6. Coda

Saruman believes it is only great power that can hold evil in check, but that is not what I have found. It is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay. Small acts of kindness and love.


June 2021

The Role of (Non-)Art

Developing a sensitivity to commonly ignored everyday sounds—from sounds at home to the sonic environment of one’s residence to the everyday auditory milieus one may experience while traveling—has been an important objective of this study. To develop such a (re)sensitization to one’s acoustic environment while remaining as much as possible in a quotidian situation, I have proposed oscillating between diverse and even ambiguous listening regimes, from distracted to attentive listening, from causal to semantic listening, and from listening for information to a more aesthetic or reduced listening mode. Additionally, I have presented several audio files based on field recordings, not only to foster your awareness but also to offer you the unfamiliar within fairly ordinary sonic environments, in the hope that the “not-­quite-­realness” of the recordings draws your attention—attention to not only the acoustic qualities but certainly also to their social, political, economic and ethical significance—to the “real sounds” that encompass you daily.111 112

As mentioned in the “Disclaimers” section, I do not consider myself a sound artist, nor are my audio files intended to be works of sound art. Rather, they are meant to be heard as integral components of my research into sonic materialism, and equal partners in a contribution to a theoretical discourse on the meaning and functioning of everyday sounds. In other words, they should function as a form of philosophical argument as well as creative material for you to think with, and not as simply a methodological means toward an end, namely, written reflections. The audio files could be heard as contributions to a thinking about sound, in and through sound (Samuels et al. 2010: 339); they should invite you to engage in the creation of alternative, embodied, sensorial ways of thinking. Perhaps I could also call them acousmatic non-­art: they can be heard as art-­like phenomena even though they might never explicitly be accorded the status of artwork (Batchelor 2007).113 Their position is mainly to reveal and encourage a sensitivity to the (hidden) characteristics and implicit (sonic) values of a site or situation. Alternatively, the audio files could be labeled as “lowercase art,” after Steve Roden’s term “lowercase music”; they draw attention to sounds—their details, their subtleties, as well as their workings­—to which one would not ordinarily pay attention, thereby allowing them to acquire significance without the intent to affect or change their role, position and function within the “original” context (Batchelor 2013: 6–8). The audio files thus intervene primarily within the context of our listening; they create situations that—hopefully—stimulate a readiness for listening. But, again: my primary intention is not to completely exchange a habitual, often unconscious, mode of listening (including a partial tuning out to protect oneself from excessive auditory input) for ardent aural dedication; rather, I prefer to see these two almost opposite modes as taking place concurrently, informing one another, a repetitive dipping in and out of the conscious experience of a sonic ambiance, an oscillation that, incidentally, happens both in mundane situations as well as during musical performances.

So, without necessarily privileging one listening mode over another, I sought to draw your attention to everyday sounds in order to reveal how they evoke a sense of time, space, distance, direction and motion, and how they affect your behavior, your mood, your (inter)actions and your wellbeing. At the same time, this aim forced me to think beyond a mere anthropocentrism: sounds, spaces and things also interact—on micro, meso and macro levels—beyond human presence, influence, hearing, consciousness, control, will, desire, design, intention, etc. We always already live with and within a sonic environment, an environment that is constantly changing due to human as well as nonhuman interactions and interventions. Places sound and resound; bodies, objects, materials and surfaces have acoustic properties and are responsive to sound, affected by sounds, resonating, amplifying or transmitting vibration, often beyond human cochlear listening. We live in a profoundly multiphonic world, even if we are often unaware of it (Gallagher et al. 2017: 618–621).

