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Learning to Listen Beyond Our Ears: Reflecting Upon World Listening Day

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World Listening Day took place last week, and as I understand it, it is all about not taking sound for granted – an admirable goal indeed! But it is worth taking a moment to consider what sorts of things we might be taking for granted about sound as a concept when we decide that listening should have its own holiday.

"Listening, Regent Street, London, 17 December 2011" by Flickr user John Perivolaris, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

“Listening, Regent Street, London, 17 December 2011″ by Flickr user John Perivolaris, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

One gets the idea that soundscapes are like giant pandas on Endangered Species Day – precious and beautiful and in need of protection. Or perhaps they are more like office workers on Administrative Professionals’ Day – crucial and commonplace, but underappreciated. Does an annual day of listening imply an interruption of the regularly scheduled three hundred and sixty four days of “looking”? I don’t want to undermine the valuable work of the folks at the World Listening Project, but I’d argue it’s equally important to consider the hazards of taking sound and listening for granted as premises of sensory experience in the first place. As WLD has passed, let us reflect upon ways we can listen beyond our ears.

At least since R. Murray Schafer coined the term, people have been living in a world of soundscapes. Emily Thompson provides a good definition of the central concept of the soundscape as “an aural landscape… simultaneously a physical environment and a way of perceiving that environment; it is both a world and a culture constructed to make sense of that world.”(117) As an historian, Thompson was interested in using the concept of soundscape as a way of describing a particular epoch: the modern “machine age” of the turn of the 20th century.

"Rock Series - Microphones" by Flickr user Stefano Tambalo, CC BY 2.0

“Rock Series – Microphones” by Flickr user Stefano Tambalo, CC BY 2.0

Anthropologist Tim Ingold has argued that, though the concept that listening is primarily something that we do within, towards, or to “soundscapes” usefully counterbalanced the conceptual hegemony of sight, it problematically reified sound, focusing on “fixities of surface conformation rather than the flows of the medium” and simplifying our perceptual faculties as “playback devices” that are neatly divided between our eyes, ears, nose, skin, tongue, etc.

Stephan Helmreich took Ingold’s critique a step further, suggesting that soundscape-listening presumes a a particular kind of listener: “emplaced in space, [and] possessed of interior subjectivities that process outside objectivities.” Or, in less concise but hopefully clearer words: When you look at the huge range of ways we experience the world, perhaps we’re limiting ourselves if we confine the way we account for listening experiences with assumptions (however self-evident they might seem to some of us) that we are ‘things in space’ with ‘thinking insides’ that interact with ‘un-thinking outsides.’ Jonathan Sterne and Mitchell Akiyama, in their chapter for the Oxford Handbook of Sound Studies, put it the most bluntly, arguing that

Recent decades of sensory history, anthropology, and cultural studies have rendered banal the argument that the senses are constructed. However, as yet, sound scholars have only begun to reckon with the implications for the dissolution of our object of study as a given prior to our work of analysis.(546)

Here they are referring to the problem of the technological plasticity of the senses suggested by “audification” technologies that make visible things audible and vice-versa. SO!’s Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman has also weighed in on the social contingency of the “listening ear,” invoking Judith Butler to describe it as “a socially-constructed filter that produces but also regulates specific cultural ideas about sound.” In various ways, here, we get the sense that not only is listening a good way to gain new perspectives, but that there are many perspectives one can have concerning the question of what listening itself entails.

"listen (069/365)" by Flickr user Tim Pierce, CC BY 2.0

“listen (069/365)” by Flickr user Tim Pierce, CC BY 2.0

But interrogating the act of listening and the sounds towards which it is directed is not just about good scholarship and thinking about sound in a properly relational and antiessentialist way. It’s even less about tsk-tsking those who find “sound topics” intrinsically interesting (and thus spend inordinate amounts of time thinking about things like, say, Auto-Tune.) Rather, it’s about taking advantage of listening’s potential as a prying bar for opening up some of those black boxes to which we’ve grown accustomed to consigning our senses. Rather than just celebrating listening practices and acoustic ecologies year after year, we should take the opportunity to consider listening beyond our current conceptions of “listening” and its Western paradigms.

