Virtual Voices: Ghost Riders in the Sky

Photo-Essay by Nigel Helyer

What I wish to address in this essay is the quasi-magical set of relationships woven between electricity, sound, the body and the environment. As a part-time sceptic I don't really want to enter too deeply into the realm of the para-normal. Rather, I would prefer to pursue a direction in which sound - and in particular the voice - is regarded as "fantastical" or "magical" in its prosaic embodiment in technology.

However, here are two related concepts that place sound as a likely, para-phenomenal, suspect: Acousmatics and Schizophonia.

Acousmatics: from the Greek Akousma , "what is heard".

An Imaginary sound, or a sound of which the cause is not seen.

Acousmatics has its origins with Pythagoras (6th century BC) who delivered his oral teachings from behind a curtain in order to prevent his physical presence distracting his students. This technique granted them a pure focus on the content of his words.

Acousmatique was employed by the poet Jérôme Peignot in 1955, at the beginning of musique concrète, as an adjective, meaning a sound that we can hear without knowing its cause, and to designate the distance that separates a sound from its origins, by obscuring, behind the impassivity of the loudspeaker, any visual elements that may be associated with it.

Franois Bayle introduced the expression Acousmatic Music in the early 1970s, to denote a specific kind of music, as an art of projected sounds which is shot and developed in the studio, projected in halls, like cinema.

Acousmatics seems to share a basic trope with the psycho-acoustic and de-territorialising mechanisms employed by all forms of sound reproduction: the fundamental disassociation of a sound from its physical source and referent.

This phenomenon was to be obsessively enshrined in the late 19th century as the fracture of the voice from its fleshy origin via the medium of mechanical, and later, electronic recording. This produced, in Murray Schafer's term, Schizophonia. (Schafer, 1980, The Tuning of the World).

Ironically, although these terms are closely associated with recorded sounds they can apply equally to natural audio phenomena, those sounds deep in the night forest, beyond vision.

In the His Masters Voice logo the obedient canine subject is depicted as an audience (of one) peering attentively, sniffing inquisitively with ears pricked to attention. The relationship between dog and megaphone characterises the modus operandi of all subsequent broadcast media and most audio technology.

The exponential horn doubles as both a musical instrument and the loudspeaker of massed rallies carrying an entwined message - entertainment camouflaging the voice of authority.

This image not only fixes the auditor/viewer in the confined 'sweet spot' of a one-point perspective (a powerful visual trope after all). Quite literally HMV locates the source of the 'Master Voice' within the device of the Gramophone - coalescing Power, Sound and Technology.

"Without the loudspeaker we would have never conquered Germany" Hitler in the Manual of German Radio 1937.

The voice (and in fact all bodily sounds) have been systematically wrenched from their organic context to be housed within the mechanical.

Thomas Edison - the hard-nosed Yankee technologist - conceptualised the cylinder recorder as a device for recording the voices of relatives, to establish, in effect, an archive of disembodied messages, which would be reviewed as memento-mori. Edison who was also a noted Theosophist and keen follower of the Spiritualist movement, spent his last years attempting to construct a machine, the 'psychic telephone', which would establish verbal contact with the dead.

He even suggested that it would probably be the spirit world which would initiate communication with the living via radio waves.

Whilst the strong association between spiritualism and early technological development is not surprising, the contemporary popularity of EVP (Electrical Voice Phenomena) is.

EVP has been best explained by Dr. Konstantin Raudive, who postulated that since tape recorders utilise a small electromagnet to imprint sound on a magnetically sensitive medium, the subtle electrical and electromagnetic signatures of spirits could in fact also imprint the tape directly and leave a "recording" of a spirit's voice.

There is a somewhat grisly corollary to Edison's desire to link technology to the life beyond. Edison might be best characterised as a pragmatist, an energetic entrepreneur, but not a philosopher. In effect he relied upon the remarkable intellect of Nicolai Tesla to solve many of the technological and mathematical problems which were out of his scope.

Tesla was, by contrast, theoretically brilliant but naive in his business dealings (especially those with Edison!).

The final outcome of this latter day inquisition was ironic. As we all know alternating current was accepted as the most efficient form of power but the US government adopted the Electric chair as a 'modern and efficient' form of capital punishment. The New York State "Electrical Execution Law" was passed in 1885 with the first execution taking place in 1890 - by all accounts a horribly botched job!

Edison it seems, not only embraced the idea of communicating with the dead via the medium of electricity; he used electricity to assist people on their inevitable journey to the life beyond.

