Salomé Voegelin is a a widely interested artist, writer and researcher working in different modalities. Her professional work is mostly engaged in the world sound makes, socio-political and aesthetic thinking via the practice of listening. She is the author of three influential books on sound: The Political Possibility of Sound (2018), Sonic Possible Worlds (2014), and Listening to Noise and Silence (2010). Salomé is a Professor of Sound at the London College of Communication, University of the Arts London. In this interview she elaborates on her development as an artist and researcher, as well as on the future of music listening.
How do you balance your artistic side with the researcher side? How does this balance manifest in your everyday life?
The meeting between art and research is very relevant at present, and presents for me a very important element of the way I work. While there is some artistic research that is clearly research with artistic methods and tools and has no aspiration to make art or be seen and heard as art, and there is some art which has no aspiration to do research, both very often end up crossing over: the research delivering artistic impulses and the art providing questions and thoughts that generate research. In that sense some of the relationship between art and research is a question of contingency and context and where, in their process, they meet. At the basis of this cross-over I understand the unreliable and ambiguous nature of artistic material as resource for new thinking that feeds art as well as research with unexpected questions and answers.
I too undulate between the two, taking from art the purposelessness of unresolved materiality and from research the intentions that drive an investigative purpose. Together they enable processes of working and uncover questions and knowledge pathways that do not necessarily lead to an objective science but that have the potential to rethink knowledge and thinking about art and the everyday.
How did you become interested in the topic of socio-political practice of sound? Were there authors or that inspired you to go further into the field?
Doing sound art and writing about sound it became increasingly clear to me that sound is not something you can write about from a distance, as something over there, that remains an independent object or event. Sound is not ‘this’ or ‘that’. It is not an object and not even really a thing. Instead it is the between of things. It is where things meet other things and sound their encounter. In that sense sound is always necessarily social: it is relational and sounds the way we are together and of each other, in an exchange not only of words and ideas, but also, more radically of space and materiality. How this relational in-between is heard and listened to is political. Whether we engage in it for the invisible connections it makes, or seek to tie it to a visible source as the sound of…, reveals our political orientation: how we think about the world and ourselves in that world; how we organize and hierarchize it in our imagination. And so once we listen to sound for what it connects and how it generates the visibility of the in-between, we are in a socio-political practice, where we can hear how the real is actualized, the possible is governed and the impossible ignored.
How much does your research change the way you compose music? How could you describe the evolution of your creative process? Does it have a big impact on artistic expression to have awareness about practices of sound?
My creative work influences how I think about sound, how I come to hear it and how I research with it and write about it; and at the same time my writing, my reading of other’s writing and my listening to other’s works, as well as my collaborative research with scientists, influences what work I want to do and how I want to engage in certain themes.
As artists and writers, we live in a community of practitioners. Even if you work on your own you are constantly in dialogue with other work and ideas around you. So being aware and in conversation with other works and texts is very important and is what makes the work relevant and communicative. It is also what makes art making and writing enjoyable. This sense of writing and working in a remote-collectivity on new ideas, forms and vocabularies, is very stimulating and is where a lot of my motivation comes from.
How would you say each book notes your change as an academic? What lessons each book brought to the way you understand and handle your profession?
I see my three books on sound: Listening to Noise and Silence, Sonic Possible Worlds, and The Political Possibility of Sound; as closely related and creating a narrative together and between each other. This narrative is not entirely linear or simply moving forwards. Rather there are detours and ruminations that open new avenues of listening and thinking, and there are also disagreements and even contradictions within and between the books. I like how your question gives me the opportunity to reflect on their relationship, and also on how in the ten years since publishing the first one my own perspective but also the broader context and focus of sound art and sound studies, its themes and methods, have developed and transformed. And how concurrently my own practice as an artist and as an academic and writer has developed. That is very exciting. Sound and sonic thinking has really gained ground in how we engage with things, how we know the world not only visually but increasingly also by its sound. In the same way my own academic and research practices have expanded from mainly aesthetic and artistic concerns, into the political and into science to take a more confident stance for sound studies to not only study sound but to study the world through a sonic sensibility. I am very passionate about the knowledge we can gain through a sonic literacy, through listening and a sonic sensibility applied across disciplines. Therefore, more recently I have also started to work on research projects that bring my work on sound and art to scientific explorations and applications. This is very exciting to me, since, art in general and sound art and a sonic thinking in particular, can bring new questions and processes to the important challenges of today.