For example, when anthropologist Kathryn Lynn Guerts first tried to understand the sensory language of the West African Anlo-Ewe people, she found a rough but ready-enough translation for “hear” in the verb se or sese. The more she spoke with people about it, however, the more she felt the limitations of her own assumptions about hearing being, simply, the way we sense sounds through our ears. As one of her informants put it, “Sese is hearing – not hearing by the ear but a feeling type of hearing”(185). As it turns out, according to many Anlo-ewe speakers, our ability to hear the sounds of the world around us is by no means an obviously discrete element of some five-part sensorium, but rather a sub-category of a feeling-in-the-body, or seselelame. Geurts traces the ways in which the prefix se combines with other sensory modes, opening up the act of hearing as it goes along: sesetonume, for example, is a category that brings together sensations of “eating, drinking, breathing, regulation of saliva, sexual exchanges, and also speech.” Whereas English speakers are more inclined to contrast speech with listening as an act of expression rather than perception, for the Anlo-Ewe they can be joined together into a single sensory experience.

The ways of experiencing the world intimated by Geurts’ Anlo-Ewe interlocutors play havoc with conventionally “transitive,” western understandings of what it means to “sense” something (that is, to be a subject sensing an object) let alone what it means to listen. When you listen to something you like, Geurts might suggest to us that liking is part of the listening. Similarly, when you listen to yourself speak, who’s to say the feeling of your tongue against the inside of your mouth isn’t part of that listening? When a scream raises the hairs on the back of your neck, are you listening with your follicles? Are you listening to a song when it is stuck in your head? The force within us that makes us automatically answer “no” to questions of this sort is not a force of our bodies (they felt these things together after all), but a force of social convention. What if we tried to protest our centuries-old sensory sequestration? Give me synaesthesia or give me death!

Indeed, synaesthesia, or the bleeding-together of sensory modes in our everyday phenomenological experience, shows that we should loosen the ear’s hold on the listening act (both in a conceptual and a literal sense – see some of the great work at the intersections of disability studies and sound studies). In The Phenomenology of Perception, Maurice Merleau-Ponty put forth a bold thesis about the basic promiscuity of sensory experience:

Synaesthetic perception is the rule, and we are unaware of it only because scientific knowledge shifts the centre of gravity of experience, so that we have unlearned how to see, hear, and generally speaking, feel, in order to deduce, from our bodily organization and the world as the physicist conceives it, what we are to see, hear and feel. (266)

Merleau-Ponty, it should be said, is not anti-science so much as he’s interested in understanding the separation of the senses as an historical accomplishment. This allows us to think about and carry out the listening act in even more radical ways.

"Listening Room" by Flickr user Consumerist Dot Com, CC BY 2.0

“Listening Room” by Flickr user Consumerist Dot Com, CC BY 2.0

Of course all of this synaesthetic exuberance requires a note to slow down and check our privilege. As Stoever-Ackerman pointed out:

For women and people of color who are just beginning to decolonize the act of listening that casts their alternatives as wrong/aberrant/incorrect—and working on understanding their listening, owning their sensory orientations and communicating them to others, suddenly casting away sound/listening seems a little like moving the ball, no?

To this I would reply: yes, absolutely. It is good to remember that gleefully dismantling categories is by no means always the best way to achieve wider conceptual and social openness in sound studies. There is no reason to think that a synaesthetic agenda couldn’t, in principle, turn fascistic. The point, I think, is to question the tools we use just as rigorously as the work we do with them.

Owen Marshall is a PhD candidate in Science and Technology Studies at Cornell University. His dissertation research focuses on the articulation of embodied perceptual skills, technological systems, and economies of affect in the recording studio. He is particularly interested in the history and politics of pitch-time correction, cybernetics, and ideas and practices about sensory-technological attunement in general.

