4. The Unfamiliarity of Everyday Sounds

Sshhhhh from rain, pitpitpit from hemlock, bloink from maple, and lastly popp of falling alder water. Alder drops make a slow music. It takes time for fine rain to traverse the scabrous rough surface of an alder leaf. The drops aren’t as big as maple drops, not enough to splash, but the popp ripples the surface and sends out concentric rings. I close my eyes and listen to the voices of the rain.

Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass: 299

October 2020

Meeting the Unfamiliar Accidentally

I often walk from my house to the nearby river for a coffee in a café. I know the route very well and also the sonic ambiance—although never quite the same—is so familiar that I usually don’t pay too much attention. However, on this rather windy afternoon in October, I suddenly heard a sound I never heard before. After standing still and listening more carefully, it took me some time to detect where it was coming from. The sound fascinated me, so I made a brief recording.

What I experienced while encountering this sound—the sound made by a slightly broken trashcan, shaken by the fairly strong wind, near a riverside—is that by suspending our everyday, anthropocentric assumptions about familiar, everyday objects, attention can be drawn to their precarious perceptual emergence. Due to the human predisposition for “normality,” most of us are inclined to tackle the abnormal by holding on to our everyday routines, and we rarely pause to consider the contingent processes through which our familiar world comes into being. Spending some time to listen and record helped me to suspend my natural habits; it encouraged me to observe more closely my ordinary environment as it takes shape in its abnormality, and it revealed in a new way the material background and paraphernalia of my everyday life.70

My attention was not drawn to the trashcan because of its functionality, but I became aware of its capacity as a sound-­producing object through its interaction with the wind and the pontoon to which it was attached. Recategorizing an encounter with an everyday object as a sonic experience, engaging attentively with the mundane sonic environment and reorganizing an ordinary outdoor space into a site which can be aesthetically appealing can all be considered as expressions of an inclination and attempt to de- and reorientate myself on the world I live in.71 What supported the specific de- and reorientation described above is that what I heard didn’t operate in the service of a visual organization or a necessary quest for the sound source; the mere listening to the sounds produced an ephemeral and temporary order of its own. This mode of listening evoked both a sense of familiarity and abstraction; my experience oscillated between a heightened awareness of the things usually only operating in the background of my everyday life and a specific concentration on the sonorous qualities of these things. An ordinary trashcan appeared to be a special sonic trashcan too.

Although it was a rather small and insignificant occurrence—I heard an unfamiliar sound in a familiar environment—it made me aware of the ongoing dynamics of everyday life, dynamics in which humans are only minor characters. Things perpetually evolve as they are integrated into and interacting with fluid environments; matter is never settled matter, but coming into existence in and through a dynamic play of (in)determinacy. And although our everyday lives often consist of processes of routinization and normalization, digging deeper into these processes, as well as listening to the interconnectivity of unremarkable objects, brings to our awareness that even routine activities don’t necessarily lead to stabilization or closure; instead, they are emerging, constantly changing and developing due to the interactions between humans, things and environments.72

December 2020

Meeting the Unfamiliar in the Familiar

Most often (and certainly logically), the everyday is equated with the mundane, the ordinary and the familiar, thereby automatically opposing it to the unusual, the uncommon and the remarkable. The extraordinary is the other of the everyday, clearly separated and distinguishable, belonging to a different category and context. One of the questions I would like to investigate in this part of the publication is whether such a fundamental binary opposition is indeed justified and tenable. If the everyday is that which is common and recognizable, then what can happen when that world is disturbed and disrupted by an unfamiliarity that is not in opposition to the everyday but always already existing within what Emmanuel Levinas would call “the order of the same”? Instead of reducing the everyday to the familiar and the recognized, my encounter with the (sounds of) the trashcan-­wind-­pontoon assemblage already revealed the potentiality of the everyday as encompassing both the ordinary and the extraordinary, both the known and the unknown. In this fourth part, I will explore the unformed within the formed, the non-­everyday in the heart of the everyday. Instead of regarding the everyday as the non-­significant, an “othering” of the everyday would perhaps make clear how it is permeated by ambiguity and instability, by transformative forces.73 This othering, however, is not meant to turn the ordinary into something extraordinary; rather, the idea is to think them together, to show their indivisibility, to demonstrate—through listening, through engaging with the sonic—how the one is operative within the other.

