Understanding hearing ...
On the three-sided relationship of sound, ideology and experiencepre-considerations on paraflows .6 Listening Comprehension
The soundscapes which confront us are not only simple aggregations of information (and specific forms of superposition of information) which we need to perceive and process on their own or in concert in order to achieve an (acoustic) image of the spaces and situations we find ourselves in. What we hear is not an outside world whose contents and meaning – its so-called „being-as-it-is“ - are fixed for all time and of which we only need to gauge its exact nature by listening to it. It does not possess an objective core of being which reveals itself in its visual or acoustic perception, and which we therefore would only need to recognize in order to reach an adequate understanding of the „world“ and its „reality“.
To put it differently: „reality“ cannot be thought apart from that culture which creates it and physically or medially perceives it again and again. Reality could therefore not be described as original or authentic substance, but perhaps rather as a signal trapped in an endless feedback loop. It is therefore important, in order to understand reality, to gauge the ways we shape it by perceiving it. Because we perceive our environment through sensory experience , we constantly mix external sensory data with the routines we have learned – without being able to distinguish one from the other. Pure experience does not exist, because it can only come to be through the filters of our previous knowledge and our visual and acoustic habits. A first translational process constitutes for example the transformation of physical vibrations into sound by our hearing. Where no ear exists to listen, there is no sound. But in the same way that our brain forms images and sounds that could not exist without its participation it mixes that what it smells, sees or hears with meanings and references that we as a culture and individuals associate with the sensations. These are not part of the data we collect, but rather that experience without which we could not sense anything.
Our hearing can therefore not be relegated to the pre-societal space of the „natural“ - as our complete sensory apparatus. It is part of a societal practice that prefigures, creates and forms it. How we experience something acoustically is dependent of form and structure, of ideology and practice of the societal reality. And that colonizes our experience in such a way that causes us to assume that both reality and our construction of the same are one and the same. Society, as it reproduces and expresses itself in our sensations, becomes an integral part of our subjectivity. In order to change the former it is decisive to develop a consciousness of its role and its part in the societal creation processes that constitute our apparently authentic self.
The perception of sound is defined by culturally provided patterns of experience and handed down modes of interpretation that we constantly „monitor“, actualize and test when listening, which is of course seldom made conscious. The people of earlier ages were confronted with a considerably higher mean level of noise, as constantly created by the animals on a farm, the horse-drawn carriages on cobble pavement or the church bells at the full hour. However, we can assume that these noises of their environment were not - or not exclusively – perceived as disturbances, but rather as solid and reliable elements of a solid and reliable world. Despite considerable decibel levels they constituted a calming message of the fact that everything was as it always had been and therefore also should be that way. In this regularly elapsing world people lived their lives as a constant recurrence of the same, meaning also: the recurrence of the same sounds and noises, which were not informational overload, but rather signals that everything was as it should be.
Noise Culture: The noise of others
As it seems it is not the noise itself - and neither its volume nor its specific frequency – that breaches the peace. It is rather the information contained within that disturbs us (or calms us), that wakes us from sleep (or lulls us into it). The ability to decode it was acquired by us in the process of socialization, later internalized as hearing habits.
Human culture consists mainly of ordering information, discerning the important from the marginal, providing acceptable frames of order and meaningful patterns of interpretation that translate the „white noise“ - uncoded, undecipherable signals – into meaning. To enable this order is the primary achievement of human culture, one that can never be concluded: As the prerequisites of culture: i.e. Economy and technology are increasingly unleashed, the orientation within them becomes more complicated. The constitution of order is experienced as structural excessive demand when cultural space is intensified technologically and demographically. As it gets broader and „more intensive“ (i.e. faster and more networked), the quantity of information that is to be decoded rises. The increase of information is then experienced as pressure to act and stress, as ignorance or personal inadequacy. We experience it as poly- or cacophony because the noises are no longer harmonious and we are no longer able to orient ourselves in them.
It is a particular trait of the autonomous modern subject that it perceives the sounds of others as something foreign and as a nuisance. This is also connected with the bourgeois society placing the individual in competition (also able to be ratified acoustically) with each other, internalized to such an extent that it persists even after office hours. It created that isolated type of person whose deepest desire is to be separated from others (to be different from them) and that claims an autonomous space into which no one may intrude unbidden.