Featured image: “listen up: ears really are strange looking if you think about it” by Flickr user woodleywonderworks, CC-BY-2.0

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Snap, Crackle, Pop: The Sonic Pleasures of Food–Steph Ceraso

“HOW YOU SOUND??”: The Poet’s Voice, Aura, and the Challenge of Listening to Poetry–James Hyland

SO! Amplifies: Eric Leonardson and World Listening Day 18 July 2014–Eric Leonardson

 

Sounding Out! Podcast #32: The World Listening Update – 2014 Edition

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Listen in as Eric Leonardson and Monica Ryan celebrate World Listening Day 2014 by reflecting on the work of R. Murray Schafer and the World Soundscape Project. Interviewees Professor Sabine Breitsameter of Hochschule Darmstadt (Germany) and Professor Barry Truax of Simon Fraser University (Canada) discuss the impact of Schafer’s ideas and offer commentary on contemporary threads within the field of Acoustic Ecology. How does does Acoustic Ecology help us to think through today’s complex environments and how can listeners like you make a difference?

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Co-Authors of this podcast:

Eric Leonardson is a Chicago-based audio artist and teacher. He has devoted a majority of his professional career to unorthodox approaches to sound and its instrumentation with a broad understanding of texture, atmosphere and microtones. He is President of the World Forum for Acoustic Ecology and founder of the Midwest Society for Acoustic Ecology, and Executive Director of the World Listening Project. Leonardson is an Adjunct Associate Professor in the Department of Sound at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Monica Ryan is an instructor and audio artist from Chicago. Currently her work explores spatialized sound recording and playback techniques along with interactive sound environments. She teaches in several institutions in Chicago, including The School of the Art Institute of Chicago and Columbia College.

Tom Haigh is a British post production sound mixer, composer, and phonography enthusiast, now residing in Chicago. As a staff engineer at ARU Chicago, he works with clients in advertising, media, and independent film.

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Featured image: Used through a CC BY license. Originally posted by Ky @Flickr.

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Sounding Out! Podcast #7: Celebrate World Listening Day with the World Listening Project- Eric Leonardon, Monica Ryan, and Tom Haigh

SO! Amplifies: Eric Leonardson and World Listening Day 18 July 2014- Eric Leonardson

Sounding Out! Podcast (#18): Listening to the Tuned City of Brussels, Day 3: “Ephemeral Atmospheres”- Felicity Ford and Valeria Merlini

Snap, Crackle, Pop: The Sonic Pleasures Of Food

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Sound and Pleasure2After a rockin’ (and seriously informative) series of podcasts from Leonard J. Paul, a Drrty South banger dropped by SO! Regular Regina Bradley, and a screamtastic meditation from Yvon Bonenfant, our summer Sound and Pleasure series serves up some awesomeness on a platter this week with the return of Steph Ceraso, who makes us wish all those food pics on instagram came with recordings.  Take a big bite out of this!  --JS, Editor-in-Chief

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Lightly I tap the burnt surface with a cold metal spoon until it cracks; it fractures like a fine layer of sugary glass; silent, smooth custard mixes with the sticky sweet crunch of the caramelized shards.

An otherwise bland and unmemorable dessert, crème brûlée is always my go-to treat. The sonic pleasures of this indulgence keep me coming back: the tapping, cracking, crunching.

Though the taste and visual presentation of food usually get most of the hype, it’s no secret that sound can amplify the enjoyment and delight of eating. Indeed, sound has become an increasingly important ingredient in the design, advertising, and experience of food: from “junk” food to gourmet dining. What is especially fascinating and disconcerting about this strategic use of sound is the powerful connection between pleasure and sensory manipulation. To my mind, the myriad ways sound is employed to manipulate perceptions of food underscores the need to pay more attention to when, how, and why sound influences our thoughts, feelings, and sensory experiences.

