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Audio Pareidolia, Ghost Research & EVP

Hey, turn the lights back on!

“Parapsychology: A Handbook for the 21st Century”, edited by Etzel Cardeña, John Palmer & David Marcusson-Clavertz, published by McFarland, 2015, features a chapter entitled “Electronic Voice Phenomena” by Mark Leary and Tom Butler, which I came across because (as with the last publication reviewed on this website) this also cites the version of “Rorschach Audio” that was published in 2001 [1]. The publisher’s website describes McFarland as “a leading independent publisher of academic and non-fiction books”, states that the phenomena discussed in “Parapsychology: A Handbook” have been researched “by eminent scientists, including Nobel laureates”, and describes the book as providing “a comprehensive scientific overview of research in the field of parapsychology” [2]. The editors of this book boast impressive academic credentials, and, at a whopping 400-plus pages, it’s a substantial work, which contains detailed and scholarly discussions of research methods and of methodology that are relevant to this field. As regards the chapter on EVP, author Mark Leary is a Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at Duke University [3], and writes for the same Association Transcommunication [4] that’s mentioned in the previous article on this website, while Tom Butler turns out to be the co-director of the Association Transcommunication, and to be co-author of the book “There is No Death and there are No Dead” [5].

Now, it’s important to describe the basic subject matter for any readers who may be visiting this website for the first time, however, because I’ve done so previously, several times, I’ll reiterate even more briefly than usual that the basic idea of EVP research is the belief that it’s possible, using various radio and electrical engineering techniques, to literally record the voices of ghosts, and that, primarily on account of the use of electronic technology, this form of ghost hunting is often described by supporters as being a form of scientific research. A rational explanation for EVP recordings would be that these voices do exist, but that they result from misheard “stray” radio communications, not ghosts, with listeners projecting meaning onto distorted and poor quality audio recordings, in the same way that viewers “see” meanings in semi-random shapes such as the famous Rorschach ink-blot tests. The images seen when imaginary meanings are projected onto Rorschach ink-blot tests, onto rock formations, coffee stains, damp walls and passing clouds etc, are often referred to as pareidolia, hence, in context of EVP etc, the terms “Rorschach Audio” and “audio pareidolia” are effectively synonymous.

As I said, the chapter in “Parapsychology: A Handbook” quotes an early “Rorschach Audio” research paper, and, while the chapter discusses a great deal of other material, it would be fair to say that to an extent the whole chapter seems to be a response to “Rorschach Audio”, since the entire discourse is dedicated to arguing why the authors believe that some EVP can’t be explained as resulting from psychoacoustic pareidolia, and why therefore (in their opinion) some EVP might be genuinely supernatural.

In responding to the argument that some listeners perceive EVP as being ghosts etc as a result of simple mishearings, “Parapsychology: A Handbook” states that “some writers have extended the pareidolia hypothesis by suggesting that listeners project themselves (in the Freudian sense) into random noise so that their interpretations are often tailored to their own personality and needs (hence the term “Rorschach Audio”)”. They go on to state that “Banks (2001)” has “offered an interesting analysis of this possibility… which we agree is certainly possible”. In fact I would say that this psychoanalytic aspect is particularly relevant in the case of the most famous EVP researcher, Konstantin Raudive, who stated for example on page 88 of his book “Breakthrough” that (quote) “utterances by Hitler or about him could fill a separate book” (emphases added).

From a personal point-of-view it’s gratifying to see that “Rorschach Audio” has been read by and seems to have influenced some parapsychologists, and that it’s been transmitted by this Handbook to a larger audience. However the Handbook claims that “Rorschach Audio” focussed on “particularly egregious examples of poor recording methods and analysis that are not characteristic of serious EVP investigators”. In fact the version of “Rorschach Audio” that the Handbook quotes clearly states that it addresses the “major, salient issues that recur throughout EVP research and that… underpin the entire belief system” (emphases added). In addition, far from focussing on examples that are “not characteristic of serious EVP investigators”, the same “Rorschach Audio” paper examines the methods employed by Konstantin Raudive, which, “egregious” as they may have been, were nonetheless the work of the most famous EVP researcher. To be fair, the Handbook does acknowledge that Raudive’s work was “uncontrolled” and “often fanciful”, but when the Handbook then claims that “the study of EVP after Raudive has [since] been conducted primarily by citizen scientists”, there’s no attempt to show whether such studies are really scientific.

