Hearing Voices, EVP, Field Recording (some notes)

Filed under:Acousmatic voice hearing — posted by Schizostroller on July 1, 2018 @ 1:46 pm

“Proust’s great familiarity with the problem of the aura requires no emphasis. Nevertheless, it is notable that he alludes to it at times in terms which comprehend its theory: ‘Some people who are fond of secrets flatter themselves that objects retain something of the gaze that has rested on them.’ (The ability, it would seem, of returning the gaze.) ‘They believe that monuments and pictures present themselves only beneath the delicate veil which centuries of love and reverence on the part of so many admirers have woven about them. This chimera,’ Proust concludes evasively, ‘would change into truth if they related it to the only reality that is valid for the individual, namely the world of his emotions.’”

In a dingy rented house in Nottingham, around 1995, I started to hear voices. Although they would later be all-encompassing I originally started hearing them in music, in the rhythms of the bass, the drums and melodies of records and CDs that I listened to. Although at one point early on I got to the stage where I found myself standing on one leg with arms outstretched following the instructions of the voices I heard in a song, the ridiculousness of the situation consequently meant that it was one of the few times I ever followed instructions from voices. The other two times I followed instructions I found myself in pubs in strange parts of the city supposedly to meet on a date. The date never turned up, and I concluded these voices didn’t necessarily have my interests at heart. Although I later would use the ability to hear and dialogue with voices through sound as a call and response technique whilst improvising on my bass guitar that would later lead to an interest in the practice of free improvisation as a model for bottom up ways of musical self-expression (David Borgo’s book Sync or Swarm is a good starting point here) and as a practice of everyday life, for a long time I stopped communicating with my voices, I saw them as a nuisance and I followed the medical model taking medication and trying to ignore them.

In a materialist interpretation of the mind as a material aspect of the body (that is as opposed to a dualism inherited from Descartes where mind and body are separate), an embodied understanding of mind, hearing voices can be seen as a projection of one’s emotions onto the Other that returns and reflects the projected feelings symbolically as language, I discussed this partially in a previous article for Asylum [insert title and issue], where I tried to work out ways of turning this experience into everyday practice. Although I personally hold this view of voices, that they are linguistic projections of unmet needs reflected back from the void (think the wish fulfilment discussed by Freud in the Interpretation of Dreams , but in waking conscious, a continuation on from the existential detachment experienced in the film Waking Life, such that the Id and Super Ego take a roll in more direct communication with the aware Ego, where rather than a response to the day before, the response is to the Ego’s waking thoughts, emotions and other bodily needs, whilst otherwise the voices can be seen as much the same as dreams) when processing trauma as a self defence mechanism that does not always work effectively I find myself experiencing the voices as real. In the Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche spoke of the role of the chorus in the Ancient Greek Tragedies, he argued that the traditional view of Greek tragedy views tragedy as arising out of the tragic chorus and was “to begin with, nothing but chorus” and then much like the Greek Gods of Julian Jaynes’ Bicameral Mind , who Jaynes saw as existing as real entities for the Greeks a (view that famously helped Patsy Hague and got Marius Romme to start listening to what voice hearers said about their voices) so Nietzsche speaks of a theory of a certain Schlegel that suggested that the chorus might be synonymous with the audience, the ‘ideal spectator’:

“We had supposed all along that the spectator, whoever he might be, would always have to remain conscious of the fact that he had before him a work of art, not empiric reality, whereas the tragic chorus of the Greek is constrained to view the characters enacted on the stage as veritably existing. The chorus of the Oceanides think that they behold the actual Titan Prometheus, and believe themselves every bit as real as the god. Are we seriously to assume that the highest and purest type of spectator is he who, like the Oceanides, regards the god as physically present and real? That it is characteristic of the ideal spectator to rush on stage and deliver the god from his fetters? We had put our faith in an artistic audience, believing that the more intelligent the individual spectator was, the more capable he was of viewing the work of art as art; and now Schlegel’s theory suggests to us that the perfect spectator viewed the world of the stage not at all as art but as reality.”

