Rorschach Audio and the Cemetery of Sound - Electronic Voice Phenomena and Sonic Archives

Joe Banks


"Jamaica?", "No, she went of her own free will" 1

Just as our ancestors perceived thunder as "Theophany" - "The Voice of God", in much the same way, similarly anthropomorphic misperceptions of sounds of wind are probably the most primal manifestation of what is commonly perceived as the memetically archetypal sound of a ghost (the ghost of film and folklore, which drifts across rooms, clothed in transparent white sheets, moaning and wailing). It seems reasonable to speculate that relationships between anthropomorphism, religion, superstition and bereavement may be as old as human perception itself. In certain circumstances, the ability of people to project human-like characteristics onto sounds like wailing wind may be just as deeply embedded as the instinct for forming social groups around the warmth of a glowing fire, so perhaps it's not surprising that a direct equivalent to the former tendency still expresses itself in societies whose culture has only been influenced by scientific thought for a relatively short period.

The title of this article is derived from an earlier text called "Rorschach Audio", which was written in 1999 for the sleevenotes of a CD called "The Ghost Orchid", subtitled "An Introduction to Electronic Voice Phenomena" 2 (and "Rorschach Audio" articles and lectures etc have been continually revised, republished and demonstrated to the public ever since). For those who may not be aware, Electronic Voice Phenomena are a class of allegedly "mysterious" vocal recordings, and while several explanations have been proposed to explain the origin of these sounds, the majority of EVP researchers believe that their recordings constitute evidence of contact with the afterlife. In other words most EVP researchers believe that it is possible, using various radio and electrical engineering techniques, to literally record the voices of ghosts.

Although clear precursors exist in Victorian and early 20th century Spiritualism, the EVP movement proper did not begin until the late 1950s when a Swedish painter called Friedrich Jurgenson found human voices intruding on tape recordings he made of his voice and of birdsong. Convinced that these recordings represented messages from aliens, and then from (amongst others) his dead mother, Jurgenson temporarily abandoned his artistic career to concentrate on these experiments. In 1960 he started recording similar voices with a domestic radio set, and published the books "Voices from Space" 3 , "Voice Transmissions with the Deceased" 4 and "Radio and Microphone Contact with the Dead" 5 (in Swedish and German). From 1968 onwards Jurgenson cemented an increasingly close relationship with the Vatican, filming religious documentaries, and executing portrait commissions for Pope Paul VI 6 . Apparently Jurgenson believed that the audible phenomena "were produced by his highly developed aural and visual senses caused by his artistic prowess" 7 .

Having encountered Jurgenson's work, a Latvian psychologist and fellow Roman Catholic called Konstantin Raudive took up the cause of EVP research, using equally simple apparatus to amass an archive of (in his own estimation) "roughly 72,000" recordings of voices, voices which (as Raudive, Jurgenson and virtually all other EVP enthusiasts believe) respond personally to questions asked of them by the EVP researchers. Raudive's book "Breakthrough" 8 sought to promote the view that EVP research was some kind of important discovery, and through its publication in English, Raudive accessed an international readership, becoming the leading light in a worldwide EVP movement which continues to investigate this subject up to the present day. In 2002 just 60 tapes from Raudive's massive archive were taken into the collection of the UK National Sound Archive, housed within the British Library in London 9 , and extracts from Jurgenson's archive were exhibited at the ZKM museum in Germany in 2004 10 .

In fact more than enough EVP recordings are already available on CD and on-line to satisfy the curiosity of most listeners. These recordings typically consist of very indistinct, very distorted and very short bursts of voice and/or sound, rendered almost inaudible by intense background noise. Virtually all EVP researchers recommend that people listen to these recordings intently and repeatedly, in order to be able to make sense of their (alleged) meanings. As "evidence" of supernatural phenomena, subjectively most EVP recordings come across as risible to the point of insulting listeners' intelligence, very few come across as genuinely un-nerving. Despite this, the obvious appeal of any suggestion that departed loved-ones may still be alive means that EVP maintains a persistent fan-base. Much as I empathise with that underlying motive, those fans do not (for the sake of record) include this author. My attitude turned from hostility to genuine interest however after realising that EVP recordings are in fact evidence of psychological (rather than supernatural) phenomena.

