Singing in Silence The affordances of the (im)perceptible

This article is part of the series ‘Practices of Musicking‘, (re)thinking musical experience beyond limited understandings of ‘listening’. The series accompanies the theme of our new, first issue of Soapbox: ‘Practices of Listening‘. Read here.

Christine Sun Kim is a sound artist. She has also been deaf since birth. But instead of inhibiting her, her deafness  informs her practice: “As a deaf person living in a world of sound, it’s as if I was living in a foreign country, blindly following its rules, customs, behaviors, and norms without ever questioning them”.1 In her work, she attempts to use this position to “unlearn sound etiquette”,2 raising questions about the boundaries and practices of both listening and sound production. She departs from commonplace norms and behaviors with regards to sound by attending to the many ways in which sonic encounters are embodied, interrogating sound not only as a measurable force but as an encounter that is always complexly mediated, performed, felt, and entangled: sound as something you actively do instead of passively perceive. Throughout her varied output – which includes paining, illustration, video, and performance – she shines a light on how “sound etiquette” informs practices of listening, and in her attempt to imagine sound otherwise, gestures toward different notions of how sonic encounters become meaningful.

Listening is active, happening in specific spaces, between specific bodies, undergirded by specific practices

In 2013, she first developed Face Opera II (she has since restaged it in various iterations), which is structured as an opera of seven acts written and performed entirely by nine pre-linguistically deaf people, including Sun Kim herself. The most obvious ‘unlearning’ aspect of this performance is the disassociation of singing and audibility, with Sun Kim and her collaborators ‘singing’ using universal facial expressions from American Sign Language (ASL), while keeping their hands hidden throughout the performance. According to Sun Kim, “roughly 30-40% of American Sign Language is manual production, while the rest is expressed on the face and through body movement, a highly spatial aspect”. In ASL, facial expressions are essential for conveying context, grammatical precision, and “coloring” emotional aspects of communication. 3

By suggesting that facial expressions can act as a way of singing, Sun Kim seems to imply that facial and bodily movements play an important role in musical and linguistic communication systems regardless of sound, and highlights how the body functions as a kind of mediator, interpreter, and translator when trying to convey or fix unstable meanings. Listening for Sun Kim is not a passive sensing of vibrations in individual ears, but is something active, happening in specific spaces, between specific bodies, undergirded by specific practices.

Figure 1. Act 1 of Face Opera II, with the artist operating an iPad which scrolls though various emotions, while off-camera one of the performers sits across from the rest and acts as a kind of conductor

To understand the facial expressions in Face Opera II as singing, though, requires shifting a conception of sound as something human beings passively register and decode towards something more more open-ended.

Martin Clayton proposes that a sonic encounter can be thought of as something that “can be perceived as offering or suggesting affordances, and therefore as being meaningful”.4

These affordances are necessarily open-ended, neither inherently good nor bad, but depend on the perceiving body in question’s capacity to be acted upon by another, in this case sonic body. Through this definition, Clayton positions himself against understandings in which perception of auditory meaning is dependent on a shared understanding of semiosis or “formal structural relationships”, instead arguing that all sounds offer any perceiving body “possibilities for action and imagination”.5

Though music is never neutral, it is also not inherently pleasurable either

This means that any affordance is different for any body in any circumstance, and each individual will therefore potentially experience whatever meaning arises differently. As Clayton succinctly puts it, “meaning is always meaning for someone”.6 What a sound affords thus depends on a host of specific factors that come into play in any sonic encounter, including of course what a specific body is able to perceive. But this model also makes space for anything in the context of the encounter that can influence its perception, including how a body has learned to perceive, and how it may feel about the encounter. In other words, the affordance model shifts listening from being a general habit to an embodied practice. In this model, meaning making arises in a specific encounter regardless of formal content, which is how an opera can be based on prompts rather than plot, and singing can happen in silence.

