Tag Archive | headphones

SO! Reads: Damon Krukowski’s The New Analog

Analog revival has gained traction across many media in recent years, but perhaps nowhere so strikingly as in sound. The shifting formats and fortunes of a digitally reshaped music industry invite, for many, the counterposition of a bright nostalgic picture. Yet artists and engineers whose work has spanned the transition from analog to digital sound find that the romanticization of the former can have a weird overreach. For example, when Dave Grohl produced a digital-decrying documentary on the LA studio Sound City, engineer Larry Crane was bemused that “Grohl seems to be attributing the arc of his career to the magic in a Neve console.” Recordists like Crane find themselves in between the Scylla and Charybdis of digital-era music: on one side, the embrace of new tools that are as entangled with corporate control structures as they are convenient; on the other, a skepticism that overshoots its mark, fetishizing old technologies and cementing a previous generation’s in-crowd as gatekeepers. Decades after digital media triggered one of the most momentous transitions in sound recording, the debate around their use is anything but settled. Tied up in this contest are questions of how and what pre-digital media will be preserved, but also problems like whose use of technology in music-making constitutes authentic talent and who has authority in the determination.

When Damon Krukowski steers into these waters with The New Analog: Listening and Reconnecting in a Digital World  (The New Press: 2017), he is quick to qualify that his memorializing of pre-digital practices “is hardly a Luddite’s call” (12). Noting the “all-or nothing response” that “dominates popular discussion of the many anxieties provoked by the digital revolution” (9), Krukowski contrasts the disruption-embracing “clean break” with life on the “technological island” (8) of confining one’s practice to outmoded materials. Addressing a reader who lives more or less contentedly in a contemporary media world, he speaks as a kind of expatriate of the analog island. He, too, lives in the digital present, but he sees it through the lens of decades spent working with and listening through analog machines. His project of defending analog listening practices takes inspiration from the efforts of urbanist Jane Jacobs, who labored to turn back the tide of redevelopment and suburbanization by celebrating the organic functionality of city life. His central argument for preservation is that “what we are losing in the demolition of analog media is noise” (197, emphasis original). Noise becomes a character in The New Analog akin to the city block in Jacobs’s work: a wrongly maligned figure that has quietly formed the basis of experience and utility in the old mode.

Though Krukowski’s definition of noise is flexible in some ways, he casts the digital as its uncompromising antithesis. This position precludes what could make the book more forward-looking in its aim: a consideration that noise might become a new kind of character in the digital realm rather than disappearing at its edge. Noise shows up in analog media as buzzing undercurrents and as modes of distortion when electrical signals exceed their ranges; digital media, while lacking these, are replete with moments of failure when a system is fed the wrong kind of information or pushed beyond its intended bounds. In their repetition, these moments of error become a new kind of noise that, just like analog noise, forms an unremovable layer of our experience in mediated environments. By declining to look for digital noise and instead focusing so squarely on noise as something lost to the digital transition, Krukowski misses a chance to center a more significant linkage with Jacobs: many of the problems he sees in digital-era sound are not due to the inherent nature of digital media but rather to the same motives of control and segregation underpinning the drive toward suburbanization.

Yet his original and thoughtfully cast historical route points us toward these culprits, even when the language drifts toward a more technologically deterministic stance. It is thus that his book still provides a vibrant body of historical consideration we can leverage in using noise to reshape our digital ways of listening. The moments when Krukowski lets technology stand in for the human motives that construct it give unfortunate cover to what should be the targets of such a critique. But his real concern toward the digital era arises from specific changes in the landscape of aural awareness, and he ultimately succeeds in the task of elevating his argument above the cliché of deterministic digital-bashing by setting its true focus not on the digital but on the era.

