SOUND AND SILENCE: The invisible presence
In the countryside, by our house in Bjärnum - within the woods by the lake, the sound of spring can be heard; birdsong and how the wind sweeps through crowns of beech tree forests. Their buds opened during night and fresh leaves now span a shimmering vault of new born greenery above smooth, silvery grey trunks, creating natural cathedrals of immense beauty, above them flocks of calling wild geese and cranes are flying north. Loneliness enhances the sounds. As I in the dusk row across the quiet lake, the oars serenely splash against the water, a bird calls from the shore. While I walk through the woods, a thrush stirs among dry leaves, while a woodpecker is drumming against a tree trunk and a cuckoo calls in the distance.
On the other hand, when I try to fall asleep I hear a sound with origin I do not know, a low humming. It does not come from the pump, or the water filter in the cellar beneath me, I have turned them off for the night, nor does it come from any neighbouring houses, they are all empty at this time of the week. Aircraft and trains are too far away and they do not make that kind of sound. A weak buzzing; not coming from the wind blowing through the trees, not the splashing of water. What is it then? Tinnitus? Sounds being created within me? Does the humming noise arise in my peripheral nervous system, my heart beat or vibrations in my inner ear? I do not think so. It is rarely that I perceive that peculiar sound it beyond Bjärnum, in any case, it is at its strongest there.
Where does the sound come from? Is it electromagnetic radiation moving through our bedroom and being caught by my ear drums? Movements that oscillate throughout the universe, travelling through time and space? Whispers and shouts, voices and explosions that constantly vibrate all around and within us?
Could it be what is called the hum? A persistent, invasive low-frequency rumbling, not audible to all of us, seeping into our lives, but not from any known source, not from other people, animals, home appliances or any other kind of machinery. Some people perceive the hum only indoors, or in some specific places, others hear it constantly. Nobody knows where it comes from, or what it is. Some became crazy from hearing it, some even take their own lives.
Generally speaking, we know how sound occurs, it consists of mechanical wave movements, "disturbances" making solids, gas and fluids vibrate. Actually, sound only exists if someone receives it. Sound is not like a projectile moving forward through space, it is rather like elastic oscillations moving forward in a certain direction and like a passing wave they are followed by silence. Sound waves are constantly present. We live in a landscape, but also find ourselves within a soundscape. We cannot see and perceive everything within a landscape, likewise we cannot perceive everything within a soundscape.
During my military service, I worked as a telegraphist and spent lonely nights in front of an apparatus through which I listened to a constant flow of dots and dashes in Morse code. Most of the frequencies were crammed with a great variety of sounds, while some emitted sound walls of white noise, meaning that the room I found myself in was incessantly pierced through by telegraphic din, which I could only perceive if I put on the headphones. What I found to be extremely strange was that I in this hullabaloo of different sounds could discern signals that were meant for me. Not because they were stronger than other sounds, sometimes they were barely audible, like shadows of sound within an ocean of noise. How might that be explained?
And silence? Is it not as strange as sound? Somewhere I read that in the ancient Norse, the origin of current Scandinavian languages, the word liuþ, “sound” could mean both "listening" and "silence". Perhaps no absolute silence exists. Sound-absorbing rooms, known as anechoic chambers, absorb reflections from sound and electromagnetic waves, as well as they are isolated from incoming sound waves. The necessity for creating an anechoic space, actually means that every other place, how quiet and empty it appears to be, nevertheless is filled with sound – most of which we actually are unable to perceive.
Silence is often considered as soothing and capable of inducing meditative moods. It is said that we can meet God in the silence, that it promotes inner peace. Buddhists, Quakers, Trappist monks and many other religious groups consider silence to be a path towards inner peace, it helps us to find ourselves. In his writings the Trappist monk Thomas Merton praises silence:
In a world of noise, confusion and conflict it is necessary that there be places of silence, inner discipline and peace. In such places love can blossom. […] When I am liberated by silence, when I am no longer involved in the measurement of life, but in the living of it, I can discover a form of prayer in which there is effectively no distraction. My whole life becomes a prayer. My whole silence is full of prayer. The world of silence in which I am immersed contributes to my prayer.
Merton also perceived the connection between sound and silence:
Music is pleasing not only because of the sound but because of the silence that is in it: without the alternation of sound and silence there would be no rhythm.