This resonates strongly with certain strands of affect theorists, especially those who take as their inspiration the work of Baruch Spinoza. According to Marie Thompson:

Spinoza’s affect begins with the relation; it involves the in-between of encounters of subjects, objects, and environments…affect refers to a body’s capacity to affect and be affected, its modulating powers to act and be acted upon.7

Thompson relies on this non-anthropocentric, relational notion of affect to distance herself from others who present it “as a realm of pure, unmediated experience”.8 Much like Clayton’s notion of perceptible affordances, each relation creates different affordances for different bodies. Similar to Clayton’s meaning-making, which is informed by a variety of relations in an individual encounter, she also stresses that though affect “functions according to an alternative logic and requir[es] a different point of focus – [it] nevertheless remains implicated within the field of representation and signification”.9 This means that, though music is never neutral, it is also not inherently pleasurable either, and therefore opens up its meaningful potential to be both good and bad, fun and annoying, interesting and tedious. Above all, this expanded meaning arises in relation, and not merely according to a universal set of ears that detect vibration and filter it into brainwaves.

Listening thus becomes something mediated through cultural norms, aesthetic ideas, learned feelings, and our own bodies

Although this affective model seems to substantiate some of the possibilities that Clayton suggests with regards to ways in which musical meaning can productively be opened up, Thompson warns that using affect as a starting point does not automatically sidestep all problems:

While the affective may be surprising or (productively) unpredictable, it can also work to strengthen a hegemonic social order, and to dominate, regulate and alienate certain bodies. In other words, there is nothing inherently emancipatory, radical or resistant about affect, but nor does it always already affirm the dominant modes of social reproduction. Affect, then, is not ‘either/or’ but rather ‘both-and’ – for better and for worse.10

This model of affective musical encounter forms the basis of her critique of what she calls “aesthetic moralism” in music. Aesthetic moralism, according to her, conflates what is thought of as aesthetic virtue with moral virtue, so that sounds that are perceived as being “good”, pleasant, and desirable are deemed more worthwhile socially and intellectually,11 while other sonic elements that are considered disagreeable or ugly are substituted as markers of social and cultural degeneration and therefore vilified and prohibited.12 But how can a form of singing not based on generic notions of pitch, tone, style, or harmony – in other words, ‘ugly’ singing – then be considered opera? How to distinguish between moralistic, ‘sound etiquette,’ inscribed feelings and ones that potentially open up spaces for different practices of listening?

Figure 2. In Act IV, the performers do away with textual markers and follow the suspicious glances of the conductor

The solution cannot, in any case, lie in a grand kind of relativism: music is different for everyone, simply a matter of ‘taste’, and therefore the responsibility for any kind aesthetic moralism lies with the individual. Thompson’s reading of Spinozan affect complicates merely resorting to personal taste, because the free-willed subject does not occupy a central role in this relational model. Judgments do not arise from inherent preferences, but have to do with the ways in which an individual and its encounters are embedded within (and to some extent, therefore, determined by) a host of past and present affective relations.13 Instead of free will, mediation becomes central: ‘bad’ music is encountered as bad because of a set of historical, social, political, experiential and material forces which combine to colour a given musical encounter. This is not necessarily a problem, except when it serves to “fix meaning” as Clayton puts it,14 or at least set the boundaries within which certain meanings can operate.

In Christine Sun Kim’s work, the boundaries between aural and visual, perceptible and imperceptible, and therefore meaningful and meaningless, are probed. In Face Opera II, by taking performative gestures related to but separated from their manual elements in ASL and suggesting this can communicate beautiful music, musical experience becomes something that is perceptible in an embodied, visual, and spatial sense and not in a (disembodied) aural one. Listening thus becomes something mediated through a complex web including cultural norms, aesthetic ideas, learned feelings, and our own bodies. If song and singing does not require sound to be able to be perceived, then perhaps music can reverberate beyond questions of beauty: movement, vibration, spatiality, and visuality/visibility all emerge as affective forces, with the same inherent potential as sound. At the same time, different bodies bring with them different affordances, in being affected by these forces differently. In Face Opera II, these different bodies are shown to be unfixed and flexible, as the different performers switch roles every act, sometimes using linguistic prompts (as in fig. 1), sometimes relying solely on gesture (fig. 2). This reliance on gesture serves to open up, as Clayton puts it, “the ways in which musical experiences afford understanding”.15 In fact, he suggests that gesture is particularly suited to destabilise ways of knowing music that fixate it, as it is “continuous, imagistic, and non-hierarchical”.16

