3. The Familiarity of Everyday Sounds

Outside the Abbot no one knew him here, no one knew who he was. The people, monks as well as lay brothers lived a well-­ordered life and had their own special occupations, and left him in peace. But the trees of the courtyard knew him, the mill and the water wheel, the flagstones of the corridors, the wilted rosebushes in the arcade, the storks’ nests on the refectory and the granary roofs. From every corner of his past, the scent of his early adolescence came toward him, sweetly and movingly. Love drove him to see everything again, to hear all the sounds again, the bells for evening prayer and Sunday mass, the gushing of the dark millstream between its narrow, mossy banks, the slapping of sandals on the stone floors, the twilight jangle of the key ring as the brother porter went to lock up.

Herman Hesse, Narcissus and Goldmund: 211

September 2020

The Domestic Sonic Ambiance

The buzzing of the blender in the kitchen (is someone preparing a smoothie?), the hum of the washing machine upstairs (is the laundry almost ready?), the clinking of keys (is one of the kids coming back from hockey?), the meowing of the cat (is she hungry or just begging for attention?), music coming from behind a closed door (are they doing homework, chatting with friends, watching an online television series or just doing everything simultaneously?), creaking stairs (still the fourth and fifth steps?), the ringing of the doorbell (two short pulses, probably home delivery and definitely not my youngest’s best friend), the neighbor flushing the toilet (did he get up late today?), yelling kids running in the nearby park ( is the weather so nice today?), a car slowly passing by (looking for a parking place?)… These are just a few ordinary sounds that create home, comprising the soundscape of home, of my home, weaving a poetics of belonging.46

Dwellings are rarely sites of complete silence. The indoor domestic soundscape is dense with auditory stimuli. Sounds penetrate the walls of the house as well as the psyches and bodies of those inside. Sounds such as those mentioned above, which are linked to familial routines and narratives, can be heard on a daily basis, moving in and out of the periphery, connecting us to knowledge, feelings, expectations, memories and imagination without significant conscious effort on our part—involuntary effects of being in a most familiar place. Some of these sounds are meaningful, as they signify a specific activity taking place, others because they can be associated to a specific (time of the) day, while still others herald forthcoming events or are simply used to create a particular (sonic) ambiance (Oleksik et al. 2008: 1423). However, unless they deviate from what normally can be heard—that is, unless they contain some new or relevant information or unless they arouse a specific and unusual emotion—they are taken for granted, backgrounded and scarcely noticed. It is precisely because of their ordinariness that they escape auditory attention and can be labeled as homey sounds, enfolded daily into the familiar, material fabric of ordinary lives and maintained through routinized performances (Coole and Frost 2010: 34). And yet, even though our mind seems inattentive to this acoustic background to which we are exposed on a regular basis, and although we have learned to ignore it in order to avoid fatiguing the nervous system, our ears, brains and bodies continue to react to it (Epstein 2020: 4).47 Ordinary sounds create a sonic environment as a characteristic trait of a place, perceived but not noticed, capturing the listener’s ear, to their pleasure or to their annoyance or revulsion.

The rather arbitrary list of everyday sounds shared above should also demonstrate that the domestic soundscape is not a uniform or fixed phenomenon; it is composed of complex and dynamically changing layers of sound that are constantly being created and recreated (Oleksik et al. 2008: 1425–6).48 Not only is it socially-­aurally negotiated—who can produce sounds where and when?—between multiple persons, but the sounds interact among themselves, the one intensifying or masking the other. Hearing several sounds simultaneously produces a complex materiality, the measure of which is not strictly additive. And while we know that sounds often leak from place to place, it is all too often assumed that rooms are bounded and neutral physical spaces. Yet, spaces actively shape the sounds that reverberate within them.49

The room as an active agent rather than a given frame or a fixed form reminds me of Yoko Ono’s Tape Piece II: Room Piece from 1963, which consists of the instructions: “Take the sound of the room breathing. (1) at dawn; (2) in the morning; (3) in the afternoon; (4) in the evening; (5) before dawn.” Ono’s piece aligns with a statement of the Finnish architect Juhani Pallasmaa: “A room has no definitive form. It is a process.” Rooms are not static, nor are they preexisting voids, endowed with formal properties alone; their existence unfolds and evolves over the course of time (Ouzounian, in Born 2013: 78), their sounding affected by other agents, either inside or outside. Domestic spaces, the human and nonhuman bodies present in those spaces and the familiar soundscape converge into an assemblage and mutual dependence of architecture, materials and sounds, unfolding in the immanent cohabitation of all these agents.50 In and through this cohabitation, in and through this auditory engagement with one another, the acoustic space takes shape: spaces speak, as Blesser and Salter would have it.

