sound.
In many instances of daily hearing, sound has lost its physical properties. The experiential immediacy of hearing exists separately from the knowledge that it is the perception of changes in air pressure. It is only when confronted with high-amplitude low frequencies that we are brought into contact with the reality of sonic perception. Such sounds exert pressures that activate the conscious sense of touch. At the level of the eardrum, sound is always touch, but here, the whole body begins to echo the eardrum’s vibrational dance, as the rumbling bass shakes everything it comes into contact with. These lower sounds coerce the body into pressure-induced motion, drawing together two sensory territories usually conceptually separated. 
Most of us have probably experienced this blending of sound and touch, either via a bass rattling a car, or thumping in electronic dance music, or when standing near the speakers at a concert. In most of these instances, however, the experience of the vibration is an extra, a side effect of sensory limits. With Sunn O))), however, these vibrations are not the exposure of an exceeded capacity, but an exploration and celebration of sensory cooperation and the forgotten physical power of sound. Hearing and touch work hand in ear to produce a singular, united musical understanding.
Deaf culture is particularly attuned to hearing’s haptic essence. Hard of hearing hip-hop artists feel the beat with their bodies and flow with their hands. Thomas Edison, the inventor historically credited with the invention of the phonograph – the first device capable of both audio recording and playback – was deaf. In the process of fine-tuning his invention, he bit down on the sound horn in order to feel its vibrations in his jaw (Kahn 1999: 91). Today, Scottish percussionist Evelyn Glennie performs barefoot in order to better hear through her feet. Her “Hearing Essay” describes the way she hears with her body, contending that, “deafness does not mean that you can’t hear, only that there is something wrong with the ears” (Glennie 1993: 1). As a young music student, she learned to sense pitch by placing her hands on the classroom wall while her teacher played the timpani. Low frequencies resounded in her feet, higher ones in her chest and face (Glennie 1993:1). For Glennie, deafness re-organizes listening, but does not fundamentally change it, much less eliminate it. Perhaps those who listen primarily with their ears, then, require the instruction of loud, low sounds to experience this reorganization of listening as a full-body process.
Such a re-orienting of music around a sensory experience involving both sound and touch gives rise to a profound new understanding of what it means to be a hearing body. The mechanism by which sound operates on the ear, as it becomes large enough to operate on the whole body, makes itself remarkably obvious. The miracle of melodic fluidity is placed under a magnifying glass, revealing its physical crudeness.
Though interest in the potential tactility of musical experience has increased with modern sound technology, the pursuit of rumbling sounds is not inherently a product of it. The roar of the modern industrial world has shaped our reference point for loudness; other times and places experience loudness differently. One can imagine that in the eighteenth century, the Toccata and Fugue in D minor shook the Leipzig Thomaskirche, thundering through the congregation with novel intensity. Similarly, the nineteenth century increase in orchestral size not only made possible more options in sound color, but also enabled a substantial increase in volume as well. Sunn O))) inherits, rather than invents, a human pursuit of shocking loudness.