headphones by Flickr user Chris, (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Readers might be surprised, for instance, to discover that The New Analog’s first chapter covers a development in sound — the transition from mono to stereo — that has nothing to do with digitization at its outset. The chapter narrates the release of Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon as a critical moment in consumer audio’s treatment of headphones as the ideal listening space. This movement toward individualized experience becomes a crucial part of setting the stage for the actual entrance of the digital. The design of digital media, Krukowski demonstrates, has not just carried forward this trend but absorbed it as a guiding principle, and has effected the same transformation not just in listening to music but across all kinds of daily situations. “The stream of digital information can put each of us in a different space than the others, even as we hurtle together through a tunnel on fixed tracks,” (49) Krukowski observes of the changed social experience of riding a subway. The comment makes an easy metaphoric return to music: digital design is now funneling sonic experience into a small number of streaming platforms, each promoted on the appeal of moving out of a collective listening space into one of personal curation. Claiming that a dangerous disorientation can arise in the separation of such neatly personalized spaces from their messier surroundings, the chapter closes with a cautionary tone: bad things can happen when we follow along with the digital logic of turning a once noisy situation into “a stream that is signal only” and when we stop “paying attention to noise.” (51, emphasis original).

Noise closes out each chapter, constituting the shared floor on which the book’s arguments stand. This construction calls for scrutiny, because noise is a notoriously slippery figure. As Marie Thompson notes in her recent interview with SO!, subjective and objective definitions both lay claim to noise, bringing along problems of politicized value judgment and erased context. At the same time, the term’s many meanings (electrical, legal, musical, etc.) serve as useful bridges. In Sound Ideas: Music, Machines, and Experience, Aden Evens uses noise as a primary example when he suggests a “productive ambiguity” can prompt connections that help different disciplines approach meeting points. Krukowski would, it seems, endorse this idea. He couples his formulation of noise to that of analog — an analog medium is identifiable by its noisiness, and noise is the substrate by which meaning takes hold in an analog medium.

Is it fair, though, to chain the figure of noise so tightly to analog recording that we must say it is wholly lost in the move to digital? In arguing that digitally mediated communication lacks the analog mode’s quality of perceivable distance, Krukowski lists perceptual coding — the application of “psychoacoustic research to digital sound processing” (75) — as one culprit. Jonathan Sterne, in MP3: The Meaning of a Format, points to perceptual coding’s advent as a moment when noise was domesticated. Where engineers had long sought to minimize noise, perceptual coding meant that “communication engineering exhibited a new attitude toward noise. Once you can use signal to hide noise, the game is up. Noise ceases to matter as a perceptual category.” This change in noise’s status does not eradicate it or lessen its importance, though. According to Sterne, this domestication made noise more available as a site for artistic exploration and subversion. But if noise is a key foundation on which we find meaning through listening, as Krukowski compellingly argues, and noise has been subjected to a great domestication, what does that say about the forces at work upon our listening?

A fascinating answer emerges in a thread that pops up multiple times across Krukowski’s anecdotes: the relationship between patriarchal domesticity and the shaping of digital sound. In the chapter on stereo, he includes an ad from a 1962 Playboy issue where a man carries a woman as if across a threshold; she, in turn, holds a stereo set in its portable case. The ad pairs the stereo and the wife as two laudable choices in the man’s domestic assemblage. Both are manageable enough for him to carry home, yet both promise to extend his control — Krukowski notes that such marketing material touted stereo products as letting their owners occupy “the producer’s chair” (28) by granting listeners new agency over the mix. That focus on idealized male consumers echoes still through gendered suppression in musical exchange: as Elizabeth Newton writes, “Though women have collected vinyl since the inception of the medium, female collectors, like the women musicians being collected, often lack representation in public space that is commensurate with their actual involvement.”

True to the analogy with Jane Jacobs’s struggle against the developer Robert Moses, the patriarchal force that has ingrained itself so thoroughly in digital audio is also a suburbanizing one, keyed to a politics of racial segregation that frequently cites noise as a justification. In “‘Just Be Quiet Pu-leeze’: The New York Amsterdam News Fights the Postwar ‘Campaign against Noise,’” Jennifer Stoever documents how “white press discourse on Puerto Rican migration firmly attached ‘noise’ to the voices, bodies, and neighborhoods of Puerto Rican migrants — portraying white flight to the suburbs as a justifiable escape to suburban refuges of peace and quiet and targeting urban areas such as Harlem in ‘antinoise’ campaigns” (PAGE). Regina Bradley traces this “connection between whiteness and quiet” through to a contemporary moment in her SO! post “Fear of a Black (in the) Suburb.” The history of racially targeted noise ordinances intersects Krukowski’s narration of the proto-digital movement toward private listening. He quotes LL Cool J’s “I Can’t Live Without My Radio” as a noise-ordinance-defying affirmation of boombox listening, the antithesis of headphones and their sonic compartmentalization. Dwelling on the song’s line “Terrorizing my neighbors with the heavy bass,” he points to the artist’s intentional use of noise as a political implement, bound up jointly in his listening and his music making.

