Beyond Listening: The Hidden Ways Sound Affects Us (Michael Heller)

April 26, 2024 | 1:00:01

There are sonic experiences that can’t be contained by the word “listening.” Moments when sound overpowers us. When sound is sensed more in our bodies than in our ears. When sound engages in crosstalk with our other senses. Or when it affects us by being inaudible. Dr. Michael Heller’s new book Just Beyond Listening: Essays of Sonic Encounter (2023, U of California Press) uses affect theory to open up these moments. In this conclusion to our miniseries on sound and affect, we explore topics such as the measurement and perception of loudness, the invention of sonar and the anechoic chamber, and Heller’s critique of the politics of silence in the work of John Cage. This interview was a blast–Michael is a great storyteller and we had a lot of laughs. 

Dr. Michael Heller is a musicologist, ethnomusicologist, and a jazz scholar. This fall he will join the musicology faculty of Brandeis University as an Associate Professor, after working for ten years at the University of Pittsburgh. Michael’s love for music began with playing saxophone in his youth, but his path took an academic turn during college at Columbia University. There, he dove deep into jazz history while working at WKCR radio under the mentorship of legendary programmer Phil Schaap.

Michael’s scholarly pursuits were further shaped by his work with the Vision Festival, an avant-garde jazz festival in New York. Inspired by the experimental musicians he met there, he wrote his first book, Loft Jazz: Improvising New York in the 1970s (2017, UC Press), documenting the 1970s scene where adventurous artists staged performances in old factory spaces. Through his immersion in these innovative communities, Michael developed a keen interest in the borderlands between music and sound. 

Just Beyond Listening pushes out into the borderlands of sound itself, using affect theory to probe how sound is perceived in other parts of the body, how sound interacts with written text, how it’s weaponized by the military, and how it can haunt us in mediated form.

To hear the extended version of this interview, including a segment on Louis Armstrong and Miachel’s “What’s Good” recommendations, sign up for a free or paid Patreon membership at

See also: 

Part One of this miniseries on sound and affect: Noise and Affect Theory (Marie Thompson).
Mack’s own audio essay on John Cage and the anechoic chamber.


Mack Hagood  00:00

Hey, everyone, it’s Mack. Before we get started, I have a quick request. I am going up for full professor and this podcast is going to be a part of my argument that I’ve been making a scholarly contribution to my field. And part of that argument will be that people are using this podcast in the classroom. I’ve had a lot of people tell me that they use episodes of this show in their classes. 

I’m asking right now, if you could just send me a quick email if you are such a person who uses Phantom Power in any kind of educational setting to teach anything to anyone as a kind of homework or what have you. If you could just send me a quick email. Let me know any details. You’re willing to share your name, your university’s name, the name of the class, You know, maybe how many years you’ve used it, as few or as many details as you’d care to share, I would be so grateful if you could just take that time. I know everyone’s super busy.

 But it would be great for me to have that information. As I go up for full professor. You can reach me at [email address]. Thanks so much. 

Introduction  01:24

This is Phantom Power

Mack Hagood  01:50

Welcome to another episode of Phantom Power, a podcast about sound. I’m Mack Hagood. Today, we conclude a mini series on sound and affect. Our guest today is Michael Heller, a musicologist and ethnomusicologist at the University of Pittsburgh, and author of the new book Just Beyond Listening: Essays of Sonic Encounter. 

Two weeks ago, Marie Thompson and I walked through Spinoza and Deleuze’s theories of affect and discussed how those theories can give us a different understanding of noise. Beyond the aesthetic moralism that tends to portray noise as something inherently bad and harmful, or something inherently transgressive and revolutionary. Our perception of noise or any sound is never purely the result of vibrations in the air, nor purely the result of our culturally conditioned ideas about sound. Noise emerges in the feedback loops that occur between the material and the social. 

And speaking of feedback, we got so much positive response to that episode, we got a whole lot of new patrons, who signed up either as free members or paid members to hear part two of my interview with Marie Thompson, in which we discuss tinnitus and an effect. 

Today we are building on those episodes with this fascinating interview with Michael Heller. Michael’s love for music began with playing saxophone in his youth, but his path took an academic turn during college at Columbia University. There he dove deep into jazz history while working at WKCR Radio under the mentorship of legendary programmer Phil Sharp. Michael’s scholarly pursuits were further shaped by his work with the Vision Festival, an avant garde jazz festival in New York. Inspired by the experimental musicians he met there, he wrote his first book Loft Jazz, documenting the 1970s scene where adventurous artists stage performances in old factory spaces. Through his immersion in these innovative communities, Michael developed a keen interest in the borderlands between music and sound. And his new book, Just Beyond Listening: Essays of Sonic Encounter pushes out into the borderlands of sound itself, using affect theory to probe how sound is perceived in other parts of the body, how sound interacts with written text, how it’s weaponized by the military, and how it can haunt us in mediated form. In this interview, we discuss topics such as the measurement and perception of loudness, the invention of sonar in the anechoic chamber, and the politics of silence in the work of John Cage. 

This interview was a blast. Michael is a great storyteller, and we had a lot of laughs. And I asked Michael Heller to start off by telling a story that appears in the opening of his book, one that I found completely hilarious, but also, I found it to be a really powerful example of what Michael Heller calls a sonic encounter.

Michael Heller  05:02

So I was in Paris in 2007. And I was there, I was a grad student at the time. And I was privileged enough and lucky enough to get a fellowship to do an intensive language study. So I ended up spending a lot of my time just sort of walking around the city and exploring and seeing what I could. And so one day I’m doing this, it’s a sunny afternoon. It’s gorgeous outside, and I accidentally stumbled across Notre Dame cathedral. And it’s immediately familiar, because we’ve all seen a million pictures of Notre Dame. 

