Hearing Hearing: A Review of Jacob Kirkegaard’s Labyrinthitis (2008)

“We do not yet know what a sonic body can do.” -Steve Goodman

In a collection of notes entitled The 1914 Box, Marcel Duchamp said that “one can look at seeing; one can’t hear hearing.” (Bloch 1974) Working within a lineage that includes Cage, Schaeffer Lucier, and other artists, Jacob Kirkegaard’s 2008 sound installation Labyrinthitis articulates a response to Duchamp’s claim, demonstrating through the phenomenon of distortion product otoacoustic emissions (DPOAE) that one can in fact ‘hear hearing.’ Further, in articulating the space of human hearing, and ‘playing’ the human ear “just like an acoustic instrument,” (Kirkegaard 2008) Labyrinthitis questions the canonical notion of hearing as a passive process, a “one-way route of transduction,” (Kahn 2008) and grounds the semioticity of listening as distinguished from hearing in a materialist approach which eschews representation, using sound not as symbol but as intervention (Lindblom 2010). In this sense the work is firmly grounded in the tradition of site-specific sound art, creating a discourse space in which technology and the body, artist and audience, exist not on opposite sides of dichotomies but on a continuum.

The contents of Duchamp’s 1914 box (photo courtesy of:

`What did Duchamp mean by “looking at seeing?” He meant to describe “the particular interpretative effect which accompanies optical illusions.” (Betancourt 2003) For example, in the Rotoreliefs, the contrast between a static disc and a moving disc creates a visual oscillation, allowing us to ‘look’ at the mechanism of seeing and understand a number of constraints: that the illusion is only possible for us when the relief is in motion; and that when the relief is in motion, we cannot distinguish the two discs— we can only see them as one (ibid.).With the knowledge that there are in fact two discs but that, when the oscillation occurs, we apprehend them as one, we can infer that the configurational relationship between the two activated discs causes the limits of our perception to ‘synthesize’ a new image entirely from our perceptual processes: in this way we can ‘look at seeing.’ (Ehrenzweig, 24)

Then we can begin to interpret the phenomenon, as Betancourt states. This also allows for a new, non-teleological artistic-perceptual structure (ibid.), and the discourse domain which this kind of art articulates is not predicated on phenomena as representations but on an exploration of the material aspects of the phenomena themselves, the ability to observe the sensory mediation of experience, and its limits. Though the groundwork had been laid by Schaeffer, Cage, and Lucier, as well as through Dianne Deutsch‘s discovery of the octave illusion in 1973, and Maryanne Amacher‘s work with otoacoustic emissions in 1999, until Kirkegaard’s Labyrinthitis, there had arguably been no sound-oriented process explicitly analogous to optical illusions which would cause one to perceive a mismatch between stimulus and receptor activity in the human ear, and there had been not been as cogent a response to the passive connotation of hearing which is so pervasive in the historical musical narrative.

In 1978, physicist David Kemp demonstrated for the first time in a scientific context the phenomenon of otoacoustic emissions (OAEs) (Kemp 1978). These are audible sounds which the inner ear itself generates, and which can either be spontaneous (SOAE) or evoked by pure tones (EOAE). Commissioned by the Medical Museion in Copenhagen, Kirkegaard’s Labyrinthitis is composed on the basis of the latter, particularly distortion product emissions (DPOAEs). In fact, similar findings were reported in the 18th century by Guiseppe Tartini, who while investigating violin double stops discovered that two simultaneously-played tones may cause a listener to perceive a third tone (Tartini 1754). Indeed, it should be noted that OAE’s are anomalous only insofar as they are audible: the the very process of hearing involves the vibration of the cochlea’s hairs when two tones enter the ear, which causes electro-chemical responses to the vibrations; in certain cases this vibration causes “movement of the connected basilar membranes,” which in turn causes the ear to emit sounds as a byproduct of hearing (Fischer 2008). Thus OAE’s could be considered ‘amplified’ instances of a generalized property of the human ear.

(Photo courtesy of:

Looking to use this phenomenon as a compositional impetus, Kirkegaard inserted tiny speakers and a microphone into his left ear. The input is a pair of primary frequencies in “a ratio of 1 – 1.2,” (Kirkegaard 2007) the interaction of which causes a DPOAE in Kirkegaard’s inner ear. The microphone picks up this and other resultant DPOAEs and amplifies them enormously, outputting them to the audience as they arise. The audience will have its own DPOAE’s when confronted with Kirkegaard’s, so much so that, at a loud volume, the piece seems to turn one’s ears into a bright resonant magnet, sound buzzing ticklishly out of it, at least in my listening experience. The receivers of sound in fact become producers of sound in the act of receiving, and this creates a potentially-endless feedback loop (which actually renders compositional decisions largely arbitrary). Therefore, the piece is a musical analog to the concept of Duchamp’s Rotoreliefs, since it builds its discourse not from sound as representation but from the actual sound phenomena, and since the configuration of the pure tones, like the static and moving disc, causes a mismatch between input and receptor activity, creating a space in which the resultant phenomenon, DPOAE’s, can be explored and encoded with meaning. It is a rebuttal to Duchamp’s claim that one can’t hear hearing.

