Listening: The Aural Resonance of a Formless Line

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Drawing by John Berger. From his ‘Notes on Song’. Source: Harpers.

By Saadi Nikro, research fellow at the Leibniz-Zentrum Moderner Orient in Berlin. He is the author of The Fragmenting Force of Memory: Self, Literary Style, and Civil War in Lebanon (2012), and Milieus of ReMemory: Relationalities of Violence, Trauma, and Voice (2019). See below for longer bio.

The sonorous…outweighs form. It does not dissolve it, but rather

enlarges it; it gives it an amplitude, a density, and a vibration or an

undulation whose outline never does anything but approach.

Jean-Luc Nancy, Listening

    On the second page of a short essay, “Some Notes on Song”, inspired by his encounter with a performance of Yasmine Hamdan, John Berger reproduces his makeshift drawing of the singer’s figure. Formless, the sketch transpires as a swift movement of his hand and pencil, looping across the page. While the lines carry Berger’s spontaneous attempt to translate what he saw into a graphic mode of expression, they are imbued with the sounds resonating through the auditorium, between Hamdan and her audience.

    What he drew, it seems, is not so much what he saw, encompassing not so much an encounter informed by his seeing, but the resonance of his listening. The looping lines of his drawing do not disclose an image of Hamdan’s form. They rather resonate as wave lengths of sound. It is as though the resonance of her voice and body couldn’t be contained within the form of an outline—the outer lines of what would transpire as a recognisable form.

    Berger addresses Hamdan in the second person, as though he were speaking to her. He refers to his act of drawing as “an absurd impulse”, as he could barely see what he was doing: “Yasmine, I had an impulse to draw you—an absurd impulse because it was too dark. I couldn’t see the sketchbook on my knees”. As Hamdan launches into song, her body overtaken by her characteristic rhythmic swaying when on stage, Berger is transfixed: “At moments I scribbled without looking down or taking my eyes off you”.

    What, indeed, was he trying to draw? Yasmin Hamdan standing at a microphone and launching into song? Was he, in that instance, inspired to make some sort of a recording of the performance to take with him? Other possibilities would be snapshots or video made with a camera or mobile phone, or else a surreptitious audio recording. But more used to sketching and drawing, Berger prefers to mark a blank sheet of paper, tracing not so much outlines of what in the process would become recognisable as Yasmine Hamdan performing on stage, but wave lengths of sound. Others may well have thrown the drawing away as a clumsy effort to reproduce a visual form. By contrast, Berger is fascinated by his sketch, reproducing it in his essay.

    Captivated by Hamdan’s performance, Berger is inspired to trace the resonant pulse beats of her rhythmic presence. As I have said, the errant lines he draws in his sketchbook transpire not so much as graphic traces of a visual register, but rather an aural register. “There’s a rhythm in these scribbles”, he writes, “as though my pen were accompanying your voice”. For Berger, a visual reproduction, at least in this instance, makes sense once its graphic contours somehow maintain the traces of their aural pulse beats. “But a pen isn’t a harmonica or a drum”, he continues with an air of resignation, “and now in the silence my scribbles mean almost nothing”.

    This qualification of the visual by the aural, his emphasis on the aural, is suggested by the essay’s subtitle, “The rhythms of listening”. Sitting there amongst an audience, captivated by the melodic/harmonic wave-lengths of song emitted by Hamdan, Berger’s capacity to listen is all the more relevant because of his non acquaintance with Arabic, the language in which Hamdan sings. Once she starts singing, he observes, her “entire body, no longer dry, was filled with sound”, and although he couldn’t understand what she was singing about, he “received each song as a complete experience”. Speaking for the rest of the audience, most of whom, he says, didn’t speak Arabic, Berger reflects that “we were able to share with you what you were singing”.

    “Songs,” he muses, “are like rivers”, embodying, we can say, not so much a readily identifiable substance, circumscribed by an outline, but rather movement and flow. Perpetually in movement, rivers modify the contours of their banks, and on occasions overflow their boundaries. Like sound, they cannot be neatly contained. Perhaps this is why contemporary languages, especially English, often use visual metaphors as replacement terms for knowledge and thought—ahh, I see; I shall focus on…; an insight, etc. Sight can be limited and contained much easier than sound. A wall, for example, can block the view of another, but sounds from the other side can flow over the wall, or else go right through it.

    Because sight can be better controlled, directed, and contained, it is more adept at delimiting  the outer shapes and contours of objects of knowledge production, thus rendering such objects all the more self-contained and substantive. Sound on the other hand, is difficult to circumscribe, and consequently takes second place to the significance of sight. For example, people often comment on how lovely a fresh blanket of snow looks, but rarely appreciate how the blanket of snow cushions and dulls the sound and noise of an environment. As I look out of my window, I notice that the trees have now (mid Autumn) shed all their leaves, and while this brings about a modification of my capacity to see the other side of the street, it also has some effect on my capacity to hear.

    In characteristic fashion, Berger puzzles over what most others would take for granted. Music and song need not be heard and understood as a modality of reference, and are meaningful to the extent that they are not meaningful, do not not signify one thing or another, but resonate through cadences of metre, tempo, melody and harmony. Consisting of varying pauses and intervals, lyrics, to be sure, track the melody of a song, which often does consist of telling a story, or articulating a message, whether directly or suggestively. But this is only half the story.

    Expansive, the peculiar interweaving of a singing voice into melody and harmony has always to entertain pauses and discontinuities, fleeting intervals of scripted or improvised intervals that do not so much disrupt the flow of sound, but provide measure, beat, and metre. For Berger, while a song often does narrate a story, rhythm encompasses a different order of listening: “The tempo, the beat, the loops, the repetitions of a song offer a shelter from the flow of linear time—a shelter in which future, present, and past can console, provoke, ironize, and inspire one another”.

    The image of “shelter from the flow of linear time” suggest a notion of memory emerging through rhythm, “unfixed in time and place”. Berger goes on to write about “a resonance that makes a performance unforgettable”, and evokes the song Shenandoah, which his mother used to sing when he was still in infancy. The song can indeed be traced to a place and time, although its rhythmic cadences straddle quite a few places and times—The Shenandoah Valley in Virginia, among American slaves in the south, by boatmen and sailors, he points out, as well as his childhood house. These traces transpire as sedimentations, like genealogical layers. While each layer can be traced to a time and place, to specific circumstances in which the song resonated as a modality of social embodiment, the rhythm remains “unfixed in time and place”.

    Berger’s attempt to trace the contours of Hamdan’s presence stumbled on the realisation of how an aural resonance compliments and disrupts a modality of looking. Berger’s own drawings illustrate this sense of a rhythmic presence exceeding outlines of form. His lines always seem to be vibrating, while the smudges and stains add volume to the material surface. Indeed, his own comments on drawing betray this sense of volume, rather than outline. As he writes in his Bento’s Sketchbook:

        At a  certain moment—if you’re lucky—the accumulation becomes an

        image—that’s to say it stops being a heap of signs and becomes a

        presence. Uncouth, but a presence. This is when your looking changes.

        You start questioning the presence as much as the model.

    The drawing inspired by Hamdan brought about an intense realisation of how rhythms of sound come to be embodied. Berger’s gesture is not one of authority. His essay reads as though he is always on the verge of discovering something, a discovery coming into being by an attempt to illustrate, to give flesh, to allow an idea to resonate, rather than be merely significant.

Norman Saadi Nikro resides in Berlin, where since 2011 he is a research fellow at the Leibniz-Zentrum Moderner Orient. He studied critical theory and cultural studies in Sydney, and completed his doctoral studies in 1998. From 2001 to 2007 he was Assistant Professor in the Humanities Faculty at Notre Dame University in Lebanon. He teaches in the Department of English Literature and Cultural Studies at Potsdam University, where he gained his Habilitation degree in 2013. He is the author of The Fragmenting Force of Memory: Self, Literary Style, and Civil War in Lebanon (2012), and Milieus of ReMemory: Relationalities of Violence, Trauma, and Voice (2019).

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