One is here reminded of Wilfred Bion’s assertion that the psychotic sees words as things in themselves [fill out more], and whilst a whole psychoanalytic tradition from Freud via Bion and Klein to Lacan has held this view somewhat closely, if we look at this interpretation through the eyes of contemporary dialogic therapeutic attempts to work with voice hearers, we can move to an interpretation of voices as whole psychological constructs that appear as things-in-themselves as opposed to words-as-things, and we find ourselves nearer this understanding of the chorus in Schlegel or Jaynes’ Bicameral Mind that can then have therapeutic benefit. As Ron Coleman’s group therapy buddy said to him, ‘the voices are real’.
As it happens Nietzsche rejects Schlegel’s interpretation for Schiller’s “where the chorus is seen as a living wall which tragedy draws about itself in order to achieve insulation from the actual world, to preserve its ideal ground and its poetic freedom.” Similarly, and to keep us in the realm of dealing with for want of a definition psychologically extreme states, variously called psychosis, schizophrenia, voice hearing etc, Bion argues that:

“For personalities that seem to be incapable of true dreaming, the border-line psychotic and psychotic parts of the personality, the theory of consciousness as the sense organ of psychic quality is not satisfactory… the weakness of this theory of consciousness is manifest in the situation for which I have proposed the theory of alpha function, by proliferating alpha-elements, is producing the contact barrier, an entity that separates elements so that those on one side are, and form, the conscious and on the other side are, and form, the unconscious” .

One can argue that the alpha function for Bion, within the personality, represents a similar barrier to the chorus in Schiller’s interpretation of Greek tragedy. For Schiller “the Greek chorus of satyrs, the chorus of primitive tragedy, moved on ideal ground, a ground raised high above the common path of mortals.” Nietzsche continues: “the satyr, as the Dionysiac chorist, dwells in a reality sanctioned by myth and ritual. That tragedy should begin with him, that the Dionysiac wisdom of tragedy should speak through him, is as puzzling a phenomenon as, more generally, the origin of tragedy from the chorus.” He then goes on to say:

“I believe the cultured Greek felt himself absorbed into the satyr chorus, and in the next development of Greek tragedy state and society, in fact all that separated man from man, gave way before an overwhelming sense of unity which led back into the heart of nature. The metaphysical solace (with which, I wish to say at once, all true tragedy sends us away) that, despite every phenomenal change, life is at bottom indestructibly joyful and powerful, was expressed most concretely in the chorus of satyrs, nature beings who dwell behind all civilization and preserve their identity through every change of generations and historical movement.
With this chorus the profound Greek, so uniquely susceptible to the subtlest and deepest suffering, who had penetrated the destructive agencies of both nature and history, solaced himself. Though he had been in danger of craving a Buddhistic denial of the will, he was saved by art and though art life reclaimed him.”

