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If you missed our #WOTW75 event, we will be re-broadcasting many of the key segments in the coming week. So, for a special Halloween treat, tune in to Sounding Out!‘s custom remix of Orson Welles’ The War of the Worlds. Here, Binghamton University professor, Monteith McCollum dazzles with a podcast that updates the original into an eerie piece of sound art. Join Monteith as he and his Performative Processes class explore techniques of audio production nicked from the era of live radio theater. These analog techniques have been weaved into a remix of War of the Worlds guaranteed to send chills up your spine. So set the lights low, lock your door, and prepare for a podcast you won’t soon forget.
Monteith McCollum is an independent filmmaker, musician and educator who has taught at various schools in Chicago, Illinois and upstate New York such as Columbia College, Broome Community College and Ithaca College. He has been a visiting artist at colleges including Boston Museum School, Art Institute of Chicago and University of Iowa. You can learn more about his work at monteithmcollum.com.
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Sound Bites: Vampire Media in Orson Welle’s Dracula– Debra Rae Cohen
Welcome back to our continuing series on Orson Welles and his career in radio, prompted by the upcoming 75th anniversary of his 1938 Invasion from Mars episode and the Mercury Theater series that produced it. To help us hear Welles’s rich radio plays in new and more complicated ways, our series brings recent sound studies thought to bear on the puzzle of Mercury‘s audiocraft.
From Mercury to Mars is a joint venture with the Antenna media blog at the University of Wisconsin, and will continue into the new year. If you missed them, check out the first installment on SO! (Tom McEnaney on Welles and Latin America) and the second on Antenna (Nora Patterson on “War of the Worlds” as residual radio).
This week, Sounding Out! sinks its teeth into Orson Welles’s “Dracula,” the first in the Mercury series, and perhaps the play that solicits more “close listening” than any other—back in 1938, Variety yawned at Welles’s attempt at “Art with a capital A” and dismissed his “Dracula” as “a confused and confusing jumble of frequently inaudible and unintelligible voices and a welter of sound effects.” Here’s the full play, listen for yourself:
It’s a good thing that our guide is University of South Carolina Associate Professor and SO! newcomer Debra Rae Cohen. Cohen is a former rock critic, an editor of the essential text on radio modernism, and has also recently written a fascinating essay on the BBC publication The Listener, among other distinguished critical works on modernism. Below you’ll find the most detailed close reading of Welles’s “Dracula” (and of Welles as himself a kind of Dracula) ever done.
Didn’t even know Welles ever played Count Dracula? That’s just the first of many surprises you’ll discover thanks to Debra Rae’s keen listening.
So (to borrow a phrase), enter freely and of your own will, dear reader, and leave something of the happiness you bring. - nv
It’s one of the best-known anecdotes of the Mercury Theater: Orson Welles bursts into the apartment where producer John Houseman is holed up cut-and-pasting a script for Treasure Island, the planned debut production, and announces, only a week before airing, that Dracula will take its place. At a time when Lilith’s blood-drenched handmaidens on the current season of True Blood serve as an analogue for our own cultural oversaturation with vampires, it’s worth recalling why, in 1938, this substitution might have been more than merely the indulgence of Welles’s penchant for what Paul Heyer calls “gnomic unpredictability” (The Medium and the Magician, 52).
In fact, 1938 was a good year for vampire ballyhoo; Tod Browning’s 1931 Dracula film had been rereleased only a month before to a new flurry of Bela Lugosi press. Welles’s last-minute switch was a savvy one, allowing him to capitalize on the publicity generated by the continuing popularity of the film (and the popular Hamilton Deane and John Balderston stage adaptation from which it largely drew), while publicly disdaining its vulgarity in favor of what he seemed peculiarly to consider the high-culture status of Stoker’s original novel. Here he is defending the book:
But more importantly, Welles’s production reclaimed and exploited the novel’s own media-consciousness, a feature occluded in the play and film versions, and one to which the adaptation into radio adds, as it were, additional bite. Dracula introduced several of the radio innovations we’ve come to associate with the Mercury Theater (and The War of the Worlds in particular)—first-person retrospective narration, temporal coding, the strategic use of media reflexivity—but Stoker’s novel may have made such innovations both alluring and inevitable.
