"Labyrinth gives way to skin", Sonica's 2021 theme, taken from the title of a composition by Maryanne Amacher for Merce Cunningham Dance Company, serves as a launching point for an exploration of the invisible forces surrounding and emanating from our bodies in relation to our environment, one another, and the multitudinous entities that comprise ourselves. From the subtle bodies, a non-dualist Eastern mystical and medical concept of the holism of mind/body dynamics and energy flows, we extend our presence to notions of the social, collective, and cyborgian bodies, opening the possibility that our bodies are not only our own and conception of the festival as a body in itself; a body which is stirred and reconfigured by sound.
Amacher's sound work was amongst the first to discover the ear's ability to produce sympathetic frequencies as an otoacoustic phenomena and actively explore the relationship of the body to space, whether as a direct acoustic experience, activating whole buildings with immersive, resonant sound installations, or metaphorically through quantum physics, genetics, cybernetics and latest technological developments in distributed communication systems connecting distant bodies.
In her “Notes on Musics for the Merce Cunningham Dance Company” with regards to her compositions for Cunningham’s EVENTS program at the Roundabout Theater on December 3,1975 (p.181-3 of Maryanne Amacher: Selected Writings and Interviews), Amacher writes:
At about 15c / s the labyrinth gives way to skin as the chief organ of vibratory sensibility for the human body. In ‘hearing’, or receiving sound, knowing, remembering, and recognizing it, an amnesia, probably genetic, seems to let ear predominate … [The work aims at] finding ways of letting hearing open channels to what was previously considered subliminal, and letting these impressions surface; detecting subjectively, degrees of movement within self; extracting patterns which appear to find correspondence with biological levels.
From a more cryptically poetic equation in her personal notes, she expounds further:
Tone-of-place, ‘experienced’, ‘heard’, through skin, detected by unnamed sensibilities, an impression carried through skin even when not in the physical place–having been there a long time–continues–is carried in self.
Amacher hints at an experience at the limits or beyond physiological human perception and comprehensible explanation; one which embeds itself in the psyche and endures, fundamentally altering the body/mind which serves as its sounding board. The material of the body, and spirit emanating from it, become the vibratory substance and site of an eternal resonance; not only do the ears produce an “aftersound” phantom tone within the head, but the whole dermic expanse becomes a speaker with which one can experience the silently transformative “inner sound”. In ancient Indian metaphysical language this is called anhata, as differentiated from ahata (sound and music), and is based upon the theory that the fundamental structure of the cosmos originates from vibration, nāda, the primordial sound. Within the system of nāda yoga, the silent vibrations of self open the body’s energetic centers, chakras, expanding awareness and enabling a greater unity with both the outer and inner cosmos.
The body is thus not something to be transcended but rather the location of potential transcendence and necessary vessel for the process of becoming. In the Tantric offshoot of Buddhism and Hinduism, originating in India and spreading its tentacles into various Tibetan, Chinese, and Japanese traditions including Bön, Taoism, and Shintoism, one harnesses the body as a site of alchemical transmutation through prolonged meditative engagement with the entire sensual and perceptual organism. Kaustubh Das Dehlvi explains in contemporary scientific terms,“Tantra is a discipline wherein the chemical and neurological foundations of experience themselves are treated as the objects of experience and manipulated in order to achieve ultimate liberation. This ultimate liberation is a state of experience which is unconditioned by the five sense organs, mind, perspective in space-time etc.” He continues “The yogis and tantrics followed this process to create maps of the human nervous system. Following the nervous circuits, they were able to internally master the way nerve-electricity flows within the neural networks. This allowed them to experience the phenomena of consciousness in all its levels. It allowed them to discover the point where the ego-mind dissolves into universal consciousness. The discipline of tantra creates new neural connections with the express purpose of resolving the mind-body duality.”