So I say, Okay, let me go over and check it out. And it’s a lot of it is what you’d expect. It’s a very touristy area, there was sort of a concrete pavilion in front where some people are waiting in line, and some people are having picnics. And there’s some low hedges, where there’s a man feeding birds, you know, songbirds, they’re all very, very pleasant. I’m sort of very pleased that happened across this. And after a couple of minutes, it must have been the top of the hour because the Notre Dame bells begin to ring and they start and I sort of think, well, this is lovely. What else could you ask for? I’m a tourist in Paris, it’s a beautiful summer day, I’m gonna hear these bells. And I don’t know anything about the Notre Dame bells. At this point, I’m a jazz historian. 

This isn’t my area of expertise. But you know, I think I’ve heard church bells and know what to expect, there’s going to be some vocation of divine consonance and harmonic confluence and like a lovely pleasant thing to listen to, and sort of sort of sit back and getting ready for it. And as the bills begin to build, what I find is that the Notre Dame bells in 2007 were not that at all. They were very untuned in a certain sense, at least from from a Western perspective, which I much later learned was a criticism that people had, there were a lot of people that couldn’t stand the Notre Dame bells, and they replaced most of them later on in 2013. But at the time, it starts to build and there’s just this dissonance and this accretion of sound that sort of grows into a roar around me. And it takes me by surprise, I’m off guard, it’s incredibly loud, it sort of fills up everyone’s had that experience of having a body filled up with sound, and I’m feeling it in my chest and my teeth. 

And I’m trying to make sense of it. And, you know, I find myself thinking through like, Well, maybe if this is a religious evocation, it’s supposed to be like an angry old Testament God or something like that. I’m trying to make sense of it. But it’s really kidding me. You know, it’s, it’s getting me. And just as it sort of hitting its height, and I’m grappling with this, there’s this other layer that enters which enters as this rush of air and this flap of wings. And I look up and everyone’s ducking down, and the songbirds that were being fed on the hedge there have all taken off at the same time. And I look at the hedge where they were, and there’s this bird of prey, which now I think is a kestrel had swooped down at the moment when the bells were their most intense, and I assumed the birds were distracted, and has pinned a songbird down to the end is ripping it limb from limb.

 And I just don’t know what to do. The bells are still going and I’m dizzy. And there’s this murder taking place next to me. And after a few minutes, it picks up the bird and it flies off to eat it wherever it wants. And eventually, the bells sort of slowly subside, the process goes in reverse. And I’m just sweating like I just don’t know what to do. I’m short of breath and I have to sit down. 

Mack Hagood  08:49

Well, one of the things that you mentioned in the book is, you know, when you have a dissonant set of bells like that, it creates what’s called beading, where the frequencies of the waves don’t line up. And they are especially if they’re very close to each other but not the same. It creates this sensation that you can feel I mean, I’ve gotten to gamelan performances in Bali and experienced this where they use this as an effect, you know, Some theorize it really creates trance states, especially if there’s enough of a sort of cultural priming for that experience happening. And I definitely felt pretty tripped out with some of these lower frequency beating waves going through my body. And so it’s such a multi sensory and really quite violent experience that you had a lovely afternoon in Paris.

Michael Heller  09:44

Yeah, exactly. And you’re right. It is the same experience as Balinese gamelan. And yeah, that feeling of it just the way that it shakes your body, especially not being ready for it. Yeah, it was. It was something. 

Mack Hagood  09:55

So you have a sort of thesis in the book and you have the idea that it’s very affects oriented idea of sonic encounter, I mean, the experience you had there in Paris, listening doesn’t begin to describe it. Right? That’s right. Yeah. So can you talk about this concept of a Sonic encounter? And what you’re seeking to include that listening seems to leave out?

Michael Heller  10:21

Yeah, absolutely. Well, and you put it exactly right, which is that, you know, I was walking away from that I don’t feel like I listened to the bells, right, it doesn’t seem like not in the sense that we usually use the phrase listening at some sort of detached understanding that we take our subjectivities to hear sound from the outside and place it into a context and so forth. This was much more like an encounter, like I said, where this Sonic body had accosted me. And I was being touched by it and sort of grappling with that moment of touch, which is where affect really becomes an important touchstone. 

Now, this doesn’t mean it’s solely a vibrational process. And that’s important. And it’s important to the way that I use the anecdote in the book too, because I’m very much from the more cultural studies oriented side, the auditory culture side of sound studies where that experience that I had was affected at every layer by the experiences that I brought to it, right, everything from my own privileged identity as a white male tourists going through Paris and sort of enjoying a sunny day free of cares, to the moment when I start thinking about an Old Testament God and trying to place it in that context, that’s tied in briefly to my own background as a lapsed Catholic, every layer of it is is inflected by every other layer. And that’s where I find an effect to be a useful paradigm. 

And I know there’s a lot of different theories of affects that float around in the academy. But the place where I find it particularly useful as the moment where intensities transfer across boundaries, where sounds are rubbing up against memories, or rubbing up against texts. And this sort of becomes a theme throughout the book, because there’s a lot of listening in the book. Strangely, it’s not when I say just beyond listening, I’m not discarding, listening, I’m sort of talking a lot about the things that are just on the other side that listening is touching and pushing against. Yeah, and in our previous episode is our interview with Marie Thompson. Yeah, who I know, is someone that you cite in your book, and Maria, and I really got into talking about effect theory, and especially the sort of Spinozan strand of affect theory, and one of those pieces that maybe doesn’t get highlighted quite as much, especially in some critiques of an affect, that maybe consider it to be just this material resonance is that Spinoza also talks about affection ideas as a kind of part of the affect process. 

