Electronic Voice Phenomena       


‘Half-articulated wailings’: Nia Davies on The Voice

Posted 28 January 2013 by | Comments Off


What is it about an unidentified sound – a noise with no visible source – an acousmatic rustle in the bushes? We regularly tune out unwanted background noise but some sounds jolt us awake in the night, stop us dead in our tracks or silence our conversations.

Mid-winter, walking in Abney Park Cemetery in London (pictured above) I hear, through trees, Church Street’s thoroughfare, the soft voices of a couple weaving between graves and carol singers at the park gates. But another soft sound much closer to me stops me. I’m not thinking of ghosts or the undead – more of unwelcome attention from the living. There is something about my halting – an instinct telling me to stop and make myself invisible.

The fight or flight instinct which flares in the wake of an unidentified sound must be extremely useful to cinematic sound designers or thriller-writers wishing to ramp up the sense terror or shock in their audiences. It certainly works on me. The ghostly presences that chilled me most thoroughly as a child were always auditory. Seemingly real or told to me in stories, these were the sound of footsteps when there are no feet, a fateful third knock at the door, a banshee-like wail outside the walls of a house, or the calls of distress coming from a place where no calls should ever come.

Freud’s exploration of the uncanny gives us some theoretical grounding. A thing which should have no life is life-like or a thing which should seem filled with life is dead. There are many variations on this and the human voice which is not embodied, or the sound which comes from no identifiable source is one of these unheimliche instances – put to use by artists, writers, shamans, musicians, dictators or torturers over the centuries.


At last, when the ship drew near to the outskirts, as it were, of the Equatorial fishing grounds, and in the deep darkness that goes before the dawn, was sailing by a cluster of rocky islets; the watch – then headed by Flask – was startled by a cry so plaintively wild and unearthly – like the half-articulated wailings of all the ghosts of all Herod’s murdered Innocents – that one and all, they started from their reveries, and for the space of some moments stood, or sat, or leaned all transfixedly listening like the carved Roman slave, while the wild cry remained within hearing.


The crew of the Pequod in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick startled at the unearthly siren-like sounds. Or take this instance in another literary classic – of K. in Kafka’s The Castle using the telephone to try and clear up a misunderstanding with the castle:

The receiver gave out a buzz of a kind that K. had never before heard on a telephone. It was like the hum of countless children’s voices – but yet not a hum, the echo rather of voices singing at an infinite distance – blended by sheer impossibility into one high but resonant sound that vibrated on the ear as if it were trying to penetrate beyond mere hearing.

These passages are quoted by David Toop in his most recent book Sinister Resonance – the Mediumship of the Listener (Continuum, 2010), the book which initiated my writing this article. Toop explores uncanny sound and its effect on a listener as well as auditory presence in several paintings, sculpture and textual works. Though thought of generally as a music writer, his writing ranges across literature and visual art. In an early chapter he gathers a multiplicity of ‘sinister resonance’, such as those quoted above, to make a text that is so wildly intertextual and interdisciplinary it can’t help but take a synaesthesic hold on a reader.

‘Sinister resonance’ is not just a literary or artistic toy for Toop. The complex appeal to artists of Electronic Voice Phenomena in this project and its spin-offs demonstrates this too. Is EVP a phenomenon that is ‘trying to penetrate beyond mere hearing?’ (Though Toop would remind us that hearing is never only ‘mere’).

Poetry is very often responding to sinister resonance. Perhaps that is what Alice Notley is doing in her poem ‘In the Pines’, written after the traditional song, sung by Leadbelly – one of the most sinister tracks I know of.

I myself have tried to respond to uncanny sound and music in poetry. Before coming to Toop’s ideas I’d spent some of the summer of 2012 exploring the uncanny resonance in a piece of sound art by Jacob Kirkegaard. In the Chernobyl ‘alienation zone’ Kirkegaard visited four separate abandoned rooms – a church, auditorium, swimming pool and gymnasium. He recorded the ambient noise of the room, then played that sound back into the room and recorded the results ten times over until what emerges is a layered texture of drones, ringing surfaces and a sound which might easily be perceived as radiation itself – Geiger counter clicks occuring so close together they form a continuous hum. The effect is one of extreme haunting, which must come partly out of a knowledge in the listener that this is a heavily contaminated, deathly space. These were once rooms which contained the everyday lives of the people of Pripyat and this sound is what remains. Does it bear their trace?

Jacob Kirkegaard’s Four Rooms

And is this the sound of loss? Or a form of listening aslant? I wanted to know so I wrote four poems directly responding to the four rooms in Kirkegaard’s piece. Of course I imagine snatches of human sound that might not be there, of course I am thinking about the explosion, about the liquidators and of the sounds that might have been heard in those rooms in the past. I made language out of sounds – but frustratingly so – for sound is not language, though language is made of sound. And poetry can never be a communication with the dead. All I could do was listen and make another form of listening in language, as Kirkegaard does in sound.


Nia Davies was born in Sheffield in 1984. She studied English at the University of Sussex where she won the first Stanmer Prize for poetry. She writes poetry and fiction and works for Literature Across Frontiers. Her poems have been published in several magazines and anthologies including the Salt Book of Younger Poets. Her pamphlet Then Spree came out from Salt Publishing in 2012. She lives in London.


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