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If You Were to Clap.

If I Were To Listen
If You Were To Clap
If you were to clap, a storm of synapses would fire across
your brain, scattering left and right from both cerebral
hemispheres, crackling their way through the efferent
nervous system until they reach the junction box of your
spine. From there a complex switching process begins, with
electro-chemical chain reactions spreading out from your
spine through relays of knotty ganglia, reaching out to the
skeletal muscles in your arms, contracting some, relaxing
others. All the while the proprioceptors are sending out their
own somatic semaphore, reporting muscle position and
proximity back up to the medulla so that further instructions
can be delivered down the line. Your shoulders open, your
elbows rise, the hundred bones in your hand are
choreographed to close your fingers into an approximation of
the webbed appendage it once was; your ligaments tighten
under the tendons, your shoulders close, the elbows move
towards each other, and you clap.
As your palms connect and the tips of your fingers touch, the
force of your muscles, the posture you have assumed, the
thickness of your subcutaneous fat, the texture of your skin –
all this and more – determine the characteristics of the
mechanical energy that is released by your clap. The force of
the collision of your hands pushes out into the air that
surrounds it in the form of a pulse that is shaped by some
pockets of molecules being squeezed together (compression)
while their neighbours are stretched apart (rarefaction). This
pulse is called a sound wave, the pattern of whose peaks and
troughs is described by acousticians in terms of frequency,
amplitude and wave shape and by musicians in
corresponding terms of pitch, loudness and timbre.

As the wave rolls away from your knuckles and fingernails each movement a process of one vibrating molecule passing
the baton of energy on to the next – its onward journey is
guided by the space in which you stand. Are there hard walls
to rudely shove the wave back? Are there piles of discarded
clothes that will smother the sound by robbing it of its force?
How dense is the air where you are? What is its
Your clap is forged in a cauldron of chaos where innumerable
events unfold across media of immeasurable complexity.
Shifting register and scale from your brain to your hands to
the room through chemical to electrical to mechanical and
then to acoustic energy. Energy that leaves the blocks at
three hundred and sixty six metres a second before
eventually losing momentum as it passes through air,
bounces off stone, slides through glass before making one
final exhausted alchemical transformation into the energy of
If I Were To Listen
If I were to listen, then my skin would be joined to yours. The
vibrating sound wave that had its origins in the skin of your
palms would wind its way across the room until it connected
with my body, perhaps skirting imperceptibly across my
unshaven neck, before spiralling down the fleshy pinnas that
jut out from the side of my head to tap a tattoo on the taut
membrane of my ear drum. From there yet another relay is
set in motion, this time one that sees the hammer bone
connected to the anvil bone, the anvil bone connected to the
stirrup bone, the stirrup bone connected to the cochlea and
the cochlea connected to the Organ of Corti.
In the last stages on the route from your clap to my listen,
the pulse pushes deeper inside my body and undergoes
something of an inversion of the process that your brain

began. This time, the energy sequence is mirrored, moving
from acoustic to mechanical, to electrical to chemical, with
the million and a half hairs in the Organ of Corti each striped
with many neurons that deliver information for my brain to
A knowledge of how you ‘clap’ and how I ‘listen’ - even when
that knowledge is half-digested from elaborately served
numbers and diagrams and through unfamiliar words – is not
knowledge that erodes marvel. To know that with my eyes
shut, I can autonomically measure the differences in
amplitude between what I hear with my left ear and what I
hear with my right and from that disparity judge where you
are standing while you are clapping and whether you are
moving, is a knowledge that sparkles more brightly when I
hear that the smallest detectable interaural-time difference
is reckoned to be 20 millionths of a second. To know that in
addition to enabling echolocation, the human ears’
sensitivity to sound means that the smallest sound we can
hear contains a million millionth of the energy of the loudest
sound we can tolerate does not diminish my awe. To know
that when we respond to that smallest sound, the detecting
mechanism is moving a distance equivalent to a tenth of the
diameter of the smallest atom this, too, doesn’t dry things
out into brittle banality.
No network of ice-cold supercomputers connected to a
bustling chemical laboratory that, in turn, was coupled to
teams of mechanics equipped with the most delicate mills
and lathes could even come close to duplicating the
dynamism of the journey between your clap and my
listening. It is perhaps the admixture of the infinitesimal and
the infinite, of motion and rest, the shifts between different
physical states and the queasy processes through which
sound joins the most intimate enclosures of our two bodies,
that has propelled the analysis of the sounded world into the