With regard to such methods, after acknowledging that one of Raudive’s favourite EVP recordings turned out to have been conclusively debunked as an ordinary German radio broadcast, the Handbook goes on to argue against the suggestion that EVP voices might arise as a result of (quote) “radio interference”, because “EVP do not include snippets of songs, commercials, news broadcasts, weather forecasts and announcer patter” and “do not resemble radio broadcasts of any kind”. It seems obvious however that radio broadcasts aren’t radio interference (as these terms are understood here). The case of Raudive’s favourite sequence notwithstanding, the fact that most EVP recordings don’t consist of sounds that we typically associate with conventional broadcasts (they’re not “news… weather… announcer patter” etc) can’t disprove the hypothesis that interference (cross-modulated “stray” signals from taxis, emergency services vehicles and passing aircraft etc) produces EVP. The authors seem to have mixed-up their own terminology; and the reason that “EVP do not include snippets of songs” is presumably because, if and when the EVP researchers do pick-up conventional broadcasts, they recognise them for being what they are, don’t categorise them as potential EVP, and don’t save them up for subsequent examination… they just ignore them.

As for the physical origins of EVP, the version of the “Rorschach Audio” paper that “Parapsychology: A Handbook” cites, suggests that potential sources of stray voices include “taxi transmissions, emergency services, air-band, maritime, military, short, medium and long-wave commercial broadcasts, TV voice channels, ham radio experiments, CB radio, bugging devices, conferencing systems, intercoms, baby intercoms/alarms and analog mobile phones” etc. Commercial broadcasts and TV voice channels notwithstanding, it is particularly interesting that, in terms of active listening, this chapter’s authors had the acuity to notice that “some EVP are immediately preceded by a click or a signal break-in as if the transmitter button on a two-way radio has been keyed”. If that is the case, then what this suggests is that even putatively “authentic” EVP recordings (recordings that don’t resemble “songs, commercials, news” etc) can result from interference of the very kind the chapter’s authors tried to discount. The authors then dismiss the possibility that what they’ve offered is evidence disproving ghostly origin however, by asking readers to believe that “the EVP that follows the click is clearly not a CB, walkie-talkie or ham radio transmission” (emphasis added), without explaining why, and overlooking the possibility that an ordinary CB or walkie-talkie burst may have been misheard as “authentic” EVP (ie – as a ghost) as a result of auditory pareidolia.

“Parapsychology: A Handbook” does acknowledge that “pareidolia is certainly a plausible explanation for some reported EVP” (emphasis added), but claims that pareidolia effects seem “less likely in instances in which the recorded voice stands out by virtue of being notably louder than the background noise”. Although the practice of adding noise to recordings is a feature of EVP research methods which has been shown (by the “Rorschach Audio” publications) to dramatically enhance the mind’s ability to project pareidolia onto sounds, in contrast, as shown by the (extraordinary) demonstration recordings made by the psychoacoustics expert Diana Deutsch, pareidolia still form when listeners hear ambiguous speech sounds against a background of virtually zero noise. The Handbook then states that a “dearth of research has left both EVP enthusiasts and debunkers free to assert their positions unfettered by evidence” (emphasis added), however, as the more than 50 references at the end of the chapter show, there’s plenty of evidence.

In responding to the frankly strong evidence that “Rorschach Audio” type effects are responsible for EVP, the Handbook then states that “the question is whether pareidolia is responsible for all EVP” (the way the “Rorschach Audio” paper expressed this question 14 years earlier, was to ask whether EVP researchers are willing to consider the possibility that “projection effects might be responsible… for all manifestations of EVP”). The authors state that “the answer is that we simply do not know”. They also claim that “some debunkers do not seem to recognise the fallacy of concluding that all purported EVP are due to mundane causes simply because some of them clearly are”. In terms of public understanding of science, this seems to reflect a widespread misconception that anything can be absolutely proven by science. As I understand it, it’s completely consistent with mainstream philosophy-of-science to acknowledge that even the most rigorous science cannot produce absolute certainty about anything. In mainstream science, the best available hypotheses are provisionally accepted, in lieu of absolute facts, until those hypotheses are improved, discarded or replaced (and even if hypotheses do survive experimental testing, they still remain provisional until new evidence or better hypotheses emerge). The fact that science cannot ever, in the strictest sense, absolutely disprove any theoretical possibility, is intrinsic to the nature of theoretical possibilities, hence the term… and this in turn allows for the possibility that any imaginary or fantastical event, no matter how improbable, might one day happen. There is for instance the theoretical possibility that the teapot that the philosopher Bertrand Russell imagined floating around the sun might one day travel through space and materialise on a shelf in your local supermarket.