So yeah, there’s this cycle between the sound waves hitting us in the material of the as Spinoza would put it the body of the bell and affecting the body of the listener, although kind of a lacking term there for what you went through there. But then also in that moment of subjectivity, all of these other affection ideas about what you think you’re being affected by, yeah, also become part of that process. So it’s a socio-cultural material process of affection. Yeah, Most definitely. And you’re right. I’m a huge admirer of Marie Thompson’s work. 

Mack Hagood  13:34

And I think it’s really nice that we have the two of you back to back, because I think we can continue to sort of develop some of these ideas about sound in affect. 

Michael Heller  13:43

Absolutely. Yeah. I would add to that that one thing that interests me, particularly I’ve one chapter in the book about opera supertitles, is the notion of texts as being a part of that ecosystem of that. Yeah. Because I think often there’s a tendency to think of text and discourse as something that’s separate from an effect or embodied experience. 

And I’m fascinated by moments when something that you’ve read or something that you are reading at that moment, changes that moment of encounter. So in the supertitles example, for instance, I dig into a lot up to this moment when supertitles were first released, and it made a small sort of elitist subset of the upper gun community incredibly angry. Yeah. And the crux of that anger. I mean, there’s a lot of gatekeeping and racism and classism embedded in that. But at the same time thinking through supertitles in terms of what it means to have a text that’s treated affectively, right, that’s placed into the performance space, it encounters your body at the same time and in close interrelationship with your experience of listening and hearing. 

Mack Hagood  14:53

And so it’s like what Deleuze and Guattari say in One Thousand Plateaus. We don’t want to talk about what a text represents. We want to talk about what a text does, right? Like what it enacts and superimposing a text onto that space of operatic performance is doing things right. Yeah, necessarily changing your perception and reception of the sound. So those people while they might have been snooty, they also weren’t wrong. 

Michael Heller  15:21

Yeah, there’s that thing and sort of dealing with that. Because you’re right. It’s a very, like, literal application of that text. Yeah, yeah, it does to you.

Mack Hagood  15:29

Yeah, absolutely. Well, maybe we can talk about the first section of the book. Because when you’re thinking through this idea of Sonic encounter, one of the things that I see you doing is trying to explore what are the boundaries of that if we’re talking about things that go beyond listening, maybe we should think about the very loudest experiences that we can have, or the very quietest experiences that we have. So the first chapter explores extreme loudness. 

And you are sort of looking at the historical events that gave us a scientific understanding of what loudness is, right? And then I love moments like this, where we can think about the sort of etymology or history of just these basic concepts that we take for granted. So I was really excited to read this part. Can you talk about where this scientific concept of loudness comes from? And then maybe we can talk about what you do in the second half of the chapter, which is think through the artistic expressions of loudness and what loudness sort of does to us within culture?

Michael Heller  16:40

Sure, yeah. So the article, well, the chapter begins. This chapter, by the way, is largely a reprint of my article from 2015 on loudness. And it begins with a physicist named George William Clarkson Kaye. Well, I’m actually interested to hear from you because I understand you’re working on something else that came from another direction. So I want to hear your work, too. But Kaye was connected to these streams in the early 20th century of noise abatement activism.

And this is something that’s talked about a lot in Emily Thompson’s classic book, the Soundscape of Modernity, for instance, activists who thought that the growth of industrial technology was creating these noisy environments that were disrupting life in one sense or another. So a lot of the measurements of loudness that we use today, like the decibel, have their origins in this movement, where there were these activists who explicitly wanted a way to measure loudness. So they could say, you know, look, we need to legislate this, because I can show you on a scale, that this space is this loud, and it’s harmful in these kinds of ways. 

So where I begin is with Kay giving a presentation where he unveiled this diagram. And I’m not entirely certain if it is the very first use of a diagram like this, but it’s certainly an early use. And it struck me because it’s a diagram that you can still find in physics books that I’ve remembered coming up with in college. And it gives on a vertical scale, sort of different levels. He wasn’t using decibels, he was using another unit called the phon and sort of saying, All right, well, that 20 phons, here’s a sound that you could hear at 40 phons, here’s another sound you could hear and so forth. But when you look at this diagram, the rhetorical underpinnings of it are really clear. Because the lower levels though the ones that are deemed acceptable to Kaye are very domestic calm things, that quiet conversation, and I forget what’s there, a residential street? Yeah, suburban trains, things like that.

Mack Hagood  18:42

Tearing paper, picking up a watch, right?

Michael Heller  18:46

But then when you get to the top, it sort of looks like a thermometer. And when you get to the top, that thermometer literally turns black in the diagram. And all of a sudden, all of the sounds are like threats. There’s a door slamming. There’s pneumatic drill stuff like that. Yeah, yeah. And you know, and it’s never something pleasant in the higher realms. 

And this, it’s not like your aunt’s retirement party or climax of a symphony. Like there’s no pleasurable loudness in this diagram.  And the other part that strikes me about it, which continues to be reproduced, are the limits of this diagram, that even as they’re trying to quantify things, when you look at the bottom and the top, the bottom is called the threshold of silence, or I think it says near threshold of silence. And then the top is the threshold of pain. Yeah, and that’s, that is fascinating to me that even at this moment of intense quantification, the upper limit brings the body back in in this tortured kind of way. That was sort of the jumping off point for the teeth. Yeah,

Mack Hagood  19:57

yeah. I love thinking about that. These boundaries, I mean, the way you put it in the book was loudness, a fundamental parameter of sound itself that exists as a continuum bounded on either side by silence and pain, right. And that really gets at the beyond just beyond listening sort of thing here, right like that we cross over into something that we would not think of as acoustic or auditory, which is pain. Yeah. And yet, there’s a lot of like, if we delve into the auditory system, as I’ve done through the lens of tinnitus, and its treatment, tinnitus and pain function very, very similarly. It’s like they’re pretty hard to distinguish between one and the other when it comes to certain types of measurements that people would do in a neurophysiological way. 

