Primal Sound: Rilke’s Encounter with Early Sound Recording


The Austrian poet and writer, Rainer Maria Rilke, explored many powerful and emotive themes, making one consider life, experience, reality and much more.


In his monograph on the writings of Rilke, Dr Nicholas Reynolds, from Trinity University in San Antonio, explores the themes of sound and memory, and subsequently posits a theory of how artists tap into their subconscious in their creative process.


Read Dr Reynolds’ original research:


Image source: Deposit Photos / Lunatishe





Hello and welcome to Research Pod. Thank you for joining us today and listening in. Today we’re talking about the work of Dr Nicholas Reynolds, from Trinity University in San Antonio, and his monograph on the writing of Austrian poet and writer Rainer Maria Rilke.


We’ll be looking at Rilke’s childhood encounter with early sound recording – and how that influenced his work and how he understood the way we transform our senses in the creative process.


This is an area that Reynolds has considered extensively in his chapter, “Rilke’s Primal Sound: An Impasse of the Senses.”  In the book Sense and Creative Labor in Rainer Maria Rilke’s Prose Works. Reynolds uses the influence of Rilke’s early experiences with sound to develop a theory of how artists tap into their subconscious in their creative processes.


So, what was this seminal childhood experience? As a schoolboy, Rilke’s science teacher staged an experiment where the children built their own phonograph from simple materials – a piece of cardboard, a bristle from a clothes brush, candle wax. The class used this simple device to create a recording of their voices.


Of course, today we are all used to hearing and seeing ourselves recorded every day – on our phones, webinars and zoom calls. But back in the late 19th century, when hearing and seeing themselves recorded was such a novel concept, this was a new and slightly unsettling experience.


Rilke describes the moment he hears this recording of the children’s voices played back in the classroom – “the sound which had been ours came to us tremblingly, haltingly from the paper funnel, uncertain, infinitely soft and hesitating and fading out altogether in places. A tone, that was but a moment ago our own.” He speaks of how the class was silent, shocked, confronting a new interpretation of reality.


Reynolds considers why this was such an influential experience for the young Rilke – “The primal sound that he describes is an originating moment in the sense that it disrupts the young poet’s idea of how the senses work and introduces to him the odd phenomenon of objects “speaking,” a disruption that stays with him through his later years and manifests itself in many different ways.”


Reynolds takes some time to consider Rilke’s childhood experience of building the phonograph in his science classroom, at a time when the phonograph was at the centre of public attention.


It is difficult to overestimate the impact that such a recording would have had on children at a time when people were only just beginning to see and hear themselves as recorded by machines. Reynolds describes how this is one of the first examples – the other being photography – of an inanimate object ‘interpreting’ a person. Before this, music, or poetry or prose had to be read by a person, who then interpreted and retold it in their own voice.


Rilke can’t articulate the essential experience exactly, but he can sense it in his classmate’s reactions, which are the same each time the recording is played. The children never tire of the recording or lose their awe at its existence.


Rilke carries this theme through into his poetry, where he talks about a child tasting fruit through the words in their mouth; “Released from the fruit’s pulp, astonished, Discoveries flow where words usually were” (Rilke). Reading the poem recreates the taste of the fruits in the mouth, blending the experiences of tasting and speaking. Instead of a lament about the limits of language, here language surprisingly surpasses itself, speaking flavors into being.


Reynolds describes how the “sound of the makeshift phonograph produces a confusion of sight and hearing because Rilke sees the groove that the phonograph needle has etched in the wax and simultaneously hears the sound it produces.”


Hearing a non-human speak – especially when this was such a rarity – questions our expectations, creating a confusion, an ‘impasse of the senses’. As Reynolds describes, “Our senses are confounded, their boundaries are called into question, and then they re-emerge in their specific differences.” Paradoxically, we sharpen our senses by blurring their boundaries.