Artists are not the only ones to have noticed the physical effects of high amplitude sounds; military uses of sonic weapons date back to German sound cannons in the Second World War.  US military investigations into the possibility of both lethal and non-lethal sonic weapons date back to the 1960s (Swezey 1995: 404), and the 1970s saw a surge in research on the effects of infrasound on humans. While Sunn O))) emphasizes sub-bass tones, infrasound comprises tones below the human threshold of hearing, occupying the range 0 < 20 Hz. Despite early studies suggesting that infrasound at specific frequencies can cause epilepsy, and “induce headaches, giddiness, nausea, disorders of vision, breathing disorders and ‘psychotropic’ effects, causing a feeling of fear and loss of consciousness” (Swezey 1995: 407), by 1978, it had become clear that the main effects of infrasound were “annoyance,” “aural pain and damage,” and “middle ear pressure buildup” (Broner 1995: 411-415), and that a lethal acoustical weapon, though technically possible, was well beyond the limits of practicality, due to the immense size of the sound source that would be required to generate the necessary 174 dB (Broner 1995: 419). Nevertheless, the US developed a number of non-lethal acoustical weapons in the 1990s that blasted directional beams of sound or infrasound intended to disperse crowds or disable individuals (Cusick 2006). In the 21st century, these instruments were supplanted by the Long Range Acoustical Device, or LRAD, which is capable of “projecting a ‘strip of sound’ (15 to 30 inches wide) at an average of 120 dB (maxing at 151 dB) that will be intelligible for 500 to 1,000 meters” (Cusick 2006). These devices can hail ships, disorient crowds and issue commands (Cusick 2006).  Taking Kittler’s perspective on the entertainment industry as “an abuse of army equipment” (Kittler 1999: 97) into account, it is as if Sunn O))) co-opts the overpowering qualities of highly amplified low-frequency sound toward pleasure, giving listeners the opportunity to voluntarily experience the effects of extreme loudness on body and mind.  Their performance echoes these sonic weapons, as its loudness impedes verbal communication and even smothers thought, yet in this instance everyone in the audience has paid money for the experience and takes pleasure in the bewildering assault.
6 September 2012, 10:15 pm
Others in the room seem to be as overcome as I am by the physical intensity of the music. There is no moshing or screaming. In fact, the audience is almost completely still, only swaying slightly in time as repeating waves of feedback become recognizable patterns. A few move their heads up and down with the shockwaves passing through them, as if headbanging in slow motion. One man gesticulates with his arms, waving them slowly above his head as if participating in a sacred ritual. Through the fog, I can see the guitarist drinking from a bottle of red wine. His instrument hangs untouched from his neck, but thanks to electricity’s gift of endless sustain, the sound is as dense as ever as it emerges from a labyrinth of unseen effects and amplification circuitry.
The characteristics of this experience are more like those of a sacred rite than those of a metal concert. Most music is ritual in that it gathers people for a common purpose with a set of specified hierarchies and behaviors, and it seems that Sunn O)))’s ritual is that of ripping music apart at the seams to examine what’s inside – crushing its bones to feel the texture of the marrow. This performance proceeded under principles of hierarchy and mystery. The members of Sunn O))) stood on stage and produced sounds, to which the audience listened, standing on the floor in front of the stage, moving only minimally. The sheer loudness of the music made talking essentially impossible; we were capable only of submitting to what they put out. The music was done to us, and we (presumably) voluntarily relinquished control of our sonic environment to the band.
In reflecting on the ritual aspects of this concert, particularly the use of artificial fog to obscure the performers and their machinery, I reconsider my perception of the concert’s beginning, which was tied up in that first familiar tone that came pumping out of the speaker cabinets. That is, I return to the moment when the music began. The fog, however, began pouring out of the machines several minutes before the first note sounded. It was with the dimming of the house lights and the start-up of those fog machines, not the beginning of the music, that the audience fell silent and moved toward the stage in intensified anticipation. The music itself was part of a larger performance ritual that began with the obscuring of the space – the preparation of the audience for the coming onslaught.
Sunn O)))’s stage plots warn of high volume, low frequencies and the physicality of the sound:
Figure 1: Sample Stage Plot for Sunn O))) for show at KOKO London, June 13, 2012. (This show additionally featured a MOOG synthesizer.) (Exile On Moan Street 2012).
Physicality is at the forefront of Sunn O)))’s concert plan, and the path to its achievement is through loudness.
As Sunn O))) floods the performance space with artificial fog, they demarcate it as their own, exerting sensory control over the environment. Forcibly decreasing visibility in the performance space, they activate the capacity of the other senses to attempt compensation for the one that is lost. The ear’s sensitivity to sounds increases as its task of relaying information about the environment expands. As the band then fills the space with sounds loud enough to cause pain, they capitalize on this increased sensitivity, preventing any sounds but their own from being heard through sheer volume. When the fog and loudness are then combined with the tactile element of the sub-bass tones, Sunn O))) dominates the data received by three of our five senses.
