The notion of a “politics of sound” or “micropolitics of noise” refers to processes that seek to intensify frequency vibration as a technique of affective mobilization. On a performative level, the term refers to the transformation of energies through the sonic/vibrational field that can be found into any performative space. I hope that the following approach provides a solid foundation for unlocking the role of sonic energy and the human body in performing arts in relation to the impact they may cause to the environment of the performance space. The proposed model considers the human activity as its central theme. Yet, as it emerged, it became apparent that this essay is not so much about a musical narrative language as about the relationship of the human action to other possible sound sources and agencies, whether natural and environmental or human-made and synthetic. Thus, while we identify the human being as the central agent in the discussion, other entities will be identified and contribute to our sonic discourse.
This performative approach explores the sonic-vibrational elements and qualities in the art of performance with regard to the human body and cognitive processes. The model of sound art performance suggested here will present its practical approaches through analysis of the author’s recent sound art performances: Micropolitics of Noise and The Ritual. In these two works, the emphasis is placed on the communicational model that draws attention to how the human agent/performer creates relationships between the vibrational, technological and the social space. Therefore, I suggest an inquiry into the field where sonic energy and effort coexist and portray the art of sound and performance as an integrated human activity.
The Act of Questioning as a Starting Point
In a broader sense, as a composer and sound artist, I strongly believe that a performative work of art in our era—whether it is sound or visual art—should be able to address a question which will give rise to more questions and possibilities to regard problems (existential, social or political) from a new angle. The idea under investigation here is the following: what is the relation of performance to our sonic social space and to the expansion of our collective consciousness? As artists, how can we evaluate, be critical of and join the evolution of collective consciousness? I feel the need to delve further into this mission, in the hope of creating new questions in the sonic performative approaches through which the viewer-listener should not be conscious of the question itself, but to become conscious as the question in the work of art. In that sense, the creative process as well as the artistic result becomes the question itself. Art poses the question to the social environment where it takes place but it doesn’t reveal the answer.
The Sonic Event as a Phenomenon of Contact
Throughout the history of theatre and performing arts, sound has been a major contributor in the dramaturgy and narrative progress. Though, it has mostly functioned as a complementary and, sometimes, decorative aspect in the representation/description of characters, ideas and situations. But, my intention here is not to describe or to re-evaluate the role of the sonic event in the relationship between actor and character or performer and audience. Rather, I propose to experience the production and impact of sound as a universal phenomenon that functions well before the cognitive appropriation. In other words, it is my contention that sound can be perceived not as a matter of meaning. As opposed to sound as text, the dimension explored here is that of sound as force and as a phenomenon of contact with the human body within the performative space. Seductive and violent. Abstract and physical. The sonic vibrational energy as a precursor arrangement that modulates space and body dynamics. Sound as an ambiguous transformative energy.
It would seem that to deliver sound into a world of appearances is also to give the intangible a name and a face, potentially fixing limits to a realm where there are none. Within vibrations themselves, there are no abrupt boundaries, no distinctive thresholds, only heterogeneous continuities afloat on a flux of becoming, as Raviv Ganchrow writes. Sound is a non-visible but also a physical, tangible character of space. Density, mass and physicality are qualities that can induce a material sense of space. It fills space in a holistic manner.
However, things become more serious and far more complex when we look at the sonic energy in its socio-political context and space. Density, mass and physicality are creating vibrational atmospheres that can become a force of social transformations. It is in this very context where the human body is experiencing a shifting acoustic ecology through the soundscape of modernity. But, while the humanities have long investigated the relation of language, literature and visual culture to the sphere of political economy, the role of sound remains relatively unexplored.
Noise: Sense and Organization of the Contemporary Sonic Thought
It is crucial to say that between these two coexistent tendencies—the attractive and repulsive power of sonic force—the issue is obviously not simply one of good or bad. As Steve Goodman states, in Sonic Warfare: Sound Affect and the Ecology of Fear, “Rather, their ambivalence indicates some of the emergent features central to the strategies and tactics of control within contemporary capitalism” (2010: 32). Contemporary performance and theatre have not been untouched by the rapid audio-technological progress and the increased accessibility of sonic apparatus. Sound, in recent productions, has become more and more subliminal. It creates spaces and opens hyper-sensitized communicating paths between a work and the public. We have entered an era of amplification, where concepts are constructed to investigate the deployment of sound systems in the modulation of the body affect. In Goodman’s book on “sonic warfare,” we explore the rippling shockwaves of these kinds of deployments of sound and their impacts on the way populations feel—not just their individualized, subjective, personal emotions, but more their collective moods or affects. The acoustic violence of vibration and the trembling of temperaments.