Maybe you could recommend some inspiring works in the field of the aesthetic, social and political realities in the world of sound?
I am a great fan of Mikhail Karikis’s work. Almost all of his pieces enable a critical and also emotional engagement with diverse socio-political realities through sound and images. He recently had a fantastic solo show at MIMA, UK (Institute of Modern Art Middlesbrough).
Lawrence Abu Hamdan works very explicitly and purposefully with social and political themes, while solidly producing art. His approach is very inspiring too me as his work and working processes contribute at once to knowledge within the judicial context of torture and immigration, human rights and policy, while presenting challenging artistic material.
Jennifer Walshe’s compositions for orchestra and voice in which she also performs are amazing journeys into philosophical, political and social issues via sound.
Lina Lapelyte, a Lithunian artist, who I assume most of your readers would know, works the colloquial, the beach, the supermarket, etc., into observations and critiques of neo-liberal patterns and norms in an at once critical and really entertaining way.
Khaled Kaddal’s work is heavier more earnest but equally illuminating on social and political issues particularly in relation to war and autonomy, sovereignty and identity.
Aura Satz’s work brings us to the social via the body and its instrumentalization. Not always in sound, but always with a sonic sensibility, it highlights sonorous bodies and interactions and listens to processes of musical and other production.
These are just a few artists of course, but they could be a good starting point for a listening into the socio-political.
Would you say that you have developed the critical listening to sound and acoustic environments? How would you say it works technically? Is it a crucial skill for musicians, musicologists and people in general?
This is a very interesting question and extremely relevant in relation to my current practice and research. I am working on the conceptualization and development of a critical listening in two ways at this moment:
On the one hand I am engaged in a UK research council funded project Listening across Disciplines II (www.listeningacrossidsciplines.net). This project which involves cross disciplinary working with scientists, social scientists, scholars from the humanities and the arts, engages the question: how do we listen and how can we communicate this listening to generate a shareable methodology that can be applied across disciplines and gain scientific legitimacy? In that sense the project seeks through listening a sonic epistemology that can be usefully practiced to hear more and different knowledges.
On the other hand I am as an artist interested in a listening that does not aspire to knowledge in a scientific sense but produces a sensory sense and awareness, which can include nonsense: the sense of sensation rather than its transcription into knowledge discourses.
Of course, the two are intrinsically linked and it is the sensory sense and awareness of artistic practice whose value I hope to convince scientists of. But essentially both of these listenings, artistic and scientific, are radically contingent. Even as a shareable skill listening remains entirely situated and therefore not really a skill but a practice. It is always about a particular moment of hearing that is reciprocal and generative. What I listen to is not there before me, unaffected by my listening, but is through my listening to it what it is at this moment. And so we cannot teach a virtuosity of listening as a skill separate from the contingent moment of listening, but we can communicate about particular moments of listening that can lend imagination and desire to how listening can be practiced. This might seem very vague in relation to your question of the description of a technical working. However rather than being disappointed that I cannot deliver a technical “how to” musicians, sound artists and everybody should be heartened by the idea that listening is a reciprocal and uncertain practice that does not require technical skill as such, but the rigour of practice and an awareness of the body that listens.
How could you explain the possible world theory in regards of how we experience sound every day?
