A Vacuum Is Also a Plenum and Both Make Music Make Life

Johanna Hedva

Video of Sunn O))) performing in Berlin, July 30, 2019, taken by the author.

“Bodies do not simply take their places in the world. They are not simply situated in, or located in, particular environments. Rather, ‘environments’ and ‘bodies’ are intra-actively co-constituted. Bodies (‘human,’ ‘environmental,’ or otherwise) are integral ‘parts’ of, or dynamic reconfigurings of, what is.”

Karen Barad

“That which is above is like that which is below… / The Sun is its father / the Moon its mother/ the wind hath carried it in its belly / the Earth is its nurse.”

from The Emerald Tablet

“It lights up
As lightly as it fades:
A firefly.”

Chine Kyorai, 1688, his death poem

Here’s how to see a Sunn O))) show: find a seat at the back, preferably against a wall—don’t worry, there’s no need to see the band. They’re cloaked in black capes and hoods, monks of the void, and, anyway, the entire venue is swimming in darkness and fog and soon you’ll go extinct in it. Flatten yourself against the wall, or lay down if you can, and sprawl out. Get as supine as possible, melt into the floor. You can feel the skeleton of the building throb into your own while the two liquefy. Although there is not really a beat to speak of, there is, but it is very, very, very slow. You can nod along to it, nodding as if someone is saying something complicated and elegant, and it’s taking them a long time to get from word to word, and this will make it feel as though what they are saying is simple, but in fact it is colossal, totalizing, so nod and nod and nod. The distance between nods will be huge: minutes, whole actual minutes, will go by where your neck and spine are not nodding but lolling toward the moment when they will next nod, and the shift in direction, when it comes, will be its own minor rapture. It will be worth it. Relish it. Roll your eyes up into your skull. Fall your head. Let your mouth hang open. Feel your jaw come off. Your spleen and liver will be dislodged, don’t worry about it. Your bones will be ground to dust. It’s okay. Surrender. The whole building will collapse soon because of the might of the sound, and the sound will become its own kind of skin, and all of you are living within it now, reverberating in its seismicality, its eruptions, canyons. It is petroglyphic, inscribing, the rock face the inside of your own skull, your own skull the size of the Mariana Trench. Remember, your skull is ancient, you are made of stars. Think about time and space, how purely impossible it is to think about them at all. To think time: you have to be infinite, outside of it. To think space: you have to become all of it. Think about how Pythagoras, with mathematics, sought to prove—and succeeded in doing so—that the planets themselves make music: the music of the spheres, the divine order, these huge bodies in motion reverberating through all the heavens and all the hells. Think huge: geologic time, cosmological vastness. The time of Sunn O))) is a very slow, grinding kind of time, but, really, aren’t all kinds of time that slow, grinding kind? The sound of Sunn O)))—the sound!—is titanic, as if the titans themselves, primordial enormous gods in the shape of monsters, were stomping on the earth, making her moan. The earth’s moaning—what kind of sound comes from a whale the size of the universe? Can something so gargantuan be called a “song”? Or, is “song” the only possible name for it? You have never heard anything as loud as this. If you have, you can’t tell us about it now, can you, because you were obliterated by it, weren’t you, you lucky fool. I am told that 140 decibels is on the “upper threshold of pain,” but what is pain except for a shimmering so meaningful that your whole body glows with it? I have read on the internet that someone at a Sunn O))) concert thought that, by the end of the show, because the volume had exudated their organs, they’d involuntarily pissed themselves. “When I came out,” they wrote on reddit, within a thread about the loudest bands, “I couldn’t hear middle frequencies, people talking sounded like leaves in the wind. It was great :).”​*​ It’s true always, but with volume, it becomes discernible: the physics of sound is always also metaphysics. Sound waves ripple through matter into the place where the immaterial meets the material: the shore of being and unbeing. Frequency is flesh. Flesh is tone, flesh is time. Everything vibrates with its own motion into everything else, and this produces harmonies, dissonances, musics. Rather than being sublime, though, it is radically, fundamentally basic, prima materia. A unit of time—a breath, a heartbeat. A frequency—a muscle spasm, a wave of light. In a recent interview, Stephen O’Malley, one half of Sunn O))), returned the conversation to the basics: “Amplified music is electricity. It’s not channeling […]. [It’s] electricity. I’m not the kind of person who feels like I’m channeling something from beyond through a spirit into music. Music exists, and you’re part of it.”