Modern thought and criticism in the sonic anthropological research field is not only about amplification, but also about our physiological and psychological response to the relation between the audible and the inaudible. The inaudible part of sound mostly activates the sonic conjunction with amodal perception: bass is not just heard but is felt. An ontology of vibrational force delves below a philosophy of sound and the physics of acoustics toward the basic processes of entities affecting other entities. This is the core-process of a contemporary acoustic ecology where threat becomes spectral and the effect becomes autonomous from cause.
Thus, I am here approaching the experience of sonic contact and its political extensions through the natural continuum of noise. Noise in our case is not necessarily described as a form of violence, but rather as the birth-place of music and as a natural phenomenon in which we are able to observe a social metaphor for the role of religion and later on, the role of civilization. Jacques Attali described noise through the prism of a violent precursor of social transformations. Our intention here is to approach a relatively new idea about noise as a universal phenomenon that reflects the extremely complex order of cosmos and the ways it manifests itself in the sound art performance. I am looking at the sonic energy of noise as a metaphor of understanding collective consciousness in the scientific and spiritual sense in the contemporary social web, instead of using the role of music to try to analyze the evolution of ritual and society. Therefore, noise can best serve as an indicator of a holistic performative space where the human being (performer) functions as a multi-dimensional carrier of conscious and unconscious aspects, rational and irrational aspects.
The above theoretical model attempts to take practical form within the performative space by creating two sound art works that present noise as carrier of two ambivalent coexistent tendencies, the attractive and repulsive power of vibrational force. In the first long durational work, Micropolitics of Noise, the sonic force represents its immaterial nature through the presence of the human body. The attention is on sound as a form of violence. Although, as the work goes through time, it does not seem to maintain its violent manifestation, but it moves into more complex physiological as well as psychological territories for the body. Secondly, the work The Ritual interactively uses the internal physical sounds of the human body itself and makes use of them through a ritualistic movement process. In this case, sound has a clear source and cause that leads to a transcendental state of the performer.
Micropolitics of Noise
The work is based on my research in acoustic ecology in relation to the human body. The performer attempts to give physical form to the micropolitics of sound-signaling threats and to demonstrate the ways in which noise can be used as a form of violence that also shapes the soundscape of the future. A long-durational situation in which the body is exposed to subsonic vibrational forces, triggered by the presence of people around the performative space. Left in a state of constant threat for seven weeks, the body unconsciously experiences three kinds of fear-induced reactions: fight – flight – freeze.
It is a multi-layered work with a socio-political concept initiated by an article published by Guardian, November 3, 2005:
In November, a number of international newspapers reported that air forces had begun to use sonic booms under the cover of darkness as “sound bombs” in the Middle East. A sonic boom is the high-volume, deep-frequency effect of low-flying jets traveling faster than the speed of sound. Its victims likened its effect to the wall of air pressure generated by a massive explosion. They reported broken windows, ear pain, nosebleeds, anxiety attacks, sleeplessness, hypertension, and being left “shaking inside.” Despite complaints from both Palestinians and Israelis, the government protested that sound bombs were “preferable to real ones.”
The long durational performance Micropolitics of Noise wants to communicate the enormous influence that the concepts of frequency, vibration and energy in sound have in our lives on physical and psychological levels. Sonic energy and more specifically noise, is a natural phenomenon.
The work consists of a 55 sq.m. platform under which there has been installed a 6KW low frequency sound system. It is, in fact, a form of Vibrational An-architecture. The public is invited to step inside the performance space with the help of a ramp at the front of the platform. Once the space is occupied by just one person (other than the performer), the sound system gets activated interactively. A (dis)continuum of vibrational force, a vast, disjointed, shivering surface, for both, the bodies and the space.