"Crack" by Flickr user Gabriela Castillo, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

“Crack” by Flickr user Gabriela Castillo, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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Food engineers and marketing teams have been taking advantage of the pleasures of sound for years. Rice Krispies’ “Snap, Crackle, Pop” trademark has been around since the late 1920s. And of course there are Pop Rocks, my favorite sounding retro product. The carbonated sugar crystals were invented in the 1950s, but thanks to commercials that celebrated the candy in all of its sonic glory, Pop Rocks’ popularity reached a fever pitch in the 1970s and it’s still going strong today. The official Pop Rocks website boasts that the product continues to be the “leading popping candy brand worldwide.”

Sound is a crucial part of the pleasurable experience of food’s packaging, too. Consider Pringles’ famous “Once you pop you can’t stop” slogan. A neatly stacked chip cylinder with a pleasant-sounding lid is marketed as a refreshing alternative to crinkly chip bags.

Designing sound for the things that contain food may seem like a silly marketing gimmick, but the sounds of packaging can make or break the product. For instance, in an attempt to make its SunChips brand more environmentally friendly, in 2010 Frito-Lay introduced a compostable chip bag. Consumers found it to be ridiculously noisy and complained. The bag had so many haters, in fact, that a facebook group called “SORRY I CAN’T HEAR YOU OVER THIS SUN CHIPS BAG” attracted nearly 30,000 fans. Sales fell, and the financial loss caused Frito-Lay to go back to the un-environmentally friendly bags. Just this year, the company introduced yet another version of the compostable bag. It’s too early to tell if consumers will deem its sound acceptable.

While many companies strive to hit the right note when it comes to the pleasurable sounds of food and its packaging, recent research on taste and sound has been more focused on how external sounds affect the experience of eating. In a noteworthy study, the food company Unilever and the University of Manchester found that the experience of sweetness and saltiness in food decreased in relation to high levels of background noise (perhaps one of the reasons that airplane food generally sucks). They also identified a correlation between the increased volume of background noise and the eater’s perception of crunchiness and freshness.

Additionally, the Crossmodal Laboratory at Oxford University run by professor Charles Spence got a lot of press for discovering that low-pitched sounds tend to bring out bitter flavors while high-pitched sounds heighten the sweetness of food. Go grab a snack (chocolate or coffee work best) and you can try this experiment for yourself.

Armed with scientific knowledge, many chefs and entrepreneurs have been teaming up to put these ideas into practice. For a limited time London restaurant House of Wolf served what they called a “sonic cake pop.” The treat came with a phone number that presented callers with the choice of pushing 1 for sweet (to hear a high-frequency sound) and 2 for bitter (to hear a low-frequency sound). The experiment was a success. People seemed to want to hear their cake and eat it too. The same Guardian article reports that Ben and Jerry’s plans to put QR codes on its packaging so that customers can use their smartphones to access sounds that compliment the flavor of ice cream they are eating.

"Sound of the Sea" by Flickr user Cennydd Bowles, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

“Sound of the Sea” by Flickr user Cennydd Bowles, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

For some, making sound a more prominent feature of eating experiences is more than a fun experiment or savvy marketing strategy: it’s a full-blown artistic performance. World-renowned chef Heston Blumenthal uses sound to draw attention to the holistic sensory experience of dining. His dish “Sound of the Sea,” for example, consists of seafood, edible seaweed, tapioca that looks like sand, decorative shells, and an iPod so that diners can listen to the sounds of the ocean.

Blumenthal has also performed sound experiments while eaters spooned up his bacon and egg ice cream (Yep. That’s a thing!). When the sound of bacon frying in a pan was played, people rated the bacon flavor of the ice cream to be more intense than the egg flavor, and vice versa when the sound was clucking chickens.

In a similar vein, Boston chef Jason Bond and composer Ben Houge have paired up to create food operas, or what they call “audio-gustatory events.” They use real-time musical scoring techniques based off of Houge’s work in video games to design eating experiences that explicitly link sound and taste.

