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Listening (Loudly) to Spanish-language Radio


World Listening Month3This is the third post in Sounding Out!’s 4th annual July forum on listening in observation of World Listening Day on July 18th, 2015.  World Listening Day is a time to think about the impacts we have on our auditory environments and, in turn, their effects on us.  For Sounding Out! World Listening Day necessitates discussions of the politics of listening and listening, and, as Inés Casillas prescribes, a wider understanding of the power and meaning of volume as material sensation as well as listening practice, particularly in communities marginalized by U.S. racial and ethnic hierarchies.  “Listening loudly in the face of anti-immigrant public sentiment,” Casillas tells us, “becomes a form of radical self-love, a sonic eff-you, and a means of taking up uninvited (white) space.”   –Editor-in-Chief JS

Chicana and Chicano friends across the southwest share different renditions of a similar childhood memory. The one where Mexican parents or grandparents crank up the rancheras -mournful, classic Mexican melodies – on an early Saturday morning or what seems to be an inappropriate, way-too-late weeknight. They reminisce about listening as children in wonderment to the familial, communal sing-along that seemed to instinctively take place among extended kin. That, or they tell of listening, cringing in silence, in fear that the non-Mexican neighbors will overhear the radio and spontaneous serenade; a telltale sign that their family is, indeed, Mexican. “As if,” shared Deborah Paredez in her account, “those few white neighbors somehow didn’t already know you were Mexican.”


“Woman Doing a Mexican Grito” by Flickr User Nan Palmero

For unfamiliar ears, the sounds of Spanish, the mariachi ensemble, and/or accented karaoke all work together to signal brownness, working-class, and even, according to Jennifer Stoever, illegality. To me, the most provocative detail in these recurring childhood stories rests more on the volume, often stationed on one of two settings – “loud” or “real loud.” Excessive, “loud accouterments,” according to Deborah R. Vargas, are heard and identified as unforgiving, racialized and queer forms of surplus; what she calls “lo sucio” (a vernacular for dirty or grimy). The high volume allows Mexicans and Chicanas/os to publically flaunt their brown identities under the increasingly watchful gaze of a post-9/11 state, during a record-deportation Obama era, and when Latinos have officially outnumbered whites in the Golden (now brown) state of California. Listening loudly in the face of anti-immigrant public sentiment becomes a form of radical self-love, a sonic eff-you, and a means of taking up uninvited (white) space.

These stories, strikingly similar, often point to the ranchera song-style, specifically, the talents of Vicente Fernández and his regal voice as the beloved malefactor. The timber in Fernández’s famed voice rouses (drunken) merriments of Mexico, with lyrical utterings about acrimonious, heteronormative loves and losses. The gritos or sentimental cries that accompany such songs are gendered, nostalgic stand-ins for an affect of displacement shared by both Mexican immigrants and Chicana/os. Simon O’Sullivan insists that, “you cannot read affects, you can only experience them.” I would add, “through sound” to stress the ways in which sound travels and emotionally anchor a listener’s body. The fact that so many Chicanas and Chicanos have these recollections and several (read: me) reproduce these loud practices with our own children says more about the continued racialized, brown experiences of Mexicans and Chicana/os in the U.S. than perhaps the prowess of rancheras themselves.

Chente singing

Vicente Fernández Performing Live in 2010, Image by Flickr User Jennifer Cachola

In many ways, the workings of race, language and labor resonate through radio. I argue that the very public nature of Spanish-language radio listening represents a communal, classed, and brown form of listening that differs markedly from “white collar” modes of listening, which offers more solitary practices, promoted by commuting in private cars and listening to personal satellite radios, iPods, or Internet broadcasts.

glenwood springs

Workers listen to the radio in the kitchen of Taqueria El Nopal in Glenwood Springs, CO, Image by Andrew Cullen, High County News