As in any kind of movement, music is created through an interplay between emptiness and presence. Short breaks between words create a story. The empty strips between each frame create a movie. Silence between tones create dynamics and movement, and not only that - many composers have used silence to produce anticipation and reflection.
Somewhere in Bach's thrilling and profound St. Matthew Passion the choir sings Sind Blitze, sind Donner in Wolken verschwunden? "Has lightning and thunder disappeared among the clouds?" The question is followed by a short silence, then comes a ruthless and scary command:Eröffne den feurigen Abgrund, o Hölle! “Open the flaming abyss, O Hell!” Famous are also Wagner's silences in his prelude to Tristan and Isolde, the introduction to the second movement of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, the cutting breaks in the finale of Sibelius´s Fifth Symphony and the quiet breathing pauses by the end of Barber´s Adagio for Strings. The masters of jazz also knew how to create excitement and dynamics by introducing moments of silence. Listen to and marvel at Miles Davis's skills in So What.
And then we have composers like John Cage, who occasionally indulge themselves in silence, John Cage´s famous composition 4 '33” consists entirely of muteness. A piece that has come to be considered both as significant and as pointless as the Campbell Soup Cans which Andy Warhol painted ten years later – subjects to boundless admiration, and at least as much mockery and scorn.
During the premiere of 4´33” on the 29th of August 1952, the classically-educated pianist David Tudor sat by a piano, opened the keyboard lid and was then silent for thirty seconds before closing the lid. He opened it again and then remained silent for two minutes and twenty-two seconds. Closed and then opened the lid again, sitting quietly in front of the piano for one minute and forty seconds more, before finally closing the lid and leaving the stage. Strangely enough, of most of the audience appreciated the performance, although some left the room, utterly irritated. David Tudor was the right person for the performance - he was quite well-known and serious in a manner that convinced most onlookers that they took part in a historical event. While several whispered discomfited before the end, others felt that the silence had created both excitement and reflection. They stated to have become aware of their own bodies and the sounds that vibrated around them. There had been no silence whatsoever, only intense awareness of the seriousness of the moment. Of course, the performance had ran the risk of becoming a total failure, however most of those present had been prepared for something unique. In spite of his fancy for startling pranks, John Cage was a skilled musician. I personally appreciate the oriental meditative mood of his Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano, which he wrote five years before 4 '33”.
Cage was entirely serious when he planned 4 '33”. It was far from being a joke. He had studied Japanese Zen philosophy and was fascinated by the importance silence have for sound and music. Cage assumed that sound is constantly present, and assists us in our search for meaning in life. An appreciation of our existence means that we first of all have to learn to listen, to pay attention to ourselves and our surroundings. "The purpose of music is to quiet the mind and thus making it susceptible to divine influences.”
A few months before he conceived 4 '33”, Cage visited the Anechoic Chamber at Harvard University. Cage was expecting to hear silence, but found that:
I heard two sounds, one high and one low. When I described them to the engineer in charge, he informed me that the high one was my nervous system in operation, the low one my blood in circulation.
Cage expected to experience total silence, yet he heard sound: "Until I die there will be sounds. And they will continue following my death. One need not fear about the future of music." After visiting the soundproofed chamber, Cage realized that sounds are everywhere, a fact that unceasingly affects us all and according to him thus reminds us all about the authenticity of existence: "We must wake up to the life we really live." That was what Cage intended to demonstrate through his 4 '33”:
They missed the point. There's no such thing as silence. What they thought was silence, because they didn’t know how to listen, was full of accidental sounds. You could hear the wind stirring outside during the first movement. During the second, raindrops began pattering the roof, and during the third the people themselves made all kinds of interesting sounds as they talked or walked out.
John Cage was not only a musician, he was also interested in and practiced art and design. An important inspiration for 4 '33” was a series of white paintings created by his friend Robert Rauschenberg. The artist had simply covered canvases with regular house paint, even if each painting was completely white it was provided with a distinctive character. The uniqueness depended on where in the room the canvas had been placed, the light falling across it, shadows entering though the windows of the gallery, how visitors´ shadows were thrown upon it, the uneven distribution and thickness of the applied colour. The interaction of the artworks with their setting became the ultimate inspiration Cage needed to complete 4'33".
