Today, Society for the Humanities Director Timothy Murray sings us back home with a meditation on the soundscapes of study at the A.D. White House this year, closing out our spring “Live from the SHC” series covering new research on “Sound: Culture, Theory, Practice, Politics.” The 2011-2012 Fellows have got to say goodbye for the summer–and sadly beyond–but we all hope that next years’ Fellows (2012-2013 Theme: Risk @ Humanities) enjoy all the good vibrations we will leave behind, and that you, Dear SO! readers, have enjoyed our broadcast! Our summer series, “Tuning In the Past,” on radio and legacy of broadcaster Norman Corwin, featuring Neil Verma, Shawn VanCour, and Alex Russo begins at the end of June. And, of course, every Monday in between and beyond, we’ll keep giving you something you can feel. –JSA, Editor in Chief (and 2011-2012 SHC Fellow)
Many thanks to Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman for hosting “Live from the SHC” on Sounding Out! What a fantastic experience it’s been to have Jennifer screening and tweaking Sounding Out! from her garret office overlooking the gardens behind the A.D. White House, the Cornell home of the Cornell’s Society for the Humanities. Readers of “Live from the SHC” have read various strains of this year’s focal theme, “Sound: Culture, Theory, Practice, Politics.” The aim of this year’s residential research project was to contemplate and analyze the resonance of historical and contemporary representations, movements, ideas, and negations of sound.
Open to study of the broadest cross-cultural range of contexts and media that cross the boundaries of time and space–from East and West/South and North–the Fellows’ research delved into the complex ways that sound abounds in visual, textual, and aural realms. From “voicing” to “listening,” sound shaped the framework of our critical and philosophical analyses of the body, affect, and social publics. Sound came to be appreciated for its shaping of the parameters of psycho-cultural imaginaries, social practice, religious ritual, and political regulation throughout history and across the globe. Just as sound differs in the global context of capitalism and cosmopolitanism, not to mention the specificities of ethnic difference and cultural diversity, “voice,” “hearing,” and “listening” frame the humanities disciplines in relation to their aesthetic properties and political ramifications.
The Fellows found themselves reflecting on several key issues. Which criteria differentiates natural from artificial sounds? Does sound challenge disciplinary distinctions between the visual and the oral/aural/tactile? Can the loud noises of industrial culture be distinguished from the synthetic sounds of electronic music, the stammerings of performance and the vibrations of philosophical manifestos? It should come as no surprise to followers of Sounding Out! that sound marks the passage of time, the correlation of the aural to the movement of the body in dance and performance, the sonic promise of cartographic projects of social movements and migrations, and the cultural and ethnic specificities of acoustic fields and rhythms in the age of sampling and mixing, not to mention the gender, racial, and ethnic import of voice and spoken narrative.
Adding vibrant texture to our year-long discussions were the three weeks spent in extended dialogue with the Society’s Senior Invited Fellows. Emily Thompson (The Soundscape of Modernity) charted the histories of the architectonic sounds of cinema houses as well as the untraceable wealth of the historical sounds of New York City as its peripheries morphed from country estate to urban zone. Brandon LaBelle came from Norway to take us on a journey of artistic imagination and phenomenological hopefulness as he cruised his writings on Acoustic Territories and Site Specific Sound while sampling the background noises of his multimedia installations. Then Norie Neumark, fresh off the release of VOICE: Vocal Aesthetics in Digital Arts and Media (co-edited with Ross Gibson and Theo Van Leewen), arrived from Australia to follow up on our 2003 online seminar on Sound Cultures. She reminded us of the deep history of sound studies down under, while focusing our attention on voicings and her own multimedia art practice that blends spoken narrative, synthetic noise, mouthed breath, and shocks in the ear. [The “Live From the SHC” logo is a piece from Neumark and Maria Miranda’s “Shock in the Ear”–ED].
Various other visitors throughout the year included multimedia artists Mendi and Keith Obadike whose “not” Afrofuturism walked us through their exciting series of performance works,“Four Electric Ghosts,” Caitlin Marshall from Berkeley who brought cyborg speech to life with her prosthetic soundings, and renowned choreographer William Forsythe, whose four-hour choreography piece “Nowhere and Everywhere at the Same Time“–performed amidst amidst over 150 hanging pendulums–combined dance and environment as a means of physically manifesting the process of thought. Marjorie Garber from Harvard rode our acoustic wave to reflect on the future of the humanities while Norma Coates came down from Western Ontario to sensitize us to the mixes of pop sound and culture.
