phd research

A Dense Mass of Indecipherable Fear: The Experiential (Non)Narration of Trauma and Madness through Acousmatic Sound
Thembi Soddell, 2019


This practice-based research project investigates how acousmatic sound can be used as a tool for representing and understanding lived experiences of trauma and so-called mental illness, from a firsthand perspective. Drawing influence from Mad activism and mental health ‘consumer’ movements, the objective was to create a first-person madness narrative using abstract sound, with a focus on the ambiguity of acousmatic perception as understood through Brian Kane’s ontology of acousmatic sound.

Metaphor is the primary tool of representation and understanding, where sounds and compositional gestures act as metaphors for concepts connected to lived experiences of mental illness. Practical techniques involve recording and sampling real-world sounds, such as instruments, field recordings, played found objects, and voice, which are abstracted and shaped into works of musique concrète. These works are denoted by dynamic extremes and affective intensity, reflecting aspects of the researcher’s own lived experience of depression, anxiety, and trauma, as well as others’ experiences of madness as encountered through published texts. The research results in four electroacoustic compositions: A Shut in Place (2012), The Absence of Inclination (2013), Glue and Return (2016), and Love Songs (2018), the latter of which is accompanied by a book of concrete poetry.

The research also results in the conception of five categories of “perceptual collapse” (a term taken from a talk by mental health advocate Mark Henick), which provide an experiential framework for understanding and representing states of psychological distress using sound. Discussion of the compositions and their framing devices include an examination of the interrelationship between the impact of emotional abuse and symptoms of mental illness, the process of storytelling involved in mental health diagnosis, and a critique of the mental health system from a patient’s perspective.

A final reflection on methods leads to the conception of experiential listening, a mode of engaging with musique concrète that considers interdisciplinary and experiential aspects of perception, imagination, emotion, memory, and context that influence the way meaning can be constructed from abstract, perceptually ambiguous, acousmatic experiences of sound. This suggests ways forward for experiential (non)narrations of madness and trauma through performative installation practices, and custom-designed sound spatialisation systems. It also raises questions regarding the potential use of acousmatic sound within mental health research, particularly when reconciling the insidiousness of emotional trauma that is experienced as invisible, ambiguous, unknowable, and difficult to represent and understand through words or visual forms.