The periods of lockdown that have persisted since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic have radically changed what it means to work with sound. Although research on and with sound can take many forms, for many of us, live experiences of sounding events are a major component. In my own case, at least, this is certainly true, since I survive as a nomadic musician and sound artist juggling live concerts, academic research, and instrument building. I have always considered the interplay of these three modes of activity as one braided methodology – researching, performing, and writing about sound and music from a variety of vantage points – with the elements all sharing a reliance on the public performance of sounding activities.
Unfortunately, the global pandemic completely upended this workflow. Before lockdown, I had just presented a series of concerts of my own compositions on self-built instruments, ranging from my “normal” augmented trombone to a series of deconstructions and reimaginations of other brass instruments. While traveling for these performances, I spent my days and nights in hotels and airports writing about them, juxtaposing the writing with the live performances that it referenced. This working method has greatly influenced my theoretical approach to all of these activities. I learned to interpret sound, space, and time as filtered through the various venues and vehicles through which I passed, reinforcing the idea that sound actively resonates in the world, refracting through a variety of situations, contaminating the world and being contaminated in return. In lockdown, however, this was no longer possible; I was instead constricted to my apartment, all upcoming concerts slowly canceled.
Nevertheless, having learned so much about sound as an itinerant performer, I attempted to use this sudden reorganization of life and work as a stimulus to learn differently – that is to say, to learn to think with and about sound in new ways. Limited by my resources at home, I turned to a series of instruments I had been performing with in recent concerts, a set of deconstructed trumpet bells rebuilt as sornas (ancient double reed instruments, versions of which can be found in many cultures). I began to refashion my working process around the materials at hand, using these sornas and the private act of performing at home to think through the bizarre and troubling implications of the global pandemic for my city, as well as for many others. As always, I sought to use my own skills as an instrument builder, performer, and academic to help me understand the world around me, only this time that world was in lockdown. Through juxtaposing the theoretical speculations in this essay with descriptions of building these instruments and recordings of their performance, I sought to reimagine the dynamics of researching with sound through the prism of my home, braiding together academic research, craftsmanship, and performance in order to investigate the changing social situation.
For, even as I was striving to work from the isolation of lockdown, it was impossible to separate that isolation from the broader transformations in social structure and space that the pandemic was and is shaping. Although I myself was homebound – my nomadic lifestyle grounded and inert – it was impossible to ignore the fact that not everyone was, in fact, confined within a home. As Rosalyn Deutsche writes, “The house divides an inside from an outside, but since the ‘outside’ is constitutive it can never really be excluded, only domesticated or enclosed” (Deutsche 1996: 228). This fact became increasingly evident as people rushed about seeking to stockpile supplies before lockdown. Precisely because so many people were suddenly purchasing and wearing face masks, the contingent of the population without money or resources was even more visible than before. Homeless populations were not only without a roof or a house, but often without basic personal protective equipment to protect them from the viral risks of public interaction. The unmasked face became a badge of exclusion. As Deutsche noted, the home is an escape vector, and those who are left behind in public space become subject to a relentless tension of risk, visible at all times to the forces that would police them and vulnerable to the airborne pandemic. The juxtaposition of those experiencing homelessness against the rest of the population scurrying to batten down the hatches revealed so clearly this basic fact: to be left outside is not a release into space but a form of entrapment. Those kettled outside the home are not “outside” at all, but are in fact quite literally enclosed within a set of circumscribed spaces, policed and vulnerable.
Sitting at home experimenting with instruments, I sought ways to think about these various forms of compartmentalization: of people like myself, holed away in apartment buildings and invisible each to one another; and of people without housing, confined in increasingly dangerous public spaces, and thereby more exposed and visible than ever. Working extensively with the theories of Henri Lefebvre, Deutsche conceives of space not as a static vessel to be filled, but as a force of relationships constantly in flux, actively produced and unfolding in time. For her, space is never a neutral situation, but is composed of continuously interacting agencies that enact the frames within which we live. This idea of reality unfolding resonates with a strain of sound studies, evoking the work of scholars who embrace sound as material and omnidirectional: radiating outwards from an excitation, expanding concentrically, and reflecting backwards towards its source (Cox 2011, Cox 2018, Voegelin 2010, Voegelin 2014, LaBelle 2010a, Labelle 2010b).
