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What no eye has seen, nor ear heard

by Karl-Erik Tallmo
(på svenska)


THE PHONOGRAPH CYLINDER was rotogravure and it was lathed sound. When we had stopped carving on flat rocks or chiseling pristine Roman type onto Roman walls, the gramophone record eventually became our culture's foremost carrier of engravings. Certainly, a snail also leaves a trail, but the concept of intaglio  still seems more primordial than applying color or ink on a surface. Engraving is plowing (which was the ancient Greek metaphor both for writing along a line and reading lines of text): intellectual and agrarian culture apparently meet in yet another area.1 Freud hinted on something similar in his fascination for the "magic writing-pad", which he meant turned impression into perception - and memory.2 Vi impress, and get impressed.

Of course, the trace in the wax cylinder was writing, but who wrote it? As with photography, we are here presented with a kind of writing (Greek graphein - 'write', 'carve'), where reality itself is the author. A musical piece on a phonograph roll must have a composer and one or more executants, certainly, but still one must distinguish between the work that is written on the music sheet, the work that is sifting through the fingers of a musician or between the vocal cords of a singer, and the work that is finally transmitted through the air, intermixed with room acoustics and background noise. Reality is what is being preserved. "Live in studio" is a modern expression, that conveys the idea that little or no editing or post-processing is done. But, in a certain sense, all kinds of recordings are documentary, both when it comes to sounds and images. Even the feature film is documentary, since it shows us what the studio looked like under certain conditions set by director, lighting engineers, set designers, and actors, for a specific scene.

Even Rilke, who lived during this period of transition when these new media emerged, mused a great deal upon both media and the nature of things. He had probably read Lucretius, who knew not only that objects emit their shell-like images but also envisaged other "prints and vestiges of forms which flit around, of subtlest texture made".

In 1919 Rilke decided that he had been tormented long enough by a fantasy he had nurtured since his school years. It dealt with sound, and now he sat down and wrote the short text "Ur-Geräusch" (Primal sound). At some point during the 1890's, his science teacher had showed the students how to construct a simple phonograph from cardboard, paper and wax, and with a bristle from a clothes brush serving as a needle.

Naturally, Rilke was fascinated that sound could be preserved in this way, and he found it noteworthy - presumably also with an intrinsic beautiful logic - that the same machine could be used both for recording and playing. He describes how the sounds that the students had produced were transmitted back to them from the wax cylinder through the funnel - tremblingly, haltingly, uncertain, and infinitely soft. It was as if something was appealing to them, something superior but yet immature, as if seeking help.

The coronal suture, does it contain a hidden message?

Still, there was something else that had captured Rilke's attention even more. Fourteen or fifteen years after the class experiment, Rilke studied anatomy at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. Now he discovered how the seams in the human skull, especially the zigzaging coronal suture, resembled the audio track on a phonograph cylinder. Rilke's telling of how he dreamily, almost incidentally, in the flickering light from a candle, noticed this similarity, almost resembles some passage in Poe. In a way, this depicted the meeting of the 19th century, with its clinic theaters and phrenology, with the 20th century and its new machines that extend our senses. This is also an idea Friedrich Kittler exploits in his analysis of the Rilke text.3

But, speculates Rilke, what would happen if one used the phonograph needle to play something that was never recorded - if one decoded something never encoded? If one, for instance, was to put the needle into the coronal suture and tried to play the wave pattern of the bone seam? There would be sound, of course, but which ones, and how would we react to hearing them? With incredulity, timidity, fear - or awe?

One traces the search for a kind of primordium, something older than man, maybe a pronouncement from the tailor who made that seam; an abstruse, spellbinding sound, like the ones we receive from particle storms in space, or when monitoring whales in the depths of the seas. We have always been dissatisfied with the silence of God.

Rilke also regards this as a first step towards unifying our senses into a kind of multisensory or synesthetic experience (which, by the way, Lucretius considered impossible - "shall the ears have power to blame the eyes"). True poetry springs from this, Rilke says, while a woman friend of his instead claims that maybe the foremost requisites are presence of mind and the grace of love. He dwells amazingly long on arguing against this. The lover is unfettered by spatial bonds, Rilke claims, while the poet clearly perceives the gravity of the engulfing abyss, which keeps the senses apart.

Rilke thinks of the skull as "this special housing, closed against all worldly space" ("dieses besondere, gegen einen durchaus weltischen Raum abgeschlossene Gehäus"). He is certainly also aware of how the seams of the skull represent the leakage between our inside and outside world, a connection that grows more and more solid through the years and finally ends up being merely a symbol, like an engraved sign.