For Krukowski, the song is noteworthy in demonstrating a practice lost to the wave of noise-eradicating digital development in sound. If we approach it with the consideration that noise might not have been lost but rather domesticated, however, it serves more as a guidepost. Were he looking to LL Cool J’s example as one in need of a digital-era parallel, Krukowski might arrive at a different treatment of Kanye West’s post-release revisions of his album The Life of Pablo than he gives later in the book. Rather than describing West’s changes as “art severed from its own history” (169), he could instead credit the album’s uniquely digital instability as a moment of usurping the corporate platform as the arbiter of a record’s final version — an instance of harnessing digital noise within a digital environment to reorient its assumed parameters of authority and a prompt for listeners to consider their own role in deciding what version of the text should prevail.

Though Krukowski declines to bring it to the forefront, the involvement of a domesticating and segregating force lends further weight and precision to The New Analog’s historical argument. Returning to his invocation of Jane Jacobs, Krukowski analogizes the dichotomy of street and home with that of analog and digital. “Noise has a value of its own—the value of shared space and time,” he writes. “The urban spaces we occupy are built on that commonality. The street is a noisy place. And the street has value, as Jane Jacobs pointed out” (207, emphasis original). The contrast between analog street and digital home reaches back to rescue the book from the flawed pronouncement that digital tools themselves are the problem. We are left to consider a much richer historical argument about the alarming success that efforts of domestication and power-consolidation have found in intertwining themselves with digital media.

In that light, readers looking for an actionable takeaway from The New Analog shouldn’t just unsubscribe from streaming services and start (or resume) buying vinyl records. They should redirect their attention toward the very thing of whose existence Krukowski seems skeptical: digital noise. Even though the digital home is built to confine, there are new noisy streets outside it to be explored. Krukowski recounts how the band Can endeavored to let their recording studio “compose on its own” and to become an activating, curating conduit for the sounds of tape machines. “In Can’s studio technique,” he writes, “noise and signal are equally significant materials…. the noises in it are no less human than the signals” (138). If we look for digital noise, we will see that it bears no less potential for meaning and beauty than Can’s analog noise, as artists are already proving with techniques like glitch and sampling. We as listeners can do more to help realize that aim by celebrating digital noise, by recognizing what it reveals and critiques. For a project that with less care could have steered off into the welcoming terrain of nostalgic grievance, The New Analog offers a surprising amount to point our way forward.

Holly Herndon’s “Home” uses sonic and visual sampling to turn the surveillant gaze of an intimate digital space back on itself.

Featured image: “Scenes From The Recording Studio” by Flickr user G. Dawson, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Andy Kelleher Stuhl is a writer, sound artist, and software developer focused on creative infrastructures and the politics of mediated sonic exchange. His work looks to musicians for inspiration and aims to apply musical creativity as a model for new paths in such domains as digital humanities and the critique of technology. His research has investigated the phenomenon of analog fetishism from the perspective of sound engineer communities and, more recently, the process and aspirations behind interactive musical works. He holds a master’s degree in Comparative Media Studies from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a BA in Science, Technology, and Society from Stanford University.

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SO! Reads: Jonathan Sterne’s MP3: The Meaning of a Format–Aaron Trammell

Digital Analogies: Techniques of Sonic Play–Roger Moseley

Evoking the Object: Physicality in the Digital Age of Music-Primus Luta

Pleasure Beats: Using Sound for Experience Enhancement 

Sound and Pleasure2After a rockin’ (and seriously informative) series of podcasts from Leonard J. Paul, a Drrty South banger dropped by SO! Regular Regina Bradley, a screamtastic meditation from Yvon Bonenfant, a heaping plate of food sounds from Steph Ceraso,  and crowd chants courtesy of  Kariann Goldschmidts work on live events in Brazil, our summer Sound and Pleasure comes to a stirring (and more intimate) conclusion.  Tune into Justyna Stasiowskas frequency below. And thanks for engaging the pleasure principle this summer!--JS, Editor-in-Chief

