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Category: sound and listening

  1. the weird, the eerie and the sonic

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    In his book the ‘The weird and the eerie’, Mark Fisher discusses what constitutes the ‘weird’ and the ‘eerie’ by analysing a number of novels, movies and records. I think it is a great book, no doubt partly as I enjoy a good sci-fi or fantasy tale.

    As I was re-reading it recently, it struck me that there are overlaps with what Fisher identifies as key aspects of both the weird and the eerie, and key aspects of our experiences of sound and the sonic. This piece is a short outline of a few of those overlaps.


    The Weird

    “ It involves a sense of wrongness; a weird entity or object is so strange that it makes us feel that it should not exist , or at least it should not exist here.”

    (Fisher, p 15)

    Fisher defines the weird and ‘that which does not belong’ - something which elicits the sense of ‘wrongness’ in the quote above. To illustrate this, he discusses the fiction of America author H. P Lovecraft. Lovecraft’s fiction sits somewhere between horror and sci-fi, where what is thought of as the ‘outside’ – ancient and extra-terrestrial beings, other words – breaks through into our world in various ways – through both time and space.  “… there is an interplay, a confrontation, and indeed a conflict between this world and others.” (Fisher p 19)


    Photo by Julia Kadel on Unsplash

    Sound shares some qualities of this ‘other-worldly’ quality, especially when it’s source is un-know or hidden. Think of a horror move, where there is a strange sound in the dark, or a sound you hear late at night, without knowing its source. You cannot be sure, but there is a possibility, a feeling, that this could be something that should not exist, not here and not now. The Weird.  

    In his book 'Sinister resonance - The mediumship of the listener’ David Toop remarks that hearing and listening “…allows us access to a less stable world, omni-directional, always in a state of becoming and receding, known and unknown.” (Toop, 2011, p. 38) Sound opens up the possibility of different worlds, overlaying and existing alongside ours.

    In his 2010 sound installation in Kew Gardens Palm House, sound artist Chris Watson brought the sound of the Amazon to the UK. The sounds of wildlife recorded in the Amazon, when played in the Palm House at Kew Garden, managed to suggest a different world, overlaying and interplaying with our own. This is of course not the weird and frightening worlds imagined by Lovecraft, but still illustrates how sound has the ability to suggest and open up ‘portals’ to other worlds, other experiences – in and out of time, in and out of space - “becoming and receding, known and unknown.” .” (Toop, 2011, p. 38)



    The Eerie


    “The eerie, by contrast, is constituted by a failure of absence or a failure of presence.”

    (Fisher, p 61)


    Photo by El Mehdi Rezkellah on Unsplash

    Fisher distinguishes the eerie from the weird, where the weird is the “presence of that which does not belong” (Fisher p 61) while the eerie is “something present where there sound be nothing, or nothing present where there should be something.”  (Fisher p 61)

    One of the examples Fisher uses to discuss the eerie and the ‘presence where there should be nothing’ is a television series written by Nigel Kneale, called ‘The Stone Tapes’. In it, a group of scientists take residence in a new research facility, working on finding a new, more durable recording medium. It quickly becomes clear that the space is haunted, and that a female scientist in particular is sensitive to the ‘ghost energies.’ It is suggested that the haunting is ‘recorded’ by the place, the stone itself (hence ‘The Stone Tapes’) and that humans becomes the ‘player’ for this recording. The story takes a darker turn when something else, something ancient and dark, stirs beneath the ‘recording’ of the ghost (a servant girl from the 19th century), causing the female scientist to fall to her death, just like the servant girl ghost once did.

    Other than the idea of hauntings can be thought of as ‘recordings’ this might, at first glance, not seem to have much of a connection to sound.

    What I find interesting is how, in imagining the human as a ‘player’ there is a connection to how sound refuses to respect boundaries and barriers – among them our barrier of ‘self’. Famously, the ‘ear has no earlids’ - we can’t shut our ears like we shut our eyes, therefore sound can be very hard to keep on the ‘outside’.

