An invitation to listen to impermanence

(Or Petit Bardo)

– Mikel R. Nieto
Berlin, 2022

There was “an iconic moment in the history of psychoacoustics1 in the invention of recorded sound when we discovered that the ear of a cat, which was meanwhile dying—and even after it was dead—was still working and able to send signals. Later on, one of the first uses that we gave to phonographers was to record the voice of people who were going to die; just to preserve their voices and to be able to listen to them again and again 2. In the beginning, phonography was a collection of voices from dead people, and the recorded sounds were a kind of spectre; an audible past full of ghosts.

As we know today, listening is the first sense that we develop inside of our mothers, but also is the last sense that we lose when we die. Buddhism seems to know that: In the Buddhist book, called “Bardo thodol. Liberation Through Hearing During the Intermediate State”, we found an invitation to use our voices through chants to guide our dead to the next state because even if they’re dead they seem to be listening still. Somehow the listening act seems to guide us through our life and beyond it.

The relationship between death and music is common in many cultures. For Orpheus, the only way to save Eurydice from the infra-world was to play music. Music could save us, and music give us a reason to live, or makes us feel comfort. In that sense, Nietzsche was not that wrong when he said that “Life would be a mistake, without music3. Music as a comfort for our existence has been one of the main reasons that makes us to be quiet: to play music and to listen. As Peter Sloterdijk reminds us: “No listener can believe to be at the margin of the audible. Listening is a self- immersive act, a suspension of distance4 and extension of time.

The works compiled here are a possible approach from the sonic practices, to different possible existential finitude situations. The artists mentioned were asked to create a sound work that can be heard by a person in existential finitude, (in a relatively short period of time), or a sound work to be heard while someone dies or a sound work that the artists themselves would like to listen to while they die.

Surely all of us have thought at some point about our death, and we can approach the idea of it, but this is just a speculation. Obviously we can’t pretend to be dead. We can be close to it (Near-Death Experience), but we can’t know what it’s like to be dead. Death has been the central theme of philosophy and the only reality on which one can truly speculate. So it’s not about simulating the last or the ultimate sound, but an invitation to gladly prepare ourselves for the only sure thing in our lives: A weird and eerie celebration of life.

As Roland Barthes pointed out: “The main objective of reading could be to experience a “petit mort” or “little death”.” In the same way, this series of sound works can be listened to by all of us mortals with pleasure and without having to be in any of those situations, although we are somehow in them. To listen to these sound works then could be a “Petit Bardo”.


1. BLUME, STUART. The Artificial Ear: Cochlear Implants and the Culture of Deafness. Rutgers University Press, 2010. (p.30-31). STERNE, JONATHAN. The Cat Telephone. The Velvet Light Trap # 64, 2009 (p. 83-84). And others.

2. The etymology of “record” comes From Middle English recorden (“to repeat, to report”), borrowed from Old French recorder (“to get by heart”), from Latin recordārī, present active infinitive of recordor (“remember, call to mind”), from re-(“back, again”) + cor (“heart; mind”).

3. NIETZSCHE, FRIEDRICH, Twilight of the Idols. Oxford University Press. 2008.

4. SLOTERDIJK, PETER.Weltfremdheit. VII. Wo sind wir, wenn wir Musik hören?. Suhrkamp, 1993.

Dedicated to the memory of Zbigniew Karkowski & Mark Fisher.