Stoker’s Dracula is made up of a patchwork of documents—shorthand diaries, transcribed dictation cylinders, newspaper clippings—that do not simply serve as a legitimizing frame, as in Frankenstein. Instead, they are deeply self-referential, obsessively chronicling the very processes of inscription and translation between media by which the novel is built. Confronted with the terrible threat of Dracula free to prey on London’s “teeming millions,” Mina Harker vows thus: “There may be a solemn duty, and if it come we must not shrink from it. …I shall get my typewriter this very hour and begin transcribing.” Processes of ordering information serve, as critics since Friedrich Kittler have noted (see for example here, here, and especially here), as the way to combat the symbolic threat of vampirism that, as Jennifer Wicke argues, stands in for “the uncanny procedures of modern life,” and a threat that may have already colonized intimate spaces of the text itself (“Vampiric Typewriting,” 473).
That threat, in the novel, sounds oddly like . . . radio. Seeping intangibly through the cracks of door frames, invading domestic spaces, riding through the ether “as elemental dust,” materializing abruptly in intimate settings, communicating across land and sea while rendering his receiver passively malleable, Stoker’s Dracula is terrifying by virtue of his insidious ubiquity, a kind of broadcast technology avant la lettre.
In adapting Dracula for radio, then, Welles could play on the deep division in the novel between the ordered forces of inscription and the Count’s occult, uncanny transmissive force in order to exploit the anxieties connected with the medium itself. Even the double role Welles plays in the production—both Dracula and the doctor Arthur Seward—functions in this regard as more than bravura.
Seward’s primary role in the drama as compère, or advocate, threads together Dracula’s multiple documentary “narration,” through what became the familiar Mercury device of retrospect-turned-enactment. As Seward, Welles performs an argumentative and editorial function that’s nowhere in Stoker’s novel, where the various documents make up a file that is explicitly uncommunicated, because unbelievable, for a case no longer necessary to make. Shuffling the various documents that make up the “case,” Seward stands outside of definite place, but also outside of time, animating “the extraordinary events of the year 1891” by directly addressing an audience of a medium that does not yet exist. Here is part of Seward’s address:
Seward is our first “First Person Singular,” and yet his persona is unsettlingly thin. Though his voice at the outset is strong and urgent, it feels bland compared with the dense goulash of “Transylvanian” effects that competes for our attention through the first ten minutes of the production—hoofbeats, thunder, wolf howls, whinnies, the sound of a coach seemingly about to clatter to bits, the singsong of prayers muttered, perhaps, in some exotic foreign tongue. The “documents” on which Seward’s claim to the trust of the audience rides are overwhelmed by the sound that saturates them. Here is the scene:
It’s not until nearly 20 minutes into the production that Seward reveals his own connection with the story—as the lover of Lucy Westenra—and from this moment forward Welles allows Seward’s authority in the “present” to be eroded by his bland inefficacy in the scenes of the “past.” By Act II, he has ceded authority by telegraph to Dr. Van Helsing (Martin Gabel, in a brilliantly crafted performance):
Without the didactic authority of Van Helsing and with small claim on audience sympathy, Seward becomes, through the second half of the production, a strangely insecure advocate, whose claim on authentic first person experience often disrupts, rather than augments, his role as presenter.
The listener does not consistently “follow” Seward either narratively or sonically—indeed, he is often displaced to the sonic periphery by Dr. Van Helsing. In the final confrontation with Dracula, Seward is explicitly shooed to the outer margins of the soundscape to pray.
Here the technical exigencies of Welles’s double role support a subtext that his unmistakable voice has already suggested: that Seward is here the “other” to Dracula (as, later, his Kurtz would be to his Marlow), waning as he waxes. As Lucy is weakened through Dracula’s occult ministrations, so too is Seward sapped of vitality, his romantic passages voiced as strangely bloodless, while Dracula’s wring from Lucy an orgasmic sonic response. Penetrating the intimate chamber Seward ineffectively desires to protect, Dracula replaces him as the production’s central sonic presence—who even when silent, possesses the sonic space.
