Phantom Words Spatial – Diana Deutsch

Diana Deutsch in collaboration with Jan St. Werner

“Our ability to recognize speech is amazing. We can recognize words and phrases that are produced by different speakers – including those using dfferent dialects – and we can also recognize words that are produced by the same speakers when they are in different emotional states. But to achieve this, we need to draw on an enormous store of knowledge, and also on our beliefs and expectations, to make inspired guesses as to what is being said. But this very process of guesswork can also lead us to perceive phantom words and phrases that are not, in reality, being spoken.

Some years ago, I discovered a way to produce a large number of phantom words and phrases in a short time. Sit in front of two loudspeakers, with one to your left and the other to your right. You will hear a sequence that consists of two words, or a single word that is composed of two syllables, and these are presented over and over again. The same repeating sequence is presented from both loudspeakers, but off – set in time so that when the first sound (word or syllable) is coming from the speaker on your right, the second sound is coming from the speaker on your left; and vice versa. Because the signals are mixed in the air before they reach your ears, you are given a palette of sounds from which to choose, and so can create in your mind many combinations of sounds.

On listening to a phantom word sequence, you initially hear a jumble of meaningless sounds. But later, distinct words and phrases suddenly appear. Those that seem to be coming from the speaker on your right are usually different from those that appear from the speaker on your left. Then still later, new words and phrases appear. If you wander around the room when these sounds are playing, you will likely hear new words and phrases. These illusions show that when people believe they are hearing meaningful messages, their brains are actively reconstructing sounds that make sense to them.

For this special installation I am following an invitation of Jan St. Werner to diffuse the phantom words via several loudspeakers. The audience can thus navigate between the various sound sources and add new layers of interpretation depending on their position within the acoustic field. The dynamics of continuously shifting listening perspectives activate the listener’s ears own senso-motoric system and make playful use of the reactions and reverberations of the architecture in which the installation is placed. Eight new phantom words were composed for this edition.” — Diana Deutsch, October 2021

Production: David Johannes Meyer

Set up in Serralves: Constantin Carstens