I need to come back to those ordinary sounds which, though most often not consciously noticed, sometimes capture the listener’s attention, to their pleasure or annoyance… Two brief examples should be illustrative of the latter. First, misophonia or 4S (Selective Sound Sensitivity Syndrome) is a disorder characterized by a hypersensitivity for everyday sounds. Especially the sounds of food consumption and breathing, but also pen clicking, finger drumming or whistling can trigger intense annoyance or other psychological responses, leading to panic, rage and even violence. Second, an estimated 2–4% of the global population is said to be severely disturbed by a mysterious low-­frequency sound (around 41 Hz) called the Hum. The Hum is often described as a low and faint rumbling or droning sound, modulating over time in both frequency and loudness.51 It is typically perceived to be louder at night than during the day, and louder indoors than outdoors. One group of sufferers experiences it wherever they are, which may be caused by a type of otoacoustic emission, the generation of sounds by the outer layer of cochlear hair cells in the inner ear. A second group might suffer from hyperacusis or exceptionally sensitive hearing, picking up actual environmental noises that other people either cannot hear or are not bothered by. In either case, the overwhelming density of complaints comes from regions with the greatest development of electronic infrastructure. However, although consistent frequencies of 40–43.5 Hz were indeed found at these regions, the Hum was apparently not produced by any appliances, utilities or identifiable infrastructure.52 Whether it is caused by external sources, by otoacoustic emissions within the brain or by some combination of the two remains unresolved at the time of writing.

In contrast to those of us who suffer from everyday sounds are those who are specifically attracted by such sounds: there is a “gratifying crunch to a fresh carrot stick, a seductive sizzle to a broiling steak, a rumbling frenzy to soup coming to a boil, an arousing bunching and snapping to a bowl of breakfast cereal” (Ackerman 1995: 142). Ackerman’s descriptions might today be associated with ASMR, Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response, a tingling sensation on the skin in combination with a positively valenced affective state stimulated by sounds emitted through fingers scratching or tapping a surface, brushing hair, hands rubbing together or manipulating fabric, the crushing of eggshells, the crinkling and crumpling of paper, or the act of writing. Whereas experiencing ASMR primarily takes place online through headphones, a comparable and simple form of sound massage can be experienced offline as well: close your eyes and let a housemate make soft sounds with various ordinary objects close to your head. The result may be aesthetic chills, sometimes accompanied by goose bumps, psychophysiological responses to the rewarding auditory stimuli. Perhaps this sonic predilection begins to develop already in the mother’s womb, where the fetus is encapsulated in what Didier Anzieu has called the sonorous envelope. Although intrauterine sounds might be rather loud, under healthy conditions the fetus bathes in aural assurance, which may later appear as an appreciation of the familiar sounds of a homey environment.

October 1999

John Cage

Perhaps it had already started over 20 years ago, when I was working on my PhD dissertation on music and deconstruction, this first germ of interest in everyday sounds. Perhaps it all began with thinking about and tracking down how, why, where and when John Cage deconstructed the borders between music, noise and silence in order to further emancipate music. This deconstruction culminated, I maintained, in his most famous “silent” piece 4’33”: silence became noise (Cage defined silence as all non-­intended, non-­musical sounds that could be heard during a musical performance); noise became silence (as some of these non-­intended, non-­musical sounds could be very loud); and music became silence and noise (consisting of all the accidental sounds in the concert hall, whether humanly produced or not).

On Sunday May 9, 2021, between 9:00 and 9:30 am, I performed my version of 4’33” on our piano at home. The three parts were 30”, 2’23” and 1’40” in duration, respectively—presumably resembling the first performance of the piece in 1952. Most of the biophonic sounds on the recording come from my wife, our cat and several birds (the garden door was ajar).

In and through 4’33”, music becomes cross-­linked with our everyday aural lives;53 in and through 4’33”, Cage stated on many occasions, the century-­long alienation of the artist from society came to an end. In his book Silence he writes:

When we separate music from life what we get is art (a compendium of masterpieces). With contemporary music, when it is actually contemporary, we have no time to make that separation (which protects us from living), and so contemporary music is not so much art as it is life and any one making it no sooner finishes one of it than he begins making another just as people keep on washing dishes, brushing their teeth, getting sleepy, and so on.

