"I think it's my lack of concentration and focus that makes me want to go deeper into a specific sound. A stripped and persisting sound forces me into it—there's no escape!" – Carl Michael von Hausswolff, 2006 interview with Belsona Strategic
Body-mapping Montréal with the help of military sonar
The internationally renowned electronic music festival MUTEK has come and gone here in Montréal, and I had the opportunity to attend a concert Saturday night. The early evening show featured Vladislav Delay, Carl Michael von Hausswolff, Tim Hecker, and Ben Frost, and there were many, many highlights. Vladislav Delay’s opening set burst and rolled with precision stabs of tweaked percussion, like a 5-dimensional car-assembly plant triggering robotic tectonic plates somewhere deep beneath the venue, and Tim Hecker’s beautiful white curtains of sound crested tidally from surge to melodic drone.
The least musically impressive set of the night, however, seemed to belonged to Carl Michael von Hausswolff—but, life being full of ironies, it was actually von Hausswolff’s set that has struck with me the longest and that has, one week later, proved to be the most thought-provoking.
Ostensibly nothing more than a half-hour of ceaseless rumbling bass and tinnitus-inducing high-pitched squeals, von Hausswolff’s performance was less music in any real sense of the word than a technical workout of the venue’s sound system, as if an engineer had somehow snuck onstage to put the equipment through its paces.
The speaker cones seemed ready to explode and the tweeters were on the verge of failure; but then the focus began to change. Speaking only for myself here, the catastrophic wall of absolute sound worked its way down into the human bodies in attendance. My nose began trembling with every inhale; my chest began to flutter; and not just a few times did I feel as if my heart had been rhythmically confused by this new, overwhelming presence of bass to the point that it was trying to keep up with a beat that was not its own.
It occurred to me, then, that you could quite easily cause a heart attack in someone using nothing but sound—and more than once I remembered a condition called pneumothorax, in which, as the BBC writes, "Loud music can do more than damage your hearing—it can also cause your lungs to collapse."
Indeed, we read the disconcerting story of “a 23-year-old non-smoker” who “experienced a collapsed lung while attending a pop concert, where he was standing quietly near to several large loud speakers.” Another man “was driving when he experienced a pneumothorax, characterised by breathlessness and chest pain,” and, somewhat amusingly, his doctors suggested it was due to the “1,000 watt ‘bass box’ fitted to his car to boost the power of his stereo.”
I thus only half-jokingly expected to see people all around me falling over in a state of acoustically induced suffocation, and I imagined bold-type headlines the next day claiming that an avant-garde European sound artist had inadvertently—or perhaps on purpose—killed an entire warehouse-sized room full of French-speaking electronic music fans when he made the ill-considered decision to burnish sonic weaponry of an unknown origin during his live set.
Sound, after all, can be weaponized, even used for the purposes of military interrogation, and it’s well within the pale of reasonable speculation to imagine that, someday, a misguided band, DJ, or even sidewalk busker will make the mistake of deploying physically incapacitating sonic weapons in the midst of what should have been a survivable concert. Indeed, was not Futurist composer Luigi Russolo risking just such a thing when he invented his intonarumori?
But all of this became substantially more interesting to me later that evening with the belated discovery that Carl Michael von Hausswolff—an artist with whom I had not otherwise been familiar—has actually all along been using military radar and sonar equipment in his musical productions. We were being radared, you might say, our bodies vibro-acoustically probed by thirty minutes of embodied sound. As von Hausswolff explained in a 2006 interview with Belsona Strategic, “I think it’s my lack of concentration and focus that makes me want to go deeper into a specific sound. A stripped and persisting sound forces me into it—there’s no escape!”
No escape, indeed. Again, I found myself thinking of possible acoustic injuries—for instance, of the unfortunate whales who have had their brains literally crushed by the sonic pressures of deepwater naval sonar tests. As the Natural Resources Defense Council informs us, “Naval sonar has been shown to disrupt feeding and other vital behavior and to cause a wide range of species to panic and flee. Scientists are concerned about the cumulative effect of all of these impacts on marine animals.” Indeed, “Many of these beached whales [found in the vicinity of naval sonar tests] have suffered physical trauma, including bleeding around the brain, ears and other tissues and large bubbles in their organs.” If this didn’t risk trivializing these examples, I might say that they’d encountered a mobile Carl Michael von Hausswolff concert at sea.
Von Hausswolff’s radar-testing of his audience becomes yet more interesting after a quick look through his back-catalog: his previous albums and other artworks are explicitly architectural, spatial and landscape-based. There are his films with Thomas Nordanstad, for instance, one of which explores the landscape of Japan’s abandoned Gunkanjima Island. “Through a series of captivating still shots, overlaid with a deep sonics of drones and small tonalities,” the distributor writes, “the film captures the island and its haunting history as told through the slow decay of buildings.”
Von Hausswolff’s album Topophonic Models, meanwhile, comes with track titles such as “Empty Oilfield,” “Delta Overview,” “Distant Skyline,” and the perhaps overly Deleuzian “Horizon/Plateaux.” These are all “short pieces aiming to function as an audiographic tableaux describing various dystopical and distant contemporary geocivilian sites, such as an airfield, an oil field etc.” They are like soundtracks for the Center for Land Use Interpretation. Then there is the sonic work composed for von Hausswolff’s speculative micronation of Elgaland~Vargaland, called Echoes from the Foreshore (specifically, a track called “Music for gates, doors, doorways, beginnings and endings”).
Yet, for all that, I can’t help but think back to the intensely physical experience of being exposed to sonar, radar, or whatever other equipment it was that von Hausswolff had been using up there on stage. The idea of this new class of intonarumori, normally used for deep soundings of the benthic seas or for the detection of airborne invasion, being repurposed as an instrument for public concerts, is extraordinary—and, in a literal sense, quite breathtaking.