Sound is a messy business, though, radiating unequally before fading back into immateriality. “Sound […] often irrupts with the hope of an explicit transformation, before diffusing and distorting as it touches and is touched by the world […]. Sound does of course move and act, but the world is crowded” (Tausig 2019: 4-5). As a model for thinking, this messiness is part of its allure as well as part of its problem. Sound is often contrasted to image, with its concentric immersion positioned as a foil to the linear directionality of vision.2 As an alternative to visuality’s directional progression, Brandon LaBelle describes how an engagement with sound can provide the conditions for other modes of thinking to emerge:
[S]ound operates as an emergent community, stitching together bodies that do not necessarily search for each other, and forcing them into proximity. Such movements in turn come to build out a spatiality that is both coherent and divergent—acoustic spatiality is a lesson in negotiation, for it splits apart while also mending; it disrupts the lines between an inside and outside, pulling into its thrust the private and the public to ultimately remake notions of difference and commonality. (LaBelle 2010b: 1)
Jonathan Sterne famously questioned the idea that sound proposes some logic beyond the nominally visual paradigms prevalent in Western culture. In referring to this fabricated binary opposition as an “audiovisual litany” (Sterne 2003: 15), he questions both the fervor with which some embraced this new attitude as well as the very idea that it was somehow new, suggesting it was “essentially a restatement of the longstanding spirit/letter distinction in Christian spiritualism” (Sterne 2003: 16). Although correct in both assertions, these facts by no means preclude the useful counterpoints that aurality and visuality provide each other, nor does the story of thinking with sound instead of vision begin with Christian theology. Using sound as a form and model for thinking is a characteristic of many indigenous traditions of thought, in which sound’s emergent, immanent, and transformative qualities undergird intricate cosmologies, historical records, and legal systems (Munn 1996, Borrows 2001, Napoleon 2009, Thompson 2017, James 2019, Robinson 2020).
In these traditions, sound is not idealized and is not representational. Its immersive potential instead supports a sense of locality and specificity. When immersed, one is not in sudden communion with a whole sphere of interactivity, but is in direct relation to very localized, contiguous agencies. Sound does not express universal generalities. Instead (and in contradiction to some popular understandings of indigenous thought), it shows a vivid particularity of space. “[Indigenous people] do not embrace all trees or love all rivers and mountains. What is important is the relationship you have with a particular tree or a particular mountain” (DeLoria 1999: 23). Space threads together a series of unfolding particularities, emerging from the collision and congealing of contiguous bodies, both human and nonhuman. And, resonating with LaBelle’s description, this spatiality is more than just a space; it is a thick tactility. Indigenous scholar Vanessa Watts describes this as “Place-Thought” (Watts 2013: 21), by which she denotes that thinking is literally contingent on one’s emergent embedding in a space.
Sound helps us to think about space as durational, unfolding. And as previously noted, this sonic emergence is messy—continually and necessarily distorted by an unpredictable convergence of bodies. It is this convergence and cross-contamination of particular bodies in space, however, that allows sound to suggest alternative logics to linearity and compartmentalization. Sound has often been used to deliberately disrupt the organization of public space, whether through public sound art (Lacey 2016) or protest (Russell and Carleton, 2018). In the course of this essay, I will explore this durational tactility of sound and space, describing how my self-built instruments provoked a reimagination of space within my own apartment building while also examining similar sonic interventions in public space that were attempts to give voice to invisibilized and vulnerable populations.
By reinterpreting the home as the site of an emergent situatedness, the durational aspects of space take on more prominence; the viscous temporality of space supersedes its topological specificity. Rather than a particular location on a map or a set of GPS coordinates, an inhabited space is characterized by the congealing of agents that inhabit it, human and nonhuman alike. Sound waves and sonic vibrations manifest this thick temporality. Sound expresses these durational qualities, opening up the spatial construct, not by tearing down physical walls but by opening up the temporal boundaries that stretch out horizontally from these moments.
This durational quality of space has been perhaps most famously theorized by Martin Heidegger, through his concept of dwelling. For Heidegger, “space is not something that faces man. It is neither an external object nor an inner experience […] To say that mortals are is to say that in dwelling they persist through spaces by virtue of their stay among things and locations. And only because mortals pervade, persist through, spaces by their very nature are they able to go through spaces” (Heidegger 1993: 358-359). Although he maintains a strict delineation between human and nonhuman, he suggests obliquely that they are in fact coextensive and that their mutual existence follows from their durational embedding with(in) one another.
The word dwelling suggests this durational opening up of both space and identity. It deprivileges the subjective centralization of a moment in time or a point in space by unfolding it to reveal its rhizomatic lineage radiating outwards in both space and time. Heidegger suggests that dwelling underlies localized activity, both material and ideational. “We do not dwell because we have built, but we build and have built because we dwell” (Heidegger 1993: 350). In this sense, a home is not a quality of construction, i.e. a house, because that construction itself is already an extension of this durational inhabitation, an entanglement of bodies and topographies. The enclosure of localized space is always already unraveled by the dwelling that prefaces its materialization; “to build is in itself already to dwell” (Heidegger 1993: 348). Indeed, dwelling undergirds not only human material creativity but intellectual and spiritual creativity as well: “Dwelling, however, is the basic character of Being in keeping with which mortals exist […]. Building and thinking are, each in its own way, inescapable for dwelling” (Heidegger 1993: 362).
