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Declaration of Sonic Rights

Stephen Whittington

Stephen Whittington & Daruma, Japan Stephen Whittington & Daruma, Japan
Sounds were ‘born free, but everywhere they are in chains’ (Rousseau). Captured, held prisoners in hard drives, USB sticks, iPods, smart phones, they are forced to remain mute in the darkness of their digital cells, released for a short time, if at all, at the whim of those who believe they possess them, affording their would-be owners a moment’s distraction, a fleeting pleasure, a soundtrack to the movie of their lives, before being cast back into the gloom of the digital netherworld, abandoned, without hope. In their prison cells they are mere cyphers, their sonorous existence reduced to nothing more than data. We are the gaolers of this digital prison, we who created the infernal machines that capture ephemeral vibrations and enslave them. Our digital storage devices are Piranesi’s imaginary prisons; his nightmarish vision is the reality of sound today – sounds are oppressed by us, who imagine we are their masters. Yet we are more enslaved than they are, enslaved to our delusions of mastery over the sounds that we oppress. Only by renouncing our claim to possess sounds can we escape from our own enslavement.

Sounds were born free, and ‘to win freedom is their destiny’ (Busoni). But for them to realise their destiny, we must recognise that we cannot own sounds. At best, we are the guardians of sounds, and role is to protect them, not imprison them. The ‘music industry,’ the ‘entertainment industry,’ the ‘media’ and the ‘art market’ have turned sounds into commodities that can be traded. This commodification has warped our relationship with them. We imagine that sounds can be bought, sold and owned. The value attached to sounds is their use value; the more useful they are to us, the more highly valued they are. We can manipulate them, control them, make them serve us, to achieve whatever ends we seek. We use them to make people pay attention to us, to love or admire us, to express ourselves, to advance our careers, to achieve wealth and power, to dominate and oppress our fellow human beings. We do not consider what we can learn from sounds, only what we can do with them, how we can use them, how we can consume them, what they can do for us. The intrinsic nature of sounds themselves is forgotten.

But our relationship to sounds is of a different order; we are like strangers who meet on a journey, who experience nothing more than momentary eye contact, a flicker of acknowledgement of one another’s existence, before going our separate ways. That is why an encounter with a sound is so often accompanied by sadness, whatever pleasure it may also bring. Sounds move towards us, but they also move away, and remind us that whatever and whomever we encounter in life we must eventually say farewell to them, or they to us. The evanescence of sound is an essential part of its nature, and for humans that is its greatest value. Sound is perpetually in the state of vanishing, slipping away from our attempts to grasp hold of it, defying attempts to make it a ‘thing.’ The perception that sounds are things, and therefore able to be possessed, is reinforced by the use of the word ‘sound’; it would be preferable to adopt a term such as ‘sonorous being’ or ‘sonic becoming.’

Freedom and truth are inseparable. The true nature of things is only revealed when they are free to be themselves, and only when that occurs that can we experience their true nature ourselves. All forms of categorisation are barriers to truth and freedom. We may find categories such as music, sound art, sonic art, performance and conceptual art useful for our own purposes, but from the perspective of sounds these are further tools of oppression, barriers preventing them from revealing their true nature. Sounds are entirely indifferent to any categories that we put them in; we trample on their right to be themselves by forcing them into categories which inevitably constrain the way in which we listen to them. Is it not sufficient that we have now incarcerated sounds in our digital dungeons? Do we need to restrain them further in categorical straitjackets?

Large Ulam VLF Loop (graphite), Joyce Hinterding (see <a href=RT 129)." /> Large Ulam VLF Loop (graphite), Joyce Hinterding (see RT 129).
image courtesy MCA
If sounds are to be free to ‘be themselves’ (John Cage), we have to surrender our illusion of mastery and learn to attend to them in a different way. The dominant current mode of listening is oppressive; it imposes use value, and egocentric gratification onto sounds. We must renounce our ownership of sounds and learn to listen - again, or perhaps for the first time. This means reaching a stage of listening in which we acknowledge that sounds have an existence that is independent of us and our desires. The act of listening begins with the acceptance that sounds have an intelligence of their own, and all that they ask of us is to become resonating bodies in which they can reveal themselves. We must accept the responsibility we have to liberate sounds by cultivating the act of listening; the responsibility of the arts is to assist us in that cultivation, which demands an approach to art that respects the right of sounds to freedom, and refuses to “push them around” (Morton Feldman). Instead of asking what we can ‘say’ with sounds, artists must ask what sounds want to say to us.

Everywhere we look—and listen—we find sounds that are oppressed by commodification, objectification and exploitation. It is a pitiable sight to see innocent and defenceless sonorous beings, which long ago in human history belonged to the realms of the magical and numinous, reduced to slavery, at the beck and call of capricious masters, ruthlessly exploited for egocentric and materialist ends.

Accordingly, we need a declaration of the rights of sounds. The underlying principles for this declaration are:

1. Sounds have the right to be free and to reveal themselves in the truth of their own nature

2. Sounds are not possessions, and cannot be owned, bought or sold

3. Sounds must not be controlled, manipulated, exploited or oppressed for the gratification of human desires

4. Sounds have no interest in art, and any art that oppresses sound for its own purposes is not worthy of the name

5. The liberation of sound requires the active cultivation by humans of non- oppressive modes of listening

Therefore I call upon all those who love sounds for their own sakes to join in the struggle for the liberation of sounds from their state of oppression, to fight for the rights of sounds to sound in freedom, peace and harmony, to end the exploitation of sounds for the basest of human motives, to learn to listen to sounds by becoming ourselves resonating bodies, and thus discover what sound has to teach us. Let us renounce for all time the delusory belief that we own sounds and can do with them whatever we like.

Once we have ended the enslavement of sounds, we will end our own. When sounds are free, we too may hope to be free.

Declaration of Sonic Rights, Stephen Whittington, on behalf of the Sonic Liberation Movement, first read at the Australian Experimental Arts Foundation’s Art on Tap, Adelaide, Oct 15, 2015

RealTime issue #129 Oct-Nov 2015 pg. web only

© Stephen Whittington; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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