Thereby the lifelong isolation of „privacy“ was created. In the bourgeois „house rules“ it has become that space that is needed unconditionally for the individuation of the subject. In order to be able to provide such privacy, it had to insulate itself – and that autonomy, enabled by privacy, from the heteronomy of societal relations. The aversion to noise of the bourgeois subject (that is nothing else than aversion to fellow humans) has become an integral part of its specific subjectivity. Where environment noises intrude on the private management of sounds it can therefore be litigated as „breach of the peace“.
The noise from outside or from next door reference in this context to contingency and chaos, to the erratic and the incalculable of the world, its intensity and ampleness. All this needs to be averted in order to become completely individual, in order to regenerate and reproduce. In cultural history this wish for isolation was habitualized as sensibility to noise. The noise created by others merely by existing reminds of forms of society that were separated from the bourgeois by its retreat to the home. And exactly because of this we find it disturbing to be confronted with the sounds of hilarity or sexual communication from the neighboring flat – as opposed to the people of pre-bourgeois ages – because we are reminded of the price of our isolation: being alone and without communication, being separated from the others.
From all this stems the well-known wish for peace and quiet, a temporary reprieve from disharmonious acoustic signals and the base volume of the early 21st century. This desire is probably shared by most humans – at least until now. It manifests itself in that cultural narrative that perceives tranquility as a synonym to peace and relaxation and that recommends absence of noise for combatting stress. We are confronted with it on a daily basis in many forms.
Nevertheless, the places we associate with this desire, the vacation destinations and recreational zones, are not completely quiet. Quite the opposite, they form special soundscapes: the sounds of the waves breaking against the beach, the atmosphere on a farm or the birds and crickets of recreational zones – specific soundscapes are provided that enable us to escape our concentrated noise routine. Despite their partly considerable volume, these soundscapes enable us to relax our senses. They lull us and free us from acoustic stress because the information which they contain does not affect us, it is not meant for us. We do not need to decipher or understand it. They only contain a single imperative: to kick back. What they tell us is merely that they have nothing to tell us.
We also project our desire for tranquility to (imaginary) pre-modern ages or regions that have not yet been colonized acoustically by modernity. Here we find a fixed regulation of the acoustic space: Our hearing can rely on noises being neither unknown nor foreign, but rather familiar: an environment constituted by volume, whose utterances vouch for its constant continuity.
The roar of the surf or the sounds of the animals are similar to what Kant defined as „the beautiful“ because it is „uninterestingly well-pleasing“. We savour that it has nothing to do with us, doesn't need us and seems to be wholly apart from the scope of human reasons. Therefore we can contemplate it peacefully. It points to something imaginary to which we attribute familiar qualities: the acoustic harmony of the world, that phantasm of pure existence which had not yet formed us to be self-reliant subjects of our own lives. In this way we seek to reverse our subjectivity and return to that fictitious harmony from which we emerged at the beginning of our species.
Consequently it may happen that something which we always heard in a certain way suddenly sounds different because we perceive a different quality of sound when in another situation or emotional state. For example, we may suddenly realize how agreeable and aesthetically pleasing a car actually sounds when failing to start, although this primarily means that we are unable to drive it.
The fact that our perception of sound is generally defined by the functionality with which we collect and rate information may occasionally stimulate that different mode of hearing which defies the utilitarian principles that have dominated our perception. It wants to be free of purpose and their inscribed coercions. Here, that sensuality which defies purpose is created. To bring such sensuality forth and to relish it has always been the key promise of art in bourgeois society. Therein, the beauty of art was always ideology: because it alleged that a societal space could exist that was not dominated by capitalism, a free space that allowed us to retreat from all that completely subjugated the rest of our lives.
The art of noise in modernity
The art avant-garde of modernity used noise as a suitable means to gain notice. Its inharmoniousness, as an aesthetic strategy, rejected the beauty of art in which it could only see ideology, lies and a palliative. The fury of the vanguard startled the deadly peace of bourgeois subjectivity that sought to immerse itself in harmonious art. For the young vanguard, however, contemplation was only escapism and denial of reality. Therefore, it was necessary to disturb it and shout it down – with partially quite different motivations, but often similar results. Only thus could the audience be woken, in order to free it from its old subjectivity – a part of the wrong – or at least to aggravate it in order to reveal the barbaric core of this subjectivity. The bourgeois perception of art claimed to have suspended barbarism, but merely concealed it – as in day-to-day life, which art was supposed to suspend, barbarism was still rampant. The appreciation of art only temporarily dissolved it into humanity, “values” and inner participation – and thereby performed an important function of relief. This self-deception needed to be revealed. And this of course worked best when removing all that from art which soothed and pacified: harmony, beauty, romanticization, sublimation etc. All that was cancelled or overwritten with the sounds of bourgeois reality: the pandemonium, tumult and the aggression that defined the economic life of the bourgeois subject.
