Sound Off! // Comment Klatsch #8: Sounds From the Past

Sounding Off2klatsch \KLAHCH\ , noun: A casual gathering of people, esp. for refreshments and informal conversation  [German Klatsch, from klatschento gossip, make a sharp noiseof imitative origin.] (

Dear Readers:  Today’s Sound Off!//Comment Klatsch question comes to you from Maile Colbert, SO! regular, as a follow up conversation to her World Listening Month post: “Wayback Sound Machine: Sound Through Time, Space, and Place.” Give it a read and/or just jump right in and let us know what you think.

— J. Stoever-Ackerman, Editor-in-Chief

P.S. Don’t forget, we are giving away a  Sounding Out! sticker to today’s Klatsch participants. After you’ve commented, simply email your snail mail address to

What information can sound from the past carry and how might that be useful or important to us in the present?

Comment Klatsch logo courtesy of The Infatuated on Flickr.


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About Maile Colbert

Maile Colbert is an intermedia artist and researcher with a concentration on sound and video. She holds a BFA in The Studio for Interrelated Media from Massachusetts College of Art, an MFA in Integrated Media/Film and Video from the California Institute of the Arts, and is currently a Research Fellow towards a PhD in the Estudos Artísticos program in the Faculty of Social and Human Sciences at the Universidade NOVA de Lisboa. She has had multiple screenings and exhibits, and has performed and screened widely in Japan, Europe, Mexico, and the States.

23 responses to “Sound Off! // Comment Klatsch #8: Sounds From the Past”

  1. academicronin says :

    I’ve been looking at music & sound used in silent film, and what strikes me is how much we can tell about taste and shared sonic experiences by the pieces and instructions for sound that show up over and over again. I think it’s possible to re-create very plausible chunks of the past through recorded sound and the descriptions of common sounds. The comment about the sound of a VHS loading made me thing of the iconic sound of dial-up–anyone else remember that? It was a tune everyone knew, and while the circumstances were, like mseth2 says, fluid, the sound itself will function differently depending on the listener. Capturing these sounds and the reactions of those who grew up with them is key to preserving communal elements of a society at a point in history.

  2. Regina N. Bradley (@redclayscholar) says :

    Great question. I immediately thought about Fred Moten and his dynamic discussion of Aunt Hester’s scream in his book In the Break. It made me think about the overlapping connections between sound, silence, and black trauma during slavery and the residual effects of those sounds. How does sounding slavery reflect in more contemporary manifestations of black cultural expression? I’m currently working on a piece on Edward P. Jones’ The Known World that dabbles in the social-historical and sonic connections between hip hop, capitalism, and slavery.

    • j. stoever-ackerman says :

      Interesting answer Regina (and of course I can’t wait to read your project on Jones!). It reminds me of historical work being done on the physical sites of plantations and what the materiality of the space can tell us about sound and vice versa.

      You have also rightfully brought the idea of form into this question. Like you, I work with sounds of the past through their literary representations. I think that literature has been recording past sounds for many many many years now, for playback in readers’ imaginations (and the sonic imaginary, many neuroscientists argue, gives us the same brain stimulation that hearing “actual” sounds does). Importantly, the use of language also captures something about how people heard and felt about particular sounds in the moment in which they were sounded. Literary sounds come to us pre-listened to, in effect.

      Perhaps what is new then, is the kind of archiving being performed digitally, and the idea that the sounds may be played back “raw” (without the contours of their “original” listeners, for whom the sound of a VCR being loaded is familiar— and missed, for example. Although the process of recording is still mediates the sound, listening to it for us in particular ways, it feels more “raw” and direct than it is–it is easier to forget these sounds aren’t “the thing themselves”). Although this sort of thing has a long history too, as Jonathan Sterne writes in _The Audible Past_ that archiving was absolutely fundamental to imagining the project of developing sound recording in the late 19th century. However, he describes the recording of voices as a project like embalming, where the “outside” of the sound is preserved, but its interiority–its cultural resonances, its intimate meaning, its bodily connections–are lost, and this causes discomfort. Potentially this process of emptying out a sound is intensified with digital archiving of sound?

      Or perhaps we desire recorded sound to tell us more than it does?

      Or perhaps we just don’t yet have the language to articulate what these historical sounds do tell us about the past? (which is why this question is such a difficult one to answer?)

      • Maile Colbert says :

        Yes, really interesting response Regina…I too will keep a look out for your project! I think the need to start to look into our past, and the world’s past, in a more multi-sensory way helps history to be less abstract. If we hear the sound of an extinct bird, perhaps the loss of a species will mean something more to us in our present. If we hear the sounds of oppression from our past, perhaps we will hear what is similar in our present. I agree, the language just isn’t there yet…all the more reason for these discussions!

    • j. stoever-ackerman says :

      Your answer also made me think of Sionne Neely’s post on the slave castles in Ghana:

  3. mseth2 says :

    …Thinking about sound from the past, I’m reminded of JG Ballard’s short story “The Sound Sweep.” In a near future where audible music is considered outdated and inadequate, man has a job as a “sound sweep”: using a special vacuum cleaner, he cleans up the remnants of sounds that have become embedded in walls, chairs, and other objects.
    Ballard’s idea, I think, is that spaces ‘hold’ sound, in a quite literal way: spaces are capable of recording and playing back sounds. I can remember hearing my parents fighting, before their divorce. They would send my brother and I up to our room, but we could still hear them.
    The house would play those sounds back, in emotional ways, throughout the years. Partially through memory, partially through the ways that created ways that sounds are distributed through the house.