To summarise this project to date, the existing "Rorschach Audio" publications 2 11 12 13 14 describe how, irrespective of their original broadcast frequencies, a huge range of electronic transmissions share a tendency to demodulate onto (and become audible though) the amplifying circuits of radio receivers and tape recorders etc, producing what are often referred to by engineers as "stray" voices. "Rorschach Audio" lectures also include psychoacoustics demonstrations which enable audiences to personally experience just how listeners are able to mould these stray voices into what can sometimes be perceived as fragments of intelligible speech (and it is these more scientific aspects of the phenomena which are the focus of the earlier "Rorschach Audio" papers).

The process by which the mind can perceive illusions of meaningful speech in ambiguous acoustic sense-data is not inherently much more complex (or mysterious) than the process exploited by the old PG Wodehouse joke (quoted above). Illusory mishearings are most convincing however when (as is virtually mandatory with EVP research) sound recordings are listened to repeatedly, over and over again. In much the same way, illusory speech can also emerge when listening to the repetition of mechanical and animal sounds. The poet Geoffrey Grigson wrote that "one of the last millers in the neighbourhood of Pelynt" (the village where he grew up in Cornwall) told him "that the millstone clacked "for profit, for profit, for profit" when it was revolving fast, changing sadly and slowly to "no profit, no profit, no profit" when the water was turned off and the pace declined" 15 . Geoffrey (who was my grandad) was also a respected naturalist, and my mum and auntie report his contention that ornithologists sometimes hear features that resemble human voices in calls repeated by birds - apparently the Yellowhammer's song resembles "a little bit of bread and no cheese", while one type of pigeon sings "my feet are bleeeeeding Betty". "Rorschach Audio" is unusual in stressing that such mishearings are manifestations of normal rather than anomalous psychology - as a case in point, Geoffrey also edited an anthology called "The Cherry Orchard", which includes a poem constructed from mishearings that are legendary in vernacular London folklore...

"Bulls eyes and targets,
Say the bells of St. Margarets.
Brickbats and tiles,
Say the bells of St. Giles.
Oranges and lemons,
Say the bells of St. Clements.
Two sticks and an apple,
Say the bells at Whitechapel..." 16

If readers can forgive a short lapse into autobiography, this imagery is all the more resonant because my other grandad - William Banks, grew up in a tenement in Sydney Street, Whitechapel, in London's East End (witnessing for instance the famous shootout between police and anarchists from his bedroom window). Geoffrey Grigson however also worked during WW2 for The BBC Monitoring Service, editing "Digests" of intelligence that the service transcribed from listening to what Primo Levi referred to as "the radiophonic Babel of war" 17 . These reports were sent to The War Office, Downing Street, The Foreign Office and Military Intelligence 18 . The BBC listening supervisor was a refugee called Ernst Gombrich, who circulated an internal memo to advise on how best to transcribe speech from repeatedly listening to the Monitoring Service's (poor quality) wax-cylinder recordings of foreign radio broadcasts. Gombrich summarised his thoughts as "the story of the signaller who misheard the urgent message "Send reinforcements, am going to advance" as "Send three and four pence, am going to a dance"."

Ernst Gombrich's memo described "projection" as "the mechanism by which we read familiar shapes into clouds, or melodies into the monotonous rattle of a train". As with Geoffrey Grigson's millstone and birdsongs, Gombrich's memo states that "in a similar way we can read speech into a medley of noises", drawing a comparison with the fact that "Leonardo da Vinci advised young painters to practice their imagination by looking at cracked walls and reading fantastic scenes into strange patches". Gombrich went on to become the world's foremost postwar arts theorist, with the ideas he had outlined during WW2 reappearing as central features of his masterpiece "Art and Illusion" 19 . Particularly in context of debate about the emergent field of sound art, it is extremely important to stress how it is "Rorschach Audio" that has emphasised the influence that Gombrich's wartime intelligence work with sound had on one of the most important works of visual arts theory ever published.