In listening back to the echoes of the year past, rather than here retracing the specific projects of our Fellows (you can consult the critical tales already Sound[ed] Out! by Damien Keane, Tom McEnaney, Nina Sun Eidsheim, Jonathan Skinner, Eric Lott, Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman, and Jeanette Jouili), I find myself sampling the sounds, noises, and glitches that provided unexpected reverbs for the academic writing happening behind closed office doors throughout the A. D. White House.
Sounds of glee, delight, and play first arrived on the scene at the end of August with gaggles of laughing and screaming kids running wild and climbing trees in the gardens, surrounded by bemused adults and envious dogs. Accompanying partners brought to the mix the diverse soundings of African film, suspicious packages, software beats, performance art, critical geography, and real estate hawking. No wonder the assembled Fellows strayed so readily, if not unconventionally, from the promised strictures of already exceptional research projects that brought to our weekly seminar table the street sounds of Egypt, Turkey, Korea, early modern Germany, contemporary Islam, American hip hop, contemporary art, circuit bending, gaming, German, Irish, U.S. and Latin American radio, voices of performers, animals, and posthumans, urban soundscapes, and, here making a loud call out to one Stoever-Ackerman, sonic color-lines.
Resounding throughout the year to give cadence and timbre to our serious ponderings were the spontaneous soundings that seemed always to give ample depth to the provocative interstices of intellectual life. There were the noises of glitch, circuit-bending, and Guitar Hero that stretched and extended the purpose of music and machinics. There were spontaneous voice lessons that turned anxious performers into wild choreographic objects. Singing above in the hidden alcoves–when not streaming through the high Victorian ceilings of the A. D. White House–were our flying mammal friends whose echolocation extended beyond the reach of our mere human ears. Then were the sudden noisy reminders of the vulnerability of our corporeal organs. Who could forget the reported imaginary of the crunch of human leg against car as two of our Fellows found themselves under assault from a crazed pizza delivery guy – luckily no lasting damage?
Our fellows will carry away the subliminal lacings of the lighter sounds of improvisation and camaraderie. There were the poundings of feet and slappings of bodies dancing late into the night after hours of laborious conferencing to the beats of DJs Marcus Boon, Art Jones, and Earmuffs.
At the end of the year, Fellows grooved to the beat of Tom McEnaney playing bass with The Vix Krater out at the Rongo in Trumansburg, NY (down the road from the home of Moog), before retreating to the bowels of the A. D. White House basement for another dusty, late night jam session with drums, synthesizer, guitars, bass, and various acoustics, led by the ultimate sound blogger herself, the guitar heroesse, Jenny S-A. [Well, I’m learning. So far I know E-Minor. It was Trevor that really broke my strings in! –ED].
And, yes, there was always the accompaniment of the clinks of glasses and bottles bearing the liquid life blood of any noisy crew.
The French philososopher, Jean-Luc Nancy, reminds us in Listening (2007) that the shared space of noise and sound entails “a totality of referrals: from a sign to a thing, from a state of things to a quality, from a subject to another subject or to itself, all simultaneously. Sound is also made of referrals: it spreads in space, where it resounds while still resounding ‘in me'” (7). What resounded and referred this year at the Society for the Humanities was the very immaterial and inchoate touch of sound, which is a-live in intensity and force. But who would have imagined the intensity of the noise of referral that remained so constant throughout the year to envelop the solid academic work of our Fellows in the wilding vibrations of jouissance? Indeed, perhaps the best lesson of the year, at a moment when the humanities finds itself threatened and in transition by the supposed certainty of metric and assessment, is that the Society’s scholarship in sound was driven by the relentless noise of referral and the unpredictable delight of the commune.