    • Maile Colbert says :

      One of my favorite sound design jobs was creating sound for a short film from that short story…and interestingly when trying to figure out how I would approach the sound, I was thinking of how I used to listen to my neighbors through the walls in my tiny apartment in Boston. Rarely could I hear what was actual being said, but clearly could hear the emotion behind it. It made the place seem cozy, small, and somehow timeless, like it was the space itself talking. And that was exactly what I tried to recreate for the film.

      • mseth2 says :

        I’ve heard of a short film of “The Sound Sweep,” but never had the chance to see it. Your description reminds me of those moments in “Seven” when the Morgan Freeman character is in his apartment, and we can hear people fighting just outside the walls.

    • Aaron Trammell says :

      Seth: This reminds me of “Dance Music” by the Mountain Goats. The action is all around the idea of music as an escape from other sounds. This is kind of an inversion of your point, not only do spaces record and play back sounds, artifacts also produce new affective spaces of sounds for us to escape within. The flow goes both ways, you know?

      Anyway, thanks for sharing!

  4. Rui Costa says :

    I think sound is a key element in trying to uncover the “emotional” or “sensorial” history of a place, as sound is essentially an event that relates to the personal presence in space: (how did people sense and felt the world around them?) understanding the past through purely factual elements, which is what most History accounts do, only tells us part of the “story” (usually revealing concrete actions and events – external manifestations of the human mind). a study of the sounds from the past can give us access to the deepest levels of the “collective consciousness”, which i think is an absolutely vital contribution to a more complete understanding of the past. of course that if we are talking about the past before sound recording and reproduction was possible, we can only rely on indirect (and sometimes speculative) ways to get to the “sounds from the past” but it can still be done: the knowledge about the flora, fauna, weather, architecture and human activities from the past as well as written accounts on sound related-matters would provide valuable information. this is an exciting new field!

  5. j. stoever-ackerman says :

    Here’s the link to the Museum of Endangered Sounds where you can hear for yourself:

    • Maile Colbert says :

      I love that site, thank you for posting! There has been a lot of concentration on conservation and archiving of sounds and soundscapes, which has its place of importance and neglect. Lately I’ve been also interested in what sounds and soundscapes that have changed or disappeared can tell us about ourselves, our history, and our impact. Archaeoacoustics, the use of acoustical study as a methodological approach within archaeology, is an interesting and increasingly important field stemming out of that. A field that, on the subject of endangered sound, if not for studies on the importance of the acoustics of the site of cave paintings, we would have broken open and ruined many just to let more tourists in.

  6. j. stoever-ackerman says :

    Immediately this beings to mind projects like the Museum of Endangered Sounds, which digitally preserves and makes accessible sounds “made famous by. . . favorite old technologies and electronics equipment. For instance, the textured rattle and hum of a VHS tape being sucked into the womb of a 1983 JVC HR-7100 VCR.” I’d love to hear thoughts on what this sound might mean to children used to streaming video. . .and why it might be important for them to hear it.

    or not.

    We hold on to photographs and display ancient visual artifacts in museums. . .but the idea of “conserving” or “preserving” sounds is fairly new. We tend to automatically assume that visual media “tells us something about the past”–but we don’t for sound. Why not?

    • Maile Colbert says :

      On your example, I had a student this past semester create a very moving portrait with her parents “old” (her words!) VHS. When asking her what attracted her to it, rather then responding with nostalgic descriptions, she spoke of the aesthetics…the quality of the image and the sound. A lot of the video was made with just the sound from the VHS, which was immediately recognizable to me in a way that pulled me back to my own memories of the 80’s and 90’s. For her, it was a quality and sound that represented a time and era as well, but in a historic manner. She liked the quality of the sound, she found it warm and sharing these videos made her feel more connected to her family.

    • mseth2 says :

      This is a fascinating question. Hopefully this doesn’t sound too glib, but one of the challenges of sound is that it is always in the past. By the time we hear something, it has already past the point of capture. Without being essentialist about sound as unique object, even listening to a recording places the reception of sound in memory. If visual media tells us something of the past, sound is nothing but past; there is no present.

      I’m not sure i’d agree with the point I just made, but it might suggest that there is nothing to preserve.

      • j. stoever-ackerman says :

        or that all renderings are imaginary (in the sense of being artistic), which doesn’t lessen the impact Maile’s work might have.

        • mseth2 says :

          …in fact, it would increase the impact of Maile’s work. As a result of the positioning in the imaginary, the sonic home is not an object, but a kind of flexible, membranous liquid, waves beating against beaches, but never being fully located at any one.
          Above, Malie suggested a way to understand the oppression of the present by listening to the sounds of oppression from the past. This makes the conservation act itself a political one, one that is not looking toward a horizon of realism, but a shifting set of possibilities.

        • mseth2 says :

          …I hope I’m not mis-characterizing your work, Maile. In your post, you say, “[t]he 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 was thinking about this statement as not about two different functions, but pieces of a whole, a simultaneous process. As we remember the sounds of past, we are also creating new pathways of sonic experience in the present.

          • Maile Colbert says :

            Beautifully said…I think the idea of trying more and more to consider and process the inter-connectivity of things is becoming increasingly important in many fields, and if that can be sensed in a fluid manner, bringing in this case past and present together with the experience of sound, a strong impact can be made

      • Aaron Trammell says :

        I wonder about this? This seems like a very particular sense of materiality to me. One that privileges time as foundational to experience. I was reading about Spinoza and the ways that he would move against this idea of time in favor of something like the singularity of the moment. In this sense, sound would build into the immanence of the moment quite distinctly, even if evoked as a flow of memory. Not that this is necessarily the way to look at sounds, but I wonder what this other ontology of sound can bring to the discussion?

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