Contrast Seward’s feeble voice during his night-time vigil here,
to Dracula’s seductive visit here,
Welles needed to distinguish his Dracula from Lugosi’s, employing, rather than an accent, a kind of sonorous unplaced otherness. But his performance shares the ponderous spacing of syllables that, in Lugosi’s case, derived from phonetic memorization of his English script; in other words, Welles is “recognizable” as Dracula without “playing” him. As an analogue to Lugosi’s glacial movement, Dracula’s voice is here surrounded by depths of silence in an otherwise effect-busy soundscape.
From the beginning, Dracula is also sonically on top of the listener, uncomfortably intimate, as in this scene of a close shave:
And although Dracula’s voice is not heard for a full thirteen minutes after Lucy’s death, it nevertheless seems to inhabit all available silences, until he quietly seeps through the door frame of Mina Harker’s bedroom:
The closely-miked phrase “blood of my blood” is reprised throughout the second half of the production—it is repeated seven times, by both Dracula and Mina (Agnes Moorhead), though it occurs only once in the novel—underscoring the ineffable aurality of Dracula’s “transmission.” The line doesn’t present as meaning, but as a tidal echo, the pulse of a carrier wave. While it signals an action unrepresentable to the ear—Dracula’s literal bite or its resonances of memory and desire—it also functions as a “signal” in the sense that Verma describes, as a repetitive element that compels listenership like an incantation (Theater of the Mind, 106). This is the power against which the “documents” are marshaled, the power of “pure” radio—ironically the very power that allows them to be shared. And the hypnotic thrum of radio rips them to shreds.
Indeed, the closing minutes of the drama present the vampire hunters, the novel’s forces of inscription, as an array of anxious noises marshaled against this lurking silence. The frenzied pacing of the final chase back to Transylvania—an element of Stoker’s novel that both plays and film sacrificed—gathers momentum through ever-shorter “diary entries” delivered, breathlessly, over the sound effects of transport:
Welles exploits the familiarity of his audience with a mechanism that Kathleen Battles calls a “radio dragnet”; the forces of order deploy the ubiquity of radio itself to shore up social cohesion, enlisting the audience within their ranks (Calling all Cars, 149). But here that very process is, simultaneously, unsettled and undermined by the identification of Dracula himself with invisible transmission. As Van Helsing repeatedly hypnotizes Mina to tap in on her communion with Dracula—radio, in a sense, deploying radio—the listener is aware of being both eavesdropper and the sharer of rapport, a position that implicates her in Mina’s enthrallment. Here is part of the sequence:
This identification intensifies in the climactic sequence, completely original to Welles’s adaptation, in which Dracula, at bay before his enemies, weakened by sunlight, calls upon the elements of his undead network:
This tour-de-force moment for Welles is also the point when radio shatters the documentary frame and undermines its logic. Though Mina hears Dracula, the others do not, and as Van Helsing’s “testimony” attests, even she does not remember it. This communication can’t, then, be part of Seward’s “evidence.” Rather, it is the radio listener—Dracula’s real prey—who who has received Dracula’s transmission, who has heard across time and space what no one else present can hear: “You must speak for me, you must speak with my heart.”
Although Mina refuses this rapport by staking Dracula at the last possible second—or does she refuse it? Is this not perhaps the Count’s secret wish?—the effect of the uncanny communion persists beyond Seward’s summation, beyond Van Helsing’s subsequent account of Dracula’s end. It renders almost unnecessary Welles’s famous playful post-credits epilogue, in which he abruptly adopts Dracula’s tones to tell us that, “There are wolves. There are vampires”:
But with the hypnotic reach of radio at your disposal, who needs them?