For instance, one can routinely overhear loud Spanish-language broadcasts from the back kitchens of restaurants (regardless of the ethnic cuisine); outside bustling construction sites and Home Depot storefronts as day laborers await work; or from small radio sets balanced heroically on hotel housekeeping carts. On-air salutations heard throughout the day on Spanish-language radio are vocal nods to worksites as radio hosts greet washeros (car wash personnel), mecánicos (mechanics), fruteros and tamaleras (fruit and tamale street vendors), and those, presumably farmworkers, toiling under the sun. Despite the passivity in terms such as informal, invisible, and “under the table” to characterize a significant component of both U.S. and transnational economies, these recurrent and strong vocalizations of work and worksites makes audible the statistics of economist Lisa Catanzarite. She cites that recently immigrant Latino men constitute 40 to 71% of low-level service work such as “construction, agriculture, and manufacturing jobs, including waiters’ assistants, gardeners and groundskeepers, cooks, farm workers, and painters.” Not only do patrons and those passing by overhear radio at/near such worksites but radio also makes routine reference to labor and laborers. These “brown-collared” occupations coupled with the swift growth in Spanish and bilingual (Spanish-English) stations, have crafted a not-so-discrete, brown form of listening.

Arguably, it’s difficult to not hear the growth of Spanish-language radio as heavy metal, oldies, and jazz radio dials have surprised English-dominant listeners by switching to banda, norteños, and morning chatter in Spanish. In 1980 the Federal Communications Commission identified sixty-seven Spanish-oriented radio stations on the air. The 2010 figures list over 1300 radio stations broadcasting exclusively in Spanish. Proving all too well that those media pundits and scholars championing the digital era do not tune into broadcast Spanish-language radio.


“We espeekinglish tu!!!” Los Angeles, 2007

Spanish-language radio stations openly cater to a working-class and immigrant-minded listenership by advertising their call numbers and radio personalities at public transit stops. Latinos, loyal listeners of Spanish-language radio, are more likely to ride a bus or subway than to drive in a carpool lane to get to work. As an acoustic ally, these broadcasts not only assume listeners are a mix of undocumented persons, legal residents, and from mixed-status families, but radio hosts and radio programs openly rally in solidarity of their listeners’ civil rights, a provocative feat, given the recurrent changes in immigration politics. In fact, promotional billboards for radio stations often double as political statements. This one, for instance, featured Univisión’s then top rated morning host. The slogan symbolically pokes fun at unfriendly English-only attitudes and keenly reminds drivers that the United States is the second largest Spanish-speaking country in the world.

Sounds of Belonging (NYU Press, 2014)

Dolores Inés Casillas’s Sounds of Belonging (NYU Press, 2014)

The portable and inexpensive cost of radio sets makes it possible for Latinos to tug their sets to work with them. Indeed, a recent listening report verified that the average Hispanic radio listener makes less than $35,000 a year and tunes in as early as 4am; indicative of graveyard, swing shifts and/or early treks to work. Closely aligned with my own assumptions about listening, Jose Anguiano’s doctoral study includes an insightful chapter on the listening preferences of custodial workers during late night shifts; in particular, how workers decided on where to place radio sets to optimize the acoustic sound of empty building spaces.

Yet, a troubling National Public Radio (NPR) segment devoted to the difficulty of finding a simple radio set bared the distinct classed uses of radio and radio listening. Producers visited high-end specialty stores in search of an AM/FM radio. The program broadcasted their collective laments at finding one radio set at their fifth store. Of course, their pursuit would have ended much earlier if they had visited a local swap meet, a K-Mart, or asked any of said laborers above where they had purchased their radio set. During my own research for Sounds of Belonging, twenty-seven of the thirty-three immigrant focus group participants interviewed indicated that a radio set was their first media purchase in the U.S.

Espascio 2

Inside Espacio 1839 in Boyle Heights, California, retail and performance space and home of RADIO SOMBRA, a 24/7 community-based Internet radio station, Espacio is located at 1839 E. 1st Street and is open Wed-Sun, 12-8 pm.  Image by Oliver Wang for KCET Artbound

Of course, such lucrative opportunities to woo radio listeners are not lost on corporate media. Latino listeners (whether they identify as Spanish-dominant or not) tune in to radio an average of three hours a week more than the “general” (white) U.S. radio listener, with an impressive 13.5 percent of all U.S. radio now broadcasting in Spanish. Univisión, a name long associated with Spanish-language television, now reigns as the empire of radio, owning the most Spanish-language radio stations in the United States.

