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“We wanted to tell stories about sound”: Opening Ears Through the “Everything Sounds” Podcast

Everything Sounds duo: Craig Shank and George Drake, Jr.

World Listening Month3This 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


"Everything Sounds" logo, courtesy of the authors.

“Everything Sounds” logo, courtesy of the authors.

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.

CS: Everything Sounds covers stories about instruments made of meteorites, voicemail confessions, microphone museums, and dozens of other topics.

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?

"Listen to me..." by Flickr user Michela Mongardi, CC BY 2.0

“Listen to me…” by Flickr user Michela Mongardi, CC BY 2.0

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.

The hosts of Everything Sounds:

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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Sounding Out! Podcast Mini-Series (#18): Listening to The Tuned City of Brussels, Day 3: “Ephemeral Atmospheres”

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World Listening Month3

We conclude our podcast series which explores the Tuned City Brussels festival on World Listening Day. As World Listening Day seeks to draw attention to environmental awareness and acoustic ecology, today’s podcast focuses on these issues as it deals with the precarity of of Haren’s somewhat pastoral space, as it is threatened by a variety of institutional interests. So please grab your headphones and celebrate World Listening day this year with Sounding Out! as we turn our attention back to the Tuned City Brussels festival.

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In this series of podcasts, Felicity Ford (Great Britain) and Valeria Merlini (Italy) explore the sonorities of the city during the Tuned City Brussels festival. Please click here for our podcast detailing the first night, here for our podcast exploring Day 1, “Noise,” or here for our podcast which focuses on Day 2, “Situational Listening.”

On the final day, Sunday, June 29th, the festival focused on the ephemeral resonances and atmospheres that either catch our attention or pass unnoticed within the city. An attention to diverse notions of ambiance is the starting point for the festival’s concluding day in Haren, which is situated at the north-eastern edge of the Brussels Capital Region. Despite the presence of a nearby airport and high-speed train link, Haren still maintains a tranquil atmosphere, reminiscent of the chicory farming village it once was. Today, however, this calm is nestled between abandoned industrial buildings and large scale construction sites for an expansive prison and the new NATO headquarters.

The first Tuned City project was realised in Berlin in 2008, with subsequent editions in Tallinn and Nürnberg. For the current edition Q-O2 workspace for experimental music and sound art has invited Tuned City to collaboratively research the sounds of Brussels. Brussels is a dense multi-layered city characterised by abrupt shifts in urban structure, architecture and the social environment. This patchwork provides an urban modality that resists a general grasp of the city while still providing room for individual expression. The abundance these juxtapositions during the festival creates a productive resonance where the city is manifest to the passerby in its vibrant, open-ended, multiplicity. How does one grasp the nature of these oscillations and what modes of resonance give shape to the particular Brussels vibe?
 Over the course of the four day festival, Tuned City Brussels probes these urban frequencies through concerts, walks, installations and interventions, while at the same time focusing the theoretical framework around three core notions: ‘Relational Noise’ (Day 1), ‘Situational Listening’ (Day 2), and ‘Ephemeral Ambience’ (Day 3). A different theme will be explored each day in a corresponding ‘zone’ in the city, in which the festival relocates. Several lectures, artistic presentations, residencies and workshops have led up to this four day festival. Particularly important was a collaboration with the art schools Sint Lucas Architectuur, Erasmus Hogeschool RITS/Radio, Sint Lukas Transmedia, a.pass and La Cambre (ENSAV) option Espace Urbain.

If you would like to learn more about the Tuned City Brussels Festival, please check out their program here.

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Felicity Ford (Great Britain) works across a wide variety of platforms in order to engage the public with new modes of listening. She celebrates everyday life by linking the sounds of material culture, documentary sound-recording processes and listening to their larger social contexts. Since completing her PhD in 2011 she has completed commissions on Sonic Wallpapers for the Museum of Domestic Design and Architecture, a film soundtrack for the Welcome Library and the British Film Institute for a 1930s antenatal care film entitled “Bathing & Dressing,” Parts 1 & 2, and a knitted sound system with accompanying composition. She co-runs the website Sound Diaries with Valeria Merlini.

