of "The Key of Sounds"

Jean-Claude Risset

English translation by Roberta Prada

Here is an ambitious work about sound. A rarity.

Sound has been ignored by our civilization. The printed word, television, photocopy: the visual obliterates sound. The image is king. Image designs, describes, fascinates. Instantaneous, synthetic, understood in a single glance. With sound, we must be ready to listen, to lend an ear. Sound has duration: to understand it you need time. Time, a luxury for man today, man in a hurry.

Sound is often diluted in the surroundings. Over numerous radios, in the supermarkets, the airports, a warm bath, a functional sound: music becomes Muzak. Or it becomes a by-product, waste. Pollution. Ephemeral of course, but invasive. Silence too is a luxury.

Recordings and electricity have changed our relationship to sound: happily, sometimes for the better. Verba volent, scripta manent, goes the old Latin proverb (words fly away, writings remain). Today it no longer applies. Today we have at our disposal the most diverse collection of recordings: sounds of nature, animals, music from other times, other civilizations. Sound is no longer the audible trace of vibrations from visible, physical, identifiable objects. Electric and electromagnetic devices, and more recently the computer, tailored by Max Mathews to calculate sounds, open up unprecedented possibilities. John Chowning and I myself have contributed to develop them with our research and our music: no longer content with preexisting sounds, we have composed the sound itself, sculpting, drawing it out, coloring it, shaping, and even forming it as we deliver it; creating paradoxes, auditory illusions, sensory errors, perceptual truths”, as the physiologist Purkinje says; to play on the sensory strings of the auditory mechanisms to create sounds that seem to be familiar, but are different because they escape mechanical constraints; to suggest virtual sound environments that evoke an imaginary, nonmaterial universe through sound. We can live the acoustic experience in completely new ways, as the composer Francois Bayle says.

But images leap into view when we hear something. We dedicate more effort, more time, more research, more money, to the visual, than to sound. We have reached the point of absurdity, as when Frank Lloyd Wright chose a form for a concert hall that was absolutely the contrary of what was needed for the acoustics. The cases of vinyl records cost more than the discs themselves. In the theater or ballet, lighting is exquisitely calibrated, but the sound system more often than not is a disaster, the sound is distorted, or too loud, or both. Sound is not known or misunderstood, that which is known is too diffuse, and too much reliant on sporadic efforts. Pierre Schaeffer, a radio personality, has proposed concrete music and a solfege of the sound object. Claude Levi-Strauss has insisted it is urgent to collect sound samples of civilizations that are on the way to extinction. The Canadian composer, Murray Schaeffer, has advocated for half a century an auditory ecology, and a defense of our sound heritage: some institutions have shown concern, such as UNESCO and Simon-Fraser University in Vancouver. In France, the New Spaces Association has begun the study of sound design as well as sound design in architecture and the urban environment. Emile Leipp has attempted to reconcile academic acoustical science with the complex reality of music. And Alfred Tomatis, to whom we shall return, has founded his therapeutic practice on music.

Psychiatrist Bernard Auriol works in the same field. His work is invaluable: he writes of his experience and his reflections, and relates various aspects of the world of sound to that of the human being and to its profundities.

Because listening is the generative experience. Before we can see, before we are born, we hear. And sound plays a vital role. Of warning. Of marking out territory or a mating cry in animals. Sound surrounds, envelops, penetrates - the ear has no eyelids. Sound connects, from the Latin: religare. Someone who loses sight becomes more dependent, but less isolated than one who loses hearing. The composer André Jolivet likes to remind us that music has it ancestral source in the magical expression of religiosity in human groups.

Sound can be incantations, singing, charm, enchantment. Music.

And certainly sound is a vehicle for words that privileged form of human communication. The Greek democratic city-state could not exceed a certain size, so that every citizen could hear the orators debate public matters in the public square. Pythagoras spoke from behind a curtain: if I listen badly, I understand nothing. On the radio, Hitler fascinated his audiences: according to McLuhan, his image on television would have deflated him like a windbag.

The work of Bernard Auriol has much to say about sound. It is not encyclopedic, but it brings together information from diverse disciplines. He dares hypotheses but without hiding behind a mantle of authority. Doctor Auriol is a clinician, a therapist, and his job is to alleviate psychic suffering. But his practice is accompanied by constant research and evaluation. He has already written an Introduction to Methods of Relaxation, which orients the reader to various methods of reaching the state of paradoxical awareness. In the present volume he describes the methods of treatment that modify hearing by electronic means: the alteration of directionality, of volume, calling to question the sound universe can help unmake habits, blockages.

The sonic treatments of the pioneer, Alfred Tomatis, mentioned above, a controversial and even criticized figure, never suffered doubt (this is not the case with Bernard Auriol), even though some of his premises appear quite controversial. But Tomatis also has numerous enthusiasts: and nothing can take away from him the great merit of having made us remember with great eloquence the forgotten ear.

My own research has to do with music and sounds: I do not pretend to give a profound judgment on the theories and psychiatric practices and therapies envisaged in Bernard Auriol’s book. The hypothesis of a listening posture that can induce auditory deficit intrigues me. Its premises seemed to me quite problematic, but then physiologists were able to confirm quite recently in fact, that the active mechanism of the cochlea can, upon an order from the brain, cause the muscles to increase selectivity in this or that region of frequencies.

But you do not need to be a specialist to be interested in the key to sound, in its interpretations, its stimulating, original points of view. The proximity of the organs of hearing and balance are evoked in two inseparable arts: music, the movement of sounds, and dance, the movement of the body. Philosophy is something; but music, music, sir, music· Music and dance are everything that is necessary· Music and dance, that is all one needs. Later, Bernard Auriol suggests that the pleasure of music to listen and to play have their source in prenatal life: the revival of sounds and movements born in blindness. Surely music brings together pulse and organization, spontaneity and discourse: each kind of music has its grammar. We must remember that the Viennese musicologist Heinrich Schenker, by analyzing tonal music, came up with the concept of a deep structure of generative grammar fifty years before Noam Chomsky. To the image of music, spoken myths according to Levi-Strauss, the unconscious according to Lacan, are structured just like language and also dance, that has vocabulary, grammar, and in certain cases double articulations.

Who does not honor music does not deserve to see the light of day, Ronsard (the poet) has said. We can speculate endlessly on the hold that music has over us, the jubilation at hearing it free, delicate pleasure of a useless occupation (Henri de Régnier). According to Leibniz, music is a secret calculation that the soul makes instinctively. Susan Langer remarks on the analogy between perceptive movements set in motion by music, and the movements of the spirit. For the theoretician Leonard Meyer, the primary experience of music is a dialectic of fulfilled or disappointed expectations; the disposition of the listener can emphasize the cerebral, sensory, emotional or connotative, the calculation of proportions, sounds and colors, archaic movements and archetypes, or extra-musical references. For many, among whom is the composer Luciano Berio, music speaks to us of our condition, our place in the world, of what transcends us. The music play seems to be situated at the frontier between order and chaos, at the same time surprise and to mould for what is to come; it perhaps puts in relief, as Bernard Auriol suggests, the socialized sonic rites of unconscious memories from the dawn of our existence. The musical phenomenon functions often, despite considerable differences between listeners, their past, their hearing, doubtless appeals to a common basis of shared subjectivity.

These are nothing but speculations. No better than anyone else do I know what music is. But often I am sure that there is music. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder: this Arab proverb too, forgets the ear. Even the least free, the most functional animal emissions can be music. One of my most vivid memories: in these Australian forest there were a thousand virtuosic sound motifs, and intoxicating chains of melody uttered by a lyre bird, enchanted, carried away, insatiable for his own sound. Indifference of the female, witness to this procession of sound, nevertheless an unforgettable memory of an ephemeral creation. But is it art? In any case, an intense musical experience. According to the composer Francois-Bernard Mâche, the music of the twentieth century seeks laboriously to make a connection between living universal myths, a new world of sounds created by humans, and the immemorial sounds of nature.

The book of Bernard Auriol invokes myths, ancestral archetypes ö Echo and Narcissus ö as well as new techniques without which the therapies he describes could not have come into being. The connecting thread: the key to sound, listening.

Listening. A way to touch from a distance, exquisite sensibility. Bernard Auriol reminds us, we can perceive tenuous vibrations that displace the tympanic membrane by increments smaller than a hydrogen atom. We must be attentive to preserve the delicate structures of the ear. And hearing, an active process, as stated at the beginning of the book, accomplishes the prodigious work of unraveling a sonic magma and extracting incredibly precise and differentiated information. What machine could distinguish between two sounds arriving at the ear with the same volume, say fifty decibels, for example, and discern that one sound came from a strong and distant source, and the other from a source that is closer and softer. And yet this is a distinction that we make all the time. Hearing constantly makes inquiries that permit us to distinguish the source of multiple sounds, simultaneous or successive, to assign their provenance from different sources, to evaluate their positions, to visualize the size of their sources, to infer the modes of sound production. A tour de force if we realize that each ear receives only variations of pressure, very slim information. The psychologist Alfred Bregman proposes a clarifying analogy: by watching two corks bobbing at the edge of a lake, according to the waves arising at the surface, wouldn’t it be an extraordinary feat to be able to deduce the position and movements of fishes or other beings under the water, solely by observing the waves?

Allow me to invoke several soundscapes I have lived, that signify for me the simple marvels of sound and the subtlety of acousmatic hearing from invisible sources. At Treburden, in Brittany, behind a gorse hedge, the pervasive sounds of a calm sea ö thousands of bubbles of foam breaking on the sand. In the Malaysian jungle, you can see no further than your arm, but all around, above, below, near and far, you can discern crackles, brushings, gratings. glidings. In the Black Forest, one autumn day, a more reassuring world of sound, incredibly legible in its subtlety: the rustling of leaves more or less dry, the whispering of the breeze, drumming of woodpeckers, whistles of songbirds, and very far away, a plane - intermingling without obstruction, as in zen bhuddism. And finally near Marseille: in the suffocation of summer, at the bottom of a hillside path that opens to creek of Sugiton, the many impenetrable buzzings of bees, and the microscopic explosions of seed in the heat. And as one goes up the slope, a profound sound appears, wide, deep, but tiny, nearly inaudible, like a giant foghorn coming from far away: before descending to the frontiers of silence, the sounds of the neighboring city, forgotten, repressed, no longer appeared on the surface of consciousness.

Hearing and its abysses. This luxuriant book risks it. Reader, look to hearing, by reading, experience this immersion!

Jean-Claude Risset

English translation by Roberta Prada
approved by J.C. Risset


Psychosonique Yogathérapie Psychanalyse & Psychothérapie Dynamique des groupes Eléments Personnels

© Copyright Bernard AURIOL (email : )

December, 6, 2007