The piercing, dissonant noise was key to modernity since the beginning of the 20th century. It was parallel to the city as scope of experience and intensified world experience. In it, the intellectual vanguard of the 1920s was subject to an abrupt reversal of experience, as it can for example be gleamed from the biographies of German expressionists: Most of its protagonists grew up in the contemplative and straightforward environments of rural or provincial towns (mostly quite privileged). They moved to the cities because of their studies or because of their desire to produce art. And these provided a culture shock: sensory overload, acceleration, condensation of social space and – a key term of aesthetic modernity - “simultaneity”.
In this way, the city recurs in their works of art: as an arena of noise in which the actions and impressions collide in a dissociative, anti-illusionist and shrill way. They trigger a simultaneous flood of ambivalent feelings: fear and lust, crowds and loneliness, standstill and speed-rush, ecstasy and loss of communication, arousal and anonymity, abundance and misery, vitality and death wishes – in such pairs of contradictions aesthetic modernity expressed its experience. The city was neither beautiful nor ugly, it was everything at the same time in disorder, and therefore first of all: intensive. And this intensity could only be captured by noise: as a cacophony of the accumulated contradictions.
And because noise as compressed information has always been literary, it was easiest for poetry to depict it, for example in the principles of onomatopoeia which attempts to reproduce sounds in speech. Music, however – as an art form of tamed sounds – did not have the necessary means to reproduce modern soundscapes. The sound artists of futurist Bruitism had to first build the necessary instruments (probably best known: Luigi Russolos “Intonarumori”).
But through amplification and electronics the technical possibility to model sounds in a very sophisticated way was provided. Found sound objects – sound elements of reality - could be used as musical material. They could be integrated symbolically as interference or modulated and played on the synthesizer and later on the computer like (synthetic) violins. Contemporary music as well as sound installations of modern art (accompanied by the aesthetics of film scores) have converted aesthetic hearing into a strongly differentiated form of information: Noise as an aesthetic signal has long been well-known. Those who use it in contemporary art are mostly interested in other things than provocation or the acoustic depiction of the metropolis, which for example Walter Ruttmann tried to do in his 1930 soundscape “Weekend”.
In digital art and culture, noise no longer appears as a design element with an unambiguous intention, but as the deliberate and nuanced composition of a wholly technical life environment possessing unique sound patterns and characteristics. Sound is understood as a bearer of information without assigning it an informational content per se. In a world in which technology enables an ever greater variance and formability of acoustic environments, a prosaic examination of the sounds in which we perceive it sensually is needed.
Regime of sound and acoustic user manual:
How sounds intertwine us with spaces
When digital art and culture work with sounds – which is not only limited to advanced electronic music – they cannot be considered an acoustic empirical fact, as was the case in the classic avant-garde. The noise that the artists of the early 20th century painted, wrote or composed was a product of acoustic happenstance, an anomic force, whose quality lay in its lack of order (with which the classic aesthetic principles of order should be overcome). The noises of the present, however, are always the result of deliberate sound design. This also means that in our sound environments – that we actively form as consumers as well as producers – sounds (apart from the still omnipresent noise of traffic) are subject to intentions. They goad us into doing things or not doing them, scare us off or invite participation.
Therefore digital art, when it wants to occupy itself with “sound”, is always relegated to the question of who creates (or hinders) acoustic signals with what intent, and who broadcasts them in public (or private) spaces: Which spaces are designed acoustically, and which spaces are left to themselves (and their own sounds)?
The opening and closing of spaces by sounds is more immediate than other, more explicit forms of access control: Starting with the acoustically scored TV documentary to elevator music, from mall muzak to telephone waiting loops, sound design is always directed to our feelings and sensations which it wishes to control. We often not even notice the intentions, although we feel them having effect on us: background music calms us or stirs us up, thereby causing and amplifying desired emotions, whereas undesired emotions are reduced or blocked. And this is successful because we have ceased to really hear it – and therefore can no longer question why it is here and what it wants from us.