Although tabulated figures showcase the popularity of left-leaning political broadcasts on Spanish-language commercial radio, Mari Castañeda and Monica de la Torre remind us of the significance and efficacy of community-based, Low Power FM radio for rural, Spanish-dominant Latino communities. Without the privilege of corporate sponsors such as  McDonalds, or Kohls, small and fiercely independent, community-based bilingual and Spanish-language radio still thrives in farmlands across the U.S.

Sound, especially at high volume, daringly seeps and trespasses across public, racial boundaries. The policing of sound, according to Derek Vaillant, beginning in the nineteenth century were orchestrated civic attempts to eliminate unsightly and “noisy” cries from poor, ethnic immigrant street vendors peddling their goods. Another instance, during World War II, foreign language broadcasts were outlawed out of monolingual American fears that enemies were communicating via radio. City transits often post rules asking that passengers use audio/video equipment only with headphones. Public etiquette about appropriate levels of volume enforced through noise ordinances and ways of listening (privately) speak to larger issues about race, labor, and class. Not only do these public campaigns and transit rules privilege the dominant, western ear but it also, according to Jennifer Stoever, focuses on white sensory orientations of noise which inherently positions those most marginalized as the “noise makers.”

Lowrider Trike with Sound System, Image by George Garcia

Lowrider Trike with Sound System, Image by George Garcia

For generations, Chicana/o and Mexican listeners have gravitated to radio for far more than the musical sounds of homelands imagined or left behind. Raising the volume on Spanish-language radio sends neighbors a racialized sign of “Mexican-ness” often heard as unruly, “noisy,” and perhaps worse, unassimilated. High volume from the private spaces of homes and cars disrupts the quiet, public acceptance of ear buds while also providing sheer, public glee. An audible, unabashed reminder of other forms of “lo sucio” – high credit card debt, more than 2.2 children, vegetable gardens in front yards, too-much-cologne or Virgin de Guadalupe adornments – and the brown refusal to tone, much less, to turn it down.

*Inspired by my six year old’s attempts to grito along with “Volver, Volver.”

Featured Image: Inside Espacio 1839 in Boyle Heights, California, retail and performance space and home of RADIO SOMBRA, a 24/7 community-based Internet radio station, Espacio is located at 1839 E. 1st Street and is open Wed-Sun, 12-8 pm.  Image by Oliver Wang for KCET Artbound

Dolores Inés Casillas is an associate professor in the Department of Chicana and Chicano Studies and a faculty affiliate of Film & Media Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She writes and teaches courses on Latina/o sound practices, popular culture, and the politics of language.  Her book, Sounds of Belonging: U.S. Spanish-language Radio and Public Advocacy, was published in Fall 2014 by New York University Press as part of their Critical Cultural Communication series. 

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Speaking ‘Mexican’ and the use of ‘Mock Spanish’ in Children’s Books (or Do Not Read Skippyjon Jones)“–Dolores Inés Casillas 

Óyeme Voz: U.S. Latin@ & Immigrant Communities Re-Sound Citizenship and Belonging” –Nancy Morales

Sonic Brownface: Representations of Mexicanness in an Era of Discontent“–reina alejandra prado saldivar

Chicana Radio Activists and the Sounds of Chicana Feminisms“–Monica De La Torre

World Listening Day 2015: Mendi + Keith Obadike’s “Blues Speaker [for James Baldwin]” (2015) #WLD2015


World Listening Month3For World Listening Day 2015, Sounding Out! is honored to debut Mendi + Keith Obadike’s  new documentary video about their recent large-scale urban installation at The New School’s University Center in New York City, “Blues Speaker [for James Baldwin]” (April 2015), dedicated to writer and public intellectual James Baldwin (1924-1987). –JS

As Mendi + Keith describe, “For Baldwin sound, music, and the blues in particular were sources of inspiration. The multichannel sound art work meditates on a politics of listening found at the intersection of Baldwinʼs language and the sound worlds invoked in his work. It uses the glass façade of The New School’s University Center as delivery system for the sound, turning the building itself into a speaker. The 12-hour piece is created using slow moving harmonies, melodicized language from Baldwinʼs writings, ambient recordings from the streets of Harlem, and an inventory of sounds contained in Baldwin’s story ‘Sonnyʼs Blues.'”