Clearly, when it comes to the pleasures (and displeasures) of eating, sound matters. I’ll admit that I’m a fan of the more imaginative, experimental uses of sound in experiences like the food opera or Blumenthal’s edible sonic creations. There is a sense of play and discovery in these designed experiences; and, people know what they are signing up for and willingly choose to participate. Such endeavors have the potential to heighten participants’ sensitivity to how sound figures into eating and other kinds of everyday activities.

"WWII Food Ad, Kellogg's Rice Krispies Cereal..." by Flickr user Classic Film, CC BY-NC 2.0

“WWII Food Ad, Kellogg’s Rice Krispies Cereal…” by Flickr user Classic Film, CC BY-NC 2.0

Yet, along with the sonic branding and marketing of edible products, these experiments raise some troubling questions about the relationship between pleasure and sensory manipulation: When is it wrong or unethical to use sensory manipulation to create pleasurable experiences? At what point does manipulation become pleasurable? Is all pleasure a form of manipulation?

Perhaps more significantly, the ways that people are applying scientific knowledge about sound and taste opens up another can of worms: What are the implications of trying to standardize pleasurable sounds via commercial products? What kinds of bodies are invited to participate in pleasurable sensory experiences, or not? I’m thinking particularly of individuals who are deaf and hard-of-hearing, or who have different cultural cues when it comes to recognizing a sound as “pleasurable.”

The sounds of food do not necessarily have to be engineered to be pleasurable. However, because new information about the relationship between sound and other senses is being used to explicitly and implicitly manipulate our experiences, it seems that there is a real need for cultivating a keener, more critical sensory awareness. This means questioning when, how, and why sound is being employed to create pleasurable experiences in a range of products and environments; it means paying careful attention to the ways that sound interacts with all of our senses to influence everyday experiences. So, the next time you’re having what seems to be a simple “feel good” eating experience, be sure to open your ears along with your mouth.

Featured image by Flickr user Wizetux, CC BY 2.0

Steph Ceraso received her doctorate in 2013 from the University of Pittsburgh, specializing in rhetoric and composition, pedagogy, sound studies, and digital media. In addition to being a three-peat guest writer for Sounding Out!, her work has been featured in Currents in Electronic Literacy, HASTAC, and Fembot Collective. She is also the coeditor of a special “Sonic Rhetorics” issue of Harlot. Her current book project, Sounding Composition, Composing Sound, examines how expansive, consciously embodied listening and sonic composing practices can deepen our knowledge of multimodal engagement and production. Steph will be joining the faculty in the English department at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County this fall. You can find more about her research, media projects, and teaching at http://www.stephceraso.com.

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Tofu, Steak, and a Smoke Alarm: The Food Network’s Chopped & the Sonic Art of Cooking– Seth Mulliken

On Sound and Pleasure: Meditations on the Human Voice– Yvon Bonenfant

‘Corn-ing’ the Suburbs on Halloween, a Sonic Trick and Treat– Steph Ceraso

Reproducing Traces of War: Listening to Gas Shell Bombardment, 1918

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World Listening Month3

Welcome to World Listening Month 2014, our annual forum on listening in observation of World Listening Day on July 18th, 2014. World Listening Day is a time to think about the impacts we have on our auditory environments and, in turn, its affects on us [for the full deets, peep our recent SO! Amplifies post by Eric Leonardson, Executive Director of the World Listening Project].  We kick off our month of thinking critically about listening with a post by media historian Brian Hanrahan, who listens deeply to sonic traces of the past to prompt us to question our desires for contemporary media representations of “reality.”  It also marks the global 100 year anniversary of World War I this August 2014: a moment of silence. –J. Stoever, Editor-in-Chief

For some reason that I don’t fully understand, I am very emotionally moved by the space around a sound. I almost think that sometimes I am recording space with a sound in it, rather than sound in a space. -Walter Murch 

