Audible evidence:
on listening to places

by Andrea Hammer

 When Chuck Kleinhans playfully chided Visible Evidence participants in 2005 for “avoiding thinking actively about audio documentary,” he tossed out the following gambit. Not only does audio documentary share many of the same issues and practices of visual documentary, he claims; it also, in some cases, does things better than visual media. His interest, he continues, is in the new worlds of audio production and transmission that have developed in opposition to traditional broadcasting and that serve as alternatives to the Federal Communications Commission’s crushing effect on diversity and local markets. He notes,

“In short, new media changes are in the process of creating a different terrain, one that is amenable to alternative and independent audio.”[1][open notes in new window]

What are those things Kleinhans hints at that audio does better than visual media? In the case of Ghetto Life 101, for example, the inconspicuous nature of the recording equipment, its ease of use, and its relatively low cost allowed teenagers LeAlan Jones and Loyd Newman to create a compelling, imaginative, and intimate exploration of their Chicago neighborhood — the “view from inside,” Kleinhans calls it (notwithstanding, I would add, the considerable shaping power of producer Dave Isay’s hand in the project). In the case of Practicing Emptiness, a Soundprint documentary about women who sell themselves to men, audio alone works best precisely, Kleinhans argues, “because we DON’T see the faces and the narrators blend together” and thus we’re more likely to critique “a general social condition based in the conditions of patriarchy” than to identify with, or become sidetracked by, individual testimonies.[2]

It’s important to be reminded of these and other virtues of audio, particularly within so visually dominated a genre as documentary. Here I take up take up Kleinhans’s invitation to think more carefully about audio documentary, and particularly to ask whether and how audio does things differently than visual media. Does one apprehend the world differently through the ear rather than the eye, and if so, how and toward what end? What, in other words, is to be gained by focusing on sound as a subject of investigation? Sound is evidence indeed, but evidence of what? And how might a habit of listening deeply to what Don Ihde calls “the noise and voice of the environment, of the surrounding lifeworld” lead to new forms of documentary expression and alternative habits of perception?[3]

I come to these questions from an interest in both place and documentary, and specifically from efforts to forge an audio documentary practice in upstate New York, where I direct a landscape studies program. By place I mean something far more than coordinates on a map, a point I will return to. Place, to borrow from philosopher Edward Casey, is where things gather, by which he means things “animate and inanimate” — experiences, histories, languages, memories, expectations and disappointments.[4] Landscape, to parse the issue further, refers to the tangible, physical features of earth dreamed over, modified, shaped by and shaping humans. It’s in this material sense that anthropologists speak of landscape as a “meaningful crystallization of place,” a precipitate of social, economic, political, and environmental processes.[5]

My attraction to audio stems in part from the qualities Kleinhans describes: its flexibility, intimacy, and new technologies for broadcast and transmission. But it also stems from sound’s extraordinarily haunting properties. Brandon LaBelle opens his Introduction to Background Noise: Perspectives on Sound Art with a rollicking inventory of sound’s effects:

“Sound is intrinsically and unignorably relational: it emanates, propagates, communicates, vibrates, and agitates; it leaves a body and enters others; it binds and unhinges, harmonizes and traumatizes; it sends the body moving, the mind dreaming, the air oscillating. It seemingly eludes definition, while having profound effect.”

Or, as Steven Connor reminds us, sound is

“intensely corporeal — sound literally moves, shakes, and touches us — and mysteriously immaterial.”

Sound registers throughout the body, even in potentially disfiguring ways, while remaining evanescent, temporal, apprehended as it decays.[6] And it’s this duality to which audio documentary might attend more self-consciously.

The questions, then, which I pursue and offer for discussion are these: How do places speak, and how might attention to hearing produce compelling, site-specific work? In trying to listen to places and, moreover, in trying to represent them, I’ve been drawn to different disciplinary conversations. In this piece I briefly outline Steven Connor’s suggestive investigations of sound as something both related to but different from vision, and explore how attention to sound and place studies might reinvigorate documentary practice. I end with a brief foray into an immensely provocative piece by sound/ installation artist Janet Cardiff, made possible by the newly emergent (wireless) technologies Kleinhans references.

Part I: What is auditory experience?

