Theodor Adorno & “The Girl Who Never Was” by Erik Bünger
One of the more perplexing notions, effectively an urban myth, that circulates, hitherto more-or-less unchallenged, in certain sections of the sonic arts milieu, is the idea that because humans have no ear-lids, and can’t therefore shut-off hearing in a way that’s directly equivalent to how we close our eyes, the sense of hearing must therefore be somehow “passive”. As discussed in the “Rorschach Audio” book – pages 177 to 185 – psychoacoustic processes enable the mind to exercise a great deal of editorial control, analysing and selecting those sounds it wishes to bring into or exclude from conscious attention. We all know for instance that after a few days living next to a flight-path or railway, or working next to a monotonous machine, we begin to selectively tune-out sometimes even quite loud sounds, and, as the book says, at a much more basic level, listeners can and do actively control hearing by the frankly obvious mechanisms of turning towards or away from different sounds, and by putting our hands over or fingers in our ears, to compensate for lacking ear-lids.
In context of such obvious facts, statements quoted from the musicologist, philosopher and critical theorist Theodor Adorno, that the sense of hearing is “unconcentrated and passive” and “dozy and inert” come across as autobiographical to say the very least (refer to the book for the source). Just the other day I was re-watching film director George Lucas and sound designer Walter Murch’s extraordinary “THX1138” (see earlier posts) – a special feature on the DVD describes the noted motor-racing enthusiast George Lucas as someone who can diagnose faults in a race-car by listening to the engine for just a few seconds… so much for hearing being “dozy and inert”!
Another successful “Rorschach Audio” demonstration was co-produced by the sonic arts organisation Overtoon to complement the exhibition by artist Erik Bünger at the Argos Centre (for art and media) in Brussels. Erik Bünger presented his “Lecture on Schizophonia” the day after the “Rorschach Audio” event at the Liverpool Biennale, and a video version of Erik’s lecture is exhibited at Argos. In his video installation “The Girl Who Never Was” Erik Bünger quotes Theodor Adorno as stating that “male voices can be reproduced better than female voices… the female voice requires the physical appearance of the body that carries it, but it is just this body (that) the gramophone eliminates, thereby giving every female voice a sound that is needy and incomplete”. On that basis Adorno asserted a case for operatic tenor Enrico Caruso’s “uncontested dominance”, and “The Girl Who Never Was” cuts to a scene from the film “Fitzcarraldo” which shows a Caruso LP playing-out from a gramophone across the Amazon. The notion of an amniotic sound-world is handled very differently in context of the Disinformation exhibit “National Grid” ; however Erik’s response to Adorno states that “with woman, the male philosopher thinks, there is always too little of something, too little body, or too little spirit”, adding that “there was a time… when the male philosopher was living inside of a woman, and would hear her voice singing to him from all around, when her voice and his flesh was one”. Erik discusses the translation of Freud’s use of the word “Unheimlich”, and while I couldn’t make-out what mishearing the chant “Deshi Basara” as “this is awesome” has to do with Adorno, I guess some of the video’s slightly tongue-in-cheek. The work is beautifully produced, intriguing and thought-provoking.
 “Foetal and infant hypnagogic sense-memories” in “Disinformation – The Analysis of Beauty” (exhibition catalogue) Arts Council National Touring Programme 2003, page 37 (quoting a text originally published in 1996).
Special thanks to Aernoudt Jacobs and Ive Stevenheydens, and many thanks to everyone who came along to the talk.