You cannot hear it, but it makes you shake. You may be more affected by the sound than by what is happening visually in the space. A lot of people can take the images, but not the sound. Those reactions are physical. Infrasound is inaudible yet felt, and this can frustrate perceptual compulsions to allocate a cause to the sound. Abstract sensations cause anxiety due to the very absence of an audible object or cause. Without either, the imagination produces one, which can be more affective than the reality.
While the ability to interpret sounds and attribute likely causes to them is learned culturally, so as to instruct on the particular danger to each species, it is also argued that this is built on top of an evolutionary hard-wired instinct to respond appropriately, for the sake of survival, to any threat or psychological mobilization indicated by sound.
You are standing and calmly observing. Suddenly, you hear a sound. Looking around, it seems to be emanating from a source up on the wall in the corner or under the surface of the room. Checking that it did not signal anything significant, you return to your business of staring intensely at the object which is the human performer and one of the central agents in the work. But the presence of the human body in this particular vibrational field does not function as a source and cause of the sonic energy. It is in fact an auditory image of the objectivity and tri-dimensionality of the immaterial sound. The vision of hearing. Not hearing through the ears, but through the body. Feeling the sound.
The work gives physical form to the micropolitics of sound-signaling threats and the ways in which noise can be used as form of violence that also shapes the soundscape of modernity. A sonic war reminds us that our reactions to fear are not necessarily conscious consequences. When faced with this sort of threat the body experiences three kinds of fear-induced reactions: fight –flight – freeze.
At the same time, the research aspect of the work is presented and shaped each day, in real time, alongside the performance, by documenting the physical and psychological body effects on the walls of the performance space. On a technological level, the work uses a human detection system by which visitors activate and form the subsonic vibrational field.
Lambros Pigounis, Micropolitics of Noise. Long Durational Performance Exhibition at Benaki Museum, Athens. March 2016.
Video by Tokomburu
The initial aim was to remind the public that the sonic energy is a subjective phenomenon of contact with the body, and it is very powerful! That it is a kind of energy whose positive and negative effects are usually overlooked or underestimated by the global community. Visitors to the work enter into a field of sonic an-architecture, where the physical, emotional and libidinal dynamics of the body are unconsciously shifted. They set out on a journey that can often be revealing. The documented experiences are a hugely valuable information. It turns out that sound is a subjectively-perceived phenomenon and the reactions to it can cover a very wide range of emotions and responses. Someone could say that the space has been transformed into an environment for out-of-body experiences.
Sacrificial Mirror (The Ritual)
Sacrificial Mirror is a solo physical sound art performance, in which the performer amplifies different sounds from his body with the help of microphones and sensors.
The performance is an attempt to create an auditory mirror image of the social norm by focusing on ritualistic and sacrificial acts.
Auditory Mirror Image: Sound Signification and Sacrifice
Let’s take a moment to think of clubs as performative spaces that regulate the symbolic commodification of sound in modern society and, therefore, organize political order in music. For Jacques Attali (1985), music has always signified, even prior to the cultural/economic codification which eventuates with music’s entry into the market economy and subsequent commodification, which destroys its ritualistic use value, abstracting it into exchange value. Before exchange, in ancient societies, music operates according to a code that Attali calls sacrificial. Music, given meaning by the codes of the sacred, forms, domesticates and ritualizes noise. Music is not innocent but, through ritual, structures power relations, enforcing and legitimizing the dominant code.
The work under discussion reproduces ritualistic gestural signifiers through which the performer crosses the border of the symbolic and reaches a semiotic space where the human body articulates forces of ruptures. The idea here is to reverse Lacan’s theory of the Mirror Stage, which says that we resolve ourselves as an I and function as a subject in response to a reflected image of ourselves. Claude Bailble argues that the sounds occurring through the body to body contact of the fetus and mother (heartbeat, breathing, voice etc) establish the subject’s consciousness of its other. The child learns to be in response to sonorous, rather than visual, cues. Sacrificial Mirror engages Baible’s argument and transforms interactively the visual ritualistic gesture into a sonorous meaningful code. Thus, the visual kinetic symbolisms recreate an auditory mirror image of the political order of music in the social space.