Debra Rae Cohen is an Associate Professor of English at the University of South Carolina. She spent several years as a rock & roll critic before returning to academe. Her current scholarship, including her co-edited volume Broadcasting Modernism (University Press of Florida, 2009, paperback 2013) focuses on the relations between radio and modernist print cultures; she’s now working on a book entitled “Sonic Citizenship: Intermedial Poetics and the BBC.”
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“Radio’s ‘Oblong Blur’: Notes on the Corwinesque“– Neil Verma
This is the fourth and final post in Sounding Out!’s July forum on listening in observation of World Listening Day on July 18th, 2013. World Listening Day is a time to think about the impacts we have on our auditory environments and, in turn, its affects on us. To read last week’s post by Nicole Furlonge, click here, for Maile Colbert‘s piece click here and for Regina Bradley’s post (and to read more about World Listening Day) click here.
This week we have something a little different in store for our readers. The good folks from Everything Sounds, Craig Shank and George Drake Jr., wrote a post for us on the role of listening in their podcast. However, they approached it as a transcript of their podcast. One of the things we like about Everything Sounds is that their approach to discussing sound is like a conversation, and so listeners feel like they are hanging out with the hosts as they go on sonic adventures. Moreover, they have recorded the post as an Everything Sounds podcast episode, so that you can choose how to experience this blog post: either as a written/visual text, audio text, or read along while you listen. Also, feel free to respond in our comments section to the listening challenge they present at the end of the post. We want to hear your stories about sound too!–Liana Silva-Ford, Managing Editor
Craig Shank (CS): I’m Craig Shank
George Drake Jr. (GDJr): …and I’m George Drake Jr.
CS: This is an Everything Sounds blog post.
GDJr: If you’re not familiar with Everything Sounds, it’s a podcast and public radio show about the ways that sound plays a role in art, science, history, and culture.
GDJr: Don’t forget about the time that we somehow managed to get on the subject of using music to encourage…you know…tortoise-love.
CS: Obviously, radio shows use sound to tell stories. How else would they do it? However, we wanted to tell stories about sound. The best way to reign in our slightly unwieldy premise was by asking questions. How do artists use sounds? What sounds result from the natural world, daily life, and industry? Why is sound important? What can we learn about our own experience through sound?
GDJr: Sound plays an important role in our lives. It makes sense that it would, right? Sound is everywhere. Complete silence is virtually impossible. There’s always something generating a sound somewhere. That’s good news for us since we’ll always have something to talk about on the show.
CS: When Sounding Out! approached us about contributing to the blog for World Listening Day, we were flattered. Then the reality set in. We’re just two guys that make a podcast. It’s unlikely that anyone would consider us experts. Our education involved studying sound and music, but it was mostly in the context of creating radio.
GDJr: We were initially drawn to radio because of music, but over time we began to appreciate how songs, voices, and sounds were used to share information and tell stories. Radio is a medium that spoke to our curiosity about the world as well as the role that sound plays in it. After spending so much time working with and around sound, you can’t help but notice all of the ways it can influence everyday life.
CS: We aren’t scientists, inventors, acousticians, artists, or anything other than radio producers, but Everything Sounds allows us to speak with experts and creative people that can help us learn about the influence that sound has on us.
GDJr: This may be the exact reason why the show resonates with listeners. In many cases, we’re learning something new right along with you. We’re able to ask questions and make sense of new information. After we gather the information we organize everything to make more sense, find supporting information, check the facts, and try to reassemble all of it in a way that is fun and engaging.
CS: The reaction to the show is humbling and beyond our expectations. When we started producing the show we were unaware that it could have a real-world impact. However, we’ve heard from listeners that thank us for opening up their ears and helping them reconsider the role of sound in their daily lives. We’ve been touched by stories from listeners with vision difficulties that tell us how much they appreciate the show and its treatment of sound.
GDJr: One of our listeners commented that their ability to recognize and classify sounds was well-developed as a result of their condition. They said our show made them want to find ways to record some of their experiences with sound and share it with others. We’re always delighted to hear that the show generates any kind of reaction, but it’s especially meaningful when it makes listeners want to create, investigate, or learn after the show ends.