Although this conception of dwelling subverts the enclosure of habitation by grounding it in this haptic sense of duration, it only partially liberates space from its passivity as a vessel of human activity. Whereas Heidegger notes that spaces and mortals pervade each other, he nonetheless interprets dwelling as a teleological ontology. “What if man's homelessness consisted in this, that man still does not even think of the real plight of dwelling as the plight? Yet as soon as man gives thought to his homelessness, it is a misery no longer. Rightly considered and kept well in mind, it is the sole summons that calls mortals into their dwelling” (Heidegger 1993: 363). Space is a stimulus for human self-discovery, helping to reveal that everything from building to thinking is a form of dwelling. For Heidegger, the transcendent confrontation with dwelling as an inalterable state of being, wrested from the thick experience of time and space, overcomes even the misery of homelessness.
This rather quaint reduction of material deprivation to a philosophical conundrum is not the entire legacy of dwelling, though. As a fertile metaphor for the interlaced creativity of bodies and spaces, it continues to provoke thought far beyond Heidegger’s original usage. Tim Ingold borrows the concept of dwelling some decades later, extrapolating from buildings to landscapes. By invoking the traversal of broader topological regions, he adapts the durational tactility of dwelling to more liminal, peripheral embeddings of human subjectivity in the environment. In embracing this embodied inhabitation of time and space, Ingold hopes to subvert the “ancient inclination in Western thought to prioritise form over process […]; embodiment [is] a movement of incorporation rather than inscription, not a transcribing of form onto material but a movement wherein forms themselves are generated” (Ingold 2000: 193). This orientation towards process allows Ingold to envision the unfolding of dwelling as a form of iterative wayfinding within a landscape. In contrast to “the building perspective enshrined in modern science [which] splits mapping into the phases of mapmaking and map-using,” Ingold imagines the processual embodiment of wayfinding as the intertwined emergence of both mapmaking and map-using, suggesting that “people do not traverse the surface of a world whose layout is fixed in advance […]; [r]ather they ‘feel their way’ through a world that is itself in motion, continually coming into being through the combined action of human and non-human agencies” (Ingold 2000: 155). For Ingold, the “dwelling perspective” (Ingold 2000: 5) does not expend itself in the materialization of a particular space but opens itself up at each new step to iterative recreations and reinterpretations. Form is a process, a durational unfolding of space and time. To dwell does not mean to inhabit space but to participate in its unfolding.
Henri Lefebvre ties this emergent production of space even more explicitly to the situated corporeality of bodies. For Lefebvre, the conception of space as a container that precedes that which it contains is an ideological invention, a decorporealization3 of space that dissolves the agency of those bodies it contains. He contends instead that “space is not a pre-existing void, endowed with formal properties alone. To criticize and reject absolute space is simply to refuse a particular representation, that of a container waiting to be filled by a content – i.e. matter, or bodies” (Lefebvre 1991: 170). He proposes in place of this static conception of absolute space a dynamic and organic spatiality, one wherein bodies not only occupy space but participate in its coming-into-being. Bodies are not reduced to passengers embedded in the enactive web of the world but are actively entangled in its emergence:
Can the body, with its capacity for action, and its various energies, be said to create space? Assuredly, but not in the sense that that occupation might be said to ‘manufacture’ spatiality; rather, there is an immediate relationship between the body and its space, between the body’s deployment in space and its occupation of space. Before producing effects in the material realm (tools and objects), before producing itself by drawing nourishment from that realm, and before reproducing itself by generating other bodies, each living body is space and has its space: it produces itself in space and it also produces that space. This is a truly remarkable relationship: the body with the energies at its disposal, the living body, creates or produces its own space; conversely, the laws of space […] also govern the living body and the deployment of its energies. (Lefebvre 1991: 170)
Dwelling, as the durational tactility of space and time, is no longer a quality of the body but a product of its energies. Following Lefebvre’s description of the body’s participation in its environment, the thick temporality of bodies dwelling in homes provokes a non-visual conception of domestic space. Because visual organizations of space privilege the momentary points in time and space in which sightlines emerge, the reformulation of domestic space as an emergent bodily practice of dwelling suggests that non-visual engagements with these productive energies might prove more fruitful in describing the qualities of this “movement wherein forms themselves are generated” (Ingold 2000: 193). In approaching the tactile embedding of bodies in the immanent unfolding of dwelling, sound offers an alternative to the linearity of visualization. LaBelle imagines sound “as a hinge, bringing into contact particular contradictory forces or conditions […]. Sound in general can be heard to function similarly, creating a space that is both here and there, concrete and ephemeral; it delivers the world in all its materiality while already disappearing into the ether. Sound brings into conversation the unnameable with the nameable, the representational with the non-represented” (LaBelle 2010b: 1). Sound may serve as a pivot between material bodies and the immaterial interactions between them, inhabiting and emerging from the interstitial relations that stitch together material spaces across these spans of thick temporality. Its vibration through bodies and spaces maps the concatenation of corporeal agencies, both human and nonhuman, that congeal in the home.
