Center for the Hum
Out of the cultural slipstream of visual surfeits, where the obese eye is blind to the occluded ear, Christine Hume’s work plies and ranges fervidly into the liberatory potential of sound.
In this conversation published last week at The Conversant, Hume, together with comrade-in-ears sound artist Gregory Whitehead, discuss the multiply rich dimensions of their respective metaphysics of sound. At one juncture, the dialogue inspired naming and briefly describing fictional institutions for their work, the invisible sites of their theories/practices as artists. Hume invoked her “Center for the Hum,” and, I, wanting to learn all I could about the Center and share it with you here, invited her to make the following brochure for the Center together, comprised of her responses to these FAQ.
What is the Center for the Hum?
The Center, which is in practice very much decentered, for the Hum, is devoted to exploring humming as a cipher for understanding and as a massively polyvalent seed of somatic and urban ecologies as well as sound studies. We are a dynamic group committed to extending the cultural, political, and personal resonances of the hum, particularly its differential construction of and material impacts on variously positioned bodies. Our current main operation involves wound-addressing through ultrasonic humming.
According to the Center, “When we listen to an infant’s full arsenal of vocalizations (‘the apex of babble!’), it’s loud and clear what we have given up in order to adopt a mother tongue.” What is it that we have given up, and how through hum-work can we take it back?
To put it plainly, we have given up listening, we have given up hearing our speech as bone induction; we have given up the plural and plastic state of our voices, which can speak the negative operant phenomena of static of all kinds; we have given up the specialized intelligence of audition; we have given up being the music while the music lasts. Sound causes a resonate effect with the eye. This cannot be entirely recircuited, but while our obese eyes glass over in gluttony, we can feel our way around with sonic under- and over-currents. In the wake of visual aggression, metamorphosis is biological, and so must be recuperation. Our focus on the body routes us through tactile, kinesthetic, and proprioceptive senses. At the Center, we send high frequency vibrations—in the form of a hum too high to hear—to pressurize the tissues of civilian wounds, but the vibrations, more crucially, locate the wound’s own voice in a kind of echolocation. This echo-pulse lets us take back a sonic subjectivity, an identity informed from surround sound instead of frontal optics.
The wound’s own voice? The wound has a voice of its own, one which our socialized voice needs to give way to? Does this wound voice manifest as speech or humming?
Like the dead and the infant, the wound is, as Alvin Lucier puts it, “in a room different from the one we are in now.” Often hearing the wound only comes once our supernumerary auricles have bloomed in response to rewilding our vocal capacities. At the Center for the Hum, we practice listening by searching for the place between radio stations—composite of shifting signals—something akin to the polyglot of Louis Wolfson (see Le Schizo et les langues, 1970). In order to escape the acoustic tyranny of American English (and the domineering mother who spoke it), Wolfson, aimed to translate English words homophonically into foreign words, to fracture and reassemble French, German, Hebrew, and Russian into a language less inclined toward tonal totalities. Ultimately, listening to this no-place language primes us for speaking to the wound.
Wounds speak all the time through the human voice, and we’ve all heard that bad-faith ventriloquy. Our primary goal is to allow wounds to be heard before they force their way into the larynx. We believe that all vocal expression is structured as a calling.
Why is ultrasonic humming the ultimate instrument for our purposes?
(1) It is highly directional, and easily aimed accurately.
(2) It’s therapeutic. Doctors have been breaking down kidney stones with it for quite some time. The sonic energy resonates in the stones and causes them to break up into smaller fragments that can pass through the system. The sound causes waves of compression and expansion, which stress the stones and cause them to splinter and crack into smaller grains. At the Center for the Hum, we use ultra sound less destructively, it’s more of a negotiator. Remember, we address the wound’s voice. Biology isn’t just what you see. Bodily acoustic expression is a territorial imperative, our sounds mark borders. A territory is a song to insert your own sound into, and then listen to what happens to it. Most of our vital organs are squishy enough for sound to pass through, but it necessarily changes as it comes in contact with you, and you with it. Sound can also get stuck inside. “Trauma” in Greek means “wound,” and derives from the word “to pierce;” trauma names a shock that pierces. Trauma can create "auditory occlusion," a phenomenon that functions psychologically like a lid for your ears. You don’t register consciously a stressful sound—gunshot, scream, abusive language. Your brain simply does not process the signals, but not actually hearing these sounds doesn’t lessen the chance of hearing damage caused by them. In other words, your hearing can be destroyed by sounds that you can’t hear—either because you blocked them out psychically or because they are beyond your hearing range. Likewise, not hearing the ultrasonic humming with your ears does not lessen the help it triggers. A wound’s emotional openness is carried by its addressability.
The Center distinguishes between historic wounds, self-inflicted wounds, other-inflicted wounds, sympathetic wounds, projectile wounds, as well as future wounds. Of course, each is always tempering and imagining the others, but this taxonomy makes atlasing legible and, more importantly, acknowledges the wound’s dimensionality (even if you can’t yet hear it).
(3) The humming itself must issue from the mouth of a live human. We must amplify the importance of human-to-human contact here. Learning to make a sound you cannot hear involves a technical beauty prone to a bullying hyperbole that we wish to eschew. However: behold your own unfathoming, which is only growing deeper. According to our research, technological advances categorically correlate to human amnesias such as undermining our mysterious vocal powers.
During training we invoke the wind as well as the Aeolian harp in order to induce a radical receptivity, sometimes beginning our session with a plea to “Make me thy lyre!” The hum also contains static and the unsaid—the dross and debris of the sonic world!—as well as the earth’s noise and a composite electrical buzz in an eroticized Bachelardian logosphere reeling out way past talk. We aren’t listening for narrative or “nonnarrative” voices though—think, or don’t think of Artaud’s divine interference, Burroughs’s off-tuned radios, Cocteau’s Orpheus, Leonardo hearing voices on high church bells, or Kerouac taking dictation from Big Sur. Instead, we train our hummers to make sounds that will disintegrate all known narrative structures. Though the human ear is innately inclined toward hallucinating narrative, the voice is not responsible to serve the ear. At the Center for the Hum, we apply one hum to one wound, one at a time. Our process must hew to a human scale. This is why it will not work to simply blow a dog whistle in the direction of the wounded.
Once a wound has been located, how does a dialogue begin?
The first thing we do after mapping the wounds is to learn how to emit a sound we ourselves cannot hear. With careful training practioners deftly emit high-frequency sound waves, becoming human instruments of ultra-sound. One method we’ve adopted from gynecology, using the manual “Instructions for Sounding the Uterus.” We simply substituted the word “wound” for “uterus” and “hum” for “sound”:
(1) Insert the high-level sterile hum, without touching the walls of the wound and maintaining gentle traction with the tip of the hum.
(2) Advance the hum into the wound cavity and STOP when a slight resistance is felt.
(3) And so on, into the intricacies.
The goal is for the hummer to sustain contact with the voice of the wound until an echo-pulse cycle begins. The beauty of the hum is that it absorbs contamination; it is capable of humiliating itself, capable of arousing itself inside its own violence and difficulty. In the basest possible terms, this technique might be akin to the “What-I-hear-you-saying-is…” echolalia of therapy, or OWS’s human microphone. Since wounds speak on all frequencies, but are generally shy, using ultra-sound protects their privacy at the same time that it allows them to feel heard.
“Why cannot the Ear be closed to its own destruction?”
A hum is impression without presence. It is apparent yet transparent as air, as material as it is indeterminant. See "auditory occlusion" above. We understand where you might be coming from in doubting your ears.
“Why an Ear, a whirlpool fierce to draw creations in?”
The ear, resonating between "I" and "Other," transmits liberation from the singular body. Often normative power—internal as well as external--aims to organize new emotions by naturalizing them into conventional language. To hum, however, is to blur, butcher, blot, and humiliate words, or to express a humiliated relation to literacy. Every user of language must experience the distress of getting it wrong, of mis-speaking or being misunderstood; language, as a system of displacements and links, is always screwing over someone, disrespecting another, humiliating anyone who can’t penetrate its codes. A hum is as-if-to-speak, but not to speak; it does not claim to mirror our minds. A hum disciplines language in a transformative reversal; its name is an abbreviation of “humiliator of words,” which is of course a counter-humiliation, a corrective touché.
Mina Loy’s Auto-Facial-Construction methods aimed for mastery of facial destiny, “achieving the ideal mimetic relation between one’s face and one’s personality” and so restoring our “inherent right not only to be ourselves but to look like ourselves. ” Does the Center promise a similar mastery of authentic or ideal being through humming?
We at the Center consider vocality, like faciality, to be a consolidation organizing and performing subjectivities. Humming allows us to exist in a temporal state of becoming, of putting off conventional or ultimate understanding. The Center makes no promise of vocal mastery or authenticity; our effort runs toward complicating those very terms. For instance, some of our most artistic human accomplishments result from excessive or nonfunctional forces of sexual attraction and seduction.
Rumors abound about connections between the dead and the Center. Could you set the record straight?
We look back to the culminating ritual in the ancient Egyptian funeral, called “opening the mouth,” which means cutting the vocal cords. The open throats of the dead feed on vocal vibration. It’s like learning to speak by listening, only they are listening with their mouths open. Mouth to mouth gyration. The dead cannot find their own voices—just as no one can find her own voice just by using it or not—so they feed on ours. We have to be willing to put our voices down in text, to dilate our spastic, dysfluent, pathological, mysterious, excessive tendencies. We have to make cuts, too, in our vocal cords to do this. Writers are sympathetic with the dead in this way. Cut to: complete vocal control will betray your inner life. We figure and refigure our voices so that the dead can feed off a buffet of trembling language. Have you spoken to a machine? This is not the voice the dead feed on. The phone’s electronic voice asks you to repeat what you garble; it insists on colorless, clutter-free language; it is endlessly polite yet insistent about your enunciation. The computer won’t transcribe what you mean; it only hears what you say. What would the dead do with Alvin Lucier’s “I Am Sitting in a Room?” Lucier’s flood of feedback delivers on his intent to “smooth out any irregularities [his] speech might have.” It is terrifying to imagine this sound—which goes from recalling a breast pump interfering with a nearby amp to an ensemble of nervous tiny bells—as the endgame of human communication. On the other hand, we are left with pure vocal rhythm as an exploration of architecture. Rhythm is the true carrier of meaning, less capable of deception and falsification than semantics. It is the nonhuman power that threads through and binds all life. As noted earlier, the dead are “in a room different from the one we are in now.”
Any hum-work exercises for auto-vocal-reconfiguration we can try at home?
Yes, we encourage auto-vocal experimentation. Instead of looking into a mirror to discover identity, try combining a range of everyday hums with attentive listening. Let the sound be your mirror. When you degrade any animal, you make it aware of its voice. Has that voice been decapitated, castrated, or otherwise mutilated? Let it lead you to its wound. You will hear the hole if you listen deeply enough. Experiment by giving up control of your vocalities. This does not mean giving up responsibility for them, we are still responsible for/to what we hear.
How does the hum circumvent or diffuse the illusion of a world of separate sufferings (ours and others), how is it a function of sympathetic imagination?
See Hum, by Christine Hume.
I was humming an independent contrapuntal part. My vocal snare ran a separate track from the tales I told. As prophylaxis against loss, the habit wasn’t ineffective. Rising from my face, a sound like a lonely tower, a pillar of smoke, a song of waiting, a virgin warbling. My refrain attempted to repel chaos with a soothing consistency. I called to and called off a female body with equal anguish. My hum extended my tongue, tonsils, larynx, and jaw; by its vibration, my brain grew. My plasma quickened. By interoceptivity, my body uncoiled feeders and feelers, and loosened the noose of identity. The hum wove itself around everything in the form of questioning. How will this failed utopia finish itself? In the forest, I made a tiny fairy tale, the magic of which tingled my mouth and tongue. I hid in my hum’s protective power, which repelled the uncanny by attracting it and assuming it within itself. Humming performed for me a sympathetic magic: I was discovering a missing sensation at a crucial moment. I was building an audible nest for intensifying. As a bird might shed drab feathers for bright ones in a time of courtship, an ordinary song for a mating call, my sonic ornament was a customized flush of puberty, a condensed libidinal vehemence, it filled me with good feeling. I have been resisting admitting the pleasure it gave me. The joy of a vibratory oral fix. Much later I will retrieve the sound in the distance of my skull. I will recreate the feeling, flushed with expanding harmonies of wind, space, clouds, and the relief of crying.
Blake, William. The Book of Thel/ the Author & Printer Willm. Blake. 1789. E6; 6:11; 6:17
Loy, Mina. “Auto-Facial-Construction.” The Lost Lunar Baedeker: Poems of Mina Loy, edited by Roger L. Conover. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1996.
Hume, Christine. Hum. Dikembe Press, 2013. More excerpts of Hum may be read here.
Farnoosh Fathi was born in 1981. Raised in California, she attended UCLA, NYU, and the University of Houston, where she earned her PhD in creative writing and literature. She is the author of the poetry collection Great Guns (2013) and the editor of Joan Murray: Drafts, Fragments, Poems (NYRB Poets, 2018). Her poems...