If you want to listen to the past, there’s never been a time like the present. Every year, it seems, new old recordings are identified, new techniques developed to recover sounds thought irrecoverable. Here is Bismarck’s voice, preserved on a cylinder in 1889.  Here, older still, is Edison’s. There is the astonishing recuperation of phonautograms – reverberation traced onto soot-blackened paper in the mid-nineteenth century, digitally processed and played back in our own. But as that processing underlines, no sound recording straightforwardly reproduces the real. An acoustic artifact is a compound of materiality, form and meaning, but also a place where technology meets desire. Old recordings meet the listener’s longing halfway; they invoke a reality always out of reach. And not simply a longing to hear, but also to touch, and be moved by, the fact of an absent existence.

Take, for instance, HMV 09308. In October 1918, just before the end of the Great War, William Gaisberg, a sound recordist of the pre-electric era, took recording equipment to the Western Front in order to capture the sound of British artillery shelling German lines with poison gas. Gaisberg died not long after, probably from Spanish flu, although some say he was weakened by gas exposure during the recording. Nonetheless the “Gas Shell Bombardment” record – a 12-inch HMV shellac disc, just over 2 minutes at 78 rpm – was released a few weeks later, just as the war came to an end. Initially intended to promote War Bonds, ultimately the record was used to raise money for disabled veterans.

war bonds

For decades, the HMV recording had a reputation as one of the very earliest “actuality” recordings – one documenting a real location and event beyond the performative space of the studio, imprinted with the audible material trace of an actual moment in space and time. Documents like this – no matter what the technology – usually come with additional symbolic authentication. Here, the record’s label does some of that work. This “historic recording,” says the subtitle, is an “actual record taken on the front line.” Publicity pieces drove home the message. In the popular HMV magazine The Voice, Gaisberg – or probably his posthumous ghost-writer – described the expedition in detail, claiming the track to be a “true representation of the bombardment.”

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In the same issue, a Major C.J.C. Street compared the recording to his own experience on the Front. “Its realism,” he wrote, ”took my breath away… I played the record many times… finding at each attempt some well-remembered detail.” He didn’t say so in his article, but Street – an artillery officer, a novelist and a propaganda man for the intelligence agency MI7 – was in fact the impresario of the record. This was not the first time he had found astute uses for sound media. The previous year he had put together a record that set artillery drill commands to popular tunes – the recording was both a propaganda release and an army training tool for new recruits. With the Gas Shell record, Street knew he wasn’t just selling recorded sound, but also an auratic sense of closeness to an overwhelming reality, the palpable proximity of war and death. Authenticating detail helped to underpin this sense of an absent real made present. Street cued the listener for those “well-remembered details.” In particular, he singled out one indistinct rattly flap-whizz noise, hearing in it, he claimed, the sound of a round with a “loose driving-band.”

The record stayed in the HMV catalog until 1945, but only in the early 1990s were its production history and authenticity claims seriously examined. In specialist journals, archivists, collectors and amateur historians undertook a collective forensic and critical analysis. A promising auditory witness was located: 95-year-old Lt.-Col. Montagu Cleeve another former artillery officer, in his time a developer of “Boche Buster” railway gun, later a music professor – was invited to critically assess the recording. Cleeve vouched unreservedly for its authenticity. He heard in it, he said, an unmistakable succession of sounds – the clang of the breech, the gigantic report of the firing explosion, the distinctive whiny whistle of a gas shell on its way across no-man’s-land. Others looked to data rather than the memories of old soldiers. One expert on pre-electric recording noted the angles commanded in firing instructions, correlated them with known muzzle velocities for 4.5 and 6-inch howitzers, then used this and other information to “definitively” explain the counter-intuitive anti-Doppler sound of the shells’ whistling. He also identified the audible echo effect – the curious “double report” of the guns heard here – as the sound of a brass recording horn violently resonating at a distance of exactly 26.5 meters from the guns.

