An excursion across the border between the wanted and the unwanted – and then back again.
Essay Pia Palme 2020
Rauschen – I look down from the bridge into the swollen river below. The roar of the brownish churning water rattles me entirely, from my ears to my intestines, as it thunders down from the Bernina mountain range. My fingers are numb as they fiddle with the camera and recording gear.
Rauschen is an ancient German word with no direct and precise translation into the English language. Within the vocabulary of sound, it is my favourite. In its noun form, das Rauschen is an impartial expression for a mostly broadband texture of noise. As a verb, rauschen is often used to describe the action of emitting / making / generating that specific kind of broadband noise.
It has been raining for days and the water level of the Poschiavino, the river that cuts right through the small town of the same name, has risen considerably. The ever-present Rauschen of the river has changed its register: it is much stronger now and appears to be moving faster. Lower frequencies dominate and occasionally there is a deep and very heavy rumble as large rocks tumble along the riverbed. The noise completely fills me up. I’m present with the noise. Rauschen is inseparable from what I perceive as ‘me’.
Rauschen (1) invades us, penetrates us: we have no choice but to surrender. Rauschen takes over. As the sound artist and theorist Salomé Voegelin articulates, Rauschen magnifies the fact that there is no distance between the sound and the listener (2). Rauschen can be perceived at any volume, from the deafeningly loud to the nearly inaudible. It can arise from any kind of source, for example, from natural sources, human or inhuman sounds, instrumental, mechanical, or technical occurrences. In a scientific context, Rauschen describes an unwanted signal, such as the noise of a distorted radio signal.
German nouns often describe states or situations in their dynamic form, yet within certain limits. Rather than defining static conditions, they communicate inherent activities or processes – conditions which are changing, evolving, and progressing: conditions with lives of their own. This is the case with Rauschen: the term implies the notion of a swift and ongoing movement through, or within, a certain space and time. It involves a peculiar sense of moving forward – as is the case with a body of water which flows unerringly in one direction and which cannot be stopped. Although Rauschen seems to appear as a steady stream of noise, it is able to gradually – yet never too abruptly – evolve. Altogether, the term Rauschen signifies a nexus of sound, space, and movement.
My interest in Rauschen was sparked by the texture of the sound itself and by the ambiguity of the perceptional concepts behind the term. In the listening process, Rauschen, like a signpost, marks the borderline between the wanted and the unwanted. That emotionally laden frontier is fortified by the listener’s own social surroundings as well as their personal tastes. When experiencing Rauschen, individual and cultural modes of hearing perception interfere with one another, stimulating levels of awareness and imagination within the listener. In closely directing one’s ear into Rauschen, subtle sonic textures can manifest: small irregular shifts in frequencies constantly occur. In particular, a listener might begin to identify vocal productions, like ghost voices, emerging from the sonic stream (3). Human perception is oriented towards the gathering of insight and the recognition of knowable content; if this is not possible for a given situation, the mind will attempt to re-create the phenomena of perception. It is not always easy to decide whether a specific kind of Rauschen is pleasant or unpleasant to the ear. This is one of the main reasons why I like using Rausch-like textures in my music.
It is noteworthy that Rauschen is one of the most commonly used sound-words in German literature. It appears in medieval poetry by Walther von der Vogelweide as well as in works by Schiller, Kleist, Goethe, Uhland, and, somewhat later, Rilke. Over the centuries, the conception of Rauschen has evolved. From early on, Rauschen was coloured with violence, intensity, and power. The Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer argues that in the ancient times penetrating noise was associated with the sacred (4). In the medieval period, Rauschen was associated with the roar of fierce winds and stormy seas, or with the noise of battle. At that time, Rauschen meant to storm ahead in an uncontrolled manner, as would be the case with warriors who are enraged, excited, or beside themselves. Rauschen was therefore conceived as being compelled vigorously forward, driven by a strong force. Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm mention in their ‘Deutsches Wörterbuch’ (German Dictionary) that ‘in the old language’ (5), the verb Rauschen had been used for the ferocious wild movements of untamed animals or living beings.
This idea implies that there is a borderline which must be crossed before entering the state of Rauschen. An edge within. Step beyond the border of civilised behaviour into the untamed wilderness of emotional power. Surrender and step beside yourself. In Rauschen, life is out of control. Mind, voice, and body running wild. War, love, and religion make human beings give up control – and so can music and art. Rausch, the shortened version of the word, stands for intoxication, fever, furore, or just plain drunkenness. Ecstasy, rapture.