Cage 1973: 44

Although listening to everyday sounds, silence and all non-­intended sounds, plus experiencing their beauty or at least their versatility are two of his aims, it is clear that, for Cage, music still has an important function to fulfill—namely to offer fresh opportunities for perception, that is, to “open people’s ears to the enjoyment of their daily environment” (Cage, in Kostelanetz 1991: 170). So although this would be difficult to achieve without making use of the medium of music, Cage also confesses that the music he prefers, even to his own, is what we can hear if we are just quiet (Kostelanetz 1991: 202).54 One might notice a certain ambiguity in Cage’s thinking: on the one hand, his objective seems to be to stretch the boundaries of music to include all sounds instead of only the traditionally privileged ones that have been organized, arranged and controlled according to tone, pitch, dynamics, rhythm, etc. On the other hand, however, he seems to be willing to leave the realm of music behind, although he still adheres to a vocabulary coming from a musical discourse:

I have spent many pleasant hours in the woods conducting performances of my silent piece, transcriptions, that is, for an audience of myself, since they were much longer than the popular length which I have had published. At one performance, I passed the first movement by attempting the identifications of a mushroom which remained successfully unidentified. The second movement was extremely dramatic, beginning with the sounds of a buck and a doe leaping up to within ten feet of my rocky podium.

Cage 1973: 276

However, when Cage admits, in a lecture, that Beethoven’s music can in certain circumstances be as acceptable to the ear as a cowbell (Cage 1973: 31), the norm seems to have shifted from musical to “non-­musical” sounds: the background sounds of the world need no longer be subservient to what is commonly described as musical.

The question I would like to raise in this book is whether and how Cage’s legacy can be held, continued and extended. For example, can we use it, in the words of Felicity Ford, to reinvest “the home, (where we spend a great proportion of our time), its materials and objects (which we spend a great deal of time using and touching), and its ever-­present soundscape (which we hear often, whether we are listening or not) with rich, imaginative possibilities?” (Ford 2010: 28). Perhaps this can only be done by giving the sounds of knives and forks (referencing Erik Satie) and tea spoons (referencing Georges Perec) as much consideration and more or less the same attention we give to music. I will come back to this…

Towards a Sonic Materialism #6:
Deconstructing Anthropocentrism

The World Wind Organ is a sound sculpture on the waterfront of the city of Vlissingen in the southwest of The Netherlands. It consists of 27 tall, vertically-­placed bamboo tubes with holes, and it produces a whole range of buzzing tones, from a low hum to rousing tunes and eerie melodies, against a background of waves and other sea sounds. What distinguishes a wind organ from other musical instruments is that it is not played by a human being. It is moved by the wind and can, therefore, be said to be responsive to nature rather than invasive. While the bamboo tubes are not just transmitting but also harmonizing the forces of nature, the wind can be described as the musician, the performer, while the sounding composition emerges through a collaboration between nature and sculpture (see also Trower 2012: 19–33).

By saying that the wind is a musician and that it, together with the bamboo, functions as a composer, I am not intending to anthropomorphize them; rather, I would like to demonstrate that nonhuman agents can also become performers or composers. Although the wind organ is certainly erected for human pleasure and humans attribute meaning to it, this assemblage of wind, bamboo, cliff and water might also represent an implicit criticism of anthropocentrism; the sound sculpture acts as an audio-­visual and tactile metonymy for a decentering of the human, simply because it works without human activation or mediation. As such, everyday sounds—whether or not presented through sounding art—can appear as “vivid entities not entirely reducible to the contexts in which (human) subjects set them” (Bennett 2010: 67). Biophonic and geophonic sounds—sounds from biological organisms and nature, respectively—exhibit self-­organizing capabilities that operate outside of the realm of human decision-­making. These sounds generate environments and atmospheres that can be inhabited by humans. However, they are not central, but at the most centered by these sounds. The materialities that together produce the sounds are agents—that is, capacities of acting and being acted upon—amidst other, human as well as nonhuman, agents.55 Sonic environments or atmospheres are fields of connections within which the human body floats around as one agency amidst others, thereby establishing an unstable and contingent subjectivity, not meant to measure, control and name, but equipped to engage.56

