How we sound: exploring the possibilities of sound and music

Composer Juliet Palmer.| Photo by Adam Coish

Western Front’s sound installation series, the-possible-impossible-thing-of-sound, continues with an installation (Feb 2–10) and performance (Feb 8) of composer Juliet Palmer’s Inside Us, which explores the rhythm, sound, and experience of the body. This will be followed by a talk from artist and academic Salomé Voegelin who explores the potential of sound in conceiving new ideas and ways of thinking.

Juliet Palmer has always been a creative in need of an outlet. While the New Zealand-born, Toronto-based artist has long found success as a composer whose work ranges from experimental noise-based projects to operas, her original plan was to be an architect. While the two may seem vastly different, in retrospect, the ideas that she has wanted to explore as an artist may have fit into either genre of art.

“I eventually gave up my dream of being an architect, but a lot of what I do in my music has to do with space and movement and I do quite visually think about sound,” she says.

Palmer’s latest project, Inside Us, explores the human body not just through visual art, but through sound and rhythm as well. She does this by using recordings of her body’s sounds and by working directly with the human voice, collaborating with the VOICE OVER mind choir and vocalist Laura Swankey. Palmer also plays the interviews that she’s conducted with people discussing “moments at the edges of life,” such as becoming aware of one’s own heartbeat, or first and last breaths. Palmer’s goal is to engage the audience with something that is so everyday, yet so under-discussed.

“I’ll often highlight things that people maybe don’t want to think about, that are challenging, and find a way to bring them into consciousness [of it],” says Palmer. “We do a very good job of not thinking about mortality in our culture. When you do confront it, I would hope that it would make you want to be more present in the moment that you’re in.”

Along with acknowledging the listener and engaging the audience, Palmer says that her philosophy in writing music is to always compose in a way that is reflective of the material and ideas that she’s addressing.

“I try to honour the integrity of the material that I’m wrestling with in one moment. So in this case it’s the particular kind of world inside the body which is, you know, you’re not really hearing tunes in there,” says Palmer, laughing.

The political possibilities of sound

Artwork by Juliet Palmer.| Photo courtesy of Juliet Palmer.

London-based scholar and artist Salomé Voegelin also sees the potential of sound for exploring new ideas. For Voegelin, sound’s place in how we communicate –
beyond speaking – makes its possibilities, and perhaps even political implications, worth unravelling.

“I [feel] that sound’s more tenuous relationship with a visual reality [gives] it a special power to question the status quo – its ideologies and investments – to create a different proposition,” says Voegelin.

Voegelin believes language is a taken-for-granted medium of expressing ideas and concepts. Words, created for the specific purpose of communicating certain concepts and ideas, can be somewhat limiting to the imagination.

Sound, on the other hand, doesn’t have any pre-given meaning, at least when it isn’t employed by something else. There’s work to be done on the part of the listener to think and make sense of it. This interpretation of sound is where Voegelin sees the opportunity for new ideas.

“The invisibility and indivisibility of sound, the fact that we cannot make the heard into certain and autonomous objects that refer to a clear name and purpose, allows us, and in a way forces us, to think about the world not in relation to definitions and givens of what we know,” says Voegelin. “We… get to ‘see’ the world differently, not through its distinct properties and objects, but through the way in which they interact.”

Voegelin describes sound as a kind of “volume,” not only in the sonic sense, but in that it is a kind of space between everything else. In a way, it’s something that connects us, or at least has the potential to do so.

“Listening focuses on the connecting and the in-between, where we are not this or that, but are what we are together, contingently and through participation,” says Voegelin.

In a world where growing division is becoming more apparent, Voegelin argues that sound can go beyond uniting people metaphorically, that it can connect people truly, perhaps even literally.

“A sonic sensibility can make us rethink the nature and causes of these separations and consider a different, a more collective engagement that takes account of the interconnectedness of the world,” says Voegelin.

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