Trans* formative sensibilities: following queerly ecological impulses in experimental audio practice
by NIK FORREST
Trans* formative sensibilities: following queerly ecological impulses in experimental audio practice
by Nik Forrest
May 2020: The World Turned Outside In
Six weeks into the COVID-19 lockdown in Montreal, a strangely elastic timespan that coincides with the gradual shift from winter to spring, changes in the environment are unusually audible. Staying mostly indoors, my awareness of the ways that sound continually crosses the threshold between outside and inside is heightened: I am more attuned to the sound of an occasional car passing, birds singing, squirrels in the backyard, and footsteps on the sidewalk outside my front window. The world has changed.
The boundaries that demarcate our separation from the outside and from each other crossed by these sounds have become more palpable. I'm much more aware of the interconnectedness of bodies with their surrounding environment every time I leave my apartment: the dimensions of shared space, the distance between myself and other people, and contact with objects and air circulation. I'm also more conscious of all the resources I have that make this situation livable. The effects of thresholds, interconnectedness, and socio-economic inequity are always there, but the disorientations of the current situation make them newly perceptible, and potentially less fixed.
The familiar seasonal change in the city's sonic ecology has also been intensified and amplified. The reduction in human activity has made non-human sounds more audible and may also have increased non-human activity. The strangeness of Montreal this spring has heightened my attunement to both sound and difference. Every winter, when the first snow blankets the city, the sonic ecology shifts towards a renewed combination of stillness and intensity; the stillness is the result of the way that snow absorbs sound, especially higher frequencies. The intensity is the result of the noticeable variation in the sonic environment: the same old surroundings sound different but are also heard differently through this shift in attention. As the structure of snow changes, becoming packed and frozen, it reflects more sound, and the amount of noise in environment builds up again. Sound travels farther, becomes clearer, and feels sharper. These changing effects repeat throughout the winter, but the way the first snow transforms the city always surprises me.
When these shifts happen, an opening emerges: we can hear more of the material, spatial and atmospheric intricacies of our surrounding environment and its human and non-human inhabitants. These experiences--the singularity of the COVID spring and the familiar strangeness of each winter--remind us that change is happening all the time, but only certain conditions seem to force this actuality into our perception. What can we learn from this, in order to expand perceptual potential? Changing the way that we listen changes what can be heard, and this, by extension, changes what is possible. Sound is always in transition: moving, morphing and materially recreating itself across multiple locations and temporalities. It resists containment, queering normative boundaries between inside and outside, then and now, here and there, and nature and culture. Through experimental sound-making (including audio art) and listening practices, it becomes possible to sense beyond the usual perceptual limits, hearing our surroundings - and those in it - in new ways, queerly reaching towards relational worlds that could be.
By enabling us to sense otherwise and re-attune to the diverse frequencies and registers of our surrounding environment, audio art that engages what composer, DJ and researcher Owen Chapman calls "Practices of revealing through audio technology" is one way to foster this kind of extended perceptual reach (64). Audio art practices (like my performance work with VLF described in detail below) that seek to reveal normally inaccessible or unnoticed sonic phenomena via human-technological assemblages are not aimed at "laying bare some ultimate truth" but rather, aim to attune to what can emerge through the gathering and juxtaposition of techniques (Chapman 63). This process of making phenomena perceptible can change what seems possible, working to challenge and re-orient common sense (received) notions of "the real". Drawing on my experience as an artist working with sound, this essay explores what I consider to be the queerly ecological and trans* sensory characteristics of experimental sound-making and listening practices, focusing in particular on Sonic Thresholds (2019-),1 a series of performances made with Very Low Frequency (VLF) electromagnetic waves, a pervasive component of both human and non-human sonic ecologies.
Trans* is used here to signal an expansive, capacious understanding of trans-ness as described by Halberstam, Stryker and Keegan among others.2 Film Studies scholar Cael Keegan brilliantly articulates the stakes of unfixed representational semiotic forms for trans* becoming: "The sticky fingers of the fronded asterisk (*) are the speculative lines of transgender's felt imaginary, sensing outward with faith to realize new contacts" (Keegan, Sensing Transgender 3). In this description, the asterisk initiates lines of flight for sensing, imagining and becoming, connecting through "faith" -- a term that suggests a kind of leap into the unknown and a trust in the potential of possible worlds to come. As Keegan suggests, trans* understood as force more than identity pushes against the limits of reality and the ways that "involuntary forms of common sense fix the perceptible field" (Sensing Transgender 6). Trans* senses beyond what is obviously apparent, reaching towards what could be. This quality of the sensory reach is likewise something I try to animate in multiple ways in Sonic Thresholds, for example, by making perceptible and palpable signals already present but normally inaccessible, and bringing into awareness the endless array of usually unnoticed sonic textures, details, noises and silence present in the "background" of our everyday surroundings. I also aim to make perceptible and sensible sound's intrinsically border crossing, generative and mercurial qualities that escape ordinary attention. For me, the asterisk is also an antenna: catching normally imperceptible energies, and allowing for greater attunement to one's surroundings, to what is already there but not ordinarily apparent.
