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Auditory Necromancy
Interview with the ALMARE Collective

by Pietro Della Giustina

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Pietro Della Giustina: In the mythological and religious tradition of Haitian Voodoo, the spirit of a deceased person can be summoned from the realm of the dead by a necromancer, through black magic, in order to enslave them in the plantations. It was after the American occupation of Haiti in the early twentieth century that the word ‘zombie’ entered Western culture. Various films, series, and video games have fuelled the fascination for this subject, deconstructing and readapting it to create apocalyptic scenarios provoking the collapse of human society, in which hordes of the undead, deprived of a voice, consciousness, and opinions, roam in search of human survivors to feed on. As a collective of artists and curators, ALMARE1 uses sound as a field of thought and investigation; how has the sound and music field been influenced by this imagery?

 

ALMARE: As in the case of syncretic religions like Cuban Santeria and Brazilian Candomblé, Haitian Voodoo is rooted in the ceremonies of West Africa. Beginning in the seventeenth century, they crossed the Atlantic Ocean in the wake of the slave trade. This religious system laid the foundations of a musical culture that would develop at the same time as that of the Creoles, particularly in New Orleans. The rhythms that resonated in Congo Square would eventually run through blues and jazz, which are themselves the result of a hybridisation with other minority cultures, such as Italian, Irish, and Jewish. Even though we are not trained musicologists, it seems useful to briefly recall the genealogy of this auditive contagion, which refers to the history of the African diaspora, but also to forms of resistance undertaken specifically by means of music and sound. Who knows what led to this process of cultural appropriation, initiated by the hegemonic white media, which you rightfully cite, to the point where the entertainment industry turned the zombie into this wave of zombies that has been unleashed onto our screens? As for ALMARE, above all we are interested in sound, and we particularly enjoy speculating about the variety of sound recording technologies. That is why we would like to take a big leap forward in time and cite here the English music critic, Simon Reynolds, who talks about ‘zombie music’ to describe the contagious spread of the practice of sampling: ‘Disembodied beats, licks, cries, and riffs – born of human breath and sweat – are vivisected from their original musical context and then literally galvanized, in its originally meaning. Sampladelia is zombie music: dead sound reanimated like the zombi – a Haitian corpse brought back to robotlike half-life by a voodoo sorcerer, then used as a slave.’2 Gilbert Rouget, in his studies on the practice of trance in Western culture since the early Greek civilisation up until the Renaissance,3 explains for instance that Italian melodrama maintains strong ties with rituals of possession, during which corpses were made to sing. The word opera derives from the expression ‘(anatomical) musical operation’. Rouget thus highlights the inextricable tension between the anatomy of the dead body and the anatomy of the singing body.

 

PDG: For the exhibition Waves Between Us (2020, Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo, Turin) you presented the work On the Morning of the Fifth Anniversary, the first episode of an audio-fiction entitled Life Chronicles of Dorothea Ïesj S.P.U. In an imaginary and dystopic future, the protagonist of the story, archaeoacoustician Dorothea Ïesj, managed to obtain sound remnants of objects and places through the ECHO extraction platform (Equalized Control of Hierarchic Oscillation). Dorothea’s world is one where sound has taken precedence over images, hearing over sight. ECHO and its mode of operation recall a branch of archaeology known as archaeoacoustics. What does this discipline consist of? Can we define it as a form of contemporary necromancy? As a concept of recording as memento mori for human beings?

 

AL: Archeoacoustics today refers to a new branch of archaeology that studies acoustic phenomena related to sites or artefacts of ancient times. A field particularly concerned with the relationship between sound and architecture and how it can help us better understand the ritual and social functions of specific places. Early last century, the term archaeoacoustics already applied to a multitude of pseudo-disciplines that were theorising the possibility of perfectly recovering sounds from the past that had been accidentally inscribed in matter (specifically, in clay and ceramic potteries). American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce wrote in 1902, ‘Give science only a hundred more centuries […] and she may be expected to find that the sound waves of Aristotle's voice have somehow recorded themselves’.4 A hypothesis that has never been demonstrated scientifically, but that has generated a host of legends that have fed into popular culture: in televised series, films, and video games.5