In this way, the intentional evocation of sensory experience imperceptibly subjects us to different control interests – whether of the state or of the private economy, pragmatic or ideological – which cannot become conscious as they are effected subliminally and preconsciously. However, in the same way that the architecture of buildings reflects ruling interests that are therefore established in the life-world and internalized, soundscapes instruct us how we are to behave (in them and in general) and what we are to feel. So, they not only give location-specific instructions, but also establish general rules of conduct. For this reason, sound design is part of a conditioning program that manifests itself on nearly all sensory levels. We should therefore ask ourselves who creates, selects and uses the sounds around us, and which relationships are thus created or perpetuated. The environments subject to the sound-regime are nevertheless essential for our daily lives: infrastructure, public administration, stores etc. confront us as soundscapes that include the interests of those that built them.
Our subconscious susceptibility to sounds is also connected with the habitualization of certain patterns of acoustic perception– to a certain extent also through the history of music. Habitually we assign certain sounds to certain emotions, for example, which can then be recalled without other stimuli. A certain piece of music can, for example, bring back the memory of past loves. The connection between sounds and emotions seems to be exceedingly stable – at least within the same frame of cultural reference. Anyway, western music culture (be it the classics or globalized pop culture) has already fixed a certain form of subjectivity throughout the world – to such an extent that presently nearly all cultures hear with “our” ears because they listen to “our” music.
Still we describe pieces of music with high degrees of correlation as “sad” or “happy”, “melancholic” or “easy”, “stirring” or “calming” - each according to the specific information contained. Thereby, not only the association of certain emotions with certain sounds is learned – also the mere possibility of such an association is part of our cultural heritage. The statement that music possesses an emotional quality has been learned from other art forms which place focus on the perception of music. This has happened to such an extent that our day-to-day consciousness would find it absurd to question that statement.
Our perception of sound is therefore not only formed through specific sounds, but also through secondary media, from which we gleam the meanings of music. These may be poems (that e.g. describe nature onomatopoetically), educational texts warning of the dangers of Rock'n'Roll, images, productions, movies, reviews or reports of concerts. They all inform us of the reactions to sounds of others. In this way we learn that certain sounds should touch us whereas the noisy neighbor should be a nuisance.
In the same way as feelings only represent conventional patterns that are learned in the process of socialization and therefore internalized, the emotional content of music is part of that cultural matrix in which we live and which reproduces itself through us. For example, we transfer our hearing habits to our kids when they learn from us that certain sounds signal joy and company whereas other sounds are sad and lonely. We achieve this to such an extent that merely the sound suffices to stimulate the corresponding feeling, even when neither our mood nor the situation fits.
Performative sound design: how we can invent ourselves through sounds Because music is able to create and manage emotions – more immediately and effectively than other aesthetic disciplines – it harbors a special power of manipulation. This is not only used by the societal institutions – as described above – which address and control us through specific sound designs. We also possess the power to create a certain mood when needed. For example, we can create a noncommittal mood of intimacy by putting on a certain type of music. We know very well that Grindcore is not a fitting background for a candlelight dinner and therefore would rather use a collection of ballads.
That we can manipulate our own emotions and those of others through sound seems so commonplace that it may seem trivial to mention it explicitly. Anyhow, the fact that we are not only the directors of our daily lives but are also responsible for the scoring of the same shows that we have understood how the assignment of meaning to sounds works (without being able to express that knowledge) – and what these sounds say about us.
We should, however, not merely damn the manipulation of our consciousness through sound. In it we can also find an utopian aspect: The artificial characteristics of our emotions are to be seen in contrast to the assumption of an authentic subject. When we realize the constructed quality of ourselves we escape that “naturalness” which, according to the western idea of the human, is paramount. Instead of merely being what we are, we can regain ourselves. The heteronomy of the autonomous subject, designed by others, is transformed into the autonomy of the non-authentic. Because we are merely designed by processes instead of being fixed from the start, we can intrude in those processes that shape us into that what we are. We do not need to be our impotent selves any longer, but can find room to maneuver and possibilities for intervention, as for example gender theory has done for the area of gender identities.
The sound-aesthetic modelling of consciousness and perception can therefore be seen as a possibility to modulate ourselves and, by choosing certain sensory material consciously, intervening in those processes of construction through which we become who we are. Sound design therefore also contains an emancipatory potential. In order to use this means for our individual desires and concerns we must first understand how sounds stimulate and manipulate subjectivity.