One of my greatest pleasures is lying in bed, eyes closed and headphones on. I attune to a single stimuli while being enveloped in sound. Using sensory deprivation techniques like blindfolding and isolating headphones is a simple recipe for relaxation, but the website Digital Drugs offers you more. A user can play their mp3 files and surround themselves with an acoustical downpour that increases and then develops into gradient waves. The user feels as if in a hailstorm, surrounded by this constant gritty aural movement. Transfixed by the feeling of noise, the outside seems indistinguishable from inside.

Screenshot courtesy of the author

Screenshot courtesy of the author

Sold by the i-Doser company, Digital Drugs use mp3 files to deliver binaural beats in order to “simulate a desired experience.” The user manual advises lying in a dark and silent room with headphones on when listening to the recording. Simply purchase the mp3, and fill the prescription by listening. Depending on user needs, the experience can be preprogrammed with a specific scenario. This way users can condition themselves using Digital Drugs in order to feel a certain way. The user can control the experience by choosing the “student” or “confidence” dose suggestive of whether you’d like your high like a mild dose of marijuana or an intense dose of cocaine. The receiver is able to perceive every reaction of their body as a drug experience, which they themselves produced. The “dosing” of these aural drugs is restricted by a medical warning and “dose advisors” are available for consultation.

Screenshot, courtesy of the author

Screenshot courtesy of the author

Thus, the overall presentation of Digital Drugs resembles a crisscross of medicine and narcotic clichés with the slogan “Binaural Brainwave doses for every imaginable mood.” While researching the phenomena of Digital Drugs, I have tried not to dismiss them as another gimmick or a new age meditation prop. Rather, I argue the I-Doser company offers a simulation of a drug experience by using the discourse of psychoactive substances to describe sounds: the user becomes an actor taking part in a performance.

By tracing these strategies on a macro and micro scale I show a body emerging from a new paradigm of health. I argue that we have become a psychosomatic creature called the inFORMational body: a body that is formed by information, which shapes practices of health undertaken to feel good and form us. This body is networked, much like a fractal, and connects different agencies operating both in macro (society) and micro (individual) scales.

Macroscale Epidemy: The Power of Drug Representation 

Heinrich Wilhelm Dove described binaural beats in 1839 as a specific brain stimuli resulting in low-frequency pulsations perceivable when two tones at slightly different frequencies are presented separately through stereo headphones to each of the subject’s ears. The difference between tones must be relatively small, only up to 30 Hz, and the tones themselves must not exceed 1000 Hz. Subsequently, scientific authorities presented the phenomena as a tool in stimulating the brain in neurological affliction therapy. Gerard Oster described the applications in 1968 and the Monroe Institute later continued this research in order to use binaural beats in meditation and “expanding consciousness” as a crucial part of self-improvement programs.

I-Doser then molded this foundational research into a narrative presenting binaural beats as a brain stimulation for a desired experience. The binaural beats can be simply understood as an acoustic phenomena with application in practices like meditation or medical therapy.

I-Doser also employs the unverified claims about binaural beats into a narration that consists of the scattered information about research; it connects these authorities with YouTube recordings of human reactions to Digital Drugs. Video testimonies of Digital Drugs users caused a considerable stir among both parents and teachers in American schools two years ago. An American school even banned mp3 players as a precautionary measure. In the You Tube video one can see a person lying with headphones on. After a while we see an involuntary body movement that in some videos might resemble a seizure. Losing control over one’s body becomes the highlight of the footage alongside a subjective account also present in the video. The body movements are framed as a drug experience both for the viewer who is a vicarious witness and the participant who has an active experience.

This type of footage as evidence was popularized as early as the 1960s when military footage showed reactions to psychoactive substances such as LSD.

In the same manner as the Digital Drugs video, the army footage highlights the process of losing control over one’s body, complete with subjective testimonies as evidence of the psychoactive substance’s power.

