This installment of Zepelim is an exploration of easily overlooked daily sounds like lip smacking, chewing, breathing, sniffling, coughing and sneezing. For some of us, these sounds might be annoying to hear, but for a small, discrete population, they are sudden triggers of aggressive impulses and fight/flight responses. This condition has been named Misophonia and is a form of decreased sound tolerance characterized by highly negative reactions to the experience of hearing specific sounds. Misophonia has only recently started to be recognized by the mental health community and has just been given media attention for the first time. In this hour, Zepelim presents a sound collage of several reports on the subject of Misophonia alongside pieces by composers who work with sounds that could trigger episodes of profound distress.
Misophonia: Annoyance Beyond Annoyance
Noise is all around us. It bursts from all corners – radios, engines, machines, advertising, traffic, the internet. Noise marks the social codes of human life. It makes the environment recognizable and ensures a soothing feeling of safeness against the predatory silence. But from the broad waveband of vibrations that constitute the everyday life of noises, there are some intruding sounds that make us wince. The sound of fingernails scraping across a chalkboard or the sound of two pieces of styrofoam being rubbed together are considered universal stimuli for an automatic and visceral reaction of dislike. But how can these sounds provoke such a strong negative reaction? The paper Psychoacoustics of a chilling sound suggests that our negative response to scraping sounds might come from a vestigial reﬂex related to the warning cries of monkeys or from a sound resemblance to predators’ vocalizations. A recent study conducted by Trevor Cox tries to pin down the reason why we dislike disgusting sounds by analyzing a set of 34 sounds. Trevor Cox reached three main conclusions: first, the study seemed to confirm the prior connection between scraping sounds and a vestigial response of survival acquired by our ancestors. Second, the most disgusting sounds were the ones associated with bodily excretions and secretions like the sounds of vomiting, sniffling, eating an apple, coughing, spitting, etc., among which the sound of vomiting was rated the most horrible of the disgusting sounds (hear the full clip here). Third, the study found that none of the sounds provided responses consistent with a disgust reaction linked to disease avoidance and survival. This may suggest that our reactions of disgust towards certain sounds may be socially-learned and vary according to the cultural meaning attributed to them and whether it is acceptable or unacceptable to make disgusting sounds in public.
An important factor in coming to dislike certain sounds is the extent to which they are considered meaningful. The noise of the roaring sea, for example, is not far from white radio noise (…) We still seek meaning in nature and therefore the roaring of the sea is a blissful sound. Torben Sangild in The Aesthetics of Noise
For the ones suffering from Misophonia, it seems there are different processes in motion when perceiving certain sounds. The trigger sounds of Misophonia are perceived as something beyond annoyance or disgust — they are invasive, intrusive and associated with feelings of offense and violation. Bursts of rage are commonly described by people who suffer from Misophonia. The reason for such a strong reaction is still up for debate.
The not so well-tuned brain?
Some audiologists are suggesting that these heightened emotional responses can be explained by a hyperconnectivity between the auditory, limbic and autonomic nervous systems. Other studies have found associations between Misophonia and other psychiatric conditions, such as obsessive compulsive disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder, but many patients with Misophonia appear to have no other major emotional condition.