Through sound sculptures such as wind organs, aeolian harps, wind chimes and sea organs, the still prevailing paradigm that positions humans as the only active agents and nonhuman objects and events as passive elements is destabilized; in fact, the vast majority of relations in the universe do not involve human beings, from cellular reactions to cosmic motions, from material artifacts to biological matter that populate our environment (Harman 2016: 6, 9). However, this doesn’t imply that humans need to be expelled altogether; a careful sonic materialism neither simply expunges the human nor advocates for the complete absence of human agents. Rather, an understanding of the role, participation and involvement of humans in the inexhaustible flow of sonic textures, in the complex sound ecosystem constituted by geophony, biophony and anthropophony must give rise to a certain humility with respect to human engagement.57 Sonic materialism thus emphasizes the intertwining of sounding and listening bodies and materialities in their non-­hierarchical simultaneity (Voegelin 2019: 569).

December 2021

The Trap

It is time to come back to a statement I have made before, namely the one about giving forks, knives and teaspoons the same attention as music…

Two remarks need to be made here to avoid potential confusion. First: how, where and when do we pay attention to music? More often than not, we listen to music while being involved in other activities, such as commuting, cooking or working out. In other words, music is not always perceived with full, undivided attention. Even in a concert situation, one may very well be exposed to unbidden imagery, associations or memories that somehow distract you from the music “itself.” Therefore, to give forks, knives and teaspoons the same attention that one gives to music doesn’t necessarily imply an utterly attentive listening attitude, although it probably does mean that we approach their sonic presence with more care, with less indifference and disregard.

Second, as Maurice Blanchot writes in “Everyday Speech”: “The everyday escapes. This is its definition. We cannot help but miss it if we seek it through knowledge, for it belongs to a region where there is still nothing to know” (Blanchot 1987: 15). Here Blanchot, echoing Hegel’s “what is familiar goes unrecognized,” suggests that certain forms of discourse are not adequate to understand the everyday; it might be better glimpsed if the dominance of rational reflection is refused or at least suspended. Indeed, by deliberately paying attention to everyday sounds, to sounds that normally occur on the periphery of our (conscious) perception, sonic familiarity starts to slip away, because “part of the power of the ordinary is to remain unnoticed much of the time” (Norman 2011: 1).58 When the subject of study is everyday sounds, listening to those sounds in everyday situations, and investigating the feelings and associations that accompany this “normal” listening experience, the dilemma is “how to study all this without transforming it in the process” (Norman 2015: 209).

Katharine Norman (2011: 2) suggests a way out of this dilemma by proposing a clear distinction between deliberately trying to develop a heightened awareness of everyday sounds and learning to become affected by rather ordinary and familiar sonic environments, which might eventually lead to interesting experiences. And yes, to become affected by these ordinary sounds might indeed require a state of being actually unaware of the fact that we are listening. It might require some training—for example, to become aware that quite a bit of variation emerges within a familiar sonic ambiance, depending on agents such as time, day, temperature, season, or one’s mood, preference, attitude or energy level. However, it is not the differences that define the ordinary, but the fundamental similarities in which those differences are accommodated and can be recognized (Norman 2011: 18). This might call for a listening readiness at the edges of conscious attention: casual but observant, negligent but open, in tandem with all other senses, while simultaneously leaving space for imagination to interact with those ordinary, unremarkable sounds.

October 2020

Disciplining Everyday Sounds

Do you know the anecdote about the silent washing machine? The company that developed it was proud to announce that, finally, one sonic irritant in the home could be crossed off the list. Doing the laundry didn’t need to be noisy anymore. However, users became suspicious about whether or not it was actually functioning because it was silent; they started pushing and pulling on the doors, thereby damaging the machines. End of story: the company added artificial sound to reassure its customers.

Or the anecdote about the alarm with preprogrammed bird sounds? People set the alarm for 7:00 am so they could wake up with a pleasant and “natural” soundscape instead of the well-­known loud and jarring beeps and buzzes. However, as summer approached, real birds begin singing much earlier than 7:00 am, annoying users who had programmed themselves to wake up to these sounds.