In this sense, listening should not be considered an activity that only living beings are capable of: an expanded conception of listening concerns the responsiveness of all kinds of human and nonhuman agents toward sounds, whether audible or inaudible to the human ear.114 Such an expanded and inclusive notion of listening would simultaneously encompass the phenomenology of “normal” (human) listening regimes, the physical vibrations in materials, all kinds of kinetic oscillations and all the meanings, effects and affects that result, whether or not they are registered by human perception, cognition and knowledge. As Gallagher et al. state, “the vibrational force of sound means that it acts upon entities regardless of whether those entities are consciously listening to it or not […]. The vibratory and affective nature of sound challenges the common assumption that listening is contingent on aural receptivity” (Gallagher et al. 2017: 626). In other words, expanded listening bears a resemblance to resonance; hearing sounds is only one particular aspect in a broader ontological and political field of vibrations, vibrations that can be perceived by various parts of the body. Moreover, resonating with everyday sounding objects or events also means that their sounds evoke experiences and sensations connected to, for example, memories, psycho-­acoustic or semantic meaning, and geographical, biological or sociocultural contexts. Expanded listening is thus, in a broader sense, an act of engaging with an environment.

Throughout this book, these thoughts and observations were developed through not only theoretical reflections but also through the process of making field recordings and composing (editing, mixing, processing) audio files. For example, recording and processing sounds revealed that “the same” sounds sound different in different spaces, confirming the idea that things and spaces interact with one another: that is, mutually listen with, influence and even create each other. On the other hand, capturing ultrasounds, underwater sounds and the sounds of electromagnetic fields demonstrated that humans are (almost) constantly surrounded by sounds that escape their hearing (but often have an effect on their mood and / or behavior). Therefore, I consider my variable roles in this work to be those of an (aural) educator, explorer, mediator and / or (socio-­political) activist, challenging you to engage with your (sonic) environment. My non-­art or lowercase art in combination with the texts and photos will certainly not change the world we inhabit, but together they might be able to question its taken-­for-­grantedness, by inviting you to actively think about everyday sounds, about your listening attitude towards them and their significance in relation to your personal, historical and cultural experiences, as well as to other concrete and abstract, actual and virtual, material and immaterial agents.

June 2021

(Non-)Art at Home

At the very beginning of The Soundscape Schafer writes:

Noises are the sounds we have learned to ignore. Noise pollution today is being resisted by noise abatement. This is a negative approach. We must seek a way to make environmental acoustics a positive study program. Which sounds do we want to preserve, encourage, multiply? When we know this, the boring or destructive sounds will be conspicuous enough and we will know why we must eliminate them.

Schafer 1994: 4

Toward the end of Part 1, I briefly mentioned the Dutch writer Maarten Biesheuvel who, in one of his short stories, invited his readers to take a tour through his study. As humorous as his text might be, I do believe that Schafer’s “positive study program” could indeed start at home, with people taking a soundwalk through their house or apartment. On the one hand, this raises an awareness of the sounds that accompany us in our daily lives, the “intrinsic” characteristics of the sounds, their peculiarities, the simultaneous occurrence of multiple sounds, some short, soft, regular or high-­pitched and coming from within, others long, random, loud or low-­pitched and coming from outside. On the other hand, it can make clear how certain sounds are directly connected to particular spaces, while others traverse many sites; it can make us aware that we are always already participating in the sonic environment in which we are immersed; it can be fascinating to experience how sounds are connected and connect us to specific activities, moods, feelings, emotions or memories; it might be interesting to experience how sounds can tell us so many things about our cultural, physical, social, economic, spiritual, spatial, psychological, technological, political, historical and / or ecological situation.115

All this precedes the usual reflex of immediately forming a specific judgment about these sounds, categorizing them into pleasant or unpleasant, or trying to eliminate noisy sounds as quickly as possible. Once more, Cage’s saying bears repeating: the more we try to block them out, the more they begin to irritate us; through acknowledging that these sounds are part of our everyday lives, we can begin learning how they affect us and how we affect them. This heterogeneous listening—oscillating between, for example, paying attention to the “sounds themselves,” gleaning (sonic) information or meaning, communicating and becoming carried away by memories, imagination, feelings or other events—is also a performative listening guided by curiosity, care, responsiveness and humility; it contributes to a sensorial, embodied understanding of our lifeworld, one that grasps and experiences the agencies of inclusion and exclusion (as some sounds come to matter and others don’t) while concurrently combining actuality and possibility in a sonic imaginary.