My foray into possible world theory was inspired by a sense, and this relates to your last question, that it is difficult to engage in the sounds of art works and the everyday beyond semantics or a particular musical language. It is difficult to listen and attest to a listening of sound when it is not in the service of describing a visual thing or event. Our language and linguistic sensibility seems not to allow us to listen to and discuss the sonic beyond a visual source or intent: ‘the sound of’. And yet, my experience of sonic works and the everyday acoustic environment is much more complex. Sound is always in excess of semantic descriptions, something more that escapes reference. And in turn, language seems to reduce my sonic sense of things to what it is possible to reference in language rather than in sound, purposefully ignoring its excess.
Therefore, trying to access and discuss this more, this excess and sensorial sense of things, I became intrigued by possible world theory and how it makes space for variants, others ways things could be or are experienced to be. I also found the way it discusses accessibility as counterfactuality: as consensus between worlds, very useful to probe conflict and plurality. In particular I became very interested in how possible world theory was being used in literary theory and games design to discuss texts and computer games through the material/textual/digital- worldness rather than through the horizontal line of linguistic interpretation. The work of Ruth Ronen, Marie-Laure Ryan and Daniel Nolan in particular, allowed me to consider Saul Kripke and David K Lewis’ possible world’s of logic as sonic worlds that I inhabit in listening, which provides a different critical imaginary.
Possible world theory builds modal worlds to test counterfactuality and make semantic experimentations of “if that …. then what?” In general, these remain semantic and theoretical, thinking models. However, through their use in literary theory and games design, as precedents, they become imaginable in relation to sound as actual world models: I can use their idea of accessibility relations in terms of a shared listening; I can employ their discussion on the plurality of worlds (Lewis) in relation to the idea of individual listening worlds; and I can consider the idea of a semantic inhabiting of modal worlds in relation to the actual inhabiting of sonic worlds. Thus, I can propose a different way of accessing sound in its plural possibility from an inhabited position that understands its situated reality and accepts others. In this way possible world theory enables a model to hearing not via a visual referent or semantic/ musical language but via the worlds sound builds. And so we can inhabit the everyday acoustic environment in its invisible possibility rather than reduce it to a visual actuality; and we can experience and critically discuss the acoustic environment in its voluminous worlding of which we are a part, rather than as a surface of meaning.
You organize communal listening and sound making. What value does it bring to the people? What is the purpose of these activities?
To me the purpose and aim of collective and communal listening practice changes according to its context. What remains universal is a sense of reciprocity and participation: I listen and I am heard listening, my sound is part of the soundscape that I listen to. This entanglement of listening provides a quintessentially phenomenological insight of my being in the world and the world being through my being with in it. However, it reminds us not of our importance but of our responsibility and co-dependence: our being as a being with each other and other things. Sound sounds our autonomy not as a totalising individuation, but as accountability and as the capacity to be with others. This condition of a necessary and inevitable togetherness, interlinked and interdependent, in a global ecology, plays out very audibly in our environment. Working with sound in a collective framework enables and promotes such a “sonico-communal” consciousness. Listening and making sound together we become aware and perform this being-together.
Given the historical and contemporary prevalence for a politics of separation and partition, their power play and inevitable failure, violence and exclusion, such sonico-communal practices offer a relevant critique and alternative to political, economic and social objectives of individuation. They can provide a different imagination of collectivity and interdependence, based on the indivisibility and reciprocity of sound.
This is what motivates my participatory and communal projects and working. And so for example I co-convene, with Mark Peter Wright, a regular series of events called Points of Listening (www.pointsoflistening.wordpress.com). PoL is an expanded space for practice and research that facilitates experimental workshops and discussions with a performative emphasis. It began in 2014 and continues as an ongoing project of collective listening and sound making situated at the intersection of sound arts, participatory practices and education. It gives a forum to practice and debate a sonic-communality.
I also write a phonographic/text score blog www.soundwords.tumblr.com which enables and frames collective and participatory practices of score making and their performance. I hope that both these initiatives manage to promote a sonic sociality of responsibility and interdependence.
How did your collaboration with David Mollin begin? What was the purpose and thought process behind forming a creative duet?