Portrait of a Misophonic
There are several conditions characterized by a decreased tolerance to sounds. While Misophonia is a dislike of specific sounds, Hyperacusis is a lowered tolerance to most kinds of sounds above a certain intensity. Misophonia also differs from Phonofobia, which is the fear of any sound, as well as from the Exploding Head Syndrome, which is the hearing of loud unexpected sounds while sleeping. The prevalence of Misophonia among the general population is still indeterminate. However, the high number of communities growing all over the internet (Sound Sensitive Community, Misophonia UK, reddit, Stop the sounds …) may suggest that this condition could be more frequent than initially supposed. The term Misophonia was first coined by Margaret and Pawel Jastreboff (2000). However, the use of this term is seen by specialists in the medical community as an anecdotal term. Some prefer the term Sound-Rage (Krauthamer, 2013), others believe that Soft Sound Sensitivity Syndrome, 4S (Johnson, 1999) is a better descriptor of this condition. Nevertheless, the term Misophonia caught on among the general public after an article published in The New York Times in 2011, followed by a high number of people sharing their experiences on various media platforms (1, 2, 3, 4, 5). For the first time people could give a name to something they thought was just a weird, idiosyncratic personality trait. The case reports on Misophonia all describe an abnormal reaction to daily low-volume sounds and experiences of blood boiling rage triggered by sound. The strategies to cope with such distress usually lead to social isolation or the avoidance of certain situations like family dinners, the movie theater, or the workplace. Other strategies involve the use of earplugs, the search for auditory distractions like music (also auditory protection under white noise, pink noise or brown noise), the mimicking of triggers to cancel out sounds, the use of internal dialog to help calm down, and the asking of others to stop making the sounds. The coping mechanisms to deal with the episodes of rage may vary according to personality traits. While some people may internalize the experience of distress, others may easily snap or act out towards the person making the sounds. In the majority of the cases, misophonia seems to have its onset in pre-puberty (around the age of 8-10) with lifelong persistence.
An Introduction to Misophonic Music
Between 1966 and 1967, John Cage and Morton Feldman recorded four open-ended conversations, called Radio Happenings, at the studios of radio station WBAI in New York. Among many topics, Feldman expresses his annoyance with sonic intrusions blasted from several radios on a trip to the beach. Cage’s solution for the growing annoyance of his friend Feldman is to change the perception of unwanted sounds to sound sources for musical composition:
Well, you know how I adjusted to that problem of the radio in the environment, very much as the primitive people adjusted to the animals which frightened them and which probably, as you say, were intrusions. They drew pictures of them on their caves. And so I simply made a piece using radios. Now, whenever I hear radios – even a single one, not just twelve at a time, as you must have heard on the beach, at least – I think, “Well, they’re just playing my piece”. John Cage, Radio Happenings.
Cage proposes a remedy via appropriation of environmental intrusions, making the annoying sounds his own. The emotional charge associated with the sound annoyances is reverted to a positive pole of affection. The sound intrusions become part of the self. They no longer exist as absolute external entities trying to intrude their way in. Ultimately, there are no sonic intrusions since the entire field of sound is desirable for composition.
If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, then eight. Then sixteen. Then thirty-two. Eventually one discovers that it is not boring at all. John Cage.
Can the same line of thought be applied to annoying sounds? Paying attention to aversion stimulus and increasing our exposition to them may be a healthy way to deal with trigger sounds. But what if it’s possible to bring these sounds even closer to our sense of identity and change their representation of intrusion by playing with them: editing chews, cut-up sneezes, sound assemblages of snores and nose whistles, performing coughs and slurps, singing the poetics of throat clearing and preforming hiccups.
Is it possible to redefine Misophonic trigger sounds as Misophonic music?
If so, Misophonic music could be defined as any composition able to provoke the urge to flee the auditory scene, made up of trigger sounds produced by normal body functions such as breathing, sniffling, coughing, sneezing, chewing and others. Examples of such compositions can already be found in the realms of the sound poetry, utterance based music, and other sound art practices. The trigger sounds can be grouped as:
1. Sounds associated with eating.
2. Sounds made by the mouth/throat (hiccups, throat clearing, aahs, S sound).
3. Sounds made by the nose (sniffing, nose breathing; nose whistling).
4. Sounds made by the human body (kissing, skin rubbing, joint cracking).
Sound poetry is a hybrid poetic form that exists between speech, music and performance. As the avant-garde progressively expanded to incorporate the entire scope of sound into composition, sound poetry followed a similar siren by using all sounds capable of being produced by the human voice and by exploring new vocal techniques and non-semantic properties of language. Sound poetry calls for coughing, spitting, breathing, lip smacking, hissing, mouth tensions and releases, the very same triggers underlying episodes of Misophonia. According to Steve McCaffery, the practice of sound poetry has always been present throughout the history of Western literature, from Aristophanes to Christian Morgenstern and Lewis Carroll. Although, sound poetry has never constituted a ‘movement’, McCaffery loosely distinguishes three main phases of its development. The first phase, called paleotechnic era, comprises of ancient and medieval practices of chant, non-sense syllabic mouthings, language games, nursery rhymes and folk-songs (ex. Navajo Songs, Inuit games and songs). The second phase of sound poetry encompasses the poetry of the Russian avant-garde (zaum‘ or beyonsense), the Italian futurists (parole in libertà / words-in-freedom; F.T. Marinetti) and the German Dada (‘verse ohne Worte‘, Hugo Ball; Kurt Schwitters) that helped to free the word from its semantic functions. The third phase starts in the 1950s marked by the shift in technology and the availability of recording instruments like the tape recorder and the willingness to embrace this new technology as a compositional tool. The quintessential sound poet of this period was Henri Chopin, who adopted the tape recorder and the studio to manipulate his speech and mouth sounds into the smallest vocables of his voice. Chopin uses the microphone to explore and amplify the sounds of his mouth and throat.
Sound poetry is a new form of art, in which linguistic resources are unfolded in all their richness, and with the aid of a single instrument – or multi-instruments – the mouth, which is a discerning resonator, capable of offering us several sounds simultaneously as long as these sounds are not restricted by the letter, the phoneme, or by a precise or specific word. Henri Chopin, An Open Letter to Aphonic Musicians, 1967
[Henri Chopin, Les Pirouettes Vocales Pour Les Pirouettements Vocaux]
With the tape recorder, the constraints of the body are no longer the last parameter in composition. Chopin developed his self-styled audio-poems with multitrack spatialization of word fragments, superimposed mouth sounds and ‘vocal micro-particles’ creating dense and uncanny sonic textures. By magnifying the small and unheard mouth sounds, Henri Chopin revealed a sounding body that can be violent and intrusive. While Chopin relied mainly on electronic devices to amplify and deconstruct speech and mouth sounds, sound poets like François Dufrêne and Gil J Wolman tended to preserve the corporeality and the raw quality of oral sounds. Dufrêne and Wolman’s work leave behind the remaining traces of language to bring forward a more glottal and guttural performance. The mouth is spasmodic and phlegmatic, exhaling moans, spits, chokes, wheezes and breaths. This sound poetry empty of words and vocables is an hyper-expression of the bodily energy that gives rhythm to the poem.
the BREATH alone founds the poem—rhythm and outcry, that cry, content contained, until now, of the poem: of joy, of love, of anguish, of horror, of hate, but a cry. François Dufrêne in OU, Alga Marghen
Like Dufrêne and Wolman, the sound poet Paul Dutton creates oral soundscapes with his voice usually without the help of electronic effects or processing, without feedback or overdubs. Instead, Dutton explores the limits of his voice, glottis, tongue, lips and nose as the medium of compositions calling upon techniques involving breath releases, reverberation, frequency shifts and vocal fold vibrations. He coined the term Sound Singing as an inclusive term to all sonic dimensions of language: sound, speech, semantics, noise — the abstract and the literary. Dutton recordings are often comprised of a roller-coaster of dysphoric moods: annoyance, anguish, frustration, and hysteria — as can be heard on his record Mouth Pieces: Solo Soundsinging.
[Paul Dutton, Lips Is, Mouth Pieces: Solo Soundsinging]
Paul Dutton was also a member of the first sound-poetry ensemble The Four Horsemen and is a member of the CCMC trio with John Oswald and Michael Snow. He has collaborated with sound poets like Phil Minton, Koichi Makigami, David Moss and Jaap Blonk. This last sound poet, Jaap Blonk, is a Dutch composer, vocalist and improviser bridging the gap between the Schwitter’s Dada-constructivism and a contemporary approach to sound poetry. Jaap Blonk started as a composer in 1977, originally playing saxophone (on Splinks and BRAAXTAAL) and started to perform sound poetry later on. Many of Blonk’s vocal compositions are based on detailed graphical scores and symbolic scripts that trace sound-maps of the tongue, lips and larynx. The wide range of vocal sounds produced by Blonk led him to create an extension to the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) called BLIPAX (Blonk’s IPA extended) to represent his mouth sounds. The result is a system of drawings and changing forms that give a visual representation to his sound poems. Blonk’s inventive sound poetry covers extensive ground in the area of vocal performance, from improvised utterance to invented languages, extreme mouth sounds, and phonetic studies.