CS: …and inexplicably, some people actually think we’re funny. I’m not even convinced we’re funny.
GDJr: If we are, it’s probably not intentional. Let’s get back to your point. Making a connection helps to spark an interest in learning about and exploring sound. If people think Everything Sounds is funny, informative, entertaining, or “ear-opening,” then we have managed to get people to think about sound and hearing more deeply. Even if it’s only for a few minutes each week, sound becomes the center of attention. If we make the show enjoyable for listeners, then we open doors to topics that they may not have considered in the past.
CS: The wonderful thing about learning is that you don’t have to be an expert to do it. You just have to be curious. Even the experts use their imagination and curiosity to solve problems and explore unanswered questions. Accessibility is extremely important when it comes to creating an intellectual spark that encourages people to stop , think, pick up a book, or search on the internet for more information. Even though we are sharing information that is new to us, we try to make it entertaining and less intimidating.
GDJr: We don’t want to overstate our contributions to listeners’ lives. We’re fully aware that we’re competing for their time and attention. Everything Sounds has probably become background noise for many hours of laundry folding, dinner preparing, or late-night driving. Despite this, we value all listening and levels of engagement.
CS: By listening to podcasts or radio programs the world can come to you through your headphones or speakers. If someone can’t make a trip, then we can provide the material to construct the scene in ears and minds.
GDJr: So, what are the scenes that we’ve created? Well, in the very beginning, episode 1 in fact, we talked to a sound artist named Jesse Seay. Craig and I had no idea what the show would sound like, how it would be structured, or if anyone would even care. The only thing we knew is that we wanted to do a feature on her “Mechanical Tide” piece. Sculpture is inherently visual art form that sometimes may be difficult to translate on the radio. So, we were interested to learn more about one of many artists that has found a way to incorporate sound elements into their work. A simple interview with Jesse would have probably given us enough to work with, but to bring some life into the story we decided to see the piece in person with her.
CS: At the University of Chicago we were able to capture Jesse interacting with the piece, talk to students, and run into tour groups that reacted to Mechanical Tide. This episode taught us a valuable lesson. Capturing honest, real, and unscripted moments is essential to telling stories about sound.
GDJr: All of the time and writing in the world couldn’t create moments as memorable as when we simply keep the tape rolling and listen for the surprising sounds of the real world. We need some consistency for the sake of telling coherent stories, but including surprising and unexpected audio adds a great deal to our episodes.
CS: In the first episode of our second season we spoke to Nick Zammuto. He’s a musician that has performed with The Books and more recently Zammuto. Over the years, Nick simply kept the tape rolling whenever he could to capture as much of the world around him as possible. Many of these clips ended up being used in his music.
GDJr: Nick said, “It’s an obvious rule of physics that, you know, the more you record, the more you get.” Listening works the same way. The more time you spend listening to the world, the more you get out of it.
CS: A striking example of this involved a trip to the The Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach, California. Nick was recording in front of the jellyfish tank and captured part of an unsettling conversation with a father and daughter. This conversation eventually made its way into a song called “Motherless Bastard” by The Books.
GDJr: Nick has a knack for finding ways to use the sounds of everyday life in his musical pieces. The results are sometimes uncomfortable, humorous, confusing, or odd, but taking sound from its original context allows us to reconsider its place in the real world and in art. Although Nick often has a use for his recordings, listening itself often doesn’t need to have a goal to be beneficial.
CS: Being open to those experiences of everyday life is what makes good listeners. Most of us are born with the ability to hear the world around us. However, it takes patience and practice to develop better listening habits. We can learn about other people, the natural world, our surroundings, and the things we care about by taking a closer listen. Everything Sounds isn’t meant to encourage a blanket approach to listening, but we do think it encourages people to consider the way that they listen to the world and what they are neglecting.
