Tag Archive: books


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Theo van Leeuwen worked as a film and television producer and used to play  jazz before he studied linguistics and became the dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of Technology in Sydney. He is now regarded a key figure in the field of social semiotics. Dispite that, his book “Speech, Music, Sound” is accessible and rich with illustrative examples which makes it an inspiring and rewarding read. His aim is nothing less than the integration of speech, music and other sounds, what we often refer to as noise. In projecting music on to speech and speech on to sound and again sound on to music, he tries to give a more complete picture of spheres which have been treated as separated in the last centuries. He asks the simple question what sound can ‘say’ and how we can interpret the things other people ‘say with sound’. This is what he calls the ‘semiotics of sound’. The meaning of speech, music and sound is then investigated considering the modes of perspective, time, interaction, melody, voice quality and timbre. Examples are drawn from areas as different as classical music, film sound design, radio play, soundscape or advertisment to illustrate the ways in which sound can represent social distance or intimacy or how sequentiality and simultaneity in speech can convey dominance and power. The examples are sometimes not really something new, but are at the same time often very enlightening and thought provoking. In the two final chapters of his book van Leeuwen reveals that he used the ‘metafunctional hypothesis’ of linguist Michael Halliday which he already successfully applied on visual communication in his former publication “Reading Images” (together with Gunther Kress) and imposed it in a similar way on the subject of sound. This however, as van Leeuwen admits, doesn’t work the same way as in the visual sphere and therefore this book do not provide a final theory of the semiotics of sound but more or less an incentive to develop own ‘readings’ of the use of sound as a medium. I missed certain ideas, for instance the recognition of musical genres as a semiotic process, which can be seen as a form of pattern recognition, but this do no harm to the inspiration this book can cater for the interested sound practioner.

Read an interview with the author, which is a bit more academic.

In Cairo, biggest city on the african continent, noise levels from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. average at about 85 decibels, at central squares even noises often reach 95 decibel, the New York Times recently reports. For Stuart Sim, Professor of Critical Theory in the Deptartment of English Studies at the University of Sunderland, this would be grist to his mill. He wrote a book entitled ‚Manifesto for Silence’, in which he delivers the latest score on the front of noise pollution arguing for a radical change in the „politics and culture of noise“. Corporate capitalism and aggressive marketing strategies, in his opinion, promote a „raucous form of hedonism based on alcohol and popular music“, that leaves the quiet and the silent on lost ground. The virtues of silence, as they matter in religion, philosophy, the Arts and literature, are at stake to be lost and Sim gives a comprehensive account about the importance of silence in our cultural history. In many cases one might agree with Sim’s campain for silence as we all have our complaints about noisy neighbours and the constant din of traffic so common in modern cities. But who will decide which noise is good and which noise is bad, as in the end there is a moral question lurking behind the corner. In Sim’s thinking, natural sounds are beyond complaint whereas human noise counts as unwanted sonic pollution: „Some human activities are more valuable than others and (…) we run the risk of losing those if popular culture is allowed to prevail unhindered. If that happens then the lowest common denominator rules and the bad drives out the good, unless someone speaks up unequivocally on behalf of the good.“ Certainly rock music is on the bad side, the popular culture in general with its frenzied consumerism and one might think, how a society would look like if his politics of silence would be set into life. Sim’s manifesto stays diffuse in terms of practicable suggestions how to cope with the noisy side-effects of mass transportation and he has a blind spot where it comes to the nature/technology dichotomy. Since R. Murray Schafers inauguration of the idea of acoustic ecology in the late 1960s there is a somehow romaticized concept of nature to be a more clean and innocent place. Many forget that nature as well can be violently noisy and there are not only anecdotal evidences of acoustic disturbances caused by natural sources. Stuart Sim’s Manifesto fails to convince a larger audience for his argument, especially because he offends those people who love social interaction or just the celebration of life – like a street vendor of Cairo says: „Life is like that“, the noise is the cause and it is the reaction at the same time.