In our novel, ECHO is the technology that brings this theory to life and therefore, as Dorothea puts it, it ‘makes the dead speak like the living nev'r will’. Archaeoacoustics thus becomes a tool for contemporary necromancy. But it must be stressed that this ability to ‘reread’ the past, literally, is also an instrument of power. In a world in which every speech is recorded and can be played back, these exhumated voices contribute to the construction, if not the production, of our own memories. This is an interpretative effect that is anything but neutral or impartial. Technology, memory, and self-representation are therefore based on the same object-gesture – the recording – understood in the broader sense as any act that, even beyond audition, generates tracks.

In the information age, these tracks of ourselves are both a memento mori [remember that you have to die], as you say, and also a memento vivere [remember that you have to live]. Rather than a warning, it’s a mandatory command, since recording and self-recording are vital conditions of existence, a diktat imposed by an economy of presence. Remember that you’ll be remembered; record that you’ll be recorded.  

 

PDG: On 12 June 1959, Swedish filmmaker and opera singer Friedrich Jürgenson recorded birdsong using a tape recorder. While playing it back, he perceived indistinct human voices in the background, although he was alone at the time of recording. From then on, Jürgenson pursued his experimentation, sampling various sound contexts and finding human voices in the recordings that were not audible at the moment of capture. He also claims to have heard the voice of his dead mother, who was trying to get in contact with him. This was the start of the controversial electronic voice phenomena, also known as EVP, which would enable the living to hear the ‘undead’ voices of the deceased. How do you explain the success this pseudo-science has encountered over time? How did EVP influence the writing of Life Chronicles of Dorothea Ïesj S.P.U.?

 

AL: Jürgenson collaborated extensively with psychologist Konstantin Raudive, whose book Breakthrough6 indexes a collection of over ten thousand spectral interferences: voices of philosophers, writers, and other famous figures. These dead individuals are transformed into synthesised voices. They speak the machine language alone, that of the ‘automation’,7 which allows a breakaway from the in-fancy8 of Death and a reincarnation into the inorganic orality of the after-life. The EVP bring disembodied beings back to the realm of the living, and assign them voices that sound more like autotune libraries, vocaloid software-spooks, or AI-generated deep-fake babbles.

In 2002, Mike Kelley and musician Robin Rimbaud (aka Scanner) re-enacted Raudive’s experiments through a series of audio installations for the exhibition Sonic Process at the Centre Pompidou.9 For Mike Kelley, these spectral recordings came out of DIY electro-acoustic experimentation (the EVP are self-recordings) inspired by occultism to perfect a new creative approach. EVPs, as a style or a musical genre in their own right, are something paradoxically very pop. This paradigm, the idea of a Beyond live broadcast through technological devices – the so-called ‘Instrumental Trans-Communication’ – is again nothing but a form of archaeoacoustics. In turn, ECHO can be considered an EVP generator, which, as it’s written in our story: ‘does not indeed extract sound from matter, it raÞer proposes an output, a simulation’. This is a central point in our research: the relationship between technology – considered, according to Ursula K. Le Guin’s famous definition,10 as an interface between humans and matter – and memory reconstruction.

It’s worth noting that, for Raudive and in the EVP world in general, the paranormal manifests itself above all as an ‘interference’. This term, originally from equestrian jargon, referred to an accident between two horses that wounded themselves by clashing their fers [irons] – by inter-fer-ence. Recording, like any technology, is therefore an interface-interference, inter-facet and inter-wound, which literally ‘hooks’ together humans and the reality around them. A faux pas, an accidental act of perception and perforation of presence in absence, of memory in loss.  

 

PDG: Often considered to be the trigger factor of a zombie epidemic, as in the highly successful video game series Resident Evil, contagion becomes an integral part of the military strategies in which sound is used as a weapon and an instrument of control. Steve Goodman, in his book Sonic Warfare, has written on this subject: ‘A “sonic war machine” . . . would be defined by its rhythmic consistency, would not take violence or noise as its primary object, but rather would concentrate its forces on affective mobilization and contagion. Its politics of frequency would entail the way in which vibrational force would be captured, monopolized, and redeployed.’11 Also, in Life Chronicles of Dorothea Ïesj S.P.U., the protagonist evokes recordings that have a ‘military significance’, ‘sound waves detonators us’d as weapons of oppression’, and also says ‘sound does not kill, … and Þerefore, de facto, it is a weapon’.

