Douglas Kahn

Douglas KahnEducation

B.A., The Evergreen State College, 1973
M.F.A., Post-Studio Arts, California Institute of the Arts, 1976
M.A., Experimental Music Composition, Wesleyan University, 1986
Ph.D., Art History and Theory, University of Western Sydney, 1997


Douglas Kahn on Wikipedia
Douglas Kahn

Noise Water MeatLatest Publication

Earth Sound Earth Signal: Energies and Earth Magnitude in the Arts, University of California Press, October 2013


Mainframe Experimentalism: Early Computing and the Foundations of the Digital Arts, Edited by Hannah Higgins and Douglas Kahn, University of California Press, 2012
Source: Music of the Avant-Garde, 1966-1973, Edited by Larry Austin, Douglas Kahn, Nilenda Gurusinghe, University of California Press, 2011
Noise, Water, Meat: A History of Sound in the Arts, The MIT Press, 1999
John Heartfield: Art and Mass Media, Tanam Press, 1985
Wireless Imagination: Sound, Radio, and the Avant-Garde, Edited by Douglas Kahn and Gregory Whitehead, The MIT Press, 1992
Cultures in Contention, Edited by Douglas Kahn and Diane Neumaier, The Real Comet Press, 1985

Short Pieces

"The Dissolution of the Media: New York at Midcentury," (in German). In Klangkunst,(Berlin: Prestel, 1996), edited by Golo Folmer and Matthais Osterwold. Edited and introduced special section of Leonardo Music Journal, Volume 6, December 1996.
"Lyre's Island: Some Australian Music, Sound Art and Design", compact disc and accompanying notes, Works by Percy Grainger, Joyce Hinterding, Jody Rose, Rainer Linz/Stelarc, Sherre DeLys, Frances Dyson, and Paul Carter.
"Three Receivers: Burroughs and Radio," The Drama Review(Fall 1996).
"Wet Sounds," Midwest (New Zealand), August 1996.
"Big Sounds, Little Sounds," Midwest (New Zealand).
"Nigel Helyer's SILENT FOREST," Artlink, August 1996.
"Cruelty and the Beast: Antonin Artaud and Michael McClure".
"Presentation at 100 Years of Cruelty (Centenary conference on Artaud), Artspace, 15-16," September 1996.

Pieces on the Web

Sound Culture

Publication Excerpt

From Noise, Water, Meat: A History of Sound in the Arts
Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1999


Listening through History

Sound saturates the arts of this century; and its importance becomes evident if we can hear past the presumption of mute visuality within art history; past the matter of music that excludes references to the world, past the voice that is already its own source of existence, past the phonetic taskmastering of writing, and past what we might see as hearing. None of the arts is entirely mute, many are unusually soundful despite their apparent silence, and the traditionally auditive arts grow to sound quite different when included in an array of auditive practices. The century becomes more mellifluous and raucous through historiographic listening, just that much more animated with the inclusion of the hitherto muffled regions of the sensorium. Yet these sounds do not exist merely to sonorize the historical scene; they are also a means through which to investigate issues of cultural history and theory, including those that have been around for some time, existing behind the peripheral vision and selective audition of established fields of study. Indeed, many issues have not been addressed precisely because they have not been heard. Thus, the dual task here is to listen through history to sound and through sound to history - in particular, the history of sound in artistic modernism, the avant-garde, and experimental and postmodern points beyond, from the latter half of the nineteenth century into the 1960s, shifting from a largely European context to an American one. Reconstituting the auditory dimension can pry open the century to question and, ideally, better attune us to the changing conditions of aurality and artistic possibilities for sound in our own time.

