Voicing Abstraction / Wave #7 SOUND July 2022

Toward the Shore of Listening: An Underscore

Rouzbeh Shadpey

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by these straits to die

The sound installation by these straits to die by Rouzbeh Shadpey was originally exhibited at Centre Clark in Tiohtiá:ke/Mooniyang/Montreal in April 2022. Using the cases of Naomi Musenga’s death in France—who was mocked and refused life-saving assistance by a white medical SAMU operator—and the drowning of Eritrean and Somali “migrants” off the coast of the Italian island of Lampedusa—whose cries for help were mistaken by local yachters as the sound of seagulls—the work seeks to explore a psychoacoustic technology of whiteness that is operationalized through acousmatic listening.

How is acousmatic listening weaponized within the medical-industrial complex and the policing of borders, and how is its weaponization normalized by the discourses and practices of sound studies and sound art? Presented here is the installation's sound piece accompanied by its underscore—a loosely constellated essay of six poetic fragments that undergird its listening.



Silence sounds through the white acousmatic imaginary, reverberates its hold. Sounds of Black suffering, as the loudest-silence-is-the-softest-noise, (un)become, during their acousmatic transduction, transmogrified: a second instance of speciation, this time psychoacoustic, takes place, makes space, and convolutes listening into a bordered act. The ear is said to always be open, unable to shut itself off from the world unlike its neighboring facial sensory organs. Without lids or lips, the ear is said to be permeable and vulnerable to all sound all the time and yet, like the contemporary border which is not only material but digital, biological, and epigenetically embroidered, the borderization of listening by the acousmatic holds, denatures and/or destroys that which attempts its crossing—bureaucratically trapping its sound in the ‘please-hold,’ suffocating it into silence, or transmogrifying it into birdsong.

Are you listening?

Are you hearing this?

Or is this another white hearing masquerading as hearing masquerading as deep listening masquerading as sound art masquerading as—please hold.

Your call is important to us.

cue telephone Stockhausen muzak.


A violent comfort walled in noise drowned out the silenced suffering of Naomi so I amplified it for the white listener, for their acousmatic hearing—I wanted to hold a hearing on acousmatic hearing but I got put on hold, here in the comfort of sound divorced from sight where what we anosognostically mishear as the silence of nothing (is wrong with you) or the gaggle of seagulls is the “drowned-speech-become-fire-music” of those whose song holds the potential to burn this extractive economy of acousmatic listening to an improvised crisp. [1]

Naomi Musenga was 22, a Black mother, and looks beautiful in a patterned green, pink, and red dress that she wears in some of her pictures, peace sign at hand. She had told the redacted SAMU operator on the line “J'ai très mal, je vais mourir,” to which the redacted SAMU operator had replied “Oui vous allez mourir, certainement un jour comme tout le monde.” [2]


Fred Moten offers a question: “How would you recognize the antiphonal accompaniment to gratuitous violence – the sound that can be heard as if in response to that violence, the sound that must be heard as that to which such violence responds?” [3] If, as Maurice Blanchot wearily reminds us, to question is to seek and to seek is to sound at the bottom, then we would be wise to consider Moten's question as something akin an (ultra)sonic call which expects no antiphonal response—a resounding sault bouncing off the depths of our listening, carrying with it the gift of echolocation. I have worked in hospitals and heard the listening of nurses, doctors, and administrative workers to the sound of racialized pain—a listening so loud its hold on what it cannot hear cannot be overheard, listened in on, or used in a hearing on white acousmatic hearing and the death it perpetuates. Forensics, as always, falls short here: if sound is already barely considered evidence then what hope do we have to hold listening on trial? [4] To hold its acousmatic hold responsible for the help it withholds, whether in the Mediterranean sea or the please–hold? These are the questions I want to ask white sound artists sitting in a room, listening to themselves listening to themselves or worse; listening to birdsong, in the key of the Anthropocene and its flattening refrain comme tout le monde ♭.


Artwashed theories of listening sung by burgeoning white institutions of sound art and sound studies sing us the same tired tune, lifelessly on repeat: something about listening-as-resistance because sound-as-weakness because vision-as-hegemony because brain-as-science. Having a voice becomes important, using it even more. If this voice is unmet, it is because listening is absent or absentminded, distracted—not really listening. The prescriptions they offer to remediate this are enticing, they slip off the tongue with the caress of a concept: radical listening, deep listening, listening as radical weakness, listening to more-than-human voices, etc. We listen to their listings in the silence of knowing that their listening, no matter how ornamented, cannot not betray us. What I am calling white acousmatic listening addresses this futile listening while sounding both its tautology (a) and paradox (b):

(a) Only through the proprietary logic of whiteness can the presupposition of owning sound which is necessary in order to dispossess it acousmatically become possible. White listening is therefore always already acousmatic, and acousmatic listening can only ever be a psychoacoustic technology of whiteness.

(b) If listening is fundamentally a relational practice—which we believe it is—then given the prior prior, what appears to us as white acousmatic listening is something ontologically other than listening: an acousmatic hold.

Acousmatic listening is always white,
and never listening,
but a hold.

Here me out hear.