Can sound act like an infectious element? Would it really be capable of modifying human perceptions, stimulating certain impulses, to the point of mind control?

 

AL: Given the historical period we’re currently experiencing, we must of course proceed with caution when evoking notions of contagion and virality. However, there are few phenomena that have as much epidemic potential as a musical hit. By typing the word ‘earworm’ into YouTube, you easily land on masses of chorus mashups that are at once unbearable and irresistible. An earworm is a song – or a bit of a song – that invites itself into our head and turns into a loop that continues to play as soon as we’ve finished listening to it.

Specifically in his book Sonic Warfare, Goodman masters the concept of the earworm based on the film Decoder,12 whose protagonists are waging anti-establishment guerrilla warfare that plays on the ‘contagious’ potentialities of certain recording technologies (tape-terrorism). In the film, these audio-activists oppose the capitalist regime and the Muzak – both an instrument for captivating attention and a ‘background’ music device – which symbolises a form of subconscious relationship to consumption. Beyond this example, the modes of listening within the contemporary capitalist regime also reflect the operational logic of power. Since the eighties, musical production has been in service to the late capitalist period, thanks to a condition of ceaseless audition in which we are immersed: ‘audio virology starts with the premise of permanently active modes of audition . . . which is how the body becomes vulnerable to viral contagion.’13

Today, listening is inevitably a ‘ubiquitous-listening’, to the extent that we are often no longer capable of discerning the origins of sounds emerging from within saturated media coverage. It is a question that we broach in our sound fiction: ‘Þe ear is a territory of constant invasion . . . it cannot be shut . . . shaping sound is shaping Þe ear, shaping social behaviours . . . shaping reality’. The necromancy that we evoked earlier is therefore also resolutely biopolitical. In this respect, Eldritch Priest, an expert in sonic culture, broaches the question of the earworm in terms of a different presupposition, by suggesting that it is clearly an undeniable component of capitalism, but that it nevertheless remains a form of resistance. The incessant racket caused by technology ‘ex-terminates’14 music around us, which therefore no longer needs to be heard. Everything mutates into a steady and omnipresent background noise. With earworms resonating in our tympans, perception and thought coincide. The earworm is a bug, a metastasis of the system. It restores the listening experience in the paradoxical absence of waves or frequencies.

 

PDG: In the film Ghost Dance (1983) by British director Ken McMullen, philosopher Jacques Derrida, invited to play his own role, affirms: ‘you might think that science and technology are leaving behind the age of ghosts as part of the feudal age, with its somewhat primitive technology, as a certain [bygone] age. Whereas I believe that ghosts are part of the future and that modern technology of images, like cinematography and telecommunication enhances the power of ghosts and their ability to haunt us.’15 Since the invention of the first phonograph by Thomas Edison – also known under the name of ‘magician of Menlo Park’ – technology has played a primordial role in human attempts to access the realm of the afterlife and awaken dead spirits. How has technological development historically contributed to expanding the scenarios of the occult sciences?

 

AL: Let’s try to reverse this perspective, by highlighting the extent to which the fascination with occultism and the paranormal has influenced the development of the main communication technologies. Among the various functions of the phonograph that he had invented, Thomas Edison included the possibility of preserving the voice of the deceased. In the same period, Alexander Graham Bell and Francis Blake built a machine by using a real sliced human ear and a wooden frame to inscribe voices onto a plaque of smoked glass. Bell held the patent of the telephone until 2002, when the paternity of this revolutionary instrument was finally granted to the Italian Antonio Meucci. Meucci’s technology was also invented through controversial experimentation on the therapeutic use of galvanisation. During these electrotherapy sessions, Meucci’s ‘patients’ screamed so loud that he noticed that their cries were resonating within a copper cable. Incidentally, speaking of medico-paranormal experimentation, it was also a galvanisation session that gave rise to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