​†​ When I saw Sunn O))) in Berlin in July 2019, for their Let There Be Drone tour, the guy sitting next to me (in the back, against the wall, we were the only two there) kept feeling the bones of his face, gently, with inquiry, as if he’d never noticed his own bones before. The sound was like a bath, wet and warm and immersing. My skin and clothes were soaked, perhaps the sound itself was sweating. Although the light, and how liquid it was, had tricked me into feeling we’d all drowned, I felt soothed, sleepy, oddly horny, at once weightless and huge with my own gravity. I couldn’t tell if an hour had passed or an eon. Maybe both. I closed my eyes and felt a deep, shocking peace, as if the bath were the singularity, as if annihilation were God. My friends left halfway through. They said they needed air. “But the sound is the air!” I cried. I reached for them, but they were eclipsed by the din, enfolded in the heavy fur of horror vacui. I texted my friend in L.A., giddy, about how drone metal is anticapitalist because it’s so exquisitely, superbly, demolishingly slow. And it’s not just that it’s slow: its resistance to time feels insurrectionary. Its slowness obliterates the chromonormative rhythm of production. It enacts a kind of time which can best be described as un-time, a dense stasis of sound wherein the only thing that happens is the viscerality of how physics becomes metaphysics, and all that can be done is to feel it. Then I texted with awe: “when they fucking go up!” meaning, when the notes ascend, hands up the neck. Deliverance. Sunn O))), sectaries of sound, know what they’re doing, they think of their compositions as sculptures, three-dimensional, four. The low notes made my lungs collapse, they use many of them, claustrally; the high notes let me breathe, these are used sparingly, lustrally. My favorite part of the show was when it stopped: the silence that flooded in was great and sharp but also alleviative, full of grace. I inhaled and exhaled this new world around me, the one that had rattled and roared and come completely apart, but was now unbroken and transcendent with itself, with me, also lucent, within it. When writing about Sunn O))), the metaphors mix between air and water—do your bones liquefy or vaporize?—and those with earth: how you and the sound are matter—your breath heavies with the bass, the gain of the guitars has gravity, as your tears do. I think about how alchemical terms are also simply physical terms, what, really, is the difference? I think that air is water, water is air, that they can be transformed one into the other. And not just that they can, but they always are. Sunn O))) knows this; they sell a T-shirt that says, “Ever breathe a frequency?” Near the merch table in Berlin, I noticed a sign. It said, “It will be VERY hot and loud inside. Please take care of each other!” I liked seeing this, but once inside, care—taking it, giving it—was redefined. I leaned on no one, but I felt them everywhere. I sat next to the boy feeling the bones in his face, and we never once looked at each other, but I understood the shape of his bones, and he understood my understanding. Everyone stood still, domed in their own bodies, but the boundaries of bodies did not exist. Had they ever? I was in a room full of people, and we were inhaling each other’s skin and breath, and the sound was yoking us all in a resonant, invisible net, flooding us, nebulizing us, and I felt alone—but I wasn’t. Kind of like capitalism. We feel alone, but we’re not. Also like capitalism, it feels like the end of the world, and here we all are, nodding along to our own obliteration. The chance that we might participate with intention feels impossible, but in fact we are always participating, and intent itself is atomic. There, in that room with this band, was a microcosm of this fact. Sunn O)))’s sound needs the bodies in the room to resound through—all bands need this, the shape of the room, the flesh of the audience, but with a band like Sunn O))), the stakes are monumental. Music exists and you are part of it. Sunn O)))’s sound made a plenum, full, so full it hurt, and we twitched, alive, within it. Sound is a relationship, not a thing. It is a body because it lives in, through, and because of, our bodies, and what are bodies except those which require the relationship, the support, of each other? This is also like the world. I thought of Karen Barad’s agential realism. Barad proposes that agency is not a thing one can “have,” but a relationship between entities. What we have thought of as inert material is in fact