The transmission and reception of normally imperceptible signals is also key to my interest in VLF waves, which can be detected and made audible through antenna-receivers comparable to wireless FM radios. The sound derived from these emissions is interesting both for its aesthetic qualities (texture, tone, and rhythmic patterns) and for its conceptually disruptive potential as a queerly transitional noise that confounds the boundaries between "natural" and "technological". Emanating from atmospheric phenomena like lightening, aurora borealis and solar wind, as well as the urban electrical grid's power lines, transformers, architectural wiring and array of electronic devices, VLF's invisible electromagnetic transmissions silently traverse vast as well as minute distances, becoming audible via often hand-made (DIY and community designed) equipment that can detect, tune and amplify the signal. Sometime called "natural radio", atmospheric VLF signals can be understood as a form of non-human media: The earth produces a variety of emissions at the lowest end of the radio spectrum, primarily in the form of electromagnetic pulses generated by ongoing lightning storms and strikes, and from the Sun's solar wind interacting with the magnetic envelope surrounding Earth.
In Sonic Thresholds, I work with VLF to try to create an animate sonic ecology through the speculative reach of a trans* "felt imaginary" engaging materials, bodies and capacities to activate edges and thresholds (Keegan, Sensing Transgender 2). Rather than invading or occupying the senses I seek to open up and energize a shared space that fosters extended listening and embodied sensing in order to contact emerging sounds as they evolve into new forms. Following this emergence through listening that extends beyond the normatively understood limits of the body and beyond the usual limits of perception, incorporates the interactions of memory, imagination and desire with the material interactions and transformations of the sound itself. In this setting "the trans imaginary summons its own literalization" (Keegan, Sensing Transgender 2).
In my sound performances, technological devices and experimental techniques as well as embodied listening are the means by which audience-participants are invited to sense differently, to sense more, and to sense beyond usual limits. Listening together in these ways can bring, as Keegan suggests, "what has only been sensed into shared recognition" leading us elsewhere, towards new material and social realities and relations (Sensing Transgender 5). The trans* imaginary and sensory reach described by Keegan is a question of survival, demonstrating the non-neutral, crucially significant stakes of perception: "transgender people have had to craft imaginaries that sustain our desire to become, our belief that we might come into perception differently" (Sensing Transgender 3). These sensory and imaginative techniques for survival that reach beyond the limits of the world as it appears, may provide valuable insights for thinking about how to respond to the current socio-political situation of rampant inequity and injustice. Sound performance is one framework for exploring the political stakes and effects of the sensory.
For me, queerness and trans-ness are entangled theories as well as lived experiences and forces interacting across the material and immaterial fields of relation that constitute (and re-constitute) bodies, subjectivities, and desires. While queer theory's core focus can be understood as non-normative sexuality, and trans studies as non-normative gender, sexuality and gender are themselves often connected and entangled in a variety of complex and shifting ways. I describe myself as non-binary, trans-masculine, and gender queer to deliberately include the tensions, instabilities and even contradictions that resonate between and across these terms. Considered as descriptions more than identity categories, these terms nonetheless signal the always present and intensely felt experience of disidentification with the gender I was assigned at birth, as well as the fixed binary gender system that we all navigate. The versions of queer and trans theory that especially interest me as an artist and researcher retain an emergent quality: connecting, reconnecting and inflecting one another in different ways. This kind of expansive ecological perspective resonates with trans theorist Susan Stryker's assertion that "translife and transecologies are not reducible to physicalities" (Stryker, Foreword Transecologies xviii). The lived, embodied experience of trans-ness, and the feeling of just being gendered* in a way that differs from how one was assigned at birth, suggests that trans-ness is a material difference -- and I think it is. But this feeling and what it bodies is a dynamic, emerging and mobile form understood expansively as something that also moves beyond the limits of the body; an intensity that is irreducible to a fixed shape, appearance or material configuration.
The emergent, uncertain and even ambiguous characteristics of queer theory are part of what make it a creative, experimental field and a productively unsettling force as well as a desiring impulse that exceeds normative structures of relation. Capacious theories of trans* embodiment, sensing and becoming that challenge, blur and surpass the material / immaterial binary and the apparent limits of the world as it appears, offer generative and transformative ways for thinking across difference, and about ongoing potentials for change. Breaking away from pathologizing models, trans* studies has redefined itself as "a radically disruptive cultural and political force... [that through its] attentions to the sensible, the material, and the futural...presents the recent phenomenological, critical race, and utopian turns in queer studies a host of theoretical resources" (Keegan, "How to Do Things with Trans" 68-69). Contemporary trans theories echo back into queerness, challenging its normalization (through neo-liberal models of inclusion), refreshing its potentially disruptive and transformative political force.
Over the past 4 years, my performance work with VLF has evolved into an embodied practice that foregrounds sound's relational, transitional and ecological characteristics and impulses. In order to think through these creative directions, I draw on trans media theories (Keegan, Preciado, Chen and Cardenas), new materialist perspectives (Haraway, Barad, Chen) and sound studies (Oliveros, LaBelle, Chapman), following resonant connections between sound and listening, experimental body practices, expanded sensing and ecological attunement. I consider this text as part of a larger reflexive engagement with research-creation,3 moving amongst entangled practices of listening, sounding, recording, playback, trans*- mission and reception.