Technology, occult experimentation, and necromantic ceremonies were thus all lumped in together in the zeitgeist of this age of great inventions. It was from the same electrical cable that both the telephone and the undead monster were born. Medium-related and media-related: the word ‘medium’, which we now use to refer to the various means of communication, ‘would be inconceivable without taking into account its primary meaning as “spiritual medium”, pertaining to the practices of communication with the dead between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.’16 After Derrida, and all those who repeated or reworked this conception of hauntology,17 it strikes us as nigh impossible to consider ghosts without connecting them to the condition of being haunted by a technology that alters our existence by bringing spectres (fantasies) of the past back to life.

That may be precisely what encouraged us to write a science fiction, to try to express – through a story projected into the future, but that looks to the past – our relationship to Death, memory, and the political organisation of life. All while speculating on the infinite possibilities of the technologies that are yet to come – or technologies that might have been.

 

Notes


    1. Founded in Turin in 2017 by Amos Cappuccio, Giulia Mengozzi, Luca Morino, and Gabriele Rendina Cattani, since 2019 ALMARE has been invested in the project All Signs Point To Rome, Diane, about the notion of self-recording as a practice of self-monitoring and self-determination. The project comprises a series of reading-performances and the audio series Life Chronicles of Dorothea Ïesj S.P.U. ALMARE has collaborated with international institutions such as the Fondazione Baruchello (Rome), the Cité Internationale Des Arts (Paris), MACAO (Milan), PAV – Parco Arte Vivente (Turin), and the Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo (Turin).
    2. Simon Reynolds, Generation Ecstasy: Into the World of Techno and Rave Culture, (New York: Routlegde, 1999).
    3. Gilbert Rouget, La musique et la transe. Esquisse d’une théorie générale des relations de la musique et de la possession, (Paris: Gallimard, 1980).
    4. Charles Sanders Peirce, Reason’s Rules, Collected Papers vol. 5, 1934.
    5. See for instance the British telefilm Tape Stone (1972), the episode ‘Hollywood A.D.’ of the series The X-Files (2000), the episode ‘Committed’ of the series CSI: Crime Scene Investigation (2005), or videogames like Amber: Journeys Beyond (1996) or Tacoma (2018).
    6. Konstantin Raudive, Breakthrough: An amazing experiment in electronic communication with the dead, 1971
    7. Luciana Parisi, ‘Machine Sirens and Vocal Intelligence’, in the volume AUDIT unsound:undead, Urbanomic, 2019.
    8. The word ‘enfance’ in French literally indicates the age when we don’t yet know how to speak.
    9. Mike Kelley, ‘An Academic Cut-Up, in Easily Digestible Paragraph-Size Chunks; Or, the New King of Pop: Dr. Konstantin Raudive’, Grey Room no. 11 (autumn 2003), 22–43.
    10. Ursula K. Le Guin, ‘A rant about "technology"’, E-flux conversations, July 2016.
    11. Steve Goodman, Sonic Warfare: Sound, Affect, and the Ecology, Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, 2010, 11
    12. Muscha, Decoder, 1984.
    13. Steve Goodman, op. cit.
    14. Eldritch Priest, ‘Earworms, Daydreams and Cognitive Capitalism’, in Theory, Culture & Society, Vol. 35, 2018.
    15. Ken McMullen, Ghost Dance, 1983
    16. Erhard Schüttpelz, Trance Mediums and New Media: The Heritage of a European Term, in Trance Mediums and New Media. Spirit Possession in the Age of Technical Reproduction (New York: Fordham University Press, 2015).
    17. ‘Hauntology’ is a neologism created by Jacques Derrida (Spectres de Marx, 1993) which expresses a ‘logic of haunting’ typical of tele-technologies that ‘divide the living-present, which only survives as an image or spectralised archive’ (Echographies de la télévision, filmed interviews with B. Stiegler, Éditions Galilée-INA, 1996). This notion has played a major role in international philosophical debate and notably influenced thinkers like Mark Fisher, Simon Reynolds, and Adam Harper.







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