Labyrinthitis participates in a tradition which goes back to Cage’s goals to “remove any trace of his personality from the composed work” and “let sounds be themselves,” (Pritchett 1993). The original DPOAE’s that Kirkegaard used as primary inputs for the performance of Labyrinthitis were “recorded in an anechoic chamber… in Copenhagen, Denmark,” (ibid.) which inevitably ties the piece to the result of John Cage’s experience in the anechoic chamber, 4’33”. Cage claimed that “[t]here is no such thing as an empty space or an empty time… try as we may to make a silence, we cannot.” (Cage, 7) There will always be sound: therefore the role of the composer drastically shifts from composing within what Stravinsky calls “psychological time” to simply creating contexts or constraining parameters in which sounds can interact. What we term silence is only sound too small for us to hear, and the only reason Cage heard the two sounds he did (his brain and his blood), and not a shimmering microtonal orchestra as Kirkegaard did, is that Cage did not have adequate technology to articulate the space he encountered.

Kirkegaard in an anechoic chamber (photo courtesy of:

Rethinking the silent piece in later years, Cage learned to think of 4’33” as “not needing a performer.” (Gann, 186) Cage states that “I don’t sit down to do it; I turn my attention toward it. I realize that it’s going on continuously… an infinite river of a piece into which any of us can dip at any time we please.” (ibid.) This is similar to the phenomenon in Labyrinthitis: vibration in the inner cochlea occurs all the time, since it is in fact the process by which we are able to listen, but by amplifying it with adequate technology, the performer and the audience can ‘turn their attention’ toward it, creative a discursive space around it. Indeed, were it not for the feedback loop that defines the piece’s “descending tonal structure,” (Kirkegaard 2007), Labyrinthitis would be a near-perfect performance of Cage’s 4’33” No. 2, or 0’00” from 1962: “In a situation provided with maximum amplification (no feedback), perform a disciplined action.”

In trying to articulate the sonic profile of a specific space such as one particular human ear, Kirkegaard follows directly in Alvin Lucier’s tradition, which bears strong resemblance to Cage’s: “I don’t want to change anything. I simply want to find out what these environments do to sounds, so it’s to my advantage… to take what I can find, and in that way each of my performances will teach me something.” (Lucier, 66) Indeed, Lucier’s Music for Solo Performer (1965), which incorporates percussion and amplified brainwaves, is a direct ancestor of Labyrinthitis. Lucier and Kirkegaard, informed by Cage’s musical idiom, sought to articulate the idea of “sound as the inner movement of a space…” (Toniutti 1999) It is likely for this reason that Kirkegaard does not consider himself a musician, or his work ‘music’ per se: he considers himself an artist, and his medium is sound, his focus being to “visualize and materialize it.” (Bertolotti 2010) Labyrinthitis itself is structured to “mirror the composition of resonant spectra in the human cochlea,” which is the norm for Kirkegaard, who often articulates spaces in his work.

The space of the inner ear and its hearing processes is only the most recent space that Kirkegaard has articulated. Kirkegaard’s Four Rooms (2006) incorporates a modified version of the same technique Lucier used in I Am Sitting In A Room (1969). It “aims to be a revelation of four abandoned spaces inside the Zone of Exclusion in Chernobyl,” (Kirkegaard 2006) using Lucier’s recursive-layering articulation technique. However, instead of layering recordings of speech, Kirkegaard recorded the humming silence of the rooms— perhaps as a nod to Cage, since no voice is being projected, and the resonance of the chosen rooms instead evolves into perceptibility from its own imperceptibly-quiet sonic profile. In this sense Kirkegaard indicates a refinement of Lucier’s technique, aided by technological development. This can also be seen in his Eldfjall (2005), in which geothermal recordings of geysers were created by means of accelerometers inserted into the earth surrounding the geysers. Kirkegaard’s music, eschewing traditional structure to instead ‘inscribe’ a space in sound, echoes Cage’s sentiment that “one is, of course, not dealing with purposes but with sounds.” (Cage, 12)