I got a feeling of how silence could talk through art when I several years ago was confronted with Barnett Newman's 14 paintings at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, images he had named Stations of the Cross. They were hung on white painted walls in a room of their own, where the viewer could sit on a bench in the middle of the gallery. For quite some time I was lucky enough to find myself alone there. While I with my eyes swept back and forth across the black and white paintings, made up by black and beige lines of various thickness and texture painted over a white surface, I was overtaken by a meditative calm. Instead of fourteen depictions of Jesus' suffering, which was suggested by the title of the work, I imagined it dealt with the words Jesus uttered on the cross. The seven phrases he spoke while hanging nailed to the wood; bloody, tortured and vilified, alternating between instructions, pieces of advice, blessings, words of forgiveness and despair. Newman´s energetic black and beige strokes became akin to the soundtracks on a film strip and a strange feeling of spiritual presence took hold of me. While looking at the paintings I felt as if the empty hall vibrated with sounds, while the black stripes flickered over the white painted canvas. A powerful and strange experience that is still with me.
I have praised silence, but let us not forget how it can be cruel, detached and cold, particularly between people. A most painful experience for each and every one of us is not to be listened to, to be ignored. To face mockery, irony and contempt is bad enough, but even worse is not to be noticed at all, or willfully ignored, being confronted with ice cold silence. Being deemed as worthless and exposed to humiliating silence may force you to despise yourself and to avoid the company of others, it has even driven people to suicide.
Silence about their suffering, and futile attempts to make themselves heard, plagued the millions of victims of Nazi cruelty. The pope in Rome and politicians in Stockholm were well aware of what was happening, but they remained silent about the abysmal horrors. Watch Costa-Gavra's excellent film Amen. Kurt Gerstein's fate, on which the film is based, says a lot about all of us.
Gerstein was a German SS officer, member of Waffen SS´s hygiene section where he initially was engaged with the disinfection of drinking water and the use of the Cyklon B gas for disinfecting clothes, as well as ships, warehouses and box cars. As head of the SS Department for Technical disinfection he later became responsible for the delivery of Cyclone B to Rudolf Höss, Auschwitz´s commandant who experimented with the most effects methods for mass extinction. As part of this activity, Gerstein visited the camp of Belzec on 17 August 1942 and witnessed the killing of 3,000 Jews through the use of carbon monoxide, which via diesel engines was transferred into specially constructed gas chambers. The next day he witnessed a similar procedure in Treblinka. Belzec and Treblinka were extermination camps exclusively dedicated to the killing of millions of women, men and children. The far more famous Auschwitz was a combined extinction and work camp. Shortly after Gerstein's visit, it was decided that Cyclone B should be used instead of carbon monoxide to kill the prisoners.
Gerstein was deeply shocked by what he had witnessed and realized that the world immediately had to be painstakingly informed about what was going on, though he also realized that his only option for convincing the world of what was actually happening was to remain within the SS and collect as much and detailed information as possible . In danger for his own and his family's lives, he contacted the Swedish diplomat Göran von Otter and members of the Catholic Church, who forwarded his well-documented descriptions to both the Swedish Government and the pope. They did not react or respond.
Two weeks before 22 April 1945, when Germany finally capitulated, Gerstein surrendered himself to the French commander in the occupied city of Reutlingen. He was treated with respect and was quartered in the best hotel of the town, where he compiled his so-called Gerstein Report. However, the French commander received orders that Gerstein had to be transferred to the Cherche-Midi military prison in Paris, where he was treated as a common Nazi offender. On July 25th, Gerstein hung himself in his cell.
Crime against humanity; the abandonment, anxiety, torture and isolation that at this very moment afflict hundreds of thousands of individuals should plague the conscience of each and every one of us. Nevertheless, decision-makers ignore the abject mistreatment of fellow human beings and instead engage themsleves in issues they and we consider to be much more important. An irrationality that may be described as a roaring silence.
After lying in bed and thinking about all this I got up and went into the kitchen to prepare some breakfast. On my way there a glance caught the back of a book standing in the shelf, Dieter Kühn´s Stanislaw der Schweiger, “Stanislaw, The Silent One”. It was a long time ago I read that novel. My friend Mats Olin had given it to me and when I opened it I found that he on the cover sheet had written: "To eat sound - what hearing he may have had!"