 

Peter Adamson, “The Gas Shell Bombardment record,” The Historic Record Quarterly, April 1991.

Peter Adamson, “The Gas Shell Bombardment record,” The Historic Record Quarterly, April 1991.

 

Eventually, skepticism won out. Close listening at slow speeds – just careful attention and notation, nothing more elaborate – revealed inconsistencies and oddities in the firing noises. The bongs, plops and whistles seemed internally inconsistent. Some of the artillery sounds – ostensibly a battery of four, firing in quick succession – varied implausibly with each successive firing. Physical evidence from the record’s groove, as well as extraneous noises – surface crackle and fizz, and, audible within the recording, the swish of a turntable – seemed to indicate at least two rudimentary overdubs, in which the output of one acoustic horn was relayed into a second, possibly using an auxetophone, an early compressed-air amplifier. All this resulted in a double- or triple-layered sonic artifact. Finally – the crucial evidence, although oddly it was hardly noticed at the time – an alternative take was located. In this take, according to its discoverer, the entire theatrics of gunnery command is simply absent, and there is no sound at all of whistling shells in motion. What was left was a skeleton sequence of clicks, thuds and cracks, supplemented with only a single closing insert, the portentous injunction “Feed the Guns with War Bonds!”

In short, it seems highly likely that any original field recording was, at the very least, post-dramatized with performed voices and percussive and whistling sound effects. So, it is tempting to say, that clears that up. The recording’s inauthenticity is proven. File under Fake. But in fact, if we don’t stop there, if we set aside narrow and absolutist ideas of authenticity, and instead explore the recording’s ambiguity and hybridity, then Gas Shell Bombardment becomes all the more interesting as an historical artifact.

Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that some form of basic recording was done in France, very possibly a staged barrage specifically performed for Gaisberg’s visit, and that this recording then had effects added back at HMV in London. The record might then be seen less as a straightforward documentary, and instead as an unusual version of the “descriptive speciality,” a genre of miniature phonographic vignette dating back to the 1890s, far predating longer-form radio drama. Very little is known about these early media artworks, but it is a fair generalization to say that in America the genre was more slanted towards vaudeville comedy, whereas in Europe, imperial and military scenes predominated. As early as 1890, for example, there had been German phonographic representations of battles from the Franco-Prussian war. The Great War saw a flourishing of the genre. Scholars are just beginning to take an interest these old phonographs; here’s one recent essay on the “Angel of Mons,” for example, a British acoustic vignette of a famous incident on the Western Front.

Listen to a 1915 German descriptive speciality, depicting the attack on the fortress of Liège the previous year:

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As a descriptive speciality, Gas Shell Bombardment is unusual because it incorporates an actual indexical trace. But such traces – as emphasized by Charles Sanders Pierce and many later media-theoreticians– do not resemble their referent, they are caused by it. The bullet hole does not look much like a bullet; thunder is lightning’s trace, not its likeness. But for Street and Gaisberg, the trace’s lack of resemblance caused problems: the original recording’s lack of detail, cues and clues, but above all its lack of internal dimensionality, created a perceptual shortfall and a lack of credibility. Maybe they hoped that the guns, by sheer force of amplitude, would overcome the spatially impoverished, reverbless reproduction of pre-electric recording. If so, it didn’t work. Without added effects, the guns’ trace was as flat and “body-less” as a sequence of Morse. It was a sound without a scene. The producers’ interventions aimed to thicken the primary artifact with referential-sounding detail, but also to heighten the sense of materiality and spatiality, and to strengthen the sense of diegetic presence, of worlded thereness. The soldiers’ voices – louder and quieter, close-up and farther-out – and the fake-Doppler of the “shell whistling” lent the recording narrative direction (literally, some trajectory) and “authenticating” points of detail. But above all they gave a sense of internal space to the recording, a space into which the listener could direct her attention.

