3.13 / The Sound Issue

Hearing with Your Body: Infrasound

By Matt Sussman April 19, 2012

Image: Audience member interacting with low frequencies and spatial vibration during Infrasound 25, September 25, 2010; Southern Exposure, San Francisco. Courtesy of Infrasound and 23five Inc. Photo: Lisa Seitz.

It starts as a low-end hum that slowly fills the room like a gas leak. The audience scattered around Southern Exposure’s empty main gallery is still mostly standing, although a group of five individuals are sitting down to face the two men upfront who are diligently studying the screens of their laptops and minutely adjusting the mixing board. Higher frequencies dart and flit among the deeper, still pulsating registers, changing their assertiveness in relation to the ever-increasing volume. I check the time, but it doesn't matter anymore. Duration has given way to sensation as the means to track one’s being. The air feels thick, as if humid due to the change in pressure from the sound system’s throbbing output. Many audience members are now outstretched on the floor, their eyes closed; others hug the walls. A brave few face down the speakers at close range. The fact that I’m wearing earplugs is now irrelevant. Crossing to the other side of the room is more like swimming than walking. With every step I am more conscious of my body and the invisible particles brushing against and off of it, their paths tracing and re-tracing the surfaces of every other body and object within the room.

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Scott Arford (left) and Randy H.Y. Yau (right). Infrasound 25, September 25, 2010; Southern Exposure, San Francisco. Courtesy of Infrasound and 23five Inc. Photo: Lisa Seitz.

“Hear with your body.”1 Thus begins the Infrasound manifesto, the blueprint for the ongoing series of site-specific, spatial acoustic concerts of the same name that Scott Arford and Randy H.Y. Yau have produced since 2001. Although Infrasound has put on over twenty-five events in seven different countries and in spaces ranging from concert halls to a clothing boutique, the parameters and trajectory of each performance has largely been similar to the one I experienced two years ago at Southern Exposure: a slow-building and completely immersive encounter with sound that is not so much heard as it is felt.2

“We weren't trying to make music at all,” explains Yau, discussing the origins of the project. Yau and Arford are longtime veterans of the Bay Area experimental electronic and noise music scenes, but Infrasound was born as something of a happy accident out of their mutual interest in exploring “something more purely scientific.”3 Filling in for a last-minute cancellation at a show one night, Yau and Arford started playing frequencies in the range of 20 Hz to 60 Hz, ramping up the volume as they modulated their output with

other frequencies until both they and their sound system almost gave out. Seeking to recapture the conditions of that first-time, Yau and Arford began to further refine both their set-up and execution; their goal was “the explicit translation of sound into physical force.”4 Arford's architecture background led to a greater emphasis on testing venues for resonant frequencies, standing waves, and other acoustic phenomena in order to determine how best to “play” the performance space using the most sympathetic combination of pure tones and sheer volume.

“Purity” and “pure” are words that frequently recur in Infrasound's discourse about itself. They make for a neat semantic fit with Arford and Yau's hard-line empirical approach to sound generation, which also recalls the rhetoric surrounding the noise music sub-genre of power electronics—perhaps Infrasound's closest if still distant relative—given its similar radical refusal of any musical signifiers in favor of unrelenting sonic output.5 However, Infrasound departs from noise music's explicitly anti-social and often overtly aggressive performer-audience dynamic, and instead aims to attenuate the extremes of frequency and volume rather than assaulting audience members with sound. This accounts for the wide range of intense, subjective phenomenal experiences that many past audience members of Infrasound performances have described.6

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Audience member interacting with low frequencies and spatial vibration during Infrasound 25, September 25, 2010; Southern Exposure, San Francisco. Courtesy of Infrasound and 23five Inc. Photo: Lisa Seitz.

Composer Pauline Oliveros’s concept of Deep Listening provides another way to think through Infrasound’s aims and methodologies, as well as audience members’ responses. Oliveros has articulated Deep Listening as “listening to everything all the time and reminding yourself when you’re not listening.”7 Deep Listening underscores an implicit distinction between hearing (the process by which sound is received by our ears and transmitted to the audio cortex) and listening (how we choose to focus on what we’re hearing). Hearing is something we’re doing all the time, whereas listening is a process by which we can immerse ourselves in, or distance ourselves from, what we hear. In this way, listening becomes an activity akin to breathing during meditation—a way to modulate awareness of self within a larger whole. That whole includes the body, not simply the ear, as a hearing agent and also the body as that which inhabits and shapes the space it occupies. By insisting that we hear with our bodies, Arford and Yau propose that listening with our bodies is a process of continual echolocation that is both all consuming and ever willful.

Randy H.Y. Yau and Scott Arford. Infrasound 19, November 5, 2006; agnes b. skyline, Paris. Courtesy of Infrasound and 23five Inc.

 

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NOTES:

1. “Infrasound Manifesto,” http://www.23five.org/infrasound/manifesto.html, accessed on April 14, 2012.

2. Infrasound 25 occurred on Saturday, September 25, 2010, at Southern Exposure in San Francisco. Michael Gendreau opened. http://soex.org/Event/264.html

3. Phone interview with Randy H.Y. Yau, September 18, 2011.

4. “Infrasound Manifesto,” http://www.23five.org/infrasound/manifesto.html, accessed on April 14, 2012.

5. For a historical, theoretical, and sonic overview of power electronics, see Joseph Nechvatal,“Tellus #13 - Power Electronics (1986)” at http://www.ubu.com/sound/tellus_13.html, accessed April 17, 2012. For further work on the negative capability of low-end and infrasonic frequencies, see Jack Sargeant, “Sonic Weapons,” The Fortean Times (December 2001), http://www.forteantimes.com/features/articles/256/sonic_weapons.html, and Steve Goodman, “Introduction,” in Sonic Warfare: Sound, Affect and the Ecology of Fear (MIT Press, 2011), http://mitpress.mit.edu/books/chapters/0262013479intro1.pdf, both accessed April 16, 2012.

6. Audience members have claimed to have had injured legs soothed, experienced diastoles, and felt as if they were on drugs. One female audience member even claimed to have been brought to orgasm. See Scott Arford and Randy H.Y. Yau, “Filling the Void: The Infrasound Series,” in Site of Sound: Of Architecture and the Ear – Volume 2 (Errant Bodies Press, 2011).

7. Alan Baker, “An Interview with Pauline Oliveros,” http://musicmavericks.publicradio.org/features/interview_oliveros.html, accessed on April 16, 2011.

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