agential, becoming and being in a continuously present continuity; not life, but living. She asks us to consider matter itself as mattering. Matter made in the present tense, matter as an activity, not a noun, but a verb. This—thinking the agency of that which feels inactive and powerless—makes me think what we’re all thinking about these days: How can, how will capitalism end? Desperately, we keep asking, but it feels like shouting into a furnace the size of a continent, seven continents. This is because we keep asking about it as a thing, rather than a relationship that we’re already in. Capitalism is a verb and it is our verb, it belongs to us. We are its subjects, not its objects. We lament and scorn the many insidious ways it infests our lives, our thinking, our desires, our behaviors, our actions, our choices, but we forget that the most important part of sentences like this is the “our.” When I wonder if capitalism has infested my otoliths, I can change “my” to “our” and the question is the same. Perhaps the plenum of ourselves—that we are an our—is how agency is born at all? Ex nihilo, as we understand it, is no longer accurate. Nothingness turns out to be writhingly, sorcerously alive and full. When dark energy and dark matter were discovered, they refuted all articulation, as they should.​‡​ It is something we can know but not explain, something we can feel but not see or measure. When I learned of their existence, I felt the same kind of shocked peace that Sunn O))) hatched in me. I felt closer to everything, and simultaneously decreated, remade by being unmade. I’m an atheist but I like calling this the God Particle, because I am partial to conceptions of God as not only something that annihilates matter as well as meaning, but is also radically, fundamentally basic. Something that exists that we are part of. Although we perceive dark energy and dark matter to be the terrifyingly unknowable alien elements of our universe, so very far away from us both in distance and in comprehension—how can we account for heat death? how can we measure nihility?—the seep of Sunn O)))’s sound into the atoms of your being is a reminder that such an inexplicable void is in fact viscerally intimate, always right here, within and around and through everything. It’s not just embedded in you: it is you. Me. Us. It’s what gives life shape, form, weight, time, meaning, and it gives it to us in such a way that we become those verbs. It’s not just what connects, it’s what makes us make us make. Nothingness exists and you are part of it. My spine pulsed with the wall. The balls of my feet held the entire tremor of the Earth. The limit of my body disintegrated into the ether that is also the great body of the world. I thought of the end, and realized this was not it. I thought of shows I’ve been in with thronging, surging mosh pits, where we all grab at each other, happy to die at this very moment, our rage and ardor atomizing everyone into one communal howl. Sunn O))) was different. This was a tremendous refusal, a collective one, making something by unmaking it, but it was a refusal that proposed a way to account for our own oblivion. It asked us to consider oblivion not only as a verb, but a verb that produces value, oblivion as prima materia of our being. Behind every atom is the God Particle, an inexplicability that is creating, awake, the being of a swarming nothing. Sunn O))) refuses the normative tenets of music, they refuse rhythm, lyrics, words, language. Acutely, dangerously, fugitively, they refuse time itself. They ask, the God Particle asks, what if the void is agential, what if agency is time? What if we refuse time on the terms of capitalism? Not to make it stop, but to make it slow enough that we might breathe. One way capitalism might end is through refusal. But it must not be a giving up, but a giving for. Imagine, in that space, in that breath we take, hear, be, feel but don’t explain, what great music might flood in.

This text was originally published in Art Practical, in November 2019.

  1. ​*​
    ~“Does anyone know the decibels Swans plays at?” posted to www.reddit.com, 2015. [https://www.reddit.com/r/swans/comments/3pmesn/does_anyone_know_the_decibels_swans_plays_at/](https://www.reddit.com/r/swans/comments/3pmesn/does_anyone_know_the_decibels_swans_plays_at/).
  2. ​†​
    ~Adam Rothbarth, “Sunn O))) on Why Loud Music Can Be Important.” July 3, 2019. *Stories*, Spotify for Artists. [https://artists.spotify.com/blog/sunn-o-on-why-loud-music-can-be-important](https://artists.spotify.com/blog/sunn-o-on-why-loud-music-can-be-important).
  3. ​‡​
    ~See more: [Energy Distribution of the Universe diagram](https://chandra.harvard.edu/graphics/resources/illustrations/pie_label.jpg) from Chandra X-Ray Observatory, NASA. Courtesy of NASA/CXC/K. Divona.