For more on sound poetry listen to History of Sound Poetry: An Introduction by Charles Amirkhanian (KPFA,1976) and the book of essays collected by Marjorie Perloff and Craig Dworkin The Sound of Poetry/The Poetry of Sound.
Fluxus: Eat, Burp, Cough, Perform!
The emergence of Fluxus is strongly linked to Cage’s 1957-59 class at New School for Social Research in New York. During that period, Cage taught musical composition to a group of artists – George Brecht, Al Hansen, Dick Higgins, Allan Kaprow and the poet Jackson MacLow – who would become the founding members of Fluxus. Cage’s ideas on chance, non-intentionality, mix-media aesthetics and musicalized sound were expanded upon by his students through music, performance and poetry. George Bretch’s Event Score was one of the best known innovations to emerge from these classes. The Event Score was a performance technique drawn from short instructions usually written on small paper cards, like a haiku. Each Event Score framed everyday live actions as a minimal performance to be executed before an audience, alone, in a group, or in one’s mind. Fluxus events advanced the Cagean idea that all sounds can function as music to the concept that everyday life actions are music. Daily acts like chewing, coughing, licking, eating or preparing food were considered by themselves ready-made works of art. Many Fluxus artists like Shigeko Kubota, Yoko Ono, Mieko Shiomi, and Alison Knowles saw these activities as forms of social music.
The Event is a metarealistic trigger: it makes the viewer’s or user’s experience special. (…) Rather than convey their own emotional world abstractly, Fluxus artists directed their audiences’ attention to concrete everyday stuff addressing aesthetic metareality in the broadest sense. Hannah Higgins, Fluxus Experience
Social actions like eating or cooking were extensively explored by Fluxus artists in the many celebratory Fluxbanquets and Fluxus events. According to Hannah Higgins, Fluxus food work often emphasized the rituals of eating, the associations between food and nonfood, adventurous eating (like Flux Mystery Food, re-labeled canned food) and the obsessive measuring and counting of food’s characteristics in a society concerned with personal hygiene and self-control. For instance, Alison Knowles produced several famous Fluxus food events like Make a Salad (1962), Make a Soup (1962), and The Identical Lunch (1967-73).
The Identical Lunch began with Knowles’s realization that each day she would eat the same lunch: a tuna fish sandwich on whole wheat toast with butter, no mayo, and a cup of buttermilk or the soup of the day at Riss Foods Diner in Chelsea. Philip Corner then turned Knowles’s lunch habit into a score (The Identical Lunch: Philip Corner’s Performances of a Score by Alison Knowles, 1973) and a journal (Journal of the Identical Lunch, Nova Broadcasts Press,1971), documenting all the variations within the identical meal. Artists and friends came along and tried the same meal reporting and recording their own experiences. It was about having an excuse to get to talk to people, to notice everything that happened, to pay attention, explained Knowles in a recent rendition of The Identical Lunch at MOMA. In 1971, George Maciunas made the following suggestion: put it all into a blender.
Fluxus’ artists continued to play out the multiple performance possibilities around the social rituals of food. By radically isolating the gestures and actions of eating and handling food, several event scores were solely centered in the sounds of chewing, crunching, nibbling, gnawing and gulping. Philip Corner’s Carrot Chew Performance is a perfect example of this. Corner’s performance piece is based on the instruction of eating a carrot. Carrots are given to audience, then instructions are given on the speed and bite size until the last piece of carrot is swallowed.