Oh, I do not like duets, they make me think of love songs, romantic and about role play, realizing a specific, often gendered, expectation of subjectivity, particularly in a heterosexual context. I think what we share instead is a co-creativity, a way to challenge and critique each other’s thinking and doing of art and writing, in order to create something else. Something that is in neither’s expected repertoire or habit but is produced from the tenuous meeting points of both our practices. The first time we worked together was when we were both at Goldsmiths, University of London, doing our PhD’s. David, whose work focused on painting and writing, was producing a radio piece and so it made sense to try to do something together. But it is only a little later that our collaboration became more regular and in a way more formalized.
Working together we are leaning into one another as it were, trying to understand and produce something together, but inevitably failing and thus creating something else that maybe neither really gets but that is still something. What I find exciting about collaboration in general and with David in particular is that it uses this in-between space, the space that is neither him nor me, but where we meet, where things take on their own shape. This space I think is much harder to access when working on your own. It demands much more contortions and leaps to access that space alone. But when you collaborate it is there all the time and you dance around it, try to make sense of it, hold it, let go of it, accept its uncontrollability. Often in our effort to grab that space and make sense of it we argue. We literally fight over the invisible to persuade the other of what it might be. And so, we started to work with each other almost inevitably from arguing about what things are, what they could be, from reading each other’s writing and giving feedback to each other’s artistic works. It was a small step to try and work together.
In general, I think collaboration is an extremely valuable way of working. In fact, I rarely work on my own and even when I write, which can be a solitary pursuit, I enjoy co-writing and co-generative moments, and fully acknowledge that nobody writes on their own but from positions of dialogue and conversation even with people they do not know.
You are trying to establish listening as a reliable and legitimate methodology across the arts and humanities, science, social science and technology. How did you form this goal? What challenges do you face not having listening as a legitimate methodology?
I am very passionate about the fact that sound, when it is not tied to a visual referent or source, offers us another view on what we think we know and see. Its invisibility, its ephemeral relationality and its demanding reciprocity, present novel questions and new ways to engage in research and knowledge as well as ultimately in its communication and pedagogy. I am entirely persuaded by the idea that sound can contribute to what we know and how we know it, and that it can help us question whose knowledge counts and whose remains inaudible; to critique singular frameworks of legitimacy and ultimately to forge a more plural knowledge base. I think my conviction on this point comes from a long-standing unease and sense of discrepancy about what the world feels like to me and how it is represented, valued and lived in. And an incongruity also between the experienced reality of what is here, presenting plural possibilities, and the singular manifestation of the real that is taken as its actuality: aesthetically, discoursively and in terms of politics.
We are all very visually literate. We recognize the world and are confident in reading visualisations, graphs, images and representations. We take their naturalization as real and forget how we got to know them and what ideologies are behind such undoubted recognition. The visual is an entirely legitimate knowledge tool. It offers the perspective of western, logo-centric and masculine knowledge. Sound by contrast falls out of this frame of legitimacy and can only be redeemed through translation into a visual language: as score, as spectrogram, or as referent of a very particular and mapped out audition. However, this visualization always and inevitably suppresses that which is not graspable within its grammar. Consequently, a lot of insights cannot make themselves count in relation to knowledge and research. Science is missing out on material evidence because it does not trust the heard.
In response, with the project I mentioned before, Listening across Disciplines II, we are trying to practice and establish listening as a useful research methodology across science, social science, arts and humanities disciplines. Our research is guided by the conviction that Listening as experience and practice can promote a different and additional knowledge that includes the unexpected, what we do not know is there, and what we do not have words or a visualizations for. Such an investigative listening can hear beyond language and disciplinary precepts, to provide new insights and a different thinking, that as concept and as methodology can reach unnamable materialities and subjectivities, and can help us understand the reciprocity of the known.