An almanach packed with essays and writings of such different sources like early modern music pioneers Russolo, Varèse, and Cage next to DJ Spooky and Kim Cascone, the book traces back many cross references in all strains of the musical avant-garde be it experimental, minimal, improvised, electronic or from the DJ culture. A must on every book shelf of the ones addicted to a new audio culture conceived as “a discourse, a loose collection of terms, concepts, and statements gathered from across the cultural field. The discourse not only challenges aesthetic distincitions between ‘high art’ and ‘popular culture’, it also flattens traditional hierachies between ‘high’ and ‘low’ ventures for publishing.” There is a very good review here, that says everything.

In a word: this book is very rewarding reading: loaded with indepth theory and surprising new concepts about the classification of sound phenomena, it took 10 years to translate this work into english. Nothing for someone new to philosophical considerations about music, sound and  noise, nevertheless the best summary in this area I know so far. I will give a little introduction to the thinking, but will come back to the book in later posts because there are so many ideas to start from that I can just scrape the surface of this research.

This multidisciplinary work focusses on the soundscape of urban live and attempts to analyse precisely the acoustic properties of all possible sonic effects in this surrounding. The first important thesis is that „no sound event, musical of otherwise, can be isolated from the spatial and temporal conditions of its physical signal propagation. Sound is always shaped subjectively, depending on the auditory capacity, the attitude, and the psychology and culture of the listener. There is no universal approach to listening: every individual, every group, every culture listens in its own way.“ In order to examine the sonic instrumentarium of urban environments, older theories do not realy meet the expectations of the authors. Namely the theory of the sound or sounding object (l’objet sonore) by Pierre Schaeffer and the concept of soundscape coined by Murray Schafer (funnily the pronunciation of both names is similar, thus it is a reprise in the definition of the book?) lack the applicability to explain and design all perceptible sound forms of the environment, be it noise or music. „The concept of the soundscape seems too broad and blurred, while the sound object seems too elementary (in terms of level of organization). (…) To use a linguistic analogy, the soundscape corresponds to the whole structure of a text, while the sound object corresponds to the first level of composition: words and syntagmas. We are short of descriptive tools to work at an intermediary level, that of sentence grammar or- to leave the linguistic comparison – the level of a code defining possible configurations between the three terms to consider in our observation: acoustical sources, inhabited space, and the linked pair of sound perception and sound action.“

The authors introduce the term „sonic effect“ that was first used in social science to integrate the fields of applied acoustics, architecture (urban planning) and psychoacoustics. In this thinking the environment is split into three terms: „environment“, „milieu“ and „soundscape“ that represent „the given, the interactive and the aesthetic and can be applied to any constructed space. The concept investigates the sonic effect in a specific context, whether it be the interaction between the physical sound environment, the sound milieu of a social-cultural community or the „internal soundscape“ of every individual.

This is quite a paradigm shift in terms of definition and interdisciplinarity, suddenly we can speak about the astonishment a sound effect can have on us, or the spatial propagation of sound in urban spaces and have a glossary of such effects at hands in the form of this book. Halfway between the universal and the singular, simultaneously model and guide, the authors deliver a taxonomy of sonic effects, a repertoire of acoustic phenomena that is distinguished between 16 major effects and 66 minor effects. The book can be read in different layers, depending on the interest and focus of the reader, the major effects are described from the perspectives of physics and applied acoustics, architecture, physiology of perception, sociology, musical and textual aesthetics and expressions. Not for the non-initiated and apart from some typographical errors the reading is inspiring for everybody working in the general area of sound. The authors aim to rehabilitate the auditory sensitivity is certainly sharpened through this work and the question is why it took so long to make this groundbreaking text known to the english speaking world. 

 

Environmental sound recording appears to look back on a short history: until the late 1960s is was only practiced by some biologists doing reasearch in acoustic interaction in nature. Understandably enough recording equipment at that time was heavy and prone to technical failure in the field. This changed not only due to developments in sound recording devices but to the release of a comercial record album featuring the „songs“ of humpack whales recorded by researchers Roger and Katy Payne that caught the attention of the wider public. Roger Payne himself wrote the foreword to this introduction into wildlife recording by well known american bioacoustician Bernie Krause who early after Payne’s ground breaking release set the standards in environmental sound recording. Since those days Krause has produced countless high quality albums collecting acoustic environments from around the globe. He claims to have the biggest private library of natural sound recordings counting up to thousands of hours of which the best parts can be purchased through his webpage at Wild Sanctuary.