[Philip Corner, Carrot Chew Performance, Tellus #24]
Also, Mieko Shiomi‘s Shadow Piece No. 3 calls attention to the sound of amplified mastication while the performer is hidden behind a screen eating fruit.
Shadow Piece No.3
Performers eat various fruits behind a white screen. A light projects their shadows on the screen. Eating sounds may be amplified. (1966)
Shiomi’s work is one of meticulousness and purism. Her pieces are marked by actions of subtle motion and slow alterations of state, like the piece Disappearing Music for Face, in which a smile very slowly fades into a neutral facial expression.
Who invented coughing? Yoko Ono!
Coughing is a form of love. In 1961, Yoko Ono composed a 32 minute, 31 second audio recording called Cough Piece, a precursor to her instruction Keep coughing a year (Grapefruit). In this recording the sound of Ono’s cough emerges periodically from the indistinct background noise. Ono’s continuous coughing throughout the piece invites for new awareness of mouth and throat sounds. As many pieces of Fluxus, the Cough Piece plays with the concept of time, prolonging the duration of an activity beyond what is considered socially acceptable. While listening to this piece, Yoko Ono brings us close to her body’s automatic reflexes, opening the veil of an indistinct inner turmoil. Coughing can be a bodily response to an irritating tickling feeling, troubled breathing, difficulty with speech, a sore throat or a reaction to foreign particles or microbes. In any case, coughing is a way of clearing, a freeing re-flux of air, a way out. Coughing is a form of love.
Throughout the work we never know for sure what the artist [Yoko Ono] may be choking on, what causes irritation, or what may be forcing these urges of convulsed breaths. There is something “tickling” her throat which remains unclear, undetected, and unspoken – something she can’t get away from, a bellow, or an off-stage whose absence or formlessness resides at the very center of the recording. It occupies the mouth. Brandon LaBelle, Lexicon of the Mouth
[Yoko Ono, Cough Piece, Recorded 1963, Tokyo, Ubuweb]
The works of Fluxus inscribe themselves in the logic of art for art’s sake, the experience of everyday life and designating these pieces of reality as art. This sense of reframed reality present in Fluxus could be an important reference when dealing with everyday intrusions and sound annoyances. Performances like Nivea Cream Piece (1962) by Alison Knowles, where performers are invited to rub their hands with cream in front of a microphone producing a deluge of squeezing sounds, are a testament to this attitude.
Nivea Cream Piece (1962) – for Oscar (Emmett) Williams
First performer comes on stage with a jar of Nivea cream. The performer massages hands in front of the microphone. Other performers enter one at the time. They make a mass of massaging hands and leave one at a time following the first performer.
[Alison Knowles, Nivea Cream Piece, 1962, Fluxsweet, Harvestworks, NYC, 2005]
Towards a Taxonomy of Annoyance
Our experience in hearing bodily sounds is often attached to a sense of discomfort, annoyance or even shame. The sounds of the body reminds us of its fallible and vulnerable nature, calling to mind French surgeon René Leriche’s quote that health is life lived in the silence of the organs (1936). This sense of vulnerability connected to sounds of the body has been widely explored by various practices of sound art. For instance, former Letterist Jean-Paul Curtay exalted the expression of body music in The Body Sound Art Manisfesto.
The pleasure of playing your body (…). The pleasure of matching emotion to the sounds, to the dynamic of the sounds, to the rhythms. The surprise of having the sounds triggered by fake emotions trigger sounds which trigger real emotions. Jean-Paul Curtay, 1970.
These bodily sound triggers are often the subject matter of Christof Migone’s expeditions in sound work. In his audio work South Winds (2002), Migone presents a series of compositions made by manipulated fart sounds inspired by the performances of the French flatulist Joseph Pujol (Le Pétomane) at Moulin Rouge. Snow Storm (2002) features the sound of itching a flaky scalp — Migone scratches his head with a microphone so as to cause dandruff to fall down across his black trousers. In yet another sound work called Crackers (1998), participants were called through radio and classified ads in the weekly newspaper to record a session of bone cracking. Several participants recorded the sounds of fingers, knees, feet, shoulder, back, elbows, jaws and toes cracking. Each body movement resulting in a cracking sound was called a bone edit. Then each edit was manipulated into a symphony of tiny bone cracks. Crackers is a sound-map of the vulnerability of our bone structure. It isn’t just the annoyance of the inner sounds that characterizes this piece but the close proximity to our decaying architecture that makes us wince.