The term “disciplining sounds,” which applies very well to the two examples, can be read in two ways. On the one hand, we try to subjugate everyday, artificial sounds to our primary aesthetic desires, most often by making them softer or by designing them to imitate natural sounds. Sounds are not a simple given, naturally emerging from the appliances we surround ourselves with; sounds can and should be designed, modified, controlled and manipulated. On the other hand, “disciplining sounds” refers to the subtle and less subtle, conscious and less conscious, aesthetic and less aesthetic ways sounds guide, control and manipulate us.59 The two short anecdotes above already say something about how familiar sounds can regulate our behavior, determine our actions and affect our daily lives. At the very moment I am typing these sentences, the washing machine is running in the adjacent room. Most of the time I am paying minimal attention, yet I do recognize the sounds, which are readily identified even by background processing in the brain. While I am able to filter out sonic information on a conscious as well as unconscious level, they do accompany my work. And as soon as the centrifuging process begins, my attention is increasingly drawn to these machine sounds. They herald the conclusion of the wash program, telling me that I must soon suspend my work at the computer in order to hang up the laundry.60

This insignificant event makes me aware of my rather high degree of sophistication in aurally monitoring what is going on around me, even without consciously paying attention, responding to cues such as changes in volume and pitch.61 The sonic lives of appliances and the everyday lives of humans are inexorably bound together in a domestic space. A house, with all its human and nonhuman agents, has an acoustic life of its own with a constant flow of modulations, either gradual or abrupt, from day to day as well as within each day. Sound, environment and listener form an interlocking and dynamic system of relationships, with the possibility of each reacting to the others and thereby potentially influencing them.62 In this ecology of interdependent vibrations, the listening subject is no longer detached from the sonic event but an actual entity in its emergence (Goodman 2010: 46). Reflecting on the way our familiar sonic ambiance disciplines and is disciplined reveals the existence of an entire world of micro-­percepts, conscious and unconscious affects, and fine segmentations that grasp or experience sonic variations, differences, irregularities or transformations. Although it is often stated that our aural relationship to a familiar soundscape mostly takes place on an un- or subconscious level, I would rather claim that such a soundscape still requires an active role from the listener; they are dipping in and out of an affective engagement, contingent upon the particular circumstances in which the interaction with the sounds and the environment takes place.

As a force that both disciplines and is disciplined, the aisthesis of the sonic, the aisthesis of everyday sounds—that is, their sensible appearance—is also political. Of course, the political, here, shouldn’t be understood as the institutionalized organization of power relations but as the force relations that are immanent within their sphere of operation, thereby constituting their own organization. The political is an effect of relations that are inherent to a certain situation and a specific place. In other words, the interactions between the heterogeneous elements which constitute the assemblage sound-­site-­listener also cause (micro-)political implications to emerge, which simultaneously impacts these elements and their interactions. While being sonically engaged in everyday sounds, living beings are always also emplaced in specific contexts, characterized by, and productive of, particular power configurations.

February 2021

Windows and Doors

Although the idea or ideal of home may have many versions, and although its borders are almost continuously permeated by external influences, it will often be characterized by concepts such as privacy, family caring, physical safety, comfort and a known order.63 These concepts also have a sonic correlating element: aural comprehensibility, comparative refuge from uncontrollable (exterior) noise, and the relatively stable rhythms of daily routines (LaBelle 2010: 48–50). Through everyday indoor sounds, visceral connections and affective relations can be created between humans, things and houses: a human-­nonhuman cohabitation. Engaging with sounds is crucial to the experiential practices and performance of “doing home”64—home is coconstituted through sounds; humans are enfolded within the numerous and perpetual polyrhythms of indoor sounding agents (Duffy and Waitt 2013: 467, 476). Conversely, too much sonic seepage of the outside world within the house disrupts the idea of a home as a sanctuary from the public sphere. When uninvited (exterior) sounds are perceived as disruptive, silence within the house becomes a commodity, a form of luxury that comes—often literally—with a price.65

So, although almost every house is confronted with the auditory penetrability of its architectural walls, it is often also the place where humans can exercise the highest degree of acoustic control. This ranges from being the ones who produce the sounds at home, to regulating everyday domestic sounds, communicating through sound inside, and even improving the sonic quality of the house (Oleksik et al. 2008: 1421). Through sound, living beings craft a specific set of relationships between self, time and home (Walsh and De la Fuente 2019: 627). Whether in reality or virtually, whether by means of thought or dreams, the essence of a home seems to lie in the spaces where living beings have found the slightest shelter: “The house thrusts aside contingencies, its councils of continuity are unceasing” (Bachelard 1994: 5–7). However, this relatively high level of control over the sonic configuration of one’s house—its regulation, manipulation, hierarchization and signification—can also lead to various degrees of intolerance in which external sounds become easily labeled as noise. And it becomes especially problematic when unwanted sounds appear to be coming from the inside, from the household itself. Today, electronic devices in particular create new, often unsolicited, intrusions onto one’s auditory space (LaBelle 2010: 52, 80).

