Friday, 21 October 2011
The Sound of Fear
There was a fascinating programme on Radio 4 this week, The Sound of Fear, presented by Sean Street. It examined the way in which certain sounds, or indeed the absence of sound, can induce a fearful response, and the manner in which artists have used the disconcerting quality of certain sounds to uncanny or terrifying effect. Freud’s essay on the uncanny, or unheimlich emerges as a central point of reference, with its exploration of disturbing encounters with unknown or strange phenomena in literature. These often take place within an otherwise familiar and comfortable domestic setting (heimlich can roughly be translated as homely), and the novel elements are disturbing partly because of their unfamiliarity. Sound researcher Marcus Leadley makes the distinction between sounds which are distorted or warped in some way, but which still have an identifiable and familiar source, and therefore merely produce a sensation of disorientation; and those whose source is unknown, and whose unfamiliarity creates a fearful apprehension of the uncanny. Freud’s essay doesn’t pay much attention to the role played by sound in evoking a sense of dread or terror, and the story upon which is at the heart of his analysis, ETA Hoffmann’s The Sandman, specifically revolves around the fear of losing one’s sight. Unsurprisingly, Freud interprets the idea of eyeballs being torn from their sockets as symbolically relating to a castration complex. David Toop, in his book Sinister Resonance (the title taken from a Henry Cowell piece, played on the strings inside the body of the piano), subjects the story to a thorough sonic scrutiny, showing how sounds without identifiable origin provide the most unsettling intimation that the known world of the heimlich has been invaded, tainted with something other. Toop adds perceptive comments and personal observations throughout the programme, the valuable insights of someone whose innate aural sensitivity has led him to a lifetime as a listener, writer and musician intently immersed in the worlds of sound.
I sense that the idea for the programme may have originated in a reading of his book, and in particular the lengthy chapter Chair Creaks, But No One Sits There. In it, Toop examines the uncanny as manifested through sound in supernatural fiction. He writes about Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, with its full dynamic range building up from the microsounds of busy scrabbling and half-heard whispers to an unbearable, deafening pounding; Charles Dickens’ Chimes: A Goblin Story, with its empty nocturnal church as a sounding chamber for the elements; Edgar Allan Poe’s poems and stories, in particular The Tell-Tale Heart, with its regular beat pulsing to the insistent rhythms of unassuaged guilt (the murder in the story is occasioned by the narrator’s hatred of the old man’s cold, staring eye, ocular and aural terrors once more interlinked); Three MR James stories which involve sound as a principal, premonitory or summoning element – A Neighbour’s Landmark, Canon Alberic’s Scrap-Book and Oh Whistle and I’ll Come To You (perhaps the scariest of all ghost stories); and Algernon Blackwood’s tales of hypersensitivity to eerie sound (or ‘eary’ sound, as Toop quotes Nicholas Royle punningly describing it) A Case of Eavesdropping, The Empty House and The Listener. He notes that, given the importance of sound to the creation of the haunted atmospheres, immanent with uncanny presence, which suffuse Blackwood’s stories, it is appropriate that the psychic detective he created to confront the various supernatural manifestations which he is called upon to investigate is named John Silence.
In the programme, the emphasis is laid more on film than on literature, a concession to a predominantly visual oriented culture, which is a bias the book sets out to counterbalance. Toop talks about the way in which horror films often begin with an anomalous sound, an indication of the presence of something which shouldn’t be there, presaging the onset of a disruptive force. He writes of the powerful use of sound in Robert Wise’s 1963 film of Shirley Jackson’s novel The Haunting, and the bungling of the 1999 remake, with its explicit visual manifestation of the uncanny, entirely withheld by Wise and Jackson, through banally emphatic cgi. He also cites The Innocents, Jack Clayton’s 1961 adaptation of Henry James’ novella, in which a piano is played by an invisible hand in an empty room, with whispering voices and spectral mocking laughter assailing the troubled protagonist. The sound design here was carefully fashioned by Daphne Oram, one of the founders of the Radiophonic Workshop. Here on the radio, Toop is content to make use of a more familiar example, Hitchcock’s Psycho, in order that the shrieking strings of Bernard Herrmann’s score can be played. These alarming stabs are perhaps the best known and certainly amongst the most effective musical expressions of sudden terror. Toop keeps out of the shower, however, and instead refers to the scene in which Martin Balsam’s detective slowly climbs the stairs in the old house before being attacked by Norman’s ‘mother’. Marcus Leadley, a sound researcher, identifies high and low end sounds as being the most effective in inducing fear, with deep rumbling undertones building a sense of undefined, amorphous dread and an anticipation of impending terror, whose eventual emergence may be signified by the sudden leap into the upper register – the harsh, treble pitch of the scream. Both ends of the spectrum affect the body physically, sounds passing through flesh and bone to be felt viscerally.
