Distressing aural images on the fringe of the gaze
Pieter Verstraete Amsterdam School for Cultural Analysis & Theatre Department, University of Amsterdam The Netherlands
Paper for the ORBIS PICTUS - THEATRUM MUNDI CONFERENCE Amsterdam, Goethe Institut, 24 October 2008, 11am
http://www.theatrummundi.com/ How does music theatre relate to the world through its representation in sounds and images? What is to be understood with ‘world’ for that matter, when we talk about music theatre’s position in the world? How does music theatre offer images of the world and feed them back to the world? How do these images work on the beholder – the spectator or listener – on the fringe between looking and listening? And how are those images ‘distressing’, as the title of my presentation suggests? I will give tentative answers to these questions as they became apparent at the completion of my dissertation, entitled “The Frequency of Imagination: Auditory Distress and Aurality in Contemporary Music Theatre” and which I also discussed in my latest article in a new book on sound in performance, Sonic Mediations: Sound Body Technology (appeared with CSP). My intentions with the present presentation are purely theoretical. I will therefore not ‘distress’ you with a case study, as I choose to address more general, theoretical issues on imagery and auditory imagination. My contribution focuses then specifically on the relation between sound, aural images and the sense of ‘world’ in our modes of relating to music and sound in the theatre, but it by no means excludes correspondences with visual images. I will first explain my main thesis as I have developed in my dissertation, that is: every auditory experience is always based on a certain level of distress. Within the auditory experience certain responses help the listener to cope with the auditory distress. Starting from this thesis, I will demonstrate here how the responses have a cognitive basis in the imagination. I will discuss two specific types of response then, first ‘auditory gazing’ as a consequence of acousmatic listening that steers our attention, and second, ‘narrativization’ as a particularly compelling response to musicalization. Finally, I will make some speculations on how the discussed stimulus-response mechanism could offer a critical perspective on the notion of the sounding ‘world’. The sounding world and auditory distress As a departure point, I would like to specify my initial question: How could we discuss ‘world’ in relation to hearing and listening in music theatre? Surely, according to the ‘metaphysics of fiction’ (Kivy 1994) in a tradition of dramatic representation, theatre and opera represent their own, genuine, fictional worlds, which seem sometimes so far off from the world outside the auditorium. Distance between the spectator and the stage has long 1
served as the main vehicle to draw both worlds – fictional and real – closer to each other in dramatic expression and perspective. This safe distance in both theatre and opera traditions has however become insufficient. Though the Wagnerian total theatre already aimed at a re-appropriation of the ear, privileging synaesthetic experiences of totality in the senses, its conceiled unbalance in relation to the eye has been numerously critized. Similar criticisms impinged on its technological innovations with its inclinations towards ‘anaesthesizing’ the spectator through the drama and the phantasmagoria, making her or him unaware of the outside noises of the modern world. As our auditory worlds became gradually more complex with modernity, the acoustically masked and controlled auditorium in the darkness of the theatre could no longer sustain its claims of control on the auditory. In modernist movements, sound and auditory experience found their way as the epitomes for the growing complexity of the modern world into avant-garde expressions and experiments that would highlight the distressing, impelling and uncontrolled nature of sound. My central argument is however a reversal of this idea: sound, in whatever perceptual manifestation, is always distressing and that its effect on the perceiver – or on a much larger scale, our ‘visual’ culture – should not only be regarded as merely an aesthetic or argumentative strategy. Rather, I regard auditory distress as the basis for every experience caused by sound, even so when it causes aesthetic pleasure. The distress lies rather in the address of sound to the listener and the act of listening than in an aimed effect as such. Acoustically, distress is necessary for every sound to be picked on from a certain acoustic horizon or background, as sound needs to intervene and catch our attention. Physically, distress has been assigned to the rather damaging effect of sound or noise in the cochlea of the inner ear, but this only includes extreme levels of sound. I would like to detach my notion of auditory distress from such a physical-acoustic understanding and relate it primarily to the senses as a basic mode of auditory perception. As the general argument about auditory perception goes, the ear is by nature defenceless without a protecting lid such as the eye has. Because the listener is therefore willy-nilly always switched on, sound is necessarily marked as an impulse that intervenes in the human auditory system, interrupts in our train of thoughts, and trespasses in our inner selves. Auditory distress is then to be understood as caused by the excess that sound imposes through its address on the listener and her or his capacity to channel, process or block this excess through attention in listening. In his time-honoured book Tuning of the World (1977), R. Murray Schafer makes a variation on this idea, suggesting an immediate connection with Wagner’s theoretizations:
The sense of hearing cannot be closed off at will. There are no earlids. … These facts have prompted McLuhan to write: ‘Terror is the normal state of any oral society for in it everything affects everything all the time.’ The ear’s only protection is an elaborate psychological mechanism for filtering out undesireable sound in order to concentrate on what is desirable. The eye points outward; the ear draws inward. It soaks up information. Wagner said: ‘To the eye appeals the outer man, the inner to the ear.’ (Schafer 1977: 11)
Seen this way, the sounds that surround us in our daily lives, but likewise in the theatre, are always a threat to our auditory selves: they pose a state of terror on our intersubjective encounters with the sounding world. Sound in an oral society blurs the boundaries between an outside and an inside. In McLuhann’s distinction of oral and literate space, it can be understood that the latter was gradually developed to incarcarate the threatening interiority of sound that lacks distance and distinction. But as we observe today, this distance has become unattainable, to say the least, problematic. I find support for this argument in Robin Maconie’s rather throwaway remark: “There is no legislating for sensory distress: all sensory input is distressing, and we are engaged in a constant effort of keeping unwanted intensities of information at bay” (Maconie 1990: 23). As such, the concept of distress explains for the basic need in the perceiver to block or channel the unwanted intensities of sound that produce excess. The act of listening can be understood in terms of the listener’s response to the auditory distress in choosing which intensities can be allowed to make meaningful experiences. In the ways the individual listener responds through the psychological and cognitive mechanisms, she or he confirms one’s auditory self or ‘I’ in that world. And this response is specifically driven by desire: through our coping mechanisms we channel and filter out the undesirable intensities of sound, in order to protect our inner selves. The interiority of listening that Schafer alludes to with Wagner includes then a spatial aspect. Through his notion of the soundscape, he has stressed that sound is always spatial. Likewise, listening always includes a spatial relation to the environment and the acoustic community one is connected to: it includes a relation of me towards the world that is surrounding me with sounds. As a result, a notion of ‘world’ in the auditory sense includes always a relation, between me and the sounding environment. This relation is marked by ecological, social, political, and most importantly, discursive structures that help me to draw information and make sense of my experiences. This way of positioning through auditory or sensory experience has been discussed by Jonathan Crary in his argument about ‘managing attention’. According to this argument, our information-saturated world has turned our eyes and ears, our capacities of ‘paying attention’ conscientiously into “a disengagement from a broader field of attraction, whether visual or auditory, for the sake of isolating or focusing on a reduced number of stimuli” (Crary 1999: 1). This focusing through attention is imperative for listening, and the way our attention is managed through the sounding world and its cultural discourse not only influence but constitute our ability to respond and make meaning of our experiences. In order to make the connection between the sounding world and the theatre, I now introduce the importance of ‘soundscapes’ and a process of ‘musicalization’ in theatre today. Soundscapes and musicalization of the theatre Through my argument of auditory distress, I address an issue that is most general to the act of listening, which also affects an understanding of hearing as rather passively or unconsciously absorbing the sounding environment. Now I would like to explain how music theatre today 3
has inspired me to make this claim. Music theatre has generally evolved from a dissatisfaction with certain theatre and opera traditions. One of the ways with which it responds to these traditions is its musicalization of the theatre space, a feature which it shares with many post-dramatic theatre performances. Hans-Thies Lehmann has therefore discussed ‘musicalization’ as an integral part of a larger project in theatre to break with the confinements of a linear, goal-oriented, logocentric or teleological structure in dramatic theatre. In his article “From Logos to Landscape” (1997), he discusses ‘musicalization’ then as a dramaturgical strategy in this project to structure theatrical communication in a way that breaks free from these confinements. The auditory landscape of theatre can thus create a space beyond ‘telos’. Correspondingly, the verbal text loses its privileged position in the theatre. The linearity of text and performance is short-circuited and fragmented by musicalization. This strategy has not only lead to an explosion of the boundaries between text-based theatre and music theatre, but also has a huge impact on the acoustic spaces and the spectator in the theatre. The acoustic spaces of many theatres are ideally fine-tuned for the purpose of carrying and mediating the sound of a voice to the spectator in ideal circumstances that would not disturb this mediation. But the excess of sound and music in this process of musicalization of the stage intentionally disrupts this controlled situation. The auditory space or ‘soundscape’ that is thus created on the stage confronts the spectator with the uncontrollability of sound. The