New materialist thinkers re-assert the importance of material factors in political, social and cultural analysis. Matter, reconsidered as an active force in an emerging world, unsettles the nature / culture, and human / non-human divisions and power dynamics rooted in modernity. From new materialist perspectives, the environment can't be considered as simply a passive resource for extraction, and the commonly understood "natural order of things", and its associated hierarchies and taxonomies, is questioned. When the human / nonhuman divide is exposed as hierarchical and unstable, the potential to challenge inequitable power relations among humans, as well as between humans, animals and environment emerges. Those considered less human (people of color, people with disabilities, trans and queer people, etc.) already know how material embodiment is imbricated in the ongoing negotiations of sociopolitical life. For interdisciplinary theorist Mel Chen the concept of animacy,4 and "the fragile division between animate and inanimate ...[that] is relentlessly produced and policed" has crucial biopolitical consequences (2). Inequitable power relations among humans, non-human others and matter of all kinds are at stake in these hierarchical divisions that undergird traditional Western perspectives: as Chen explains "[M]atter that is considered insensate, immobile, deathly, or otherwise 'wrong' animates cultural life in important ways" (2).
Beyond the binary, Donna Haraway has proposed thinking nature and culture as "a knot in motion": Through their reaching into each other, through their "prehensions" or graspings, beings constitute each other and themselves...Biological and cultural determinism are both instances of misplaced concreteness - i.e., the mistake of, first, taking provisional and local category abstractions like "nature" and "culture" for the world and, second, mistaking potent consequences to be preexisting foundations. There are no pre-constituted subjects and objects, and no single sources, unitary actors, or final ends (Haraway 6).
The queer reach of the lived, embodied experience of material reality is relational, dynamic and emergent. Seeing the world as continuously co-creating itself through interconnected matter, discourse and semiotics, Haraway's non-binary theories offer productive and potentially more just perspectives on difference, otherness and human / non-human relations. Physical and material aspects of reality can't be understood in isolation from ideological forces of language and other sense-making structures. For Haraway, "the machinic and the textual are internal to the organic and vice versa in irreversible ways" (15). As such, "subjects, objects, kinds, races, species, genres, and genders are the products of their relating" (Haraway 7). What counts as nature and culture in Western discourse, and who counts as an actor thus "matter[s] for political, ethical, and emotional action in technoculture" (Haraway 27). There are real world consequences to re-orienting our understanding of, and relations with, the non-human and the material.
Relatedly, in "Nature's Queer Performativity" feminist physicist and theorist Karen Barad asks, "What if queerness were understood to reside not in the breech of nature/culture, per se, but in the very nature of spacetimemattering?" (29). She thus queerly inflects Haraway's interest in the non-human, suggesting that not only are nature and culture entangled, but that - at its most fundamental level - the "desiring radical openness" of matter itself is performatively and relationally queer (Barad 29). Barad sees the queer reach of relation as a "radical questioning of identity and binaries" that reworks the world such that "seeming impossibilities are indeed possible" (29). Barad's take suggests that attuning to matter's behavior - from the smallest "ultraqueer critters" (atoms) to large phenomena like lightening -- can challenge what have become common-sense understanding of the natural world: the work of theoretical physics emerges as a way to catch up with matter's poetic wildness (29).
My sound performances likewise aim to accompany and often follow wild materials in the co-production of emerging poetic forms. The queerly ecological characteristics of sound intimately connect us with each other and with our surroundings. Like queerness, and expansive understandings of trans* as force, sound also resists finite definition and remains in a continuous state of flux. Sound enacts wild and animate space-time-matterings, queerly confounding categorical limits, binary thinking and the idea that material form is ever fully fixed. Sound artist and scholar Brandon LaBelle proposes that sound, in its border crossing intimacies, "emanates, propagates, communicates, vibrates, and agitates; it leaves a body and enters others; it binds and unhinges, harmonizes and traumatizes; it sends the body moving, the mind dreaming, the air oscillating" ("Auditory Relations" 468). Like queerness itself (that in its most productive versions always trembles with trans*- formative energy) sound as material "...eludes definition, while having profound effect" (LaBelle, "Auditory Relations" 468).
In addition to its queerly animate and mutable material characteristics, sound is also a social force that can be both connective and disruptive, extending the usual limits of the body and its sensory and relational capacities out into the world. Sound is "never a private affair...[it] is always already a public event, in that it moves from a single source and immediately arrives at multiple destinations" (LaBelle, "Auditory Relations" 469-470). Regardless of whether these destinations are human or non-human, sound interacts with, affects and is affected by all of its material and bodily encounters. In performances, the mix played back through the sound system arrives not only in the ears and bodies of the audience, but also at multiple locations throughout the listening space -- and even beyond -- where it reverberates, resonates and reflects back. This evolving and itinerant sonic mix carries the effects of its interactions with the surrounding environment and listening bodies when it arrives back again to be heard by the audience and performer. For me, this suggests, in line with Barad and Haraway's thinking of a nonhuman politics of mattering, that the "public" here not only refers to a human audience: sound's public is communal, incorporating the spatial, material and non-human others touched by its vibrations, who all affect the shape of its emerging forms. Sound's intrinsic relationality and interactivity re-orients, amplifies and re-animates affiliations amongst human and non-human listener-participants through both disruption and connection:
The limits of bodies and things are radically extended though sounded actions, making of them expressive flows open to intersections and overlaps, as well as fragmentations and ruptures. Sound intensifies relations by animating their potentiality, exposing the matters and bodies of the world to each other. Yet, these relations are also prone to being formed though interruptions and agitations -- the extended and animate reach of sounded events are necessarily rapturous and disruptive; they are punctuations onto the plane of presence and within the conditions of relationships (LaBelle, Sonic Agency 61).