GDJr: When was the last time you put away your phone, turned off the TV or radio, and listened to the sounds in your neighborhood? If you’ve been in nature recently, did you take a moment to close your eyes and listen to the birds while the wind rustled the leaves on the trees? Have you thought about how different all of your friends’ laughs sound?
CS: Listening isn’t just about encountering and acknowledging the cacophony of daily life. Listening is about taking the time to notice the role that many different sounds play in a soundscape. Taking the time to process the sounds around you gives you an increased awareness of the world and your place in it. There is a wealth of information carried in sound waves. Neglecting that information would be like eating a wonderful meal and not allowing any of it to touch your taste buds.
GDJr: Deep listening serves practical purposes. It helps us appreciate our favorite music, enjoy the environment, and understand the people we love. Sounds can bring us joy, alert us to danger, keep us connected, and help us navigate our world. Listening closely allows you to hear the subtle details that many others will overlook or ignore. It helps you to become more mindful, in the moment, and intellectually engaged.
CS: So, take a moment now to listen to the sounds that you may have been blocking out while reading this post. Consider other times in your life where you may not be paying attention to the sounds around you. Make an effort to appreciate all that your ears have to offer.
(6-7 second pause)
GDJr: It’s easy to be distracted by bright colors, motion, and other attention-grabbing visual elements in our culture, but if you make the effort to listen, you’ll be able to hear diverse and nuanced examples of sounds that can create just as much excitement everywhere.
CS: In the introductory episode of the show we talked about the way sounds shaped us and led us to create Everything Sounds. In that episode we stated that the goal of the show is not to just share our own experiences with sound. We want the show to encourage listeners to have their own journeys with sound. With this blog post, even if you never listen to the show, we hope that you will recognize your own listening habits and consider ways that you can have a closer relationship with sound.
GDJr: I think that’s pretty much the whole ball of wax.
CS: Thanks for listening…or reading. Whichever one you’re doing.
GDJR: Or Both!
CS: Thanks to Sounding Out! for giving us this platform to share our enthusiasm for sound.
GDJr: We love meeting other audiophiles and geeking out, so feel free to reach out. We’d love to hear from you.
CS: I’m Craig Shank.
GDJr: And I’m George Drake, Jr. Thanks for reading or listening to this Everything Sounds blog post.
Featured image photo credit: Everything Sounds duo Craig Shank and George Drake, Jr., image courtesy of the authors.
Craig Shank is an Indiana native that developed a passion for music and broadcasting at an early age. While in college, Craig balanced internships, part-time jobs, and volunteer opportunities that allowed him to spend most of his time outside of the classroom in broadcast facilities. His interest in sound and digital media paired with extensive broadcasting experience led Craig to produce Everything Sounds with his longtime friend and collaborator, George Drake Jr. He is fascinated by the cosmos and begrudgingly acknowledges his lactose intolerance.
George Drake Jr. grew up in Chicago, but spent time in Indiana and London before returning to the Windy City. His passion for music and background in theatre as a teenager made George a perfect fit in the world of radio. Following his involvement at WIUX, WXRT, and WTTS George took his dedication to his craft to the next level when he traveled overseas to pursue his Masters in Radio at Goldsmiths College, U. of London. George has consistently allowed his ears and intuition to find and promote sounds that will have an impact. His favorite band is The Books, he enjoys a spicy Bloody Mary, and finds any excuse to wear a tie.
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Park Sounds: A Kansas City Soundwalk for Fall–Liana Silva
This is the second post in Sounding Out!’s July forum on listening in observation of World Listening Day on July 18th, 2013. World Listening Day is a time to think about the impacts we have on our auditory environments and, in turn, its affects on us. To read last week’s post by Regina Bradley (and to read more about World Listening Day) click here.
When I travel to somewhere I’m unfamiliar with to create a work, I’ve become in the habit of bringing my VLF receiver, hydrophones, and underwater camera in order to explore. Whether what comes out ultimately becomes part of the work or not, my interest in these particular tools stems from a fascination with obscure events around me, real and happening, that I cannot perceive. But it also marks my wonder at events and elements in our world that have been, while changing, continuous in a time line extending much further than my own. Similar to the sense one may get when experiencing a desert, or an ocean, with time and patience, what might at first seem bleak, barren, or monotonous, begins to give hint to a rich world hidden from our day to day.
