Salomé Voegelin is a Swiss artist and writer based in London. Her recent book Listening to Noise and Silence: Towards a Philosophy of Sound Art is published by Continuum, NY (2010). For comprehensive information pleas visit www.salomevoegelin.net or follow Salomé’s blog at www.soundwords.tumblr.com
ER. What were your initial starting points in sound? You studied at Goldsmiths in London?
SV. Initially I studied at Central Saint Martins when they still had the film and video course, so that’s where I did my BA. I had come from a classical music and painting background so the film and video course allowed me a way to bring both disciplines together. Peter Cusack was teaching there at the time; he was my point of entry into working with sound. When I did a PhD I went to Goldsmiths, initially to be supervised jointly by the Electronic Music Studio and the Visual Art Department. It did not work out, which was a shame because I enjoyed meeting with my supervisor Katharine Norman and very much appreciated her influence. But the expectations and ideologies of the two departments just did not meet and so, in order to make it a realistic project, I finished it in the visual arts department.
ER. When did the sound element come into the visual practice? Was it one defining moment or a gradual build up?
SV. It was really during my BA. I was still singing with a tutor from the Royal Academy and I had done violin and piano up to a certain point – all very classical. When I started at Central Saint Martins there was a little room in the back with an Akai sampler and a mac and midi keyboard. That ‘midi-ness’ allowed me to play the piano without playing classical music. It allowed me to make sounds from things I would record and then put into the sampler and play through the keyboard – really silly stuff, but it took me away from ideas of virtuosity and classical structures. I started to make videos where nothing was happening much visually and the soundtrack began taking over.
ER. Were you writing at this time?
SV. I think the writing was really triggered by my BA dissertation. I wrote about power structures in the soundscape, taking up from Jacques Attali’s economies of sound observed within musical structure and patronage. I was trying to apply his ideas to the soundscape and whether one could hear economic and political structures in the soundscape. This was obviously very early on in my knowledge of all these things, but it was the moment, and there was no turning back. After that I really began writing about sound. My first piece of published writing was a review of a CD, which in its re-release was called Women in Electronic Music; initially it had just been called Electronic Music. My review was very much about the problem of the marginalisation, which results from that re-titling.
ER. I’m intrigued about the process and formation of your latest book Listening to Noise and Silence: Towards a Philosophy of Sound Art (Continuum Press 2010). Where did it start and was it through previous collected writings or one single endeavour?
SV. Until about 2008 I was writing all sorts of different things for different magazines, conferences, lectures and places. So my writing was encountering all sorts of avenues, exploring various themes within sound and radio, some of which found their way into the book. It was towards the end of 2007 that I thought I want to bring all these branches together; to make it accessible as a one coherent thought. Some books had started to come out on sound art I think I wasn’t entirely happy with them, that was a good motivation.
SV. Most of them were marking out the category of sound art but they were also doing things that are very prevalent in visual arts discourse and which I hope to critique through sound, such as canonisation and the historical mapping which sets out essentialist values. You know, we can make cannons and histories but all they will do is allow a public to recognise what is good and what is expected to be good, but it will not provide strategies for listening. So I was determined to write a book that addressed that point; one that thought out strategies of listening and then tries to deal with the consequences.
I feel now as I did then, that when people go into a sound art show they don’t really know how to grapple with what they hear, they look at the plinth and they look at the headphones, the installation set up, the press release and they try to make sense of it all through those visual sign posts. So I felt what was really needed was a kind of strategy, some vague and contingent rules of engagement.
So around the end of 2007 I started writing and writing and writing, listening and reading and writing and so on. It took me 18 months.
ER. Which sounds incredibly short. What is your process of writing? Do you take notes at the time of listening or is it more a process of remembrance?
SV. Some times I take notes when I am listening, sometimes I don’t and the experience is recalled and obviously there have been some papers, lectures and articles I may have written that become a basis for at least a chapter and the structuring of themes.
I recently read a book by W H Auden (Secondary Worlds), which I very much relate to in terms of my own writing. He talks about writing and how writing creates the thought rather than represents it, so it’s actually in writing that your thought is created and I think that is so absolutely true. And I think that’s what happens with good writing in that you haven’t got it all worked out in your head, it’s actually while you are writing that the thought emerges, which is a relief as you do not have to be ready, but just have to start.