From this perspective, sound enacts queerness' tendency to unsettle, re-orient and intensify relations, extending the limits of what it's possible to imagine, sense, and become. Sound animates matter, revealing its (and thus our) potential to move and be moved, connecting bodies, subjectivities and worlds through agitation, vibration and transduction. Sound is deeply imbricated in our interactions with each other and with the world and may provide a rich critical framework through which to re-imagine social, environmental and political relations.
My ongoing performance series Sonic Thresholds explores the aesthetic, affective and ecological potentials of VLF emissions. Each performance begins by exploring the particular location where the performance will take place (for example an art gallery, black box theatre, university classroom or bar). The equipment I use to play in these locations includes: a live VLF antenna, a laptop with a live re-mix / processing software, other home-made (DIY) sound devices that respond to electromagnetism, and guitar effects pedals that add extra layers of live processing, all connected to a sound mixer. This gear is set-up on a table near the audience, for example on the floor rather the stage in a bar, facing the main playback speakers so that what I hear is similar to what the audience hears. This is key to the live composition of the work: I need to hear how the sound may be received, how it resonates through the space, how it is affected by the audience's presence and all of the location's material factors, as well as how the live input from the antenna and other devices is working in the overall sound mix. With this kind of set-up, the audience can also see what I'm doing and sense the connection between my actions and what they are hearing: they see me listening and composing with what is sounding. The performances ideally last for 30 to 40 minutes, allowing enough time for both myself and the other listeners to more fully attune to the emerging spatialized sound mix. The terms "audience" and performer are imperfect for this situation. Through listening and attuning to certain sonic textures, intensities or frequencies more than others, the audience plays a significant role in the composition of what they hear. Sound also performs through its productive movements, variations and repetitions, and in a sense - it also, as Chapman suggests, performs us: "we are moved, our expectations are undone, we are surprised" (66). In performing us, sound can work to shift habitual modes of perception, opening up new potentials for understanding ourselves and our surroundings.
In preparation for each performance, I record VLF and regular audio samples in and around the venue-site. These recordings, collected using a VLF antenna-receiver connected to a zoom recorder, consist primarily of technologically based emissions from power lines, architectural wiring, light fixtures, and electronic devices (computers, cell phones, cameras, etc.) Regular audio samples also collected in the performance locations consist of ambient room tone, the incidental noise of nearby human activities (voices, traffic, doors opening and closing, footsteps on different material surfaces, etc.), audible weather sounds (wind, rain, leaves rustling, etc.), and sometimes animal sounds (birds, dogs, etc.). In addition to these sounds, I often collect samples of atmospheric VLF in nearby less urban locations, for example in forests, parks, mountain trails, and riverbanks. Outside the hum of the urban electrical grid, these signals emanate from atmospheric phenomena that may be close-by, halfway around the world, or in outer space. VLF antenna-receivers thus allow us to sense across great distance, and across the usual boundary between audible / inaudible sound.
When I first heard atmospheric VLF, I was captivated and surprised by the clicking, crackling, rising and falling tones that felt both electronic and also somehow "natural", reminiscent of cicadas and grasshoppers as well as electrical transformers. Understanding that the energy pulses that produce these sonic textures may be local, distant, earthly or celestial also gave me the feeling that by hearing these sounds, I was hearing - and therefore somehow touching - the cosmic. Hearing signals that are already present but normally inaccessible feels like an extraordinary experience of extended sensory reach.
Selections from all of these sources are pre-edited, in some cases, processed, and loaded into an audio mix/playback software. During the performance the prepared samples are played and remixed in combination with live signals from a VLF antenna-receiver that picks up emissions occurring in the venue at the time of the performance. These may differ from the pre-recoded samples collected in the same space for several reasons: the presence of listening bodies, changes in atmospheric pressure, humidity and temperature, and the type and quantity of electronic devices in close proximity.
Although the "Low" in Very Low Frequency refers to the radio frequencies in the VLF band (3-30 kHz) rather than the audio frequency, some of the sounds that emerge through processing and remix are deep rumbling bass tones. For me, these electronic tones begin to resemble the sound of thunderstorms rolling in across the landscape. The other clicking, crackling, rising and falling sounds characteristic of atmospheric VLF appear as higher, sharper and lighter tones. In the performances I tend to keep the overall playback volume quite low, beginning so quietly that the composition blends with the ambient sound of the room. In order to hear that something else is happening, we have to listen closely. At certain points the volume is increased, but rather than working with loud, immersive, enveloping, or overwhelming amplitudes, I try to create a sonic environment that asks listeners to extend their hearing, to tune into and reach out towards the sounds moving around the space. Working with larger sound systems that include one or more sub-woofer speakers (subs), it would be possible to produce intense physical sensations, but I'm more interested in the subtle effect of deep sounds that vibrate just at the threshold of hearing-feeling.
In Sonic Thresholds I aim to create conditions for a sustained exploration of listening, so that we can attend to our own sensing and imagination in action. The overall low volume of the sound, the variety of sonic frequencies and textures, the sound playback system (ideally five tracks sent to four speakers plus one or two subs) and the 30-40 minute length all help to provide these conditions by inviting a non-coercive attunement to unfolding change and transformation. There is a level of abstraction to the sound in these performances: although there are associations and affective resonances, the sound is non-representational, deliberately working to maintain a mobility and openness for interpretation and imagination. I think of this as part of the trans* force of sound, resisting fixed definition and escaping complete capture.
