This Friday I’ll be giving the lecture at the IU Department of Communication and Culture’s Virginia Gunderson Colloquium. I’ve been to the past three Gunderson Colloquia and they were fantastic, so I’m hoping to live up to that high standard. My talk will be based upon my paper, “Quiet Comfort: Noise, Otherness, and the Production of Personal Space.” It’s this Friday, September 16th at 4p.m. in IU’s Classroom Office Building, Room 100. Everyone is welcome!
ABSTRACT: Marketing, news reports, and reviews of Bose QuietComfort noise-canceling headphones position them as essential gear for the mobile rational actor of the neoliberal market—the business traveler. This article concerns noise-canceling headphones’ utility as soundscaping devices, which render a sense of personal space by mediating sound. The airplane and airport are paradoxical spaces in which the pursuit of freedom impedes its own enjoyment. Rather than fight the discomforts of air travel as a systemic problem, travelers use the tactic of soundscaping to suppress the perceived presence of others. Attention to soundscaping enables the scholar to explore relationships between media, space, freedom, otherness, and selfhood in an era characterized by neoliberalism and increased mobility.
My copy of the new American Quarterly special issue Sound Clash: Listening to American Studies came in the mail recently and I’ve checked out a few of the articles. My first reaction is simple awe at my luck in getting a piece in this thing—Kara Keeling and Josh Kun have put together one tight cultural mixtape.
Take for example Art M. Blake’s compelling “Audible Citizenship and Audiomobility: Race, Technology and CB Radio.” First off, its very subject matter—the African-American use of CB radio in the 1960s and 70s—makes you rethink everything you thought you knew about that form of communication technology. (I mean, correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t remember any black dudes in Convoy.)
As Blake presents it, this little-known history couldn’t be more interesting, with black CB emerging in part as a reaction to its adoption by the Ku Klux Klan in the 60s South and eventually “evolv[ing] into an intraracial competitive arena, a technocultural practice suited only to the audibly toughest competitors” (531-2). In an unsurprising turn that should give any techno-utopian pause, the spectrum of CB channels quickly came to resemble life on the ground in America, with white harassment of the African American voices over the air and an eventual self-segregation by black operators to Channel 5 (used for local talk) and the long-distance Channel 6, which came to be known as “the Superbowl.”
The Superbowl, Blake asserts, functioned as a CB counterpublic, an audio arena whose sound and purposes were distinctly African American—an alternate space where the sensibilities of the Black Power era could be made audible. Blake brings needed attention to race in sound studies while also bringing forth a fascinating “new” example of African American oral tradition. Black CB in the 70s was medium for the verbal games Geneva Smitherman and others have written about—the word battles known variously as dissing, playing the dozens, yo’ mama jokes, or snaps.
I have only two mild critiques of Blake’s fascinating piece: First, he doesn’t engage Smitherman’s asserted rules of African American verbal games—things like “the players must know one another” or “the insult must be exaggerated and not literally true.” How does the medium of CB affect interpersonal rules such as these? Secondly, while Blake situates CB soul talk in the milieu of the Watts Prophets, Last Poets, and James Brown, I wish he had connected it to the African American microphone technique that arose in the 70s Bronx—rap. Perhaps a larger point could be made about the rise of the amplified black voice, one that connects Channel 6 to the rap battles of BET’s 106 and Park.
A quick video search makes it clear that (1) as Blake points out, the Superbowl still exists and (2) it is still being disparaged by white radio operators. Take a look, for example, at the following video, in which Channel 6 is used as a bad object in the deadly blood feud between CB and ham radio enthusiasts. A ham operator switches between white voices on the 20 meter ham band and black voices on the Superbowl. Though race is never mentioned in the video, the uploader’s written comments pointedly ask, “Can you hear the difference in operating technique?”
By the way, if you’re not familiar with the heated CB vs ham flame war, let this gentleman give you a sense of the animosity involved, while he explains the superiority of CB (and drinks a beer) over the course of eight minutes.
When the protesters in Cairo’s Tahrir Square managed to set up a PA system, their newfound sonic dominance of that space sent a message at least as powerful as the words they transmitted. Indeed, the medium was a message: new voices, amplified.
