The Australian sound artist explores how acousmatic sound creates a space to examine how we shape and relate to the world around us.

Thembi Soddell is a sound artist and electroacoustic composer whose distinct approach to composition exploits dynamic extremes, creating volatile, evocative sound experiences with a disquieting edge. She creates works for recording, installation, and performance—including several solo CD releases, presentations at Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and City Gallery Wellington, and two European tours in a duo with cellist Anthea Caddy.  Her music resides in a zone of unrelenting darkness and physical effect; working at the nexus of raw emotion, sound design, and musique concrète, she creates sound worlds that are effortlessly dense and abyss-like. Her performances see her explore sonic environments that swallow the audience. 

Love Songs, her latest release—out now—is the clearest articulation of her methodologies and a work of extreme dynamics and intensities. “The title Love Songs,” Thembi explains, “is a little dark humour on my behalf," because the work became a meditation on the lived experience of insidious forms of abuse within supposedly loving relationships. It was published alongside an extensive book, outlining more literal readings of her ideas of sonic effect, contemporary relationships, and the nature of becoming.  

In this month's Real Talk, Soddell explores how she used the ambiguity of acousmatic sound as a vehicle to better understand the ambiguous perceptions inherent in mental illness and insidious forms of abuse in seemingly loving relationships. Zooming out, she also explains how acousmatic sound creates a space to examine who we are and how we shape and relate to the world around us.

In 2014, a friend emailed me the book Why Does He Do That? Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men" by Lundy Bancroft and said: “I think you should read this.” I did and it changed my life. Not a sudden change but a slow one—the kind of change filled with extended passages of confusion, as new information integrated into and transformed my life narrative. My work with acousmatic sound and musique concréte was central to this integration. 

I described the process of creating my latest album, Love Songs, as one of meditating on the interaction between so-called mental illness and insidious forms of abuse in seemingly loving relationships. This suggests that nothing is as it seems.  The mental illness is so-called, perhaps an illness, perhaps not; the relationship may seem loving, but is this love if there’s abuse? These ambiguities were central to my sonic meditation, just as ambiguity is inherent to acousmatic sound. 

By definition, acousmatic sound is the experience of an effect in the absence of its cause; the sound can be heard, but its source cannot be seen. In disconnection from this cause, sound can become ambiguous, slippery, a perceptual experience often not as it seems. As Pierre Schaeffer, the originator of musique concréte, says of acousmatic music: “Everything can become unrecognizable. It is at this level that the bell becomes a voice, the voice a violin, and the violin a seabird.” This reflects how acousmatic music can be a space of perceptual disorientation

Perceptual disorientation is also a common symptom of insidious forms of abuse. A skilled abuser manipulates their victim in such a way that they can be unaware they are a victim at all. The abuser begins with tricks of perception: a comment here or there that makes you doubt your reality; a casual lie amongst truths so you’re uncertain of what to believe (and look crazy in your suspicions); an insult followed by much needed praise, or apology so you start to feel grateful instead of incensed. The abuser's shape shifts so you can never quite put your finger on what is happening. A bell becomes a voice. A voice a violin. A violin a seabird. Something is happening, you can feel it, although you’re told over and over that it’s not. And by now you doubt your emotions, too. You may feel more miserable than you’d expect given your life circumstances. Or perhaps feel like things aren’t turning out as you’d expected. Or like there’s something wrong with you deep inside. You doubt your perceptions, your livelihood, your ability to be a whole person. You may walk into a doctor’s office and tell them something is off. You’ve been getting non-specific pain, or fatigue, or low moods for no reason that you just can’t shake. They may diagnose you with depression or anxiety (or worse), prescribe medication, and set you on a path to long-term mental health treatment. Therapists, often untrained in recognising this kind of abuse, start to dissect your relationships. They examine everything from the perspective of what you’re doing wrong. In all relationships, the problems are 50/50, they say—selectively ignoring cases of abuse. But maybe more in your case—you’re the sick one after all. All of this is a diversion from the real problem: the abuser.

When I sit in a studio and start to compose, I begin with real-world sounds. I sample them and they transform into something other than their reality. I spend a lot of time just listening, feeling the sound’s effect upon me. I start to connect feelings, shapes, and ideas to these sounds and shape them to reflect that back to me. A single sound can take on multiple meanings (as well as no meaning at all), as can their shape or placement in a composition. My process of composing is one of forming a dialogue between myself and the sound. I meditate on ideas through this process. I come to understand my lived experiences or ideas I’ve been reading with a greater depth and intensity. Sound is the pathway to this understanding. 

With Love Songs, this pathway involved drawing connections between sounds and ideas that stemmed from my reading of Lundy Bancroft’s text, which had also extended into months of research into emotional abuse. This book had shaken my perception to the extent that all I’d understood about abuse was now being challenged. 