In the deep forests of the Carpathian Mountains, where roads were few and the night dark, Count Stanislaw brooded in his gloomy castle. He had a terrifying quality; he could, but did not speak. Though that was not enough - he sucked in sound. He sustained himself by devouring sound. Certain sounds, like an open, vibrating a-vowel and the sound of church bells, he appreciated more than anything else. But he was no gourmet and devoured with delight anything he heard. Fervently he let every conceivable sound be sucked in behind his moist and sensual lips. Birdsong, the barking of dogs, the sizzling of frying oil, the roar of thunder, the swishing of the wind, the ticking of clocks and the cry of children, everything disappeared into him. Everyone around him was silenced. Some tried, in desperate attempts to maintain their ability to speak, to please the Count by incessant babbling, hoping to divert his enormous appetite for sound from themselves to others, though these obsequious cronies were also silenced in the end, while others of the Count´s subordinates were driven into flight or became mad, while an ice cold silence spread its paralyzing terror around him.
Kühn was a proliferate and quite extraordinary writer, not only of novels; he was also an expert in and translator of German medieval, epic poetry, like the Nibelungen and Wolfram von Eschenbach's Parzival and Willehalm, written during a time when roads were few, the forests much more extensive than they are now and it was a long, perilous walk between villages and towns. However, people living in those times were also surrounded by sounds. They lived closer to nature and enjoyed the peal of church bells, hymns sung in cathedrals, dance and music during communal festivities, lullabies and storytelling - they listened more than they read.
At night, when the moon is invisible and the sky is clear, I sometime switch off the lights and leave the house to gaze up at the millions of stars that sprinkle the heavenly dome. Once while we were listening to Luciano Pavarotti, my wife Rosmery said:
"Such a voice cannot just disappear, it must continue to vibrate somewhere out there in the universe.”
Does it? I do not know for sure. “In space nobody can hear you scream" was the motto for Ridley Scott's horror movie Alien. Sound cannot move through a vacuum and we have been told that space is a vacuum. Is it then true that there is no substance capable of transmitting sound waves out there? Apparently not - why else would huge satellite dishes direct their mighty ears towards infinity to capture cosmic noise? It is said that old sounds can still be intercepted, even the immense bang when the universe was created. Probably the Swedish poet Ola Hansson was wrong when he wrote:
Unyielding is infinity; void and soundless;
the wanderer listens to his own pace.
Dead stars spinning in an abyss, cold and boundless.
Creation´s fire is extinguished, empty is the space.
A few months ago, Rosmery and I received an invitation to the Roman Quadrennial, called Other Times, Other Myths. At least one hundred artists were exhibited. The premiere was quite chaotic; lots of people, bad organization and few works of art that left any lasting impression. Rosmery and I soon lost each other in the throng and strolled on our own from room to room. I ended up in a white-painted room that was not as crammed with visitors as the others. On the walls there were some monochrome paintings and glass boxes with tiny arrangements of wildflowers. Ten large wooden beams had been placed by the middle of the floor. They were positioned in different directions and arranged in such a way that they did not constitute neither a pile, nor a heap. The beams appeared to have been scrupulously placed in a mutual relationship that I could not fathom. The smooth surface of the wood made me lay a hand on one of the beams and thus felt how it was shaking, almost imperceptibly. After bowing down and placing an ear close to the woodwork I could perceive a distinct and beautiful tone. I did the same on another beam and discerned a similar tone, though it differed from the first one I had heard. I lifted my head and realized that the different lengths and small variations in the structure of the beams made the same, original tone to sound differently. Apparently there was a sound source concealed in the floor under the beams. I straightened my back, turned around and saw how a pale, thin, serious looking and slightly nerdy young man, with black-rimmed glasses and entirely dressed in black, was looking at me. Correctly, I assumed he was the artist who had installed the sounding beams.
An interesting conversation developed and in a few minutes I learned a lot. Michele Spanghero spoke excellent English and he had like many other young people a sophisticated mobile phone through which he showed me pictures of his artworks, even playing various sound samples. He was according to his own definition a "sound sculptor". Young and young, by the way - I no longer know what the word "young" signifies. I consider anyone younger than me as a youngster. Spanghero was 37 years old and born in the northern border town of Gorizia, north of Trieste. After graduating in Modern Literature at the University of Trieste he became increasingly involved with music, art, sound and acoustics. Like John Cage, he became obsessed by the notion that sound is present everywhere, even within what we call “silence”. He considered that one of the art's duties was to capture this fact in an aesthetically pleasing manner. Purpose and technical solutions would serve and realize imaginative art.
