Sounds of Apocalypse, Part One: Roar of Creation and Destruction

"Death on a Pale Horse" by Benjamin West [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

“Death on a Pale Horse” by Benjamin West [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

EDITOR’S NOTE: With this post we welcome a new contributing writer to the Teem. Dominik Irtenkauf is a freelance writer of fiction and nonfiction dealing with art, mythology, cultural philosophy, media theory, the occult, and avant-garde music. He also writes about the boundaries between art and science, and recently he has been combining his literary and documentary writing. He has published a number of books in German; for some of his writing in English, see the blog Bergmetal under the keyword “Stig Olsdal.” Dominik studied German philology, philosophy, and comparative literature in Münster. In 2007 he spent three months in Georgia on a Musa Fellowship for Literature from the country’s Ministry of Education and Science.

In this article — which is the first installment of a four-part piece — he combines all of these interests to present a reflection and meditation on an often overlooked aspect of cosmic creation and destruction.

* * *

In mythic tales, the world often comes into being by noise. For example, in Enuma Elish, the Babylonian Genesis, the younger gods, begat by Apsû and his wife Tiâmat, engage in an incessant racket, and Apsû complains:

Their way has become painful to me,
By day I cannot rest, by night I cannot sleep;
I will destroy them and put an end to their way,
That silence be established, and then let us sleep!

The resulting war among the gods results in the creation of the world order that we know today, as the younger gods defeat their parents and use the dismembered corpse of Tiâmat to create the cosmos and the blood of Apsû to create the human race.

Other “noisy” creation stories include the Ancient Vedic traditions, where the world comes into being by the boom and quake of a “Great Breath,” and the apocryphal “Eighth Book of Moses” (also known as the “Holy Book of Moses” or “Hidden Sacred Book of Moses”), written by a Hellenistic Egyptian Jew and teaching that there have been seven “laughs” of God that created the forces in the universe. Obviously, the idea of noise at the world’s origin is one with a long, and in fact an ancient, pedigree.

If we think about the matter long enough, it gives rise to an obvious question: if the world as we know it came into being because of noise, then will it end with noise as well? And when that end arrives, what exactly will be the sound that accompanies the collapse? Will it be music? Will it merely be some tacky, meaningless noise in the background? Will it be a dramatic, crashing wall of inconceivable resonance?

Let me quote from Stuart Sim’s Manifesto for Silence:

Noise, noise everywhere indeed, as the headline had it: above the earth, below the sea. No doubt one day science will be able to determine if there are any significant effects on wildlife from such pollution, but whether anything can be done about it by that stage is another question entirely. There are such things as “tipping points,” as we are beginning to realize very belatedly with the phenomenon of global warming: damage cannot always be repaired, nor processes reversed. (pp. 28-29)

So the question becomes not just whether the world will end in noise but whether noise itself might bring about the end of the world. Have we already crossed the point of no return? Could the accumulation of noise become one of the causes of the downfall of our civilization?

This goes far beyond the usual meanings of “noise pollution.” Many people feel intimidated by neighbors who listen to loud music and refurnish their apartments in the middle of night, but an apocalypse must be bigger than these daily disturbances. It rather outgrows human concerns to engulf not only the extermination of human life but the whole cosmic drama.

The universe began when there were no human beings around, and there probably won’t be any around when it ends. In this literal sense, our chance to hear the sound of the apocalypse is practically non-existent. But in another sense it’s a fruitful question to pursue, because what “apocalypse” is, and why it happens, and how it manifests itself, are all matters of personal and collective speculation, opinion, and expectation that have developed throughout human history. Natural and cultural phenomena, including religious beliefs, are all deeply involved in the process, and in these areas we may be able to gain a sense of the sounds at World’s End and their meaning for us right now.

The Natural Sounds of Apocalypse

Mount Galunggung, Indonesia, 1982 - By R. Hadian, U.S. Geological Survey (image from NOAA website) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Mount Galunggung, Indonesia, 1982 – By R. Hadian, U.S. Geological Survey (image from NOAA website) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

In the Christian scriptures, in John’s Apocalypse, we read that The End should be accompanied by phenomena like natural disasters, insect swarms, and the appearance of an awful seven-headed monster. Clearly, this biblical apocalypse would involve many sounds: volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, the roar of blizzards. But do these precede, accompany, or follow the actual End? It’s important to recognize that the question may well be unanswerable. The answer may well be like the experience of death, which we can only know as it happens. It may be that as soon as, or even before, we could ever hear the sound of the apocalypse, it will already be over.