ER. And so writing is a practice as much as sound editing is?
SV. Yes, and now, when I am doing sound editing on Pro Tools I realise it’s so completely similar. I am building and composing, in sound and in words. I think it’s interesting if you see writing as something which builds, and if that which you are writing about is ephemeral and invisible, is sound, it itself isn’t present but imagined as well; you are building the invisible and it all becomes extremely mobile and moveable, and therefore I think I needed to create a philosophy of sound because you couldn’t just use traditional Western philosophical models to describe the ideas but have to write to build the ideas. Also of course because the Western philosophical tradition has a very ocular focus. So I surprised myself so often in where my writing went, what it built, and when I read it now I think how did I get there? And I really don’t know anymore which is why I have to write more.
ER. The book is a highly subjective account of listening. How do you position your own subjectivity, and gender for that matter within the text?
SV. In the book I talk about subjectivity but I don’t want to talk about an essentialised gender nor an essentialised identity. I would rather invite the readers to re-think their own subjectivity and therefore their own gender and identity.
What I found very striking about the positive responses I received about the book is that many were from women. I think it has a resonance; there is a difference, whether it is the narratives that produce what I hope is a Hélène Cixous like ‘écriture feminine’, for the feminine space they create, (which is obviously not exclusively female but feminine) or because I do not build cannons and do not do the historical survey, which are aims of writing I’m not really interested in. I’m more interested in the emotional and sentimental, which is often associated in a marginalised and derogative way with women. I want to celebrate it and at the same time give it a rigorous approach. So I think in this book gender is implicit rather than explicit, but in the work I have realised and am doing since then, I do want to make it more overt. You know sound can make us re-think gender and because it’s invisible it can make us play with gender, we can be anything. You can try out gender in sound.
ER. How did the books title evolve?
SV. I think titles are so important. With this book it really was collaboration with the publisher to get the right one. What I like about this title is that it’s very sober, it doesn’t have an esoteric undertone and so although I want the content to engage with emotion, sentiment and sound, I don’t want to end up on the shelf alongside esoteric books, amongst the ‘vegan’ section of theory. At least on the cover I wanted to have a critical force and borrow a more masculine aura of philosophy.
ER. Keeping the title in mind. If silence and noise book end sound, what, if anything is beyond that?
SV. They are not dialectically opposed. Rather, by being the perceived ‘extremes’ of sound they allow us to think of what every sound is. Every sound is silence and noise and silence and noise is everything sound can be, and in their extreme they can make us think of how and where we are within sound – silence and noise. There is no beyond because that is what sound does: it is silence and noise.
ER. The sub title of the book is Towards the Philosophy of Sound Art. Why do we need this philosophy?
SV. Initially when I began to write, I was thinking: is it a philosophy towards ‘sound’ or towards ‘sound art?’ I settled on ‘sound art’ because I felt I needed to make it focused and manageable to start with. But I think that throughout the book when I draw on soundscapes and sounds of the everyday it becomes apparent that this is not entirely about sound art; rather it is about searching for a theory about the world sound creates; the art world and the everyday world.
The last two chapters of the book are the ones I’m most proud of, particularly Time and Space because it is in these chapters that the theoretical approaches develop. Here the subjectivities and the listening strategies developed in the first three chapters find an application: in the world and in sociality. With the help of social geography I come to a politically relevant point about sound in that it’s not just about reaching an aesthetic view on sound art and the gallery but that it is actually about producing a sonic world view: a global listening position, or rather global listening positionings, that will consequently give us new understandings of aesthetics and art but crucially also of politics, economics, subjectivity and sociality.
ER. Like your original BA dissertation did…
SV. Yes, like my BA dissertation did, or tried to do – it tries to give us new possibilities to re-think the world.
ER. And in some ways that is what you are working on now?