“‘Blues Speaker’ celebrates James Baldwin’s keen understanding of the social role of the blues. In his important 1957 short story ‘Sonny’s Blues,’ the writer argued that attending to the blues required the listener to confront and accept both literal noise (sounds beyond the listener’s understanding) and ideological noise (elements of the lives of those whose journeys have taken radically different paths), and seek beauty and understanding. If this relationship to listening is specific to the blues — a form that takes its shape in response to the survival of black people in general and to the decisions of its craftspeople — then musicians who seriously engage the blues must hold a knowledge deeply important for humanity that lives in the music and extends beyond that medium.”–Artists’ Statement, Vera List Center for Art and Politics, The Year of James Baldwin Exhibition.

Mendi + Keith Obadike make music, art and literature. Their works include The Sour Thunder, an Internet opera (Bridge Records), Crosstalk: American Speech Music (Bridge Records), Black.Net.Art Actions, a suite of new media artworks (published in re:skin on M.I.T Press), Big House / Disclosure, a 200 hour public sound installation (Northwestern University), Phonotype, a book & CD of media artworks, and a poetry collection, Armor and Flesh (Lotus Press). They have contributed sounds/music to projects by wide range of artists including loops for soul singer D’Angelo’s first album and a score for playwright Anna Deavere Smith at the Lincoln Center Institute. You can find out more about them at

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SO! Amplifies: Mendi+Keith Obadike and Sounding Race in America

SO! Amplifies: Shizu Saldamando’s OUROBOROS

SO! Amplifies: Cities and Memory

Misophonia: Towards a Taxonomy of Annoyance


World Listening Month3This is the second post in Sounding Out!’s 4th annual July forum on listening in observation of World Listening Day on July 18th, 2015.  World Listening Day is a time to think about the impacts we have on our auditory environments and, in turn, their effects on us.  For Sounding Out! World Listening Day necessitates discussions of the politics of listening and listening, and, as Carlo Patrão shares today, an examination of sounds that disturb, annoy, and threaten our mental health and well being.   –Editor-in-Chief JS

An important factor in coming to dislike certain sounds is the extent to which they are considered meaningful. The noise of the roaring sea, for example, is not far from white radio noise (…) We still seek meaning in nature and therefore the roaring of the sea is a blissful soundTorben Sangild, The Aesthetics of Noise

When hearing bodily sounds, we often react with discomfort, irritation, or even shame. The sounds of the body remind us of its fallible and vulnerable nature, calling to mind French surgeon René Leriche’s statement that “health is life lived in the silence of the organs” (1936). The mind rests when the inner works of the body are forgotten. Socially, sounds coming from the organic functions of the body such as chewing, lip smacking, breathing, sniffling, coughing, sneezing or slurping are considered annoying and perceived as intrusions. A recent study by Trevor Cox suggests that our reactions of disgust towards sounds of bodily excretions and secretions may be socially-learned and vary according to whether it is considered acceptable or unacceptable to make such sounds in public.

hamm gif

However, for people suffering from a condition called Misophonia, these bodily sounds aren’t simply annoying, rather they become sudden triggers of aggressive impulses and involuntary fight or flight responses. Misophonia, meaning hatred of sound, is a chronic condition characterized by highly negative emotional responses to auditory triggers, which include repetitive and social sounds produced by another person, like hearing someone eating an apple, crunching chips, slurping on a soup spoon or even breathing.

The consequences of Misophonia can be very troublesome, leading to social isolation or the continuous avoidance of certain places and situations such as family dinners, the workplace and recreational activities like going to the cinema. While rate of occurrence of new cases of Misophonia in the population is still under investigation, the fast growing number of online communities gathered around the dislike of certain sounds may indicate that this condition is more common than previously thought.