This assertion of control over the environment obscures the technical elements of Sunn O)))’s playing. While we faintly see the guitar string being plucked, the subsequent treatment of that signal through loops, fuzz and effects pedals is kept in the dark; we are not meant to consider exactly how it is that so many shades of difference can result from such seemingly simple playing. Most of the “playing” happens at the musicians’ feet, and the audience is not invited to observe this process. The curtain of fog limits the audience’s sensory data to sound and touch – product and reaction – preventing access to realizations of “how.” Sunn O))) prevents the audience from discovering their musical method in their concert setting; the realization of sounds is cloaked in obscurity, and the denial of our visual capacity means that the band’s sound is able to overwhelm the listening body with impunity.
The audience’s acceptance of this domination of their sensory experience dovetails with Fred Maus’ exploration of listening as masochistic submission. In “The Disciplined Subject of Musical Analysis,” Maus brings together music theorists’ expressions of the submission inherent in listening to music with the writings of BDSM practitioners, presenting in a metaphor of particular sexual practice what concertgoers intuitively experience. He describes the pleasure that can be felt in dividing an environment into clearly separated active and passive roles, giving up constant, reciprocal negotiation in favor of a clearly defined, if only temporary, function as performer and listener (Maus 2004).  From his perspective, almost any voluntary listening experience could be construed as possessing some shade of this masochistic quality. At the classical symphony concert, for example, the listener is “bound and gagged” (Maus 2004: 35), as audience participation is typically limited to quiet, seated listening, with applause at the end of the performance. Throughout the experience, however, there remains the knowledge that consent to this submission is predicated on a social fiction; accepting a passive role as listener is consensual and conceptual – the symphony is not a literal, inescapable force (Maus 2004: 35).
Sunn O)))’s performance style of sonic domination and visual incapacitation proceeds further toward literal force exerted on their audience. Consent to the onslaught on the part of the listener remains operational, as she may exit the venue at any time, but Sunn O)))’s loudness actually blocks out other sound data. If you stomp your feet at the symphony, you and those near you will hear. At tonight’s concert, the stomping of your own feet on the concrete floor registers only as the impact on your joints. Submission to this level of loudness is more radical than in the former instance, as it involves not only giving in to norms of hierarchical concert behavior, but also temporarily giving up access to normal sensory perception, even regarding one’s own body. 
Furthermore, in creating a sensorally limited space, Sunn O)))’s sonic domination of their audience is more complex than the generation of a top/bottom relationship. By blotting out most sensory inputs beside their own sound, they generate an environment that is relatively free of distractions – the listener simply cannot pay attention to anything else. This is indeed a dominated space, but it is also a meditative one. In submitting to this sensory overtake, we are invited to free ourselves from thoughts of how and why and simply be with and in the sound. I recall how stressed and nearly ill I felt when the music first began. When my body stopped fighting the overload, however, and submitted, I discovered a state of freedom and relaxation so intense as to be soporific. In this environment, the listener must either fight or submit, and most seem to take the latter route, letting the sound fill their bodies and gently rock them to and fro. The band members’ long, hooded robes lend a monastic air, marking a retreat from the (sonic) mundane.
6 September 2012, 10:40 pm
After about forty minutes, a third cloaked, hooded figure drifts through the fog to the as yet unused center microphone and begins to growl, slowly, deeply and indecipherably. As a new texture, still low and rough, but vibrantly human, enters the mixture, the volume of the guitars drops significantly, making the vocalist the centerpiece of the sound for his first several minutes on stage. Gradually, they bring the volume all the way back up to its previous brain-curdling level, and the voice weaves in and out of the pulsing roars of the guitars. At first, he restricts his vocals to a low spoken growl at the bottom of his range. As the minutes pass, however, he begins to explore more of his voice’s possibilities. He growls, screams, speaks, shrieks and even sings. The shrieks in his upper range violate the low register of the performance, ringing out toward an external musical realm. Once, he sings at the bottom of his range, with just enough roughness that his vocal timbre blends with the guitar, making the two impossible to distinguish.