On a more positive note, and as it happens however, the most revealing and useful evidence that’s presented in “Parapsychology: A Handbook” isn’t so much what this chapter’s authors say about mishearing, as much as what they say about what they seem to have clearly heard, which wasn’t a distorted voice… it was an abrupt mechanical sound – the click… see above.

[1] https://rorschachaudio.com/2011/12/09/rorschach-audio-mit/
[2] http://www.mcfarlandbooks.com/book-2.php?id=978-0-7864-7916-0
[3] http://people.duke.edu/~leary/
[4] http://atransc.org/radiosweep-study2c/
[5] http://atransc.org/about-directors/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rorschach_test
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pareidolia
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Russell’s_teapot

Article copyright © Joe Banks, 26 Nov 2016

Konstantin Raudive, Ghost Hunting & EVP

“Bustin’ makes me feel good…”

In volume 17, issue 1, of The Skeptic magazine, published in 2012, authors John E. Buckner V and Rebecca A. Buckner published an article called “Talking to the Dead, Listening to Yourself”, which reports the results of “an empirical study on the psychological aspects of interpreting Electronic Voice Phenomena”, which I came across because their article cites the version of “Rorschach Audio” that was published in 2001 [1]. The Skeptic article is available to download from the Academia.edu website [2], and, interestingly, for an openly sceptical piece, is publicised by and referred to on the website of a pro-EVP group called the ATransC, as “a reasonably well-considered study that asks all of the right questions” [3]. To provide some context for that statement, the Association TransCommunication describe themselves as “founded by Sarah Estep in 1982 as the American Association of Electronic Voice Phenomena”, and state that Sarah Estep’s objective in forming the original AA-EVP was to “provide objective evidence that we survive physical death in our individual conscious state” [4].

In summarising the history of EVP research, The Skeptic article provides some very interesting information, stating for instance that a Cambridge University student called David Ellis had conducted experiments with the Latvian EVP researcher Konstantin Raudive. To recap briefly, and as anyone familiar with the “Rorschach Audio” project will recall, the basic hypothesis of EVP research is the claim that it’s possible, using various (quite crude) radio and electronic engineering techniques, to literally record the voices of ghosts. Primarily on account of the use of electronic technology, EVP research is often described by supporters as being a form of scientific research. A rational explanation for EVP recordings would be that these voices really do exist, but that they result from misheard “stray” radio transmissions, not from ghosts, with listeners perceiving meaning in these typically distorted and poor quality audio recordings, in much the same way that viewers “see” meanings in semi-random visual shapes such as the famous Rorschach ink-blot tests.

So, evidently, David Ellis conducted experiments with Konstantin Raudive, inside a Faraday Cage, which blanks-out the radio field around a recording apparatus. As a result, according to “Talking to the Dead”, David Ellis recorded no voices, suggesting that interfering radio signals really were responsible for the EVP recordings made by Konstantin Raudive. Similarly the article also describes how Raudive “discovered a passage that he believed was among his clearest examples of communication with the deceased… which he interpreted as using five languages” (since Raudive believed that ghosts speak in “polyglot” voices, which, bizarrely, are said to switch languages from one word to the next). According to The Skeptic article a researcher called Jurgen Keil “reviewed this passage along with eight native German speakers… and concluded that it was likely an Easter Sunday broadcast in German”.