In "Art and Illusion" Gombrich quotes Leonardo da Vinci's advice at length - "You should look at certain walls stained with damp, or at stones of uneven colour. If you have to invent some backgrounds you will be able to see in these the likeness of divine landscapes, adorned with mountains, ruins, rocks, woods, plains, hills and valleys... In such walls the same thing happens as in the sound of bells, in whose stroke you may find every named word you can imagine". The illusions of sound that Leonardo recalled were of course virtually identical to those described by "London Bells".

If the examples above help illustrate how the mind can project illusory voices into ambiguous sounds, then the process by which stray voices are further perceived by EVP enthusiasts as having specifically personal meanings is no more unusual. A similar process takes place when newspaper readers perceive random information in Horoscopes as being personally relevant. Equivalent phenomena are explored in that masterpiece of Surrealist art cinema, "Orpheus" by Jean Cocteau 20 . "Rorschach Audio" itself has had plenty of influence on contemporary art - not least in the conjunction made by "Rorschach Audio" between Cocteau's film and EVP reappearing in PR material for "Celestial Radio" by artists Zoe Walker and Neil Bromwich 21 , in "Audible Babel" by curator David Briers 22 , and heavily influencing the International Necronautical Society - an art project by Tom McCarthy, Ken Hollings, Anthony Auerbach and others

23 . To reiterate, the dialogue in Cocteau's film suggests that coded radio messages "inspired by the BBC broadcasts of the occupation" were transmitted from the metaphysical underworld - Orpheus asks Heurtebise "Where could they be coming from? No other station broadcasts them. I feel certain they are addressed to me personally".

Electronic Voice Phenomena themes have also been taken up by (amongst many others) artists Tony Oursler, Carsten Holler and Leif Elggren, and EVP research has been relentlessly promoted by Carl Michael von Hausswolff, who exhibited EVP related artworks at Modern Art (Oxford), Farbfabriken (Stockholm) and Schirn Kunsthalle (Frankfurt) etc, and who instigated the exhibition of Jurgenson's archive at ZKM. Three decades after the publication of Raudive's original book, Robin Rimbaud (aka Scanner) incorporated Raudive's concept, his methodology, and even Raudive's title into a Scanner exhibit at Site Gallery (Sheffield) called (with no apparent sense of irony) "Breakthrough" 24 . Just in case there was any doubt, CM von Hausswolff stated that "of course I believe in EVP - it's fantastic!" 25 .

According to "Audible Babel" by David Briers, the final investigation that Raudive conducted was into "The Case of the Budgerigar" 26 , described in Raudive's last book, which details Raudive's "bizarre account" of cassette recordings of a bird called Putzi, who was "alleged to have functioned as a mediumistic channel for its deceased owner"! The Putzi episode more than any other suggests that Raudive was, in the words of one (unusually direct) commentator, almost certainly a "bona-fide nut"; and any argument that, despite the obvious common-sense objections, the essence of appreciating EVP lies in sensitivity to its "aesthetics" (as opposed to sensitivity to minor details like its truth) can be countered by pointing out that presumably (for people who like that kind of thing) there must also be something "aesthetic" about exploiting the bereaved.

Toby Oakes stated in The Bulletin of the National Sound Archive that (in the NSA) "we deal with the voices of the dead every day, but our subjects tend to have been alive at the time of recording", and spoke of EVP as "puzzling evidence" and of Raudive accepting Jurgenson's claims "uncritically" 27 . Speaking personally, it may be old fashioned or idealistic for this author to suggest that an important role of the arts might be to encourage the development of critical intelligence. From cognitive science and from perceptual and computational creativity perspectives, psychoacoustic phenomena can be fascinating, but it's still hard to understand why anyone might wish to celebrate or emulate researchers who tried to dupe people into believing that domestic appliances engage us in conversation, or whose intellect led them to believe that budgies convey messages to the bereaved from the beyond. One reason why EVP research may still appeal to artists however is because there aren't many ideas floating around in sound art, and because (as American EVP researcher Lisa Butler was keen to stress) recording EVP voices is simply "easy for anyone to do" 28 .


