I think of Writing Sound as I read A King Listens 4 by Italo Calvino, a short story published posthumously in 1986 as part of an unfinished collection dedicated to the five senses. It is the story of a king who lives alone in a constant state of surveillance, capturing every acoustic signal in his palace as a sign of a plot against himself and his status. By writing of listening as an isolated act, Calvino points right at the heart of the paradox of writing sound. I would like to look more closely at the very distinctive voice in this story.
Throughout his text Calvino uses the second person, a powerful singular ‘you’, and by doing so the reader is placed constantly on the edge: that ‘you’ is highly ambiguous and one is never sure if it’s the writer addressing the king who listens, the king’s mind addressing the listening king, the writer addressing the reader-as-king as he or she listens, Calvino using his text as a mirror to reflect his words unto us, the readers.
Alone, the king listening to the silence around him and in turn, the reader reading and the writer writing the story and its threatening silence, become the figure of a solipsistic exercise verging into the buzz of paranoia. The king’s palace is but an ear. He sits lonely on top of his throne. Around, silence swarms with voices as he listens to ‘time as it goes by’ and its ‘sonorous numbers’ 5. Inside, silence is not the absence of signal, but the absence of a space articulated outside of the experience of listening as such. In one of his moments of doubt the king/narrator wonders, ‘Is there a story that links one noise to another?’ 6. Listening then needs to be articulated, attached to something outside of itself, otherwise it falls into a status of isolation and self-referentiality. The ‘you singular’ in Calvino’s story signifies the hesitancy of the narrator between the elusiveness of the aural dimension as such, and the necessity to extend it across words.
At last the king goes out of his palace and his ear is caught by a melody. He hears a woman singing and he no longer pays attention to the plotting of his lonely mind. He reaches out and sings a duet with her: his experience of listening now takes place in an articulated, rounded dimension. The sense of precariousness, the hovering site of the listener represented by the lonely king and by that ambiguous ‘you’, slippery and placeless, is resolved by Calvino by shaping the listening experience of a ‘singular you’ in a story that reaches out to many ‘I’s, ‘she’s and ‘he’s.
But this is not to say that they reply.
4 Calvino, Italo. (1986). Un re in ascolto. In: Calvino, Italo. Sotto il sole giaguaro. Milan: Garzanti, pp.51-77. Translation from Italian is mine.
The Italian philosopher Adriana Cavarero wrote a detailed analysis of this story with regards to the relational nature of what she calls ‘the vocalic’; that is, the sounding quality of a voice before its semantic connotations. Cavarero, Adriana. (2005). For More Than One Voice. Toward A Philosophy Of Vocal Expression. Translated from Italian by Paul A. Kottman. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
5 Calvino, Italo. (1986). Op. Cit.