Despite such obviously revealing evidence, EVP research still maintains a persistent fan-base, and attracts interest from sections of the public and from people working in electronic music, in mainstream and “alternative” contemporary art and cultural theory etc. So, in that context, “Talking to the Dead” is interesting as a description of experiments which sought to subject EVP to scientific scrutiny. The article focusses on the interpretation of EVP recordings, and this purpose strongly overlaps with the “Rorschach Audio” project. As regards psychoacoustics, “Talking to the Dead” does a good job of following-up on what “Rorschach Audio” said about the work of Diana Deutsch etc (see links). However, since it’s argued that “proponents [of EVP] have often been critical of skeptics, characterising them as dismissive or as motivated only by the desire to debunk genuine paranormal experiences”, where these two projects differ most is in that the later project engaged EVP supporters in direct collaboration. The authors organised their project in conjunction with four paranormal investigation teams (with the implication being that these teams are proponents of and/or believers in EVP).

The article states that “since proponents and skeptics tend to find conflicting results when conducting paranormal experiments, new ground could be broken if proponents and skeptics joined together in conducting their research”, and the authors “felt it wise to allow the paranormal researchers to do what they do best and conduct their own investigations”. Now, this approach may be diplomatic as regards engaging with paranormal investigators who mistrust sceptics, but, from a methodological point-of-view the approach is flawed, because there’s no control group. To be experimentally valid, results from test subjects who are already paranormal enthusiasts should really be compared to results from listeners who have no interest in the paranormal, who have no knowledge of the purpose of the study, and no knowledge of what the recordings are even thought to be. In fact the authors of The Skeptic article are aware of at least the underlying problem, since they quote the psychologist James Alcock discussing how “EVP proponents are typically expecting to hear something when analysing recordings, and expect that what they hear is paranormal”, with the effect that such expectations “contribute to their interpreting sounds as EVP, much like a self-fulfilling prophecy”. Despite this acknowledgement, in this study “the teams recorded their own investigations, interpreted and identified any present EVPs, and then exchanged their recordings with another team”, without the results being compared to a neutral control group.

As regards the obvious rational explanations for EVP, the authors do acknowledge that “proponents also recognise these… explanations…, and grant that they may explain a small portion of alleged EVP” (emphasis added) – as indeed Raudive did (in passing and very grudgingly). They also observe how “most proponents seem to believe these explanations fall short in explaining all EVP” (emphasis added) – as again Raudive did. Then, prefacing their own research, the authors state that if “entities” (ghosts, angels, aliens etc) “are indeed trying to communicate… it is expected that investigators should identify and interpret EVP similarly” on the one hand, while on the other hand they state that “if EVP is due to psychological influences then the identification and interpretation… should be inconsistent among investigators”.

With regard to that first assumption, it is because of the role that psychological influences play in moulding perceptions, that we would expect investigators to identify EVP similarly. If investigators hear sounds that conform to the auditory characteristics they already associate with EVP, then they’re likely to believe those sounds are EVP, with their doing so proving (unfortunately) nothing about the alleged production of these sounds by discarnate “entities”. It is belief that causes investigators to identify EVP similarly, not ghosts.

With regard to that second assumption, that if supernatural interpretations of EVP arise due to psychological causes, then those interpretations should be inconsistent, in fact (as stressed by the “Rorschach Audio” publications) it’s the same psychological faculties which enable listeners to mishear EVP, that also enable us to accurately hear normal speech. If multiple listeners hear the same reasonably well-made recording of any spoken word, then we would expect listeners to agree on the correct interpretation of that word. So (notwithstanding those cases where EVP demonstrations tell people what words are thought to mean before listeners hear them) if, as the authors imply might happen in their study, listeners do disagree on the interpretation of the distorted voices that are characteristic of EVP, then all such inconsistencies prove is that the speech was hard to interpret because it was badly recorded.