In order to achieve this ultimate dissolution such maps however exposed layers of the human nervous system otherwise invisible and undetectable; this energetic network of exodermic and endodermic channels (nadis or meridians) and convergence points (chakras or acupuncture points) which convey subtle breath (prana, vayu, ch'i, ki, lung) is known as the “subtle body”, as translated by the Theosophists from Sanskrit (sūkṣma śarīra), first appearing in the Upanishads, and finding its parallels in Sufism, Hermeticism, and Khaibt in Ancient Egypt. It is believed that this energetic network is what determines one’s physical form and once mastered through breathing techniques can give extraordinary powers (siddhis) to manipulate this physical realm as well as ultimately being freed from it. In some systems, our bodies are conceived to even incorporate a dimension existing simultaneously in the astral plane, which can untether, wander, and possess bodies in our material world before returning to their original host body.
These body maps often incorporate mandalas with Hindu deities within lotus flowers located at energetic points and even scenes with humans and animals as if tattooed; in Chinese Taoist alchemical illustrations such as the Neijing Tu, the body is inversely transformed to a topographical form including mountains, rivers, paths, forests, and stars. Nineteenth and twentieth century Western occultists such as The Hermetic Order of The Golden Dawn, transposed diagrams such as the Kabbalistic Tree of Life on to the concept of the subtle body, which they called “The Sphere of Sensation”, envisioning the body as a microcosmic ‘magical mirror of the universe’. Renowned Kabbalist Israel Regardie explains that the concept of the Nephesch is "the subtle body of refined Astral Light upon which, as on an invisible pattern, the physical body is extended" hence Aleister Crowley renaming it the Body of Light.
Through the lense of the current Posthumanities and New Materialism philosophical wave of scholarship which questions humankind’s supposed separation from and mastery of “Nature”, one can draw parallels to these mystical diagrams and their depiction of the “outside” environment folding in on (or out from, depending on your point of view) the body, a microcosmic map of universal energy encased in a porous shell: as above, so below. As Stacy Alaimo writes in ‘Bodily Nature’:
Imagining human corporeality [and I would argue, all corporeality] as trans-corporeality, in which the human is always intermeshed with the more-than-human world, underlines the extent to which the substance of the human is ultimately inseparable from “the environment.” It makes it difficult to pose nature as mere background, as Val Plumwood would put it, for the exploits of the human since “nature” is always as close as one’s own skin– perhaps even closer. Indeed, thinking across bodies may catalyze the recognition that the environment, which is too often imagined as inert, empty space or as a resource for human use, is, in fact, a world of fleshy beings with their own needs, claims, and actions. By emphasizing the movement across bodies, trans-corporeality reveals the interchanges and interconnections between various bodily natures. But by underscoring that trans indicates movement across different sites, trans-corporeality also opens up a mobile space that acknowledges the often unpredictable and unwanted actions of human bodies, nonhuman creatures, ecological systems, chemical agents, and other actors.
Similarly this extends to the separation between man and the technology we innovate, a cyborgian extension of our bodies into space as well as inwardly with genetic manipulation and nanotech. In fact our own evolution, physically and mentally, is tied up with our technological advancements since the first stone axe to the printing press and now cyberspace. Psychonautical prophet Terence McKenna even goes so far as to say that:
…technology is the real skin of our species. Humanity, correctly seen in the context of the last five hundred years, is an extruder of technological material. We take in matter that has a low degree of organization; we put it through mental filters, and we extrude jewelry, gospels, space shuttles. This is what we do. We are like coral animals embedded in a technological reef of extruded psychic objects. All our tool making implies our belief in an ultimate tool. That tool is the flying saucer, or the soul, exteriorized in three-dimensional space. The body can become an internalized holographic object embedded in a solid-state, hyperdimensional matrix that is eternal, so that we each wander through a true Elysium.
He is speaking about how technology exteriorizes the soul so as to make it known to us and thus in recognizing it through its reflection we can integrate it and tap into that inner sound unlocking the infinite potential of uninhibited imagination.