I wondered if one of his inspirations could possibly have been John Cage and that was obviously the case. However, as an erudite artist Spanghero moreover mentioned several artists who were unknown to me, all of whom seemed to find themselves in an acoustically aesthetic universe. Michele Spanghero mentioned that his main inspirational source was the American Alvin Lucier, a classically-educated composer who had studied under Aaron Copland. However, during musical studies in Rome, he met with John Cage and David Tudor in the early sixties. A meeting that changed Lucier's thinking and focus, he became fascinated the sound of silence, an obsession that maybe could be linked to Lucier´s stutter and the silences that developed when he was trying to express himself as clear as possible.
In 1969, Lucier created his most famous work I am sitting in a Room. Alone in a room Lucier pronounced the phrase:
I am sitting in a room different from the one you are in now. I am recording the sound of my speaking voice and I am going to play it back into the room again and again until the resonant frequencies of the room reinforce themselves so that any semblance of my speech, with perhaps the exception of rhythm, is destroyed. What you will hear, then, are the natural resonant frequencies of the room articulated by speech. I regard this activity not so much as a demonstration of a physical fact, but, more as a way to smooth out any irregularities my speech might have.
Of course, as soon as I came home from the exposition I listened to I am sitting in a room and it was an interesting experience. The performance lasts for 45 minutes and 24 seconds. At first, the phrase is clearly heard, but gradually its words are getting scrambled and after a few minutes their meaning disappears and passes into tones and echoes in different rhythms, and finally, only one lonely, metallic, echoing tone remains.
Lucier succeeded in achieving what many artists were dreaming about by the end of the sixties - an action-oriented happening. Lucier´s artwork was commenting itself, its action develops in the actual time during which the listener participates in the performance. I am sitting in a room is a meditative, minimalist artwork, requiring calm and undisturbed attention. The performance is impersonal in the sense that it is supported by natural phenomena. The artist fades away during the performance of his work. Contrary to several other art forms, the artist´s personality is not at the centre of the artistic expression.
Following Lucier's example Spanghero has captured and amplified the sounds of an empty theatre, but he has also used sounds that may be heard without any technical means. In his work, Guttatim, Latin for drop by drop, Spanghero recorded the sound of drops that constantly and rhythmically fall on a stalagmite in Grotta Gigante, the world's largest cave chamber, located outside Trieste. Then he played the sound of the splashing droplets back in the vast space of the cave to capture its resonance as its echo moved around among stalagmites, stalacites and walls. The result was an audio composition, where the rhythmic sound of the drops is heard against a dark, deep and rather lugubrious sound wall.
Spanghero´s Audible Forms were created by sinking small microphones into the interior of bronze sculptures, found in the Revotella Museum in Trieste, to record sound vibrations inside them during one night in the empty museum. He amplified the barely perceptible sounds arising within five sculptures, which insides differed in accordance with their external form. Then he joined the soundtracks into a kind of choir by reproducing them through four loudspeakers placed at the centre of the circling sculptures, which originally had produced the different sounds.
With the help of his mobile phone, Michele Spinghero also showed me a sound sculpture that looked strangely familiar, though I could not remember where I had seen a similar form before. He told me that he called it Echea Aeolica and described it as a large, resonant amphora, which now was permanently placed by the coast just south of the Sicilian town of Syracuse. If you place an ear on its surface, you hear how the sound of the wind and surrounding voices vibrate within the huge pot. Spinghero explained that the title of this work alluded to the Greek word echea from echeia, "sounder" a kind of great vases that the ancient Greeks used for capturing sound. Spanghero told me that Vitruvius in great detail had described the echeia in his book De Architectura.
Marcus Vitruvius Pollo (80 BC - 15 AD) was a Roman architect and engineer whose writings, after being rediscovered during the Renaissance, regained great importance for art and architecture up to the present day. His opinion that a building must exhibit three properties; firmitas, utilitas and venustas, stability, utility and beauty, is still quoted with acclamation by current teachers in architecture and technology. Vitruvius worked as a doctor ballistarum, artillery expert, which meant that he designed and was responsible for the use of the huge Roman war machines.
Vitruvius was during his lifetime more known for his writings. With accuracy and by presenting examples of intricate calculations, Vitruvius wrote about topics like strength theory, construction of buildings and bridges, heating –and drainage systems, chemistry, materials best suited for different purposes, urban planning, architecture, pumping devices and, not the least - acoustics.
