Seasonal Listening

The Small Stakes:

Summer is the most sonic season for me. (Whoa, holy accidental alliteration.) There are plenty of obvious reasons why: I’m outside a lot more, I find myself in a much greater diversity of environments (out in the country, over by the river, on the roof, in airplanes, on boats and bridges), I attend more listening-focused events (soundwalks, sound art, outdoor concerts). And over the years it’s become apparent to me that all those environmental and situational factors also shape my predilections for media consumption and my research habits. In summer I gravitate more toward books on sound, I do an awful lot more “nostalgic” listening, and I go through podcasts like chewing gum.

In regard to the first, I recently finished Salomé Voegelin’s Listening to Noise and Silence (Continuum 2010). I had been reading it while battling a nasty case of summer bronchitis. My doctor noticed the title of the book and asked me to explain, in-between coughing fits, how one could possibly “listen to silence.” I ended up giving him a mini-lesson on Cage. Anyway, this is certainly a book written for the ear: some of the theoretical sections in the book (as opposed to the “application” sections) seemed to prioritize poetics over clarity. And like so many Continuum books, its visual quirks called attention to themselves; that sans serif font they often use, compounded with the frequent typos, made for a visually clunky reading experience. I appreciated Voegelin’s intention: to place sound at “the solitary edge of the relationship between phenomenology and semiotics”; to argue that, through sound, time and space “playfully” co-produce one another; to argue that even though the language we use to talk about sound is “sensate rather than rational,” it is no less critical or political. That “sensate” language “leads to a re-thinking of the philosophical and aesthetic methodology of enquiry.” And listening, even though it can’t discern political messages or ideologies (we can’t say that a sound installation “documents” particular political ideas), cultivates an “aesthetico-political sensibility,” which is an equally powerful form of politics (39, 164, 165, 182).

Voegelin occasionally lapses into the mystical language that characterizes some sound writing: “sound fleshes out the visual and renders it real,” “there is no place where I am not simultaneous with the heard,” “silence is not the absence of sound but the beginning of listening,” “what silence reflects back to me is myself as my agency in the world, as life-world,” “sound is…the permanence of production that uses the permanence of the monument and discards it by gliding over its form to produce its own formless shape” (xi, xii, 83, 93, 169). In an attempt to establish the sonic as a “special case,” theorists sometimes adopt language steeped in mysticism or theology; Jonathan Sterne talks about these “audiovisual litanies” in The Audible Past. Voegelin’s theoretical passages often display this tendency (as well as a tendency to frame listening as a seemingly egocentric practice, subordinate to personal experiences and imagination) — but the application sections of the book, where she describes dozens of under-the-radar sound art projects, are fantastic. I particularly appreciated the distinctions she draws between soundscape compositions like Hildegard Westerkamp‘s, which have a “poetic intention and educational drive,” and sound “diary” walks like Stini Arn‘s, which are more “incidental documents” (33). Also particularly strong were her discussion of the crackedness and fragility of layered audiotracks in Graeme Miller’s Linked — “these transmitters do not reveal only one layer of invisibility but hint at many more, if only we had the right receivers to hear them” (155) — and her description of Benjamin Federe’s Klang;Zeit;Klang, a radio piece that “comes at you, unexpectedly, in the middle of the night, without a name or cover, without a beginning or an end, undetected” (162). She’s chosen a fantastic selection of projects, and her descriptions of those projects are both evocative and tremendously insightful.

Before summer ends, I hope to finish two more sound books that have been sitting on my shelf for a while: David Toop’s Sinister Resonance: The Mediumship of the Listener (Continuum 2010) and Frances Dyson’s Sounding New Media: Immersion and Embodiment in the Arts and Culture (University of California 2009). I’ve also agreed to review Hillel Schwartz’s Making Noise: From Babel to the Big Bang and Beyond (Zone 2011) and Trevor Pinch and Karin Bijsterveld’s The Oxford Handbook of Sound Studies (Oxford 2011) — both massive tomes — for an academic journal, so I’ll be reading those, too, before “sound season” fades away.