Lightning is a reaching toward, an arcing dis/juncture, a striking response to charged yearnings. Flashes of potential, hints of possible lines of connection alight now and again. Desire builds, as the air crackles with anticipation...No continuous path from sky to ground can satisfy its wild imaginings, its insistence on experimenting with different possible ways to connect, playing at all matter of errant wanderings in a virtual exploration of diverse forms of coupling and dis/connected alliance.
-- Karen Barad, Transmaterialities, 387
The performances described above engage both analogue and digital technologies: the analogue circuits of the antenna-receiver, analogue effects pedals, sound mixer that combines digital and analogue features, prerecorded digital files, and the digital program used for live remix, processing and playback. This non-binary combination of analogue and digital sound is echoed by electricity itself which crosses the analogue / digital divide, running through both types of sound technology. Electricity, like sound, defies binary logics. An animating force that moves through natural and technological systems, it is neither purely immaterial nor material: electrons (like sound particles or "phonons") carry very small amount of mass. Both generated and conducted by the body, electricity connects us with the larger environment. This dual nature of electricity has given me a way to think through the embodied aspects of my performance practice, and in particular the effect of the body's electrical capacitance on VLF signals.
As an artist working with sound and electricity to explore entangled social, environmental and media ecologies, I'm especially interested in the connections writer, philosopher, curator and trans theorist Paul Preciado draws between the discovery of electromagnetism, its transformation into electricity and radio, and the discovery of hormones. These factors are positioned in Preciado's Testo Junkie as key to the early 20th Century re-conceptualization of the body as a wireless communications system: the body emerges as the "artifact" of biochemical signals, enmeshed within a larger social and media ecology. During the fifty-year period between 1860 and 1910 when these knowledges were emerging and technologies for radio transmission and reception were invented, the idea that invisible forces could act across distance to produce material effects, triggered new understandings the body and its enmeshment within a thick social, political, and mediatized environment: "a new hormonal, electrochemical, media-related, and ultraconnected subject" emerges (Preciado 158).
Although from this perspective, the body is understood as the site for biopolitical production and control, Preciado suggests it can also be the site for resistance through experimentation. If bodies and subjectivities are the effects of complex fields of relation, including invisible and internalized technologies of bio-communication, the question arises: what other kinds of message could be transmitted and received? And further: what kinds of noise could be generated to disrupt, queer, complicate or distort the regulatory biopolitical communications that shape bodies and subjectivities? These questions, and the materiality of the hormonal, electrochemical body made audible, are part of what I'm exploring in Sonic Thresholds. For instance, Preciado proposes DIY experimentation with testosterone within feminist communities as a form of dissidence: "a molecular revolution of the genders" (234), challenging the value of masculinity and unsettling the "somato-political fiction" that sex and gender are fixed, immutable forms (Preciado 153-154). Experimental DIY sound practices, using homemade, hacked, appropriated or "bent" (as in circuit-bending) equipment, like the VLF antenna used as instrument in Sonic Thresholds, also challenge more normative uses of technology and forms of aesthetic communication (like music).
Just as noise-based sound performance adds dissident tones and textures to the sonic and social ecologies of a location, self-administered testosterone adds noise to the network of electrochemical signals key to the maintenance of the gender binary, and all of its social and political ramifications. Such DIY practices, actualized or as thought experiments, reveal the normative violence of the nature-culture binary as mapped onto the bodies of gender and sexual minorities. DIY experimentation with, and re-appropriation of mainstream technologies may be productively disruptive and generative of new modes of embodiment and relation.
In VLF sound performance, the body and electromagnetism's associated sounds shape and are shaped by one another. As performer, I listen to and engage with the body's electrical capacitance and the material-forces and flows of invisible and normally inaudible human and non-human transmissions. Different bodies produce different attenuating effects on the sound heard in any given space. In close proximity or direct contact with a VLF antenna, different bodies will also affect the received signal differently, producing variations in tone. Every body, shaped through biopolitical power and / or forms of resistance and self-experimentation will have potentially different sonic effects within the performance's human-antenna-receiver circuit.
Sound's Queer and Trans* Temporalities
The fleeting and punctuated event of sound is one of transience and transition; an itinerant and migratory sensorial matter, sound is both a thing of the past and a signal of the future; it points us toward what has happened -- for every sound is an index of an event that, by the time we hear it, has already transpired -- while equally pulling us forward by echoing beyond, toward a distance over there.
-- LaBelle, Sonic Agency, 96
To make the present livable requires techniques that sensorially incorporate the potentials of other temporalities. The force of trans* sensing imaginatively "haunts the present" with "what could happen...asking us to consider where elements in reality might lead if permitted to reach" (Keegan 3). Sound's temporalities also extend beyond the present as what we hear is always haunted by its past and future iterations. Keegan points to how such extended sensing (like attentive listening) is a way to occupy the present differently, surpassing the usual temporal and material constraints:
To sense beyond the limits of the given world, we must learn to feel how we already exceed its edges, are already in dissent...To feel beyond the "prison house" (Muñoz, Cruising Utopia 1) of the here and now is not to turn toward some far-off place... but to occupy our present so fully together that we burst the present world's seams (Keegan 118).