 Krause found his early inspiration in the writing of the Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer, who coined the term “soundscape” in the 1960s and explored the impact of changes in the soundscape — like urbanization and industrialization — on our perception of the environment. From the necessity to preserve the acoustic diversity of ecosystems the idea of acoustic ecology derived. The trouble is, says Krause, nature’s symphonies are being drowned out by manmade din. “It used to take me 10 to 15 hours to record one hour of useful material,” he says. “Now it takes me 2,000.” Even in remote regions, it has become nearly impossible to hear nature uninterrupted. “I get all sorts of noise. Chain saws. Snowmobiles. Aircraft.”

Krause synthesized two words to express his acoustic concept of the „wild natural“ (he doesn’t like the term nature which is to him an overused and abstract word, intertwined with a tradition that has created an „it/us“ dichotomy): While biophony is a type of soundscape confined to the sounds that organisms generate in a particular habitat, geophony is a soundscape of non-living phenomena, for instance, the sound of streams, storms, wind through trees or across sands, eruptions and earthquakes, and a myriad of other natural causes. In this concept every human-induced disturbance is considered as noise or din, that is to be avoided. It is interesting to compare this concept with the thinking of another outstanding environmental sound recordist, the british Chris Watson, who worked a lot with David Attenborough on his BBC nature documentaries and released highly acclaimed CDs with the label Touch. Chris Watson introduces three layers of sound: atmospheres, habitats and species. Atmosphere is the unobtrusive bed of sound – perhaps the gentle noise of distant traffic, the hum of air conditioning, wind in the trees. A habitat could be the general sound of a location, be it the texture of cicadas or the traffic noise and undistinguishable chatter of people in the city. The species therefore is the specific animal (or car, or voice) you want to feature. In Watson’s thinking there is no judgement on the quality of the soundscape (of course we all don’t like the chain saw when we go for a hike in the woods…), he includes man-made sounds in his concept, Krause tries to avoid them. Watsons practical approach is focusing on certain sound sources, making decisions on the perspective, the selectivness of his recordings, while Krause goes for the general atmosphere, the pristine and integral experience of a place. Along with the ideas of Paul Shepard, Krause states that „natural sound patterns are highly musical but require a sensitivity to the aural world on the listener’s part which I believe we no longer possess in Western culture, even though it may have been active at some point in our species development and still remains so in some remote forest-dwelling groups or as a distant hidden mark somewhere in our chromosome material.“ And further more: „I retreated increasingly to places where I could record in the wild natural, locations where serenity and peace existed in an otherwise tumultuous world. Gradually, I ventured further and further away from human noise into habitats completely filled with creature song. Only there did I feel relaxed and more complete. I began to feel a sense of the divine I had never experienced within the walls of a church or synagogue or mosque. It was a place filled with the innocence of exquisite chaos. No definition of sin, guilt, or redemption and yet it was part of the community of life to which I was beginning to feel essentially re-attached, a feeling our pre-historic ancestors must have known long ago. I felt alert and connected to all of the organisms around me even though I didn’t completely understand – then or now – how it all works. The natural world taught me that I didn’t need to understand its permutations to know that it’s the source of my life.“

In Wild Soundscapes Bernie Krause teaches all the fundamentals of listening, acoustics and the technical requirements for sound recording in nature. It is a good guide book to the beginner in this area, even though one might think of if this idea goes mainstream Krause will promote a movement towards the wild that will even cause more intrusion to the places he would like to have protected. In the end when we go to remote places to record some pristine natural sounds, we have already used airplanes and cars and other noise-making vehicles to get there. Apart from a slight romanticism towards the nature the book is – nevertheless – worth reading if one seeks a good introduciton into the basics of field recording. 