This kind of visualization is usually fueled by paranoia, akin to Cold War fears, depicting daily attacks by an invisible enemy upon unaware subjects. The information of the authority agencies about binaural beats created a reference base that fueled the concern framing the You Tube videos as evidence of drug experience. It shows that the angst isn’t triggered by technology, in this case Digital Drugs, but by the form in which the “invisible attack” is presented: through sound waves. The manner of framing is more important than the hypothetical action itself. Context then changes recognition.

Microscale Paradigm Shift: Health as Feeling 

On an individual level, did feeling better always mean being healthy? In Histoire des pratiques de santé. Le sain et le malsain depuis le MoyenAge, Georges Vigarello, continuator of the Foucault School of Biopolitics, explains that well-being became a medicalized condition in the 20th century with growing attention to mental health. Being healthy was no longer only about the good condition of the body but became a state of mind; feeling was important as an overall recognition of oneself. In the biopolitical perspective, Vigarello points out, health became more than just the government’s concern for individual well-being but was maintained by medical techniques and technologies.

In the case of Digital Drugs the well-being of children was safely governed by parents and media coverage creating prevention in schools from the “sound drugs.” Similarly, the UAE called for a ban on “hypnotic music” citing it as an illegal drug like cannabis or ecstasy. Using this perspective, I would add that feeling better, then, becomes a never-ending warfare; well-being becomes understood as a state (as in condition and as in governed territory).

Well-being is also an obligation to society, carried out by specific practices. What does a healthy lifestyle actually mean? Its meaning includes self-governance: controlling yourself, keeping fit, discipline (embodying the rules). In order to do it you need guidance: the need for authorities (health experts and trainers) and common knowledge (the “google it” modus operandi). All of these agencies create a strategy to make you feel good every day and have a high performance rate. Digital Drugs, then, become products that promise to boost up your energy, make you more endurable, and extend your mind capabilities. High performance is redefined as a state that enables instant access to happiness, pleasure, relaxation.

"Submerged" by Flickr user Rene Passet, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

“Submerged” by Flickr user Rene Passet, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

inFORMational Body 

Vigarello reflects that understanding health in terms of low/high performance—itself based on the logic of consumption—created the concept of a limitless enhancement. Here, he refers to the information model, connecting past assumptions about health with a technique of self-governing. It is based on senses and an awareness of oneself using “intellectual” practices like relaxation and “probing oneself” (or knowing what vitamins you should take). The medical apparatus’s priority, moreover, shifted from keeping someone in good health to maintaining well-being. The subjective account became the crucial element of a diagnosis, supporting itself on information from different sources in order to imply the feeling of a limitless “better.” This strategy relies strongly on the use of technologies, the consideration of a sensual aspect and self-recognition—precisely the methodology used for Digital Drugs’ focus on enhancing wellbeing.

Still, this inFORMational body needs a regulatory system. How do we know that we really feel better? Apart from the media well-being campaign (and the amount of surveillance it involves), we are constantly asked about our health status in the common greeting phrase, but its unheimlich-ness only becomes apparent for non-anglo-saxon speakers. These checkpoint techniques become an everyday instrument of discipline and rely on an obligation to express oneself in social interactions.

So how do we feel? As for now, everything seems “OK.”

Featured image: “Biophonic Garden” by Flickr user Rene Passet, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Justyna Stasiowska is a PhD student in the Performance Studies Department at Jagiellonian University. She is preparing a dissertation under the working title: “Noise. Performativity of Sound Perception” in which she argue that frequencies don’t have a strictly programmed effect on the receiver and the way of experiencing sounds is determined by the frames or modes of perception, established by the situation and cognitive context. Justyna earned her M.A in Drama and Theater Studies. Her thesis was devoted to the notion of liveness in the context of the strategies used by contemporary playwrights to manipulate the recipients’ cognitive apparatus using the DJ figure. You can find her on Twitter and academia.edu.