construct of the theatre does not restrain or compensate for the caused distress any longer. In the spatial construct of the theatre, perspectives are always implied, also in listening (‘audition’ in relation to visual perspective), that help the spectator to channel the auditory distress. Contemporary theatre and music theatre however do not offer immediate solutions to auditory distress through perspectives that would contain a safe distance or mask an excess of intensities. Due to this fundamental lack, musicalization shows how sound in itself is always distressing. It activates the listener in her or his auditory experiences and makes her or him aware of the position one needs to take in relating to the uncontrollable excess of sound. By implication, it positions the listener within the world that surrounds her or him. In what follows, I briefly discuss theoretically two specific responses of the listener to auditory distress in the theatre: auditory gazing and narrativization. I imply within this discussion that by looking at these responses, we can understand how the spectator makes meaningful experiences in the theatre, which are always in relation to the world in which these experiences operate and receive meaning. In this way, auditory distress in music theatre debunks the myths of our world and its resonances, and places the spectator as listening and interpreting subject in the midst of signification and discourse, which is always related to our understanding of the world. 1st response – Acousmatic listening: auditory gazing Among the different responses in listening, as discussed in Shafer’s soundscape studies, I focus on one significant mode that demonstrates an inherent connection between aural and 4
visual images: acousmatic listening. This type of listening is caused by a disparity of sound and the visual embodiment of its source. The original Greek word akousma (meaning, ‘what is heard’) has an ancient reference to the Pythagorean venues in 6 th century BC where the Master taught his pupils orally from behind a curtain – like an oracle – as to not let his physical appearance and presence distract their focus from the spoken word, and thus the content of his message (Restivo 1999: 137). The connection of acousmatic listening to the visual image is discussed by Michel Chion in his theoretization of sound in film. He clearly defines acousmatic listening in terms of “a situation wherein one hears a sound without seeing its cause” (Chion 1994: 32). Although acousmatization affects principally our auditory perception, it is defined in terms of its reliance on visuality in the first place, or rather, an absence in seeing. Mladen Dollar (2006) takes up this question to claim that the acousmatic is part of every sound – he calls it the ‘ventriloquist’ nature of sound. Dollar refers to the atopicality of the human voice: “The fact that we see the aperture does not demistify the voice; on the contrary, it enhances the enigma” (Dolar 2006: 70). This makes him paradoxically to conclude that “there is no such thing as disacousmatization” (ibid.). This has also further reaching implications for sound as ‘object’ in the theatre. The acousmatic nature of the sounds in the theatre make us aware of their inherent placelessness, framelessness and restlessness, which invites the listener to resolve the auditory distress thus created through what the sounds mean to one’s auditory self. Closely connected to acousmatic listening is the notion of the auditory gaze, which Jean-Paul Sartre rather accidentally describes in L’être et le Néant (1943, transl. Being and Nothingness in 1956)1. Sartre describes in a passage how auditory intervention can disturb a visual experience by marking the other’s presence and gaze.2 He recounts how a man peeps through a keyhole, which completely absorbs him in his investigating gaze towards what is unfolding behind the door.3 Suddenly, the man hears footsteps in the hall behind him. The auditive though invisible footsteps are threatening to the voyeur’s gaze, as they mark the presence of the other acoustically and make it felt through one’s ears. This idea of the auditory gaze makes me conclude that sound as intervention in a context of deprivation – as is the case also in the theatre – creates awareness for the auditory distress that it causes. In the theatre, sound equally intervenes and ‘disturbs’ a visual experience in being essentially
Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness, transl. Hazel E. Barnes. New York: Washington Square Press 1956. Different from looking, the word ‘gazing’ expresses more strongly a two-way relationship with the object of looking, as David Schwarz (1997) points out: “The gaze … is an overdetermined look; it often bears an uncanny sense of looking and being looked at; subject/object relations are confused; the gaze often suggests judgment or being exposed to the whim of a threatening superego. The gaze is more than just ‘staring’; the gaze is the representation of a transposed look onto an object that ‘objectively’ cannot look” (Schwarz 1997: 64). 3 Denis Hollier (1997) remarks that the body of the voyeur is reduced to what Jean Starobinki has called un oeil vivant, a living eye (Hollier 1997: 164). Hollier moreover points to another occasion in Sartre’s Being and Nothingness where the observer feels caught by “a rustling of braches, or the sound of a footstep followed by silence” (Sartre 1956: 346, qtd. in Hollier: note 5). Additionally, the punctured gaze established by the acoustic intervention could perhaps be compared to Paul Claudel’s l’oeil écoute (which was the title of a book on Dutch paintings), conveying listening with one’s eyes.