In the fifth book of his De Architectura Vitruvius did in great detail explain the principles for maximizing theatre acoustics; how to mathematically calculate the movements of sound through space and capture and strengthen it within a theatre, thus revealing the sophisticated knowledge ancient Greek and Roman sound engineers had about acoustics. It is in this context Vitruvius mentioned the echeia:
… bronze vases are to be made in mathematical ratios corresponding with the size of the theatre. They are to be so made that, when they are touched, they can make a sound from one to another of a fourth, a fifth and so on to the second octave. Then compartments are made among the seats of the theatre, and the vases are to be so placed there that they do not touch the wall, and have an empty space around them and above. They are to be placed upside down. On the side looking towards the stage, they are to have wedges put under them not less than half a foot high. Against these cavities openings are to be left in the faces of the lower steps two feet long and half a foot high.
Well-designed and correctly placed, these big vases captured the actors' voices, amplified them and spread them among the theatre visitors:
Thus by this calculation the voice, spreading from the stage as from a centre and striking by its contact the hollows of the several vases, will arouse an increased clearness of sound, and, by the concord, a consonance harmonising with itself.
Not a single one of these sound vases have been found, they were probably melted down while the theatres withered away. I did not know anything about their existence until I heard about them from Spanghero, in spite of the fact that Vitruvius assured these vases and several other acoustic devices, were very common during the great time of classical theatre. Almost every town around the Mediterranean displayed at least one sophisticated theatre building. Vitruvius claimed that Rome had lots of them:
Someone will say, perhaps, that many theatres are built every year at Rome without taking any account of these matters. He will be mistaken in this.
An unexpected testimony of how common theatre sounders were may be found in St. Paul's first letter to the Corinthians, where he introduced his powerful homage to love with the claim that:
If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am become sounding brass, or a clanging cymbal.
The words χαλκὸς ῶχῶν, chalkos echon, have been a thorny issue for Bible translators, who generally assumed that the words "sounding brass" described some kind of musical instrument. However, the word χαλκὸς was never used to describe music, only the sound of natural phenomena, like in a phrase like "the roaring sea". ῶχῶν, translated as "bronze", is actually the same word that Vitruvius used in its plural form - echeia, when he in his Latin text described "sound vases" of Roman theatres. Accordingly, when Paul writes chalkos echon he hinted at such sound vases, making them into a striking description of persons limiting themselves to reflect the speech and opinions of others. By mechanically transmitting notions of others, people avoid taking a firm stand and thus function like thoughtless sound vases within a theatre, a parable the majority of listeners to Paul´s epistles could capture without any difficulty.
But, how why did recognize the shape of Spanghero's sound sculpture, particularly since not a single copy of Vitruvius sound vases has been preserved? Michele Spanghero gave me the answer. He had been inspired by the Helmholtz Resonator, a contraption I several years ago came across in a storage in a school where I worked as teacher. A shining metal vase with a narrow opening, which the physics teacher used to explain acoustic phenomena. If you put an ear to the resonator, you could hear how it amplified sounds in the ambient air, capturing the energy of sound waves through its opening and strengthening within its cavity. Actually, I do not understand much of how that works, though a resonator is undeniably beautiful contraption that stimulate our imagination Like Dieter Kühn's sound sucking vampire, the resonator inhales sounds.
What fascinates me with blog writing is the unexpected contexts that tends to pop up while I am writing my essays. When I after breakfast drove into town I listened to the car radio and heard how a lady from Sweden's State Radio´s Drama Section played a tape she had retrieved from the archives. It was an old interview with Friedrich Jürgenson (1903 -1987), where he described how he had captured voices of deceased people on tape. After the old recording a visual artist explained what Instrumental Trans Communication (ITK) is about. ITK is a pseudoscience claiming that the radio, TV, computers, and other electronic appliances can transmit voices of the deceased, often drowned by the noise that surrounds us – but they are there and they want to be listened to. Trans-communicators believe they are surrounded by invisible dimensions where dead people and unknown creatures exist and that they through their different devices are able to capture their voices.
While I was listening to all that, I could not help smiling. Many years ago, I and my friend Claes had watched a television program called The Dead Talk on Tape where a gentle and elegant Friedrich Jürgenson eloquently and seriously told the viewers about how he had managed to record the voices of dead people on tape. These voices spoke German, Norwegian, English and several other languages, as well as a polyglot mixture that was difficult to make any sense of. Jürgenson presented several examples of messages from “The Other Side”. It was undeniably difficult to perceive what was said and make any sense of it all, though Jürgenson interpreted the messages to an evidently impressed TVcrew.