Text as sound. Here Rilke's text has been interpreted by the computer as a sound file of the AIF format. One may study this sound in three ways. As a text file (the front window), or as a sound file in the sound editing program (the back window). Rilke would probably have recognized this wave form ...
A third way is, of course, to listen to it - click this button (124 K):

  Rilke was interested in the ontology of our inside and outside world respectively, how they sometimes seem to turn themselves inside out (as in those diagrams showing the different cerebral centers with head, body and legs drawn onto different parts of the cortex), and he dealt with similar themes in "Malte Laurids Brigge". This is an urgent issue today: how will the boundaries be drawn between our own person, as we experience ourselves, the housing for our mental faculties and our knowledge on one hand, and the outside world with its objects and more or less processed information on the other, now that new technology redefines the territory of machines and humans respectively? To our central nervous system our body appears as outside world, the web of nerves in our bodies form a sort of LAN, a local area network, if one is allowed to use a very modern metaphor, while our encounters with other human beings take place in a WAN, a wide area network, or a global network. These intra-cranial, corporeal, local, and global areas will, however, increasingly merge. The sensory extensions we develop today will not only reach out farther, they will also bend back inwards, towards us again - this applies to the small computers of the future that we may swallow, microchips that have been surgically mounted in our heads or when we will use mind control to operate some artificial hand on another continent. The blurred borderlines, the schizoid, lies right behind the corner.

Text as image. The Rilke text in German is here interpreted in the computer as an image file of the TIF format. (To make it work better in a web browser it has, however, been converted to JPG.) The image is supposed to be a narrow band with lots of small dots in all colors.

The idea to play the seams of the skull with a phonograph might seem naive. And Rilke was, of course, not a brain scientist. But the notion of reading what was not supposed to be read was probably an inevitable thought, once a new instrument like the phonograph was at hand. Have we not always tried to read the clouds? The stars? All of a sudden there emerged several new media, offering sharper perception as well as storage and transfer of information, that up till then had been most volatile. The camera was, however, not possible to use in a similar way as the phonograph when attempting to show what had never before been seen; one of the problems was to adjust focus, another long exposures. Still, several experiments were made using photograms and some people painted or scratched directly onto cinematic film. Occasional theosofical auras were also to be seen on photographic plates.

The dream to be able to listen to sounds that were unintentionally preserved, has been dreamt from time to time. About thirty years ago there was some talk about the possibility to listen to potters from ancient times. The sound of their voices, while working at the wheel, were supposed to have been led through the body's bone structure to the fingers digging into the clay surface, where they engraved a sound track.

What then about computer technology? Now, that we are turning more and more digital - shouldn't we be able to encode the whole world and listen to it? The problem is that the digital world is almost too flexible - everything may be transformed into anything.4 If we find a sound wave somewhere, we can easily pretend that its code actually is an image or a cryptic message in some unknown language. As is well known, musicians work with samples of sound in the computer, and thus they can freely transform them into totally different timbres. They can also work only with how the sound rings out, its profile, the so called enveloppe, and copy this profile onto another sound. One can make a piano tone ring out in the same way as a violin tone. An accompanying light show might react to the same sound profile; lamps could lit up, change color and go out, in conformity with the course of the tone.

So, why not take Rilke's text about primal sound and put it into a computer file? Then one could trick some image manipulation software into believing that the file is not text, but consists of the kind of code sequence that constitutes a digital image. Or, why not trick a sound editing program into believing that the text file is a code sequence constituting digitally recorded sound? 5 Said and done. The outcome of this experiment is accounted for in the adjoining pictures and captions on this page. In both cases, when we transform the text into an image and into sound, the result is noise. Rilke-Geräusch.


1. In the beginning one wrote from right to left, but during the transition to the present custom, one wrote alternatingly from the left and from the right, as when plowing. This is called boustrofedon (from bous  'ox' and strophe'  'turn'). [Back]

2. Freud wrote this text in 1925, see "Notiz über den 'Wunderblock'" in Studienausgabe, Vol. III, Fischer (1982), or "A Note Upon the 'Mystic Writing-Pad'" in Standard Edition vol 19, ed. Strachey, London, 1971. [Back]

3. Kittler writes about the Rilke text in "Grammofon, Film, Typewriter" (1986) as well as in "Aufschreibesysteme 1800-1900" (1995). Rilke hints upon that this new medium is an extension of human ability ("einer Erweiterung der einzelnen Sinngebiete"), which also is what many media philosophers of today claim. [Back]

4. When this is being written there is a song on the charts by Lauryn Hill, titled "Everything is Everything". In the accompanying music video, the center of the Manhattan island starts revolving and a huge pick-up arm is lowered into the streets, playing the grooves. The idea is, however, that this - as in Rilke - is an analog audio track, not a digital one. [Back]

5. It is not possible just to open the text file in an image or sound program. One must be sure to include also the headers and footers, typical of each file type. One might even have to insert codes defining the rectangle of the supposed image, or codes for a certain pitch, speed or duration when it comes to sound files. Otherwise the programs will probably not recognize the presented text as possible content within the format they are written to deal with. [Back]

Läs denna text på svenska/This text in Swedish
Read Rilke's text in German
Rilke's text might be available in English here as part of the Kittler text.

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