Acting simultaneously in multiple locations and leaking across the borders and definitions that attempt to contain it, sound also exceeds the capture of a singular present. Sonic Thresholds enacts these rearrangements, combining traces of local and cosmic time-spaces in the VLF signals, and carrying the resonance of the live sound's material encounters in multiple directions through reflection, echo and reverberation that complicate its temporality. The unfolding of sound's queerly temporal behaviors and ongoing transformations thus challenge the naturalness of the unidirectional time that queer theorists often term "straight" time. Queer performance studies scholar José Muñoz addresses this challenge, calling for a "collective temporal distortion" (Cruising Utopia 185), inviting us "to stand out of [straight] time together" (Cruising Utopia 187). The limiting, regulatory power of normative spatial-temporal orders cut across public and private life securing the status quo, but queer and trans lives challenge this regime, enacting and embodying alternative forms of existence. When trans* is understood as a multidirectional force rather than a simple movement from one point to another, time and direction are released from normative limits:
If trans implies a movement from one gender toward a different location, then transness is always imbricated with forward time and cannot exist without linear, teleological time. Yet if we imagine transness to be not about a crossing from one location to another but about a multidirectional movement in an open field of possibility, then time and its direction become more fluid... The multiple times of trans elude the linear rationality of history and visible subjects of knowledge (Chen and cárdenas 473).
This model of transness recalls sound's multi-directional movements of multiplication, iteration, echo and ongoing change. As a non-binary trans-masculine artist, part of what is so interesting about experimental sound and listening practices is the way that these movements reveal the mobile and dynamic qualities of a world often represented as static, immovable and monolithic. The body in transition (ultimately a capacity of all bodies) challenges unidirectional time as well as the naturalized facticity of binary genders, body morphologies, and static form. What may have once seemed like biological, somatic facts are revealed through trans embodiment and trans lives as somato-political fictions: sound's ongoing transitions also reflect the mutable and emergent qualities of matter, existence and reality.
In the Sonic Thresholds series, I engage a non-binary temporality to explore sound's ongoing transitions and variations. The emerging compositions combine live and pre-recorded VLF signals, making the past perceptible within the present experience of the live performance. Pre-recorded sounds are reanimated as the playback mix continues to evolve - changing shape and producing new tones and textures as sounds interact with one another, with the material and resonant properties of the space, and with the bodies of the performer and audience. The combination of live VLF signals generated during the performance, and pre-recorded atmospheric VLF signals resulting from phenomena that may be close by, on the other side of the planet, or on the surface of the sun, produces an entangled, layered sense of time -- one that is more complex than a fixed, oppositional past / present relation. This kind of non-binary, trans* temporality is also apparent in the live processing techniques like granular delay, pitch shifting and micro-looping effects. These effects disorganize and complicate linear perceptions of time, adding to the live sound's already anarchic tendencies. Improvising with effects pedals, the mixing board's filters and EQ, the live antenna signal, and pre-recorded sounds together, removes the possibility of absolute control. Rather than complete capture or containment I aim to join in with the flow of the sound's productively anarchic tendencies and to get a feel for what could happen. These improvised techniques, grounded in listening, require ongoing attunement to what is already happening -- what the sound is already doing - as well as an imaginative and sensory engagement with sound's infinite potentials. In these performances I explore ways to interact with emerging dynamic sound forms, in order to make available unusual temporal and perceptual experiences, and to more fully occupy the kind of radical present that Muñoz proposes, incorporating what has not yet been heard.
Listening to The Queer Noise of Experimental Sound
Listening to experimental sound can be disorienting: it's anarchic temporal and spatial forms as well as the incorporation of what is normally considered (unwanted) noise recalls queerness' tendency to disturb the dominant order of things. An open-ended listening, one that doesn't know in advance what's important or desirable, what should be included or excluded, or judged as valuable or expendable, is a trans*-formatively queer approach that exceeds ordinary audition. Listening otherwise, like living otherwise, in dissident forms, orientations, relations and temporalities requires the ongoing work of attunement and imagination; an engagement with the "not-quite-conscious...to look beyond the pragmatic sphere of the here and now" (Muñoz, Cruising Utopia 21). Experimental sound-making fosters this kind of listening while enacting noisy and queer disorientations, producing the feeling of being outside of the regular time of ordinary activities. The electromagnetic noise heard in Sonic Thresholds can be understood as both material (in the signals themselves) and political (in the sound's disruptive, disorienting and surprising effects): a queerly anarchic and transformative energy that passes between human and non-human, shifting habitual modes of listening, thinking and feeling.
By repeatedly listening in different ways to the same space, to everything that unfolds in its emerging sonic ecology, and to the normally inaudible noise of VLF, my sound performances are rooted in an ongoing engagement with what is already (although imperceptibly) there, and with what could yet happen through sensing and imagining otherwise. The original unprocessed sounds sometimes become inaudible, but they are nonetheless materially present within the new mix. We hear the attenuations of listening bodies, the resonance of materials and the reverberations of architectural spaces. Listening together, we hear each other in the array of sounds that come into awareness, even when no one is speaking. Bypassing the visual, exceeding normative temporal orders, and crossing normative boundaries, listening emerges as a form of queer sociality and expanded sensory practice. Queer sociality is always "intrinsically bound up with the senses...an affective perception that is mutually shared and constituted" (Munt 242). Listening, re-considered as a queerly expansive sensory and social practice, re-centers perception away from the visual, which dominates political, scientific and legal forms of recognition. Rather than predetermined forms of relation, listening can produce and make perceptible ongoing, contingent, and mutating forms of connection, foregrounding the environmentally and socially entangled body as the site for relationality.