It is beyond any doubt that Jürgenson honestly believed that he had established contact with deceased people´s souls, but what seemed to be slightly ridiculous was the short and banal messages the dead conveyed to us: "We are here." "I'll see you". "I'm there ... I'm with you". "I'm German" and so on. During several years, I, Claes and our friends, had a lot of fun with these assumptions. We distorted our voices over the phone. If any disturbance appeared on television or radio we hummed the theme from The Twilight Zone and said “Listen carefully, now they are talking to us.” We signed our letters with "your friend from the other side", and so forth. Claes died young and I sincerely hope he lives on in another dimension.
Friedrich Jürgenson's life story was unusual. He was far from being your regular village fool, with religious inclinations, who claims that he through his home manufactured contraptions are in contact with the inhabitants of other dimensions.
Jürgenson was born in Odessa in 1903. His mother was Swedish and his father, who was Danish, worked as a doctor. Jürgenson, who was musically talented, studied at the Odessa Conservatory and also took lessons in painting. In 1925, the family moved to Estonia and a year later Friedrich continued his music studies in Berlin. He wanted to become an opera singer and had as his teacher a Jew who in 1932 migrated to Palestine. Jürgenson followed suite and remained in Palestine for six years.
In 1938, Jürgenson moved to Milan to study song with Emilio Piccoli, who had had Tito Schipa as his student, one of the world's most famous tenors. In 1943, Jürgensson came to Sweden where he married and supported himself by painting portraits. A serious cold had destroyed his voice and Jürgenson had thus been forced to give up his hope of becoming an opera singer. In 1949, Jürgenson visited Pompeii, where he made a suite of watercolours that ended up with Pius XII. The Pope appreciated Jürgenson´s talent and employed him to document the findings unearthed during recently completed excavations of the catacombs below St. Peter's Basilica. With the Vatican´s blessing Jürgenson also got the possibility to participate in excavations in Pompeii.
Jürgenson's good relations with the Vatican allowed him in 1968, on behalf of the Swedish Television, to make a unique documentary about the Italian professor Margherita Guarducci's investigations of bone remains extracted during the excavations of the Vatican Catacombs. At the centre of these analyses was a collection of bones wrapped in purple cloth with goldthreads, which had been placed right under the main altar of St. Peter´s Basilica. After several years of diligent research, using the latest scientific methods and documented by Jürgenson, professor Guarducci's team was able to determine that the bone fragments belonged to a sixty-year-old man deceased during the first century AD. Christ. The television programme produced by Jürgenson received a lot of international attention and Paul VI presented Jürgenson with the order Commendator Gregorio Magno for his efforts.
Jürgenson, who was proficient and well-articulated in several languages, such as Swedish, German, Italian and Russian, as well as he was keenly interested in all forms of oral communication and acoustics, related how he by his house in the Swedish village of Mölnby in June 1959, equipped with a tape recorder, had been walking around in the forest recording birdsong. When he later on played the tape he found not only birdsong, but also a very weak Norwegian-speaking voice that spoke about "birds at night". Jürgenson first assumed that a radio broadcast accidentally had interfered his recording. However, he later on discerned a message in Swedish: "Friedel, can you hear me? It's Mom." Friedel was Jürgenson's deceased mother's pet name for her son.
Jürgenson was deeply moved and by constantly having his tape recorder turned on, he eventually managed to capture more voices. Using fresh, recently acquired recording coils and evermore sophisticated recording devices, Jürgenson managed to record more of what he assumed to be deceased people´s attempts to communicate themselves with their survivors. Those who listened to Jürgensons´s recordings had to prick up their ears to capture the messages and generally needed Jürgenson's assistance to make them out.
Jürgenson wrote several books about his findings and several of them have been translated into different languages, making quite an imprint among New Age circles where many consider Jürgenson´s to be a decisive evidence of the presence of other dimensions and the fact that occupants of those spheres are trying to get in touch with us.
There is even a radio frequency, between 1445-1500 kHz, where the voices of spirits are said to be heard clearer than anywhere else and is thus called the Jürgenson Frequency. Unfortunately, the messages remains quite muddled and rather bland. However, it does not prevent the existence of an international network of enthusiasts who devote who devote a lot of their time trying to trace voices if the dead.