Valeria Merlini (Italy) is a Berlin based sound artist, turntablist, DJ and curator. After studying architecture in Florence, Italy, she obtained a Master’s degree in Sound Studies at The Berlin University of the Arts. Her work explores everyday sounds within an urban context through an interdisciplinary and critical approach. She is a co-founder of Studio Urban Resonance, a member of the Italian record label Burp Enterprise and co-runs Staalplaat Radio. As a DJ she focuses on experimental electronic music, constantly extending the conventions of turntablism, musique concrète, free improvisation and composed music. She was the director of the 2012 Museruole Festival and has participated in numerous international events and exhibitions.

A Listening Mind: Sound Learning in a Literature Classroom

"Listen, Understand, Act" by Flickr user Steven Shorrock, CC-BY-NC-SA

“Listening is little short of a synonym for learning.”

–Julian Henriques, Sonic Bodies

World Listening Month3This is the third 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 Maile Colbert click here and Regina Bradley’s discussion of listening, race, and Rachel Jeantel (and to read more about World Listening Day) click here.

How can listening, which I’ve come to understand as an essential way of knowing, enhance the learning experience? My pedagogical challenge over the past few years has been to develop a heightened awareness of the ways our ears are not necessarily, as Robert Frost asserts, “the only true reader and the only true writer,” but certainly an essential mode of reading and writing that is too often underdeveloped. As my high school students read works by Zora Neale Hurston, Ralph Ellison, Michael Ondaatje, Jonathan Safran Foer, James Baldwin, and Lucille Clifton, I want their ears to become increasingly attuned to the sounds, silences, vibrations, and other sonic significance embedded within printed words. I want them to experience how listening enhances their understanding of literature, that listening is learning.

"Writing" by Flickr user filipe ferreira, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

“Writing” by Flickr user filipe ferreira, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

I’ve taught A Listening Mind, a trimester course for high school juniors at Princeton Day School in New Jersey, for two years. Inspired by Toni Morrison’s 1996 National Book Award acceptance speech, “The Dancing Mind,” the course title signals my interest in challenging students to practice writing and reading in ways that are collaborative and cognitively (and otherwise) dissonant with their usual English classroom habits of mind. For my students, at least initially, writing is ruled solely by the mantra “Show. Don’t Tell.” This course, then, creates preconditions for a new kind of learning. It aims to heighten students’ aural attentiveness in general, and particularly in relation to the sonic life that inhabits the lower frequencies of the printed word. In many ways, the class resonates with Liana Silva’s discussion of sound as significant to writing and learning. In this course, we grapple with essential questions such as: How might we read and write with our ears? What happens when we take the risk to do so? As I design assessments and moderate the course, I keep in mind my own essential question as an educator: How can my scholarly interest in listening as a significant mode of cultural and social engagement translate into sound study learning opportunities for my students? The assignments students complete in A Listening Mind, a few of which I share next, are my response to these questions–a response that is in constant development.

CULTIVATING A LISTENING MIND

On the first day of class, I play Jason Moran’s “Cradle Song” from his most recent album, Artist in Residence. Moran plays the Carl Maria von Weber-composed lullaby on unaccompanied piano; the urgent scratching of a closely miked pencil on paper writes slightly ahead of the calming melody.

The song, a tribute to Moran’s mother who would stand over his shoulder taking notes as Moran practiced piano as a child, amplifies a sonic life that more often lingers within the printed word. Thus, it allows us to begin exploring the possibilities of listening as an approach to reading and writing.

In the first month of the course, students practice low stakes listening and writing: they go on short listening walks and record by hand what they hear in their sound journals. Rutger Zuydervelt’s Take a Closer Listen, an excerpt from the opening pages of Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, and the New York Times Magazine prose and audio essay, “Whisper in the Wind” are our inspirations for this assignment. They visit a space in which they feel most like themselves and tune into the space’s acoustics. They do the same in a space where they are less comfortable. Students also tune their attention to eco-listening – listening with intention to the natural or man-made environments in which we find ourselves. The idea is to notice the sounds our ears have become deaf to as we’ve become accustomed to a space. Their eco-listening results in their creating individual listening booklets that record the sounds we hear and our occasional reflections on them.  By listening to various sounds and in various ways during the early weeks of the course, students exercise their ears and, along the way, some even realize that you need more than just ears to listen.