The Vision and Objectivity of the Sonic Body
An auditory image is, in fact, the sonic body in contemporary sound art and performance. It gives ear to the significance of sound in modern society, and the cultural and historical contexts in which it resonates most strongly. The immaterial-material nature of sound becomes the substance that is meant as objectivity and tri-dimensionality, of the presence and the vision, of the hearing. In that sense, the sonic event is a phenomenon of contact and displays, through an array of autonomic responses, a whole spectrum of affective powers. On a physical level, sound has a seductive power to caress the skin, to immerse, to sooth, beckon and heal, to modulate brain waves and massage the release of certain hormones within the human body.
At the same time, discussion of the physiological effects of sonic weaponry has usually centered on intensity (acoustic power), the ultrasonic or the infrasonic. Need we be reminded that noise, like anything else that touches you, can be a source of both pleasure and pain and that beyond a certain limit, it becomes an immaterial sonic artistic tool. A powerful tool that goes beyond basic human instincts. Spinoza’s term appetite refers to the body’s behavior as future facing and always in conjunction with the body’s relation to a shifting ecology, its open-ended relationality. A body’s effort/tendency to persist in its power to affect and be affected, its potential. Whereas instinct usually denotes a closed, preprogrammed system with no room for change.
For Brian Massumi, in Parables for the Virtual, the sonic activation of the affective sensorium produces a basic autonomic response. The immediacy of visceral perception is so radical that it can be said without exaggeration to precede the exteroceptive sense perception. It anticipates the translation of the sight or sound or touch perception into something recognizable associated with an identifiable object (2002: 60). In terms of performance, this example of visceral perception initiated by the sonic vibrations, marks the beginning of the body’s pre-acceleration. In the sense identified by William James in his theory about the psychology of fear, autonomically the body makes the decision to act, with the emotion and conscious decision to act being merely a retrospective description of the feeling of the body’s decision. That is a major, and yet undiscovered, challenge and a threshold shift in the objectivity of sound in performing arts.
It becomes apparent that sound can be used as a phenomenon of contact and distribute sensations that identify, channel, and amplify performance power. It manifests itself in relation to the powerful concepts of noise and silence in different and sometimes conflicting, sometimes in complementary ways. In this case, the sonic event caries the intention to seek and intensify the body’s experience and, therefore, be used as a technique of affective mobilization. It is this very intention that implies the micropolitical potential of the audiosocial and deploys sound as a vehicle to initiate collective threshold shifts. Thus, I would suggest the further exploration and questioning of a model of sonic artistic activity that draws attention to the way we participate and communicate inside the performative space and in human society.
Attali, Jacques. Noise: The Political Economy of Music. Trans. Brian Massumi. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1985.
Avidar, Phina, Raviv Ganchrow and Julia Kursell. “Editorial.” Immersed. Sound and Architecture, OASE 78 (2009): 2–7. https://www.oasejournal.nl/en/Issues/78/Editorial.
Bailble, Claude. Programming the Ear. Trans. Noel Sanders. Sydney: University of Technology Press, 1987.
Goodman, Steve. Sonic Warfare: Sound Affect and the Ecology of Fear. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2010.
James, William. The Principles of Psychology. New York: Dover, 1890.
Massumi, Brian. Parables for the Virtual. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2002.
Pigounis, Lambros. “What is a Question?” ASAP/Journal 2.1 (2017): 30-1. https://muse.jhu.edu/article/649695.
*Lambros Pigounis lives in Athens and specializes in the field of contemporary classical and electroacoustic composition and sound art. He studied violin and theory of music at the Greek Conservatoire, in Athens, and electroacoustic composition at the University of Hertfordshire (UK), where he joined the second violins of the Philarmonic of Hertfordshire. He continued his studies at the City University of London, where he completed an MA in Electroacoustic Composition while artistically involved in Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance. He is currently preparing for a Ph.D. He teaches at SAE Athens Institute of Technology and his main artistic activities are collaborations with musicians, directors and choreographers. His recent works include the Micropolitics of Noise, A Long Durational Sound Art Performance commissioned by The Marina Abramović Institute and NEON, commissions by the HAU Hebbel am Ufer Theater in Berlin, Rimini Protokoll as well as several other commissions for theatre, dance and film. He is currently researching the ethics of sound in acoustic ecology through the input of the human agent in electroacoustic performance based on interactive compositional models.