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Papa Sangre and the Construction of Immersion in Audio Games–Enongo Lumumba-Kasongo

On Sound and Pleasure: Meditations on the Human VoiceYvon Bonenfant

This is Your Body on the Velvet Underground–Jacob Smith

 

I Can’t Hear You Now, I’m Too Busy Listening: Social Conventions and Isolated Listening

Editor’s Note: I hate to interrupt our busy readers, but I just wanted to mention that today’s post by Osvaldo Oyola marks our last entry in SO!‘s July Forum on Listening.  For the full introduction to the World Listening Month! series click here.  To peep the previous posts, click here.  Also, look for our #Blog-O-Versary 3.0 post coming up on July 27th, a multimedia celebration of three years of Sounding Out! awesomeness (complete with a free, downloadable soundtrack compiled by our editors and writers for your listening pleasure). Now for some pure, uninterrupted reading (we hope!).–JSA

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In calling attention to listening as an activity, July 18th’s World Listening Day made me think about our social conventions around listening. While it is not uncommon for folks to pay lip service to listening’s value, this ignores the variety of ways that listening is actually socially prioritized (and the multiple meanings housed in the term “listening”).  Case in point, the officiant at my recent wedding exhorted my about-to-be-wife and me to listen to each other:  “listen for what is consistent and familiar, but also for what is new, emergent, even sweetly radical in your partner.”  When used in this sense, listening refers to a focused attention to the meaning of sound, particularly language. His words suggest that our relationship would be strengthened by listening’s ability to convey interpersonal knowledge.

While listening is certainly crucial to social bonds, my own experience as a careful and engaged listener of music suggests that some of the most crucial listening we do happens as an isolated–and isolating experience–especially when listening involves recorded sound. However, its importance to our individual well being often seems directly inverse to the (lack of) seriousness other people seem to give it. Not my now-wife, of course, but uninterrupted musical listening was not an official part of our vows, either.  There is an inherent tension between social and isolated forms of listening.

Sign o’ the Times,  still my fave 25 years later.

As a teenager, for example, whatever my arguments with my mom might have really been about, a frequent instigator of a blow-up was her reaction to my annoyance when she’d interrupt my listening at her whim. I’d be sitting in my room listening in anticipation for what I have often called my favorite recorded human sound–that moment in Prince’s “Adore” on Sign o’ the Times around 2:55 (music nerd correction: on the album version it is actually at 2:48) when Prince makes a little moan before the second time he sings “crucial”–and mom would burst into the room to ask me a question, giving no heed to the stereo. I often responded to this in the same way: “If I were reading or watching TV, you’d say ‘excuse me,’ to get my attention, just like you always taught me a polite person should do. But when it is music you just go ahead and interrupt as if I weren’t doing anything, but I am doing something. I’m listening to music. It’s an activity.” (Of course, you have to imagine that response laden with all the snottiness only a teenager could muster). You would’ve thought she’d understand, since my obsessive love of music was influenced in no small part by her huge collection of salsa records, but my mom’s listening is mostly predicated on embodying the music through dance. This kind of listening is not so much about close attention to the details of the sound, but rather on a visceral reception of its physicality. Again, like listening to speech, the form of listening given to dance commonly reinforces social bonds—between dance partners, among dancers in a crowd, between dancers and DJ or band.

The kind of listening I am describing cuts us off from the immediate social world. It requires that people who want your attention must rudely interrupt your listening pleasure or ask forgiveness for the interruption. Theoretically, they could wait patiently, but this rarely happens, so the listener often feels forced to downplay the annoyance that comes along with interruption, lest they break a social bond and/or belie how important this kind of listening really is to them.

“Tuning Out” by Flickr User CarbonNYC

Of course, the ubiquity of headphones suggests that there are many people who want to be focused enough on their listening as to avoid interruption. (Though, that may be a chicken-and-the-egg situation, as I can’t help but wonder to what degree the headphones become an excuse for social disengagement.) Either way, it is noteworthy that the wearing of headphones become a visual clue for a desire to be isolated in the listening practice, even when in an otherwise public environment. If you are going to ask a stranger on subway for directions, you are less likely to choose the person with headphones on, and if you do choose to ask them, the headphones direct the form of social action required to get their attention and ask. It calls for a visual signal, like a gesture to remove the headphones, or even polite physical contact, like a tap on the shoulder—but you certainly would not pull the headphones off their ears and just start talking at them, as you might talk at someone listening to music through speakers if you happen to walk into the room. The invention of things like the Doffing Headphone handle, which allows headphone listeners to greet others by “doffing” their headphones like one used to do with a hat, arises from the need for isolated listeners to interact with the social world  even while enmeshed in their portable bubble of personal space. However, be that as it may, the handles have not exactly caught on.