In particular, we are currently working on the observation and development of ‘listening protocols’: instructions, scores, guidelines, manuals, etc. on how to listen in a particular context, in terms of a professional aim or investigative purpose. We do this in order to make listening applicable across a wide range of scientific endeavours, and to inspire trust in the ephemeral.
What we have found so far is that listening protocols that work beyond recognizing what we expect to hear need to take the form of a ‘protocoling’ as a participle, a verbial of the noun, that remains fluid and contingent, and creates adaptive methodologies aware of their own contingency. Thus, listening remains forever a shifting practice, but in this shifting, it can reveal important truths and knowledge about the body, about society, about architecture, urban planning, politics and art.
How did you decided to live and work in London? Maybe you could compare the conditions for research in Swiss and London?
It is such a long time ago since I left Switzerland that it is hard for me to compare. Of course, Swiss artists, researchers and academics have generally speaking more resources at their disposal, but that is not always the key to radical thinking and making in the arts. Good resources and space can be a fantastic enabler but they do not replace a sense of urgency and desire for practice and dialogue. I am not suggesting the precarity pay in the UK and the poor conditions for artists and thinkers in terms of space and financial, political opportunity is to be aspired to. But it does provide an interesting context for collective experimentation, risk taking and conversation that I find very fruitful to my own work.
For me this has also to do with diversity. The Swiss sound scene is still rather white male dominated. That is a shame and it is entirely self-fulfilling. There are exceptions, with some great female artists and initiatives (e.g Rahel Kraft, Cathy van Eck, Anna Frei (OOR), Magda Drozd, Margaret Harmer). but while the UK cannot shake of its class system, Switzerland seems to find it hard to shake of its patriarchal norms. Both are difficult, but I find the first more ignorable on a personal level than the latter.
I am also very happy in how the UK has embraced artists as researchers. There is a clarity and coherence in its PhD and art research contexts, where artists are increasingly becoming contributors to scientific, social, humanities and artistic knowledge production and its dissemination, without having to change their language or transform into simple illustrators of scientific truths. There is still a long way to go to make connections and emancipate the knowledge of art to be an entirely autonomous participant at the table of knowledge, able to enter equal collaborations. However, the culture is clearly emerging and I hope we can continue and accelerate that development. I fear in Switzerland the same patriarchal norms impede the autonomy of art as a knowledge force a little still. University and communication hierarchies seem to still prefer what is considered objective knowledge, conventional fields and organisations, and disciplinary boundaries are less fluid and remain seemingly insurmountable.
On the other hand, the recent decision of the UK to leave the European Union and with it its network of researchers and funding opportunities, artistic opportunities and collaborations, will be hugely detrimental to art and to research in the UK. I came to London when Switzerland was not in Schengen, and the UK was in the EEC and then in the EU. And so, in many ways, I did not come to England but to Europe. Given the sonic imaginary of interdependency and relationality that I am advocating, I am entirely in favour of the social and political connection the EU as a political and lived concept is practicing. I might not agree with the details of its institutional and governmental organization, but no country has an entirely agreeable political institution. Every political institution has a politics which by necessity involves the violence of consensus. But I embrace the project of collaboration and interbeing that the EU represents and thus for me the UK leaving the EU is a terrible failure, born from a sense of superiority and a misunderstanding of sovereignty. And it will have grave consequences.
What is the biggest challenge that you face in your field of research?
The biggest challenge is the general reluctance to take the sonic and listening, outside of language and music, seriously, particularly when it is not supported by a visual frame or referent. I understand this reluctance in relation to western logo-centric rationality at the base of science. The habit of going from knowledge as an ideological and political intention, into experience and towards material proof, sets up boundaries of how and what we can know. By contrast, if we turned it the other way and practiced listening to hear what the material experience communicates even if we might not know what that is or how to call it yet, this could open what knowledge is, who it belongs to and how it relates to experience, truth and fiction.
Sound is the knowledge of excess, it remains outside language and representation. Therefore, to write about it and to promote it as a legitimate research tool, means working at the margins and against cultural norms. And so, writing about and researching with sound and listening inevitably describes a marginal and a feminist practice.