By listening beyond the primarily “unconscious” way of encountering everyday sounds, one could perhaps generate a more attentive and sentient perception or sonic awareness. By fostering a practice of listening-­out for the unheard or the overheard, one could learn to hear—within the materiality of the sounds—other possibilities of what they could be. Audio files based on field recordings should be helpful here, especially when some processing is used, not to reconfigure the sounds entirely but as a means of extending and exploring the sounds or to combine them in unfamiliar ways. The result might be an oscillating between the known and the unknown, a hyper-­realism with recognizable elements, yet “logically” impossible, further enhanced by an imagination which enriches the emergent auditory perception, especially because the sounds are to a certain extent disconnected from their “original” context.74 Presenting sounds from everyday sonic environments encountered abroad, recording sounds which cannot otherwise be heard, invading the sounds by moderately transforming them—thereby playing on the edge of the recognizable and the new—and searching for less regular interactions between various sounds could lead to a deconstruction of the boundaries between the ordinary and the extraordinary. Of course, this is not a goal in itself but another way to make people more aware of their sonic environments; by drawing attention to the sonic-­material world and reframing it, an awareness of how everyday sounds act upon and are acted upon by our bodies and mind is stimulated.

April 2019

Meeting the Unfamiliar in Audio Files

… not only listening to everyday sounds in the same way as one listens to music, but recognizing that these sounds also belong to the musical realm, that these are musical sounds just like the sound of a piano, an electric guitar or a koto. Cage achieved this by presenting non-­intended, ordinary background sounds in a musical context. For example, 4’33” is framed as a composition with a title, the name of the composer and a specific duration; its first performance was in 1952 at the Maverick Concert Hall in Woodstock, organized by the Woodstock Artists Association, embedded in the program amongst piano pieces by renowned composers such as Christian Wolff, Morton Feldman, Henry Cowell and others; 4’33” is scored and consists of three parts, thereby suggesting a link with the classical sonata form.

So, although Cage might have wanted to draw attention to the materiality of the sounds, “the sounds themselves”—as Pierre Schaeffer tried to do in 1948 with his Étude au chemin de fer or Helmut Lachenmann with his piano piece Guero in 1969, to give just two examples—it is clear that he made use of an already existing musical discourse and that an institutional frame was needed to somehow legitimize his aesthetic-­political choices. In other words, the perceptual experience was already—and perhaps necessarily—embedded in a para-­musical context of concepts, tradition, conventions and cultural capital, a context with inevitable social, political, economic, aesthetic and ethical overtones: “The perceived sound of a performance of 4’33” is secondary to the ‘noise’ it creates in the circuits of music as a category” (Kim-­Cohen 2009: 140). Although no conventional musical sounds could be heard, the Maverick Concert Hall was filled with conceptual and institutional resonances, creating opportunities to investigate what music is and how it works by listening to 4 minutes and 33 seconds of alleged silence.

In the wake of Cage, but also deviating from his important achievements in order to increase awareness of the sounds that make up our sonic environment without immediately rejecting them or dismissing them as noise, I sometimes present field recordings of everyday sounds as if they are music by combining them with sounds played on more conventional musical instruments. The reason is primarily strategic: often, the context in which I play such audio files are conferences, which are usually dominated by a discourse centering around noise pollution, a discourse in which sound is regarded as a problem, a negativity. By introducing ordinary, noisy sounds in a more artistic framework (or vice versa), I hope to encourage a different attitude of listening, an attitude that allows for the exploration and recognition of the aesthetic (as well as meaningful or functional) qualities of those sounds.75

