"Ganzohr" Symposium Text

Hessische Rundfunk, Kassel, Germany, September 1997


LISTENING AND THE ELECTROACOUSTIC COMMUNITY

 

INTRODUCTION: From Oral to Audio

The technology of communication and the sensory modality it favours has a profound effect on the way in which we understand the world and interact with it. Aural culture, that is, a society which mainly depends on oral information for the transmission of knowledge, develops a network of stories, myths, proverbs, aphorisms, songs and rituals whose repetition reaffirms the social structure. Everything has to be remembered and therefore verbal communication must be phrased in a memorable way - rhymes, rhythm and melodies being the techniques most often used to assist one's memory. Learning these oral formulas comes through repetition and imitation. Even in the modern technological age, we all pass through this culture during childhood, and when we find ourselves repeating songs and stories memorized years ago, we can realize how effective oral learning is by how deep seated the memories are that have been imprinted in our minds. We learn to listen as children, and what we learn to listen for follows us throughout our lives.

However, in our development both as individuals and as a society, we turn towards print and the written word as a dominant source of information. Moreover, in this century, the mass media have gone beyond print to communication primarily through visual images as found in television, video and film. This progression from print-based literacy to the visual mass media has given primacy to the eye as our major source of information, as distinct from the ear and the very different type of communication which aural information facilitates. Most of the research and commentary on the media focuses on the effects of this constant bombardment of visual information which we receive daily, often ignoring the fact that it is frequently, if not always, accompanied by a "soundtrack". When I survey the media listening habits of my students, I find that in addition to the amount of time they spend watching and listening to audio-visual media (television, film and so on), they also spend about twice as much time being exposed to - often in the background - purely audio media (radio, telephone, recordings, background music, etc.).

That is, in this century, the electrical, then electronic and now digital technology which created the visually dominant mass media have also produced an equally powerful electroacoustic technology which I will contend has profoundly changed not only the soundscape, but also the individual practice of listening and the social behaviour it leads to. Here then is the paradox: we live in a visually dominant culture that is saturated with technologically based sound, much of which we take for granted or ignore. Some of this sound is the byproduct of our various technologies, the noises, whirs and hums that, if we are lucky, merely form the background to daily life, and if we are not, add to the stress on our bodies and minds. However, much of our daily aural experience includes sound that is reproduced through loudspeakers. It can come from hidden sources or obvious ones, hugely powerful devices or personal attachments that speak only to our own ears. The sound may be live from across the city, the nation or the world, or more likely, a replay from across the years. It can be the voice of a person we know so well that visual recognition is unnecessary, or the anonymous yet seductive voice of those acting as mouthpieces for commerce or the state. It can be sound that we have chosen to listen to, even if we subsequently relegate it to the background of our attention, or sound that has been chosen for us, with or without our permission. It can be broadcast, narrow-cast, copied, purchased, consumed, digitized, packaged, archived and catalogued. Despite its amorphous and volatile character, I will characterize this complex web of communication practices as the electroacoustic community.

 

THE ELECTROACOUSTIC LISTENER

Once we acknowledge the ability of electroacoustic technology to redefine the "ground rules" of acoustic communication, we can ask what influence these changes have had at both the individual and social level. The result of extracting acoustic sounds from their original context and embedding them in another - a 'nervous' condition which Murray Schafer termed 'schizophonia' - is most often contradictory. As for its effect on listening, one of the main effects is that we learn to make sense out of paradoxical information. Electroacoustic sound is in the environment, but not of that environment. Even as we recognize the original source of the sound to be a person speaking or a musical instrument, we cannot react to these imaginary sources as we could to actual people or musicians in the environment. They speak at us but cannot hear what we may have to say in return; thus we are rendered passive, and all sounds, even the human ones, become inanimate events in the environment. The conventional distinctions between speech, music and environmental sounds become blurred as the human forms of acoustic communication become environmental: music-as-environment, speech-as-environment. In fact, we learn to use reproduction media - radio, television and recordings - as comforting presences to accompany our activities. Particularly in North America, media producers oblige our needs for such surrogates by designing their programming to be so predictable and regular, stimulating or soothing, that we can use them effortlessly for that purpose. As listeners we learn to use sound functionally, not merely as information or entertainment.