Arguably, no artist has taken this view of man’s integration of his technology into his own body more seriously, effectively, or certainly more literally than Stelarc. In more or less subtle ways (growing an ear on his arm, donning a robotic exoskeleton and being remotely controlled via strangers on the internet, etc.) Stelarc has pioneered cyborg performance art. Initially, his (less visibly technological) suspension performances, hanging naked from hooks amidst natural surroundings, were in front of no audience, but the earth, sea, trees, and stones, and were done not out of a desire for adrenaline highs or extreme spectacle, but rather an emptying of the body and its transformation into an object indistinguishable from its environment – an empty passive shell, simply vibrating in space. As Brain Massumi expounds in his chapter on Stelarc "The Evolutionary Alchemy of Reason" from ‘Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation’:
Many of Stelarc’s suspension events also amplified the sounds of the body. The rush of blood through the artist’s veins as his body rises in a state of heightened receptivity to the effects of gravity are transformed into amplified sound waves that fill the room. The transducing of the body is extended beyond the skin to propagate through the surround space. The transductive physicality of the body extends to the limits of its spatial containment. The body-as-transducer literally, physically fills its space, becoming architectural as blood flows sonically to the walls, echoing its built limits. The body, in becoming a transducer, has become two more things: a visibility of gravity and a sonic architecturality. A corporeal opening onto sound, image, architecture, and more.
This is a clear link with the architectural and materialist approach to sound of Amacher, albeit from a very different source and physicality. Rather than sound happening to the body or building, it happens from it and permeates the space, turning the body inside out and expanding it to the structurally defined limits. Massumi continues:
… At the dividing line, their mutual limit, there is a ferment of what might be action or might be thought, a hallucinatory (or hyper lucid?) indistinction between mind-states and body-states, between actions and echoes, sights and dreams, thoughts and adventures. Since there is no follow-through, no perceivable effect of any kind, it is impossible to tell all the more impossible to stop. The dividing line between passivity and activity blurs, The body, pacified to the limit, separated from any possibility of being active, becomes uncontrollably activated, inwardly animated. Suspended animation.
Again, we return to the inner sound, that fundamental vibration in harmony with the source.
Using the body as a primary vessel for expression, not only personal, but social, was at the forefront of Genesis P-Orridge’s practice, starting with their collective COUM Transmissions’ transgressive provocations (later becoming industrial music pioneers Throbbing Gristle) up to their Pandrogyne project, fusing art and life, love and identity, into a Gnostic union. P-Orridge and their partner Lady Jaye Breyer went through a series of plastic surgeries and hormone therapy to more closely resemble one another, adopting gender neutral and alternating pronouns, and henceforth identifying as a single pandrogynous being named "Breyer P-Orridge". Breyer, a nurse and dominatrix, had quite a distanced and somewhat disdainful relationship to the fallible flesh that contained her consciousness, saying “I'm limited by time, by gravity, by all these physical forces. I wish my consciousness could be liberated and completely free to go everywhere - to be everywhere.“ P-Orridge, inspired by their mentors William Burroughs and Brion Gysin, applied the cut-up technique they had employed for literature and tape-based sound works, to Breyer and P-Orridge’s bodies so as to become “a third being, not just a third mind.”
Jaye died from stomach cancer in 2007. P-Orridge recounts:
Once we met Lady Jaye, our instinct was immediately that we were so instantly in love to be absorbed by each other. And when Lady Jaye, as we say, dropped her body, as a matter of principle, we wanted to maintain what we believe is the state of things, which is that she's still as much a part of me as before, so now my body represents us both in this material world, and she represents us both elsewhere. And then, hopefully, one day we will be we again, somewhere else.
P-Orridge dropped their body in 2020 succumbing to leukemia and has completed the pandrogynous fusion with Breyer.
One can see the Pandrogyne project as an extreme exemplar of French philosopher Gilbert Simondon’s theory of individuation folding in on itself, an inward spiralling ouroboros. Simondon states that there is always an individual and collective subject, such that “the individuation of the psyche is always already an individuation of a group of psyches, because a psyche is never alone. It always operates in relation to another psyche,” in the words of Bernard Stiegler. Simondon’s work, later inspiring Gilles Deleuze, Bruno Latour and other notable contemporary thinkers, sought to show that the individual is in fact a phase in a constant, transformative process; not an atomized will, but the effect of the individuation process, and inherently relational. Both the organism and the soul are morphed leaving, and preceded by, a phase, a residue, of potential. This notion of interconnectedness and fluidity is bolstered by German sociologist Norbert Elias, a seminal body theorist, who viewed the body as always in flux, shaped interdependently by other bodies and social configurations; a theory later and most famously elaborated upon by Michel Foucault.