It is conventionally argued by EVP advocates that EVP voices are ghosts and angels because some recordings seem to be voices of deceased relatives etc, who are said to address some listeners personally. It can however be argued that such evidence supports the opposite conclusion, that it supports the psychological explanation (after all, if your mind is likely to project any meaning onto a distorted voice, the most emotionally tempting projection would be to imagine you’re hearing a departed loved-one). It is true that the process of auditory projection, whose discussion is central to “Rorschach Audio”, and which is demonstrated so well by the recordings of Diana Deutsch etc, plays a huge role in the process by which some listeners mishear ambiguous voices as personally meaningful. Such demonstrations can also be useful in encouraging listeners to adopt a more critical mindset, however the inconsistent interpretations that result from projecting meanings onto ambiguous voices don’t disprove claims of ghostly origin on their own (although they do cast considerable doubt on them). So, arguably, the contribution that an understanding of projective perception makes to understanding EVP has as much to do with how people come to adopt EVP-type beliefs, as self-fulfilling prophecies, in the first place, as it has to do with testing claims that specific voices might be of ghostly origin. Before EVP fans think I’m letting them off the hook however, it’s important to stress that even if the interpretation of recordings is consistent – which in one case, described below, it actually was – that still doesn’t prove ghostly origin! What might prove ghostly origin would be if an EVP voice communicated information which it could be proved only a specific deceased person could have known. That might well be impossible to test, and the spoken content of even the clearest EVP recordings is usually far too short to communicate substantial information, when in fact it’s not just outright gibberish – in fact the artist and noise musician Mike Kelley described the spoken content of Raudive’s recordings as “imbecilic” [5].

As the “Rorschach Audio” project has evolved, I’ve come to realise that, stressing the positive here, the greatest value in understanding processes involved with illusions such as EVP, comes not so much from what we learn about allegedly supernatural phenomena, as much as from what we learn about the human mind. Bearing that in mind, the authors of The Skeptic article describe how they approached 500 paranormal investigation societies, across the USA, asking if these groups would like to participate in a scientific study of EVP. Only 46 teams expressed an interest, 25 filled-in the consent forms, and just four completed the study – less than 1%. The participating societies did produce recordings of the type intended, identifying 153 potential EVPs. The authors state that “more important than merely identifying potential EVP… is the consistency with which the teams’ EVP matched in terms of timestamp and interpretation”. After the recordings from each team were analysed by the other three groups, of these 153 potential EVPs, “there were no EVPs for which all three teams had matching analyses”. There were just “two matching EVPs based on timestamps for two of the three teams, although the interpretations for these EVPs differed”, while there was, again for two of the groups, just “one matching EVP based on both the timestamp and interpretation” – a voice which said “let me go home”.

Inevitably, given these results, the authors conclude that “overall, the results of this study support the psychological explanations for EVP”, but still they claim that “it is possible that the one matched EVP is a result of communication with the deceased” (emphasis added). It’s unclear whether that last statement was meant to be tongue-in-cheek, because, at the risk of stating what’s very obvious, and in keeping with the processes described above, it’s also possible that this match occurred as a result of two teams accurately hearing someone use a CB or taxi radio or a walkie-talkie to ask eg – their boss if they can knock-off at the end of their shift. In this case the issue of mishearing is effectively a moot point, while the acid-test is that, with the application of Ockham’s Razor, the allegation of a supernatural cause is undermined by the availability of much simpler explanations. In this case it is the fact that this voice wasn’t misheard that provides evidence of there not being a ghostly origin.

The authors of this study should be congratulated for their open-mindedness, for their willingness to engage with the ghost-hunting community, and for drawing attention to some very revealing information about Konstantin Raudive. I would however question some of the assumptions that informed the analysis of their results. On a more positive note, and bearing in mind that the paranormal research societies that the authors approached are people who’ve identified themselves as having the inclination and the time to devote to ghost-hunting, the finding that may well have the most empirical value, and which is meaningfully quantified, statistically significant, sociologically relevant and properly informative, is that when asked if they’d like to participate in a scientific study of EVP, more than 90% of paranormal investigation societies declined that invitation.

[1] https://rorschachaudio.com/2011/12/09/rorschach-audio-mit/
[2] https://www.academia.edu/2526941/
[3] http://atransc.org/talking-to-the-dead/
[4] http://atransc.org/about-atransc/
[5] http://xenopraxis.net/readings/kelley_raudive.pdf

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Occam’s_razor
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Falsifiability
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_of_Baskerville

Article copyright © Joe Banks, 21 Nov 2016

Rorschach Audio – Citations & References

Updates to the list of books and research papers that quote the version of “Rorschach Audio” published by The MIT Press in “Leonardo Music Journal” in 2001, and the “Rorschach Audio” book that was published in 2012…

