The Limits of Aurality

On March 23 I spoke briefly (and somewhat incoherently) at a symposium organized by colleagues in let’s say a broad field of sound studies, Eldritch Priest and Tobias Ewé. The symposium was called Limits of Aurality, and I was excited about the possibility of thinking about my long-time frustrations with acoustic ecology and a soundscape approach to exploring urban sound. My main point was that I have found it incredibly limiting to have to “find” something in a recording of an urban space or situation; to “find” something unique that vision would have missed, or another, more infrastructural look, would not account for. Personally I have always wanted to push acoustic ecology and field recording in particular towards uncovering hidden power dynamics, relationships that reflect social status, economic inequality, gender/identity politics, etc. Alas, as I mentioned in the symposium, I seem to always hit the anticlimactic wall with re-listening to my recordings. All I hear is cars, horns, people. There are factual factors that acoustic ecology helps us uncover – proximity, distance, levels of masking, etc. – even more musicological factors such as timbre, density, rhythmicity, etc. But I can’t seem to hear what I want to hear – the sounds of gentrification; or white male supremacy; or poverty/disenfranchisement. I feel like a fraud, and like a bad listener for not being able to get beyond the “surface” and listen deeper, hear those deeper relationalities and realities.

Obviously representational authenticity is impossible with recording soundscapes – to get to “the soundscape” of e.g. Vancouver, or even my neighbourhood. There isn’t an a-priory way to collect that data, a non-value-based decision making (a-axiomatic if we want to get technical) about what to record. Which is the major chafe point with acoustic ecology. While the European Sound Diary, as well as the Vancouver Soundscape Project freely utilized artist/research-oriented choice making and recordists were led by their interests (or Schafer’s interests) – the framework itself has historically manifested itself as an almost objective way of evaluating and describing soundcsapes. The ontologies used – keynote, soundmark, signal sounds – describe anything and nothing in relation to actual listeners or human beings. When used towards particular situations they are expanded upon from particular positionalities of course, but listed as stable “container” categories of soundscapes. But there was never a framework (of course, in the 1970s) of the researcher-listener to identify herself as coming from an identity position – or better also – as having adopted a particular epistemological / ideological lens to deciding what to record. In the absence of that, field recordings taken in the name of acoustic ecology stand-in for the place itself, they appear as if impartial, as if representative and authentic. But as Westerkamp and McCartney point out, the microphone itself is a lier. Each angle, time of day, even quality of equipment, makes a difference in this representational reality, bringing potentially different sounds to the fore. And what about soundscape description and “analysis” – the WSP never really developed an analytical framework. One can sort sounds in a soundscape according to particular categories but then what? What does it all mean? To whom? These are the questions that have plagued me for years as a student of acoustic ecology with its received wisdoms of practice and cosmology. The comments I got from the conference attendees took me by surprise: listening is experiential – why the urge to record and archive soundscapes? and aren’t they more a record of a media past, of technological imaginaries (look what we can do with field recorders!) rather than authentic records of past soundscapes? Not only that, one person asked me why am I using actual recordings at all? why not simply compose and arrange the types of sounds, events and soundscapes that I need in order to tell the stories I want to tell? This honestly sounded like sacrilege at first – what about rigor, what can I claim? People already think soundscapes aren’t a real way of understanding space or culture. But actually….the more I have been thinking, the more I think there is a distinction between listening as a form of apprehending place, and recording as a storytelling technique that was never meant to be authentic, and never can be.


More on recording and soundscape re-enactment in another post, but for now I want to close with the experiential truths. Not to get all spiritual but both of the pictures below represent moments where the visual, tactile, olfactory and emotional fields have intersected in a meaningful, resonant way. Pic 1 was taken during a car ride on Hwy 101 in the Pacific Northwest, driving north of Oregon. The weather was warm but damp (you can see a streak of water on the front windshield) and the mood was mellow. There was music in the car at that time, and windows were closed. As I was enjoying the landscape I was struck by a sudden desire to not be in a car but to be outside, maybe on a bike, breathing in that moist summer air, fresh from the recent rainfall. And I also had a realization of how much the glass and metal box of the car creates a deceptive soundscape that separates us from the real world; and how much we crave and seek that separation, ensconcing ourselves in the safety of designed sensory environments. This moment represented the ache of that loss. The other, pic 2, was taken one summer that I decided to do an informal sensory ethnography of my visit to Bulgaria (my mothership). This was the precise moment at which I was hit with the combined smell of sea water, sun, and wild fruit tree blossoms. It was like a gulp of childhood. I used to walk this route to the local beach almost every day in the summer, around 20 mins walking distance from my home. Once past those gates, you walk into the bush and down a steep broken down path to the beach. A portion of a giant beach line. What struck me is that while the picture betrays nothing of this other sensory experience, there was a physical spatial threshold when I had this multisensory experience. These are experiential truths. Not anything I could have “collected” as data; instead words are the closest translation of the experience.

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