Avant-garde composer and computer musician Catherine Christer Hennix’s work and philosophy, based in her application of mathematical logic, semantics, semiotics, and algorithmic music theory, seeks to draw awareness to these amalgamous formations of self and strategically upend hardened habits of perception in service of expanded consciousness of oneself within an ever-changing environment. Hennix employs Wittgenstein’s “Modules of Modalities” to describe the collective awareness involved in listening to music which breaks down the individual’s inner language and extends the freedom of interpretation. In her own words:
The difference [between conventional music and our music] is that I believe very strongly in the psychological impact of modal intervals. As I see it music should be considered as a source of knowledge and not just entertainment; the specific feelings you are brought to under exposure to music is a specific form of knowledge or awareness. And, further, it is also a vital nourishment for your fantasy and concept formation processes. Actually the whole inner self can be mapped on to modal structures, as is well known from the classical Indian and Japanese musical traditions, and even European music before the Renaissance. What you get aware of by exposure to our music is awareness of general patterns, it’s a purely abstract and private imprint, not a factual thing … And that is why I insist on claiming that music should open up new tactics of attention, in which terms the audience can redevelop their ambiguously acquired modalities.
In a separate conversation with contemporary and supporter Henry Flynt with regards to her composition “The Electric Harpsichord”, inspired by the work of one of her mentors LaMonte Young (composer of The Well Tuned Piano and co-creator of the permanent, persistent audio-visual sound environment the Dream House), she continues:
Music is here considered as an extension of the language of inner representations in situations in which both spoken and written languages are impossible. … The term “music” is here reserved for what I have called realizations of subjectively–real environments in sound and light … It would be an understatement to say that music is just an extension of the inner language of representations because I have in mind also serves as an amplification of that language. For example I consider the sound waves of this music to induce states of awareness which have a modulatory effect on perceptions and states of inner illuminations, to a degree that gives the concept “reality” an extrapolated meaning in the presence of these sound waves. This extension of meaning can be accounted for by the concept of intentionality, a concept which functions as a selector of interpretations for semantics-intended events, and which receives a particular critical excitation in the presence of my music. So does also the concept of intransitivity of the relationship between the self and the world.
Born in Sweden to a mother who composed jazz and a father who was an amateur Arabic scholar, she developed an early interest in Sufism (of which she is a practicing adherent), modal music (Blues & Jazz) as well as classical Japanese Gagaku music, moving to New York in 1969 and joining the influential minimalist circle of Terry Riley and LaMonte Young, through whom she was introduced to and became a disciple of Pandit Pran Nath, a master of North Indian vocal music of the Kirana tradition and Dhrupad. It was through these interactions and experiments in extended drone performances and environments, and her expertise in computer music, that she came to her signature style of “infinitary compositions”.
Drawing from the Vedic creation myth and aligned ancient Indian musical form of Ragas, in the context of her Illuminatory Sound Environment installation at ZKM in 2013, she describes the metaphysics and physiology of her composition Rag Infinity/Rag Cosmosis: Raga, coming from Ranja meaning color or passion, as an agency for coloring of the mind.
The sound of OM is related to the “Creation Myth of the Rg Veda” and, in modern cosmology, to the Hubble frequency (the lowest possible frequency the universe can sustain at any future time) and the event of the acoustic peak, at which moment, billions of years ago, the observable universe became transparent to light. Current models of the universe are “spectral” in the sense that all components are described by oscillators with the specific frequencies not necessarily occurring in an acoustic medium that, in effect, ipso facto, are defining the latter as specimens of “anahata nada” or the “non-acoustic” or “unstruck sounds.”
While sound cannot by itself model all possible cosmic frequencies, a rag represents a (small) universe or aspect thereof all by its own, based on a set of ordered frequencies serving as pitches and beats (pulses) the perception of which gives rise to “inner universes” no less unexplored than the physical universe.
Besides the direct, live, or “online” experience of this sound, there is also significant “after-sound” or “offline”-experience which is primed by self-“tuning” of a template for otoacoustic emissions, formed by the hair cells of the inner ear by prolonged exposure to ‘Rag Infinity/Rag Cosmosis’. This experience is accessible to a listener who withdraws to a quiet space and concentrates on the sparkling frequencies filling the inner ear, many, if not all, of which are “re-broadcasted” from the “online-experience.” I note, not without satisfaction, that this re-broadcast is an exemplary instance of a terrestrial experience of the unstruck sound, a sound that does not travel through – anahata nada. This is, by definition, one of the thousand sounds of OM!