While working with these conceptions of space during lockdown, I began to search for ways to explore the durational embodiment of space in my home. As a sound artist accustomed to working primarily outside of my home, this orientation towards domestic space was a surprising turn. I am used to travel, to encountering new spaces, to working in airports and trains, and to exploring the sonic world by embedding myself in an ever-variable succession of places and spaces. In this peripatetic lifestyle, it is quite easy to access the durational sensations I have been describing. Because sound emerges in many new situations, and because the body is constantly encountering new constellations of sound-producing agents (and networks of agents), the relational duration of both time and space are constantly in play. Even travel itself, which is the ever-present in this equation, exists in our modern consciousness as a manifestation of duration more than distance. We tend to measure our journeys from city to city or continent to continent by the time it takes rather than by the topological distances that separate our points of departure and arrival. The circulation of bodies is thus defined by duration, as space itself is measured by units of time. Thick duration becomes a matter-of-fact sensation in this globalized, mobile mode of dwelling.
In the home, however, this relationality is less foregrounded and more difficult to access. The unfolding of sonic space as an interactive web of bodies and spaces, so palpable when traversing spaces and times outside the home, is dulled within the domestic space. The enclosure of the home forecloses the number of potential encounters with new bodies. The durational qualities of dwelling become more abstract, more metaphysical than physical. The circulation of bodies, which resounds in the hallways and avenues of the landscapes we traverse, is replaced by the circulation of our own blood. The rhythms of urban life are supplanted by the pulse of our bodily rhythms, by the repetitive traversal of our own corporeality. And while the ceaseless murmuring of our blood and our breath can be fascinating to encounter in the intimacy of the home, these recursive encounters can be experienced as a stark contrast to the directional mobility of what would normally be a more nomadic lifestyle. The constancy of these circulations within the home – from the blood’s traversal of the entire body every 15 minutes (Berman 2014) to the repetitive rhythms of daily domestic life – gives the feeling that the home compresses nomadic rhythms from spans of weeks or months to those of hours, minutes, or seconds.
Nonetheless, the home does incorporate its own nomadic rhythms, and the thick duration of dwelling is always already a corporealization of space. As Lefebvre notes, for a body to take up space, it must necessarily have already produced that space, must have contributed to the commingling of energies that have dwelt in and continue to dwell in that space. These productions of space, including domestic space, are movements not primarily in space but through time. The abutting of agencies in this durational network traces the subtle movement that persists even through the seeming stasis of enclosure. In her decades-long engagement with the concept of nomadism, Rosi Braidotti elucidates the veins of interrelational movement that stretch out beneath the surface of such illusory stases. “Nomadic becoming is neither a reproduction nor just an imitation, but rather emphatic proximity, intensive inter-connectedness” (Braidotti 2014: 182). She examines the vectorial exchange of energy as a primary source of nomadic directionality, in the place of a purely topographical conception of movement or migration. The complex relations of proximity can produce effects similar or identical to those of movement. The exchange of energy through the durational coexistence of bodies in proximity is related to the exchange of energy afforded by the displacement and encounter of bodies through space. As Braidotti writes, “Proximity, attraction or intellectual sympathy is both a topological and qualitative notion” (Braidotti 2014: 174). The qualitative differences that arise from bodies’ encounters through proximity is the primary creative force in this conception of nomadism. And in this case, the durational immanence of dwelling is just as or more nomadic than the circulation of one’s self through the globalized travel and work networks of modern life. For Braidotti, the vectors of creativity that converge in energetically-charged proximity build a vertiginous momentum:
These involve the spatio-temporal co-ordinates that make it possible for subjects to coincide temporarily with and be synchronized with the degrees, levels, expansion and extension of the head-on rush of the ‘outside’ folding inwards. Whether the outside is a roar of cosmic energy or the unspectacular and barely perceptible heartbeat of a squirrel is just a matter of degrees. (Braidotti 2014: 172)
According to Braidotti, this conception of nomadism is not only a way of understanding the world around us, whether it be a home or a city or a landscape, but, when applied, it is also a means to produce knowledge and sustain artistic and intellectual creativity. Following Donna Haraway, she suggests that knowledge is by nature situated. It emerges from the particular vantage points of the observer, who is necessarily peripheral, liminal. Knowledge is intrinsically linked to the specific placement of a body in space and time, which invariably shifts in the course of that knowledge production. Emphasizing the subjectivity of knowledge production allows for the nomadic energies that Braidotti describes to become more apparent, as a productive force rather than a disruptive obstacle to objectivity. Haraway writes, “We do not seek partiality for its own sake, but for the sake of the connections and unexpected openings situated knowledges make possible” (Haraway, 1991: 196). Braidotti expands on this notion of situatedness to include the transient energy of nomadism, which revels in the durational as well as the topographical aspects of situated knowledge: “As Haraway rightly puts it: you must be located somewhere in order to make statements of general value. Nomadism, therefore, is not fluidity without borders but rather an acute awareness of the nonfixity of boundaries. It is the intense desire to go on trespassing, transgressing” (Braidotti 1994: 36).