Two autumns ago, finding myself with a day off from a project I was working on near Penzance in Cornwall, I decided to take the day to hike the lesser known British arm of the Santiago Pilgrim Route: the St. Michael’s Way. Dating back tens of thousands of years, St. Michael’s Way enabled pilgrims and missionaries traveling from Ireland or Wales to choose to abandon their ships and walk across the peninsula, rather than navigating the treacherous waters around Land’s End. In the days of such pilgrimmages, the way was fraught with all sorts of dangers, and the path itself splits a few times, veering off towards a church near the harbor where they would get the boat to cross them. There they would meet a guide who would offer safe passage from the many thieves and pirates along the way. Still marked with the iconic scallop shell symbol of the pilgrim route, the path was nevertheless neglected, and overrun with all sorts of modern obstacles such as busy roads and farm irrigation systems.
As I got lost time and time again making my way towards Saint Ives, I found myself marveling at all sorts of new and heretofore unknown sensations. My ears tuned from the project I was there working on, I was especially taken by the sound. Toward the middle of the path–located at the top of the hills inland of the peninsula –the wind from both sides carried over pieces of the day to day from the villages; a tractor, grazing animals, bits of conversation in Cornish, and church bells wisping by as quickly as they came, like ghosts. It is fitting that St Michael, after whom the route was named, is the patron saint of high places.
I began to wonder what this path may have sounded like back in the time of thieves and pirates, back when the occasion to use it was a shared occasion celebrated with the voices of people, priests, prayers, and the markets and fairs along the way to fuel all this activity. As I continued walking, I began to wonder how it may have sounded even before then, before the hills were blanketed with crops and cattle, before the many battles that must have been waged, and villages built and grazed. . .were there more birds then? Were there more trees? Were there more boar and foxes? What about even before these hills were hills, could there be a way to sonify these hills forming? I started to dream of a “wayback machine” for sound. What if as you walked this path, you could listen to time spinning back, listen to how it might have sounded, listen to its history? And what could you take from that experience? Could something be taken from this? In the two years since that happenstance, this idea has since stuck with me. Beginning tentative research and practice to apply these thoughts, I continue to unearth more questions than answers, so I began to seek others experimenting in a similar vein. While acoustic ecology is a growing field, I still have not found many researchers working with sound in/as time.
One person who has come close to this idea is acoustic ecologist, musician, and sound recordist Bernie Krause, whom last year I interviewed in an article on the sound of disaster about disappearing sounds as a signal of impending crises. The prelude of Krause’s book The Great Animal Orchestra: Finding the Origins of Music in the World’s Wild Places, is the beautifully written, “Echoes of the Past,” which takes a meandering listen to how the world might have sounded sixteen thousand years ago. With that trip in mind, perhaps something could come from working with people in various fields of statistical analysis to see what sounds are projected to go extinct from a soundscape with time, and what this could mean in terms of how the sound line will be extended into the future. In the section “First Notes,” Krause describes working with a graduate student, Kristin Junette, who reasoned that based on fossil records and the known sounds of insect species today, we might be able to re-create the insect ambience of about sixty-five million years ago. Then, based on acoustic physiology of the skull of a Hadrosaur, a dinosaur of the time, Krause and Junette were able to re-create a representative vocalization of its call to place in this early soundscape (for the Discovery Channel’s vision of how the hadrosaur might have sounded click here).