… ahhhh… ok and now in order to do my elbows I will have to make a quick motion like this… now the jaw which is usually on this side (…) toes, of course… ok… now when I do my back I have to swing it as well… so stay in one place… the best sounds usually come out of about right there… Christof Migone, recording transcript, Gallery 101 residency.
Migone’s sound exploration of the body and its limits has much in common with Vito Acconci‘s encounters with the body and its autonomic functions. In 1971, Acconci created four minimalist exercises called Waterways: Four Saliva Studies (22:27) consisting of a series of video works capturing Acconci spitting into his hands and sucking it back in. In this piece, Vito Acconci explores the properties of saliva by using extreme video close-ups and amplified sound to make the viewer step into the space of his body.
[Vito Acconci, Waterways: Four Saliva Studies, 1971]
Acconci used his own body as the main canvas for his performances, like a ready-made performative tool. About 200 of his body pieces and performances have been compiled and documented in Vito Acconci: Diary of a Body 1969-1973. Some of his works can strike notes of playfulness, like in the Following Piece (1969), where Acconci follows random people on the street. Or they can be crude and violent like in Trademarks (1970), where he would bite his legs and arms in front of a camera. Acconci pushed the limits of body art by creating new links between humor, revulsion, boredom, sexuality, and annoyance.
“How do we hear the body’s sounds, now that technology has given us superhuman ears?”
This is the question raised by Kenneth Goldsmith when curating Music Overheard (Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston, 2007), a compilation that gathers sound works sourced from the human body. Although the advances of technology in composition gave us more than just an extension of the traditional means of making music, today’s artists and musicians are still working with the squelching sounds and annoyances of their bodies. Gregory Whitehead, Matmos, Language Removal Services, John Duncan, Lauren Lesko or Mia Masakoa are a few examples of this. The AV collage artist People Like Us (Vicki Bennett) deftly navigates the winding road between bodily annoyances and audio delight. In her piece Hayfever, People Like Us presents us with cut-ups of sneezes over novelty and easy listening music. Hayfever depicts the time log of an allergic reaction. While calling to mind Ono’s Cough Piece, Hayfever is much shorter (2:36), mostly thanks to Loretadine, Bennett jokes, without whom, this track would be much longer.
[People Like Us, Hayfever, Music Overheard, 2007 ]
Taking a cue from Hayfever, let’s experiment by thinking about Misophonia as a possible allergic reaction to specific sounds. Usually, the trigger sounds in Misophonia are connected to the mouth, eating, breathing and mechanical motions of the body. Interestingly though, this aversion is not provoked by the sounds of our own body, but by those of the other.
The origin of word allergy comes from Greek allos (other) and ergy (activity). The psychoanalyst Sami-Ali sees allergies as a symbolic symptom. Personalities who are prone to allergy are usually in relationships of extreme proximity to other people, which evokes the distress of not being able to recognize oneself as different from the other person. The allergy comes as a symptomatic crisis when facing the difficulty of separating one’s own skin from the other’s. Misophonia could also be a symbolic equivalent of that struggle for independence. Could this rejection stem from sounds that make other bodies feel satisfied, complete and differentiated — the sounds of others fulfilling needs? Ultimately, the key to understanding Misophonia may lie in unmasking trigger sounds and unearthing the neglected need to possess a body of one’s own with a unique face and its own bodily needs.
by Carlo Patrão
Different versions of this installment of Zepelim were played at the free form radio station Rádio Universidade de Coimbra (RUC), the online radio art project Basic.fm and at Stress.fm as part of Ecos: Experiences in listening.