But why do people with Misophonia feel such strong reactions to trigger sounds? This fundamental question remains up for debate. Some audiologists suggest these heightened emotional responses can be explained by hyperconnectivity between the auditory, limbic and autonomic nervous systems. However, we continue to lack a comprehensive theoretical model to understand Misophonia, as well as an effective treatment to help sufferers of Misophonia cope with intrusive sound triggers.

misophonia awareness

The Art of Annoyance: is it possible to reframe misophonic trigger sounds as misophonic music?

Between 1966 and 1967, John Cage and Morton Feldman recorded four open-ended radio conversations, called Radio Happenings (WBAI, NYC). Among many topics, Feldman and Cage address the problem of being constantly intruded upon by unpleasant sounds. Feldman narrates his annoyance with the sounds blasted from several radios on a trip to the beach. Cage’s commentary on the growing annoyance of his friend reveals a shift of perception in dealing with unwanted sounds:

Well, you know how I adjusted to that problem of the radio in the environment (…) I simply made a piece using radios. Now, whenever I hear radios – even a single one, not just twelve at a time, as you must have heard on the beach, at least – I think, “Well, they’re just playing my piece.- John Cage, Radio Happenings.

Cage proposes a remedy via appropriation of environmental intrusions. The negative emotional charge associated with them is neutralized. Sound intrusions no longer exist as absolute external entities trying to intrude their way in. They become part of the self. Ultimately, there are no sonic intrusions, as the entire field of sound is desirable for composition.

Cage’s immersive compositional anticipated an important strategy to build resilience towards aversive sound: exposure-based cognitive-behavioral therapy, which  proposes a gradual immersion in trigger sounds. And I suggest we can mine the history of avant-garde practice to productively further the idea of immersion; in the realms of sound poetry, utterance based music, Fluxus events and many other sound art practices, bodily sounds have consistently been exalted as source of composition and performance. Much like Cage did with what he perceived as intrusive radio sounds, by performing chewing, coughs, slurps and hiccups, assembling snores and nose whistles, and singing the poetics of throat clearing, we may be able to elevate our body awareness and challenge the way we perceive unwanted sounds. In what follows, I sample these works with an ear toward misophonia, discussing their interventions in the often jarring world of everyday irritation.

Oral Oddities

As pointed out by Nancy Perloff, while the avant-garde progressively expanded to incorporate the entire scope of sound into composition, sound poetry followed a similar course by playing with the non-semantic proprieties of language and exploring new vocal techniques. The Russian avant-garde (zaum), the Italian futurists (parole in libertà) and the German Dada (Hugo Ball’s verse ohne Worte) built the foundations of a new oral hyper-expression of the body through moans, clicks, hisses, hums, whooshes, whizzes, spits, and breaths.

Henri Chopin, Les Pirouettes Vocales Pour Les Pirouettements Vocaux

Sound poets like Henri Chopin created uncanny sonic textures by only using ‘vocal micro-particles’, revealing a sounding body that can be violent and intrusive. François Dufrêne and Gil J Wolman brought forward more raw and glottal performances.

Bridging the gap between the Schwitter’s Dada-constructivism and a contemporary approach to sound poetry, Jaap Blonk’s inventive vocal performances cover a wide range of mouth sounds. In the same vein, Paul Dutton explores the limits of his voice, glottis, tongue, lips and nose as the medium for compositions — as can be heard on the record Mouth Pieces: Solo Soundsinging.

Paul Dutton, Lips Is, Mouth Pieces: Solo Soundsinging

Fluxus: Eat, Chew, Burp, Cough, Perform!

 The Event is a metarealistic trigger: it makes the viewer’s or user’s experience special. (…) Rather than convey their own emotional world abstractly, Fluxus artists directed their audiences’ attention to concrete everyday stuff addressing aesthetic metareality in the broadest sense. Hannah HigginsFluxus Experience

 The emergence of Fluxus is strongly linked to Cage’s 1957-59 class at New School for Social Research in NYC. George Bretch’s Event Score was one of the best known innovations to emerge from these classes. The Event Score was a performance technique drawn from short instructions that framed everyday life actions as minimal performances. Daily acts like chewing, coughing, licking, eating or preparing food were considered by themselves ready-made works of art. Many Fluxus artists such as Shigeko KubotaYoko Ono, Mieko Shiomi, and Alison Knowles saw these activities as forms of social music.