The Strokker geyser in Iceland (photo courtesy of:

Since the Tartini tone phenomenon is an obligatory byproduct of the structure of hearing, it is not perception-dependent. Like Duchamp’s optical illusions, Labyrinthitis evokes a ‘particular interpretive effect’ resulting from the perception of EOAE’s, a ‘listening’ activity which is derived from the phenomenon of hearing itself. Kirkegaard corroborates this about Labyrinthitis: “Many people have expressed experiencing new ways of hearing… hearing themselves hearing… sounds passing through the head…. that their skull resonated or that their ‘ears were at work’.” (ibid.) At a certain point, it’s difficult to tell which of the frequencies one is hearing are from Kirkegaard’s ears or one’s own, and this is where interpretation comes in: Labyrinthitis is described as an “interactive composition and spatial-acoustic installation.” (ibid.) In light of this, Kahn 2008 makes a distinction between ‘active’ hearing and ‘passive’ hearing: in passive hearing, transduction only occurs in one direction, from vibrations to electro-chemical impulses. In active hearing, however, a reverse trandsuction occurs in the ear, in which electro-chemical impulses are converted into vibration, which is why astrophysicist Thomas Gold describes OAE’s “a feedback system consisting of a mechanical-to-electrical transduction process coupled to an electrical-to-mechanical transduction process.” (Probst et al 1991)

In the mode of ‘active hearing’ which Kirkegaard invokes, the ear is “played just like an instrument” and the artist is no longer the sole locus of sound signal, but is instead conceived as “the medium” for the audience’s subjective exploration of the space the piece articulates, an interpretive process which is predicated by the material phenomena the piece explores and which invites listeners to disentangle their own emissions from Kirkegaard’s, creating a situation in which “the audience hears [Kirkegaard] hearing and hear themselves hearing” (Kahn 2008), with audience members corroborating that “that they could move between the tones.” (Fischer 2008) The whole body becomes a resonant space and the piece therefore becomes a context in which to experience the body as affected material. Thus the music spurs a kind of ‘embodied’ listening in which the specific ‘site’ of the art is a combination of Kirkegaard’s ear, the room in which the piece is performed, and the audience’s ears. It makes sense, then, that the piece is named after a medical condition in which inflammation of the ear causes balance disorders: the piece blurs the distinction between subjective and objective, ‘self’ and ‘other,’ signal source and signal receiver.

In this sense the piece lays bare the semioticity of listening as opposed to hearing. Since Labyrinthitis only amplifies a phenomenon which is in fact a structural property of hearing, creating a feedback loop from it, it is not articulating a discourse through sounds used as representations, but through the sound phenomena themselves. In this light, Labyrinthitis might fit comfortably not only alongside other sound installation work, but ‘acousmatic music,’ as termed by Pierre Schaeffer, which is an important precursor to sound art. Jonty Harrison states that ‘acousmatic music’ “admits any sound as potential compositional material [,] frequently refers to acoustic phenomena and situations from everyday life… [&] relies on perceptual realities rather than conceptual speculation to unlock the potential for musical discourse and… structure from the inherent properties of the sound objects themselves…” (Kahn 2008) Therefore every encounter with Labyrinthitis, every experience with trying to make sense of it, derives endogenously, from the phenomena which the piece exemplifies, and not solely from recourse to abstract aesthetic principles.

Kirkegaard performing Labyrinthitis (photo courtesy of:

Michael Chion makes the distinction between “causal, reduced, and semantic” listening: causal listening seeks to “gather information about its cause (or source)” (Chion 25); semantic listening treats the sound signal as a message to be interpreted through language; reduced listening was introduced by Pierre Schaeffer, in which “the sound is effectively disembodied from its source” and analyzed simply for its properties, separately from its source of meaning in reference to a particular code. Labyrinthitis can engage the listener on all of these levels, particularly because it evokes the process of hearing not in order to listen to some other music, but to listen to the process of hearing itself, and in this ‘paradoxical’ configuration the listener is able to ‘fill’ the discourse space however she prefers: interestingly, all of the kinds of listening enmesh in this piece. We can say, therefore, that listening is a highly subjective experience, but Kirkegaard is emphasizing a materialist viewpoint in this piece: the subjectivity of the experience is predicated on objective physical phenomena. As I believe William Carlos Williams puts it, “no ideas but in things.”