Attentive and entangled listening is key to experimental sound practice. In Sonic Thresholds I listen to and with the audience as their incidental noise becomes part of the performance, and their "silence" is permeated with attention. As they watch me listening, I listen with them to the sound that propagates throughout the space, as well as to and with the electromagnetic signals made accessible via the antenna. Remixing and processing prerecorded and live sound during the performance requires an ongoing attunement to the details, textures, and resonances that arise: although I have already recorded the space, during the performance - I listen again. The emerging composition, modified by the particular spatial, material and resonant qualities of the location, the atmospheric conditions and the bodies present, can't be fully established in advance, and must therefore be grounded in attentive listening.
As a form of heightened attunement to one's surroundings, active listening can be developed through practice. For queer feminist composer and musician Pauline Oliveros, Deep Listening was a way to cultivate greater awareness of both external and internal sonic environments,5 by listening "in every possible way to every possible thing" (Oliveros, deeplistening.rpi). She described this kind of ongoing attunement as "...learning to expand the perception of sounds to include the whole space/time continuum...encountering the vastness and complexities as much as possible" (Oliveros, A Composer's Sound Practice xxiii). Considered in these terms, listening emerges as an ecological and temporally layered practice, revealing the complex and interconnected relations between sound, listener and environment. The practice of Deep Listening has significantly informed my approach to sound performance: listening is key to imagining what the sound could do, and to joining in with what it's already doing. For the audience, listening is a form of composition: attuning to particular sounds and the drift of attention from internal associations, memories and other psychological responses, to the externalized experience of the sound itself in relation to the space and the other listeners, changes what is heard. Extending listening to the very edges of perception - attending to very quiet sounds, or to the way that the sound mixes with incidental noise in the venue, or the barely audible sounds outside -- also alters the composition co-produced by the audience. The type of sounds I'm working with - the particular frequencies, textures, movements and overall low volume - are also designed to foster deep and attentive listening.
When we listen, something moves between bodies, sounds, material structures and environments - literally through sonic vibration and transduction. I think of this as a kind of sonic affect. Beyond an individual feeling or emotion, affect can be understood as something that "potentially engages many bodies at once, rather than (only) being contained as an emotion within a single body. Affect inheres in the capacity to affect and be affected" (Chen 11). Affect's itinerant movements are akin to transduction, or sonic energy transmitted via vibrational contact from one material to another. In listening together, we feel each other and the environment in the sounds that enter our bodies and our awareness. Following Oliveros' characterizations of Deep Listening as potentially expanding awareness, my proposition -activated in Sonic Thresholds - is that collective, attentive and extended listening may have transformative interpersonal, social and ecological potentials, promoting forms of sonic alliance.
Sound moves us and everything it touches; it trespasses, interrupts, and re-aligns relations. How, then, can we better attune through listening to our current social, cultural and political challenges which are all questions of how to live together, human and nonhuman alike? Queer sound and listening practices may serve as experimental sites for shifting how social, political and environmental ecologies are perceived, ordered and acted upon. In Sonic Thresholds, I actively propose that what ordinarily appear to us as static, discrete, individual objects and people are in fact dynamic, porous and enmeshed. In making apparent these experiences of enmeshment and porosity, perhaps we can collectively attune to other forms of expansive and experimental subjectivation and alliance. Persisting in queer and expansive trans* modes of relation, subjectivation and embodiment in the world as it is, requires the work of imagination, sensory reach and temporal re-orientation towards possible futures. Experimental sound performance is one place where this work happens, fostering such attunements and re-orientations, emerging as a form of sociality that queerly resist the normative constraints of ordinary relations, foregrounding instead what Muñoz calls the "varied and unsorted correspondences, collisions, intermeshings, and accords between people and nonhuman objects, things, formations, and clusterings" (Muñoz, Queer Inhumanisms, 210).
As Muñoz and Oliveros have suggested we can't know in advance what is valuable to hear or to connect with: my improvisatory and reiterative performance practice is motivated by this idea. Oliveros' approach -- "listening to every possible way to every possible thing"--re-orients the usual distinctions between good and bad, or wanted and unwanted sounds (i.e., signal and noise). Reconsidered from queer and anarchic perspectives, the electromagnetic noise of VLF emissions can become a productive form of interference. If music's order "simulates the social order...[and] its dissonances express marginalities" it follows that noise can interrupt and mutate normative structuring codes, opening space for imagination beyond what already is (Attali 29). In Sonic Thresholds, VLF emissions characterized by dissonance, temporal irregularity and noisiness, combine marginalized human and non-human sounds, to challenge normative boundaries and relations, to generate new modes of alliance, and to re-imagine processes of subjectivation and becoming. Improvising with VLF noise in sound performance is a way of queering both music and the social order, sensing other rhythms, frequencies and registers outside (and out of sync with) normative temporalities, relations and structures.