SV. Yes. What I am working on now is a book to be called Sonic Possible Worlds: Hearing the Continuum of Sound. You know, we have the landscape that we live in and talk about in terms of social relations and political dynamics and so on, but ‘possible world theory’ (ideas develop in the philosophy of logic) allows us to think that this landscape, this world, is part of many more worlds. It exists at least as propositions for philosophical enquiry in a universe of worlds that are mutually accessible and therefore cross-referential. So the soundscape is like a possible world and we can engage in it to re-consider the values and normative judgements we have in the actual world understood as the visual world, the landscape, and re-think how ‘actual’ that actual world really is and how much it relies on conventions and power plays, and how different it could be if we were to listen. On the whole, Western philosophy has focused on the visual and found its visual understanding through that avenue. I think we need to augment this with a sonic philosophy, one that can ultimately be socially and politically relevant through the contingent ephemerality of its possible realities; where we no longer identify ourselves in relation to and at a distance from visual objects and subjects, in certainty, but something more complex and difficult; reciprocal and immersive, invisible and in doubt.
ER. Is writing towards a philosophy of sound art different from a philosophy of music?
SV. Yes, because a philosophy of music is basically looking at musicology, reading the musical work as text or writing about the history of music, and in my opinion that lacks the critical oomph of philosophy: the conceptual reflection and debate of consequences that are relevant in a concurrent context rather than just talking about what was, or is being done.
ER. So you want to bring music into a more rigorous philosophical territory?
SV. Absolutely, and with this idea of ‘hearing the continuum of sound’ I am re-claiming the heritage of music for sound art. You know there are books called The Philosophy of Music but they are the kind of musicology, which I find on the whole has a very inward looking relevance only. Maybe I will re appropriate the word music and propose it as something new. For example I very much enjoy that I call my (sonic) work ‘compositions’ and I call myself a ‘composer’ while of course many composers would say ‘no you’re not a composer, you just use Pro Tools and you put tracks together, and that’s not the correct compositional process’. I like re-appropriating the term, particularly if you do that as a woman that makes it even more radical in this context. So maybe the same will happen with the term ‘music’ and I will use it in the end to mean something else, to make a radical misappropriation? Maybe it will be a philosophy of sound and I will be questioning weather we can actually use the term music ever again? But I just don’t know yet which it will be.
Basically what I want to re-assert with Sonic Possible Worlds and the notion of ‘hearing a continuum of sound’ is that sound art has a visual application and reference, but it also has a musical heritage and I want to re-claim some of that musical heritage particularly that which concerns sentiment, emotion, participation, problematics of the score, the relationship between the composer and interpreter etc. These sort of elements which we do not get at via the visual discourse, and I don’t want to be comfortable with the idea that after 1950 contemporary sonic production has to either go to the electro acoustic music bubble or to visual arts, but want to hear it within a continuum of music also, from where it can form a backwards criticism of the hegemony and homogeneity of musical practice and discourse since that time.
ER. So this new book is coming out of the end of Listening to Noise and Silence and particularly coming out of the final chapter Now?
SV. Yes, I mention it in the concluding chapter and it hasn’t let me be. How sound invites the imagination – it’s an illusion that we all live in the same world.
ER. It’s interesting to bring technology into the discussion of ‘other worlds’ as it has a huge mediating factor in tapping into these spaces. I am thinking of works, which encounter electromagnetic or inaudible environments. Can you go into those other worlds without the technology, in an unmediated way?
SV. I think you can dip into it conceptually and in your imagination, which can be very powerful. I am not anti-technological, I have a lot of excitement about microphones and their potential to reveal things like infra and ultra sounds. The problem I have with it is around its discourse. We don’t have to talk about how it’s built, we have to talk about what it does and how it moves and develops our perception and consciousness.
ER. Did you ever think of putting a CD with this book?
SV. It may make it more user friendly on one level but I think what I really want to provoke with this book is that you don’t have to listen to the sound works I talk about, rather I want you to go and listen to whatever sounds around you.
ER. Playing devils advocate now, you say you’re not interested in histories and canonisation. How would you feel about people ignoring your work in 100 years?
SV. I am sure in 100 years the sonic outlook will have moved on so much whereby a completely different discourse is necessary because hopefully this re-alignment and re-claiming of the musical heritage I am talking about will, at some point become a self evident thing; it will just be how sound art is considered – and they won’t have to go back to my book from 100 years ago!
ER. How does your nationality factor in your writing process given that Swiss is not a writable language as such?