Episodes of the experience – I call “Rag Tinnitus” – are not a physiological anomaly, but a trap-door to what in Indian music theory is referred to as the “subtle sound,” commonly known as the “inner sound.” The listener regularly alternating between “ahata nada” (acoustic sounds) and “anahata nada” experiences will, according to Indian music theory, be best adapted to the ultimate goals of exposure to psychotropic sounds – a “shruti-dialectics of sorts.”
In this way, Hennix has directly connected the otoacoustic phenomena pioneered by Amacher to the “inner sound” described by Eastern mystics on their path to awakening. In the text, “The Threefold Ear”, from the post-industrial, mystic percussionist Z’EV, whose performances were ritualized transmutations of the vibratory nature of metals, it is noted that:
The inner ear is also referred to as the labyrinth. In fact, the inner ear is composed of two labyrinths, one inside the other. An outer 'bony labyrinth' encloses an inner 'membraneous labyrinth' which includes the cochlea, or sea shell.
This is where the real action is, for it is here that the dynamics which have so far been 'physical' will achieve true transformation. The energies which pulsed the ear drum and were then concentrated by the middle ear are now transmitted through the oval window to the fluid in the inner labyrinth. This begins a hydro-electric Process. The fluids of the cochlea vibrate, which in turn vibrate/fire the neurons along the Basilar and Tectoral membranes of the cochlea. As neural impulse in the voltage of the central nervous system, the exterior energies have now been transformed back into the realm of electricity, which I feel can be regarded as a 'physical' form of light.
Translating this bodily phenomenology, mythology, and methodology to contemporary club and popular music cultures, Aïsha Devi, the Swiss-Nepalese producer and vocalist, explains the mechanics of mantra and its connection to electronic dance music:
Music was originally an initiation from the ancestral world. It’s the connection between the 3D and the alter-dimensional world. I like the idea that electronic music takes back the idea of ritual, because it’s a repetition. It’s not about the words or melody, it’s about the tone. When you’re saying a mantra — [chants] om mani padme hum — after a while it dissolutes into frequency in your throat. There are some languages that are more aware of that and more purposed for that — like Sanskrit. If I do mantras in Sanskrit, I use my throat, the way your voice resonates inside your throat, [whereas] English and French are very much on the top of the lips so there’s no frequency happening. I also do binaurals with the voice, and that induces an altered state of consciousness too.
Voice is a central component of Devi’s music, especially live. Although classically trained in Western operatic technique, she works with Eastern scales and techniques and her own vocabulary - every concert is a singular invocation, unlike any performance before or after. Expounding further on the power of voice, with its innate inner vibration:
Singing liberates certain frequencies. It’s a vibration you feel throughout your body, which really helps you tune yourself with a very soft and generous state of mind. Meditation isn’t about looking at yourself meditating. You have to lose yourself in the tone and the vibration; then you can go to the origin of yourself and matter. Because matter is just an illusion. It’s just a 3D spatialization of different frequencies.
Explaining the formula of the opening track of her 2018 sophomore album ‘DNA Feelings’, Devi shares:
DNA =☤= ∞ is the metaphysics of the album. The vibratory speed of sound (f) modifies our state of consciousness, elevates our form and non-form to higher dimensional fields and dissolutes spacetime. Frequencies can restructure and heal matter. Frequencies impact and morph our DNA, the primordial transverse wave becomes infinite.
As Marshall McLuhan famously said in his Playboy interview, “Mysticism is just tomorrow's science dreamed today.” The aforementioned formula and the theory behind it was arrived at through a dedicated practice of meditation in conjunction with research into M-theory (a unified superstring theory), an area of study in theoretical physics which posits we actually exist within 11 dimensions of space. Devi is uniquely positioned to explore the overlapping fields of theoretical physics and the complementary Eastern metaphysical concepts which far predated the science, as the granddaughter of a CERN physicist (a colleague of Einstein), in conjunction with her Nepalese heritage. The lyrics from her uncanny track “Time (Tool)” encapsulate the core of her message and that of greater spiritual pursuit outlined here: