Note on Sonority

Jim Grilli

To Cite this Article

Grilli, J. (2022). Note on Sonority. p-e-r-f-o-r-m-a-n-c-e, 6.

In a windowless corner I sat worrying about the look on the face of a person I heard reading from loose-leaf sheets in a binder on an unseasonably warm night in January.  They made mention of the seasons not being the same as they used to be when we were children.  Perhaps they were referring to the way summers sprawl now to make our winter jackets useless and our noses run.  Of course, a few days later the region was under two feet of snow, a state of emergency was declared, and the politicians were on television imploring business owners to send their workers home early.  I wondered how long we would be able to enjoy the hardship of using ‘going home early’ as a solution.  Rather, how long would it be before the homogenization of the seasons rendered time flat, bland, without texture?  How would we demarcate hours or think of each other as collaborative inhabitants, agents in the field of alterable durations? What space would be reserved for those basic antagonisms required to contrive the simplest forms of dysfunction?  If partisanship requires resisting or embracing a norm, how will debate be carried out when differences in ideology come secondary to basic survival?   

“That’s the best-case scenario,” I thought to myself from behind my desk with my laptop opened and several favorite books close at hand.  Was that really the best-case scenario?  No, couldn’t be.  It implied starting over, a clean slate marred because it would inevitably be inscribed by history: a compendium of defeats and the occasional boon reduced to nothing, buried in footnotes in out-of-print books.   

“Maybe we need a disaster to convince ourselves that something really has to change.”  No, that wouldn’t work either.  It implied that we should all just sit around and wait for everything to fall apart and then scramble to pick up the pieces.  Further, it assumed that this disaster would affect everyone equally. 

As I sat at my desk, light came from somewhere to fall on my hand resting flat on the wood surface.  There was no glass for the sun to shine through and the laptop wasn’t capable of creating that kind of glow.  I started thinking about the luxury of being able to reflect back on one’s life even by listening to crackling recordings of your own voice on an old tape player alone in a dark room.  The thought that my generation might not be able to enjoy this privilege filled me with anger.  Lonesome reminiscing began to move from the category of practices to be avoided to the category of things toward which one should aspire.  In order to look back or listen back, a person needs to have a firm grounding in the present even if it’s a terrible condition.  Once everything is summer, the development of one’s interior sense of self will be impossible.  We orient ourselves by taking bodily note of gradual change.  The surprise of unexpected rain brings a rush of cold to the skin, and mud-colored snow shows us that too much has fallen for the municipality to handle.  Bare trees stand motionless as reminders of our collective fragility, of the absurdity of petty exchanges and irrational disputes.  The light without a source vanished and my hand was once again alone on the desk in the windowless corner.   

I worried about the person, the way their mouth dangerously transfigured the phonemes they released into the crowded space.  The reading had been several days ago, but I could not get the tactility of the words off of my mind.  It occurred to me that the face of the speaker, the motion of their physical features, might not be the true source of my confusion.  Rather, the salve with which they delivered the utterances, the discrepancy between the severity of what they were saying and the incorrigible otherness delivered up by its sonority, resonated in the hollow of my ear to inspire the deepest admiration akin to the ambiguous feeling of accessing a kernel of truth repressed for a lifetime.  I imagined what it would be like to encounter the speaker outside the large room somewhere, in a subway station, as “thanks for all your hard work” slips from the corner of my mouth while my feet step through the closing train doors.  Never had I been confronted by a feeling this radically foreign.  It soothed my alienation while troubling any preconceived notions I had of beauty.  There was comfort to be taken in this uneasy matrix of voice and meaning, as the sound of the reader’s metered breathing lulled my thoughts stoked fierce by the jarring nature of their cadence into an uncanny mixture of astute coolness and logical apprehension.  I knew I would remember this feeling for the rest of my life and struggled in vain to find a name for it that rang true. I’ve been trying ever since to relish the altered quality of my personhood that was formed through contact with this orotund entity that produced an awakening in me divorced from mere aesthetic pleasure.  I did not know at the time that this run-in with beauty’s dissolution in the face of itself, this accelerated melting effect of choral pleasure, would present me with an unsayable knowledge I would not know how to employ.  Much to my surprise, I would eventually find myself caught in the immobility of knowing too much. 

This new mode of inaccessible knowing, being ensnared in the parts of words that are for listening, does not rob one of their cloudy or precisely formulated convictions about how the world should use its various accumulations; how it should ensure by refraining from extraction that cold winds do not wrestle ferociously with hot atmospheric vapors and allow too much to be shaken from our homes and bridges that, after the fall-out, will leave wide jagged craters in the earth as shallow as footprints in wet sand.  There was a remarkable accordion effect produced: at a given moment I could have been contracted by my fears for the future or expanded by the enigmatic subject somehow separate from the descriptiveness of the lines delivered by the voice.  Picturing a possible alternative reality had nothing to do with it.  In fact, this episode barred the most basic images from taking hold in my mind.  The laptop on my desk, embodiment of the Internet, an all-seeing eye with a bright green pupil, no longer registered as a tool for ogling at countless pictures.  The cover designs of my books close at hand became unintelligible.  Visual information could not resound and therefore had no place in the events that were unfolding.    

“But where exactly is the movement?”  The words confronted me like strangers intent on doing harm.  They scrutinized the reader’s delivery as they tried to verbalize it as a figment of my imagination.  An enormous weight bore down on me, a deadening depression that insisted obstinately that in epochs of crisis there is no room for unsutured words spilling forth their sounds even if they are apart from the music of verse or the tableau of stanzas on the page.  Where was the activity?  What did it mean?  This particular consciousness that I unwittingly accessed rendered me small in the presence of an undefined challenge.  It might have been the guilty understanding that as long as we live, the recipient of the creative act will be in a windowless corner, forever condemned to the repetitive jotting, reading, citing of the same ideas that fully express our desire for the perpetuation of intellectual constraints rather than their fundamental reformulation.  Is the dissolution of all will for change connected to the mystique of the independence of the audibility of utterances as they peel away from textual meaning?   

In a panic, trying hard to untangle my thoughts, I aimlessly opened my desk drawer, took out the only thing inside, and slapped it onto the wooden top.  It was a handwritten letter with a single, significant insight: “I’m writing you this note from a lonely peanut butter and jelly sandwich, a banana I had forgotten I had stowed in my desk drawer, and a glass of milk, 2%.”  I had never encountered this note before and had always assumed my desk drawer to be empty.  The previous owner of the desk must have written it, I thought to myself.  Yes, the past occupant of my little corner must have taken some time out of their work schedule to compose a letter for a friend or relative.  I didn’t feel compelled to read the rest and gently slid the paper back into the slightly opened drawer.  The delicateness of day-to-day human interaction – the charm of its innate intimacy, as opposed to the confounding grandeur of what I was experiencing – made me feel lucky to be bewildered.  At the same time, a wryness brooded in the depths of my being that reminded me almost strongly enough to be heard that, “there is scarcely anything more self-affirming than the recognition of the resonant form running amok. In fact, without your ear as an empathic chamber of cyclical tunnels for the words to zip around in before flying back at the speaker, there would be nothing to worry about at all.”  “Yes”, I continued, there would be no reader and therefore no reading.  

“This is a misleading cliché,” I mumbled to myself. “I’ve never been convinced by the arguments for the recipient as producer.”  Such conjectures must have been out of keeping with my need for a less exhausting listening experience.  What I was after and still am is a passive response to the rote movements of the mouth and vocal cords desynchronized from the sound of the story.  The separation of the voice from what it conveys is doubtless an agitating thing but not, at first, a transparent one in terms of what it asks us to envision or carry out; it is not a looking glass.  All that mattered was that I stood the victim and alleged perpetrator of this fomentation; which could resolve itself tragically, I thought to myself, as my current state could lead to debilitation as I continuously pondered the mysterious anti-beauty of the reader’s musical exhaling.  “On the other hand,” continuing the thought, “I could choose to take this strange feeling up as a cause in defense of something larger than myself and of my own isolated creation.” 

“No, none of that will do,” I said as I sat at my desk motionless.  What about the reader?  There must have been something about them on that warm winter night that signified an image: their clothes, facial features, the way they held their binder of writings, posture –– anything.  From behind my desk in the windowless corner my mind was completely devoid of the visual.  I remembered nothing of the reader’s appearance, only the sound of their voice as the aloof heckler prodding me over and over to wake up.  At that moment, several days removed from the event, I could have been the performer and they the listener because I felt the perfect target of their judgment.  As I tried to recount the scene, the troubled iambics of their breath eroded their body from my cognition.  The sound moved through the hot air of the room where the reading had taken place in invisible acoustic extrusions: a sculpture carved in tubular negative space as it erased form.   

“Shouldn’t let myself trail off,” I said as I firmly turned my attention back toward the problem at hand.  I remembered the intuitive notion of a ‘kernel of truth repressed for a lifetime’ as I removed my laptop and books from the top of my desk to stack them neatly under my chair.  What about this kernel was so venerable?  Or what about it made this particular reader on that particular night the noisy object of my obsession?  I felt contracted by fear of the suicidal nature of our society, the weather… No single woe was given more specificity than the others.  They all manifested as featureless dread, ephemeral doom that grew more underdetermined with every failure on my part to envisage it as something that would endure long enough to be understood and averted.  There was a shaky affinity between my ethereal worldly worries and the reader; they seemed two sides of the same coin.  While the former was a malignant incertitude that baroquely mirrored the shock of sixty-degree January days bothered by the occasional chill of a wayward arctic breeze, the latter was a generative riddle that suggested there was still hope –– a way to move with great precision across the traumatic topography of culture and construct its next logical layer out of the current contradictions of its localities.  Only, the topography was not a visualization, but a highly organized multitude of sonorous layers that could be understood, interpreted and used as everyday tools.  It was clear, however, that there was nothing in my inkling that suggested what kind of use was capable of taking place.  The audial contour expounded by the reader, now existing in lieu of their image as a pure sensation, was vagueness calling toward nothingness so vacuous that the staggering mass of its void suggested its opposite: the specific, the detailed, the prescriptive.   

Although I had not taken any detours after the reading on my way back to my windowless corner and had not been struck subsequently by a desire to go beyond its walls, I imagined once again encountering the reader in the city.  I fancied us bumping into each other on the street in a hailstorm steaming in the lukewarm air: body temperature.  I conceived of the whole scenario invisibly, without pictures, only sensations derived from sounds.  My body was resisting the revisualization of the non-image: the reader’s vocalizations that did nothing more than suggest a maximalist vision of the world torturous as it accentuated the murkiness of its own abyss.  Out of desperation I again dwelled upon the implications of the topographical realization of the noise, the odic sensory map.  A problematic detail forced me to notice another contradiction embedded in the binary of the reader and our elements:  I was allowing the trace of the appearance of the reader –– that is, my reader, as their incantations were only for me –– to perish in comparison to that aspect of their creative performance that was incommensurable with its intended message, whatever it might have been.  Their overtly cautionary theme called less urgently than their voice untethered from the symbol.  Why would I intuit this freed sound that brings only itself as a virtual autonomous agent when I was in the presence of a person–– someone who has the potential to change a series of events, at least?  It became overtly clear as I sat behind my desk, eyelids heavy, that I was not simply dealing with my reader on one side of the coin and our melting planet on the other; indeed, I was noticing another rift that was inherent to all practitioners of iambic respiring: when the verse is uttered the listener experiences a reversal of the roles of the image of the reader and the rogue sound of their expression.  In other words, it was not their appearance, the intended or unintended meaning of their work, or my interpretation of it that was making a disruptive change slyly hint at its own coming into being.  Rather, it was the memory of the reader unconsciously emptying themselves out, depleting themselves, for the sake of their voice which at that juncture was only capable of a veiled pointing toward meaning despite its inherent revolutionary character, its repressed kernel of truth.   

“That’s why the voice is at once a pure sensation and an aural construction, opaque as it is confounding.  It is a militantly obscure instrument and yet it still moves me,” I said under my breath, embarrassed and alone.  I buried my head in my folded arms, as sleep approached, and felt deeply troubled by the provisional conclusions I had drawn.  The whole situation was too demanding as it urged all of humanity to radically change the registers of all its different modes of awareness.  In semi-consciousness I sat wishing for a more palatable relationship to the smoothness of the conditioned hiccup, a more passive way of deriving joy from hearing.  I yearned for the repressed kernel of truth to disappear from my mind and re-emerge as the recollection of a childhood parental punishment or the sadness of a lifetime wasted through inaction.  Unfortunately, I could not muster the salvation of a purely personal treatment of what I had come upon.  The voice, clear on the verge of a dream, was spatial.  It was and is every ounce of weight, perhaps at times insignificant, that bears down on the stultifying routines of our collective discourses in all of their undulations and irregularities.  I fell asleep under the concept of spatiality.  In an uncharacteristic stroke of simplicity my dozing mind conjured a number of illustrative fragments: 

The reader is not an object to be viewed from above was the first insight I remembered as I lifted my head from the crooks of my arms and shook myself awake.  One cannot build an observation tower to keep a safe distance.  A listening chamber would be more preferable, but its construction would be difficult and perhaps counterproductive.  Its physical space, a barrier of sorts, would separate the listener too much from the source.  I guessed it necessary to see the reader’s body to effectively take part in the performative exchange so the tonality can slip off the word.  The initial transfer must be visual even though sound will eventually come to negate the image.  There is a requisite unsafe distance that allows the reader to dissolve before the listener.  

But what about the observation tower or listening chamber?  Is complete mutual disclosure of the appearances of reader and listener necessary?  I then noticed, completely awake, that my whole dreamy train of thought about the matter was insistent on visually characterizing the allegedly anti-optical enterprise in distinction from how my waking mind had positioned the hum of the rune as the annihilator of representation, the sacrificing eraser of imagistic embodiment.  The idea of an observation tower was razed before completely constructed as the notion of a listening chamber became more and more detailed.  Somehow it seemed akin to my earlier schematic musings about the order of the reader’s sonant.  What exactly would this map have looked like if I had built it out of wood, foam, or plastic?  Maybe it would have been airy and architectural or densely laminated?  Perhaps it could have resembled a place people use every day like an airport or a strip mall.  Alternatively, it might have taken on the highest form of abstract complexity.   

“No, that’s too much of what I want,” I confessed.  Momentarily indulging the possibility of the map being mocked-up in a completely recondite way shot pains of guilt through my whole being.  Nevertheless, a perforated plane, a slice of something, began to slowly assemble in my mind’s eye.  After several seconds I had the entire form pictured: it was two stacked sheets of four-foot by eight-foot quarter-inch thick polished steel.  One of the sheets was repeatedly shot through with a multitude of evenly spaced uniform circles, clean as if done with a laser, to make it resemble a massive, shiny, oddly exact slice of Swiss cheese.  The other sheet that rested underneath was flawless yet interrupted by the giant sieve-like form of its partner.  The layered duo looked like a typical piece of industrial luxury that was completely at home in a commodity-driven order.  It evoked a mysterious filter of some kind that harbored perfectly gaping punctures that despite their sizes let through only the most granular impurities.  I imagined myself before the formation, standing upright.  The reader’s voice was present –– simply a noise.  I shuffled a little closer, brought my left ear to one of the holes and noticed that the syllables were actually coming from the inside of the perfect plane underneath.  The reader was being represented by the second immaculate rectangle that was subtly vibrating like a beleaguered theremin indifferent to my presence.  That meant the first sheet of steel was holey for the express purpose of discomposing the continuity of the reader’s body as it let their voice travel beyond.  If the porous plane was the map, my reader stood behind it, unnoticeably gazed through its holes, and spoke.   

“Who was the map, through whom did they speak?” Surely, I thought to myself, the map had to have come from somewhere; had to have some meaning, a lineage.  Admittedly, this was no ordinary map because it charted no place at all.  Again, I imagined encountering my reader post-reading, this time in a more elaborate realm of conceits.  For a precious few moments I managed to see them on the map; not the machined metal of my dream, a colander of sorts, but in a real place that looked familiar, albeit somewhere I had never been.  There were trees, sky, and ground.  We were the only two people in the whole place.  Somewhere on the scene there was a house looking rotted, waterlogged, and donning a motionless weathervane on the peak of its roof.  Nearby, there was a rusted bicycle sitting in a shallow but wide puddle of water.  The air was warm but carried many cold pockets, which made moving around feel like wading through an unevenly heated swimming pool.  Some kind of precipitation fell but I couldn’t tell if it was snow or rain.  There was a slow and struggling gust moving from ground to sky as if the earth was weakly trying to purge itself of an impurity.  Vast and deserted, it was way too much space for just two people.  I waited for the reader to say something, to gasp in reverse and swivel the still vane, but they refused; I knew they weren’t going to say a word.  You heard a voice, I thought to myself as I returned to my windowless corner out of the wake of the phantasm, and that’s all you need to know.  There was no further problem to solve, no concept that needed application beyond the reading on that scorched January night. 

I couldn’t believe what I was thinking, but every drop of anxiety was massaged from my tense limbs as I indulged it further.  I kept repeating to myself in my head: there’s nothing there, there’s nothing there.  With each repetition I grew happier.  It was as if an enormous burden was being lifted as the predicament over the voice receded into the depths of my mind and formed into a ghost of a forgotten knowledge.  With the fading of the memory came the relaxation of my awareness of the alien communicative potential I had fleetingly accessed.  As it loosened and atrophied, I wanted to be sad for it, but realized it was never much of anything from the start: simply a hunch, a whim.  Suddenly, everything became thinly obvious.  Every epoch has its crises, I reminded myself.  There’s no need to drive myself crazy worrying about the future because I’ll be long dead before it reaches its worst and most barbaric phase.  It is curious that I was equating an apprehension of the voice separate from the knotty logic of speech as somehow connected to the common good –– but the link was too bleary, so I abandoned it and proceeded toward complete despair disguised as pure peacefulness.  The dilemma of the voice’s ring moved to the blandly obvious jurisdiction of the textual.  It lost its allure as I remembered my reader’s binder and their eyes cast downward on each page pinched between licked fingers before being brushed away.  The thought that I had been read to over the course of my entire life was as pleasurable as it was paralyzing, absolving as it was contaminating, provocative as it was generalizing.  Everything about the world was frustratingly transparent, recited in the simplest speech, and described in the most one-dimensional language as it provided shockingly little solace in its accessibility.  A mixture of guilt and lethargy welled up in me as if I had foregone the opportunity to solve the most profound puzzle that had ever existed and took perverse enjoyment in its foreclosure.  All that was left to do was return to the visually realized imperative and let all elegiac reverberation continue its slow descent as one of life’s tiny details so minute, so violently insignificant, so singularly invisible in its obscurity, that it settles in our throats as a speck of dust suspended in air too humid to breath.   

The details of the reading on that balmy January night reappeared.  The thought was painfully pictorial.  It was bright, crisply detailed, and silent.  In contrast to my earlier recollections, I couldn’t hear my reader’s voice in my mind’s ear or feel its sound curl its punctuation away from its grammar as it made all linguistic diversification into accentuations on the otherwise boring audial spectrum.  The room was crowded with spectators in summer clothes sitting on the floor or in folding chairs with plastic cups of wine or cans of cheap beer in their hands.  We sat with our lips mouthing nothing as my reader mutely and with great care sipped their wine and folded the upper right-hand corner of each page they had planned to read from their binder.  Chairs silently scooted around the room, doors opened and shut without making a sound.  All buses, cars, and trains must have come to a halt or were simply unheard in the disconcerting stillness of the urban landscape.  The air grew heavier the more we breathed and gestured with our faces.  Every object in the room, including the people, created an atmosphere of incredible claustrophobia.  Insects attracted to the moisture crawled over bookcases and floated through the air.  I thought to myself: I can’t breathe this, but I’ll use it to steep tea.  The space hung engorged, but we did nothing other than sit, sweat, pick bugs from our teeth, and stare ahead at my reader miming verse.  In the absence of any sound, all of our movements became slow.  We were acting out the scene rather than living it.  It was like a contest to see who could make the least memorable impression as we all sat with each other in the increasingly soupy space.   

At last, I thought to myself, the meaning of the voice had aligned with those few parts of being human that were obvious, in need of no rumination.  Despite the conspicuous silence, the room adequately confined us; everyone around me looked appropriately placed.  I looked at them and began to speculate about what they would do after the reading.  There was no sound or conversation to confirm or disprove my judgments.  Once more, this time from within my reverie and through the mind of the person representing me in my recollections of that summer night in January, I envisioned meeting my reader.  We were taking part in the various non-particulars that textured day-to-day life, at least for us, in my daydream.  Disjunctive pictures of them eating a sandwich, of me standing at a bus stop, of them standing in an elevator, of me folding laundry, etcetera, imposed themselves in their lacerating silence.  The voice had been crushed, killed, snuffed out forever.  Each view of myself partaking in sundry tasks that flashed through the mind of my chimeric double was completely isolated from the images of my reader as they arrived at me in succession.  There was no red thread running through the scenario, no exchange between my reader and I.  The only things we had in common were our respective silences, a shared quietude forged from mutual disinterest and mediated by my dream avatar.    

From my desk I began to faintly smell car exhaust coming from beyond my corner.  Disembodied conversations permeated the walls as I heard countless feet shuffle past.  The people cursed, laughed, ostensibly took part in financial transactions.  I removed my glasses and placed them on my desk as if seeing clearly was no longer necessary.  Sound’s routine –– the dictatorial decree I craved –– saved me in the worst way.  Each passing moment occasioned an increase in volume.  For all I knew, my windowless corner could have been on the busiest street in the largest city.  The activity lulled me into a dreamless sleep, and when I awoke everything was exactly as it had been with just one small detail out of place.  A specter of an itch, a faint hum, a persistent disruption lightly nagging kept me stringently alert.  I was fully aware of every moving part in every apparatus in existence and they all functioned with utmost transparency.  Nothing was confusing, anymore.  I was among peopled noises, my reader was reduced to an incomplete conception of silence conveyed by my self-styled persona, and my windowless corner was a place with no weather which made it the perfect place to think.  However, it was all slightly askew, a little lopsided in its misleading obviousness.  I had landed in paradise but was doomed to traverse it with a pebble in my shoe that was too small to be located and removed, yet just large enough to trouble my heel.  This prevented me from entering what I can only describe with hesitation as authentic, unguarded wakefulness.  I knew I was destined to spend the rest of my days with my thinking pulled taught as my interior listener strained to differentiate the jumps in this tireless thrum.  I desperately wanted to describe the sensation to someone, but there was no one.  Even if I had been sharing my corner, I would not know how to describe what was happening, although I knew its transmission was of the highest priority.  I wanted the light from nowhere to return to fall on my hand planted on the top of my desk; for something to return all of the trouble I had been spared, but the opportunity was gone.