Taking a critical stance toward the presumption of “now we are entering the concert hall, and hence we are hearing (good) music,” at these conferences I defend the claim that mundane, ordinary sounds are as open to contemplation as the extraordinary and artistically recognized sounds, suggesting that it is the mode of listening that makes sounds interesting rather than the sounds themselves. To some extent, I try to bring the modes of perception and modes of involvement from concert spaces into another world, the mundane world, and I invite people to perceive non-­musical, everyday sounds—emerging from non-­musical everyday spaces—as they do music, as worthwhile (Ford 2010: 119).76

August 20172019

Meeting the Unfamiliar Abroad

According to Murray Schafer, “the ear is always much more alert while traveling in unfamiliar environments” (Schafer 1994: 211). While visiting unknown places, the concept of the everyday is continually shifting: one realizes very soon that what is ordinary for locals is extraordinary for the traveler, as an outsider, as a stranger. Conversely, home gets defined through aural encounters with the unfamiliar, with “not home.” Hence, notions of the domestic and the foreign mutually constitute one another (Blunt and Dowling 2006: 143). While being in such unknown places, mind and body can combine perspicacity and openness toward a receptivity to sonic novelties and fantasies. For some years now, I therefore make field recordings of the places I visit either for my work or for holiday. Instead of a tourist or a detached observer, I prefer to call myself—following Elias Canetti—an ear witness.77

Sometimes I rework these recordings a bit—removing too much wind disturbance, selecting the most interesting parts and combining them, thereby creating a new acoustic order, a new rhythm of that specific place—before sending them to friends or relatives. I call these aural fragments sonic postcards. Besides looking, moving and smelling, listening creates a sensuous relation to a place, especially when one needs to listen carefully to the unknown, complex mesh of rhythms and pitches in order to orientate oneself. And by recording them, these sounds become retainable as souvenirs; they may act as keys, opening doors to forgotten moments.78 Although I never intend to provide listeners with a realistic representation of the place I have visited—they offer, at most, traces of a reality, giving access to the real through the unreal—these sonic postcards are site-­specific, intentionally destined to be listened to outside of their “original” environment, simultaneously generating a sense of emplacement and (temporal) displacement.79

As such, I hope that my recordings make possible certain connections to everyday situations and events from elsewhere.80

Recorded sounds thread themselves through the experience and memory of a place. Somehow they work as a metonym, in that they speak of something larger, something that exceeds the mere sonic. They may carry the material, social and political organization of a particular place, or they may be able to reveal complex ecosystems constituted by anthropophony (sounds deriving from individual human activities and the built environment), biophony (sounds originating from biological organisms) and geophony (naturally occurring geophysical sounds). Simultaneously, however, these schizophonic sounds—these sounds that are de- and recontextualized—can open up or unfold places to imaginative transformations as well; through them, new possibilities of a place can be invented, inherent but not yet actualized capacities of a site can be discovered and new affective relations can be experienced. Through auditory imagination, a singular actuality changes into a multiple virtuality (Stjerna 2018: 100–101). Place becomes something between here and there; it happens, wanders and changes between listening (to the files), expectation and imagination. The sonic postcards present a geography of alternative, invisible, aural worlds and socialities, questioning the normativity of the landscape, the map and the photograph by pluralizing their conception (Voegelin 2014: 32–36).

While Hong Kong is perhaps an almost paradigmatic example of how humans have conquered their own territories within nature, the mountains on one side and the water on the other have set palpable limits to an unbridled human expansionism. Nature and culture cannot escape each other in this city, and sometimes they even sound more or less similar: human chatter, twittering birds and beeping technology flow into each other…

Can silence be made audible? Can it be made audible through sounds? In this recording, I have tried to capture the everyday emptiness of a deserted, sleepy little village in the southeastern area of Portugal, all the little noises that inhabit the silences of the town, precarious silences perhaps, always about to be broken or left behind. Here, the silence shivers with an almost complete absence of people…

In One-­Way Street Walter Benjamin writes:

The special issue of a town is formed in part for its inhabitants—and perhaps even in the memory of the traveler who has stayed there—by the timbre and intervals with which the tower-­clocks begin to chime. The special sense of a city maybe no longer is given by tower-­clocks and church-­bells—by sounds, that is, which tell time—but rather by those that tell motion. The peculiar sounds of transit are the signature tunes of modern cities.