[T]his sound we hear is already the production of a shared world, however tensed or disjunctive, this sound that animates a space between, and that is always moving on and through and with. In doing so, listening is the expression of an "art of presence," crafting from the body and its place in the world and with others new formations of social becoming.
--LaBelle, Sonic Agency, 161-162.
As we continually re-attune to our surroundings, listening otherwise to include the noise that seeps in to complicate and enrich shared sonic environments, we begin to understand that we are all part of the same entangled ecology. Noise, as LaBelle suggests, can work to "trouble and excite the borders between oneself and another" (Sonic Agency 66) by confronting us with emerging, un-recognizable, unruly and disruptive forms of sound that queer listening relations. The intentional as well as inevitable incorporation of these sounds challenges us to accept ambiguity, uncertainty and ongoing change; this kind of leakage also reveals the porosity and instability of normative boundaries, foregrounding interconnected experience.
When the affective, material and social effects of sound's encounter with listeners' bodies produce a queerly sonic sociality, listening emerges as a "listening activism", amplifying a sense of shared becoming (LaBelle, Sonic Agency 39). In my VLF based performances, already present non-human transmissions become audible, and bodies (performer's and listeners') shape the emerging composition. As we listen to the entangled sounds of human and non-human others, we sense the mutually co-constituted and evolving world, and the multiplicity of potential variations that can emerge from what initially may seem to be "just noise". Through these aesthetic and affective attunements, experimental sound and listening can produce what LaBelle calls "vibratory models of alliance and sharing" (Sonic Agency 3). VLF and other infrasonic energies and vibrations "may also shudder the articulated and delineated forms of sociality" (Sonic Agency 2) suggesting other forms of relation.
The ongoing struggle to thrive together outside normative structures, in modes that continue to produce other flows, assemblies, and commoning practices, necessitates forms of connection that exceed the binary logic of inclusion / exclusion. Shared practices of sounding and listening otherwise are one way to nurture more expansive forms of relation suited to the current social and political crises we are faced with, working to generate "a feeling of becoming part of a community that is potentially limitless" (Stavrides qtd in LaBelle, Sonic Agency 15). When we listen deeply and attentively, we develop the capacity to hear beyond the proximate, immediate, and ordinarily intelligible, expansively sensing what could become possible. Outside of our usual patterns of ordering experience, we face ambiguity and uncertainty: we encounter difference, not knowing and ongoing transformations. These practices may help us to re-attune and re-orient to new forms of care and attention for each other and for the environment. My sound performance works, and this text, propose that listening and sounding together are shared engagements that foster queer affinities and expansively trans* sensibilities, foregrounding non-verbal, non-visual and extended modes of sensing. When we listen to the normally inaudible, and to each other listening, we re-orient relations towards collective, overlapping and extended rather than purely individual, separate and self-contained modes of experience. Experimental sound and listening practices like VLF performance, can be understood as expansive forms of sensory reaching that may enable us to perceive and nurture more just forms of relation between ourselves, others (human and non-human alike) and the environment -- possibilities that already exist but must be made perceptible and brought into shared recognition.
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- See: 1) Sonic Thresholds (the fourth space). Performing Technology, Concordia University, November 2019. 2) Sonic Thresholds (black box remix). Regarding Uncertainty Conference, Concordia University, May 2019. 3) Sonic Thresholds (live VLF remix). Mystery and Wonder experimental sound series, Bar Le Ritz, Montreal, March 2019. 4) Sonic Thresholds: The Wild Intimacy of VLF. Finish Gender Studies Conference, University of Turku, November 2019 ↩
- Jack Halberstam describes "trans* in his 2019 book Trans: A Quick and Quirky Account of Gender Variability* as a term that "puts pressure on all modes of gendered embodiment and refuses to choose between the identitarian and the contingent forms of trans identity" (xiii). According to Halberstam "[T]he asterisk modifies the meaning of transitivity by refusing to situate transition in relation to a destination, a final form, a specific shape, or an established configuration of desire and identity" (4). In the forward to Out of the Ordinary: A Life of Gender and Spiritual Transitions (2017), Susan Stryker links the dynamic capacity for the transformation of the real with the term trans: "That capacity to transform one reality into another is something trans people often discover within themselves for the sake of their own survival; it is our gift to others to bear witness to the fact that this is a capacity within us all" (x). ↩
- Chapman and Sawchuck describe emerging modes of academic research that include creative and artistic elements in their communications studies article "Research-Creation: Intervention, Analysis and Family Resemblances", explaining that "Research-creation" is an emergent category within the social sciences and humanities that speaks to contemporary media experiences and modes of knowing. Research-creation projects typically integrate a creative process, experimental aesthetic component, or an artistic work as an integral part of a study" (5). ↩
- In their influential 2012 book Animacies: Biopolitics, Racial Mattering, and Queer Affect, Mel Y. Chen innovatively brings together queer of colour scholarship, animal studies, disability studies and linguistics to develop a theory of animacy, asking us to rethink the boundaries and biopolitical consequences of "life" and "death" across diverse worldly entanglements of materials and bodies. ↩
- Deep Listening refers to the practice developed by composer and musician Pauline Oliveros, exploring the differences between hearing and listening. The practice "cultivates a heightened awareness of the sonic environment, both external and internal, and promotes experimentation, improvisation, collaboration, playfulness, and other creative skills vital to personal and community growth" (www.deeplistening.rpi.edu/deep-listening). ↩