Over the years, various radio amateurs have compiled vast amounts of recordings of what is assumed to be voices and images from other dimensions, but some convincing evidence have been difficult to produce. The most common explanations are that the recorded sounds and images are either fallacies, or originate from radio/TV broadcasts accidentally captured by amateur receivers and interpreted as spiritual messages. Several serious investigations of the recordings, not least those from Jürgenson's extensive sound archives, have been made and it has been conclusively proven that the soundtracks are composed of human voices.
Unfortunately, the scientific authorities most commonly quoted in connection with Jürgenson's discoveries are quite dubious. For example, Friedbert Karger who regularly is presented as a serious researcher from the prestigious Max Planck Institute. It is true that Karger has been active at a Max Planck Institute (there are 80 such institutes with 23,000 connected persons), though he was a researcher of plasma and nuclear fusion. His interest in parapsychology was far from being part of those activities. Dr. Karger was during many years a regular guest in German TV sofas and at newspaper slots, involved in almost any spectacular New Age discovery, for example the ridiculous claim that ten deaths had occurred in connection with the discovery of the Ice Age mummy Ötzi. Dr. Karger attested that this belief was unfounded, nevertheless he remained convinced that we "survive our bodily death in a different form and in another dimension."
Another authority in this context was the continuously pipe smoking and cosy professor Hans Bender from a famous parapsychological institution in Freiburg. However, Bender had a dubious past as a convinced National Socialist and with a medical doctorate which eventually proved to be non-existent.
The well-made and interesting radio program about Jürgenson and ITK phenomena made me think of an exhibition that I recently visited in England. Hearing Voices is a serious, interdisciplinary research project at Durham University, investigating how people throughout the ages have heard voices emanating from an invisible source. The exhibition, which the researchers presented at Durham´s Museum, featured several interesting items from various museum collections around the world. Either in originals or copies were texts written by people who had experienced paracusia, i.e. perceiving sounds without auditory stimulus, and interpreted them as heavenly voices dictating what they had to write down. There were, for example, excerpts from The Prophecies and Revelations of Saint Bridget of Sweden , together with writings by Teresa of Ávila, Margery Kemp and Emanuel Swedenborg.
Some originals of William Blake's writings and illustrations were also displayed. There were medical records from mental hospitals, tightly written notebooks of mental patients, along with restraining shirts and other means used to "deliver patients from their dangerous delusions."
Exhibited were also copies of Freud's notes about an interesting book written by a senior judge named Daniel Paul Schreber, who after being admitted to a mental hospital in detail, described the delusions he assumed originated from the tough discipline he had been exposed to by his “well-meaning” father. After the rejection of his application to one of the highest legal positions in Austria-Hungary, Schreber suffered a severe mental breakdown and began to hear a multitude of voices, at the same time as he imagined that his body was becoming depraved of its vital organs, while he gradually was transformed into a woman to enable him to give birth to a child of God.
Schreber's book is fascinating. It can be read as a detailed and occasionally amazingly lucid case description, narrated from within by a man who sincerely believed he was undergoing an utterly strange metamorphosis, while describing religious perceptions and visions that probably could have been taken seriously during the Middle Ages. While reading Schreber's book, I remembered long and convoluted conversations I had with schizophrenic patients while I during a summer many years ago worked as a temporary warden for mentally ill persons.
Durham's research group includes academics from cognitive neurosciences, cultural studies, English literature, humanities, linguistics, philosophy, psychiatry and theology. They work closely with physicians who treat mentally ill patients and a variety of "normal" people who experience paracusia, an "affliction" which apparently is not as uncommon as you might assume.
The research group compiles and investigates a vast variety testimonies, both historical and contemporary, in attempts to shed light on the relationship between hearing voices and everyday processes of memory, language and creativity. They also investigate why some voices, and not others, are perceived as disturbing and how voice hearing may serve as social, cultural and political inspiration. There are several examples of successful politicians and leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. who have assumed they were guided by “inner voices”. The exhibition presented several texts written by writers like Charles Dickens and Joseph Conrad, describing their inner voices and recordings done by authors who talked about similar experiences, such as Samuel Beckett, Virginia Woolf and Jeanette Winterson.
Unfortunately, I do not think that the voices recorded by Friedrich Jürgenson prove the existence of a dimension inhabited by souls of deceased people. However, that assumption does not prevent me from being convinced that we are far from being familiar with all subtleties connected with sound and silence - echoes of past events, sounds created and remaining around us and several other strange phenomena that we currently cannot even imagine, but will be discovered in the future. As Hamlet told his friend Horatio:
There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
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