Benjamin 1985: 82

The soundscape of Montoito is dominated by both church bells and sparse traffic, at least for me, the traveler, there and then; modern and premodern times coalesce…

In 2010, Bill Fontana stated in an interview in The Guardian (Wyse 2010) that when you walk the street, you will probably not really listen to the traffic, but when you hear a recording of traffic in the woods, you will. Mindful of Fontana’s words, I have created some sonic snapshots, some excisions out of Ottawa’s everyday sonic reality. By diachronically and synchronically playing with the context of the sounds, their normality has been partially breached, thereby calling for and holding the listener’s attention.

As it is not so practical to cover your ears, an acquired indifference is often the best defense against the sonic overload that characterizes most big cities. As Fran Tonkiss writes, “individuals’ relation to sound in the everyday spaces of the city tends to be one of distraction rather than attention” (Tonkiss in Bull and Back 2004: 304). Beirut is indeed a noisy city but (aurally) fascinating at the same time. Traffic sounds, sea sounds and the call of the muezzin struggle for prominence, while simultaneously Christian church bells, music and children’s voices can be heard.

March 2021

Meeting the Unfamiliar Through Apparatuses

The unfamiliar is not (always) a radical other, not (necessarily) an intruder coming from the outside; it is equally possible that the unfamiliar is always already nestled in the familiar, always already a part of it. Differing from the previous examples—encountering the unfamiliar in the juxtaposition of usually strictly separated sound worlds or being exposed to exotic sonic environments—here I am referring to an interior world of sounds outside of what we normally hear, which opens up to another alterity. Hydrophones, contact mics and EMF (electro-­magnetic field) receivers give access to a foreign sonic inside, opening doors that are usually closed; they give access not to a world that could be, but to a plurality of worlds that also exist.

Unobtrusive background sounds that hardly vary, softly whooshing or rumbling —think of closed airflow systems, fluorescent lighting, furnaces or air conditioners—contribute layers of sound to the domestic soundscape, and affect us as our brain and nervous system register their presence (Epstein 2020: 57). However, besides these soft, continual sounds, we also inhabit sonic worlds which are beyond human auditory experience except when using technical aids. (In that sense, they can also serve as a reminder that humans are not the central entity of the universe.) Hydrophones pick up the sounds of water, boats or a submarine world inhabited by beings who have existed for many millions of years longer than our species (Winderen, in Lane and Carlyle 2013: 157); these underwater sounds are recognizably natural, organic or alive, yet at the same time completely alien to human ears.81 Contact mics bring us into contact with the materiality of an object and its interactions with the environment. They allow a recordist to come closer to an object or event, transducing its surface’s vibrations and letting the inner timbral character of the sound emerge (Meireles 2021).82 EMF receivers bring electromagnetic fields within the range of human hearing. The interest in using such devices might be merely aesthetic: the sounds are often perceived as unexpected and abstract, and therefore potentially interesting. But their use can also raise awareness about our daily environment and questions as to how these electromagnetic fields might influence our behavior.83

“No matter how hard I look, I cannot see the wind, the invisible is the horizon of sight. An inquiry into the auditory is also an inquiry into the invisible. Listening makes the invisible present,” Don Ihde writes (2007: 51). Hydrophones, contact mics and EMF receivers enable me to come into contact with matter, places or events that are inaccessible, not only for the eye but also for the ear, initiating another active exploratory journey through my everyday environment. Through these devices, my perception shifts; they enable a different, augmented experience on the alleged silent or quiet agents inside and outside my house, giving access to inaudible audible worlds, granting entries to impossible possible worlds.84 The sound of moving water differs depending upon whether it is recorded through normal microphones, hydrophones or contact mics; it differs when running through plastic, metal or ceramic pipes; it differs when it comes in contact with the cement surface of a drain pipe, the stone floor of the shower or the plastic roof of a canopy.85 The subject matter is the same, but its perceived sonic phenomenon is altered according to and through the agents of mediation or interaction.