What I find disturbing is not that sound can be used functionally, but that it turns the listening process into a consumer activity which makes the listener vulnerable to manipulation. The inherent lack of control one has in the face of a loudspeaker, and the one-way direction of the communication flow too often leads to a passive acceptance of all sound and, even worse, a lack of desire to listen attentively or use our own voice in response. If we dislike the effect of such imposed sound, we usually feel powerless to challenge it, and if we do like the effect, we are invited to buy the sound and endlessly repeat it as a form of self-manipulation. A much more subtle form of manipulation occurs daily when advertisers surround their product with sounds having strong aural associations in an attempt to create a favourable product image, reinforced through frequent repetition and exposure in a variety of media. Moreover, all of the oral techniques we learned in childhood to aid memorization are utilized in the "jingle", logo, and stories found in advertising. The difference is that, instead of the purpose being to pass on social values, these techniques are intended to reinforce product image and brand loyalty.

But do we need to remain passive victims? Of course not, and our first step to regaining control is simply to try to understand the electroacoustic phenomenon and make conscious decisions about our behaviour. Whether we decide to avoid or abstain, or to become more informed consumers, or even creative producers, the essential ingredient is that we make our own decisions. Despite the power and pervasiveness of the audio industry as a consumer activity, I remain optimistic because one of the central contradictions of electroacoustic communication - and contradiction is inherent to electroacoustics - is that every use of it that can be construed as negative can also be turned around to its opposite. It is a case of the proverbial "double-edged sword": the same attributes that produce one effect can be used for exactly the reverse. Let me outline at least three such reversals.

 

REGAINING CONTROL: CREATIVE ALTERNATIVES

I have commented on the "schizophonic" character of electroacoustic communication which can be disruptive as it imposes sound into another environment where it may not belong or be desired. However, that same property allows the technology to be used constructively when it allows our ears to analyze a sound out of context. Repetition in that case allows us to focus our attention on details that would otherwise be missed. Soundscape education, for instance, relies on recordings of the environment, not only for archival and documentation purposes, but also for directing listeners' attention to sounds that otherwise might be ignored in the daily routine of one's environment. I find that what I call "distracted listening", the rather passive form of listening that arises when one uses media to accompany other activities, is merely at the other end of the continuum of types of listening to what I call "analytical listening" which is a heightened form of focusing on sounds that is made possible by repetition and all forms of studio manipulation of sound.

The educational uses of playing sounds out of context are obvious, ranging from guided listening, to more active forms of using the microphone to enhance one's perception of the environment. Just as the microscope magnifies detail, so does the technique of close miking. Likewise, the microphone's inability to shut out background sound or to switch the focus of attention means that listening to a recording of an event changes your perception of it as you switch roles between being a participant and an observer. Special care, however, needs to be exercised with media use of reproduced sounds, as the lack of the full context in the sound alone, and the listener's potential lack of knowledge about that context (that is, how to interpret the sounds), must be compensated by appropriate commentary and guidance.

Secondly, I have commented on the ability of electroacoustic sound to become banal as it creates a surrogate soundscape that we can pay little or no attention to, particularly if it is repetitive in sound and structure. Even the arbitrary formats and conventions of radio structure, as artificial as they are in linking the unrelated elements of speech, music, advertisements and station information, become predictable to the regular listener. Sometimes it seems that any content can be inserted into the flow as long as the structure is not disturbed, but in practice the range of content that is acceptable to the target audience is usually rather narrowly defined, and thus the listener treats the program as a reliable companion that can be ignored at will.

However, the same ability to artificially design and structure the flow of sound allows the medium to be adventurously imaginative as it entices our minds to other times and places, both real and imaginary. In fact, the early days of radio are often regarded as being particularly successful in the way in which the programs engaged the listener's imagination and invited active participation. Words and sounds can suggest almost anything to an engaged listener, and many radio listeners prefer the medium to television "because the pictures are better". Today the German hörspiel is one of the few descendants of that tradition.

