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In Search of the Vacuum Cleaner: February 12 Soundwalk, Montreal.

“Ambience points to where we are right now. . . “Here” is a mesh of entangled presences and absences. . .” [1]

A soundscape is a little like a holding environment.  A holding environment, in psychoanalysis, is a place where regression happens.   Didier Anzieu’s work on the skin-ego tells us how early experiences of touch, being held and enveloped, are psyche-making.[2]  Sound provides an envelope too.  No environment is a dumb container; it speaks, it caresses and seduces, it shocks and reverberates.   A sound can influence direction, down city alleys, along mental threads.  As in Bollas’s Evocative Objects, psychic genera play with the world, and are played by the world, providing “textures of self-experience”[3].  Attention to the sounds of here and now opens a symphony of other times, other places.  Those times and spaces seem to echo here.

So we began by filing out of Concordia’s library building, through downtown Montreal, a construction site, a food court, dropping into a different way of navigating, a sort of psychedelic immersion, into an invisible density, carried by currents of sense, allured, lulled by repetition, boots in slush, tires on moisture, drifts of voice, machine sound, penetrating and piercing.  There is the sense that I can’t find distance here.  I’m engulfed by all this aural intimacy.  Morton writes of the “situation the schizophrenic finds herself in.  She is unable to distinguish between information (foreground) and noise (background)…Everything seems threateningly meaningful, but she can’t pin down what the meaning is.”[4]  To avoid going mad in all of this sonorous stuff, I take refuge in the content of my own head, which turns out to be equally mad—obstinate flows of desire and aversion and attendant judgments. “This sound sucks.  That one is annoying.  That’s nice.  That sounds good.  I want something different.”  In a field of undulating sensation, I can try to get my bearings by ordering the mesh, editing the soundscape, separating gold from dirt, information from noise, pleasant from obnoxious.

At a point, I think: What, exactly, am I looking for here?  Can I listen without searching and sorting?  What can I make of all this stuff?  What is it making of me?

I once signed myself up for a Vipassana meditation retreat.  This was 10 days without talking or writing, no ‘devices’, no drawing, no discourse allowed, save the nightly dhamma video, and the inner psychic flood that we were expected to contain.   For one hour a day we walked around a loopy path through the forest.   Dozens of women trudged around and around the figure 8, polyrhythms of boots crunching and swishing coats.  It was December and there was some snow.   Rebelliously, (so I liked to think), I would leave the path to forge my own through the forest where I would lie on a felled tree, or stand and listen.   There was an afternoon where I was able to hear the sound of pine needles falling and landing on the icy pond below.  A series of precise clinks. This was spell-binding.  These were tiny resonances I had never before considered.  On another day I wandered so far from the figure 8 I came across a field.  The snort of a horse, (an invisible horse, obscured by a tangle of sumac trees), was the most astounding and exciting event of an otherwise monotonous, routinized series of days.  My mind went crazy.  If a mind could pant, it was panting.

I wanted to be excited, entertained and surprised.  And I wanted to hear something hidden, for the subtleties to reveal themselves to my hungry ears.  Listening here was a search, a seeking.

St. Catherine street, those dreary tire-on-slush sounds, trucks announcing their reversal, conversations sailing by, words melting into tones-of-voice and floating away, a few nice moments in a small back-lot enclave of birds.  Across a street, and then opening out to the CCA sculpture garden, to a sonic vista of the city, the far-away traffic hush.  Here, the thought occurs to me that in a city, we are encircled by this sound, enmeshed in it, and in a sense contained by it.  The perimeter of the city, overpasses and highways, form a sonic envelope of rubber on asphalt/moisture, a hushing, rising and fading shhh.  This dull, sedating rhythm did some mysterious work on me.

As a child I used to follow my mother around the house while she cleaned.  I had a particular attachment to her vacuum cleaner, a source of warmth and noise.  Wherever she might be vacuuming, I would lay my blanket down beside the machine and slip into its envelope.   My mom and that machine and I were intermingled in a noisy aesthetic that connected us for a moment.  Onto the next room she would go, and I would follow.  My mother’s machine not only cleaned the carpets, it held me through its mollifying sound.

We are held, as the psychoanalysts tell us, born helpless, gestating in an environment of objects, entities, capacities.  We find ourselves wide-open, open-eared in this place.  Those of us who born with the ability to hear are submerged from our very beginnings in sound.  Edith LeCourt writes of the ‘sonorous bath’ of the infant, where acoustic exchanges surround and move through the body without respite.[5]  We soak in songs and timbres, tones of voice, rhythms of bodies, sustained silences, Mozart piped into the womb.  And we give ourselves acoustic definition, re-sounding through lips and teeth, vowels and consonants.  Listening can be a kind of absorption, we may feel enclosed in cavernous sound.  And yet this sonorous bath points us precisely to a lack of closure, the opening-out of reception.   Something is resounding within, as we’re sounding-out.  Our sonic envelopes have a way of expressing themselves through us.

Noise music is often couched in terms of sadomasochism, it being harsh and punitive and painful and so forth.  (I recently beheld a modular synth with options to ‘nuke’ and ‘annihilate’).  That is one way to be held, sure.   Noise is also a sonic play pen, where messes are made and relished.  To be surprised or off-put by the outbursts of hotwired machines, to luxuriate in a textured rhythm.  I suspect the vacuum cleaner has woven itself into my creative process, something I listen for, something I want to carve out and revisit, to float in this droning primitive reverie, my sonic blanket, the warm air exhaust from the machine, the grainy hum of nozzle on carpet, to be caught, as Morton write, “in an attunement between me and an object.”[6]  These machines have sensual energy, they are alive with the sound of noise.  My mother’s obsessional activity is my aesthetic wonderland.

How are we held together and cracked open?  By what sonic, machinic, ecological envelopes?   A sound envelope is capable of putting us together and rupturing our boundaries, all at once a pleasure and a trauma.  Sound plays us, we participate in that play, seduced to come close and co-mingle, needled and provoked to contract, or escape.  There is an up-closeness to sound, it is very intimate.

A soundwalk can be an experiment in being irreparably open to everything.  When I dropped into this listening, there was a moment of anxiety, that edge of the trip where one wonders: Where will you take me this time?  Will you move and delight me?  Will I be able to hear you when it’s uncomfortable and with nothing to grasp?  How will I listen?   With what memory and desire?[7]

[1] Timothy Morton, The Ecological Thought, (where: press, date) 103.

[2] Didier Anzieu, The Skin-Ego.  (New Haven: Yale UP, 1989).

[3] Christopher Bollas, The Evocative Object World.  (London and NY: Routledge, 2009), 55.

[4] Timothy Morton, Realist Magic: Object, Ontology, Causality.  (New Metaphysics Series, Open Humanities Press, 2013).

[5] Edith Lecourt, “The Musical Envelope” in Psychic Envelopes. Ed. Didier Anzieu. (London: Karnac, 1990).

[6] Morton, Realist Magic: Object, Ontology, Causality.

[7] Wilfred Bion’s edict to analysts: ‘To listen without memory and desire’ preoccupied me during this soundwalk and writing.  Bion, “Notes on Memory and Desire.” (The Psychoanalytic Forum, Vol. 2, No. 3, 1967)

Katherine Kline makes music, studies the unconscious, and is currently a PhD student in Communication Studies at Concordia.

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