How the observer, the observed and the observational device interact and depend on one another is one of the themes Karen Barad addresses and thinks through in Meeting the Universe Halfway. First, she concludes that the “agencies of observation” themselves are no fixed entities, no bounded objects, but only constituted “through particular practices that are perpetually open to rearrangements, rearticulations, and other reworkings” (Barad 2007: 202–3); they materialize and operate in interaction with a multitude of practices, aesthetic or otherwise. Second, they do not simply register presumably preexisting and propertied objects or events; these objects or events only emerge through their interactions or direct material engagements with the observational devices and practices. Barad calls this the “constitutive nature of practices” (Barad 2007: 57). Different interactions produce different objects or events; as became clear in the example of employing various microphones, the nature of the perceived phenomenon changes when the apparatus changes, revealing specific features at the expense of others. The apparatus is the condition of possibility to encounter an object or event differently, thus bringing forth new worlds. That is why Barad (2007: 151) can claim that matter is not a thing but a doing, substance in its interactive becoming. Finally, she stresses that humans are not excluded from this interactive becoming: “Humans do not merely assemble different apparatuses for satisfying particular knowledge projects; they themselves are part of the ongoing reconfiguring of the world” (Barad 2007: 171). Instead of being non-­involved witnesses while listening to unknown worlds, and instead of being put off-­center through the discovery of these unknown sonic worlds, humans are co-­constituted in and through their relationships with sounds, recording devices, technology and the environment.

February 2021

Meeting the Unfamiliar Through Aesthetics

In The Politics of Aesthetics Jacques Rancière writes:

The poetic ‘story’ or ‘history’ links the realism that shows us the poetic traces inscribed directly in reality with the artificialism that assembles complex machines of understanding […] The real must be fictionalized in order to be thought […] It is a matter of stating that the fiction of the aesthetic age defined models for connecting the presentation of facts and forms of intelligibility that blurred the border between the logic of facts and the logic of fiction.

Rancière 2004: 38

Fusing reality with fiction: if everyday sounds are continually in danger of dropping below a certain level of attention, certain practices allow these sounds to become noticed, through techniques such as slightly transforming them, placing them in unusual combinations or shaping them into hyper-­realistic yet completely imaginary “compositions.” In this way, the taken-­for-­granted-­ness of everyday sounds can be brought to our attention (Highmore 2002a: 46, 87). Presenting field recordings is one of these practices. It lets the everyday be heard, be heard anew, be contemplated as an artistic work; through this practice, different registers of a polyphonic everyday can be perceived, not as background noise but as a foregrounded voice (Highmore 2002a: 171). Although they are comprised of site-­specific sonic material, field recordings do withdraw sounds from their everyday contexts, thereby also deterritorializing a site; listeners get acquainted with the sonic reality of a place, yet are simultaneously estranged from that reality.86 However, this should in no way be understood as a discrediting of the act of making and sharing field recordings. It is through their in-­between dynamics that field recordings can create a basis for sensitive engagement and “illuminate the ordinarily neglected, but gem-­like, aesthetic potentials hidden behind the trivial, mundane, and commonplace façade” (Saito 2007: 50).87 Field recordings and soundscape compositions encourage a more attentive listening to the sonic environment, stimulating imaginative, poetic and perhaps empathetic responses to everyday sounds (Gilmurray 2014: 10). Rather than merely calling me to identify these sounds, thereby reducing field recordings to a kind of documentary, they invite me to prehend—through their play between vibration and representation, between matter and meaning, between the familiar and the unfamiliar—their affective quality.

Profound listening to our everyday sonic environment—whether or not with the help of aestheticized field recordings to bring about a de- and recontextualization of place—may reveal the inherent and natural musicality of sound. Through listening to reframed environmental sounds, detached from their utilitarian function as mere signifiers of physical phenomena, and shifting the focus of our attention and understanding from representation to being (and the “that” which exceeds it), our everyday listening becomes attuned to the musical characteristics of the outside world. In this multi-­perspective and exploratory journey, I therefore acknowledge the significant role that sounding arts can play in initiating new engagements with the (surrounding) world. However, and this is the main subject of the next part, these engagements are not limited to the artistic-­aesthetical realm only: they also affect and are affected by socio-­political and ethical realms.