Now for a jarring transition: In regard to nostalgic listening, I get the feeling that early-90s emo — real emo, before that Dashboard Confessional crap ruined everyone’s impression of it (as if it ever had a stellar reputation) — is coming back. I’m certainly not the first person to say this. But even my not-nearly-as-plugged-in-as-they-used-to-be ears are discerning lots of little emo-echoes in bands like Grown Ups and Algernon Cadwallader and Cloud Nothings. And of course there have been a few significant reunions: I saw the Christie Front Drive show at The Bell House last month (my brother- and sister-in-law sponsored the show), and Magic Bullet Records, run by my college friend Brent Eyestone, recently re-released their Stereo album. Last summer’s highlight was the reunion of Cap’n Jazz. All this activity, along with the return of Braid, has meant that Boys Life, Hot Water Music, Karate, Mineral, and the like have been in heavy rotation this summer.

The New York Times — not usually whom I turn to for cutting-edge trend forecasts — has acknowledged several manifestations of 90s music nostalgia: IFC’s Portlandia (clips of which, I am happy to say, I often work into my lectures!), a recent revival of interest in riot grrrl history, and (though some say it’s already dead!) hauntology:

A 1990s revival might be a moment to contemplate the hidden value of technology not actually working well, the whine of the dial-up modem as a call of the comparative wild. In that spirit, some young musicians now are creating music that has been described as “hypnagogic” or “hauntological.” The melodies and rhythms are reminiscent of catchy pop songs of previous decades, but recorded in a way that simulates the effects of age — fuzzy and staticky — as if worn out or heard at a great distance through a grimy haze. It is music that’s discernible but less than fully present. Many of these artists are releasing this music, fittingly, on media so retro that they’re hardly used at all any more: cassette tapes.” (The Times article, by the way, owes a lot to this Salon piece.)

Finally, podcasts: I’ve listened to hundreds this summer. This isn’t a new thing for me, but this summer in particular I’ve come to appreciate the power of sonic-peripatetic learning. I find that I can remain fully tuned into even the most dense, protracted lectures if I absorb them while walking along the Hudson River, one of my favorite places in the city. And even more traditional radio shows feel more engaging when their pacing matches up with my own steps through the city. Right now, I’m in the middle of a recording of the “On Experimental Writing” panel, with Albert Ferré, Pedro Gadanho, Naomi Stead and Kazys Varnelis, at the Canadian Centre for Architecture. Jeffrey Schnapp’s “The Face of the Modern Architect” CCA Mellon Lecture was also quite impressive. Last week, I absorbed Triple Canopy’s “On Artists’ Publications” panel discussion with Gwen Allen, Paul Chan, Angie Keefer, Matt Keegan, and David Platzker; I would’ve been there in-person had I not been in Chicago in June. I’ve also really enjoyed recordings of conferences at MoMA and Tate Modern. NPR’s Hearing Voices and On the Media, ABC’s The Night Air, Live at the NYPL, the New York Review of Books, and Spacing Radio are also reliable sources of good stuff. RadioLab’s recent “Talking to Machines” show was great — as were a few of its summer “shorts”: one on a 450-year-old monk robot, another on a musician with a “4-track mind,” and a recent show on the basal ganglia. This American Life had a fantastic show on patents, which seemed to attract a lot of attention. This funny bit was part of another episode on “Million Dollar Ideas.”

TAL’s rebroadcast earlier this summer of their episode on Infidelity was, in a way, a sonic revelation for me. Listen to the Prologue. I listened to this section at least ten times — not because I was particularly taken by the story, but because I was taken with the guest’s voice. By “taken with” I mean: positively nettled. Over the past couple years I’ve noticed a mini-trend among well-educated, seemingly self-confident young women on the radio: their voices emerge initially from the front of their mouths, then, over the course of a sentence, move back into their throats. Their sentences trail off into whispery, raspy monotones — kind of East-Coast-Ivy-League-Valley-Girl-All-Grown-Up-And-Working-At-The-New-Yorker. It sounds knowing and lazy and jaded all at the same time. I heard it again near the end of the inaugural n+1 podcast — and again, in a differently “timbred” variation, in the aforementioned Triple Canopy podcast. As podcasts make possible the increasing niche-ification of audio micro/broad-casting, I wonder about the cultivation of particular stylized “vocal types.” The “throatily jaded” sound seems to be one of them.

Meanwhile, I’ve convinced myself that Marjorie Perloff not only has the most fantastic voice — simultaneously velvety and gripping — but she uses that magnificent instrument, often on Stanford’s Entitled Opinions podcast, to say the most amazingly interesting and brilliant things.

Final revelation: Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me, I need a break. I’m all Paula Poundstone-d out.

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