S.V. It’s not, but this makes it a very mobile and invisible language – sonic – and I am sure it affects the way I perceive the world and other languages too. It gives me a natural disregard for grammatical accuracy, conventions and rules, and allows me to play with words to accommodate sound rather than describe or categorize it. But because you cannot write Swiss we have to learn all these other languages and the more languages you know the less you have to focus on the perceived rightness of one, in favour of building something much more temporary and fragile. I also think that it has made me appreciate that possibly we misunderstand each other a lot more often than we think. And really that, instead of presuming that we do understand each other most of the time with occasional misunderstandings, we probably misunderstand each other very often and only sometimes, through luck and reciprocal goodwill, do we experience moments of coincidence where we do understand each other, and no grammatical accuracy and particularity can assure these moments, so we might as well enjoy a more mobile sonic language.
ER. Do you find writing a solitary pursuit? Do you think that writing aids your compositional work and vice versa?
SV. I think that’s really interesting question and one that probably leads back to gender. I find I can and have to write in the mixt of other people; I can write with my kids running around noisily in the other room, even running in and out, but I cannot compose in that context. I find that composing or making an artwork needs a much more selfish space, a totally different space.
Heidegger features in the book and you know he built his Hütte (hut) in the Blackforest to think and write, and one of the reasons was so he could get a way from his family and have this focused approach to philosophy which I think is interesting in terms of the transcendental aspects of his writing. Where I write as a feminine philosopher or where maybe feminine philosophy can be different is that it doesn’t come out of the isolated hut in the Black Forest, it comes from the mixt of a very cluttered and lived in flat and it has that in it. I am not saying all men don’t write with their children around them and again I am thinking of a Cixous like écriture feminine rather than a feminist or women’s writing, and it’s not about men and women, but about how a feminine approach to philosophy comes from within the house where you live and sleep, work and make a mess and the writing comes out of that fracturedness and complexity of everyday life, rather than this rarefied space up in the hills. Maybe one day I will have a similar approach to composition, I hope so.
ER. So this new book – is that your sole focus for the foreseeable future?
SV. The excitement of having published a book is that you are invited to contribute towards lots of other great things. So whereas with Listening to Noise and Silence I had a relatively clear slate now I am writing this new book amongst lots of other things – conferences etc. So I don’t have as much space but on the whole I want to use these other things as review points on the way to the book. I have opted to lessen the compositional work for a while to do this writing, or maybe I am focusing on writing because of the fractured complexity of my current life around which I cannot compose but only write, and then I also have my blog as a way to practice.
ER. How does your blog function for you as a writer?
SV. I started the blog after the book was published and when I was getting my website sorted out. I had never worked online in that immediate way and I was completely intrigued by how that immediacy gives it the discipline and the rigour that notes do not have. You know you think at least one person might read this, and that gives it focus. I like to imagine a reader. So it started quite playfully and initially I thought I’d put sounds on there too but actually what intrigued me was that in effect I was doing phonography without the microphone; that I was recording things in the world like the sound of the swimming pool, not technologically and neither by describing it through its attributes i.e. loud or quiet, but by actually grappling with language to build that thing that sound is and does in words. I think we are controlled by what our language allows us to say. In English and in all Indo-European languages, the substantive, the noun in the nominative, in the sentence determines the rest of the sentence; that doesn’t only speak about us but also limits how we imagine the world. So to listen and then carefully re-build the heard with words to give the supposed reader of the blog the challenge to re-imagine it again in his auditory imagination – it’s like turning a pair of socks inside out and then out again. It’s a participatory process.
ER. And finally as always Ear Room asks: what does the term ‘sound art’ mean to you?
SV. It means to do all sorts of things with sound, I do not actually see a limit to what is possible to do under that term, but think it is nevertheless important to have that term. That is not a contradiction but rather the more open and multifaceted the work done the more important is the disciplinary focus and marking out. I realise that many sound artists, or artists working with sound, disagree with me here, but the name, the discipline gives you the authority with which comes trust and institutional recognition through which in turn you get funding and status: university courses, professorships, gallery space, concert hall access, magazines, etc. etc. Sound is always in danger of being sublimated to other disciplines, its invisible nature makes it a natural interdisciplinary second, and I do not think interdisciplinarity is useful unless the disciplines that interact are equal and autonomous: have their own discourse and institutional support. You can then of course say oh we do not need institutions, we can live in in-official networks and connections, but the problem with that is that in-official networks are by their very nature discriminatory, more discriminatory even than institutional networks. Sound Art is an extremely white male dominated area and if you leave it to in-official networks you will find it much harder to broaden participation and appreciation.
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