References

  1. PG Wodehouse "Uncle Dynamite" 1948

  2. Joe Banks "Rorschach Audio" sleevenotes in "The Ghost Orchid" Ash International / PARC CD1 1999

  3. Friedrich Jurgenson "Rosterna Fran Rymden" Saxon & Lindstrom 1964

  4. Friedrich Jurgenson "Sprechfunk Mit Verstorbenen" Hermann Bauer 1967

  5. Friedrich Jurgenson "Radio och Mikrofonkontakt med de Doda" Nybloms 1968

  6. CM von Hausswolff "1485.0 kHz" in "Cabinet" magazine Winter 2000

  7. Quoted from sleevenotes to "Friedrich Jurgenson: The Studio for Audioscopic Research" CD, Ash International / PARC CD3 2000

  8. Konstantin Raudive "Breakthrough" Colin Smythe 1971

  9. Toby Oakes "Recording the Paranormal" in "Playback" 28 ("The Bulletin of the National Sound Archive") Winter 2002

  10. "Phonorama" exhibition at ZKM, Karlsruhe, Sept 2004 to Jan 2005, curated by Brigitte Felderer

  11. Joe Banks "Rorschach Audio: A Lecture at The Royal Society of British Sculptors" in "Diffusion" 8, Sonic Arts Network 2000

  12. Joe Banks "Rorschach Audio: Ghost Voices and Perceptual Creativity" in "Leonardo Music Journal" 11, The MIT Press 2001

  13. Joe Banks "Rorschach Audio: Art and Illusion for Sound" in "Strange Attractor Journal" 1, Strange Attractor Press 2004

  14. Joe Banks "Audio Rorschach" in "Earshot" 5, UKISC / Goldsmiths College, University of London 2008

  15. Geoffrey Grigson "Freedom of the Parish" Phoenix House 1954

  16. Geoffrey Grigson (editor) "The Cherry Orchard" Phoenix House 1959

  17. Primo Levi "The Periodic Table" Abacus 1986

  18. Olive Renier and Vladimir Rubinstein "Assigned to Listen" BBC 1986

  19. E.H. Gombrich "Art and Illusion" Phaidon 1959

  20. Carol Martin-Sperry (translator) "Cocteau" Viking 1972

  21. Zoe Walker and Neil Bromwich "Celestial Radio" (poster) Firstsite Gallery / Commissions East 2004

  22. David Briers "Audible Babel" in Clare Charnley and Katrin Kivimaa (editors) "So Communication" Estonian Academy of Art 2007

  23. Tom McCarthy "Calling All Agents", Arts Council / Institute of Contemporary Arts 2003 (this "Report to the International Necronautical Society" also documents contributions from Jane Lewty, Heath Bunting, John Cussans, Zinovy Zinik, Manu Luksch, Mukul Patel and Cerith Wyn Evans)

  24. Robin Rimbaud "Breakthrough" in "Haunted Media" at Site Gallery, Sheffield, exhibition curated by Jeanine Griffin and Carol Maund

  25. Interview in "Sound Projector" 10, 2002

  26. Konstantin Raudive "Der Fall Wellensittich" Otto Reichl Verlag 1975 (published posthumously) quoted in David Briers, op.cit.

  27. Toby Oakes "Recording the Paranormal" op.cit.

  28. AA-EVP co-director Lisa Butler interviewed in Jim Moret (presenter) "Hearing is Believing" (documentary) Universal Pictures 2005

NB: For ease on on-line reproduction, foreign language accents have been removed from this article, and the title of Jean Cocteau's film is given in English. The phrase "Cemetery of Sound" is paraphrased from James Joyce. "Rorschach Audio" is generously supported by The Arts and Humanities Research Council, and is copyright Joe Banks 1999 to 2008.