    In 'Sinister resonance - the mediumship of the listener' David Toop writes of sound that the “relative lack of form creates perplexing relationships between the properties of states: inside and outside, material and immaterial, the way thoughts become sound through speech, and external sounds become sensory impressions that may be thoughts as they pass through the ears and outer membranes and into awareness.” (Toop, 2011, p. 36)

    Sound has the ability to haunt us by transgressing what we think of as ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ - sounds pass between these to states effortlessly, and outside our control. The eeriness of the haunting and the eeriness of sound overlap as they both effortlessly penetrates into our inner selves - ‘something where there should be nothing’.


    These examples highlight two aspects of sound I find particularly fascinating - its ability to conjure other/different worlds within or perhaps overlaying our own. And its ability to transgress and cross boundaries, existing entirely outside our control.

    As I am writing this, I keep thinking of other interesting avenues to explore where the weird, eerie and sound intersect, so no doubt this is an area of enquiry I will return to in the future.  

  2. sound, mindfulness and wellbeing

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    I love sound and listening, and I need no encouragement to appreciate sound - I just find it endlessly fascinating. I have, however, been thinking about the connection between sound, listening and mindfulness lately. I decided to do some research on it and write a bit about how sound and listening can be closely connected to mindfulness and mental wellbeing.


    sound therapy

    Sound has an ancient relationship with meditation and healing. Tools and practises such as Australian digeridoos and Tibetan singing bowls have been used for centuries both to heal, in celebrations and ceremonies and to promote wellness- both spiritual and physical. These days, it has become very popular to use ‘sound baths’ for relaxation and meditation. A ‘sound bath’ is where the participants completely immerse themselves in sounds – of gongs, Tibetan singing bowls and bells, for example. There are scientific studies to suggest that these kind of sound therapies do have a measurable effect, and that sound can help to reduce tension, anxiety, even relieve pain.

    "Sound has an ancient relationship with meditation and healing."

    A review of several hundred scientific articles revealed that there is strong evidence that music has both mental and physical benefits. Rhythm, in particular, can provide pain relief. Other effects are improved cognitive abilities, better memory and feeling less stressed.



    Photo by Reynier Carl on Unsplash


    be in the moment

    Sometimes I just go about life, rushing from one place to the next, thinking about the future or what I am going to have for dinner - I am sure you have been there too. If I stop, look around, listen to the world around me, I usually discover something nice, beautiful, or unexpected. A conscious listening practice, or even just the one-off listening exercise, can help to do just that. 

    "Stopping to listen, even just for a moment, can re-connect you to the here and now, and in doing so let you take a break, ground yourself and re-connect to the here and now."

    In her article “Soundwalking: The joys of combining strolling and listening” April Clare Welsh describes how the practice of soundwalking – a walk with a focus on listening – comes with mental as well as physical benefits.

    “Listening walks like this can help us feel more grounded and connected to our environment, as well as providing the obvious benefits to our physical health. With its meditative dimension, the practice of soundwalking shares similarities with mindfulness – both lending their focus to participating in the present moment – and can offer a soothing balm in rough times.”

     “Soundwalking: The joys of combining strolling and listening” April Clare Welsh

    Stopping to listen, even just for a moment, can re-connect you to the here and now, and in doing so let you take a break, ground yourself and re-connect to the here and now.



    Photo by Alberto Frías on Unsplash


    self soothing

    Self-soothing is a technique that can be used to manage emotions like anxiety or distress, ground ourselves and calm our minds. Often this is done by finding something to distract or to re-focus on the here and now. Babies are usually good at this - sucking their thumbs is a great example. As grown-ups, we might need to think about other methods to self sooth. Sound and listening can be a great way to do this. Forcing yourself to stop, breath and listen to the sounds around you is a great way to stop your mind racing and bring your focus back to the here and now. For many people, listening to music is a great way to self sooth, as is listening to nature sounds, like rain or the ocean waves. Intentionally focusing on listening or regular listening practices can help you to self-sooth, by refocusing your mind, and also by helping you realise which sounds are helpful and calming for you, and which ones are not. 



    Last, but absolutely not least, sound and listening can bring so much joy! And that is important for our wellbeing too! I have so many memories of sounds that are enjoyable – the sound of the waves by the sea in summertime. The sound of birds, when I step out in my garden or outside my front door in spring. The kids playing a couple of houses down from where I am now. If I stop and listen, especially for an extended period of time, I find I more often than not discover sounds I really enjoy listening to, or a sound which bring back a nice memory. What could be more important than that, after all?