Situatedness, then, is a perpetual transgressing. The dissolution of stasis suggests that dwelling is not an inhabitation as such, but a continual creative act of encountering, a neverending trespass in new situations. Ingold similarly turns to the perpetual blurriness of boundaries to extrapolate a practice of situated knowledge production from the immanent, nomadic qualities of dwelling. He suggests the concept of weaving as a metaphor for embodied knowledge production analogous to the concept of dwelling described above. He contrasts weaving with making, thereby reversing the relationship of form and movement:
The notion of making, of course, defines an activity purely in terms of its capacity to yield a certain object, whereas weaving focuses on the character of the process by which that object comes into existence. To emphasise making is to regard the object as the expression of an idea; to emphasise weaving is to regard it as the embodiment of a rhythmic movement. Therefore to invert making and weaving is also to invert idea and movement, to see the movement as truly generative of the object rather than merely revelatory of an object that is already present, in an ideal, conceptual or virtual form, in advance of the process that discloses it. (Ingold 2000: 346)
Weaving implies that all knowledge is durationally embedded, embodied by the vectors of proximity and nomadic energy that converge in its production. Weaving suggests a practice of knowledge production that is “punctuated but not terminated by the appearance of the pieces that it successively brings into being” (Ingold, 2000: 348). It harnesses aspects of creative and artistic production to imagine knowledge as an enactive performance with and of the world rather than as an observational study of it. Braidotti also uses this reimagination of knowledge as a situated and emergent process to encourage a practice of thinking more artistically than scientifically. “Nomadic shifts enact a creative sort of becoming; they are a performative gesture that allows for otherwise unlikely encounters and unsuspected sources of interaction, experience and knowledge” (Braidotti 2014: 184). She goes even further to suggest that writing and reading (her primary media of artistic expression) demand this mode of nomadic engagement, herein imagined as a weaving of interlaced coming-into-being: “A post-personal writing/reading mode is consequently created as the appropriate way of doing nomadic thought, in that it allows for a web of connections to be drawn on the zig-zagging paths of shared subjectivity and not merely on the tightrope of identity” (Braidotti 2014: 168).
Braidoitti’s and Ingold’s suggestions that localized compressions of agency can produce nomadic, weaving knowledge production prompted me to imagine how domestic space can support experiments in sound art that engage with the unique questions raised by this period of lockdown. Sound contains a capacity to bridge the material and immaterial, to serve as a hinge between the durational viscosities of time and space. Sound, then, is uniquely suited to provoke the relationships of proximity that Braidotti describes, mining enclosed stasis for the kinetic engagements that it can elicit. Sound unfolds spatiotemporally and in so doing can interlace the variety of human and nonhuman bodies within a space. It weaves together more than just what is present in a room, but the walls and the exterior of a home, as well. It envelopes and releases simultaneously, producing momentary excitations of resonance and reverberation, kaleidoscopic transformations within the static confines of a home during lockdown. Although these resonances enact not only sympathetic reverberations but also interferences and suppressions, even these disjunctures serve to stitch together the interwoven morass.
Heeding Braidotti’s call to think nomadically with and through my proximate, (non)human companions in place, I returned to experiments with a series of instruments I have been constructing off and on for several years. Building instruments is both a time- and space-intensive process. However, despite its slow gestation (encompassing both the weeks required to build an instrument as well as the decades or centuries of practical knowledge that have been channeled into that endeavor) and its spatial and temporal remove from the performance stage, this process has, in some ways, a far greater influence on the resultant sound than the actual performance itself. As with the conception of space as a progressive exclusion of possibilities, the process of building an instrument entails the slow transformation of raw materials that could be turned into almost anything (is this metal for a flute, or a piano, or for a saxophone or an electric guitar?) into finished material that is clearly optimized for particular performance practices (e.g., a flute). There can be quite a lot of variance, however, between whether experimentation in this process should serve to build upon and perfect traditions or whether it can augment or reinvent those traditions. Hermann von Helmholtz, arguably the most influential researcher in the history of acoustics, continually problematized these two research goals. His experiments and inventions supported all manner of technical evolution in the instruments of his day, as well as “facilitat[ing] experiments and undergird[ing] proofs related to both physiology and music theoretical concepts” (Hannaford 2020). But Helmholtz was not satisfied with merely perfecting the preexisting, and he dreamed of many other possibilities, such as using his research on just intonation to reinvent the vocal practices and music education of his time, “demonstrat[ing] with special vividness how much his project went beyond ‘mere’ fact or theory, to envision material changes in musical practice” (Steege 2012: 178). The instrumental experiments that have accompanied this essay thus far document my own similar attempts to juxtapose traditions of instrument construction with new imaginations of what actually could be constructed. Although I also build traditional instruments (specializing in brass instruments), I continually approach the raw materials, metal tubes and sheets, of those instruments with new tools and methods in order to work with them to uncover other acoustic potentials inherent in their material qualities.
In particular, as a brass instrument builder, I occasionally encounter so-called junk or trash, pieces of metal that were intended to become trumpets or trombones but, because of some mistake within the process, are no longer suitable. They have been crushed or punctured, wrinkled or dented, and suddenly, their transformation from sheet metal to musical instrument is disrupted, and they migrate from the workbench to the trashbin. And so, when possible, I take the time to examine them more closely and find pieces that are still open to other avenues of construction, pieces that might suggest other trajectories of instrument building that in turn open up alternative forms of sound production. Among the many such experiments that I engage in, I have been slowly salvaging destroyed and discarded trumpet bells and reimagining them as strange and unpredictable sornas.