Brian Baker – “Contemporary Masculinities in Fiction, Film & Television”, Bloomsbury USA, 2015 (see the chapter “Tape Spectra”)

John E. Buckner V and Rebecca A. Buckner – “Talking to the Dead, Listening to Yourself – An Empirical Study on the Psychological Aspects of Interpreting Electronic Voice Phenomena”, The Skeptic Magazine, volume 17, issue 1, 2012

Andy Farnell – “Sonarchy in the UK: is Sound Design a Rebellious Teenager?”, The New Soundtrack, volume 4, issue 2, pages 89 to 102, Aug 2014

Joshua Gunn – “On Recording Performance; or Speech, the Cry, and the Anxiety of the Fix”, Liminalities: A Journal of Performance Studies, volume 7, issue 3, Autumn 2011

Greg Hainge – “Vinyl is Dead, Long Live Vinyl: The Work of Recording & Mourning in the Age of Digital Reproduction”, Culture Machine [online journal], volume 9, 2007

Geoffrey Hlibchuk – “This Secret Charm of Numbers: The Clandestine Relationship Between Shortwave Number Stations & Twentieth-Century Poetry”, volume 33, issue 4, pages 181 to 194, Dec 2007

Mark Leary and Tom Butler – “Electronic Voice Phenomena”, chapter 26 in Etzel Cardeña, John Palmer & David Marcusson-Clavertz (editors) – “Parapsychology: A Handbook for the 21st Century”, McFarland & Co, pages 341 to 349, 2015

Simone Natale – “Supernatural Entertainments: Victorian Spiritualism & the Rise of Modern Media Culture”, Penn State University Press, 2016

Simone Natale – “The Spectacular Supernatural: Spiritualism, Entertainment & the Invention of Cinema”, Cinéma & Cie, volume X, issue 14 to 15, Spring-Fall 2010

Earlier citations…

https://rorschachaudio.com/2015/05/07/rorschach-audio-citations/

https://rorschachaudio.com/2016/08/01/evp-rorschach-audio-clarifications/

Leonard Cohen, 1934 to 2016, R.I.P.

“And who shall I say is calling?”

EAM 1111, New River Studios, 11 Nov 2016

EAM 1111 – DISINFORMATION (UK) + BRANE ZORMAN (SL) + POUYA EHSAEI (IRAN) + MEDIAL AGES (CATALONIA) + DIE! GOLDSTEIN (GR)

Friday 11 Nov 2016
Doors at 7pm
1st show 8pm
Admission £5

Ground Floor Unit E
New River Studios
199 Eade Road
London N4 1DN

https://www.facebook.com/SeatedFigure/
http://www.branezorman.si/?p=142
http://netzzz.net/medial-ages-live/
www.diegoldstein.com

Curated by EAM [elektronische-art-and-music] – Disinformation will be “performing” electromagnetic (shortwave radio) noise from the sun.

Let There Be Language – a short talk at Anglia Ruskin University, 18 Oct 2016

The following text is the transcript of a short talk presented at Anglia Ruskin University, 18 Oct 2016. The text includes 3 paragraphs found elsewhere on this website, however, rather than providing links to the earlier paragraphs, then asking readers to jump backwards and forwards between different posts, it seemed more sensible to provide the entire script of this talk, for the sake of continuity and uninterrupted reading. Those visitors who are already familiar with the earlier paragraphs are asked to read on through to find the newest material. Thanks to everyone who came along to the talk…

There is a perception, particularly among contemporary art critics and commentators, but also among members of the public, that sonic art is a relatively new art form; of course the truth is that sounds produced by voices are among the earliest materials ever subjected to any form of creative manipulation. Speech itself is an art-form, and therefore poetry and literature of the oral tradition are, alongside music, the oldest forms of sonic art, and probably in fact the oldest art-forms. On that basis it can be argued that far from being a marginal or in any way “difficult” art-form, sonic art is instead the most primal, the most pervasive, and arguably the earliest form of creative art, ever. The argument put forward in the book “Rorschach Audio – Art & Illusion for Sound”, is that, paraphrasing Aristotle’s “Poetics”, since written language is based on symbolic visual representations of indivisible sounds, the earliest form of sound recording technology was not therefore, as is generally presumed, any form of machine, but was in fact written language. Alongside poetry and literature of the oral tradition, even written literature and poetry are therefore forms of sound art. So, when one considers music, poetry, literature, theatre dialogue, theatre sound effects and architectural acoustics, and particularly also sound design for contemporary cinema and computer games, it can be argued that, in its various diverse and widespread manifestations, sonic art is one of, if not the most mainstream and commercially important of cultural commodities.

