Common idioms such as ‘seeing is believing’ give our eyes the central role in our engagement with the world. But there is little doubt that listening plays a critical part in how we navigate and understand our environment.
Historically, our ears, not eyes, revealed what lay beyond the light of the campfire. And importantly, our ears helped us recognise what lay behind us, out of sight. Sound has the profound ability to haunt, shock, and terrify. It has a primordial quality that reaches deep inside us.
Sounds heard without a visible source are known as acousmatic. To cope with them, we have created various narratives and myths. In Japanese mythology, the Yanari, a word that references the sound of a house in earthquakes, is said to be a spirit responsible for the groaning and creaking of the house at night. In Norse mythology, thunder was ascribed to the god Thor.
Given its profound emotional impact, it’s not surprising that sound has also been used as a device for exerting power and control. In recent years, the use of sound (and music) as a weapon has increased, as have our abilities to better exploit its potential.
From long-range acoustic devices used to disperse protesting crowds to military drones that induce a wave of fear in those unlucky enough to be under them to songs blasted on rotation at Guantanamo Bay, we are entering an age where sound is being repositioned as a tool of terror.
Sonic affect, in psychological terms, is created through aesthetic qualities: the timbre of the sound and how we receive it through our mesh of social and cultural understandings. The volume, duration, and actual material content of a sound all play a part in how it affects us.
One of the most frightening recently discovered weapons of sound is the Aztec death whistle, a pottery vessel, often shaped like a skull, that was used by Mexico’s pre-Columbian tribes. Blowing into it makes a sound that has been described as ‘1,000 corpses screaming’. Used en masse, an army marching with death whistles would surely have been terrifying.
In the past decade, the use of music as torture has been cemented in facilities such as Guantanamo Bay and other detention camps – renowned for their ability to influence behaviour and assist in the psychological ‘breaking’ of detainees through the use of sound.
The choice of music used at Guantanamo was wildly disparate. Death metal band Deicide’s infamous song Fuck Your God was often used, as well as aggressive hip-hop tracks, but so, too, were the songs of Britney Spears, and perhaps most surprisingly, I Love You from Barney and Friends.
There’s little doubt music will continue to play a role in the struggles around terror. Indeed the potential of sound as a weapon is, sadly, still in its infancy. Sonic weapons, after all, leave no physical marks. Thus they are perfect for those who wish to remain untraceable.
Lawrence English is an artist, composer, and curator. His exhibition Rhythm of Protest opens at the Lismore Regional Gallery on Friday with a talk from 5.30pm.