I was also excited to learn of the research of Miriam Kolar, who has been working with various techniques and with people in various disciplines on a team studying and “recreating” the acoustic architecture of the Chavín de Huántar, a 3,000 year old ceremonial center, predating the Inca in the Peruvian Andes. Chavín de Huántar is a complex underground maze of rooms and twisting corridors connected by air-ducts. When they were being excavated, archeologists noticed the rooms played strange acoustic tricks on them. “This environment is not only a physical maze, but it’s a sound maze,” says Kolar. For one example, some rooms have interconnected spaces that multiply echoes and bounce them back to the ear so rapidly that the sounds appear to emanate from all directions at once, while other areas seem designed for absorption. The team has been using 3-D computer modeling and specialized recording equipment to try and recreate the auditory effect. “If you have archaeology and no acoustics, you’re deaf,” says archaeoacoustician David Lubman. “And if you have acoustics and not the other, you’re blind. You need both” to understand ancient places like Chavín.
Inspired in part by the research of Krause and Kolar, “Passageira em Casa/The Traveller at Home,” one of my projects from the two years since my walk in Cornwall, begins to explore the notion of the wayback machine with sound in geography. Passageira em Casa is an intermedia and interdisciplinary performance inspired by the journey to define the concept of home. The narrative is a partially fictionalized and personalized account of the Maritime history of Portugal, enacted by a dancer, vocal performer, live video, and live electronic sound composition that creates a geography through the narrative and space of the project. From a dawn chorus in Lisbon to underwater earthquakes in the Pacific, field recordings along a maritime navigation route flow throughout the performance, giving a soundscape to the narrative’s location.
The recent Australian version “Passageira australis” begings to explore sound in time. Recently developed at the iAir residency at RMIT, holds a focus on the debate behind whether the Portuguese were the first Europeans to arrive in Australia, based on the 16th century Dieppe maps of Jave la Grande and the myth/history of the Mahogany Ship. The soundtrack reveals a soundline based on the impact on flora, fauna, and overall soundscape on both countries.
A two channel composition, different then stereo, one speaker represents Europe, the other Australia. As the dancer, our sailor, moves from one end of the space to the other, the sound in each channel is changed based on her approximate location to each “country”. With this experience, my hope is the audience comes away thinking about interconnectivity of the world, and how we impact the places we touch. Although I will continue to research when I return to Australia, already the project had me working with a map historian at the Victoria State Library, as well as consulting the thesis of geologist Andrew Pickering on using GIS technology to search for the location and story behind the presumed mythological Mahogany Ship.
Based on hearing, listening (from an anthropological point of view) is the very sense of space and of time. . .By her noises, Nature shudders with meaning: at least this is how, according to Hegel, the ancient Greeks listened to her. The oaks of Dodona, by the murmur of their boughs, uttered prophecies, and in other civilizations as well. . .noises have been the immediate raw materials of a divination, cledonomancy: to listen is, in an institutional manner, to try to find out what is happening. –Roland Bathes, “Listening”
Sound has a special importance to emotion, instinct, and memory, both individual and historical.. Hitting the oldest part of our brain, sound provides immediate information telling us where we are, whether it is safe, and how we should feel about it. The wayback machine would function as a sonic database that would not only help us to remember and learn about the past, but also to create new experiences within the complexity of changing soundscapes over a period that usually defies our human comprehension. I see this tool being helpful to researchers in many disciplines as a new kind of living archive, but also having a place in libraries, museums, centers, and perhaps “in the field” along paths such as the Santiago’s Way, where one could download an audio file from the map online, then listen with wonder and unique sensation as they walk back through history.
Featured Image photo credit: Vahid Sadjadi, Joshua Tree State Park, California
Author’s Note: A version of this post was presented at Musique et Écologies du Son/ Music and Ecologies of Sound: Theoretical and Practical Projects for the Listening of the World, Universitê Paris 8, May 2013. I slightly changed the original title of the paper to: “Sound through time, space, AND place.” Frank Vanclay said quite nicely in “Place Matters.” “‘Place” is generally conceived as being ‘space’ imbued with meaning. Thus, it refers more to the meanings that are invested in a location than to the physicality of the locality.” He goes on to state sometimes it’s the biophysical characteristics that make the foundation for those personal meanings.
Maile Colbert is a multi-media artist with a concentration on sound and video who relocated from Los Angeles, US to Lisbon, Portugal. She is a regular writer for Sounding Out!
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