By way of just one illustration, the art of designing theatre sound effects is for instance quite clearly a form of sonic art, which goes back at least as far as those architects whose expertise ensured that the proverbial pin could be heard dropping throughout the auditoria of ancient Greek amphitheatres. As regards specifically British theatre, the historian Robert Mott describes how since “Shakespearian days” a “popular” method for creating illusions of thunder in theatre shows involved “a cannon-ball rolling down a trough and falling onto a huge drum”. Robert Mott states that “some people were not pleased with this cumbersome technique”, so, in 1708, the dramatist John Dennis designed a thunder effect for his play “Appius & Virginia” in Drury Lane. John Dennis “invented something more realistic and controllable – a large piece of thin copper sheeting suspended from a frame by wires”. “The thunder sheet was a great success, and as a result other stage productions began using his effect. This infuriated Dennis to the point where he would angrily confront the offending producer by charging ‘you, Sir, are stealing my thunder’.” Dennis is also said to have stated that “that is my thunder, by God; the villains will play my thunder, but not my play”. What this anecdote provides is not just another example of “early” sound art – of sonic art that predates contemporary fine-arts practice by 200 years – but also potentially the earliest recorded instance of what amounts to an intellectual property dispute between sound artists. This dispute was in fact so important that the phrase “stealing my thunder” has, for hundreds of years since, been immortalised as a very common figure-of-speech in the English language.

As you can all see, “The Act of Creation” is a collaborative neon sign artwork, created by myself and by Zata Banks. Genesis 1:3 states “Let there be Light”, while however John 1:1 states “in the beginning was the Word”. The philosopher, originally engineer and psychologist, Charles W. Morris defined semiotics as “the science of signs”; so, analysed in terms of visual semiotics, “The Act of Creation” is an artwork which articulates a message that’s implicit in all neon signs – namely the association between illumination and language; and, in articulating the phrase “Let There Be Language”, “The Act of Creation” is unique among neon sign artworks in the depth of integration between medium and message, since it’s light itself that literally and metaphorically illuminates the nature of the play on words.

As described in his book “The Search for the Perfect Language”, the novelist and semiotician Umberto Eco, described how “our story has an advantage over many others, [since] it can begin at the beginning”. Eco goes on to describe how “God spoke before all things… [God] said, let there be light. In this way [God] created both heaven and earth, for, with the utterance of the divine word, there was light… Creation itself arose through an act of speech”. Eco describes how, in Genesis 2:16-17 “the Lord speaks to man for the first time, putting at his disposal all the goods in the earthly paradise, commanding him, however, not to eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge”. Umberto Eco continues “we are not told in what language God spoke to Adam. Tradition has pictured it as a sort of language of interior illumination, in which God… expresses himself by thunderclaps and lightning” [1]; this theme forms the subject matter of one of the earlier sonic artworks I’ve created – which is a recording of radio noise produced by lightning strikes during an electrical storm, a recording entitled “Theophany” – “the Voice of God” – which was published on LP in 1996 [2].

As regards the origin of language, the scriptural, ie – religious, provenance of these anecdotes is potentially misleading however… they shouldn’t be dismissed as simple fantasies, because mythological stories have considerable anthropological, arguably archaeological, significance. As what amounts to a kind of fossil record of early human thought, Biblical passages show early writers testing hypotheses not only about the act of creation, but also about the origin of language (likewise the Biblical story about the Tower of Babel). Now, as regards scientific studies of that same subject, one scholarly discourse on the origin of language, affirms what seem to be quite widely held assumptions… the first is that “language disappears on the air as soon as it’s produced, it doesn’t get left behind”, the second is that “humans are the only beings that have language” [3].