Featured Image Credit: Brandon La Belle, Duck Duck Goose Installation, Ausland, Berlin
Timothy Murray is Professor of Comparative Literature and English and Curator of the Rose Goldsen Archive of New Media Art. He is the Cornell Principal Investigator of the Central Humanities Corridor, generously supported by a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and he sits on the International Advisory Board of the Consortium of the Humanities Centers and Institutes (CHCI) and the Steering Committee of the Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Advanced Collaboratory (HASTAC). He is Co-Moderator of the -empyre- new media listserv and the author of Digital Baroque: New Media Art and Cinematic Folds (Minnesota 2008); Zonas de Contacto: el arte en CD-ROM (Centro de la imagen, 1999); Drama Trauma: Specters of Race and Sexuality in Performance, Video, Art (Routledge, 1997); Like a Film: Ideological Fantasy on Screen, Camera, and Canvas (Routledge, 1993); Theatrical Legitimation: Allegories of Genius in XVIIth-Century England and France (Oxford, 1987). He is editor of Mimesis, Masochism & Mime: The Politics of Theatricality in Contemporary French Thought (Michigan, 1997) and, with Alan Smith, Repossessions: Psychoanalysis and the Phantasms of Early-Modern Culture (Minnesota, 1997). His curatorial projects include CTHEORY MULTIMEDIA and Contact Zones: The Art of the CD-Rom.
Hello Internet! It’s great to be here in cyberspace! Are you ready to rock? Today’s dispatch from our Spring Series, Live from the SHC, finds Cornell’s Society for the Humanities Fellow Eric Lott jamming it out on the relationship between the early 70s sound and vision of one Sir Mick Jagger. If you happen to be thinking that Monday morning at 9:00 a.m. is the least rock and roll time slot possible, just remember that’s when Jimi Hendrix gave “The Star Spangled Banner” the business at Woodstock. To give earlier installments by Damien Keane, Tom McEnaney, and Jonathan Skinner a listen, click here. As May comes to a close and the “Sound: Culture, Theory, Practice, Politics” fellows reluctantly break up the A.D. White House house band, look for our final two dispatches from Jeanette Jouili and Society Director Tim Murray. Until then, we’ll keep turning it up to 11 here at Sounding Out! –JSA, Editor in Chief (and 2011-2012 SHC Fellow)
After we left the Carlyle I told Jerry I thought Mick had ruined the Love You Live cover I did for them by writing all over it—it’s his handwriting, and he wrote so big. The kids who buy the album would have a good piece of art if he hadn’t spoiled it. –Andy Warhol
Andy Warhol’s complaint in his Diaries captures the almost cartoonish play for artistic control between himself and Jagger in the 1970s—between painter and singer, portrait artist and subject (Jagger and the other Stones biting each other), the visual and the verbal (“he wrote so big”!): between sight and sound in the realm of popular music. Warhol was no stranger to sound artistry, of course, from his work with the Velvet Underground to the everyday taping he did with his portable cassette recorder, the machine he called his “wife.” But Warhol as visual conceptualist returns us to a moment when, through album art and other commercial iconography, the visual domain shaped our sonic experiences perhaps more immediately than it does in these digital days. At the recent EMP conference in New York, I raised the question of the visual/conceptual from the perspective of sound, looking and listening to how the modalities were conjoined during an excellent and rather brief (and nowadays mostly scorned) passage of Jagger time in the middle 1970s: Jagger in his thirties.
A funny thing happened after Exile on Main St. in the early 1970s: the Rolling Stones became a New York band instead of a London and L.A.-based one, and their frontman Mick Jagger, always an outlandish presence, became a swishier one. The manner in which this happened owes a lot to their encounter with Andy Warhol. From his cover designs for Sticky Fingers (1971) and Love You Live (1977) to the Stones’ renting of his Montauk house to rehearse for their 1975 tour to conspicuous late-70s hanging out together at Studio 54 and New York dinner parties of the rich and not so fabulous, it’s clear the Stones, or at least Jagger (and for sure his wives, Bianca and Jerry Hall), steered ever closer to Warhol’s orbit.
Good writing about the Stones’ New York phase has recently begun to appear, including Cyrus Patel’s 33 1/3 book on Some Girls (2011) and Anthony DeCurtis’s liner notes to that record’s 2011 deluxe re-release; Ron Wood’s Ronnie: The Autobiography (2008) opens with the band’s famous promo stunt playing on the back of a flatbed truck rolling down lower Fifth Avenue on 1 May 1975 to advertise their upcoming tour.
But the influence on them of the Andy aesthetic has gotten far less attention, at least in pop music criticism (the Warhol Museum mounted a show, Starfucker: Andy Warhol and the Rolling Stones, in 2005, full of great stuff). In particular, Warhol’s 1975 Ladies and Gentlemen black drag queen series, and the draggy portrait series of Jagger done at the same time and in the same way, attest to their mutual influence on each other. The gain for the Stones was exponential: a new persona for a new decade and indeed a new town.