As with soundwalking, the recording of sounds takes place within and is shaped by the concrete materiality of those sounds in tandem with the concrete action of listening. Recording—relatively easy nowadays, as practically every mobile phone has either a built-­in (voice) recorder app or users can easily download an app of their choice, and more advanced recorders are fairly cheap and easy to use—as a (non-)artistic method decontextualizes sounds, making them available at any time and under any circumstances. Recording can be used to document memories and histories, fascinating or repulsive sounds, as either an intended or hoped-­for representation of reality or as raw material for future editing.116 Listening to recorded sounds again can transport you back in time and place of the recording (as with my sonic postcards), but it can also alter your relationship to those sounds: unremarkable sounds can become significant, previously unnoticed sounds suddenly become the focus of attention, initially annoying sounds reveal interesting layers upon re-­listening. (Of course, the reverse might also occur in these examples.) Recording, then, potentially alters our perception and experience of an environment; besides, it also alters our role within that environment, placing us in the position of phonographer, researcher and interested listener (Ford 2010: 149). However, such agencies only arise within a position of immersion; the role of humans is simply and nothing more than an interpolation within an already ongoing sonic metabolism. Whether (un)consciously concentrating on sounds or (un)consciously ignoring them, we always slip into an already moving sonic stream. At the same time, however, listening and recording are not neutral observational apparatuses: they make inscriptions, modify sound material and, as such, are difference-­making agents (Fairbairn 2020: 40, 46).

Soundwalking and recording also make perceptible other possibilities of how things might be and relate to each other; they can be steps toward more or less substantial (non-­artistic) sonic interventions, changes that directly affect the sonic ambiance of a particular place. For example, when you are emptying a house for a move, you notice how the reverberation and echo slowly increase; conversely, adding thick fabrics such as carpets or curtains to a room dampens the sounds. Opening doors or windows most likely creates a denser, more heterogeneous, more diverse sonic environment; insulation, on the other hand, increases the quietness of a room. Playing music, as with vacuuming or receiving guests, naturally adds sounds to the already existing sonic environment while also masking certain sounds. To intervene and participate in the sonic design of a house always already means to engage with the environment through hearing and listening, through de-­hearing and de-­listening, through re-­hearing and re-­listening. At the intersections of habitual attitudes of listening and a more critical-­reflective attitude of a “listening out for,” at the intersections of comprehension and prehension, an auditory imagination can emerge, an auditory imagination that oscillates between what is and what can be, between the actual and the virtual, between review and preview. Sonic materialism builds on contingent, concrete listening experiences on the one hand, and auditory imaginings on the other, to investigate and experiment with the actualities and possibilities of the tangible and ephemeral agents that together make up our environment. This is not (necessarily) the privileged world of the sound artist and the sound engineer, the professional and the expert; in other words, here, the resident with their (de / re)sensitized ears who inhabits this world is the professional and the expert, the (non-)artist.

July 2021

(Non-)Art Outside

Schafer’s “positive study program” can be practiced outside the physical walls of the home—our everyday sonic environment—is not, of course, limited to the interior of our dwelling. In this study, I have already shown how my interest in the familiar extends to other areas: my neighborhood, my home country and some, mostly urban, places abroad.

Although there are certainly several (urban) sonic refrains or soundmarks—from the omnipresence of traffic sounds to the incidental, but patterned, recurring sounds of trams, (church) bells, crosswalk signals, kids going to or coming from school, etc.—what immediately became clear from my recordings was that the relative physical stability of a city (its buildings, its street plan, its infrastructure, its nature) somehow seems to contrast with the fluctuations, dynamics and almost continuous transformations of its sonic environments and atmospheres.117 Both designed and coincidental sounds contribute to the shaping of urban places; these urban sounds actually present the dynamic life of a city.118 The various human and nonhuman agents in and of a city, together with their soundings, form an almost constantly changing auditory constellation, which is of course also determined by the position and behavior of the listener. While listening to the city, one encounters another, more ephemeral, urbanism: it allows one to consider urban spaces as complex assemblages, as affective practices instead of relatively fixed forms; it allows one to experience the city as also constructed through narratives, memories and imagination, rather than as consisting of physical spaces alone. In and through sonic interactions with the city, discursive, perceptual, fantastical and material aspects converge.