Half an hour later, the vocalist leaves the stage, and the concert enters its final third, refocusing on the sound of the guitars, a recapitulation of the concert’s opening. Like other recapitulations, it is a return to a now-familiar place; though it does not literally repeat earlier music, the multitude of physical sensations I experience have all been felt before. The intensity has not lessened; in fact, listening has become downright exhausting – not only my ears, but my whole body is tired. It is a struggle to remain standing. The power of this music to make my body vibrate, with or without my consent, has begun to register as a kind of forced dance that I cannot escape, whether by plugging my ears or standing still. The feedback waves on and on, and my insides shudder like the fat strings on a bass.
Thirty minutes pass in this way, and finally, the guitarist raises his instrument by the body vertically above his head. Somewhere in the fog, the bassist slowly drifts into an octave with the guitar. As the loops of other feedback slowly fade away, the volume increases, crossing the threshold of discomfort in my ears (despite earplugs). This last musical gesture lasts beyond my ability to remember when it began and then abruptly cuts off. The “silence” that follows is full of the sounds of the last 75 minutes; they extend control over the environment beyond the act of playing, as the ringing in my ears reminds me for the next several hours of where I have been. The musicians remove their hoods and step to the front of the stage, signaling that the ritual has come to an end. Thick, slow applause emerges from the crowd, as we rediscover our ability to make sound and not only to receive it. The band bows together, and they utter the only discernible words of the evening, a shout of “Thank you!” and exit the stage. The applause, now studded with a few shouts of approval and some “metal horns,” gradually dies away. As we leave, many are silent. A few eagerly try to put into words what they felt. One man declares to his friend that his glasses had been vibrated off his face.
At the experiential level, Sunn O)))’s music explores the physical process of listening. From an analytic vantage, they critique conceptualizations of musical content and musical repetition. The sound objects that make up Sunn O)))’s musical content are not easily individuated. The timbral tapestry defies analysis in terms of pitch and duration, pointing the listener instead toward conceptions of transformation, textural variety and loudness. In particular, the recapitulation that made up the last third of the concert gestures toward a more generous notion of musical repetition. My perception of return in the final half hour of the concert was not based on any particular melodic, rhythmic, harmonic memory, but rather on remembered and resurrected sensations. My body buzzed in the way it had before – the repetition was internalized in me, the listener. The piercing, shaking loudness is what I remembered and what I perceived as returning. Heavy, low sound at extreme volume was itself the recapitulating motive.
Sunn O)))’s concert featured no drum set, no display of virtuosity, no crowd surfing, no moshing, no stage banter littered with obscenities (in fact, the musicians never spoke to the audience at all, except after they finished playing). So many elements that seem to typify the live extreme metal experience were conspicuously absent, yet 75 minutes listening to Sunn O))) taught me more about metal than every other show I’ve attended put together. Sunn O))) is metal about metal. Many writers have noted the rich, metallic churning of the distorted electric guitars as essential to and even definitive of the extreme metal sound. Sunn O))) takes this definition literally, stripping away other musical elements and exploring every shade of sound this electronic buzzing has to offer. With them, extreme metal’s rough, rebellious edge develops into a sonic monster, obviating drums and vocals; guitar and bass prove they are everything metal ever needs – they scream, wail, growl, rumble, batter, assault, roar and, occasionally, sing. They forge the raw materials that are metal and then use these materials to batter the audience with a heaviness that at a more typical concert would be felt only at brief intervals. A Sunn O))) concert is the most intense moment of a death metal concert, stretched out over an hour. Having taken a magnifying glass to sound itself, they similarly place one over heavy metal, revealing both what is heavy and what is metal.
The insistence on sub-bass frequencies forces the audience to feel with their bodies what is being done to their ears. Sunn O))) is coercive synesthesia, as low frequencies are magnified into physical entities. The main content of a Sunn O))) concert is 120 dB of sound emerging from dense fog, and it seems that as “feeling the music” transforms from experiential metaphor into physical reality, the listener is drawn into a private, invisible dance of the being-vibrated-body, rather than to the public dance of moving to the music. In other words, this music dances you.
