By Lawrence Kramer, author of The Hum of the World: A Philosophy of Listening
Sound in recent years has escaped its traditionally subordinate relationship to sight and become the object of widespread interest. Sound Studies is a flourishing field. But much of the work done under this rubric has concentrated either on the technological history of sound or on the social uses and abuses of sound.
In my book The Hum of the World: A Philosophy of Listening, now available in paperback from UC Press, I sought to focus more on the ways in which sound has been imagined and represented in Western culture. We need work on the technology and social impact of sound, but we also need work on how sound has been apprehended—felt, remembered, and conceived. Of course, there is a great deal of overlap among these spheres of study.
The Hum of the World is grounded in a new concept and an associated principle. The concept is the hum of my title, which also goes by the name of the audiable—the word audible enriched with a resonant extra vowel sound. The audiable is the faint continuous background sound that accompanies all of our sensory perception. This sound on rare occasions becomes perceptible and meaningful. Most of the time it hovers on the fringes of perception where, however, it does essential work for us. It forms a barrier against total silence, dead silence, a condition that we rarely experience and that disturbs us greatly when we do. When the world goes totally silent, we often listen to our bodies instead, the pulse in our veins, the air in our lungs. We need to hear something.
One of the chief ways in which we experience the audiable is as the just-audible difference between quiet and silence, often heard in the motion of the air or the flow of water. In his poem “Airey Force Valley” (1842), referring to a beauty spot in England’s Lake District, William Wordsworth described how this attunement of the ear to the world occurs:
—Not a breath of air
Ruffles the bosom of this leafy glen.
From the brook’s margin, wide around, the trees
Are steadfast as the rocks; the brook itself,
Old as the hills that feed it from afar,
Doth rather deepen than disturb the calm
Where all things else are still and motionless.
The sound of the brook, the only thing heard in the scene, becomes audible not in itself but as a resonance within the prevailing stillness. The sequestered glen becomes a kind of ear in which the barely discernible sound of the audiable blends the present and the remote past into a single timeless moment.
The continuity of the audiable also assures us of the continuity of our experience of the world, which is to say, the continuation of life. This is the principle I referred to earlier. The audiable is not only a sound you may or may not hear, but also the sound of what you are about to hear, the sound that tells you that something will come next. The recognition of the audiable leads to the recognition that sound is the main sensory means by which life becomes something we experience in its own right.
Taken together, concept and principle afford new kinds of insight into the meaning of our sensory lives and their representation in art, philosophy, literature, music, and even science. To stick with poetry, Sandy Florian captures the work of the audiable in a prose poem, “Phonograph” (2005), in which she imagines someone making a recording on an Edison cylinder. The recording would have been made more than a century before the writing of the text, but it seems to occur in the present and future tenses:
Speak into the mouth-piece and cause the tremors in the thin diaphragm. Then. The steel point makes tracings upon the hard wax. Fix the thing upon a spinning cylinder. And. By means of the tracings, the diaphragm will repeat with perfection your original voice. Or. The echoes in the mountains of your lamentations. As. Cries in a haunted brothel. Or. Whispers in a ghostly tavern.
By isolating the connective particles (“Or.” “And.” “Then.”), Florian opens up spaces through which the background hum can faintly be heard. But what is heard there carries the ear and the mind away into spectral places that, for the moment, are more real than any physical space. Recording changes the character of time—or at least it did when recorded sound was new.
My interest in these things grew out of my work with music, both as a scholar (the book talks a lot about music) and as a composer (see, for example, my “Phantom Etudes” for piano). But what I have learned in pursuing these interests is that the appeal, the continuous peal, of sound goes everywhere and stops nowhere. Certain nineteenth-century thinkers such as Charles Babbage (who laid the conceptual foundation of the computer with Ada Lovelace) imagined that the world would contain a permanent record of all the sounds ever made in it, if only one could retrieve them. Retrieving them may not literally be possible, but it is not a bad metaphor for what sound studies, with a little help from the audiable, can do.