The book concentrates on the generation of modernist and postmodernist techniques and tropes among artistic practices and discourses. Some are soundful in themselves; others are contingent on ideas of sound, voice, and aurality.1 As products of the new possibilities for hearing and as functional constraints for actually doing so, these techniques and tropes pertain to three main practical areas: the early development of sound within and across artistic practices, the response and accommodation of sound within artistic practices, and the use of ideas of sound within the development of important tropes within the arts. It would be a mistake to put too much stock in abstract categories because when they are examined in their historical contexts, techniques, tropes, and practices overlap, mediate and influence one another, and, most important, alternate quickly and exist simultaneously. The main ones discussed here are noise, auditive immersion in spatial and psychological domains, inscription and visual sound, the universalism of all sound and panaurality, musicalization of sound, phonographic reproduction and imitation, Cagean silence, nondissipative sounds and voices, fluidity at the nexus of performance and objecthood, William Burroughs's virus, and the bodily utterances of Michael McClure's beast language and Antonin Artaud's screaming.

By sound I mean sounds, voices, and aurality - all that might fall within or touch on auditive phenomena, whether this involves actual sonic or auditive events or ideas about sound or listening; sounds actually heard or heard in myth, idea, or implication; sounds heard by everyone or imagined by one person alone; or sounds as they fuse with the sensorium as a whole. It should be stated clearly at the outset that this study, although it no doubt stands in contrast to the wealth of recent material on visuality and visual culture is not constituted in opposition to the visual image. Rudolf Mannheim in his book Radio(1936) was excited that "wireless claims the whole attention of the theorist of art because for the first time in the history of mankind it makes practical experiments with an entirely unexplored form of expression in pure sound, namely, blind hearing,"2 but it would in fact be impossible to discuss sound in this way. Blind hearing, even for the blind, is a difficult proposition to sustain in a society that so thoroughly internalizes vision into every aspect of its being and in other ways integrates aspects of the sensorium with one another. Obviously, the same would apply to deaf seeing.

To hear past the historical insignificance assigned to sounds, we need to hear more than their sonic or phonic content. We need to know where they might touch the ground, momentarily perhaps, even as they dissipate in air. The terms significant sounds and significant noises are used in the first part of the book not to differentiate these sounds and noises from insignificant or meaningless ones but to counter long-standing habits of imagining that sounds transcend or escape meaning or that sounds elude sociality despite the fact they are made, heard, imagined, and thought by humans. To understand the sounds of modernism requires closer examination of how phenomena are invoked and muted by amplitude (or lack thereof) and affect. A scream, for instance, is thought to be an irrepressible expression, instantaneously understood through unmediated communication. Indeed, screams in their natural habitat usually demand and receive a direct response. However, the literary, theatrical, musical, or cinematic habitats in which modernist screams reverberate are very different. Does anyone rush to the stage to lend assistance? Art screams bank on emphasis, amplitude, and affect, but they mute significance and deafen us in other ways with their rhetorical force. The same is true for noise, which can interrupt itself as capably as what it ostensibly interrupts, and Cagean silence, which has silenced other things, as it dwells at the problematic edge of audibility and attempts to hear the world of sound without hearing aspects of the world in a sound. In short, the sound and the fury never signify nothing or, rather, just nothing. What such auditive states have proven to drown out are the social in sound - the political, poetical, and ecological - and these are what the present text seeks to reinstate.

How did Evergreen help you in your career?

The moment I decided to become a writer occurred during my first few weeks at Evergreen when I read a poem in a creative writing class taught by Pete Sinclair. The poem was a conflation of the tales of Noah and Columbus, dead-pan humor, bad puns, etc. I was very nervous, my voice shaking, and the fact that no one was laughing didn't ease my worries at all. The room was totally silent. I look around a the faces - of course, we were sitting in a big circle, all of them confused. But then I looked at Pete. He too was silent, trying to hide tears of laughter as they were rolling down his cheeks. That was good enough for me.

After that I went on to join a group of other poets. We met nearly every week and grew very close, although we were all very different. We called ourselves the Delphi Valley poets and put out a couple issues of the Delphi Valley Review. We were a wild bunch, various substances, running naked in the snow, strong love and straighforward criticism, and some inspired insights into living. We weren't really attached to any faculty members, but that was the beauty of the place. Raw independence was encouraged, it was the unstated goal.