Music is sometimes uncomfortable. It helps us feel strange, difficult things. The physical experience induced by this concert taught me that my teeth rest in sockets that are ever so slightly hollow, and that hearing and touch can connect like smell and taste. It broke sound into many component parts, rumbling fundamentals and screeching overtones, and slowed down the changes of a sound over its lifespan so that I could hear them as individuals. This breakdown, however, was not a laboratory of observations, but a performance in which stretched, exposed and broken sounds were the music. Sunn O)))’s roaring, rumbling invasion of my body demonstrates how precious, multifaceted and delicate each sound is.
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 A version of this paper was presented at the inaugural European Sound Studies Association (ESSA) conference in Berlin, 4-6 October, 2013. I would like to thank the many conference participants who offered insightful questions and comments on this piece. I would also like to particularly thank Ola Stockfelt and Julia Krause for their comments both at the conference and in the further preparation of this manuscript, as well as my anonymous reviewer.
 Sunn O))) is one of the few members of the “drone doom metal”subgenre. The use of “drone”here differs from the standard musical usage of the word to describe an unchanging bass pitch over which other melodies are played. In drone doom metal, the drones are the pitch content of the music and resemble the droning of heavy machinery, with a single fundamental taking on varied timbral shapes over the course of up to a few minutes.
 Adult humans have a hearing range of approximately 20-20,000 Hz. As points of reference, a modern classical orchestra tunes to an “A”at 440 Hz and the range of the human speech is approximately 85-255 Hz (Baken 1987: 177).
 I am using the decibel A-weighted scale, as it is the standard for measuring environmental noise in both common and legal usage. Unfortunately, db(A) says very little about the strength of the sub-bass frequencies. A dB(C) measurement would reveal more of the strength of the low frequencies at a Sunn O))) concert.
 The auditory threshold of pain is approximate and varies somewhat among individuals, depending on age and previous noise exposure. As a point of reference, a vuvuzela at a distance of 1m reaches about 120 dB (“threshold of discomfort”), and a jet engine at 30m is about 140 dB –certainly painful to the unprotected ear (Sengpiel).
 To date, Sunn O))) have released nine studio albums since 2000, some in collaboration with other artists. These releases exhibit the same magnanimously slow approach to musical form, but are mastered to be listenable on average consumer grade audio equipment, and thus lack the intense focus on the sub-bass that characterizes their live performances. Because this essay focuses on the live experience of Sunn O)))’s music, I have chosen not to include any audio, as it is simply not possible to capture the sensations I describe through either standard field recording or playback equipment.
 For a summary of phenomenological methods as applied to musical experience, see (Bowman 1998: 254-301).
 Michel Serres writes of the interconnectivity of the senses, “How could we see the compact capacity of the senses if we separated them?”(Serres 2008: 305) He further asserts, “…it can be said that our whole posture is linked to our sense of hearing”(Serres 2008: 142), as he argues that hearing comes not only through the ears, but also through the feet and the joints.
 Though of course, as R. Murray Schafer points out, noise has been an important component of all wars (Schafer 1977: 50).
 Bruce Johnson and Martin Cloonan also discuss sonic and musical weaponry, particularly as used by the US military (Johnson and Cloonan 2008: 147-154).
 For further discussion on the fluidity between sonic weapon and music, see Goodman 2010: 27-39.
 Masochistic submission to sound can also be explicitly sexual. Johnson and Cloonan describe a London BDSM club in which women are allegedly brought to orgasm by being tied to a large speaker blasting a “magical”frequency of 33 Hz (Johnson and Cloonan 2008: 21-22).
 My experience of Sunn O)))’s performance echoes Salomé Voegelin’s encounters with Merzbow, Otomo Yoshihide and other sound artists who use noise. Of noise, she writes that it “pulls listening down to [her] feet”(Voegelin 2010: 43), and her discussion of Yoshihide in particular describes how the overwhelming sounds produced by the artist assault the entire body and require complete submission of the senses (Voegelin 2010: 48-50).