In Labyrinthitis one ‘listens’ to hearing, creating meaning from the experience of hearing the process that allows for meaning to be assigned to music in the first place. Causal listening is always at play since after a certain point distinguishing the sources of the frequencies is difficult. In a sense, then, Labyrnthitis indicates that we may better understand our bodies through technology— a refined toolkit has allowed Kirkegaard articulate, as Cage described, “a total sound-space, the limits of which are ear determined only…” (Cage, 8) . Indeed, just as Kirkegaard considers the artist to be a medium, he also considers the artist’s equipment to be the same, an extension of the medium. There is no sharp divide in this piece between the body, nature, and technology: after all, is Kirkegaard doing something ‘unnatural’ if all he is doing is amplifying naturally-occurring phenomena which would otherwise be inaudible to us, which would otherwise not affect us at all?

(photo courtesy of:

While Labyrinthitis clearly indicates that “two-way traffic happens in the ear, at the point that transduction begins,” (Kahn 2008) perhaps it does not include a route of communication from audience back to artist, once the former has received the latter’s signal. One wonders what the ramifications would have been if Kirkegaard had decided to perform the piece with more than one participant (that is, himself) wearing tiny speakers and microphone. Would this accelerate the DPOAE feedback? What would be the DPOAE behavior if the input to be caught by microphones and amplified by speakers were not pure tones, but, say, the activity of the audience in the space, in a nod to 4’33”, or the room itself, in a nod to Lucier? Speculation aside, it is clear that the interactivity of Labyrinthitis, already restricted by the pure tone input, is of only two varieties: top-down, that is, from Kirkegaard to the listener, and insular, that is, within the listener and her reactions to Kirkegaard’s DPOAEs. And further, one could argue that Labyrinthitis does not question but in fact further reifies the role of artist as locus of privileged sound, since the ‘interactive’ DPOAEs which the listener experiences only occur from the imposition of Kirkegaard’s own DPOAEs. It is not nearly as inclusive as 4’33”, whose structure obligates it to allow any audible phenomena during the timeframe of its performance to constitute part of that performance. It is a perfect Cagean paradox: though he may be acting a a “medium,” Kirkegaard maintains control by relinquishing control of the listener’s reaction to the piece, while still allowing for the structure of the context in which that reaction occurs.

Therefore, while Kirkegaard proves Duchamp wrong and offers the audience a more interactive mode of experience aesthetic performance— one in which the semiotic nature of listening is predicated on the material nature of phenomena and their power to affect the body— he doesn’t necessarily alter the relationship between the audience and the artist in any essential way, since he is still making the decisions with respect to the context in which the subjective audience experience can occur. Indeed Labyrinthitis could be analyzed with respect to Goodman’s ‘politics of frequency’ argument, in which “every nexus of sonic experience is immersed in a wider field of power,”(Goodman 190) given the affective power of sound, as Labyrinthitis so plainly shows. While Kirkegaard sacrifices control over his listener’s specific reactions, he can specify the domain in which their reactions to his DPOAE’s occur, and it is clear that he has hegemony of broadcast. In this situation Kirkegaard’s affective power is functionally no different than makers of items such as “The Squawk Box,” which “emit[s] two ultrasonic frequencies that together produce a third infrasonic frequency […] intolerable to the human ear, producing giddiness, nausea, or fainting…” and “The Scream,” which “target[s] a specific frequency toward the inner ear,” producing dizziness and nausea (Goodman 20).

Herein lies another possible origin for the title of the piece: Kirkegaard is playing with the tension inherent in the power given to the composer as privileged locus of sound signal: since sounds have affective power, and since there are clear distributional asymmetries, ‘hearing’ becomes a submissive act in which the receiver of the sound signal reacts to it in a way she cannot help. The lovely phenomenon Kahn denotes ‘active hearing,’ the buzzing of one’s ears as it produces frequencies, is actually only an attenuated form of the actual medical condition which is the piece’s namesake, and with one turn of the volume knob Kirkegaard could induce these feelings during a performance of the piece.

‘Listening,’ meanwhile, is construed as an active task in semantic discourse, an application of meaning to an experience which we may or may not have any power in participating in. But instead of inciting a revolutionary change in power distribution in the aesthetic sphere,Labyrinthitis and its re-defined listening instead resurrect a kind of Cagean formalism. By turning the semioticity of listening inward, Labyrinthitis invites the listener to self-consciously experience the reactions of her body as though they were not her own, as an affected material, in a sense usurping the piece’s capacity to expand its discourse by choosing such a restrained, site-specific domain. But as Goodman says, “we do not yet know what a sonic body can do,” and structural explanations like Labyrinthitis may guide the way forward.



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Manuel Arturo Abreu is a writer and linguistics student living in Portland, OR. Check his work out at and

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One Comment

  1. Merzmensch

      Fascinating project. He confuted Duchamp. Both are awesome. P.S. I love the guys name.