How do we hear the voice of the world in which we participate? In trying to answer this question, Steven Connor turns to a phenomenology of hearing, not to sever it from the other senses, but to foreground sound’s fluid, even synaesthesic relation with all modalities of sensing, particularly with the haptic. We hear with our teeth. This startling argument is both literal (think of deaf Beethoven, a stick clenched in his teeth, conducting the vibrations of the keyboard to his mouth; think of Edison, teeth to wooden gramophone, “listening” to fugitive overtones otherwise lost to the ear) and polemical, a way to disrupt a discourse that has privileged the eye over other ways of knowing and sensing, a way to explore an embodied sensing that does not translate so easily into “understanding.”[7]

Connor is the Academic Director of the London Consortium and Professor of Modern Literature and Theory at Birbeck, University of London. His work on sound, influenced by phenomenology and cultural studies, is particularly refreshing for its challenge to an omioptic discourse that identifies the modern self with emerging “technologies of the eye” since the Renaissance; that conflates knowing with seeing; and that has privileged vision — a distancing, severing “meta-sense” that identifies, measures, fixates, and controls — at the expense of other ways of apprehending the world.[8] Arguing instead that the senses are “multiply related,” that an “apparently predominating sense is in face being shadowed and interpreted by other, apparently dormant senses,” Connor pushes us to understand the complex and variable “synaesthesic spillings and minglings” the more we concentrate on one sense over another.[9] Nor are such slippages and minglings between the senses of the same kind. Connor pursues differences, for example, between what he calls the “sight-sound” relation and the “sound-touch” relation. The “sight-sound relation,” he suggests, is “largely indexical.”

“The evidence of sight often acts to interpret, fix, limit, and complete the evidence of sound.”[10]

Elsewhere, in pursuing this idea, Connor refers to Rick Altman’s discussion of the role of sound in cinema, whereby an enigmatic, unlocatable sound remains deeply troubling (“marked by doubt and menace”) until sound is synched with source and brought into the realm of the eye. Altman calls this the sound hermeneutic,

“Whereby the sound asks where? And the image responds here![11]

By way of contrast the sound-touch relation, he suggests, is mimetic. To hear is to vibrate, with touch doubling or performing sound, feeling it rather than commanding it.[12] Sound in this “sense” is a tactile, physical apprehension located bodily. Wetness, dryness, shape, volume, depth, tightness, looseness, heat, weight — all of these sensations may be delivered through sound. More of a membrane than an ocular point, the listening self is surrounded at all times by sound coming from all sides, moving on and through the body, taken up and completed in radically differing ways by other senses.

Calling sound “intensity without specificity,” something aligned more with feeling than understanding, Connor reminds us of sound’s curious “immaterial corporeality.” Altman’s description of sound as “something that sets matter in motion” reminds us of how sound is produced. A vibrating object (the plucked string of a violin or the vocal folds stretched across the larynx, responding to a flow of air expelled from the lungs) sends air molecules in rapidly moving waves of pressure toward a funneling ear, where they are amplified, directed toward a tympanic membrane, transformed into fluid waves, and ultimately transformed into nerve impulses.[13] Moreover, as Altman reminds us, sound is never singular. The whine of the car passing under my window just now also involves rubber in contact with dry, heavily salted pavement, the muting effects of snow piled along the roadside, the conducting properties of wood-frame houses in the neighborhood, the window panes that rattle in response. Connor writes,

“How something sounds is literally contingent, depending upon what touches or comes into contact with it to generate the sound. We hear, as it were, the event of the thing, not the thing itself.”[14]

Despite hearing the event and not the thing itself, we nevertheless persist in returning sound to its object, thinking of it

“as owned by and emanating essentially from its source, rather than being an accidentally discharge from it.”[15]

With this impulse, Connor argues that an Aristotelian quality of soul is ascribed even to inanimate things. This habit, I would add by way of example, is why Richard Lerman’s work is so haunting, his Fence-Border pieces in particular. A filmmaker turned sound artist, Lerman makes field recordings that produce “a sonic sense of place.” He attaches piezo discs — small contact microphones — to such found objects as glass, window screens, and bridges as well as to grass and cactus needles, as if to bring all things into audibility, into an animating and animate “voice.” Over the years he’s attached these small devices to wire fences: at the U.S./Mexico border, at internment camps in California, concentration camps in Germany and Poland, at sites of the disappeared in Argentina, or, as in the sample here, on a barbed-wire fence at Lonquen, Isla de Maipu, Chile, which marks where fifteen campesinos were murdered by government authorities.

