14 April 2020

Dear Ella,

Oh yes, I too recognise this strange experience of time now that our daily lives take place in the same spaces, under this surreal slumber. While the virus so far seems to inhabit the world outside of my own family, home, skin, certainly its affects have permeated all of them. Could these be frequencies of some kind, infra or ultra?

The ‘silent whale’ still occupies my thoughts. Indeed, the only ‘silent’ sound recording that resides in the British Library is the infrasound voice of a blue whale. Lower than our human ears can perceive.

Of course sound is not merely a sonic experience to whales, it is part of an entire constellation of senses corresponding with phenomena beyond our wildest notions. Sound is also a visual experience, it is known that by emitting and receiving sound frequencies whales can visualise shapes and marine landscapes thousands of miles away. When their voices reach another whale there is no reason to believe that the sound is reflected on the surface of the other’s skin alone – the way our eyes perceive reflected light, creating an opaque and superficial image – sound can in fact effortlessly pierce the skin, to reflect an image that is part-external part-internal back to the receiver. Like an X-ray rather than a photograph: a whale might see its friend at a far distance, while simultaneously be able to see in its stomach what it had for breakfast.

I’ll forward you the spectrogram images Tom sent me, from the ‘silent whale’ recording. These diagrams of sound frequencies present what we can’t hear. I’m sure you are more familiar with reading these visual sound analyses, but it shook me to realise that the density of colour indicates acoustic energy, and that the bright colours at the bottom of the diagrams convey how energetic, how LOUD, those silent sounds actually are! This of course should be no surprise as these sounds are intended to reach across oceans.

Thank you so much for your update on the event this autumn. I wouldn’t want to miss it, in any shape or form; whatever happens over the upcoming months, I am convinced we too will become a species well adapted to communication over vast distances!

Sending many hugs!

24 April 2020

Dear Vibeke,

Thank you for your letter and for inviting me to correspond and think out loud with you about not-so-silent subjects. I can imagine the blue whale song occupying your thoughts in so many ways – haven’t we been haunted by the still-silent whale of the archive – the unheard silent whale- the whale record we never had a chance to hear in the archive before the world changed so rapidly? When you returned home from London, what was it like receiving the blue whale recording into a completely other space and time than that in which we had first become aware of its existence? Curious to think of this recording travelling through the internet, to span distances the animal could reach through its song alone in the ocean. I listened to the recording you sent, the sped up frequencies allowing us to perceive something audible of the whale’s low pulsar rumbling. It is cosmic and chilling – the hollow acoustic space coming by increment into audibility – a song throbbing underwater. Before heard, felt.

I am so struck by how you describe the spectogram images of the sound as seeing what we can’t hear. I feel I am apprehending the world the other way round from this right now – hearing-as-apprehending what I cannot see, both close and at a distance (not unlike the whale you describe visualising land at a distance through sound). The recording of the whale moves me so intensely. I find it frightening (I never thought that would be my reaction) in its acoustic scale which is so different from the effects of volume or amplitude. The deep vibrations of the whale occupy all the air space in my headphones long before these vibrations become something like clear sonic signal.

I mentioned a dream I had in another message to you and (even though I bizarrely cast myself as a film-maker – in deep homage maybe to Andrew Kotting and The Whalebone box) it speaks to something I have been thinking about in relation to the whale recording – about how we attune with/to unclear or uncommon sound, especially in unclear or uncommon times. How do we cope with, deal with, let alone attend to, subjects we cannot hold in hand, we can neither see nor hear? Or subjects that appear as such? Subjects that shape-shift, change scale and frequency, medium and channel?

In sleep I was standing between dark rocks, staring out onto a deep violet sea – an old friend standing next to me while thinking of a new friend, you. This dream-image was a flash, a moment of exposure before waking – a moment that told me I was making a film called (…ahem) “The Whale in the Sea”. Neither the whale or you appeared to be there – at least not “in shot”. The sea was as still and quiet as my body as I listened out for what I was unable to see. And in this vivid flash I knew you and the whale werethere – relying on, as I have written elsewhere, ‘keeping faith in the absence of fact, of feeling the trace elements of something in the air, on the air, of listening to the materiality of vibrations and hearing imagination as information’.

I’m sure the moving stills of my rapid thoughts while sheltering in place are not uncommon in this time: such speed in confinement, such volatile experiments in thought and feeling, in small rooms, asleep, awake, asleep, awake. And what do we perceive in the audio play-back of our sleeping minds “under this surreal slumber”, as you call our current conditions? In Dylan Thomas’s play for voices, Under Milk Wood (1954), the scene of sleep we first encounter is an auditory world, one which we are invited to listen in to – not only to the still natural world of the unwoken, the “dew falling” and “salt slow musical wind”, but also those asleep: the first voice tells us “from where you are you can hear their dreams”.

With love and strength,

The Hague, 29 April 2020

Dear Ella,

The acoustic scale really is striking. Estimations tell of a time – before commercial shipping and other motorised noises entered the world ocean – in which a whale’s voice could be heard at any location and at any moment. How spacious this global symphony (speaking of acoustic commons!). And to think that the underwater environment was considered a silent one until midway the last century; the absence of hearing mistaken for the absence of sound. Surely, the oceans have been more silent than usual now. Like people have retreated from streets and plazas, so have they from the open waters. The oceans have, in part, been emptied of human propelled noise, which has an immediate effect on whales raising their voices. Generations of whales have never experienced an ocean this quiet. “We have an opportunity to listen,” says marine acoustician Michelle Fournet, “and that opportunity to listen will not appear again in our lifetime.” Does it really take a catastrophe to listen?

I’m drawn to your description of the hollow space embedded in the ‘silent whale’ recording as increment, like a third actor present in sound. I too experience this hollow space; this ocean space lucidly. While the whale is still actively present in the recording, as it emits sound frequencies, be it unheard ones, the ocean might rather be the ‘silent’ actor. But if silence refers to absence, not even that appears to be true. As we state the ocean is present on the recording, we experience its vastness in deep abstraction; as the fabric through which the whale’s frequencies travel, as the fundamental factor that shapes its sonic texture.

When we become quiet, we can attune to other (than human) voices.

Michael worded the outer worldly familiarity of the ‘silent whale’ frequencies as: “The sound of deep sleep. An audio-only dream.” Interestingly so he, like you, referred to a dream-like state. These weeks I experience very vivid dreams as well and it’s something I’ve been hearing from many people around me. As you also attest with the examples of your email, this might really offer an interesting track for your thoughts on how we attune with/to the unclear or uncommon right now: we dream. We submerge in imagination with all available weight. I would really love to hear more about your observations regarding the line of thought you mentioned.

Also, I realise that as a parent you must be well familiar with the weight of a dreaming body, as a child’s body can (and oh so deeply enjoys to) be carried asleep. Is it heavier or lighter than the body during daytime? I might be wondering off subject. I guess whales and their weight have been such active themes in my thoughts for years now that mentioning one triggers the other without the slightest effort.

Much love from across the water,

Spectrogram of a blue whale recording in the British Library

From her home in The Hague, The Netherlands, Vibeke Mascini is exploring ways to experience the ‘silent whale’ recording beyond the sonic, working in collaboration with London based composer Tom Haines, and composer and writer Ella Finer.

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