Towards a Sonic Materialism #7:

Attention for a sonic materialism makes clear that materiality is always more than “mere” matter: materiality or materialism also encompasses agents such as resonances, vibrations, forces, relationalities and differences that render matter (sound sources, non-­sounding phenomena, human beings, places) active and productive. That is, these agents are not material in sensu stricto, but matter is inseparable from them. Sounds contribute to the formation of relational fields and simultaneously emerge within these fields, fields which include physical, biological, semiotic, social, cultural, political, psychic and technological components. One consequence of putting the sonic center stage—ontologically, epistemologically, materially—is acknowledging that everything consists of constant emergence, attraction, repulsion, fluctuation and change; sonic materialism therefore emphasizes processes rather than states, becoming rather than being.88

Another aspect that is revealed in thinking—through sound—in terms of flux and interaction is that we become aware that we will never know comprehensively what agents can do, because we cannot know beforehand how these agents can affect and be affected, nor what relations they are capable of. While some (aspects of) agents prove decisive in specific circumstances, others remain dormant, inactive or veiled, that is, not affecting anything at all (Harman 2016: 42; Bryant 2011: 48). Consequently, agents are always in excess of all actuality; their capacities will (almost) always exceed any local manifestation or actualization. This “more-­than” is what Deleuze names the virtual, the potentialities or capabilities of agents which can be activated or actualized in other circumstances, events or environments. In other words, by varying what Bryant (2011: 120, 170) calls “the exo-­relations” of agents, we can discover the powers and possibilities of which these agents are capable, as exo-­relations irreversibly transform a specific manifestation of an agent.89 The process of actualization differentiates and determines the agents’ virtual potentialities according to the actual conditions. Therefore, inquiring into what something is not only becomes problematic but less relevant as well; more interesting and important is the question what something can do. Instead of asking what a sound is, asking what a sound can do allows for a more productive interaction with and reflection on that sound.

That an agent cannot be reduced to the current conceptual or discursive knowledge humans have of it—Bryant (2011: 60) calls this “the epistemic fallacy” and another criticism on anthropocentrism—is, according to Harman, best evidenced in the arts: when we try to describe Picasso’s Les demoiselles d’Avignon “with bundles of explicit and verifiable qualities” we will certainly lose “something crucial” (Harman 2016: 32). Thinking further, and thereby also diverging from Harman and not necessarily focusing on situations without human input, I would claim that specific sonic interventions—particularly the manifold forms of what I will call “sounding (non-)art” further on in this book90—can disclose as-­yet-­undiscovered potentialities of environments, (sonic) ambiances and / or (sounding) agents. (Non-)art in everyday life functions as an oscillating force from the actual to the virtual and back again.

Just like an aesthetic reaction can be a rather insignificant, almost automatic response to an everyday phenomenon (mess, dirt, noise), revealing the potentialities of everyday situations does not of necessity lead to spectacular, remarkable or memorable new experiences; sonic interventions are often the result of exploring already existing affective force relations that together constitute the assemblage that is a place; they can lead to either more or less substantial modifications—sonically, but also socially, politically, ecologically or ethically—of those relations. Experimenting with and elaborating upon the inherent capacities of a specific place, that is, making perceptible forces that were unnoticed before, transforms the relation to this place, even when this is done in an unobtrusive way (Stjerna 2018: 25, 101). Actualizing some of the virtual potentialities of agents implies being aware of, attentive and responsive to an actual situation—often a sensuous appearance or functionality, instead of “disinterested” aesthetic values—by engaging in certain actions which may well be ordinary and seemingly pragmatic.91 The result might be that we not only develop a more careful attitude to those sounds and objects that we often ignore, but also that our prevailing judgments and (ethical and aesthetic) sensibilities undergo some changes (Saito 2007: 196). Both the actual and the virtual might thus deepen our relation to a place, a thing, a situation or a sound: for example, by increasing the respect for nonhuman agents, and by acknowledging their performative and interactive vitality and the forces that also exist independent from human influences, thereby cutting across natural and cultural domains.

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