"Listening Devices" by Flickr user abrinsky, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

“Listening Devices” by Flickr user abrinsky, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

SONIC MATERIAL CULTURE

One of the assignments of the course involves work in what I call “sonic material culture.” According to the University of Delaware’s Center for Material Culture Studies, the study of material cultural objects “promotes the learning from and the teaching about all things people make and the ways people have acted upon the physical and visible world.” But, what about the ways in which material culture impacts the audible world? Sonic material culture looks at how material cultural objects help create cultural meaning through the sounds they make and the ways in which people use those sounds. Students explored an array of “sonic objects” that included, among others, a Tibetan singing bowl, steel drum, Shofar, typewriter, stethoscope, and a boom box. They then chose one of the items – an item that either makes sound (like a steel drum) or allows for access to sound (like a stethoscope), and began their research with a specific focus on how this item holds sonic cultural significance.

To research the stethoscope, for example, one student interviewed a cardiologist and a medical historian. She learned that sounds doctors hear through the stethoscope “comprise a language, spelling out diagnoses and prognoses” and provide “gateways to our understanding of the heart.” Another student chose the Steel Drum, an instrument developed in the 20th century in Trinidad and Tobago, and ended up discussing the innovation involved in reusing oil containers to produce a new cultural sound. Another student’s research on the Tibetan Singing Bowl led him back to a moment in Jonathan Stroud’s The Bartimaeus Trilogy: Book Three, Ptolemy’s Gate when the character Kitty Jones describes the ringing of a Singing Bowl that signals her transport into the world of magical spirits. Listening to the Singing Bowl made this student more attentive to this moment that he initially skimmed. And, one student’s love of all things vintage led her to her father’s manual typewriter and an essay combining family history and larger insights about education, workplaces, and mechanical writing. In each of these cases, the students realized that the sounds cannot be extricated from the material, social, and historical conditions that produce them.

SOUNDING HISTORY

The last time I taught the course, I designed a sound history mini-project. Students read excerpts from the work of Mark A. Smith and my work on historical listening in David Bradley’s The Chaneysville Incident, and considered these question: How might sound function as a way to narrate a specific historical moment? Students needed to choose a historical moment, locate a sound, and then create a museum card that, among others, answered the following key questions: What does this sound bring to our attention that we might not otherwise consider? What questions does this sound raise? What does it leave mute? Since students had watched Django Unchained recently, we discussed sounds of slavery in that film. If you write slavery through the crack of the whip, then your focus might be on violence and torture used during that peculiar past. If you tell slavery, though, from the code-laden singing enslaved persons used to send messages to flee, then you have a different frame, a different sonic way into the historical moment.

One student used the opening sounds from The Wizard of Oz to narrate the Dust Bowl. Another examined news reports and hip hop music to listen back to the Los Angeles Uprisings. One young woman interviewed her mother about her immigration experience from Guatemala; in her project, the sound of a train whistle signaled arrival to the United States and a new life. One of the most striking projects consisted in an inventive student engineering her own sound using a teakettle in order to recreate what she imagined as the sound inside a gas chamber in a concentration camp during World War II. As she explained during her presentation, the screeching teakettle captures for her both the sound of gas and the screaming of those persons trapped within a chamber. What an empathetic choice to make as a listening scholar: to imagine the voice of one in the midst of death.

Students worked on this assignment as part of their culminating assessment for the course. I assigned this work at the end of the course because it gave students an opportunity to delve into the work of a Sound Studies scholar: students drew on their skills as listeners developed over the term; returned to questions we asked regarding listening and interpretation of written and recorded texts; framed their own questions for inquiry; and used sound technologies such as Audacity and GarageBand to amplify their historical sound.