In North America one has to look to the fringes of the mass media, to sound artists and sometimes community radio, to find those who still dare to present the unexpected, whether in terms of different voices, different stories, or different forms of sound organization and flow. The current malaise experienced with television's expansion to countless channels but "nothing to watch" is typified by the practice of "surfing" by the viewer using a remote control. It seems to be a desperate attempt to re-organize the flow of the television content, even if haphazardly. How much more creative it would be if broadcasters designed different patterns of program flow - hence different ways of engaging listening and viewing relationships - instead of simply introducing variations of content within the same broadcast structure.

Finally, we have noted the ability of electroacoustic technology to treat sound as a commodity as audio products package the listening experience in economic terms. The control over the production and distribution of such commodities defines what is accessible to the consumer. Despite the potential for infinite variety, commodity culture actually restricts variety to a number of semi-identical products that compete for market share. It is not surprising to find fewer than half a dozen formats as one sweeps the radio dial in most places, just as most record stores stock about as few styles of music to any significant degree.

In North America it is not only popular culture that is defined by "what sells". Public culture - that is, culture recognized for its social merit rather than its economic viability - is increasingly being defined by the same criteria. As government support of public culture is eroded, the mass media increasingly marginalize those aspects of culture that are not driven by commercial interests, e.g. publishers, promoters and corporate sponsorship. The net result is that the public's awareness of the full range of cultural voices becomes narrowed. In North America we look enviously at the richness of the cultural scene in Germany which has traditionally found a better balance between public and private interests, but we now hear rumours of cutbacks and funding problems even in European countries.

The reversal of this particular trend seems to be the most difficult of all to deal with, and considerable ingenuity needs to be involved for the individual to create an alternative path. However, countless artists and sound designers are building up their own resources, often in their own homes, and finding ways of producing and distributing their work that is largely ignored by the mass media. For instance, I have created my own record label, Cambridge Street Records (named for where I live) complete with website and distribution arrangements with a variety of organizations worldwide devoted to making alternative forms of music, such as electroacoustic music, available. Therefore, for me and many other sound artists, electroacoustic technology has become both a liberating creative tool and an effective distribution medium whereby our most imaginative experiences with sound can be shared world-wide.

 

THE DIGITAL FUTURE

As the electronic revolution gives way to the digitization of all forms of information and communication, we face both the prospect of the elimination of aurality as visual and print information dominate computer-based communication, and the promise of "multi-media" where both modalities will presumably exist side by side as the "data format" of one's choice. Both the disturbing and exciting elements of these scenarios attract our attention, and I suggest that some insight into the dilemmas they pose can be gained by a careful examination of the contemporary practice of radio and electroacoustic music as it ranges from the mass product to the marginalized practices of the creative community.

Although the technological implications of the digital future continue to unfold with increasing complexity, I think that the basic issues, struggles and options I have outlined remain the same. In many ways, the listener is still the central entity around which swirl the winds of technological change. Listening is not merely a way of receiving and decoding information, although that function is still very important; it also mediates all of our relationships - with others, the environment, society in general, and even ourselves. It creates links and patterns, and as we have discussed, the new patterns of the electroacoustic community, based as they are in paradox and contradiction, are complex and move in opposite directions. In one direction, listening is devalued, marginalized, and exploited as a consumer activity; in the other, it is the means by which we can more intensively engage our own society, and cultural history as a whole, as well as the unbounded world of the imagination.

In conclusion I would like to present a short tape composition, entitled Pacific Fanfare, which I believe will illustrate some of the points I made earlier about alternative uses of electroacoustic technology. First of all it is a soundscape composition based on some of the prominent sound signals found in Vancouver. Although presented out of context, they are brought together in the opening collage as a group of special sounds which define the character of the city as a port, a railway terminus and a thriving metropolis (an aural alternative to the skyline). However, the section following the opening transforms some of these sounds by digitally stretching them in time such that they become larger than life, and we hear them differently, as if from the inside. Finally, this piece has been released on a double CD that documents the changes in the Vancouver soundscape over the past 25 years, as well as presenting various composers' creative interpretations of the city's sounds. This publication, which was supported by the Goethe Institut and Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, is being distributed worldwide, and as such is a good example of how electroacoustic technology can transform the listening experience on both a social and artistic level.


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