Sornas and sorna-like instruments exist throughout the world. The earliest known examples stem from Persia in the 6th century BCE, and the prevalence of similar instruments from China (suona) to Turkey (zurna) to Europe (shawm, and later oboe) suggest that they spread through the world from there (Miller 1999: 272). Sornas (and their cousin instruments) typically consist of a trumpet-like tapered tube with a double reed mouthpiece, frequently with a small plate around the reed to allow the mouth to cover it entirely. They are typically very melodic instruments, and the high degree of backpressure that the reed creates allows performers to play for long, uninterrupted stretches, even at high volume, making it ideal for many forms of folk music, especially outdoors. The sornas that I produce are quite different from those, though, for various reasons. For one, mine are metal (brass), as opposed to wood. More importantly, the bore and taper of the bells that I repurpose are smaller and longer than a typical sorna. Even more critically, the randomness with which I drill the finger-holes ensures that the resulting melodic and harmonic potential of my trumpets-turned-sornas are unpredictable and frequently unstable. The sonic results would be unrecognizable to any traditional sorna (or zurna, or suona) player.
While I have been slowly producing these instruments over the last few years, this particular project (documented in the recordings linked to each section of this essay) emerged in the course of lockdown. In seeking to find bodies and objects and sounds within my domestic sphere that could provoke the nomadic proximity that Braidotti describes, I turned to a particularly rough trumpet bell that I had salvaged following a production mistake. The perforated bell is unlike any that I had previously involved in my sorna experiments. Because it crossed the threshold into failure earlier in the building process, the metal is less treated (i.e. thicker), and it is longer and has a less round bore than other bells. It is, in a sense, more raw. In search of the unpredictable, I took advantage of the length of the bell to drill several holes very close to the end. This difference would provoke slightly different acoustic qualities than any of my previous experiments, although to what extent I could not anticipate in advance.
Once I had transformed the trumpet bell into a sorna – a transition that recalls Braidotti’s cyborgian “meta(l)morphoses” (Braidotti 2011: 55) – I was able to begin experimenting with it sonically. Again, in the spirit of the project, I altered my usual approach. The normal backpressure that enables long, melismatic melodies in traditional sorna music also allows for long uninterrupted phrases. A sorna player typically uses this backpressure to facilitate circular breathing as well, producing truly uninterrupted passages of highly active performance. However, in this instance, after reflecting on the turn inwards that my ruminations on dwelling and nomadism had prompted, I chose to respond more to my body’s natural pulmonary rhythms. By restricting myself to one breath per action, my body’s internal rhythms interacted with the backpressure of the instrument, which in this context essentially expands or augments my lung capacity. Rather than interrogating the instrument through searching for particular sounds, I let it speak in largely uninterrupted passages with little attempt to control or alter the sound by myself. Essentially, then, the reed and the sorna interact with each other through the aid of my breath. In the resultant sound, complex standing waves within the tube are superposed, producing the rich, noisy textures and timbres that characterize the recordings included here.
The space itself also imposes itself. The reflection of sound around the small and acoustically dry space of the apartment is palpable in many moments of the recording. Additionally, as the bell dips up and down based on my bodily motion (and fatigue) as I blow into it, I placed a trumpet mute on the floor in such a way that these dips would allow it to gradually insert into the end of sorna, which then progressively affects a small segment of the acoustic and harmonic profile of the instrument.4 In these recordings, most of the sonic transformations that occur are results not of my manipulation of the instrument’s performance technique but of the interactions of superposed sound waves within the tube and their diffraction through the room and the objects present. The domestic sphere, the ‘failed’ instrument at hand, and my own body converged in their proximity, congealing into an assemblage of metal, flesh, and architecture that produces sonic weavings: ateleological experiments that unfold through the immanent cohabitation (co-dwelling) of these human and nonhuman agents.
It is no surprise that, in examining the situated knowledge-making practices of nomadism, Braidotti also invokes the spirit of Haraway’s cyborg manifesto (Haraway 1991), writing that “[c]yborgs and nomads are traveling companions: they are productive figurations that stress the impact of creativity in the thinking process” (Braidotti 2011: 66). In this case, the agencies of myself, the sorna, and the home are provoking each other’s creativity through their thickly proximate dwelling. The collision of their respective unfolding is enmeshed in and through one another, the sonic result vibrating outwards concentrically, like the radial basket weaving that inspired Ingold’s terminology. Their agential contributions to this sonic result are inextricably intertwined: not one of these agencies produces any appreciable result on the sound without some simultaneous provocation of another agency. The materials inhabit one another in the truly durational sense, collapsing inwards with a nomadic energy that then explodes back outwards in waves of Lefebvrian corporeal force. Their sonic codependence reinforces Braidotti’s insistence that “[n]omadic radical immanence […] allows us to respect the bond of mutual dependence between bodies and technological others, while avoiding the contempt for the flesh and the subsequent fantasy of escape from the finite materiality of the enfleshed self” (Braidotti 2011: 61).