The origin of such 'electrification' of the body and soul, lies with the early experiments of Galvini who demonstrated the electrical functioning of the nervous and muscular system by re-animating the severed limbs of frogs.

Duchenne de Boulogne made lengthy studies of the relationship between muscular contraction (principally facial) and expressed emotion, via a process he termed 'faradism,' in which electrical stimuli were applied directly to the skin. Duchenne practiced this technique on both the bodies of his patients and upon still-malleable cadavers. It is noteworthy that he established a comprehensive photographic archive of his Electro-Physiologie Photographique in order to isolate and classify these muscular reactions.

It was a dreary night of November, that I beheld the accomplishment of my toils. With an anxiety that almost amounted to agony, I collected the instruments of life around me, that I might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my the glimmer of the half extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs.

Mary Shelly, Frankenstein, 1818.

Ever since Mary Shelly's precocious novel (she was only 19 at the time) the metaphorical relationship between life and electricity has become standard fare, especially in cinema. Filmic science-fiction narratives further associate the body as the subject of technology and volunteer the flesh to a process of 'mineralisation' and hybridisation.

Virtual Voices

For some years I have been developing Virtual Audio Reality and Augmented Audio Reality systems in conjunction with Lake Technology, and the University of New South Wales (Sydney). The salient feature of my "Sonic Landscapes" project is the juxtaposition of a fictive (but very convincing) 3D immersive sound-scape, accurately positioned by a cartographic software, upon a physical terrain.

The effect is somewhat akin to Murray Schafer's Schizophonia, in which, by the simple act of recording, sound is split from its original physical context and projected into another.

However, here we are not simply dealing with the disembodied voices of popular music reproduced and re-contextualised. Here we are engaging with a seemingly live sonic organism that is responsive to our presence, our orientation and the traces of our wanderings.

Even more to the point was the coincidental choice of a test site for the prototype project. Over a period of six months I used the St Stephens graveyard in Newtown; one of Sydney's oldest burial grounds which was conveniently near my home. The project was demonstrated many times to prospective co-developers and research partners and the soundscape was continually modified and refined so that individual grave markers could speak their legends and statues read poetry.

But here it gets interesting from another perspective. Now as I walk past the overgrown churchyard, I look in and expect to hear the sounds, as they hover above the grave markers and the carved sandstone monuments; for me at least the graveyard is alive!

What is it that we encounter in such contemporary virtual reality systems?

Something between the emergence of the spirit realm and the disappearance of corporeality. Perhaps we are once again close to the original fracture, in which the voice was drawn from the body and captured in the machine, to hover ghost-like and yearning to communicate.

It seems that the VAPA system described above holds captive an incorporeal intelligence. A genie bound to architecture, lingering as a memory, sensitive to our moods - all of this would have been rather familiar to Edison.

Talking Heads - The Body and Architecture

Oracles abound, both historically and in fictional space - many are the subject of cynical remarks from those suspicious as to their authenticity. We only have to think of Dorothy's encounter with the Wizard of Oz and the surprise after Toto unveils him to be nothing more than a flustered little old man, speaking from behind an impressive stage set. The essential ingredients are all here: the voice assuming power, transmitted via an Architectural device, and claiming an authority over the future.

In Finland, some very rational, but not necessarily always sober, astro-physicists are based at the Sedunkula Radio Telescope.

Here we pass from the body electric to the electrical nature of Mother earth. The scientists of the Northern Lights Research Station at Sedunkula have discovered some interesting relationships between human activity and the magnetosphere.

The Aurora Borealis is a listener. It seems that the magnetosphere has the capacity to act as a giant antennae which receives and re-modulates radio broadcasts, which are then re-broadcast in a type of global Gaia-Mix.

All the audio recordings to date indicate that the magnetosphere favours classical music and jazz, but seems to ignore pop music and sports commentaries.

A second phenomenon has been labelled the "Weekend" effect, as measurements have clearly shown that the formation and level of Northern Lights activity differs markedly from weekdays to weekends, due to the change in electromagnetic pollution we as a species pump into the atmosphere.

Rather like the cosmonauts in Solaris, we have established contact?

The Proscenium Arch and the Feelies

Naturally the best place to look for the truth is within the dreamworld of Cinema.

"The eye is the master, the ear a slave" so at least would Jakob Grimm and the histories of Radio, Cinema and Television have us believe. All of these media (even radio) borrow visual devices to frame the perspective of their audiences who lurk passively on the other side of a virtual proscenium arch (peering attentively, chewing incessantly and with ears pricked to attention).