As I have said at times of extreme stress I experience the voices as real, in the Asylum article Signifier SurfingI tried to use the idea of going with this in a poetic form, as a signifying [psychotic] monkey as a form of lived defensive practice, in this book I want to look at moving on from this and incorporating psychotic experiences as an artistic practice of everyday life, specifically moving on from mental distress through living as an art-form as opposed to any particularly normative interpretation of recovery, but perhaps with less hostility to Buddhism than Nietzsche, and to do so I will start by making a comparison between mindfulness techniques and the art of field recordings. But first to set up the purpose of examining field recording as a practice let’s look at the way this human capacity for projective identification manifests itself. As I said I often hear voices in music, not just in music, I also here them in everyday sounds; the swish of a car wheel in the rain; or the hum of a refrigerator; or even my own guts –an unsettling experience for all whether one hears voices or not most successfully artistically expressed by John Cage with his famous piece 4’ 33”. I would like to compare this experience with Electronic Voice Phenomenon (EVP) where practitioners have the belief that they are communicating with the dead via electronic devices such as tapes. The writer Konstantins Raudive is most well-known for his explorations in this regard, the voices are heard in static, often tape noise or hiss, or in other cases the static between clear signals from short wave radio. These voices that are heard can be interpreted as emanating from people believed to be communicating with the hearer through these media, often they are thought to be the dead, or sometimes (other) telepaths. It has been used artistically by the German musician Felix Kubin and the French sound artist Jacques Brodier with his machine the Filter of Reality. A good example from film is the radio transmissions in Jean Cocteau’s ‘Orphée where in a form of what is called in psychiatry and psychology ideas of reference, the protagonist [check name] wonders whether these repetitive codes he hears in the radio are meant just for him. Jo Banks in his book Rorschach Audio argues that EVP too is a projection onto an Other, in this case noise, that returns. This experience has a long history, in an article ‘The Esoteric Origins of the Phonograph’ the psychonaut Erik Davis quotes Ludwig Van Beethoven “I am electrical by nature…” says Beethoven “Music is the electrical soil in which the spirit lives, thinks and invents.” Davis calls this ‘the electromagnetic imaginary’ it is “the mythic, animistic and just plain weird cultural dimensions of electricity and electromagnetism, those cosmic forces which carry an imaginative load as powerful for us as air, earth, water and fire were for the ancients.” It is here in what Freud called the uncanny that the barrier between the conscious and the unconscious becomes noise, and so conversely in noise we sometimes penetrate that veil and hear the other side. Davis quotes Marshall Mcluhan speaking of one of the first forms of electrical transmission, the telegraph: “whereas all previous technology (save speech itself) had in effect, extended some part of our bodies, electricity may be said to have outered the central nervous system itself…[and] to put one’s nerves outside is to initiate a situation –if not a concept – of dread.” This is also an apt description of the extreme paranoid state, one need only think of Judge Schreber’s conception of nerves. If we then take from this Lacan’s understanding of the symbolic, Bion’s alpha-function and Schiller’s chorus, we can see the chorus taking the place of the symbolic forbidding a crossing of the barrier created by the alpha-function, as our bodies are outered through technology, so voices of the dead return to us. As Davis remarks “because the self is partly a product of its communications, new media technologies remould the boundaries of being. As they do so, the shadows, doppelgängers and dark intuitions that haunt human identity begin to leak outside the self as well – and some of them take up residence in the emerging virtual spaces suggested by the new technologies.”
In 1877, Thomas Edison invented the phonograph and although he was a scientist and an engineer he was also a spiritualist inspired by that movement of table knockers started by the Fox sisters (even though before their death they would admit to having faked their séances, the movement had already gained too much momentum to be stalled by such an admission). Edison even later attempted to create a radio device capable of capturing the voices of the dead. Such endeavours would be continued by researchers in to what would come to be known as Electronic Voice Phenomenon (EVP) by researchers such as Konstantin Raudive who would move from the phonograph and radio hiss to electromagnetic tape.
Davis argues that “by siphoning a bit of the ‘soul’ into an externalised device, such technologies triggered the ancient dread of the doppelgänger, that psychic simulacrum of the self that moves through the world of its own eerie accord.” The experience of the ‘uncanny’. Davis continues by relating the scientist Thomas Watson describing listening to unearthly late night transmissions in Alexander Graham Bell’s laboratory when he would listen to the snaps, crackles, pops and ‘ghostly grinding noises’ that could be heard on a telephone circuit “My theory at this time was that the currents causing these sounds came from explosions on the sun or that they were signals from another planet. They were mystic enough to suggest the latter explanation but I never detected any regularity in them that might indicate they were intelligent signals“ . Davis then cites the philosopher Avital Ronell “Science acquires its staying power from a sustained struggle to keep down the demons of the supernatural with whose visions, however, it competes.” Davis recounts that on 24 August 1924, when Mars passed unusually close to the Earth, military and civilian transmitters voluntarily shut down in order that the airwaves be left open in order to hear any transmissions from Martians, instead of a message though, radio hackers were treated to a symphony of freak signals. Davis states:

“These popular passions may seem corny in retrospect, but that is because the sublime and visionary edge of technology is always changing, opening up new virtualities that then become integrated into business as usual. For aeons, the hardwired side of human perceptions has been limited to our own unique sensory apparatus, an apparatus that partly determines the apparent nature of the world. New technologies of perception unfold the sublimity and threat, worlds which challenge us to reconfigure the limits of ourselves and to shape the meaning of the new spaces we find ourselves in.”

Davis invokes Marshall McLuhan who suggested that electronic technologies were bringing forth an ‘acoustic space’ in the place of the earlier ‘visual space’ that had dominated western thought for many centuries with its linear, logical and sequential explanation of the world. Electronic media eroded this objective grid of facts “dissolving it into a psychic, social and perceptual environment that resembles the kind of space we hear: multi-dimensional, resonant, invisibly tactile, ‘a total and simultaneous field of relations’” .
Davis does point out that McLuhan’s use of ‘acoustic space’ as an analogy for a psycho-social process did not require the activation of the hearing mechanism of the inner ear. However, in his book on voice hearing, ‘Muses, Madmen and Prophets’ , Daniel B. Smith does examine the auditory process that occurs in hearing the spoken word. He imagines a wife telling her husband that she wants a divorce. Whilst we spend much of our time when discussing hearing voices, discussing the act of hearing, Smith starts with the act of speaking:

“The first step she takes is to release her breath from the inflated lobes of her lungs into the branched tubing of her respiratory system. The main channel in this system is the trachea. It is approximately eight inches long, rigid and segmented like the hose of a shower nozzle. Its purpose, in this case, is to serve as the conduit for the breath toward the first obstacle necessary for the production of speech: the vocal cords. Vocal cords… are thin, muscular flaps, reminiscent of labia, that block the top of the trachea like the lid of a truck’s horn. When one wants to breathe, these flaps are loose. When one wants to speak, they form a barrier by pressing together, sealing off the throat from the breath. Its progression stanched, the breath accumulates behind the vocal cords. The pressure builds. Before long, the pressure becomes so great that the vocal cords can no longer maintain their seal, and they release – not all at once but fluidly, periodically, the way the length of an earthworm ripples as it moves across the soil. With speech this event never occurs in isolation. As the breath makes its dash upward, the pressure below the vocal cords decreases rapidly, and the cords, their strength regained, seal together again. More breath creates more pressure, which again builds. Another breaking point is reached, the cords again release, the pressure drops, the cords seal, and so on in a rapid, alternating dance of advance and retreat.
“By this process between flesh and breath is created the basic mechanical component of sound: the movement of an object. All sound – a voice, a G-minor chord on a banjo, the hum of a refrigerator – is made because of the movement of an object. When an object moves, it causes an alteration in air pressure, a pulsing of molecules. A sound that exists because of a uniform and constant alteration in air pressure, as in the ringing produced by a tuning fork, is called a pure tone. With the complicated apparatus of the human vocal system, such a pure sound is impossible to create; it would elude even the practiced control of a trained singer. Speech, however does not require purity; speech requires a variety capable of expressing content, and therefore, in addition to the vocal cords, the respiratory system is outfitted with a series of muscles… whose purpose in speech production is to manipulate the flow of breath as it passes through the body.”

This explanation is a pretty benign one, as Tristam Adams in his blog Notes From The Vomitorium suggests there are different takes as to the simplicity of the process of the vocal apparatus, the vocal tract:

“Firstly air is inhaled, upon exhalation, the vocal cords within the larynx are activated and vibrate, imbuing the exhaled air with sound. This sound then resonates and echoes through the remaining parts of the body that fall under the name ‘the vocal tract’. The tongue, palate, teeth, lips, nasal cavities all fall under the territory of the vocal tract. It is quite peculiar how so many different body parts are involved in the production of voice as Cavarero notes positively: “lips, mouth, palate, tongue, teeth, (…) larynx, nasal cavities, lungs, diaphragm – come together for acoustic purposes.”” (Cavarero, 2005, p.65) and Chion, negatively: “it paradoxically appears that the human body does not have a specific organ for phonation” (Chion, 1999, p.127). The voice is a result of many parts and yet reducible to none; neither the sum of each part, or the remainder after all parts. The very corporeal violence of speech is uncovered precisely at the moment when one contemplates each parts involvement and what role it serves within the body. The concept is simple; every body part that contributes to speech has a better, more vital, more important role to do, because, as Tomatis notes “we were given a digestive apparatus and a respiratory apparatus, but no specific oral-language apparatus.” (Tomatis, 1996, p.59).”

Nick Land invoking Professor Barker, goes further, in his palate-tectonics he sees the whole apparatus as a site of physical trauma:

“Due to erect posture the head has been twisted around, shattering vertebra-perceptual linearity and setting up the phylogenetic preconditions for the face. This right-angled pneumatic-oral arrangement produces the vocal apparatus as a crash-site, in which thoracic impulses collide with the roof of the mouth. The bipedal head becomes a virtual speech-impediment, a sub-cranial pneumatic pile-up, discharged as linguo-gestural development and cephalization take-off. Burroughs suggests that the proto-human ape was dragged through its body to expire upon its tongue. It’s a twin-axial system, howls and clicks, reciprocally articulated as a vowel-consonant phonetic palette, rigidly intersegmented to repress staccato-hiss continuous variation and its attendant becomings-animal. That’s why stammerings, stutterings, vocal tics, extralingual phonetics, and electro-digital voice synthesis are so laden with biopolitical intensity – they threaten to bypass the anthropostructural head-smash that establishes our identity with logos, escaping in the direction of numbers.”

This however is the apparatus that creates the sounds we hear when we learn to understand what sounds the language that we are born into, the words that point to signifiers that establish meaning in our minds sound like. And whether or not we hear voices in static, in our own heads, in music, if they are acousmatic, they appear alien to us, disembodied, not of the I, from an Other, this apparatus is the source of the words we learn to recognise when we hear them.

