Unsound: Undead

Unsound: Undead
by Steve Goodman, Toby Heys, Eleni Ikoniadou, Editors

Urbanomic Media Ltd., Falmouth, UK, 2019
312 pp. Paper, £20
ISBN: 1-9164052-1-9.

Reviewed by
Brian Reffin Smith
November 2019

When I was a kid, I used to dip into some old encyclopaedias. I wasn't sure why they were so fascinating: They were old fashioned, from the 1920s, I think, with uncontrasty, monochrome photos touched up with pencil, a mixture of Grimm fairy tales, sci-fi battleships prised from the sea with sticky light beams from what we'd now call lasers, and diagrammes of coal mines. But it must have been the joy of seeing that there was more in the world than I'd known that kept me reading, the excitement of making connections, fitting "new", albeit old, information into my model of the world. The problem of reviewing a book like this is that one has to read it more or less right through, and I don't think many people would read it like that. Like many collections of individual papers or chapters, it's a book to be dipped into in a non-linear way.

At first glance, Audint — Unsound : Undead, is a most curious collection, though well worth perusing. Some is rigorous, important, academic and artwork, some is rather exploratory, or to be honest clearly made up. It consists of a funny introduction followed by 64 short papers on "how unsound serves to activate the dead". They range from the use of forensic acoustics to extreme wired- and weird-ness. Interesting stuff, no? It attracts one to read it, dip into it and then think about it, just as I did with my faded, blue encyclopaedias. Indeed acoustic levitation and ultra-sonic pressure fields are not so far from the old battleship scenarios. Perhaps deliberately, the fantastical is woven with the concrete in a way that makes one question everything. Which I suppose is not bad, these days.

The introduction defines Unsound as the extension of sound into realms of the imperceptible, or the no longer or not yet audible. The Undead goes from the sonic torture of detainees to sufferers of Cotard's syndrome, who may believe that they are dead, via the AI-provoked realisation that humans are not the center of things anymore, if ever we were. Connecting the two concepts is the perhaps slightly dodgy assertion that "ever since the invention of modern recording and communications technologies (such as the phonograph and telephone) humans have been captivated by the potential of vibration to fabricate aberrant zones of transmission between the realms of the living and the dead". I say "dodgy" just because, as the book itself shows, such fascination existed well before Edison promoted the phonograph as enabling posthumous contact, as it were, by the recording of famous, or ordinary, last words. And across history, any and all means of transport of ideas or people have had the supernatural imposed upon them. Walls have spoken, ghosts inhabit buses, trains and their tunnels. To misquote the Poet Laureate Alfred Austin from his 1871 poem "On the illness of the Prince of Wales": “Across the wires the electric message came... and we are no better, we are much the same.” Warning or merely irritating whispers picked up from digital as well as analogue equipment, though you'd think the former would be more difficult for the barely-there to infiltrate. There is however a popular video going the rounds showing a preacher in ecstatic mid-flow of "speaking in tongues" pausing to consult his smartphone, his voice changing from gobbledygook to a continuous mmmmm sound, as if he'd put the actual holy ventriloquism on hold whilst consulting the more direct SMS from god, or someone, on his phone. His scintillating waveforms collapsed into the banal, though it's often the other way round is it not?

The book wants to unsettle the binary constructs of presence/non-presence, entertainment/torture, audibility/non-audibility and life/death. The sonic nurtures new dimensions in which the real and the fictional interweave, where real, if inaudible, sonic events are coextensive with utter oddities, and where the unsound serves to summon the undead. The metaphysical swerves into the pataphysical, replete with imaginary solutions to impossible problems.

Here you will learn of the hiccup as demonic utterance, an amputated ear as part of a recording mechanism and, terribly, the 19db drop in the volume of whispers of earlier and later victims in a Syrian prison as punishment-torture for making any sound got more severe. Following topics involve the silence of the Sirens, the differences between glossolalia (speaking in the aforementioned tongues) and xenoglossia (speaking fluently in a language you never learned), hypersonic sound (projected audio 'hitching a ride' on ultrasound, perceived as coming from inside the listener's head), the lament, the bloop, the hum...

And onwards with alligators, covert acoustics directed at diplomats and all manner of audio intrusion, gramophonics and skull-phonography, Rilke's needling/noodling with a stylus over cranial sutures, back-masking (hidden messages revealed if records or even films are played backwards, usually demonic of course), visual microphones, the Great Seal that listened, passively hence undetectably, to conversations in the American embassy in Moscow, the Hadron collider as underground groove... Requiems, revivals, Afrofuturist music, rapparitions (sic), Glen Gould and the undead, Japanese broadcaster conspiracies, sonicity in Purgatory... truly one begins to fear the pre-echoes of Cotard Syndrome depersonalisation if one thinks about this all too much. And yet you're drawn in further... to encrypted audio delusions, invocations, call signs, archeoacoustics, a medium making merry with Martians, the devil's tritone in music from Bach to heavy metal via Stravinsky and Thelonius Monk, the earworm as sonic 'egregor', an emergent effect rising as an autonomous message from a group of parts, like a voodoo vector or the CIA playing music at opponents... runaway feedback... the sound of sorrow... "the humming and murmuring of the uncircumscribable"... frequency based weapons, the ghost army... acoustic shocks, ghost tapes, coagulations, distintegrations... sonic force and torture (Noriega, Joshua and the walls of Jericho). Music from holographic dead rappers.  Post-acoustic trauma. What a book.

n space, they say, no one can hear you scream. That hardly seems to matter now. I can't help thinking that in a post-truth world, which we are clearly already deep inside, with liars contradicting other liars and themselves, histories, inventories and probings-into Unsound and its analogies (Unseeing? Unbelieving?) will become of more than sci-fi, artistic or scientific interest. I recently stayed for nearly two hours in the anechoic chamber of the Technical University, Berlin, and did not emerge madder than when I entered. Perhaps that was because I held a Pataphysical seance therein. The absurd as protection from... what, silence? Our own inner voices? Undead world leaders playing our brains like backwards gramophones?