3 October 2013, a group of fishermen off the coast of the Italian island of Lampedusa withheld their assistance from a ship of drowning Eritrean and Somali “migrants,” having acousmatically mistaken their cries for help as the sound of a gaggle of seagulls. [5] Echoes of P. Khalil Saucier and Tryon P. Woods resound here, reminding us that there are no mistakes in the methodological workings of structural antiblackness, only “the refusal to believe and to know, or more so, the desire to misrecognize black suffering, naturalized as so much wildlife.” [6] And indeed, what is hearing if not the expression of a psychoacoustic desire under the guise of acoustic experience? [7] Hums John Donne, in his simmering hymn:

Since I am coming to that holy room,
Where, with thy choir of saints for evermore,
I shall be made thy music; as I come
I tune the instrument here at the door,
And what I must do then, think here before.

Whilst my physicians by their love are grown
Cosmographers, and I their map, who lie
Flat on this bed, that by them may be shown
That this is my south-west discovery,
Per fretum febris, by these straits to die, [8]

To listen to the choir that underscores the word is to gull ourselves from believing the Mediterranean is a syndrome or a place, hearing instead its reservoir of sound: suffocated, suffocating, and acousmatically policed by a white ecology of listening whose impossible task is to contain its deafening dirge. Such a task can only be futile. As per Donne’s canticle, suffering in its moment of reckoning becomes sonified, spreading its length across waves which sooner or later carry it to the shores of Listening. “Our neighbor laments, and a vector extends from her emptiness to our compassion for her.”[9] Only a listening which refuses the acousmatic dam and allows itself the flooding of neighborly emptiness is worthy of its name. Such a listening, aware of its failures and complicities, alleviates the suffering Black body from the onus of sounding; hearing pain in Black pain, and birdsong in the song of birds. Such a listening, under Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge's prismatic light, might resemble a compassionate compass tuned to the sound of lament—the sense organ of an aural ruttier guiding us, steadfast, in direction of acousmaticity’s west.

"[A]nd from there, what will we have heard here?" [10]


​​​ ​​​ ​​​ ​​​ ​​​ ​​​ ​​​ ​​​ ​​​ ​​​ ​​​ ​​​ ​​​ ​​​ ​​​ ​​​ ​​​ ​​​Play/Sing as parallel as possible with the others
​​​ ​​​ ​​​ ​​​ ​​​ ​​​ ​​​ ​​​ ​​​ ​​​ ​​​ ​​​ ​​​ ​​​ ​​​ ​​​ ​​​ ​​​Make exceptions and long pauses
​​​ ​​​ ​​​ ​​​ ​​​ ​​​ ​​​ ​​​ ​​​ ​​​ ​​​ ​​​ ​​​ ​​​ ​​​ ​​​ ​​​ ​​​Bring the whole to a stand-still
​​​ ​​​ ​​​ ​​​ ​​​ ​​​ ​​​ ​​​ ​​​ ​​​ ​​​ ​​​ ​​​ ​​​ ​​​ ​​​ ​​​ ​​​Fly away [11]


[1] Fred Moten, Stolen Life (Durham ; London: Duke University Press, 2018), 165.

[2] Naomi's case only reached the public ear 4 months after her death on December 29 2017, following the circulation by local Alsatian news outlet Heb’di of the audio recording of her exchange with the SAMU operator, a white woman whose identity has been "shielded" from public awareness and is, as of this day, still awaiting trial for non-assistance pour personne en péril.

[3] Fred Moten, The Universal Machine (Duke University Press, 2018), 211.

[4] See Lawrence Abu Hamdan's work as a Private Ear for rigorous and researched reflections on this. For a good introduction, see Lawrence Abu Hamdan, “A Cinder Block Falling on Concrete,” Triple Canopy, no. 26 (August 11, 2020), https://www.canopycanopycanopy.com/issues/26/contents/a-cinder-block-falling-on-concrete.

[5] Sarah Stillman, “Lampedusa’s Migrant Tragedy, and Ours,” The New Yorker, October 10, 2013, https://www.newyorker.com/news/daily-comment/lampedusas-migrant-tragedy-and-ours.

[6] P. Khalil Saucier and Tryon P. Woods, “Ex Aqua: The Mediterranean Basin, Africans on the Move, and the Politics of Policing,” Theoria 61, no. 141 (January 1, 2014): 18, https://doi.org/10.3167/th.2014.611410410.3167/th.2014.6114104. I was directed to this paper by way of Christina Sharpe's In the Wake: On Blackness and Being (Durham, N.C. Duke University Press, 2016).

[7] "Hearing is not only an acoustic experience; it is the expression of a desire." Ian Baucom, “Frantz Fanon’s Radio: Solidarity, Diaspora, and the Tactics of Listening,” Contemporary Literature 42, no. 1 (2001): 22, https://doi.org/10.2307/120908310.2307/1209083.

[8] John Donne, “Hymn to God, My God, in My Sickness by John Donne | Poetry Foundation,” Poetry Foundation, 2020, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/44114/hymn-to-god-my-god-in-my-sickness.

[19] Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge, "Listening" in A Treatise on Stars (New York: New Directions Books, 2020), 53.

[10] Rob Halpern, Music for Porn (Callicoon, N.Y. Nightboat Books, 2012), 49.

[11] Instructions to Karlheinz Stockhausen's piece Zugvögel (Bird of Passage), from the collection of "intuitive" music text compositions Für Kommende Zeiten (For Times to Come) 1968-1970. Fly away, seagulls. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=148SC_gHF3Y

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