This theme of objects ‘interpreting’ and ‘speaking back’ carries through into Rilke’s work, especially his ‘thing poems’ – like “the Panther” in 1903. The panther, imprisoned in his cage, starts to ‘act as a thing, like a machine or a camera does’. Through his words, the poet ‘saves’ the panther, giving it giving it dignity and a voice.


It was not just the sound created by the phonograph recording that made such an impression on Rilke. The visual image of the sound, etched into the wax, was the part that stayed with him the most and underpinned his poetic processes. Reynolds describes how “it is the collision of these, the visible and the invisible, the visual and the audible, and a field of tension that arises in the background of all senses, that creates the space of poetry for Rilke.”


Whilst studying in Paris, Rilke became fascinated with the human skull. The sutures of the skull – bands of tissue that connect the skull bones together and look like cracks – reminded Rilke of that groove created in the wax of the phonograph recording. He mused on the possibility of ‘playing’ these sutures with a needle – like a phonograph, and what kind of primal sound this might create. Rilke never actually tried this experiment, but theorised on what might happen if he did in his Primal Sound essay: “Feelings—which? Incredulity, timidity, fear, awe—which of all the feelings here possible prevents me from suggesting a name for the primal sound which would then make its appearance in the  .”.


In the final section of his “Primal Sound” essay, Rilke explores the role of the senses in poetry. He talks about how he believes Arabic poems are significant as they originate from the influences of all five senses – or levers – as Rilke calls  . This is different, he feels, to European poetry, which tends to look at only single senses in isolation, and focuses too much on sight. Poetry should, Rilke argues, represent the “the world’s whole field of experience, including those spheres which are beyond our knowledge”.


In ‘Primal Sound’, he likens this multi-sensual engagement to falling in love – the lover is “in such splendid danger just because he must depend upon the coordination of his senses, for he knows that they must meet in that unique and risky centre, in which, renouncing all extension, they come together and have no  .”.


Reynolds theorises that Rilke believes we should be flexible in how we understand the different senses, allowing them to overlap, just as Rilke’s memory of the phonograph recording and the etching in the wax are intrinsically bound together and the lines between the two experiences are blurred.


But, he continues, Rilke also suggests the opposite is true – that by understanding each of the senses individually, we can move between, and through them. This recognition helps us to understand our world as a whole.


In conclusion, Reynolds hypothesises that Rilke’s “Primal Sound” offers us insight into the way he views the senses and how this view influences his poetic process. Particularly, Rilke’s belief that the senses are ever evolving and can be transformed through poetry. Rilke uses the imagery of the garden to express this: the senses can be cultivated and grown like plants. This belief, Reynolds surmises, stems from Rilke’s blurring between the auditory and visual experiences of the phonograph from his childhood.


However, it is equally important that the individual senses are kept as distinct and separate. Reynolds describes these senses as being kept apart by the abysses – it is these abysses which blur the lines between the senses.



Rilke’s childhood experience with the phonograph was undoubtedly a significant influence on how he developed his writing – as we can see from the way he talks about the sound of the children’s voices, the etching on the wax, and his musings on how sounds could theoretically be transcribed to the sutures of the skull.


As Reynolds elaborates: “Rilke’s “Primal Sound” gives us much insight into his view of the senses and of the poetic imagination, as well as hints that shed light on the process of poetic production through attentiveness to the senses. What stands out most prominently in these insights is that the senses are in process and can be transformed through poetic work.” Rilke is inspired by the way that the simple machine picks up vibrations and translates them from invisible sound to visible grooves and back to invisible sound. He wants to act similarly as a poet, picking up on vibrations through the senses and allowing the unconscious to transform them into words on the page, with the pen acting as a “stylus.” The invisible –  the unconscious – is made visible in this way.



It was this early childhood experience – both visually and orally – that helped shape the way Rilke related to reality throughout his life. Stay tuned for more from Dr Reynolds’ in our next episode looking at creativity and expression , where we examine the influence of sculptor August Rodin on Rilke’s artistic reflections, and how Dr Reynolds writings assess both as a means to understand art in ones life.


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