That second statement, that “humans are the only beings that have language”, seems, in my opinion, highly debatable, since improvements in audio and video recording technology continually furnish anthropologists with new insights into subtleties of animal communications, which were previously much less accessible to human study. It was once thought that tool use was a uniquely human characteristic… it isn’t any more, and it seems likely that the equivalent article-of-faith, about animals and language, is likely to go the same way. While it should be stressed that the video in question contains a great deal of excellent material, nonetheless the other statement, that “language disappears on the air as soon as it’s produced”, is just plain false. Modern language retains a wealth of evidence about the forms and origins from which it evolved – just because evidence is hard to read doesn’t mean it isn’t evidence; plus, as I’ve already said, written language is a form of audio recording technology, so the irony of asserting that “language disappears on the air” is that our ability to quote this statement forms part of the evidence that disproves that assertion.

As regards studying the origin of language, the philosopher James Stam is quoted as describing how until recently a “shortage of empirical evidence has led many scholars to regard the entire topic as unsuitable for serious study”, and as describing how in 1866 the Société de Linguistique de Paris “banned any existing or future debates on the subject, a prohibition which remained influential… until late in the twentieth century” [4]. The neurolinguists Morten Christiansen and Simon Kirby described this question as “the hardest problem in science” [5]. Noam Chomsky – who is arguably the most famous and important living philosopher in the world – proposes the theory which suggests that infant language acquisition essentially adds-on, as they’ve been called, “parochial” and so-called “surface” features, to the “deep structure” of language circuits – circuits which hard-wire themselves, during neurogenesis, into the infant brain. Deep structures are said to be more concerned with grammar and syntax than with the audible forms in which those structures find symbolic representation [6].

In terms of evolutionary biology, Noam Chomsky suggested that language emerged as a result of one genetic mutation, in one single prehistoric human, which installed the linguistic faculty in “near-perfect” form, inherited by billions of descendants; in this way, the origin of language is compared to the formation of a crystal, such as that of a snowflake [7][8]… which might all sound wildly far-fetched, however in fact the geometric structures of the proteins found in DNA are, though fantastically complex, are still essentially crystalline. The notion that underlying neural structures are common to all languages, resembles the idea of the “Perfect” or “Divine” language that preoccupied the medieval theologians and mystics discussed by Umberto Eco, and you might recall that it’s the divine language that’s spoken by the character Leeloo in the science-fiction film “The Fifth Element”.

In fact, in terms of empirical evidence, studies of this subject experienced something of a quantum leap after the treatment by speech and language therapists of a single family in Brentford, West London, in the late 1980s. Fifteen members of one family, spread across 3 generations, were diagnosed as suffering a severe speech disorder, Developmental Verbal Dyspraxia, which, by 1998, had been identified as stemming from damage to one specific gene, the Forkhead Box Protein P2, or FoxP2.

The FoxP2 gene has been referred to as “the language gene”, “the grammar gene”, and even as “the creativity gene”. It seems however that such descriptions are all exaggerations, since FoxP2 genes are common in species not thought to have “proper” language, and, according to advice from the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, the apraxia occurs when “children have problems saying sounds, syllables, and words”, because “the brain has problems planning to move the body parts… needed for speech”. So, in other words “the child knows what they want to say, but their brain has difficulty coordinating the muscle movements necessary to say those words” [9]. So, the discovery of the FoxP2 “crystal” (so-to-speak) doesn’t prove one single, dramatic evolutionary break-out point for the origin of language, however, to conclude this talk, it does suggest that studies of the human genome are likely to shed a great deal more light on the origins of language in the near future.

[1] Umberto Eco “The Search for the Perfect Language” Fontana 1995
[2] Disinformation “National Grid”, “Stargate”, “Theophany” Ash 3.2 LP 1996
[3] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GvRtlH-3Asc
[4] James H. Stam “Inquiries into the Origin of Language” Harper Collins 1976
[5] Morten Christiansen & Simon Kirby “Language Evolution” OUP 2003
[6] Noam Chomsky “Aspects of the Theory of Syntax” 1965
[7] Noam Chomsky “Language & Mind” in Lyle Jenkins (editor) “Variation & Universals in Biolinguistics” Elsevier 2004
[8] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7Sw15-vSY8E [1:12:30]
[9] http://www.asha.org/public/speech/disorders/ChildhoodApraxia/

Article copyright Joe Banks © 18 Oct 2016

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