For instance, Alison Knowles produced several famous Fluxus food events such as Make a Salad (1962), Make a Soup (1962), and The Identical Lunch (1967-73).


Also, Mieko Shiomi‘s Shadow Piece No. 3 calls attention to the sound of amplified mastication, while Philip Corner’s piece Carrot Chew Performance is solely centered in the activity of chewing a carrot.

Philip Corner, Carrot Chew Performance, Tellus #24

In Nivea Cream Piece (1962), Alison Knowles invites the performers to rub their hands with cream in front of a microphone, producing a deluge of squeezing sounds:

Alison Knowles – Nivea Cream Piece (1962) – for Oscar (Emmett) Williams

Coughing is a form of love.

yokoIn 1961, the Fluxus artist Yoko Ono composed a 32 minute, 31 second audio recording called Cough Piece, a precursor to her instruction Keep coughing a year (Grapefruit). In this recording, the sound of Ono’s cough emerges periodically from the indistinct background noise. The Cough Piece plays with the concept of time, prolonging the duration of an activity beyond what is considered socially acceptable. While listening to this piece, Yoko Ono brings us close to her body’s automatic reflexes, pulling back the veil of an indistinct inner turmoil. Coughing can be a bodily response to an irritating tickling feeling, troubled breathing, a sore throat or a reaction to foreign particles or microbes. In response, coughing is a way of clearing, a freeing re-flux of air, a way out. Coughing is a form of love.

Yoko Ono – Cough Piece


Sonic Skin

In the work The Ego and the Id (1923), Sigmund Freud stated that the ego is ultimately derived from bodily sensations. The psychoanalyst Didier Anzieu expanded this idea by suggesting that early experiences of sound are crucial to consolidate the infant’s ego. The bath of sounds surrounding the child created by the parent’s voices and their soothing sounds provides a sonorous envelope or an audio-phonic skin that protects the child against ego-assailing noises and helps the creation of the first boundaries between the inside and the external world. The lack of a satisfactory sound envelope may compromise the development of a proper sense of self, leaving it vulnerable to invasions from outside.

It’s no surprise that conditions like Misophonia exist and are very common among us, considering how important our early exposure to sound is in building our sense of self and our sensory limits. For Misophonics, the everyday sounds we make without even thinking about them can be the source of a fractured and disruptive experience that we should not dismiss as the overreactions of a sensitive person. During the month we observe World Listening Day, our discourse usually praises the pleasures of listening and tends to focus on the sounds that soothe rather than annoy. However, conditions like Misophonia show us that there is much more that needs to be said on the subject of unpleasant sound experience. I can’t help but notice a disconnect between the vast exploration of annoying and irritating sounds in the avant-garde and the critical discourse in our sound communities that is dominated by the pleasures of listening. Cage’s call to embrace intrusive sounds urges us to consider all sounds regardless of where they fall on the spectrum of our emotions. For all of us who would consider ourselves philophonics, let’s create a critical discourse that addresses the struggles of listening as much as its pleasures.

Thanks to Jennifer Stoever for the thoughtful suggestions.

Carlo Patrão is a Portuguese radio artist and producer of the show Zepelim. His radio work began as a member of the Portuguese freeform station Radio Universidade de Coimbra (RUC). In his pieces, he aims to explore the diverse possibilities of radiophonic space through the medium of sound collage. He has participated in projects like, Radio Boredcast, and his work has been featured in several international sound festivals and has also been commissioned by Radio Arts (UK). He is currently working on a radio show for the Portuguese national public radio station RTP. In addition to his work in radio, he has a master’s in clinical psychology.

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Optophones and Musical Print– Mara Mills

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



World Listening DayWorld Listening Month3 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.

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.

"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

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

tape reel  REWIND!…If you liked this post, you may also dig:

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


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