Face Opera ii unsettles boundaries between ‘deaf’ and ‘hearing’ culture and language, and ‘visual’ and ‘auditory’ sensibilities

However, as Thompson warns, we should probably be wary of utopian theoretical moves beyond hierarchy. Indeed, in Face Opera II’s final act, Sun Kim seems to have anticipated any lingering attachment to a traditionally beautiful form of (opera) singing in the audience by letting one of the cast members use his audible voice, amplified by a microphone, and the remaining cast standing in single file copying him. This jarring experience of actual sound after so much gesture towards it – compounded by the emotional undertones of a crescendo into wailing and shouting – jolts the hearing audience out of any vestiges of aesthetic moralism, but also shows how hard it is to truly let go of it. By priming audiences for different experiences of sound and having that experience explicitly not convey a sense of closure in its final act, Face Opera II reveals that it may not be enough simply to be willing to theoretically accept a different kind of listening by enjoying a deaf opera. It may even be that the biggest affordances of this piece lie not in the practice of the hearing members of the audience, but the deaf ones.

If certain kinds of practices embed sonic encounters with aesthetic moralism, which “silences other possibilities and potentialities of acoustic experience”,17 then Christine Sun Kim’s work can perhaps function as a counter gesture, by opening up ways in which acoustic experience can be perceived, made perceptible, and encountered. This gesture actively resists the dominant imagination or “ideal type” of deafness,18 which situates deafness solely in the ear, and dismisses any kind of overlap or multiplicity of sensory and critical capabilities. Sun Kim instead gestures towards a continuum of senses which overlap and feed off one another in any communicative encounter, echoing the Spinozan affective model Thompson describes. This unsettles boundaries between ‘deaf’ and ‘hearing’ culture and language, and ‘visual’ and ‘auditory’ sensibilities: the body emerges as a mediator, translator, and interpreter, though one that is able (regardless of how that ‘ability’ is commonly defined) to sit in a sensorial in-between zone. It is in this zone where meanings, practices, and relations to other bodies (sonic, human, or anything else) can be re-oriented and re-defined. An opera based on prompt not plot, sung in silence, and culminating in sonic discomfort for a hearing audience, can thus not only gesture towards different practices of listening, but actually allow those encountering it to imagine what these practices might entail, while emphasising how difficult, and necessary, hearing otherwise can be.

A version of this piece was originally written for the course ‘Cultural Musicology’ at the University of Amsterdam, led by Dr. Barbara Titus.

  1. Noble, Kathy. 2016. “Christine Sun Kim”. Artforum 2016(2) https://www.artforum.com/print/reviews/201602/christine-sun-kim-57503
  2. Hughes, Alice. 2014. “Unlearning Sound: Christine Sun Kim”. Rooms Magazine, 14 August 2014.
  3. Holmes, Jessica. 2016 “Singing Beyond Hearing”. Journal of the American Musicological Society 542-548. Page 544
  4. Clayton, Martin. 2001. “Introduction: Towards a Theory of Musical Meaning (in India and Elsewhere).” British Journal of Ethnomusicology 10(1): 1-17. Page 11, italics added
  5. ibid. Page 1
  6. ibid. Page 11
  7. Thompson, Marie. Beyond Unwanted Sound: Noise, Affect and Aesthetic Moralism. Bloomsbury, 2017. Page 12
  8. ibid.
  9. ibid. Page 9
  10. ibid. Page 10
  11. This can also include silence, in the sense of how an image of a pure, silent, and ideal nature is conflated with inherent goodness: “a transcendent realm of pure and unbroken silence”, which according to Thompson shapes many perceptions of unwanted noises (Thompson 5)
  12. ibid. Page 5-6
  13. ibid. Page 110-111
  14. Page 11
  15. Page 12
  16. ibid.
  17. Thompson 5
  18. Friedner, Michelle and Stefan Helmreich. 2012. “Sound Studies Meets Deaf Studies”. Senses & Society 7(1):72-86.