Still, the nerdy community of conspiracy theories admirers who post supernatural sounds on the web seems to be far more concerned with the first possibility: that certain sounds will precede the end. In the past few years, YouTube has become cluttered with a profusion of videos bearing titles like “Strange noise in the sky,” “Weird sounds and lights in the sky,” and “Something scary in my yard.” These are all described as field recordings, and the various individuals who are posting them generally connect them more or less seriously to unexplained and possibly supernatural phenomena, often with direct references to an upcoming apocalypse.

The audio tracks of these “strange noises” are, as we might expect, mostly accompanied by images of blurry and zoomed natural landscapes and details. Some of the noises in these videos sound like massive, blaring trumpets — a classic biblical-apocalyptic sound — while others sound like they were produced by natural sources. The sounds in this second category are often hardly audible. Some are reminiscent of the wind hissing through a forest, others of the ice cracking at the beginning of the spring.

This last association is especially evocative. Natural disasters are supposed to increase in the coming decades as the average planetary temperature rises, and the issue of climate change has opened many controversial discussions. Do the scientific facts speak for or against an imminent catastrophe? We’re told that Arctic polar ice is melting quite rapidly. There is a whole business built up around the political and sociological interpretations of scientific data from meteorological forecasting and other sources. People have become accustomed to a steady flow of reports on the dwindling strength and health of our planet Earth. These reports are so numerous that it’s now possible, amazingly, for the people not directly involved in writing and publishing to actually become bored with them. This is in the face of the fact that real destruction, apparently caused by climate change, is already happening in many parts of the world.

“The question becomes not just whether the world will end in noise but whether noise itself might bring about the end of the world. Have we already crossed the point of no return? Could the accumulation of noise become one of the causes of the downfall of our civilization?”

Geologists are now translating seismic vibrations into sound in order to reconstruct and study sonic patterns that occur when earthquakes happen. This process is called sonification, and it is based on the use of numerical constants, which can be put into rhythmic patterns. By listening to data in the form and shape of sound, people are tackling the complexity of information in new ways and are coming to understand familiar phenomena at deeper levels. In its geological use, sonification allows us to follow the regularities and irregularities of subterranean geological motions by converting data that was acquired through seismographic registration into humanly audible sounds, which can then be listened to and analyzed for pattern analysis.

However, the translation from acquired data into sound is still inadequate in many ways, and it increasingly appears that science may be helped in this area by art. The International Community for Auditory Display (ICAD), self-described as “a forum for presenting research on the use of sound to display data, monitor systems, and provide enhanced user interfaces for computers and virtual reality systems,” has been searching for evidence that various kinds of data, including data gathered from processes in nature, really can be scientifically represented through sonification. Some artists, meanwhile, have been incorporating the quest for this proof into their installations.

See, for example, Florian Dombois, who is both an artist and a scholar, and whose work focuses on offering different representations of earthquakes. He studied both geophysics and philosophy, and his Ph.D. thesis is titled Was ist Erdbeben?, which translates to English as What is an Earthquake?

Another individual exploring this cutting edge is Andrea Polli, who is both a scholar and “an artist working at the intersection of art, science and technology.” She has worked with, among other things, meteorological data, and at the 2004 ICAD conference she presented a paper titled “”Atmospherics/Weather Works: A Multi-Channel Storm Sonification Project” (pdf). In the words of its abstract, “This paper discusses the background, conception, and execution of a series of sonifications of a historical hurricane and winter snowstorm that resulted in several performances, stereo recordings, a public multi-channel spatialized sound installation, and an online interactive sound listening environment.”

These kinds of projects work with scientifically verifiable sounds whose existence nobody disputes. This is in contrast to the above-described YouTube items, which are filled with apocalyptic sounds whose very basis in reality may be doubtful. The videos frame the sounds as naturally occurring, as authentic recordings from nature, but who is there to verify this? All of the sounds could easily have been produced as intentional hoaxes in any studio, or even, these days, at anybody’s house, using musical instruments and/or audio special effects. And indeed, some of the noises in the videos sound rather like a drone improvisation session.

This leads into the next category of apocalyptic sounds that surround us: those that arise not from nature but from culture. Music, literature, and film are all full of sounds that describe and portend the end of the world.

Continued in Part Two, “The Cultural Sounds of Apocalypse

About Dominik Irtenkauf

Dominik Irtenkauf writes about art, cultural philosophy, media theory, mythology, the occult, avant-garde music, and the boundaries between art and science. He studied German philology, philosophy, and comparative literature in Münster, and in 2007 he spent three months in Georgia on a Musa Fellowship for Literature from the country's Ministry of Education and Science.

Posted on August 1, 2013, in Religion & Philosophy, Science & Technology, Society & Culture and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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