The sixth paraflows festival has therefore presented a series of questions: We want to find out in which ways sounds are connected to spaces, and inquire how this connection not only changes the space, but also the sound. Can Mozart, for example, still be heard in the same way when one is aware of the fact that his music is used in railway stations for getting rid of unwanted marginal groups? Or does his music change through the societal practice that uses it? Can it even be separated from the interests that use it? Which qualities of his music transform it into a tool of deterrence, and how does it connect itself with its (new) reason? What aspect of the music scares the junkies off (and thereby helps to turn the misery of late capitalism invisible): the atmosphere created by it, the concrete aesthetic form or the connected social practice, layered on throughout the ages?
This again leads to the general question of how sounds acquire meaning. Until now this question has not been satisfactorily answered neither by music sociology nor cognitive psychology. How does sound carry meaning, wherein does its semantic reference lie and how does the ear discover this layer of meaning that is clearly in contradiction to the romantic cliché of the highest art form (because it is the least referential)? How can perception be changed through perceiving, and how can this knowledge be used for emancipatory purposes, for example in digital culture? Should digital culture, when it uses sounds, not sound completely different to the traditionally dominated public space? Is there a specific sound of the public and the private? What are the sounds of “freedom” and “bondage”? And where have these questions been considered in the history of music, psychology or in social experiments?
With these assumptions we treat the conceptual foundations of sound art: Which socio-historical preconditions exist, what are its historical-technological requirements and what is its concept of art? Currently, a strong differentiation of sound-art approaches can be observed. On the one hand, they are mixed with pop culture (e.g. advanced electronic music), on the other hand they adapt approaches that orientate themselves on aesthetic or abstract principles of painting. Exactly from this ambivalent position can the key problems of contemporary art production be tackled: The difficult relationship between aesthetics of autonomy and socio-political forming interests, and between the spectacle and the audience – transposed in the elitist or self-sufficient manner of many sound installations. Instead of actively intervening in public soundscapes they all too often are content with flabbergasting or alienating as works of art, astonishing as a gimmick and fulfilling the function of a placeholder in museums as a post-modern ersatz painting.
paraflows .6 therefore first wants to pose the question on which assumptions on hearing and the production of sounds sound art is based and what relations of depiction are contained within. Where do these merely reproduce classic assumptions on the relationship of reality and art, and where do they actually intervene in this reality – on the level of constitution?
In connection to the copyright debate in the music industry we may question who owns sounds, sequences of sounds and timbres and how these ownerships are enforced? How can sounds become property, blocking others from their use? And: Does Mozart scare away hoodlums from shopping mall railway stations because his music traditionally belongs to those whose privileges are based on their (financial) assets?
Cultural, economic and technological relations inscribe themselves in our perception of sound and the reflection of such as a specific form of sensory depiction of the world – as we have seen above. We synchronize with others by learning to understand sounds, by training our ability to decode acoustic signals. By listening to them we recognize them as bearing meaning; Even where they are placed autonomously, without outside interference (as practiced by certain composition approaches) they transport ideas and images – e.g. autonomy and freedom – that themselves are subject to the dominating forms of society.
The representation function of sounds in western culture also broaches a new aesthetic playground. In it, sounds and ideologies transported by sounds can be deconstructed (as for example the American secret service had planned for Hitler – his voice should have been turned more whiny and less manly by adding female hormones to his food. This, unfortunately, did not come to pass). The references of sounds may be broken and therefore sound may be contextualized in a new way. This is connected to the question of how we can act in a world dominated by sounds (and through them: by controlling interests) without always having to comply with the prescribed modes of listening. How can we appropriate the sounds of this world?
Therefore, the question poses itself for us as digital art and culture: How does perception change when we change sounds – and manipulate them systematically? And how do we need to design soundscapes for them to change our perceptions? What would music free of control sound like? And what would a space without controlling interests sound like?
To clarify these questions is of special interest for digital culture, as it commands a much broader archive of sounds than earlier counter-cultures. Digital culture is not only able to design the surface of sounds, but is also able to design the source code of sound itself. It can manipulate and create sound better, faster, more exactly and more thoroughly. In addition, digital sound technology has enabled digital culture to create artificial sounds, completely freed from the environment and its specific soundscapes, autonomous, non-idiomatic and without reference, and therefore perhaps not yet dominated through and through.
In this way digital art and culture acquires new possibilities of action and design that we should not hide away but rather explore jointly and publish them in the sense of the open source utopia in order to reach a participatory relationship of reality. Because if the world is sound, as Nada Brahma once stated, we can only change it by changing how it sounds.
Frank Apunkt Schneider / Günther Friesinger