The traditional sorna (left) consists of a wooden taper about 30 centimeters in length, with eight to nine tone holes (seven to eight on the front and one on the back). The version that I created for this project (right), in addition to being made of brass instead of wood, lengthens the taper, starting with a smaller bore and continuing for nearly 60 centimeters. The tone holes have also been placed at the very beginning of the taper and limited to six (five in front and one in back). In addition, I replaced the traditional sorna reed with a larger and less stable reed (i.e. less tightly secured by string and mouthpiece). (As noted in the text, most of the brass sornas I build are closer or identical to traditional dimensions, but this one was constructed with more dramatically altered tapers, lengths, tone holes, and reeds in order to provoke acoustic differences.) (All photos by Kevin Toksöz Fairbairn)
Even as these experiments with the sorna provoked a reinterpretation of space within my body and apartment, they also placed me in direct relation to bodies and spaces outside of my apartment. As Lefebvre notes, “the living body[ ] creates or produces its own space” (Lefebvre 1991: 170). In this case, the cyborgian body composed by the sorna and myself produced its own evolving space, imbued with a specific potential for interactivity. But as it produced this space in my apartment, it also crossed the threshold into other apartments, producing larger scales of space with new potentials for interactivity. This trespassing placed us in a new relation to the world, no longer concerned purely with studying sound in an intimate private space, but thrust into a more complex ecosystem with interpersonal and political ramifications.
Lefebvre’s evocations of the bodily production of space form part of his project to counter what he calls the decorporealization of space (Lefebvre 1991). In the face of capitalist exploitations that claim space as a container with objective, utilitarian purposes, Lefebvre seeks to resurrect an awareness of the embodied roots that space nonetheless retains, stretching outwards in the thick spatiotemporal relations that so much of this essay has been occupied with. My experiences building and performing sornas at home are a fairly minor anecdote in the grand scheme of the world Lefebvre imagines, but they nonetheless manage to propose an interesting challenge to the decorporealization of space within the apartment building in which I dwell.
My building, like many others, comprises many isolated apartment units, compartmentalized and sequestered. Although we see each other in the hallways or at the mailboxes, there is relatively little contact. In an interesting confirmation of this compartmentalization, the apartment management insists that fellow residents not contact one another nor engage in mediation of disputes except through the intermediary of the management office. Their stance unwittingly reifies precisely the decorporealization of space that Lefebvre diagnoses. They seek to limit our experience of the building to a series of commodities (privacy, maintenance, mail, etc.) disconnected from the other residents living just beyond the width of a surprisingly thin wall. This insistence on centralized mediation applies, quite naturally, to noise complaints, among other issues. And, unsurprisingly, daily sorna practice generated some problems with neighbors, especially during a lockdown period in which so many white-collar workers were working from home every day.
While previously we had all been going to work and spending time at home in our respective apartments, blissfully unaware of each other, my homebound sorna practice perforated this manufactured compartmentalization. My neighbors and I were forced to reckon with the messy radiation of sound waves, hindered and distorted but by no means halted by the walls of the apartment building. The sudden discovery of shared sonic space led to discussions among ourselves about how to share time, so that my daily sorna practice could coexist with my neighbors’ daily work (and life) routines. Rather than a source of conflict, the sorna’s problematization of communal sonic space served as an impetus to communal conversation and decision-making. This story, then, had a nominally happy conclusion. In the end, the sorna served not to disrupt our communal domestic space but to thread it together, eliciting more interaction and cooperation among ourselves.
However, it is not only apartment buildings that are organized to optimize compartmentalization and oversight. Deutsche’s description of the enclosure of public space outlines precisely how this occurs in public space. In discussing the homeless, she reveals how the bodies that are excluded from domestic space are in fact enclosed by this system. She relays in alarming detail the ways in which urban design in America contributes to this process. For example, when urban planners design (or redesign) parks with clear open spaces, visual sightlines connecting all or most points, and prominent lighting (to list one possible set of design elements), they are enacting a very specific objective: public space that will enable police to effectively and efficiently clear the area of homeless inhabitants. The logic of open space and visual accessibility undergirds a regime of displacement and disappearance. The prevalence of these tactics means that the mere transformation of space in this manner can already displace the homeless, since they know very well the risks that await them, rendering the violence of their displacement implicit and hidden. These transformations unfold under the guise of transparency and civic-mindedness, masked as a project to make public space more open and accessible. Underneath this sunny rhetoric, though, lies the act of subsuming a space to its presumed utilitarian civic purpose, a discrete decorporealizing process designed not only to discomfort the homeless, but to literally displace and disappear them, as well (Deutsche 1996).