This book is not explicitly about music or sound art, nevertheless it is a thoughtful examination under which circumstances the media is working. Though published in 1996 and based on two programmes Bourdieu produced for a private TV channel of France, the transcriptions of his TV-lectures are by no means dated but even more relevant today. His main thesis is that contemporary TV forces all its contributers into the production of short pallatable information bits that are of interest – omnibus – for as much people as possible. The writer, philosopher, politician with a sense for easy-to-digest slogans and catchy headlines is what TV needs for its programmes. There is even an interaction between the narcissistic intellectual and the medium as his mirror: in order to be seen on screen the intellectual writes to be invited into the studios. A self amplifing effect that leads to a lack of compexity in any discussion or discurs on TV. Instead of discribing reality TV more and more creates reality. In search for the next scoop the journalists tend to dramatize news reports that bounces back on our perception of reality. TV channels invent shows that trace our greed for sensation and its success is another headline. There is a certain hidden censorship when the lenses of the TV cameras focus on the popular aspects that bring the biggest viewing figures while other subjects are overlooked. But there is no big brother on top of the major media companies (apart from Murdoch maybe…) who invented this „system“, the media has an intrinsic compulsion to impose this behaviour on anybody working in this area: everybody is manipulated and is a manipulator as well. This is the most interesting point in his argument since I work in the TV business to finanze my sound art excursions and it rings a bell, when I comtemplate those thoughts for a while. I remember when writing film scores for TV programmes there are always discussions to what extent arty or mainstream the score should be. There is a premature obedience to an anonymous audience that – in a strange act of democracy – votes whether the programme is good or not. In the end there are a lot of compromises and the hidden path has been walked again. I smiled when I read excerpts of a book written by a former CEO of a main german TV broadcaster I occasionally worked for, who explained how he was forced to abandon highly acclaimed programmes as if he just was another puppet in the game. Here  is how Bourdieu finishes his first lecture: we are puppets of a higher goddess in the media industry. It seems there is a lot of autonomy and freedom in TV, but the compulsory nature of its structure makes us all to some kind of puppets in a certain way.   

This Book is a collection of essays, short writings, sleeve notes and little sketches of one of the most influential last century avantegarde composers. Morton Feldman is famous for the quiteness and subtle beauty of his pieces, they were inhabited by a spiritual life rarely found in modern music. Feldman found a metaphysical place of unpredictability and possibility, that is far away form the academic rigor of serial techniques en vogue at the time of his appearance in the early 1950s. In the key essay of this collection „The Anxiety of Art“ (1965) Feldman states: „Where in life we do everything we can to avoid anxiety, in art we must pursue it.“ He muses on the authoritarianism of composer such like Boulez, Schönberg and Stockhausen (all of them Europeans) who were concerned with historical processes, and even though they protested the past, with their rebel against history they were still part of it. They must always be looking back at one´s material for implication to go on. Feldman, instead, proposes a radically different approach, he pleads for less control in music. „For art to suceed, its creator must fail.“ „To what degree does one give up control, and still keep that last vestige where one can call the work one’s own?“

His early writing is ridden by polemic attacks against the musical establishment, especially Boulez and Stockhausen are critized for their academic approach. „Whatever breakthroughs have occured, took place only when new systems were devised. The systems extended music’s vocabulary, but in essence they were nothing more than complex ways of saying the same things. Music is still based on just a few technical models. As soon as you leave them you are in an area of music not recognizable as such.“ It seems that only later Feldman learned that he was trapped in some contradictions here and withdraw from some of his polemic earlier statements in favour of a less aggressive point of view: „In recent years I do not want to argue with talent. I want to be thankful for it regardless from where it comes.“(1975) Paradoxically the music of Morton Feldman bears a softness and an intimate touch that has been hidden behind his loud and bold physical appearance. It is rewarding to read through his writings and follow his thinking from the early New York days as part of the art scene with such prominent figures as Jackson Pollock, Philip Guston and Frank O’Hara all of whom he got to know through John Cage, to his later works, that lead to pieces of long continous movements. 

„We do not hear what we hear.. only what we remember.“ 

 

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