There is no war without representation, no sophisticated weaponry without psychological mystification. Weapons are tools not just of destruction, but also of perception - that is to say, stimulants that make themselves felt through chemical, neurological processes in the sense organs and the central nervous system, affecting even the perceptual identification and differentiation of objects " Paul Virilio "War and Cinema
Audience responses to low frequency sound-installations and performances suggest that many people instinctively associate booming, droning, roaring and rumbling sounds with dreams and also with war. Apparently Goethe believed true poetry lies not in the provision of authentically new experiences, but in stimulating the recollection of memories which would otherwise remain forgotten. There are few more poignant surprises than to be prompted to recover people, moments or sense-memories from the depths of the distant past. Hyperacuity in darkness (hyper-sensitivity of hearing, similar to the well-known audiological effects of blindness), the tendency of damp night air to absorb high frequencies and favour the long-distance propagation of low frequency sounds, and dramatic reductions in the masking effects of ambient noise at night all conspire to implant abyssal bass and infrasounds deep into subconscious memories of hypnagogic states and dreams.
Similarly, but at a very much deeper level of encoding, real danger triggers the so-called fight-or-flight reflexes which place the autonomic nervous system on full-alert, flooding the body with adrenaline, hypersensitizing the senses, and dramatically extending subjective perceptions of time. As Barry Convex says in David Cronenberg's classic "Videodrome", "something to do with the effects of exposure to violence on the nervous system opens up receptors in the brain and the spine". During the WW2 nocturnal Blackout procedures were tantamount to a policy of compulsory mass hyperacusis. Venturing outdoors at night, particularly the urban population, already hypersensitized by fear, found their hearing heightened still further by immersion in levels of darkness which were unprecedented since the introduction of street-lighting.
The basic hypothesis here is that the experience of defensively listening, consciously and unconsciously, for the dull-thud of explosions, the whistle of rockets and bombs and the roar of planes is the mechanism by which such autonomic states encode, at a fundamental neurological level, as conditioned, reflexive responses to ambient low frequency sounds. These high states of arousal are necessarily those in which individuals are most receptive to sense-data. These responses are also culturally transmissible - primarily through the medium of cinema. It is worth noting that extreme sensitivity to sound (of the exact sort idealised by the composer John Cage) is not only a state of heightened esthetic awareness, but also a recognised medical condition, often associated with debilitating phonophobia and the onset of conditioned tinnitus - and during the war advertisements in Picture Post magazine suggest there was a roaring trade in sedatives, not only for people but also for household pets.
The solution was provided by an article by W. Harms in Shortwave Magazine, which described a series of massive concrete monoliths which still stand, slowly crumbling into waste-land at a site near Dungeness in Kent. These structures, built in the 1920s and 1930s, formed a primitive experimental early-warning system - several elegant, but extremely austere concave shapes designed to allow the precise triangulation of directional-fixes on the distant sounds of incoming enemy Zeppelins, aircraft and ships. These shapes rise up out of the Kentish shingle like the strange ceremonial relics of a dead civilisation or unknown tribal culture (and if you consider military R&D as an anthropological entity as well as a purely technical enterprise, then perhaps this interpretation is not as wild as it seems).
INFRASOUND - A PRIMER
Sound is, quite simply, a vibration that the human ear can detect. One note will sound higher than another if it vibrates the air at a faster rate (in other words, at a higher frequency). We’re used to talking about the visible light spectrum - the range of colours that the human eye can see. Acousticians also think of sound in spectral terms. As sound rises in pitch, from bass to treble, it moves across the audible spectrum. Just as there is infrared and ultraviolet at the cusps of the visible spectrum, there is infrasound and ultrasound at the fringes of the spectrum of audible sound...
Infrasound clearly lies on the cusp of our perception, rather than outside it. But our experience of infrasound is still a mysterious issue. When we sense these vibrations, what do we actually hear? Researchers at University of Salford asked this when they tested our ability to hear low frequencies in 1967. Subjects described the sensation of infrasound as ‘rough’, a ‘popping effect’. Infrasound below 5Hz was described as a ‘chugging or ‘whooshing’, a sensation they could ‘feel’. (Yeowart, Bryan and Tempest, 1967) The chance to hear infrasound in a large auditorium seems very enticing. But the hypothesis that infrasound can affect people’s mood intrigues us even more. The existence of infrasound, in sacred music and reputedly haunted sites, makes an exploration of infrasound and mood all the more fascinating.