I had known the overt forms—the name-calling, the death threats, the physical intimidation interspersed with kindness and admiration. But Bancroft and other authors such as Patricia Evans, described all different forms of abuse and the myths behind why they were occurring. This led me to question my experiences. I delved into research into covert control strategies and reflected on the mental health system. I considered all the ways in which it, too, can at times undermine a person’s trust in themselves and their own perceptions, compounding the abuse.

These ideas were circling as I composed Love Songs, becoming embedded in the way I made choices about performance techniques, structures, and timing. Yet when I began composing, I had no clear picture of what it was about, just a felt sense of its connection to my lived experiences. 

Composing was a process of thinking through sound. I could attach multiple meanings to the sounds and they could hold all the paradoxes, inconsistencies, and contradictions that are inherent to the lived experience of emotional abuse, and broader aspects of mental illness and emotional distress. It was through this that I came to better understand the themes in these texts and their connection to my own lived experiences. I found this a more useful way of processing these ideas than through words alone, which feel limited in their ability to express these multiple realities and the invisibility of the experiences at hand. Sound was a pathway to comprehending their ambiguity.

And when it comes to covert abuse and control, when does a lie turn into an abuse strategy? Or a silence? Or a gushing display of affection? An outward display of anger? A memory lapse? These are all normal human behaviours but can become part of an abuse tactic, too. The nuances are on the edge of visibility, which can enhance the confusion and diminish the ability of a victim to trust themselves or see what’s happening. It also doesn’t help how common they are, how ingrained and accepted they are within politics, the media, and daily interactions. For women, we are told over and over in different ways that our opinions are not valid, our perceptions are wrong, our biology is weak or we are somehow less-than. These are fallacies we are facing every day. It sinks in. 

And when it comes to mental illness, where does a “normal” human response end and a mental illness begin? How does a diagnosis of illness affect our relationship to our symptoms? And, in turn, our relationship to ourselves and those around us? Does it help or does it obscure the truth?

I don’t claim to have answers, but in working with these ideas through sound, I have come to understand them on a deeper, more intuitive level. I often recommend that people read these books for themselves, starting with Lundy Bancroft’s Why Does He Do That? and Patricia Evans’ The Verbally Abusive Relationship, to gain a clearer picture of what abuse looks like and what impact it has on its victims, which can look a lot like mental illness. I encourage people to pass it on to their teenagers because it is almost inevitable their daughters or non-binary teens will come across someone who treats them like this at some point, and their ability to spot it could mean the difference between a life of managing the impact of trauma or not. And perhaps those inclined to use these behaviours might think twice once they understand them as tactics of abuse. 

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One of my reasons for making Love Songs was that I was observing these abusive relationship patterns everywhere and wanted to draw people’s attention to them. I was having a slow realisation that abuses that had felt so personal were not so at all, but just the playing out of dominant social structures between two people. These weren’t personal attacks against me but attacks against my perceived gender, my social position, my disabled mind/body—which had fallen into that position in part due to these attacks. 

I thought of all the women I know—and there are a lot—that had experienced abuse within intimate relationships and how they, too, would have felt this isolation and despair—as though there was a problem with their very personhood, that they were mentally ill or that something specific to them was at fault. I wanted to do my small part to negate that. 

I chose to do this through sound because sometimes just speaking about these ideas is not enough. Engaging with them through sound has the power to speak on an intuitive or emotional level. While composing, I could read and write sound as a language of emotion. I could attach the ideas I’d extracted from my reading about abuse to sounds and compositional gestures. In doing so, the multiple meanings, inconsistencies, and paradoxes of these concepts could coexist within the sounds, alongside the experience of pure affect with no connection to meaning—all of which is also true of lived experience. 

The work itself does not overtly address these themes, however, as I wanted it to be grounded in the experiential ambiguity of emotional abuse. Within this experience, it can be hard to tell what is real or imagined. It is in the spaces, silences, abstraction, and blank pages that this confusion and unsayable nature of this trauma reside, which may connect with the unsayable experiences of others that are different to my own. The sounds don’t just mean one thing, even to me, and the way a listener/reader relates to this work is unique, fluid, and self-reflective. 

And that’s the magic of acousmatic sound. Working with sounds from the real-world disconnected from their cause forms a bridge between reality and perception. Without a clear cause for the sound, nor a clear meaning, a listener’s interpretation becomes reflective of their own experiences, memories, philosophies, perceptions, and relationship to sound. This creates a space to examine (if we like) who we are and how we shape and relate to the world around us. This space can allow the mind to expand, to run free, draw connections, or form ideas that may never have been found without it. And it can create new metaphors that are not bound by the language or systems that define us against our will, allowing us to break free and begin defining our own narratives through sound.