[21 April 2009]
As microtonal as it gets, Jacob Kirkegaard’s Labyrinthitis consists of sounds recorded within the labyrinth of Kirkegaard’s own ears, capturing vibrations arising off of pure tones catching the cochlea hairs in the fluid pathways of the aforementioned labyrinth. These are real sounds (known as otoacoustic emissions) created, not just received, by our ears. It is literally the sound of ourselves hearing.
Just beyond these fluid reservoirs where the production of what we know as sound occurs is the vestibular system, which links with visual cues and motor reflexes to control our sense of balance. The delicate architecture of our hearing is such that those who seek to manipulate it are toying with our very sense of being in the world. If the vestibular system is unable to function properly by obstruction, injury, or infection, it can cause a nasty condition called labyrinthitis, which confuses and disorients the entire body during its daily functions and can cause side effects such as hearing loss, tinnitus, vertigo, uncontrolled rapid eye movement, and panic attacks secondary to chronic anxiety. Luckily, Kirkegaard does not seek to destroy our corporeal well-being. In fact, Labyrinthitis is not disorienting like disease the album shares its name with. Instead, it uses these biological associations as an aesthetic, the music being labyrinthine only in the cognitive mapping used in its creation.
Kirkegaard’s Labyrinthitis is as much a laboratory experiment as an “album” in the traditional sense that most of us experience it. Its intentions are not so much a conscious disruption, but an unconscious tweaking. Its aims, though produced through an abstract medium, are not towards alienation from the body, but communion with sound. Kirkegaard not only recorded the sound of his own ears hearing, but used a tone frequency formula which has been found to generate new tones completely secondary to the sounds being heard. When two tones are played at a certain ratio to one another, the ear, through the otoacoustics described above, creates a completely new third tone, like overtones on a piano, or the Tartini tone on a violin. This means that our bodies are naturally inclined to interact with harmonizing music, even to sing along with it through our ears. In the liner notes to Labyrinthitis, Noise, Water, and Meat author Douglas Kahn refers to this process as “active hearing”.
Kirkegaard creates the third ear-stimulated tone via this mathematical formula to stimulate the two harmonizing tones in his own ear through otoacoustics. He then uses these tones to harmonize with each other and create a third tone in the listener’s ear. Then, to further complicate the labyrinthine nature of the album, he recreates that third tone in his own ear on the album and combines that with a fourth tone to create a fifth tone in the listener’s ear and so on and so on. It plays out like a series of descending chromatic notes, but at the microtonal and deep listening level, much of what the listener hears is not literally there on the recorded CDs. It’s inside of us. Each listener is a collaborator and musician, honing in on the auditory tuning of our own ears. Provoked by Kirkegaard, this kind of natural call and response is involuntary for the listener, but suggests an innate musicality that is communal rather than individually driven.
It’s a stimulating work perhaps more for the possibilities that arise from this obscure phenomena than the music on the disc. I listened to the record a few times before diving into the academics of the liner notes and must say that it’s a far richer experience when you know what’s being done to you as you listen. Thereby, its contribution to scholarship is its major aesthetic claim. That’s not to say that it’s not a below-average piece of electroacoustic art, but its simplicity makes it feel perhaps a bit more deliberate than it needs to, like a hearing test, particularly as it nears its 36th minute. Still, I guess we have our own biochemistry to blame for that. After all, Kirkegaard is just playing us all as instruments and with the potential for abuse and imbalance inherent in that notion, we should be grateful that he went easy on us.