But once the breath has left the vocal tract, it is not the end of the communication. As Smith continues:

“After the wife’s breath passes the vocal cords, it makes its way through this muscular assembly line, all the while being shaped into the words she has decided to speak. After passing her lips – the last of the muscles – it shoots into the room like steam from a teakettle. Breath collides with air, completing the first of two alchemic steps on the way to speech: the transformation of breath into molecular movement. The air molecules in front of her mouth compress and open in pulses tuned to her words. These pulses travel forward and outward like an inflating balloon, moving toward their target.
At this point in the process, the voice becomes hard to define. Is the converted breath, hovering in the air between speaker and listener, yet a voice? Is it audible? Is it enough to state that at this point the voice has taken leave of the wife’s possession? She is no longer its owner or master. She has pushed it out into the world. It is independent.”

In the clinical treatment of voice hearing, one form of therapy is controversially to ask the voice hearer to listen to their voices and try and dialogue with them. The important thing is meaningful dialogue. Some of those working with voices such as Marius Romme and Dirk Corstens who use these treatments think of voices as constructs, there are others who work in a similar way who think of them similarly as metaphors, for example Trevor Eyles. A construct stems from the person’s life experience, voice hearing is often associated with trauma, but there are other stressors too, so such a construct will represent this but often metaphorically. When someone hears voices, a construct can be found that relates to certain feelings and experiences. I would argue that this construct comes as much from the person’s lifeworld as mere experience. However dialogic forms of therapy work on a dialogue with these constructs to untie the knots that have created them. This involves trying to understand what experience is relevant, and sometimes this involves understanding these voices as metaphors for such experiences. So this means shifting through some background noise, the chaos of our unconscious. For me with regards the artistic life then an embodied relation to this chaos that allows for improvisation, a form of action that is based in autonomous action, as opposed to top down forms of discipline, gives us a greater chance of navigating this maelstrom. However anyone who has ever improvised in a group setting, whether in music, comedy or acting, will know that the art requires the ability to be aware of and to listen to others. There’s a sense where a good hearing voices group will operate on these principles too. The mythical experience is often portrayed in the form of Ulysses sailing past the islands of the Sirens tied to the mast, with the ears of the oarsmen of his boat sealed with wax so that they cannot hear. For Adorno and Horkheimer in their book ‘The Dialectic of the Enlightenment’, the Ulysses figure represented the creation of the individual, the entrepreneurial subject. This chimes in many ways with Julian Jaynes citing of Homer as a distinctive disjunction in the evolution of the bicameral mind. Musically this figure is represented by the conductor and his orchestra. For those of us who cannot be entrepreneurs, who do not own capital, we are left with our ability to improvise. But I don’t want to deal with the full implications of improvisation in this article. I would like to focus just on hearing and listening.
In his critique of EVP, Jo Banks uses the theories of EH Gombrich. Ernst Gombrich was an art historian who would go on to write a seminal book on art theory called Art and Illusion: in it he argues that the process of creating art works on a process of trial and error, a feedback loop that affects the artist’s style, and the disparity between what the artist actually paints and what they are trying to paint. But before he wrote it he worked for the BBC Monitoring Service at Evesham monitoring the air waves for intelligence during the Second World War. He had escaped Nazi Germany in 1936 and was in a good position to work here. The work involved listening for the voices of enemy broadcasts amongst the static of radio. From his art theory he was very aware of the problems of projecting onto objects, and so he wrote a memo for the other staff with regards how to distinguish between fact and projected fiction. Would such techniques be useful in unravelling the experience of voice hearing?
The field recordist Jez Riley French, records quiet sounds. He records quiet sounds in the field to play back as music and sound art. For him there is an active element to listening. Quiet sounds he says “The idea of ‘quiet’ in nature is a good example – in reality even the most still places are sonic chaos, often in frequency ranges not available to our naked ears. For myself I find listening with devices that allow us to hear those sounds actually heightens one’s ability to hear stillness when listening without them.” For Rufus May, the idea of dialogue with the voices goes hand in hand with mindfulness, letting the mind still. Without this still mind, it is harder to listen to the constructs.
Would such techniques be useful in voice hearing?

What if we combined them?

Order of sounds Bonnet – Beyond Sound chapter

Mladen dolar on Freud’s voices – Lalangue

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image: detail of installation by Bronwyn Lace