Nearly a thousand years ago, the great Majd Al-Dîn AlGhazãlî, working out of Baghdad’s law school, proposed a
defence of the “nobility of audition” whose language echoes
what we have heard so far: movement and quiescence, the
interior touching the exterior which then returns the
compliment in kind, the very small meeting the very large.
Where Al-Ghazãlî’s writing strikes its own notes is in its
summoning of a new set of agents: the heart, the spirit,
ecstasy, “the hidden lights and secrets” and Allah Himself all
vying for attention in the understanding of your clapping and
my listening.
The temptation to cosmologise the acoustic - to intone “nada
brahma, the world is sound” – is made more acute when we
move out from one clap and one set of ears. Outside the
clap-listen scenario are environments filled with sound with
frequencies above and below our thresholds of hearing – but
perhaps still within the clinamen of perception. There are
atmospheres where sounds are so low in energy that even
the hyper-sensitive mechanisms already described cannot
register them; or, conversely, so full of energy that they may
place us in perilous proximity to the 210,000 people a year
that die from heart disease caused by long-tem exposure to
‘noise’, according to the World Health Organisation. There
are sounds whose origins are so close that they come from
inside your body – the rumbling stomach, the thumping
heart, the crackling cartilage, the whining nervous system –
but are masked in all but the most tranquil occasions. And
there are sounds whose sources are so far away that the
distance they have travelled is not the few metres from your
clap to my ears but the five million metres of vibrating
molecules that extended from the erupting Krakatoa all the
way to Mauritius.
Analogue Speakers

The catalyst for this long reverie about clapping and listening
was the work of Ed Osborn. To immerse myself in a creative
portfolio stretching back over two decades was to be
confronted by a stunning ability to balance a horizontal
dimension that is testimony to range with a vertical axis that
is evidence of proportional depth and detail. Osborn works
simultaneously across and between the fields of sculpture,
installation, organised sound and performance, playing out a
kinetics of the audible where processes and problematics are
sometimes hidden, sometimes revealed.
It was the recurring appearance of exposed speakers and
snaking cables that got me thinking. The audio speaker can
be held as an analogue of both the clap and the listen. The
speaker-as-clap because there is a similar energy translation
system functioning – here, electrical-mechanical-acoustic –
and the same operation of fluctuating pressure zones where
the speaker diaphragm, exercised by a constantly reversing
magnetic flux, pushes and then stops pushing the
neighbouring air molecules. There is speaker-as-listen, too,
because morphologically the naked speaker cones that
occasionally populate Osborn’s work resemble, through a
squint, the surrealist spectacle of so many fleshy pinna cut
off and carbonised but with the wires retained as equivalents
of the auditory nerves. The speaker-as-listen exerts itself,
too, through the speakers’ visible and audible presence in
the gallery inviting its visitors to shift bodily gears and
change their minds from hearing to listening.
Osborn’s work is amenable to semiotic analysis, to a treasure
hunt for symbol and association. How could it not be?
There would be room for Roman Jakobson’s syntagmatic axis
– where the swings and their movements could be
understood metonymically, extending out from the swings
installed in the gallery to the other, external, swings of our
habitual associations. Swing Set is also able to have its

meaning charted along what Jakobson called the
paradigmatic line. Here it would be metaphor that ruled the
interpretative roost and, accordingly, other trains of response
would be set in motion, ones that saw the installation as a
closed interpretative unity. Arrays of meaning could then be
made out of the diverse connections between Swing Set’s
various elements: the material, the dynamic and the
So it is quite possible for Swing Set to be read according to a
variety of interpretations in these charged times: stories of
childhoods past and present, tales of loss and abandonment
and other narratives too.
Having made a ritual genuflexion towards the potential of
the metonymic and the metaphorical approaches to such art
work, I wish to encounter Swing Set from a different
perspective – I prefer to listen.