Cinema, when it is not totally absorbed in and distracted by musicalised narratives, has more recently sought to invoke the kinaesthetic power of sound by the introduction of dynamic and immersive sound effects. These have been achieved primarily via the medium of vibration - a topic hinted at in Huxley's Brave New World where audience members at the 'feelies' were required to grasp brass knobs located on the arms of their cinema seats in order to experience the tactile dimension of the narrative. The other mechanism is cinema's (rather half hearted) attempt to immerse the audience in surround-sound, and we have all had to endure bullets ricocheting off the rear walls of the cinema.

Such "low-end" sound (read tremor, read terror) is principally restricted to the disaster/action movie genre - the likes of Towering Inferno or Twister. The initial approach of T-rex in Jurassic Park was heralded by the quivering surface of water - an ironic double play where a visual image predicts a sound image, which in turn announces a moving mass (with bad suspension and worse manners). More recently we have experienced ? or endured - the vibrational footprints of (size does matter) Godzilla. Again audio is employed as a portent of evil, harbinger of a doom so overwhelming that mere visuals cannot express the sense of omnipotence - it is required that we are not simply moved - but literally shaken!

Sound is now being discharged into the auditorium in a manner reminiscent of the early days of Cinema where, it is reputed, crowds fled the oncoming image of Steam Locomotives - only now we have learnt to sit tight and quake slightly.

For me there is one remarkable cinematic occasion which combines sound, vibration and radiation in a perfectly coherent manner. In the closing sequence of Tarkovsky's film Stalker three modes of sonic vibration are represented simultaneously. The young crippled girl "Monkey" sits silently at a table, her face laid upon its surface and her gaze fixed upon a drinking glass. Outside a freight train rumbles through the industrial wasteland shaking the entire room, which is simultaneously bathed in symphonic music as Monkey projects telekinetic frequencies to propel the glass toward the edge of the table. Are these different things? Perhaps not?

The Shadow of Your Smile...

Theoretical papers often quote Plato's Cave - such a nice primitive dawn of consciousness, image really, with its shadowy representations flickering sootily across the cave's rear wall and the line of onlookers warming their backs by the fire. Strangely there is very scant mention of the crackle of burning wood, or the sounds of those protagonists prancing around the flames; nor of the perfectly formed sound reflections returning from the cave's surfaces. In fact we can safely assume that the 'captive audience' seated in the cave would have understood significantly more from their audio environment than from the low-tech visuals.

From Classical simulacra to contemporary VR caves there is strangely little shift in such visual dominance, or should we call it a blindness to sound? Despite a technological history in which audio invention has consistently preceded that of the visual, the 'synthetic' eye has it over the 'analytic' ear in the worlds of representation and reproduction.

Audiences are still, by and large, held 'captive' (even if they are not captivated) by the simple monoscopic eye of cinema. Despite the recent attempts to 'surround' the viewer in sound, the demands on audio are to provide an equally reductive reality. VR experiences have swallowed the cinematic paradigm, fixating upon a zombie-like state in which a static participant 'drifts' through a moving virtual world (a dolly shot). All the spatial and contextual cues provided by sound are generally absent - in fact a visit to a large anechoic chamber is a much more disturbing VR experience as it reveals, by subtraction, the enormity and complexity of the sonic domain we inhabit.

Some issues which have arisen out of my Audio VR projects, concern the means by which the enormity and complexity of the aural can be delivered to contemporary forms of representation and experience.

How might we begin to develop forms of sound manipulation and composition which operate intuitively in real space and in real time? How might we escape the constraints imposed by the conventions of pictorial perspective and leave behind those evil agents, the screen and keyboard?

These are huge challenges, in conceptual, technical and economic terms, but ones which will inevitably be met.

To conclude, one final (and hopefully uplifting) thought. Thankfully when one exits the Cinema, vibrating to Godzilla's subterranean 'sounds of doom' we are still able to engage with real architectural spaces, some of which retain the perceptual mindsets of our ancestors. Try out any Cathedral as a counterpoint to 5.1 Audio gunfight sound effects - and consider the notion that Omniscience as a state of knowledge is founded upon Omnipresence. Cathedrals may have very specific line of sight visual foci but they are acoustically immersive environments; I guess that after all Heaven is made of Reverb?


Schafer, R. Murray. 1980. The Tuning of the World: Toward A Theory of Soundscape Design . Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.