When engaging with the everyday sounds of a city, one can roughly follow the same heuristic strategy as when engaging with those at home (see previous section), a strategy loosely based on Pascal Amphoux’s “diagnosis—managing—­creation” tripartition (Amphoux 1993). The first stage, based on an expanded listening, is mainly indicative: what sounds are heard? Which sounds are most pronounced? How do they interact? What is my relation to these sounds? Are they informative, meaningful? Can I control them? The second stage, managing, consists of further exploring and deepening the relationship between sounds and listener: Which of these existing sounds are worth listening to, worth listening to because they are useful, pleasant or soothing? Which sounds contribute to a positive atmosphere, not only sensorial but also social, political, etc.? How do these sounds interact with the non-­sounding agents in the environment? How are they an active factor in the construction of a place? The third stage, creation, can lead to some concrete interventions in the sonic ambiance in order to change it. By subtracting, adding, transforming or unmasking sounds, one can help to develop an acoustic sensibility and enable new and creative experiences through the acoustic diversification and adaptation of an urban environment.119

An aural ecology affects how we (inter)act, feel, move and engage with and in a public (urban) environment; it shapes both possibilities and constraints in our encounters with urban spaces and all the agents co-­creating these spaces (Atkinson 2005: 15). Moving through and listening to the city can be experienced as a “continual negotiation within surrounding [sonic, MC] patterns,” an encounter between ordering and disciplining systems such as crosswalk signals or warning alarms, and subjects that sometimes submit themselves to and sometimes resist those systems. “The rhythm of the walker steps in line, falls behind, or runs over such existing patterns, formulating a counterpoint to the time signature of urban systems,” for example, through the use of personal audio devices (LaBelle 2010: 90, 93, 96). Exploring urban spaces implies being aware of all kinds of sonically imposed regulations, as well as the often innocuous tactics of resistance employed by residents and visitors. It also constitutes affective encounters with the inherent, embedded capacities of such places. Listening, recording and—if possible and desired—(non-)artistic interventions can often reveal and (re)activate hidden potentials of places; these activities can bring to the surface forgotten or suppressed forces that are already (latently) present in a place, thereby establishing new connections (Stjerna 2018: 105).120 Listening, recording and especially creating audio files can have another advantage: while our mental apparatus seems predisposed toward assigning sounds to their source, especially in everyday situations, the virtual acoustic spaces created by audio compilations offer us new creative possibilities (Wishart 1996: 130, 136). Or, in the words of Jean-­François Lyotard, the idea behind soundwalking, recording and sonic intervening is not only to “supply reality but to invent allusions to the conceivable” (Lyotard 1984: 81). This does not suggest, however, that sound works and the like simply produce fiction, that is, a sonic fantasy opposed to the real and actual world; rather, by immersing us in their materiality, they suggest a multiplicity of possible realities. To engage with sonic worlds is to engage with their material possibilities. It is an aesthetic experience that can no longer be expressed in terms of judgments regarding likes and dislikes; instead, it causes us to reconsider and reorganize the relationships between agents (bodies, urban spaces, temporalities), confronting us with the potential inexhaustibility of our perception. But once again, this is not a conscious decision of a rational subject: engaging is letting a giveable come towards you; engaging is receiving; engaging is “irresolute, deciding to be patient, wanting not to want” (Lyotard 1991: 19). (Non-)art outside as a material exploration of public sonic environments thus also refers to the uninscribed that remains to be inscribed; it refers to the Freudian Durcharbeitung, the working through of what remained hidden so far, registering new or unfamiliar occurrences between the “now,” the “no longer,” and the “not yet,” by applying a certain passibility. (Non-)art outside doesn’t refer to the recognition of the given but to the ability to let things come as they present themselves (Lyotard 1991: 32); it is here that aesthetics and ethics meet in and through and, at the same time, beyond and outside the everyday.

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