"Turn Up the Mix" by Flickr user Travis Hightower, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

“Turn Up the Mix” by Flickr user Travis Hightower, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

LISTENING BACK

As I tune my ears excitedly towards another World Listening Day (this year on July 18, 2013), I find myself remembering my students’ portfolio reflections of their learning in this course. Students mentioned that their time in the course helped them pay more attention to sounds around them: “my ears have been retrofitted by my experience in this class.” Some students became more in tune with their own sound: “The world is too noisy. I need to focus in, to tune in to myself.” Yet others found themselves “slowly opening [them]selves up to others” and becoming “more engaged with others’ opinions even if they were different from” their own. Even though some students entered the class resistant to, uncertain about, or “unnerved” by the thought of a listening English course, they felt by the end that, in the words of one student, “Now I leave this class with a purpose and clearer understanding of the importance of listening to my own echo.”  In short, the two groups of students who have taken this class grow more “in tune” to multiple frequencies of reading, writing, and learning.

"Verbose, sentimental foolery" by Flickr user Sarah Ross, CC BY-NC 2.0

“Verbose, sentimental foolery” by Flickr user Sarah Ross, CC BY-NC 2.0

Lastly, while I hoped students would grow as listeners, I did not anticipate that their perceptions of themselves as readers and writers would also shift. Students who previously described themselves as “just not an English student” or who began writing and reading assignments with self-defeating “I’m just not good at this” comments, delved more deeply into the writing process and produced strikingly confident, nuanced pieces by term end. They have grown in their sonic literacy. In this, my students remind me of the most essential of questions: How, to borrow Carol Dweck’s language, do we help students develop a growth, rather than a fixed, mindset where learning  is concerned? In my view, listening—practiced as a dynamic, tinkering, beta-type approach to the study of literature and writing—provides interesting answers.

Featured image photo credit: “Listen, Understand, Act” by Flickr user Steven Shorrock, CC-BY-NC-SA-2.0

Nicole Brittingham Furlonge earned her PhD in English from the University of Pennsylvania. Her dissertation, “On the Lower Frequencies: Listening and African American Expressive Culture,” marks the beginnings of her investment in sound studies as the field resonates with issues of race, class, gender and education.   Her work has been published in the academic journals Callaloo and Interference, and in the publication St. Andrew’s Today. She also has published a cookbook for young children, Kitchen Passports: Trinidad and Tobago. She has taught in independent high schools and colleges for 16 years, including University of MichiganUPennThe Lawrenceville SchoolHolderness School and St. Andrew’s School in Delaware. She has extensive experience in the classroom and in administrative roles dealing with curriculum development, diversity issues, faculty development and issues regarding education, equity and access.Currently, Nicole chairs the English Department at the Princeton Day School in New Jersey and blogs at the Huffington Post. She lives in the green part of New Jersey with her spouse and their three young children.

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Deejaying her Listening: Learning through Life Stories of Human Rights Violations–Bronwen Low and Emmanuelle Sonntag

Audio Culture Studies: Scaffolding a Sequence of Assignments--Jentery Sayers

 

Wayback Sound Machine: Sound Through Time, Space, and Place

DSC_6163.JPG

World Listening Month3This 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.

Photo by the author, Saint Michael’s Mound, Marazion, Cornwall

Photo by the author, Saint Michael’s Mound, Marazion, Cornwall

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.

Photo by the author, Gulval, Cornwall

Photo by the author, Gulval, Cornwall

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.

Photo by the author, Ludgvan, Cornwall

Photo by the author, Ludgvan, Cornwall

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).

Hadrosaur skull, Image by Flickr user e_monk

Hadrosaur skull, Image by Flickr user e_monk

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.

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Chavín De Huántar

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.

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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.

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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.

Photo by the author, Saint Michael’s Mound, Marazion, Cornwall

Photo by the author, Saint Michael’s Mound, Marazion, Cornwall

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!

tape reel

REWIND! . . .If you liked this post, you may also dig:

 “Listening to Disaster: Our Relationship to Sound in Danger”–Maile Colbert

Within a Grain of Sand: Our Sonic Environment and Some of Its Shapers” –Maile Colbert

“Animal Renderings: The Library of Natural Sounds”--Jonathan Skinner

 

 

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