From around 1800 in the German Romantic period (6), Rauschen became associated with the more gentle noises of nature. The pleasant sound of a brook, a waterfall, the sea, the sound of long grass moving in a soft breeze, leaves rustling in a tree, a forest’s whisper at dusk would be described as Rauschen. Writers used the word Rauschen to describe natural sites while exploring the complex relationship between nature and mankind. Writing about Rauschen, authors evoked not only an atmosphere of freedom and openness, they also hinted at obscure worlds that cannot be expressed by language. Literature adopted Rauschen as a screen onto which to project the unknown and the opaque. Here again, in the Age of Enlightenment, another borderline was transcended: nature and culture became separate dimensions. Only from a distance did humans observe natural phenomena or landscapes, from a distance did they listen to the sounds of trees, grass, or water. Domesticated and tamed, nature became a scenery. Rauschen slipped to the background of awareness. Civilised society crafted nature into a metaphor for their longing. The frontier between nature and culture became the rectangular golden frame enclosing a painted nature scene, used to decorate a stylish living room.
In the 20th century, with the advance of technology and industrialisation, Rauschen became a technical term denoting a disturbance in a signalling system (7). Authors like Kafka, Musil, and Mann were inspired by the possibilities of acoustic media, such as recordings, radio telephones, and gramophones. Rustling and repetitive tapping sounds or distorted voices appear in their writings as modern forms of Rauschen (8). Contemporary and electronic musicians also discovered and explored Rauschen and its artistic potential. The use of Rauschen as an element in the arts evolved in parallel to the development of psychoanalysis: for the analyst, it became important to listen to every scrap of sound and every distorted uttering of a patient. In the psychoanalytic process, all vocal productions are equally important as signals, contributing to reveal and heal the patient’s mind.
In my own artistic practice, I explore the varied concepts of noise, particularly the cognitive partition separating accepted (wanted) inner states or perceptions from those that I tend to reject (unwanted). I find the mental, emotional, and cultural implications of Rauschen interesting and important subject matter for my artistic research. This brings me to feminist and queer activism. The concept of Rauschen becomes a tool to scrutinise mental, emotional, and cultural boundaries that are habitually – and tacitly – imposed on one’s thoughts and thought processes. I experiment with deconstructing, shifting, and re-composing the boundaries between signal and noise-in-mind: Rauschen allows me to compose the personal as the political.
Rauschen is associated with processes that continue over a long duration – over hours, days, a lifetime, or longer – that is, beyond human imagination. A waterfall crashing down over a cliff edge appears to thunder on forever, with the water’s roar hammering into one’s ears, into ears that cannot be closed off from the noise. So too does the Rauschen of machines never come to an end: in the industrialised world, the steady hum of motor noises continues (rauscht) day and night. In the digital age, Rauschen proceeds invisibly as an ever-present undercurrent of algorithms, controlling mechanisms, and surveillance. Regardless of whether or not I pay attention to it, the flow of digital Rauschen surrounds me. And there is yet another kind of border closing in on me: the border between life and death, the border between what I can measure as moments in life against the endless Rauschen of time. That final demarcation that all living beings must, at one point, pass. The Rauschen of analogue and digital rivers and waterfalls will continue, even when I, as an individual, can no longer perceive it.
Listening to the river, I step across the border and become one with the roar. I am part of nature, nature is part of me. Rauschen is an ancient German word. Within the vocabulary of sound, it is my favourite, I think. I’m freezing in the rain.
(photo by Pia Palme)
Thanks to the Uncool Residency, Poschiavo.
Thanks to Molly McDolan for her comments and revision.
(1) In the following, the word Rauschen will be integrated into the text using normal lettering.
(2) Voegelin, S. (2010). Listening to Noise and Silence : Toward a Philosophy of Sound Art. London: Continuum International Publishing, p. 176
(4) Schafer, R. M. (1994). The Soundscape: Our Sonic Environment and the The Tuning of the World. Rochester: Destiny Books. (Original work published in 1977), p.51
(5) See under http://woerterbuchnetz.de/cgi-bin/WBNetz/wbgui_py?sigle=DWB&mode=Vernetzung&hitlist=&patternlist=&lemid=GR01643#XGR01643
(6) See under https://lsf.uni-hildesheim.de/qisserver/rds?state=verpublish&status=init&vmfile=no&moduleCall=webInfo&publishConfFile=webInfo&publishSubDir=veranstaltung&publishid=70676
(7) Schafer, R. M. (1994), p.182
(8) Niebisch, A. (2008). Ticken vs. Rauschen : Geräusche bei Poe und Kafka.
See under http://publikationen.ub.uni-frankfurt.de/frontdoor/index/index/year/2017/docId/43317