Yeah. And so again, we get back to this idea that these boundaries that we make, and particularly as sound scholars, we tend to isolate sound as the object of our study. But sound is multimodal, it’s affective. It’s crossing boundaries between different senses, at least as described by Kaye. Yeah.

Michael Heller  21:14

Absolutely. With you. Yeah. So you just mentioned in the email that you were working on something with Kaye, what’s your project? Well,

Mack Hagood  21:22

I haven’t really zeroed in on Kaye very much yet. I mean, I’ve been very interested in the exact same diagram that you describe, because we’ll see this diagram in psycho acoustics textbooks, but we’ll also see it in the training of audiologists. And so this is a really important understanding of from my perspective, what I’m thinking about with this book project is a little bit more about noise, right? So one way of defining noise is as excessive loudness or you know, loudness moving through this continuum towards pain or into pain. So, there are other ways that noise has been scientifically defined, and I think you actually, if I remember correctly, you mentioned you know, a periodic wave, when Herman Von Helmholtz described, which is basically, the sound waves that don’t line up harmonically. The way music does that there isn’t this kind of rough random stochastic sort of look to the wave. That’s sort of another definition of noise.

 And there, there are different definitions of noise that we can talk about. Marie Thompson, obviously talks a lot about this, and in her work as well. So that’s my, that’s sort of where I’m just touching, maybe lightly on Kaye, as I write this sort of more public facing book. And in my own previous book, I kind of tried to avoid using noise as an analytic because I wanted to see how we could do sound studies and bracket noise? And how could we do media studies and bracket information?

Can I come up with a you know, and so affect kind of became my model of trying to think in a fresh way didn’t just take these two concepts that we all write can kind of dull us down a little bit because there’s so commonplace, but other people, you know, like, Marie, and you know, are using the concept, but they’re really interrogating it deeply, which I think is also helpful.

Michael Heller  23:26

Absolutely. Yeah. Oh, fascinating. I’m looking forward to it. Yeah.

Mack Hagood  23:30

So that’s the loudness defined. That’s the new measure of loudness that we got from Kaye. Can you talk about these? You call them loudness effects, right. So this gets a little bit more into the sort of culturally situated phenomenology, the experience of loudness? What did you find when you started thinking about that?

Michael Heller  23:52

Yeah, well, sort of the place where this began was to sort of think about this almost from a musical standpoint. I mean, I think that actually the approach that I took is informed by my background as a musicologist. Because I remember reading in various places, you know that and again, this is like, Intro Music textbooks, that musical sound you can think of as pitch rhythm, tambor and loudness, right? In European and American musical culture. 

There’s very much a hierarchy among those right where there’s a lot of musical liturgical literature on harmony and pitch. There’s some but much less on rhythm. Yeah, there is very little on tambor and I didn’t know anything at the time on loudness. Yeah. So I wanted to try to think through in the early stages of this project, what becomes pleasure, a little bit loudness. And I think this is this is different from some writings on loudness. It’s because there’s, you know, as you know, from your tinnitus work. There’s a lot of literature about the dangers of loud sound. Yeah, and how it can affect our bodies and create problems. 

But there was less From what I could see about why do people seek these sounds out in the first place, and I truly believed and still believe that people in certain musical communities do seek out loud sounds. So I started to try to think through what are those loud sounds doing? And why? Why are people seeking them out in some cases, and then in other cases shying away from them. So one of them, I’m gonna go in a different order than I do in the book. But one of them I talk about is imagined loudness, which is sort of moments when we can take one sound and imagine it at a volume level that’s different from what we’re experiencing. And so an example of this in one direction could be like, if you’re softly listening to heavy metal, right?

 You’re you’re on a subway and you have it sort of low in your headphones, and you’re sort of you know, whispering along to it. You might have it at a subway is a terrible example, because that turned on headphones. But let’s say you’re listening to it softly, you might still be imagining because you hear the distorted guitars and you hear the drums imagining this, like, arena filling sound, right? Yeah. Whereas on the flip side of that, if you listen to someone like Billie Holiday, or Miles Davis, right, yeah, who are known for these very soft tambours that were enabled by the development of microphones, right? Like, yeah, the difference between Billie Holiday singing and Bessie Smith singing and in some ways is that Billie Holiday is is using the microphone so that she can sort of whisper and have these these little moans and little bends and subtle things that we associate with intimacy, right? It’s like someone’s whispering in our ear. And yet it’s amplified to a point where it can fill up a nightclub or a room.

Mack Hagood  26:40

The perception of loudness independent of the actual volume of the sound is fascinating as a production technique, right? Like I, I went to grad school at Indiana University and Harris Berger, was around and he was doing research back then on the perception of heaviness. And he wound up writing a book I don’t know if you ever saw this book is called Metal Rock and Jazz Perception in the Phenomenology of Musical Experience. And yeah, really, he was the first person that got me thinking about that perception of like, well, what does make a guitar tone heavy, it’s one of those things like, pornography, I know it when I hear it, you know, like, I know, that’s heavy, but I have no idea why. And he really got me thinking about what creates heaviness and, and part of it seemed to be this creation of the auditory effects that happen when either a speaker is over driven, or your actual auditory system is over driven. There’s a kind of distortion that can happen.

And actually, it’s interesting, because sometimes I find, I work out at a place that plays like really loud, hip hop. And then there’s also somebody with a mic on, you know, attached to their head. He’s shouting directions at us as we work out. And I actually find that I can understand the instructor better sometimes if I use earplugs, because my auditory systems actually just getting overloaded by the volume. And I can’t understand the words as well. And occasionally, I turned down the volume, you know, and that’s a counter intuitive, affective loudness. 

Yeah. But I think it’s one that we know on a kind of embodied level. And so when we hear an approximation of that, like a kind of distorted tone, it resonates as loud even if it’s quiet, if it’s well produced. Yeah,

Michael Heller  28:39

I agree with that. I agree with that mostly. And I think there is that sense of, I think I call it inertia, where if we’re used to hearing something in a loud context, and then we hear something that’s tambor-ly similar in another context, we continue to imagine it as loud. But the only place where I would hesitate with that is that I do think there’s a cultural component to it as well and a disciplined component to it. And you know, one example, a sort of innocuous example that I give in the book is if we’re thinking of an artist like Jimi Hendrix, right, yeah. 

And let’s imagine you have somebody who was at Woodstock with Jimi Hendrix in 1969. And so later on in their life, they can listen to a recording that very low and it sounds very, it still sounds loud to them, right? But on the other hand, if you take maybe that person’s children, and their reference to Jimi Hendrix, might be, oh, this reference to mom and dad listening to this on the car radio on a trip, right, all of a sudden, that’s a different kind of association that is connected with probably a lower volume level and then also sort of soft, friendly domesticity as opposed to like big rock insanity. 

And I think where this comes into play a lot too is in you know, people like Jennifer Ackerman’s work on on ratio of associations of sound and sort of the way that it can create really problematic sorts of power relationships and hierarchies. A lot of them are rooted in both tambor and volume in ways that can get really complex. 

Mack Hagood  30:12

Yeah, that’s a really good point and it speaks to the interplay between the cultural and the material. And you know, there’s a lot of more current ways of thinking about phenomenology, queer phenomenology, crip phenomenology that take into account the situatedness of the listener of the experience, or I keep trying to grasp for a different word besides listener, talking to you.

Michael Heller  30:37

This was me throughout the book process, so it’s like “I can’t say listener”, okay,

Mack Hagood  30:43

So these different kinds of of loudness a ffects, then you talked about this one effect of perception of loudness, even in a place where the amplitude is not high. Can you talk about, you know, briefly what some of the other ones are?

Michael Heller  30:58

Sure, yeah. So the other second one I’ll mention is what I call listener collapse, which is an experience in which it feels as if the boundaries between sound as an exterior source and your body as an interior entity, are breaking down. So the most direct examples, you know, if again, going back to the the Paris example, where it feels like sound is suddenly resonating in your body, and you’re one with the sound, at times this often, you know, going back to the idea of high volume as pain, it can become intertwined with that experience of pain, particularly if you look at things like Sonic torture. 

You know, I think there’s a close connection to what people like Elaine Scarry write about in terms of torture as this attempt to have the tortured person break down and not understand themselves as a complete being. But on the other end of the spectrum, again, it’s also something that in heavy metal communities, for instance, people really seek out that experience of feeling connectedness with sound with the artists and sometimes with one another within a room. 

Mack Hagood  32:05

And something maybe like Dave Novak talks about with noises, right? This overwhelming of the ego, right through this sheer force of what’s happening. And again, you know, that’s the experience of an enthusiast in that space. Somebody else might have a different experience of that loudness.

Michael Heller  32:30

Exactly. Yeah, it’s the same same sort of thing. And again, I’m always trying to be sensitive to the fact that what for one subject can be very pleasurable for another can be intensely painful or harmful.

Mack Hagood  32:43

Yeah, yeah. Anything else you want to relate about that chapter?

Michael Heller  32:48

Well, the last one, I’ll just touch briefly on the the last affective, that’s what it called noise occupation, which again, sort of talks about systems of power, be the government’s or be the resistance movement, sort of using noise as a way to claim space. And then I go through some examples where I tried to apply these models, these these loudness effects to some other theories. But yeah, really, it’s it’s not an attempt to be comprehensive whatsoever. It’s really just an opportunity to grapple with the way that loudness and flex our experience in ways that we may not think about. Yeah,

Mack Hagood  33:20

Lovely. So the next chapter sort of does the same kind of work follows the same method, but it’s dealing on the lower end of Kaye’s sclae. So I really like your research here about World War Two, the different labs at Harvard that were trying to operationalize echo. And what we might call anecho, or the lack of echo, or the lack of resonance, or, you know, silence as military tools. So could you maybe talk some about that, because that’s a really, really fascinating history.

Michael Heller  34:00

Yeah, and this, again, is something that I sort of stumbled into that one day, I was doing some research at Harvard, and a friend of mine, Peter McMurray came in and said, Hey, I’m about to go over to the archives to look for stuff about the electro acoustic lab in the anechoic chamber, do you want to come? I said, Sure. And then sort of launched into this extended examination of it in theater, and I’ve co presented on some things and so forth. But one of the things that we found in those archives is that there’s this moment in World War Two, when there was sort of an acoustic arms race that was taking place where the US government sort of in the aftermath of the development of sonar and around World War One started looking for ways that for other ways that sound could be brought into the war effort. 

And so again, the most straightforward of these are things like sonar, but then there were also things like the development of new kinds of telecom equipment for pilots in noisy cocked IT environments. There’s also research on the way that noise affected soldiers ability to function and sort of when their fatigue set in and so forth. But the significance of it is such that what we learned is that the very first time that the US military partnered, I think it’s the US government partnered with private universities to conduct research and build labs was these acoustic labs. And there were three of them at Harvard, there was the underwater sound lab, the psycho acoustic lab and the electro acoustic lab.

Mack Hagood  35:31

So the underwater sound lab was trying to operationalize echo in the sonar had been invented already. Yeah. And so maybe you can just talk a little bit about like, what sonar is and what they were trying to achieve in that lab? Yeah.

Michael Heller  35:51

So I mean, the basics of sonar are fairly well known that the sonar device sends a signal out into the water, right a ping, as they call it, which is a sound. And then after it sends out the ping, it listens back for the direction and the time, which it takes for the ping to be reflected back off of something. And that something could be the bottom of the ocean. It could be a school of fish, or it can be an enemy vessel, right. And a lot of the processes of developing sonar, and by this point tweaking sonar, are figuring out how to make it work better, because it’s not a simple landscape, or soundscape.

Mack Hagood  36:35

There’s a lot of noisemakers, and if you go scuba diving or even snorkeling, you realize how noisy the ocean is? Absolutely.

Michael Heller  36:45

And there’s a lot of noise. And there’s a lot of stuff that things can dance off of. Right. So some of the documents that we found in that underwater sound lab material where they weren’t about how to get the sonar they hear better or to listen better, they were about how to get it to not hear. In other words, to not take these things that were distracting, and only bring back the data and the information that they wanted to know.

Mack Hagood  37:11

Yeah, and one thing that I found fascinating about your telling of this history, and the goals in that lab was that you describe it as the construction of a sonic ontology. Right? And and so as a lot of listeners will know, in philosophy, ontology refers to the material reality around us, often opposed to epistemology, which is our access to that, not to that reality, right? Like and the ways that we categorize that reality would be epistemology. But you’re actually using ontology in a different way that comes from information theory, do you want to talk a little bit about about that?

Michael Heller  37:52

Sure. I’ll touch on it. I’m not a huge expert on this, but I’m fascinated by it. Because information theorists, especially those developed in in models of machine learning, use the phrase ontology to describe what like if you have a machine that’s job is to read a document and distill certain kinds of information. The ontology refers to what information is meaningful to that machine, and what information is not. And the information that’s meaningful sort of creates the universe for that machine reading software or device. That’s what it is. The place where I came up against this, I was asked to write a review of several years ago of a project called linked Jas, which was a data reader that was making an attempt to call transcribed interviews with jazz musicians, and without the intervention of a human reader to pull out certain types of relationships. So if it was an interview with Mary Lou Williams to maybe say like, okay, Mary Lou Williams, has a connection with Leon Thomas here, and so they can create that relationship in this way. And in researching for this review, I was writing on this project learned all about this information theories idea of ontology.

Mack Hagood  39:04

Let’s face it, it’s fascinating. So it’s like it’s the reality of the world from the perspective of the machine, you’re only letting them the sort of sensitive to certain dimensions of your dataset. Yeah. So like, the way you put it in the book. You said their goal was not so much to train the machines to hear more and more, but to hear less and less and to filter and analyze that information in highly specific ways. Yeah, exactly. So we only want to hear the enemy the presence of the enemy. We don’t care about whales that are sound like

Michael Heller  39:29

And whenever I hear that phrase, it reminds me of like the joke that people make about PhDs that you learn more and more about less and less what they were doing with these these Sony devices.

Mack Hagood  39:58

Yeah, so the second lab is something that I wrote about in my book harsh a little bit, the lab where they’re dealing with the factor of noise and its effects on pilots. And they really work on quieting noise suppressing noise, figuring out how to, you know, it’s sort of like the granddaddy of the noise cancelling headphone and the different kinds of headsets that pilots wear. And that sort of thing is one of the things that comes out of that. Yeah.

Michael Heller  40:28

So that’s, I believe you’re referring to the electro acoustic lab. Yeah. There’s also the psycho acoustic Lab, which I did the least work with electro acoustic lab was really geared on on creating gear, new kinds of headphones and speakers and mitigating noise and that kind of thing. 

Mack Hagood  40:45

I actually maybe I was thinking about the the psycho acoustic lab, but the electro acoustic lab is the one with the anechoic chamber. And so I suppose both of those labs contributed to, I mean, certainly, we should get into the purpose of the anechoic chamber. Yeah. Because in some ways, you know, it’s very similar to the kind of ontology drawing that you’re talking about, right? Like we’re trying to create a sort of artificial scarcity. We’re trying not to listen to certain things, in order to be able to listen to other very specific things.

Michael Heller  41:25

Yeah, yeah. There’s a few ways to tell the story of the anechoic chamber. The one that I heard, I’ll sort of start by my experience of it, and again, how I got interested in the topic. But the place where I incurred, encountered the anechoic chamber was in music literature, where it comes up as this pivotal moment for the composer, John Cage, who was interested in processes of silence. And there’s this sort of, you know, mythical tale, where cage heard about this silent room at Harvard University. And he went to that room and sat in it. And in cages retelling, he sat in the room, and he heard two tones, one was high and one was low. And then when he walked out of that room, he asked an engineer, what were those two terms I was hearing, and the engineer said that the high tone, I think the high tone is your nervous system. And the low tone is your circulatory system. And cage from this discovered, quote, unquote, that there’s no such thing as silence. 

This is the big cage quote that comes up over and over again. And then this leads to the creation of his best known piece, four minutes, 33 seconds. That’s the music side of it. What I learned digging into it is that there’s a whole nother story of the anechoic chamber that comes out of acoustics research, and particularly from the individual who developed it was a scientist named Leo Beranek. And Puranic. Puranic is fascinating because he’s a superstar in psycho acoustics and psycho physics, fascinating career that began with this military research. And then later he was a an acoustic architect to lead a firm that designs, concert halls and so forth. But Puranic story of the anechoic chamber and the actual origin stories of the structure itself was that he was running this electro acoustic lab, and the government would send him assignments for things like, again, we need a new type of headphones, we need a new type of cabling to connect this we need a new material for the side of cockpits, all these very technical acoustics things. And one day, the government sent him an assignment that they wanted him to build an incredibly loud speaker, the loudest speaker that had ever been created to that time. And the purpose of it was, it’s like a side story.

 But it’s so interesting. It’s totally amazing  That it was for deception, that the US was building a decoy army, made up of inflatable tanks, where, after they invaded at Normandy, they were going to put this decoy army out there, so that when German spy planes flew over, they would see what they thought were tanks, and they would relay to their headquarters. Oh, you know, the Americans are over here. And meanwhile, the Americans would be somewhere else. And so they developed this into a multi sensory thing. So they had inflatable tanks. They had radio chatter, that they had these sort of staged radio plays, where they would say, Okay, we’re moving this battalion here, but it would be completely made up because they wanted it to be intercepted,

Mack Hagood  44:35

And it was encrypted, but like, right, they knew that they would deal with de- encrypted, exactly lightly encrypted.

Michael Heller  44:45

And then so and then Baryonyx part was the very last aspect of this, which was that they wanted these speakers because they wanted to be able to blast tank sounds across the countryside because there were still at that time, you know, what were called acoustic locators are live listening stations, where armies would listen for the sound of approaching tanks or aircrafts and so forth. So these speakers, they wanted these speakers just to blast tank sounds. Alright. So Braddock says okay, so I need to figure out a way to build these speakers. 

And the two things I need are well, one, I need a space that can make incredibly precise measurements, because to develop this new technique, that has to be a pristine space, where it won’t be affected by outside sounds, and so forth. And the other thing that I need is a place to test these speakers where there won’t be tank sounds blasting through Harvard Yard. 

Mack Hagood  45:38

So it’s kind of hard to keep it a secret operation, if you’re blasting

Michael Heller  45:45

That’s the whole point of the device. Let’s see what he ends up designing. And building is the first of a type of structure that now exists, there’s probably hundreds of them around the world. But what he dubbed the anechoic chamber, which Environics instance, it’s about three storeys tall. And every surface, those ceilings, the floors, the walls are covered in these acoustic wedges that are a couple feet long. 

And he did extensive testing of different shapes, like what shapes would absorb the absorb things the most, and the wedges were won out. And then the material is tested, suspended within this, there’s like a track where they would bring out whatever material that they were testing, and they will do their tests. So it’s a space that’s designed to create something really, really loud. But the side effect of this is that because no sound was echoing, there was no reverberation whatsoever. If you just went into the space and just stood there. It’s the most quiet space that had ever existed. And that’s the origins of it. And as a result, they’re very disorienting spaces to be at Have you ever been in an anechoic chamber? Um,

Mack Hagood  47:00

I have been in some very, like, not super great ones. But yeah, in fact, correct me if I’m wrong. But did you and Peter bring a chamber to I think the first time I met you, was that an effect theory conference? Yeah, and you guys built your own anechoic chamber for people to get inside and experience the quiet and I’m not dissing your anechoic chamber. 

Michael Heller  47:30

But you know, there’s a lot to this.

Mack Hagood  47:33

But it was fun. It was a fun experiment. So yeah, well, let’s get into what your fascination with the anechoic chamber is. Yeah, so you’re kind of using this also in the same way that I was about the relationship, not with tinnitus, but between the experience of sound, the sonic encounter, and a space that allegedly doesn’t have sound, right. And what that might afford us, in terms of thinking about sound is an effect.

Michael Heller  48:12

So there’s a few directions that I take some of which has to do with Cage specifically and 433. Because there are aspects of Cages analysis of 433 that I take issue with. And one of them is that, you know, Cage goes into it, he hears two tones, he comes out and he sort of says this is what happens when one goes into an anechoic chamber, which immediately already assumes that all bodies are operating in the same way. Right? There’s this heavy dose of ableism in that without recognizing that, as you say probably one of the things that he was hearing was his own tennis, tinnitus. Yeah. So his own body’s particularity at that moment. Yeah. But Cage then uses this to 433 to say, Okay, there’s no such thing as silence. Therefore, sound is always present and Cage when he gives his own analysis of 433. His take on what he created is that if you present 433 seconds, a famous silent piece pianist comes out, opens the lid of the piano and does nothing for four minutes, 33 seconds. Cages analysis is your going to hear something in that time. It might be an air conditioning vent, it might be someone coughing, it might be someone’s chair scooting. But you’re going to hear something. So we can listen to those things and think of those as the musical object as the aesthetic focus of what we’re doing. For me, that’s not the most compelling interpretation of 433. And I should say that, usually, I would be incredibly reluctant to contradict a composer’s analysis of their own piece. In this case, I don’t think that Cage has a monopoly on analyzing silence, which is why I feel like there’s some.

Mack Hagood  49:51

In his narrative is so prominent that I mean, I actually did another episode of this podcast sort of going through through his story and the way that he thought about that. So I mean, I don’t think you’re being too abusive in critiquing it. Okay. I’m glad it’s taken up a lot of space.

Michael Heller  50:11

But so for me, and I actually love 433. I think it’s an incredibly powerful piece to listen to, or to experience again, listen. But I don’t think it’s because I sit back and listen to the aesthetic impact of air conditioning. That’s what I experienced in 433 Is this moment of myself, my body and my attention, confronted suddenly, with Sonic absence in a way that’s very defamiliarization. 

And that’s an Affective relationship that doesn’t think of silence as this thing that is measured, right? That doesn’t think of silence as as what the engineers description to Cage is of like, okay, these are the measurements, this is what you’re hearing, this is what exists. Instead, it’s very much a relation between my body and my experience of the world with this feeling of absence in the moment, which is very impactful. I make this point in the book, I say that it’s very, especially if you’re listening to it in a public space, it’s very, it’s a very unusual experience, to sit quietly in a room with a group of other people. 

Yeah, it’s one of the reasons why even if you have, you know, a business meeting or something, if there’s a moment of silence, someone will try to fill it with a joke or a cough or something. But 433 creates this experience where you have to confront silence, as not a vibrational practice, but as an effective moment. And that’s one of the points I make with it.

Mack Hagood  51:41

Yeah, and one of the things that you do is think about 433 as a performance, and that part of that perception, that experience of experiencing that silent performance, say, if it’s just a pianists doing it, then they come out, they open the piano, they take the stopwatch out, they sit down, whatever the it’s the theatricality of, that creates an anticipation of what we’re going to hear. And then that gets taken away from us. So it’s not simply that we’re listening to silence as a performance. It’s more about this relation to the silence as not being what we expected. Yeah, right. Absolutely.

Michael Heller  52:27

And I think that again, that gets back to something that’s just beyond listening, right? It’s it’s the creation of certain kinds of expectations of certain kinds of social contracts. And then, when those don’t play out in certain ways, or play out differently, it creates a different sort of affective experience in the moment.

Mack Hagood  52:43

And you talk about sitting in an audience and experiencing that, and like having this profound urge to cough. And then you talk about listening to a recording of it by you know, I forgot what orchestra. Yeah. And you can hear like, at the very end, when the conductor puts down the baton or what I don’t know how they end is signaled all of these people cough like they’ve all been dying to cough this entire time. Yeah, exactly. Yeah. Very interesting. And embodied thing happening there. Right. That is not limited to sound once again,

Michael Heller  53:18

Right? Yeah, that’s it’s the BBC orchestra. And it’s on YouTube. You can watch it, because you can hear the audience. So well, you get a sense of just this breakfast. Oh,

Mack Hagood  53:28

yeah. Yeah. And the other thing that I liked that you did in that chapter was you talk about using this recording in the classroom? Yeah. And the difference of experience between setting up the performance for students using Cages own theory of it, which kind of, you know, you don’t quite use these words, but it kind of explains it away, and then they feel comfortable with what’s going on. But if you don’t have the explanation, and you just play the silent recording, students really what the fuck man, like, get very sort of, like, nervous weirded out, right? 

Michael Heller  54:09

Most definitely, yeah. And I was best, I can never make it through more than like a movement when I do it that way. Because students, it creates this really thick environment in the room, where students don’t quite know what to do with themselves because it could like a concert hall if you’re in a classroom, you’re not all of a sudden used to it professor saying, Alright, now we’re gonna sit in the silent space, even if you’re watching a video of it. This amount of time. 

Mack Hagood  54:32

Yeah, it’s interesting to me because you’re basically as I read your critique, you’re saying not only does Cage’s explanation not explain it, but it also undercuts the experience itself.

Michael Heller  54:42

Right, right. Right, right. Yeah.

Mack Hagood  54:45

Which I love. That’s great. Well, there’s like so much in this book, because it’s a it’s a collection of essays. And you know, there are so many topics you touch on, you know, we briefly spoke about the opera supertitles, but you I want to move on to the end of the book or towards the end of the book where you talk about Louis Armstrong and your experience as a tour guide in his home. In New York City where you’re taking us through a literary Soundwalk of Armstrong’s home. Can you maybe talk about for those who don’t know much about Armstrong, who he was? I just feel like that’s, it’s probably something important to do at this point, you know, 2024. But you know, he is arguably the most important popular musician ever. Yeah, some would make that case. But

Michael Heller  55:46

yeah, yeah, I mean, I would probably make that case. Again, as a jazz scholar. He’s just a Fountainhead figure of so much within the jazz tradition, which then of course, influences blues traditions, and rock traditions and funk traditions and hip hop traditions. And, you know along with a handful of others, I never like to make it about one person along with a handful of real germinal figures like Bessie Smith and Duke Ellington. He’s an incredibly important individual.

Mack Hagood  56:16

But this is, this is a guy who starts playing music and what perhaps wasn’t called Jazz yet. But before there was even recording, recordings of jazz, right, yeah.

Michael Heller  56:28

So he’s on some of the early ones. I mean, his first recordings are 1922. The quote unquote, earliest jazz recordings are 1917, although it pliable, depending on how you define the genre. But so he’s there from the beginning of the music, and he grows, he grew up in New Orleans, an important center of music early on, but becomes an international pop star by any stretch of the imagination. And he’s in movies. He’s an incredibly successful recording artist. I think there was one survey at some point by Life magazine or something that said he was the most recognized figure on the planet. Yeah. Such an incredibly prominent figure. And the only home that he ever owned, is this fairly modest two story house in Corona, New York, which is part of Queens in the suburbs of New York City. And I had the real privilege for a year from 2005 to 2006, to work there as a tour guide in what’s called a museum assistant. So I would set up the gift shop and sell tickets and do those sorts of things.

Mack Hagood  57:34

Yeah, so basically, you kind of take us on the tour that you took rifle on, and you’re playing around with the I mean, I guess, I’m trying to figure out, you’re kind of careful not to give spoilers in the beginning. Like I don’t want to give spoilers out I don’t know if it’s hard to talk about it. Without doing that. We probably have to give spoilers


if you don’t want spoilers, stop the podcast now.

Mack Hagood  58:02

 Hello, I am stopping the podcast. Now. It’s not out of fear of spoilers, but simply because we really try hard to keep these main episodes under an hour. And I’m right up against an hour right now. If you want to hear the rest of this episode, including Michael’s description of his work at the museum at the Armstrong Museum, and a whole lot of nerding out by me about Louis Armstrong, one of my heroes, please head on over to the Patreon feed the Patreon feed I’m going to do what I did last show because it seemed to please a lot of people. So just join the Patreon at the free level or at any paid level and you’ll get the rest of this episode, you’ll get the full episode that includes the rest of our discussion. And Michael’s what’s good segment where he makes some really interesting recommendations. He had to have everything. He was very generous with his recommendations, and I thought they were really great. So just go to power and join at any level and hear the rest of this episode. And that’s it for this episode of phantom power. Big thanks to Michael Heller. This show was edited by Nisso Sascha transcription and web work by Katelyn Phan. And our music this week was by Alex Blue, aka blue, the fifth. And just a reminder, if you’ve ever used this podcast in your class, please drop a line and let me know for my promotion case. It’s Thanks. I’ll talk to you again in a couple of weeks.