Doffing Headphones

Perhaps headphones are the just the logical evolution of crafting a listening space. They are certainly much more feasible than the ‘Yogi Enclosure’ Kier Keightley discusses in his article “’Turn It down!’ She Shrieked: Gender, Domestic Space, and High Fidelity, 1948-59.”  The “Yogi enclosure” was High Fidelity magazine’s tongue-in-cheek (and highly gendered) 1954 solution to a man’s inability to enjoy his hi-fi in a space where he is likely, the article suggests,  to be harangued by his wife and annoyed by his children.  This masculinizing of listening speaks to the social contours of what is ostensibly an individual practice. In the case of my teenaged self and my mother, I wanted my 1000th listen to Dark Side of the Moon to dictate her behavior in the way that other individual activities in a shared space dictate behavior through social conventions.  Looking back, I was also trying to claim space in her home.  I never considered how as a mom she was expected to always be available, never free from interruption no matter what she was doing.  Keightley’s article demonstrates this through explaining the construction of listening technologies as a domain of men that requires women and children to be quiet in order to allow him the pleasure of his equipment.  I could imagine my right to be uninterrupted, for my listening to be taken seriously, considered a productive activity, by virtue of my gender and my youth.   While, now that I think of it, even the majority of my mom’s record-listening and salsa dancing  accompanied household chores that fierce adherence to gender roles demanded time she might have preferred to dedicate to listening alone.

Listening by Flickr User Alessandra Luvisotto

While gender politics have changed significantly since 1954, careful music listeners of any gender still seek to define the use of space through the use of sound, intentionally or unintentionally. There is a satisfaction that comes with filling a space with sound that I feel cannot be matched by even the highest quality noise-canceling headphones. Sound emerging from speakers and moving through the air creates a presence. It demands attention. It dictates behavior.  It is a kind of power.

Image by Flickr user Ken Schwatz

Another case in point: I can remember my college roommate and I (the same fellow who’d end up being the officiant at my wedding, coincidentally enough) traveling from store to store to try out different stereo speakers, carrying a CD copy of This Mortal Coil’s Filigree & Shadow and getting salesmen to play the soft sounds on tracks like “Thias (II),” as a test. These were the days before online comparison shopping, so in order to achieve this idealized listening experience–which for us meant the loudest and softest sounds were equally clear–we had to annoy salesmen with our self-important discussion of miniscule differences in sound quality and failure to actually purchase the costly speakers we were trying.

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What I am trying to convey with this anecdote is that, while the idealized listening experience we imagined was an isolated one (probably something involving staring at the glow-in-the-dark star stickers on the ceiling of our darkened dorm room), it was born of the sociality and power I mentioned above. We were exercising a form of privilege (or at least practicing for an imagined future masculine power over the domestic sphere).  This imagined idealized listening not only required a developed understanding of what we were listening for, but a shared sense of the ideal circumstances for those focused, uninterrupted, close listening sessions.  And those ideal circumstances required a freedom from the responsibilities of social bonds, that we, as young men, never doubted we could access.   There is no part of listening (as opposed to merely hearing) that isn’t social, and both isolated and more explicitly interpersonal forms of listening feed each other, but only when both are valued, nurtured, and made possible.

I thought by exploring these isolated listening experiences that I might come closer to understanding the primacy of the visual in the social etiquette of interruption, but I am no closer. Instead, I am left to consider the dynamics of power that (dis)allow that space for close listening. All I have learned about the matter since those teenaged arguments with my mom is that, if I plan to do some real listening, I either need to be alone in the house or that the onus is on me, the listener, to make an announcement: “I will be listening to music now.” Still, more often than not, I put on my headphones.   The fact remains that without the visual signals that let others know that listening is occurring–headphones, dancing–listening as a solo activity is so often devalued and interrupted. Sound alone is not enough.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I just got Jonathan Lethem’s book on Fear of Music, and I plan on closely listening to each track of the Talking Heads’ record before and after the associated chapter in Lethem’s book. Let’s hope I won’t be interrupted.

Osvaldo Oyola is a regular contributor to Sounding Out! and ABD in English at Binghamton University.

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