In this context, we can only admire the creativity and performative élan of the unknown production crew. We know little about effects production in early phonography. It is a safe bet that some techniques were adopted from theatre, and that there was overlap with silent film accompaniment. But whatever the method used, it would have called for the awkward orchestration of a limited number of iconic sounds to create an impression of a spatially coherent and materially detailed sonic environment. The recordist and his team would first have had to imagine how relative loudness – of voices, of material objects struck and sounded – might create a sense of spatial depth when transduced through the horn’s crude interface. Then they would have had to perform this as a live overdub, keeping time with the base track of the gun recording played through another horn. And all this done with participants and equipment crowded tightly around the mouth of the huge horn, crammed into the tiny pick-up arc, a scene looking something like this image of Leopold Stokowski’s pre-electric recording sessions or this photograph of the recording of a cello concerto.

Acoustic recording session with Elgar and Beatrice Harrison, 1920

Acoustic recording session with Elgar and Beatrice Harrison, 1920

As well as this hybrid of trace and live performance, there is another performance here – Gaisberg’s journey itself. With twenty years of recording experience, Gaisberg was probably very well aware that the expedition would not yield a “realistic” recording of the guns. But the expedition had to be made, so that it could be said to have taken place. Expectations had to be primed and colored, so that, to use André Bazin’s famous phrase about photographs, the recording could partake in an “irrational power to… bear the belief” of the listener. The journey, and the accounts of Gaisberg and Street are not a supplement to the “true representation” of the gas bombardment. They are part of that representation. Moreover, in subsequent writing it is noticeable that the manner of Gaisberg’s death becomes a rhetorical amplification for the authenticity of the recording’s trace, as if his fatal inhalation (of gas molecules or flu bacilli) were itself a deadly indexation, paralleling the recording’s claim to capture the breath of the War, and even of History itself.

In media-historical terms, the Gas Shell Bombardment recording can be understood as a late, transitional artifact from phonography’s pre-microphonic era. The desire for the sonic trace, for an ever more immersive proximity to events was there, but electro-acoustic technology was not yet in place. Two years later, in 1920, Horace Merriman and Lionel Guest made the first experimental electrical recording, arguably also the first true field recording. The event, appropriately enough, was an official war memorial service in London, where Merriman and Guest – working for Columbia Records – put microphones in Westminster Abbey, running cables to a remote recording van parked in the street outside, where they sat amidst heating ovens and cutting lathes. By the end of the 1920s, remote recording and broadcasting, while never straightforward, were well on the way to ubiquity.

Illustrated London News, 1920.

Illustrated London News, 1920.

Claims made on behalf of technologies of reproduction may seem simplistic, but there’s a grain of truth to their simplicity. If there were nothing special – even magical – in the referentiality of the camera that captures the moment, the recording that’s like being there, the liveness of the live broadcast, these things would not play the role they do in everyday life and in the ideological fabric of society. But there is falsehood too, in over-simplifying the nature and affective charge of old photographs, old footage, old recordings. These are made things, composed of different materials, media, signs and conventions; they are inseparable from the desires and expectations they induce and direct. They function in part by mimesis and verisimilitude, but also through the gaps, blank spots and false illusions of their trace. They can – rightly – intensify our feeling towards the past, but should also prompt us to think about our own desires and investments.

Image by Flickr User DrakeGoodman, “Horchposten im Spengtrichter vor Neuve-Chapelle 6km nördlich von La Bassée Nordfrankreich 1916,” A trio of lightly equipped soldiers from an unidentified formation oblige the photographer by looking serious and pretending they’re just metres from the enemy, listening for activity in his lines. The improvised “listening device” is actually a large funnel, probably liberated from a nearby farm.

Brían Hanrahan is a film, media and cultural historian, whose work focuses on the history of acoustic media, German and European cinema and the culture of the Weimar Republic.

Edited post-publication at 8:00 pm EST on July 7, 2014


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