[Play sample now. Click here. ]

 “For me, these fences witnessed events,” Lerman claims, thus humanizing the fence by alluding to its “eyes,” its powers of “witness.” “In “sounding” the fences, in making them “speak,” Lerman claims to hope that

“some of what this place/fence has witnessed comes through.”[16]

In response to such work, Connor might point out, as he does in another context,

“Precisely because of its default condition of disembodiment, sound may be apt to be though of in terms of how it clings or stays in contact with what begets it.”[17]

Historically, the figure of the telephone gets at this relation between sound and the compensatory illusion of bodily presence. When it first emerged, the telephone, Connor explains, seemed to collapse distance and separation by tying together sounding bodies in real time through the umbilical-like wire between them. Even once imagined as a sort of stethoscope, capable of medical diagnosis, the telephone enabled

“the interior of one body . . . transmitted, almost without mediation, to the inner ear of the listener.”

One was both penetrated by the “vocal body of the other,” yet “at a distance from it.”[18] The experience was not so much that of sound vibrations translated into electrical discharges and back into movement at the other end of the wire as it was the illusion of presence, the voice “stretched out” along the wire, with an attendant remapping of our sense of space and distance. The illusion of bodily presence was only intensified with the advent of the radio, and it continues to be intensified with wireless technologies and their abilities to remap space and distance. (I’ll confess that when I listened as a child to Miss Patti Page belting out the “Tennessee Waltz” from the white, Bakelite radio on my nightstand, I had no doubt at all that the miniaturized singer was inside that box. How she got in there was far less problematic to me than the possibility that she wasn’t.) It’s precisely sound’s “capacity to disintegrate and reconfigure space” that Connor suggests is “perhaps the most important distinguishing feature of auditory experience.”[20]

I’m afraid I’ve sorely truncated an elegant and nuanced investigation on Connor’s part, so let him have the last word:

"Certainly, the idea of the auditory self provides a way of positing and beginning to experience a subjectivity organized around the principles of openness, responsiveness and acknowledgment of the world rather than violent alienation from it. The auditory self discovers itself in the midst of the world and the manner of its inherence in it, not least because the act of hearing seems to take place in and through the body. The auditory self is an attentive rather than an investigatory self, which takes part in the world rather than taking aim at it. For this reason, the auditory self has been an important part of phenomenology’s attempt to redescribe subjectiviy in terms of its embodiedness. 'My "self,"' declares Don Ihde, the most enthusiastic of audiophile philosophers, 'is a correlate of the World, and its way of being-in that World is a way filled with voice and language. Moreover, this being in the midst of Word is such that it permeates the most hidden recesses of my self.'"[21]

As if in recoil from a “rationalized, commodified world,” the acoustic experience is framed as

“a principle of rapturous exorbitance, as what goes beyond, or may not be encompassed in the regimes of sight and demonstrability.”

This point will be particularly important to remember in the coming discussion of Janet Cardiff. [22]

Part II: On soundscape and place studies

Perhaps no group has spurred on the developing field of sound studies so much as the World Soundscape Project (now the World Forum for Acoustic Ecology) that began in the early 1970s at Simon Fraser University, and which gave us the concept of soundscape. For R. Murray Schafer, a Canadian composer who helped found the WSP in 1969, soundscape refers to the total acoustic environment in which one is immersed, a “total field of sound wherever we are.” Brandon LaBelle describes it this way:

"From mountaintops to city streets, lakesides to sidewalks, glaciers to small villages, the soundscape is that which exists and of which we are a part, as noisemakers, as listeners, as participants. It locates us within an aurality that is extremely proximate — under our feet and at our fingertips — while expanding out to engage the radically distant and far away . . . The soundscape is all sounds that flow and get carried along in the full body of the sound spectrum, from above and below audibility, as pure energy, molecular movement, in fractions of sonority…"[23]

Largely made up of composers, the WSP and its acolytes have aimed at documenting, interpreting, and preserving various soundscapes, exploring their function as signifying and meaningful systems, as well as gauges of environmental health, and creating from their elements musical compositions that attempt sonically to represent the experience of particular geographies. Unlike the pioneers of musique concrete, who sought to sever sound from source and context, soundscape composers focus on the experience of the emplaced body.[24] These expressive pieces oscillate between sound as concrete reference and sound as meaningful, sonorous, if ambiguous and over-determined, symbols of place and time, mediated by both technology and sensibility.

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