Essay commissioned by Oxford University Press for the Oxford Handbook of Sound Art, eds. Jane Grant, John Matthias and David Prior (forthcoming, 2020).
Are the predictable associations between sound and darkness, night and music, based solely on the ability of the aural sense to focus thanks to a reduction of the visible field? Even if the answer lies in a correlation between physical manifestation and physiological adaptation, the socio-cultural scaffolding that stems from this simple fact is of interest. Sites of investigation: John Oswald’s pitch black performances, Studio 303’s Noises from the Dark series, James Turrell’s Ganzfeld meets anechoic chambers, Adrian Piper’s Untitled Performance at Max’s Kansas City, Andre Lepecki’s (and by extension Fred Moten’s) “shared aurality” active in the quartet of darkness/blackness/potentiality/freedom, Derek Jarman’s Blue and especially Akira Mizuta Lippit’s analysis of the film where sound becomes image and image becomes sound, the use of darkness and a “disquieting recorded soundtrack of hysterical inmates at an insane asylum” at the famed 1938 International Surrealist Exhibition in Paris, the Saydnaya Military Prison, Guy Debord’s 1952 film Hurlements en faveur de Sade, amongst others. Emergent questions: What is the color of sound? How bright or dark is it? What is the time of sound? What is its place? Judging by the Nietzsche’s statement from Daybreak that the ear evolved best in “obscure caves” and music is “an art of the night,” it is doubtful that Nietzsche would say high noon in a clearing. Is sound necessarily of the dark, from the dark, in the dark? Eclipses and shadows, caves and caverns—moments and sites where and when sounds thrive, or at least are invoked and conjured. Actual and rhetorical entrapments amplify each other and shade the site of the encounter. Put on your headphones, and close your eyes—enter the night of listening. How does the night sound? Merleau-Ponty begins to answer the question by depicting the night as generator of a different kind of space, one that “has no outlines; […] is pure depth without foreground or background, without surfaces and without any distance separating it from me.” The implications of the inside/outside blur, the porous muddle, on sound are that its sensorial properties have ontological consequences.