Windows and (internal) doors play an important role in the sound management of a home. They act as filters and dynamic processors, being fully open—letting in sounds from the outside or facilitating the free movement of sounds within the house—or fully closed—preventing or impeding sonic intrusion—and a smooth continuum between those two: ajar, half open, etc. (Oleksik et al. 2008: 1424). Although walls, (closed) doors and windows do not always provide the desired seclusion, the material components of the house often enable one to modulate sonic qualities with considerable subtlety. The absence or presence of sound, or the degree to which they are audible, influences the way and extent to which bodies are connected or disconnected within an assemblage; windows and doors thus have a social, political and ethical role as well, which is closely connected to the way they impact the sonic ambiance.

December 2021

Documenting Ordinary Sonic Ambiances

It is time to go outside, first of all because everyday sounds are, of course, not only found at home and, secondly, because the notion of home also refers to those spaces where we (can) feel at home. In other words, it is important to distinguish between the primarily physical structure of the house and the more socio-­cultural dimensions of home. So… let me take you on a short virtual sonic walk through my neighborhood.

Making this move from house to home, and from inside to outside, involves not only a physical transfer or passage. As Gaston Bachelard points out in The Poetics of Space, the interplay of these concepts is more complex than the normal geographical distinction implies.66 As the concept of “the outside” is constitutive for the inside to be able to appear as inside, it can never really be excluded from that inside; the one presupposes the other, and thus always already resonates in the other. On a perceptual level, specifically in sonic experiences, outside and inside are in constant exchange rather than in opposition. Sound offers an alternative to visual compartmentalization. Walls, doors or other obstacles block visual sightlines; sound doesn’t suffer from this, linking spaces that may be visually isolated and separated. Sound not only paves the way to reconsider the inside-­outside duality, it also provides the means to enact the recorporealization in the real world (Fairbairn 2021).

When the focus shifts towards the recording of neighborhood sounds, I must admit that I don’t know if presenting such an audio file in this context does indeed solve the dilemma sketched by Norman in the section “The Trap.” Yes, perhaps you are indeed affected—either positively or negatively—by these sounds that make up part of the sonic ambiance in which I am living; however, neither you nor I are listening to this recording in the same way as we would listen to it in an everyday situation. By assembling a selection of (for me) ordinary sounds and presenting them as an audio file, that is, by separating the sounds from their normal context, the everyday is already disregarded in favor of a more imaginative engagement, even though one could maintain that “documentary recordings” like this one evidence lived moments of reality.67 No doubt there is a perceptual change when we listen to a recording of the sounds which somehow (also) (re)present a reality. Listening to recordings of market vendors, pile-­driving or local traffic turns into an exposure to a “non-­exotic phonography” (Ford 2010: 99), an aesthetic exercise in which attention is given to ordinary sounds that are rarely heard for their own sake, an opportunity for opening oneself to the sonic qualities of things and events that we habitually ignore.

Limiting my remarks here to the process of recording the market sounds that can be heard on the audio file, a focus on the sonic qualities quite radically reframes the experience of buying fruits, vegetables, cheese or fish, turning the acquisition of food into a sonic act. A routine task reveals itself as a site for sonic creativity: making field recordings of this market place, listening to the results and combining them with sounds from other places generates an imaginative, experimental and creative relationship to the functions and potentials of these sites. Shopping, pile-­driving and driving somehow become musical activities; going to the market is suddenly like attending a concert.

And yet, although I probably didn’t solve Norman’s conundrum that studying all this inevitably implies transforming it, although I introduced a largely aesthetic and (therefore) detached attitude towards everyday sounds, what I offer here may make you more aware of the ordinary sounds in your environment; it may prompt a reflection on the everyday through these sounds. Simply opening your ears and starting to listen-­think is already one of the gratifications or advantages of exploring the everyday sonic atmosphere. Simply noticing these sounds during our daily routines does not often lead to memorable experiences or incentives for reflections; we may thus fail to discern their significant role in affecting and sometimes determining our behavior, our actions and our feelings. Perhaps the frame provided by (the) recording—considered as both a verb and a noun—somehow contributes to altering one’s attitude toward the mundane sonic atmosphere by causing some of its qualities to become more pronounced. These may be qualities not normally appreciated—noise, complexity, imperfection, the bare sonic features of a foreign language, for example—thus simultaneously challenging aesthetic tastes and judgments that prevail in everyday life (Saito 2007: 196). However, just as important are the potentially social, political, economic, cultural or religious qualities that these sounds (re)present. As Barry Truax writes in Acoustic Communication: “Sound plays a significant role in defining the community spatially, temporally in terms of daily and seasonal cycles, as well as socially and culturally in terms of shared activities, rituals, and dominant institutions” (Truax 2001: 66).68