The persona as influenced by Warhol arrives at the nexus of drag, hustling, and stardom, and Jagger in the 70s can be seen to be addressing and/or capitalizing on all three. Warhol’s Ladies and Gentlemen was originally referred to as simply the Drag Queen series. As Bob Colacello tells the story in Holy Terror: Andy Warhol Close Up, some Factory workers were sent to the Times Square gay bar The Gilded Grape to hire several hustlers there to sit for some Warhol Polaroids for fifty dollars a pop. (They later quipped that they were used to doing a lot more than that for fifty bucks.) As was his practice at the time, Warhol transferred these images to silkscreen for mechanical reproduction, over (or under) which he painted in unusually expressive fashion, at times applying collages of torn paper as well. Geometries of color in these pictures war with the photographic image; they signify on race as well as the drag queen’s everyday glamour and its defensive-aggressive thrust-and-parry. In any case, Times Square hustlers of color became stars in Andy’s hands. At this point the title was changed to Ladies and Gentlemen—perfect, since his subjects in the works can be thought of as both—and it may be that the title was taken from the 1974 Stones film of their celebrated 1972 tour, Ladies and Gentlemen, the Rolling Stones (it’s worth recalling lest we be tempted to discount such a film that almost everyone in a broad swath of the New York milieu saw it—in Just Kids (2010), for example, Patti Smith writes of seeing the film with Lenny Kaye and then going off to CBGB to catch a set by Television). What is certain is that Warhol at this same moment was giving Polaroids he had taken of Jagger in Montauk the exact treatment he gives the drag queens in Ladies and Gentlemen.
Being a drag queen is really hard work, Warhol famously wrote in The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (1975), and it is in part the connections between hard work, its celebrity remuneration, drag, and prostitution that link the Ladies and Gentlemen series with the portraits—paintings and then prints—of Jagger. These connections link this output with Warhol himself, making the portraits a sort of displaced self-portraiture. Their mechanics, if you will, seem homologous with drag, in fact. Starting with the Warhol-snapped Polaroid—not, say, with newspaper photos or commercial iconography as in Warhol’s 60s silkscreens—the works depend on Warhol’s presence, which then puts the images through the silkscreening process, after which (or before it) an uncharacteristically painterly (or collagist) procedure is applied, the latter akin to make-up itself. Where in some of the series the paint obscures the face, acting as a kind of negation or comment on the negation behind black queer hustling, in most of it the faces rise to a new form of presence or fabulousness, as if by repeating the act of drag the portraits affirm its “success.” Warhol’s make-over of Jagger, meanwhile, both drags the singer and makes him Warhol’s: Andy’s Mick.
According to a scheme worked out by Warhol and Jagger, the latter signed the portraits so that they could promote both artists. Which, if it doesn’t exactly make Jagger a co-author of the works, does signal his endorsement of Warhol’s vision of him. (Indeed the Warhol Museum has a facsimile of a 1983 letter from Jagger to Warhol asking for his assistance with Mick’s autobiography—a collaboration that boggles the mind.) As John Ashbery had it in Self-Portrait In a Convex Mirror, his multiple-prize-winning long poem of 1975:
Your [the artist Parmigianino’s] eyes proclaim
That everything is surface. The surface is what’s there
And nothing can exist except what’s there;
It [the surface] is not
Superficial but a visible core. . .
Your [Parmigianino’s] gesture . . . is neither embrace nor warning
But . . . holds something of both in pure
Affirmation that doesn’t affirm anything.
Not a bad definition of the Warholian image, this, and in the 1970s, as the Rolling Stones entered their second decade of performance and stardom, Jagger took the lesson and ran with it. A new self-consciousness about his own stardom enters Jagger’s (underrated) lyrics in the 70s; while self-reference is not unknown in the band’s 60s work (cf. 1968’s “Street Fighting Man”), and while one of their first hits takes on the culture industry itself (“Satisfaction”), in the 70s a new kind of meditation on rock-star celebrity enters the picture—I have seen the culture industry, and it is me: Jagger begins to write about himself as the culture industry. And this under the sign of Warhol, I think, which is to say, with a queerly knowing intimacy informed by a sense of the artist-star as a hustler for money in what we might call image-drag. Everything is surface, the surface is what’s there and nothing can exist except what’s there, and it’s not superficial but a visible core.