How did you imagine your profession at the beginning of your career? How does the reality differ?
I am not sure I imagined anything. It just gradually became clearer that I wanted to work with sound, and working with sound, first in music, film and video and then through art and writing, made its own paths. I think I was very fortunate to be part of an emerging context and interest in sound and listening. There were people around me when I studied Film and Video, Peter Cusack, David Cunningham, later, when working between Music and Visual Arts in search of what sound does, there was Katherine Norman and of course now Cathy Lane, David Toop, Angus Carlyle, and many more mentors, colleagues and collaborators, who encouraged me and enabled me to think beyond the soundtrack, into the soundscape and into sonic works, and also into theory and how to speak about sound. The focus on writing came out of a lack of existing writing and a certain economy. It is cheap to write and you can do it anywhere, you do not need much equipment, space, or even necessarily continuous time. This personal economy coincided with a turn in theory towards the sonic which I felt excited about.
I have in recent years become increasingly interested in knowledge and research. Not because I do not value art and artistic expressions per se, but because I feel passionate about the discrepancy between what the world is, in its invisible and indivisible plurality, and how a normative, patriarchal thinking and representation is making us believe it has to be. Art is a powerful tool to create different perceptions and provoke a different engagement; to generate a different thinking and participation and ultimately a different knowledge base. Therefore, I am very invested in how art can know, how it can interfere in normative projections and transform knowledge processes from the unreliable ambiguity of its materiality and show a different real.
What do you value the most in the music performance?
That it alters time and space and makes you aware of their co-production. And from that change anything else can transform too.
What would you name as musicians that inspired you; or pieces that introduced you to something new at the beginning of your career?
The first record I ever bought was the German Punk Singer Nina Hagen. I loved her aberration of classical virtuosity, which I later also started to admire in Diamanda Galás, Jocy de Oliveira, and others. I had no idea then what it was that so fascinated me at the time. Now I think that as a young woman, teenager, in the middle of training in classical music and thoroughly enjoying the sound making but unsure about my part in its composition, and unable to articulate this unease in an informed way, they must have carried that other voice, that excess and desire that it took me so many years to understand what it is.
What do you think is the future of listening to music?
At the moment we are under lock down due to COVID-19, and so the present of listening to music has all of a sudden become its future: we are now exclusively listening through streaming and pre-produced work online. The participatory audience has become separated and a new communal listening is being built. The concert context has shifted to the domestic, dependent on the technological and economic infrastructure of the internet.
Consequently, work and listening have transformed. I use the same device to work, to do online lectures, meetings, writing, etc. as I use to listen to music and sound art now. There is a short-circuiting, as in making the connections shorter that is happening, which might have benefits: it might create an understanding of how things link up, and it could trigger awareness of how their separation is a device to parcel us off into workers and domestic beings. But on the other hand, there is also something very exhausting about this online living and listening. Normally going to a gig gives you great energy, the energy of the life-event, of other people breathing moving and being in your proximity. Digital nearness is different, it is intellectual, understood but not felt, and has to rely on language at the expense of the non-verbal and tactile to make you feel collectivity.
But maybe when the lockdown is lifted and this time has passed we will abandon the internet and seek out other bodies to listen with.
Are there any future projects that excite you the most?
Exhibitions, performances and curatorial performances are currently on hold due to the lockdown. Maybe some of them will happen online. But I am not sure I have the energy of the life-event in me at the moment to produce something that has the tension of that encounter.
Therefore, I am at this moment prioritizing work on the second edition of Sonic Possible Worlds, adding a chapter on Possible and Impossible Bodies to its discussion of possible and impossible worlds. And as a research team we are continuing to work on Listening across Disciplines II. some field work had to be postponed and changed, but we try to keep on developing the thinking and conceptualizing behind the research so far, to be able to contribute a sonic sense to the biomedical emergency we are encountering at this moment.
Thank you for a conversation!