Questions About Sound

Some questions arrived in the mail this morning from Ekpektatwa, an interdisciplinary arts project in Poland. I decided to warm up by answering them. I think they really wanted an essay, but I went with point form. Sometimes it’s more fun just to answer the questions.

1). What is silence for You? Is it a relief or anxiety?

There is no silence. Ever since I was a child, I always heard some dim ringing in my ears even in the quietest moments. I would go further, though: there is no such thing as silence for the hearing. There are always noises, motions, reverberations. Even for the person who sits perfectly still in an anechoic chamber there are sounds.

2). Do you remember the moment when you were conscious of the sound in a creative sense? Did you find any differences between the sound and the music if any?

Hard to say, since my parents got me involved in music at an age that I no longer remember. They do teach kids to explore instruments by sound. In terms of more explicitly thinking about sound as a creative element, it would have to be when I discovered that records on the radio did not sound the same as they did on my turntable.

3). We have 5 holes in our head, and a lot of research try to discredit the leading eyesight sense, yet the hearing sense is a minor case. Of course we don’t mean the superiority of the senses but not seeing the potential which lies in other of them. How can we use human hearing sense?

We can design for the ear. This is a core point in older sound studies work, from Rudolf Arnheim to Murray Schafer and Barry Truax, but also in newer writings like Emily Thompson’s. We dwell mostly in synthetic environments, and yet so little attention is given to sound in comparison with the look or smell of things; this is true even in much soundscape scholarship, which has largely upheld Schafer’s faux-naturalistic aesthetic (to its own detriment, in my estimation). This is especially true in architecture and interior design. In contrast, there is now an empire of sound design in the media arts: it is a crucial aspect of television, cinema, and video games, and many popular music genres spend a great deal of effort creating acoustic spaces for our ears to dwell (the trippier, more downtempo dubstep is my favorite recent example).

4). What sounds do you find most irritating? Which ones are soothing?

As someone born in the land-locked Midwest United States, I love standing on a coastal beach and hearing the sound of the ocean. I love the moan of really deep bass. The incredibly complex timbres of a distorted guitar or bass, or a synthesized pad resonating through an elaborate artificial reverb also move me. The sounds that most irritate me are those of other people’s lawn care (scissors and push mowers are fine; mowers, trimmers and blowers are not). I now live in a neighbourhood that still has a few gardens but is more or less without lawns.

5). We know that sound is a good way to possess the space. The amalgam of the city sounds which make noise is ambiguous. On the one hand it doesn’t represent nothing but a technological function, eliminating the silence ( or the sounds in-situ), on the other hand it is abstract, so it can transform into musical pulp which enables the space control. Do artists and scientists still perceive the ecology of sound as socially and politically communicative, transgressive or enabling critical activity.

No sound is essentially communicative, transgressive or enabling of critical ability. Those terms are all relational terms, and involve a configuration of people, meanings and institutions. No artist controls the meaning of his or her work, and no work has an inherent effect. To believe that is possible is one of the great follies of our time (and probably an unfortunate side-effect of the grant-writing process). As countless scholars have shown, attempts to intervene in the sounds of the city are actually occasions where the social and political relations of the urban fabric are being worked out.

6). Gugliemo Marconi believed once that we can hear even the oldest sound adapting the right apparatus. Do you think that sound can resist the trace of time?

No. Sound is only a stratification of vibration by the human ear. Otherwise, it’s just pressure changes in the atmosphere. Nothing human lasts forever.