From 1973 forward, in the music from Goat’s Head Soup to Tattoo You (with It’s Only Rock n Roll, Black and Blue, Some Girls, and Emotional Rescue in between), and even more on the covers of these albums, culminating in the one for Some Girls with the Stones in drag—Andy in the Warhol Diaries: “[Mick] showed me their new album and the cover looked good, pull-out, die-cut, but they were back in drag again! Isn’t that something?”; the Some Girls cover, though Warhol didn’t do it, really does recall his drag queens, right down to the double drag of the inner-sleeve pull-out—to say nothing of the made-up glam of the 1975 and 1978 tour performances: in all this one sees a flouncier, queerer Mick, one that Jagger nodded to in various lyrics (for that demonstration you’ll have to wait for the longer version of this piece!). What this means in part is that the cliche we have of Jagger strutting like a neo-blackface soul man is due for revision: it’s much more precise to think of his aura as proximate to black femininity (icons like Tina Turner, say, who of course opened for the Stones), which he (re-)crafted through the adoption of a persona right out of Warhol’s colored drag queen sensibility.
So why the now-canonical assumption of the Stones’ decline at just this moment? Is their 70s sound discounted because of the queer reinvigoration of their visual/conceptual appeal? (One counter to this hegemony is Ellen Willis’s fine 1974 review of It’s Only Rock n Roll, included in her Out of the Vinyl Deeps.) Did the Stones’ sound change all that much, beyond new acquisitions of this reggae vibe or that funk riff or the other disco groove, or does the insistence on their fall come from a sense of their queening around? Is it this—not only this, I know, I know, Mick’s such an asshole, but still—that lies in part behind the (particularly post-Life) cult of Keith?
Eric Lott teaches American Studies at the University of Virginia. He has written and lectured widely on the politics of U.S. cultural history, and his work has appeared in a range of periodicals including The Village Voice, The Nation, New York Newsday, The Chronicle of Higher Ed, Transition, Social Text, African American Review, PMLA, Representations, American Literary History, and American Quarterly. He is the author of the award-winning Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class (Oxford UP, 1993), from which Bob Dylan took the title for his 2001 album “Love and Theft.” Lott is also the author of The Disappearing Liberal Intellectual (Basic Books, 2006). He is currently finishing a study of race and culture in the twentieth century entitled Tangled Up in Blue: The Cultural Contradictions of American Racism. This post is adapted from a talk Eric gave at the 2012 EMP POP Conference in New York City entitled “Andy’s Mick: Warhol Builds a Better Jagger.”
Today we bring you the latest post in SO!’s spring series, Live from the SHC, which follows the new research from the 2011-2012 Fellows of Cornell’s Society for the Humanities, who have gathered in the A.D. White House to study “Sound: Culture, Theory, Practice, Politics.” For the full series, click here. Today poet, scholar, and ecocritic Jonathan Skinner brings us all a treat for spring, so throw open your windows and take a deep listen. –Editor in Chief, JSA
This planet is singing 24/7 but are we listening to it? Take out your earbuds, turn down the music and the air conditioning, walk away from the fridge, shut off your engine, open the windows, and tell me what you hear. If you are in the humid parts of the temperate regions, chances are you’ll hear right now, amidst the myriad human sounds, and depending on the time of day, the spring peepers going, the woodcocks peenting and displaying, a grouse drumming, the whistling of cardinals and robins, chickadees countersinging, blackbirds trilling, cawing of crows, blue jays scolding, honking of geese, hooting of an owl or two, woodpeckers drumming, house sparrows chirping (in this case, to a Satie carillon), perhaps some coyotes yapping it up after midnight. Not to speak of wind in branches and leaves, water, thunder and lightning. These are just some of sounds I can pick up, with a bit of careful listening, in and around the relatively urban environment of Ithaca, New York. If you put your ear to the grass, you might hear this astonishing Treehopper communication.