There are some fascinating insights into the physical origins of human fear impulses revealed by the neuroscientist Sophie Scott. It is the old attic rooms of the brain which deal with fear; the amygdala, part of the ancient lizard core. This is also the centre from which anger and rage radiate. Most fear triggers and responses appear to be innate, a basic set of emotions which are universal across cultures and even across species. The sounds which convey disgust, terror or sudden shock remain essentially the same across the animal kingdom. As Mark Cousins observed in his Story of Film series (when talking about the advent of the horror movie), no emotion affects us more directly or primally than fear. Toop talks of sound being apprehended on an instantaneous and instinctive level before rational understanding has the time to process the information (or before the imagination toys with it). He cites a personal example of having heard a ‘cartoon monkey chant’ like that of the Balinese Kecak chorus in the middle of the night. It was only upon further bleary investigation that he divined its true origins to lie in a fight between two London foxes. The prosaic dispelled the exotic creations of an aurally stimulated mind, unknown sounds sparking personal associations and dream images.
Louis Niebur, a professor of musicology at the University of Nevada and author of the book Special Sound: The Creation and Legacy of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop is on hand to talk about the otherworldly quality which much electronic music used to possess (and continues to in some quarters). He points to this stemming from the sounds having no identifiable grounding in the world of physical materiality. Their origins are thus open to imaginative interpretation, and the imagination tends to approach the unknown with a certain amount of trepidation, if not outright fear. The media history professor David Hendy talks about the early days of radio, with its disembodied voices carried across the airwaves. Its development coincided with the post war period in which there was a widespread need to believe in a continuity of being beyond death, so many bodies having disappeared without trace beneath the mud of the Western European battlefields. Sir Oliver Lodge, a pioneer of early radio invention and discovery, about whom Hendy has written, was also a keen believer in psychic phenomena, and was president of The Society for Psychical Research from 1901-1903, and a member, alongside Arthur Conan Doyle, of the Ghost Club. As well as numerous scientific works with titles like The Ether of Space and Life and Matter, he also wrote about spiritualism. In particular, he detailed the contacts he believed he had made with his son Raymond, killed in the war, through various mediums in the heartbreaking book Raymond, or Life and Death (1916). Perhaps he heard the voices of the dead in the sea of static and the aetheric wind whistling between stations, the aural equivalent of pattern recognition which leads us to see a face on the moon or in the grain of a wooden table surface. David Toop also writes about Electronic Voice Production, which pseudo-scientifically holds out he hope that the voices of the dead can be captured on tape. Californian author Tim Powers literalises this figure of speech in his novel Expiration Date, in which ghosts are captured by an elaboration of Edison’s early recording equipment (Edison’s ghost is itself a character in the story) by the predatory living who consume their essence in an attempt to achieve immortality. Toop talks about the impermanent nature of sound, its short-lived existence in time, as imbuing it with an inherent sense of loss, of disappearance and fading memory, and ultimately of death. This leads to the idea that the ultimate sound of fear is in fact the absence of sound. The well-known anecdote about John Cage’s 1951 visit to an anechoic chamber, a room which eliminates all sound, is retold. As all external sound was removed, Cage expected to experience total silence. Instead he heard a high pitched whine and a low, steady hum. When he asked about these sounds, he was told that he was listening to his nervous system and the circulation of his blood. The true sound of silence is the sound of death. Life is sound, so lend an ear and make a merry clangour.