Dealing with everyday sounds inevitably means, as Bertolt Brecht (1964: 144) already suggested, stripping the familiar of its inconspicuousness. Exploring the sonic assemblage of the ibrik (water) and the dishwashing brush whilst washing up (see the section “Towards a Sonic Materialism #1”) results in a transformed relationship to that daily maintenance ritual. Bringing such sounds to our attention means to not neglect them, to not deny them critical reflection, to not be satisfied that they are just there, often unnoticed and regarded as unavoidable. Attending to everyday sounds inevitably seems to de-­everyday them, to transform them in the process, to remove them from the flow of everyday life. However, as Ben Highmore claims, “if the everyday is poised on the edge of oblivion, suffering from sheer negligence and inattention, then it would need to be rescued from a habitual realm that might be responsible for sending it to oblivion in the first place” (Highmore 2002b: 28).

August 2021

Aural Lingering

Making an audio recording these days has become as easy as opening the dictaphone app on your smartphone and downloading one of the many free Digital Audio Workstations for subsequent editing. However, once you are ready to start recording, many decisions arise: what is it that you want to record? When will you do it: that is, under which circumstances? What will be the position of the recorder in relation to that what is recorded? How close do you move to the sound source? Which sounds should be foregrounded, which ones more in the background? How will you deal with unexpected or unwanted sounds? Etc. Recording sounds means lingering with them, abiding with them, dwelling with them. And, of course, the same goes for listening: listening, too, means to spend time with sounds, with the way they interact with other sounds, with the way a particular sound develops over time, with the way one sound influences how we listen to the other, how and why sounds are meaningful, how they discipline and are disciplined, etc.

However, lingering, abiding and dwelling means more than simply spending time with a sound or its source, means more than pausing or refusing to move on. In What’s the Use? On the Uses of Use Sara Ahmed writes that lingering occurs when fascination strikes and entices the imagination to wander: “To linger can be to go astray” (Ahmed 2019: 206). Lingering with everyday sounds, just like abiding with an object, may lead to leaving behind the context in which these sounds normally appear, a context which does not always invite the listener to pay closer attention to its sonic aspects. Lingering may lead toward stepping beyond the sounds’ regular functionalities and entering unknown territory where they can be (re)discovered, (re)encountered, (re)experienced, (re)considered. Aural lingering may thus bring us into contact with what Jane Bennett calls “vibrant matter,” realized through an engagement with sounds “in excess of their association with human meanings, habits or projects” (Bennett 2010: 4). Aural lingering, liberated from one’s usual expectations, can thus be described as a type of listening that also reaches beyond a detecting of the sounds’ sources. Or, alternatively, through aural lingering, the sounding of matter, all too often only considered as a side effect, becomes the main issue; aural lingering thus brings to the front what ordinarily recedes into the background.

An aural lingering with everyday sounds may result in an unsteady, continuous and dynamic oscillation between experiencing both sitedness and sitelessness. On the one hand, it may lead listeners back to the source of the sound, to recognition, to that which we tend to call “reality,” for example, a specific physical environment. On the other hand, this recognizability will also be integrated into more phantasmic, imaginary and temporal connectivities that question the facticity of what is there to be heard.69 The sitelessness of narratives, associations and memories will affect and invade the site-­specificness of the sound sources. However, as Brandon LaBelle proffers, a sonic site-­specificity already surpasses the architectures, ecologies and superficial appearance of things; sounds already confront the listener with a kind of unfamiliarity that lives beyond their experiences or habitats, “allowing for the distant to become intensely proximate, to touch us” (LaBelle 2019: 520). Through aural lingering, place and displacement, home and itinerancy become woven into a complex sonic fabric, paving the way for affective and unexpected intensities of everyday sounds and sites.

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