Or maybe you heard these sounds in some music you were listening to, in a movie soundtrack or videogame? Just as we pervade their worlds, animals pervade our environments, and their sounds are used to “render” these environments within the relatively flat dimensions of our media—the way three dimensions of spatial information get “crunched” to the two dimensions of a video game’s display (see 4:00 – 5:20 for a demonstration of Aiden Fry’s “generative birdsong” program below, developed through the analysis and sampling of birdsong as a solution to repetitive sound effects that can diminish the immersive quality of the game). Even the most sophisticated “surround sound” audio must “render” figuratively the environed experience of hearing.
The next time you watch a movie, listen to some “ambient” music or play a videogame that renders an outdoors environment, imagine subtracting the animal sounds (either literal or evoked) from these media scapes and consider how incompletely rendered the experience would be. A reversal of the effect, as in Gus Van Sant’s use of Hildegard Westerkamp’s “Beneath the Forest Floor” soundscape, to track and underscore the anomie of certain characters through Elephant, his thinly veiled recreation of the Columbine High School tragedy, also proves the rule (note especially the soundtrack from 3:10 – 3:40).
Greg Budney and Mike Webster explain their dedication to compiling the world’s largest and best quality archive of animal recordings (now in video as well as audio), the Macaulay Library of Natural Sounds at Cornell University, as a responsibility to future acoustic biologists, who may bring tools and concepts to the data we have not remotely conceived. Their mission is first and foremost a scientific one. However, conservation is also high on their list: Budney, an expert recordist, points out how high quality recordings—as of lekking Greater Prairie-Chickens—can be played back into the environment, to promote nesting of endangered populations.
These bioacousticians agree that high quality sound recordings can be a powerful way to interest laypeople in the sounds of the robin in their backyard, and, by extension, in broader issues of conservation. Sounds in the Macaulay Library also are available to the entertainment industry, so that, indeed, myriad animal vocalizations contribute to the renderings of its various media. Licensing fees in turn contribute to the conservation mission of the Library.
Rendering is not so much a matter of reproduction—accurately representing a “real” environment—as of recreating, through a consistency that “completes” the aesthetic experience, the feelings associated with an environment. (Think of the difference in quality between the “finished” HD, surround-sound movie and the behind-the-scenes “special features” on a DVD.) In Audio-Vision: Sound on Screen, media theorist Michel Chion identifies an important feature of rendering in “materializing sound indices,” noises that help render, in sound and image, a particular “clump of sensations” (112-116).
For instance, spatial depth, in outdoor scenes, is often rendered through the presence of bird song or dogs barking, etc. Or consider the cooing of pigeons that often accompanies the opening of a garret window in a movie set in Paris. Or that ubiquitous red-tailed hawk’s cry indexing a “wild” landscape. The absence or thinness of these indices can be just as helpful to rendering, as when the landscape includes “ethereal, abstract, and fluid” entities: “out of touch” characters in Jacques Tati films or the drawn characters in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, where hollow, lightweight, plastic sounds help us believe that we are indeed seeing (or, as Chion reminds us, “hear-seeing”) cartoon characters (watch from 1:19 – 1:33 for the famous “clang” the drawn Jessica Rabbit makes as she collides with the live action Eddie Valiant).
Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, both the book and the film version, deploy effectively the total absence of animal sounds to convey the uncanny complex of feelings bound up in environmental apocalypse—the “silent spring” invoked by Rachel Carson a half century ago in her indictment of the toxic legacy of the chemical industry.
In his study of environmental aesthetics, Ecology Without Nature, ecocritic Timothy Morton faults rendering for perpetuating an “ecomimetic illusion of immediacy,” an “ambient” art that ultimately comes in between us and the life it is supposed to bring us close to (36). Rendering lures us into the “relaxing ambient sounds of ecomimesis,” precisely when we need to hear “the screeching of the emergency brake” (as Morton puts it: “whistling in the dark, insisting that we’re part of Gaia” 187, 196). However, Chion notes that “the disjunctive and autonomist impulse [à la Godard] that predominates in intellectual discourse on the question (‘wouldn’t it be better if sound and image were independent?’) arises entirely from a unitary illusion” that there is “a true unity existing elsewhere” (Audio-Vision 97-98). Such unity is in fact elusive: for instance, it can be difficult to identify the sources of sounds in “nature” (consider the bewildering variety of blue jay calls), while the notion that a sound can on its own invoke more abstract characteristics of its source, especially when it is produced by a nonhuman species, betrays a kind of magical thinking. (Forms of non-western magical thinking actually acknowledge the disjunctive quality of natural sounds by referring, for instance, to “voices in the forest.”) Also, sound is so context dependent, and our listening is so strongly influenced by the conventions of our media, that “sound in itself”can be a very slippery object. Chion notes that we need something like an “auditory analogy of the visual camera obscura” —i.e. the monitoring and recording of soundscapes—to help us listen to “sounds for themselves and to focus on their acoustical qualities” (108).