‘invisible’ and a-topical. It creates a space where the listener feels listened back to, which influences her or his attention to sounds and images. As a response to the distress caused by the acousmatic nature of every sound, the listener often imagins a source, a cause or an object that materializes the listener’s position towards the sound. In this sense, we could speak of an ‘aural image’ in the imagination as a counterpart to the visual image. Its function is to bring temporary stability in the listener as subject. The listener’s response of imagining aural images also indicates the impossibility of ‘autonomous sound’ and the insufficiency of listening which feels a need to be complemented. It is our imagination that fills in the gaps as a response to this deficit. Images are often regarded as having a stabilizing effect on the eye or the interpreter. But the contrary is true: images emerge as fringe phenomena between auditory and visual experiences as a way to deal with sensory distress. They are as such not stable but rather confirm the subject which finds itself in a perpetual crisis. In a theatre that makes the listener aware of the distress as fundamental of her or his experiences, the listener can recognize one’s listening self as a result of the position she or he takes in her or his responses in listening. Acousmatic listening and auditory gazing, as a first significant response, demonstrate that auditory distress incites our imagination, which forms a basis of making our auditory experiences meaningful. ‘Auditory imagination’ as a particular aspect of meaning making needs therefore to be redefined as not something that only triggers auditory imagery in our memory when recalling a song or a musical phrase. Auditory imagination explains rather for our audio-visual fringe experiences in the theatre, or in any sensory encounter with the world, that call for a mode of relating. 2nd response – Auditory imagination and narrativization The second response that I want to briefly discuss relates to auditory imagination and is a very specific way of coping with auditory distress by attributing meaning in listening: narrativization. I want to redefine this concept in narrative theory in terms of the act of listening. Narrativization has generally been defined as a particular reading strategy with which the reader reads texts as narrative, constituting narrativity in the reading process (Fludernik 1996: 20). Narrativization comes then about in response to the ‘inconsistencies’ in a text, which would make it potentially ‘unreadable’. In narrative psychology the idea emerged then that narrative is a cognitive mode of experience of the self and the surrounding world, as our lives are intertwined and immersed with narrative (Paul John Eakin 1999, qtd. in Ansgar & Vera Nünning 2002: 1-2). In this sense, I see reason to transfer the notion of narrativization to music theatre and the sounding world it creates. Lehmann suggest the possibilty of such a narrative way of reading a post-dramatic theatre performance, even when theatre intends to disrupt any claims on a straightforward narrative development:
Theatre was and is searching for and constructing spaces and discourses liberated as far as possible from the restraints of goals (telos), hierarchy and causal logic. This search may
terminate in scenic poems, meandering narration, fragmentation and other procedures – the longing for such space, a space beyond telos is there. (Lehmann 1997: 56)
According to Lehmann, post-dramatic theatre responds to a desire for a space, a universe or a ‘landscape’ that is not controlled by a hierarchical structure, such as a narrative. Musicalization in the theatre offers then a way for ambiguity, excess and subjectivity of meaning that urges the listener to make meaning her or himself: “An auditive space is opened, which calls upon the spectator/ audience to synthesize the elements presented” (Lehmann 1997: 57). Musicalization marks an important shift in theatrical communication, moving away from an idea of synthesis implied in the construct of the theatre such as in the Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk, and relocating it in the spectator. Post-dramatic theatre performances or music theatre in particular thereby do not turn away from narration, as Lehmann remarks: musicalization gives rise to a rather ‘meandering’ narration, depending on the ability of the listener to synthesize the elements. The sense of narrativity that is thus constituted as a response to musicalization is rather an indirect narrativity. It appeals to the human urge to interpret and make sense of the fragmentary perceptions in a new synthesis. As a response to the auditory distress, the listener could feel an urge to solidify the meanings in a narrative way. Similar to the stabilizing workings of the aural image, narrativization often burgeons on a particular ‘imagetext’ in the performance, coined by W.J.T. Mitchell in his Iconology: Image, Text, Ideology (1986). This compound term designates composite and synthetic works that combine image and text with inherent relations between the two.4 Lawrence Kramer (2002) discusses the concept in relation to the ‘remainder’ of semiotic meaning in music. The concept of the imagetext helps him to explain a disparity with music in its relation to meaning, which makes them interdependent of each other:
Because it stands outside the imagetext, music is semantically absorptive, or, to change the metaphor, a semantic chameleon. Under certain common conditions, it becomes replete with meanings ascribed to it on the basis of the imagetext, while also holding over a remainder that exceeds those meanings. (Kramer 2002: 149)
The imagetext can explain how music is imbued with narrativity as a way to infuse or ‘absorb’ the music with meaning in relation to texts and images. According to Kramer, the imagetext enjoys therefore a semantic priority and authority that music is denied (Kramer 2002: 151). But at the same time, he stresses the boundary to signification in the semiotic remainder that music constitutes. In this way, the imagetext can rouse or intensify the impulse of the listener-spectator to narrativize the musical experiences as a way to cope with the remainder or excess. Imagination gives then the basis for structuring our experiences, lending
In this sense, the compound ‘image-text’ (with the hyphen) would mark the relations between visual and verbal content. Mitchell’s notion of imagetext however does not only refer to the interplay between words and images, but also claims validity of their complementary function in reading, creating a unit for decoding.
them coherency and contingency by filling in the gaps through aural images. Narrativization ascribes to them further structure, meaning and a sense of linear development that comes close to pre-verbal language. Conclusion As an appendix to my argument, I wish to speculate on how the stimulus-response mechanism that is implied by the concept of auditory distress casts light on the notion of ‘world’ through music in the theatre. I have referred in this presentation to a specific understanding of this notion: sound creates a world through its envelope that surrounds and immerses us. Auditory distress, as inherent to every sound, can then create an awareness of ‘self’ in the sounding world when it is not compensated through the codified perspectives in our structures of experience. Theatre has a significant role to play today in demonstrating this mechanism and turning an acoustic mirror, so to speak, to listening itself. Through musicalization, the theatre relates to the aural complexity of our modern and post-modern world that despite its predeliction for sight and vision as the dominant episteme for knowledge, has seen an explosion of sound and listening marked by auditory distress. Musicalization of stage demonstrate a self-reflexivity and introspection of the listener towards the act of listening and its responses to auditory distress. This project in the theatre includes a rethinking of the ‘total theatre’ concept that suggested a relation of the individual listener to the totality of humankind in experiences of collectivity through the envelopes of sound and music. Rather than aiming at conceiling the fragmentation of our experiences, music theatre draws on an awareness of our position in making new syntheses in our fragmentarized perceptions. The responses of auditory gazing in the listener’s imagination and narrativization as particular coping mechanisms individuates the experience and the meanings thus created. Finally, this positioning of the listener through her or his auditory experiences has political implications, and so does music theatre in its position in and towards the world. Music theatre reflects in this way the changing concept of the world that surrounds us and affects us on the fringe between image and sound. The soundscapes and the musicalization of the stage in the theatre represent something fundamental of the world and our listening habits in relation to the cultural discourse that regulates and reproduces our understanding of the world. Seen this way, music theatre listens back at us by turning the ear towards itself. Through auditory distress, contemporary music theatre presents us the filter (like a screen or a membrane) with which we sort out the desired from the undesired intensities and through which the sounding world enters us. The responsiveness of this filtering activity in our attention makes our ears acute to be aware of that world in our listening selves.