The homeless are just one vulnerable population affected by this type of spatial organization. Throughout history, similar tactics have also been used on minority, incarcerated, or other politically silenced peoples. The recent lockdowns during the global pandemic have had the unexpected effect of accentuating the repressive decorporealization of space among groups of people otherwise more insulated from its effects. And while we at home may be discovering how sound can stitch segmented spaces together (through the minor domestic dramas of sorna practice, in my case), there is a much longer history of sonic interventions in surveilled and isolated communities. In fact, sound has often played a significant role in puncturing spatial control by the state. Noise parades have been a typical expression of protests and unrest in Western Europe for centuries, known as charivari in France or rough music in England, and these practices migrated with European settlers to their colonies (Pencak 2002). The use of noise to disrupt and signal discontent evolved into the more famous pot-banging protest traditions, or cacerolazo, which have become especially prevalent in certain Latin American countries (Snider 2012). When Pinochet banned gatherings of more than four people, thereby enforcing a political quarantine, Chileans responded with cacerolazo protests, using the power of sound to deconstruct Pinochet’s weaponization of spatial compartmentalization (Gabbatt 2012; Rivera 2020). In some instances, these pot-banging protests serve not only to signal discontent, but to actually transmit information, such as during the Gezi Park protest in Turkey in 2013, when pot-banging protests every night at 9pm helped undermine the government’s and media’s attempts to underreport the extent of the protests (Baydar 2015). Similar sonic interventions have also been staged outside prisons, using “counter-carceral acoustemologies” to build communication and solidarity between prisoners and protesters on opposite sides of the state’s enclosure (Russell and Carleton 2018: 296). By reclaiming space sonically and using noisemaking to recorporealize urban spaces, these practices pose a distinct threat to the powers that seek (or seem) to control them.
The current global pandemic and subsequent lockdowns have been accompanied by both increased spatial compartmentalization as well as sweeping protests and social upheavals. As these stories unfold, the most spatially-controlled and vulnerable populations will undoubtedly place these issues in the starkest relief. While the beginning of lockdown saw increased food donations to homeless shelters and food banks as large institutions such as theme parks looked for ways to dispose of their sudden surpluses (John 2020), those donations were met with record need and dependence upon the unlikely continuation of that largesse. Since that initial outpouring, the homeless have been left behind, increasingly policed and vulnerable (Gonsalves 2020). At the same time, the various autonomous zones that have arisen around protest areas have allowed protesters to take advantage of available spaces (such as hotels) to create new and effective shelters for homeless and other at-risk populations (Lurie 2020). Even as the homeless face higher incidences of viral infection than the general population (Simone 2020; Fertel 2020),5 communities and protesters have responded with efforts to support and protect these populations.
In writing about the homeless and their relationship to urban space, Deutsche notes that presence is already a form of change, a means of spatial production and therefore appropriation (Deutsche 1996: 38-43). My experiments with the sorna set out to examine how sonic presence can challenge spatial decorporealization, both within domestic spaces as well as within the larger communities in which they are embedded. The sorna shows how the (re)appropriation of bodies, sounds, and spaces can provoke confrontation and cooperation between people otherwise isolated from each other. Deutsche proposes that presence is resistance, and sound has the capacity to amplify and extend that presence, as exemplified by cacerolazo protests. As Emma K. Russell and Bree Carleton’s study of acoustic protests outside prisons show, sonic presence can have powerful and meaningful effects on people trapped in isolation (Russell and Carleton 2018). The sorna helps show how sound can literally redraw topologies, combatting the effacement of bodies. Sound helps to effect proximity, which in turn fosters interaction, conversation, and community. The anecdotes related here about an upcycled trumpet bell in an apartment building sketch a vision of housing that is not based on compartmentalization, but which is instead characterized by the thick spatiotemporal fabric of dwelling together. They envision communities and communal spaces interwoven to support the emergence of dynamic, nomadic energies even within confinement. Sound provides a framework to examine these issues philosophically and aesthetically while also providing the means to enact presence in the real world right now, as the cacerolazo traditions demonstrate. And, perhaps, the eventual home for these sornas will indeed be in the streets, enmeshed in the nomadic fabric of protests, reimagining social space both domestic and communal.
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Following Rosalyn Deutsche, this essay examines how the binary opposition enforced by the boundaries of domesticity enforce containment and enclosure, particularly of excluded bodies, i.e. the homeless. This enclosure, which is read through Henri Lefebvre’s concept of the decorporealization of space, is enforced primarily through a logic of visuality and compartmentalization. This essay proposes sound as a means to counter these states of enclosure. Using concepts of dwelling (Heidegger), weaving (Ingold), and nomadism (Braidotti), a sonic recorporealization is developed through personal, domestic sound art experimentation and instrument building. The results and repercussions are then examined in the context of the singular home, its local community, and society more broadly, wherein sound is proposed as a means to instigate practices of spatial recorporealization.
Kevin Toksöz Fairbairn is a sound artist based between Boston and Zürich. He presents his work in venues throughout Europe and America. As an actively performing musician, he specializes in the performance, improvisation, and composition of experimental music, and his commitment to exploring sound has led to many unique projects both within notated music and beyond. He completed his Ph.D. in artistic research at Leiden University in 2020.