In a time of mass extinction, how are we to approach the rendering of animal sounds in our mediated environments? Do these sounds have agency? Does listening to and “capturing” animal sounds bring us closer to them, or only lure us, with an illusion of immersion and unity, away from realizing the dark nature of our ecology, and the urgent reforms needed, if we are actually to help animals (does our rendering and consumption of whale song—pace what Songs of the Humpback Whale has done for whale conservation—end up perpetuating the same extractive process that “renders” whale blubber)?
I would say that, so long as we approach these sounds neither as a substitute for, nor as an experience “less than,” the daily practice of listening to our environments, a resource like the Macaulay Library can add immeasurably to our awareness of the diversity, and the vulnerability, of life on Earth. (Another resource worth exploring is the British Library’s Environment & nature sounds archive, especially the collection of early wildlife recordings.) Careful attention to renderings of animal sounds in our media can make us aware of the extent to which we “render” the landscape around us, through selective habits of listening, and open us to the disjunctive, noisy, reverberant, distorted sounds such renderings obscure. (R. Murray Schafer made this point long ago, in his book The Soundscape urging us to listen to noise if we want to defeat it.) Clips posted here, of media using birdsong to render scenes of human violence, state the complexity of our pastoral aesthetics in an exaggerated way, but every day our listening has access to a range of sonic collisions.
Consider the famous recordings of nightingales in Beatrice Harrison’s backyard, to the accompaniment of her cello, as well as to RAF bombers—on Minnesota Public Radio’s Music & Nature. Part of what we will hear when we listen with open ears is our own domination of the soundscape, one that can have concrete implications for the survival of other species (Chris Clark, head of Bioacoustics Research at Cornell, has imaged the way the noise of shipping lanes impacts the acoustic habitat of endangered Right Whales.) How might the infrasonic or ultrasonic vocal communications—of blue whales, elephants, mice and bats, for instance—that operate beyond the range of the naked human ear (but not of our instruments) impact our media environments? The “materializing sound indices” of recordings can be used to return us to the embodied, imperfect natures of these other beings, whose vulnerability, philosopher Jacques Derrida suggests in The Animal That Therefore I Am, it is our own nature to follow.
The more we listen to the environment acousmatically, the better critics we become of our media environments’ often crassly commercial renderings. Many of these sounds (see also some of the recordings collected on the Earth Ear label’s Dreams of Gaia) are simply beautiful, or astonishing—conveying an aesthetic dimension alluded to in veteran nature recordist Bernie Krause’s new book, The Great Animal Orchestra: Finding the Origins of Music in the World’s Wild Places. (My concern with a focus on the exotic is that privileging “wild places” might have the effect of devaluing the “not wild,” i.e. where most people live—places nonetheless full of wild creatures—and where we might best develop our listening.) Finally, the more we find ways to render these sounds meaningfully in our own lives, outside patterns of consumption, the better chances are we’ll begin to develop (politically, ethically) meaningful relationships with these other species, species with whom we must collaborate if we want to tend the web of life that so desperately needs our care.
**Featured Image Credit: Digital Collage Bird Art by Flickr User Peregrine Blue
Jonathan Skinner founded and edits the journal ecopoetics, which features creative-critical intersections between writing and ecology. Skinner also writes ecocriticism on contemporary poetry and poetics: he has published essays on the poets Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, Ronald Johnson, Bernadette Mayer, Lorine Niedecker, and Charles Olson; on Poetries of the Third Landscape, Documentary Poetics, and Poetry Animals; and an ethnographic study of the Tohono O’odham Mockingbird Speech. Skinner’s poetry collections include Birds of Tifft (BlazeVox, 2011), Warblers (Albion Books, 2010), With Naked Foot (Little Scratch Pad Press, 2009), and Political Cactus Poems (Palm Press, 2005). Skinner’s latest creative project is a book on the urban landscape designs of Frederick Law Olmsted.