New York City police have prevented the protesters of Occupy Wall Street from using amplification of any kind during their two-week takeover of Zuccotti Park. The activists have adopted a workaround they call “the people’s microphone,” in which those within earshot of a (human) speaker repeat his or her words in unison. The result is that the group literally speaks as one—an effect that could be heard as moving, eerie, or comical, depending on your politics and aesthetics.
Nevertheless, in a culture so enamored with individualism and countless media platforms for amplifying it, the people’s microphone is a potentially powerful anomaly. R. Murray Schafer said long ago that the loudspeaker is imperialist in nature, allowing a few to dominate the many through sound. The people’s microphone, on the other hand, can function only through the participation of the many—if the crowd doesn’t want to repeat your words, those words won’t be amplified.
Another image of the Isolator, invented by Hugo Gernsback, the publisher of Amazing Stories, the United States’ first science fiction magazine. The similarity between this 1925 image and subsequent cyber fantasies of “jacking in” to infospaces is striking. By blocking out external sound and limiting vision to just one line of text at a time, the writer could fully immerse himself in the flow of information.
Sonic experiments performed in the King’s chamber showed that the King’s chamber has a series of acoustic resonance frequencies that correspond with perfect musical notes! The coffer inside the King’s chamber for instance has a perfect resonance frequency of 440 Hz, the ground note A, the frequency of a tuning fork.
Four other resonance frequencies were found in the King’s chamber. These correspond with the musical notes F#, A, C# and D#. These notes are the notes of the F sharp melodic minor scale (F#). Indian shamans tuned their ceremonial flutes to F sharp because they believed that it is a frequency that is attuned to mother Earth.
Now we may remember from the Cymatics studies that the Platonic solids emerge from the perfect sound frequencies of the diatonic musical scale. So it would be no surprise if pure tonal frequencies were found in the Earth grid frequencies.
The amazing thing is that the resonance frequencies of the King’s chamber correspond with the resonance frequencies that were found in the 4 nucleotides of the DNA molecule. This amazing structure has only 4 basic building blocks, the DNA bases adenine (A), cytonsine (C), guanine (G) and thymine (T). Two out of four of these nucleotides can be joined to form a base pair and these base pairs are sequenced to a DNA string. The complete DNA is a spiralling helix of three billion of such base pairs.
Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry David W. Deamer of the University of California, Santa Cruz measured with infrared light the resonance frequencies of all the 4 bases of DNA. Each base resonated to an average of 15 frequencies, 60 frequencies in total. In 1988 Susan Alexjander, holding a Masters degree in Music Composition and Theory and presently teaching at university level at several universities in California, contacted David W. Deamer with a simple question; ‘can we hear frequencies in the body’. As a response, David Deamer provided her with the data from his research on DNA frequencies.
From here Susan Alexjander started her own research to find out if these resonance frequencies from the DNA bases were completely random or contained some hitherto undiscovered relationship, such as the ratio’s defined in music. The first thing that came to mind was to use a technique to make these high electromagnetic frequencies audible. She used a technique that is often used in music and transposed the higher octave frequencies of light down to the octave of sound. (Remember from our chapter about sacred geometry that the colours of the rainbow are the 7 keys in the diatonic scale transposed to the 48th octave)
The next thing Susan did was she fed the 60 transposed DNA frequencies into a Yamaha DX7 programmable synthesizer. The pitches were not perfect musical notes, however after a few weeks of ‘tuning’ she found that the frequencies were centered around 4 pure musical notes. The notes that she found, you guessed it, are the same resonance frequencies of the King’s chamber in the Great Pyramid!
Susan Alexjander recorded her DNA music played on the DX7 synthesizer on a CD titled ‘Sequencia’. People that listened to the CD reported feelings of connectedness and familiarity.
Now this discovery lends much credit to the claims made by Edgar Cayce and others that the Great Pyramid was used for healing. It seems no coincidence that the resonance frequencies that were used in the King’s chamber correspond with the resonance frequencies of the DNA bases.
/+ i cant find the link to download the lossless Sequencia album, if you can find it, PLEASE let me know. Thanx.
Dr. Kyriakakis, an electrical engineer at U.S.C. and the founder and chief technical officer of Audyssey Laboratories, a Los Angeles-based audio firm, could not achieve his results without modern sound filters and digital microprocessors.
But the basis of his technique is rooted in the science of psychoacoustics, the study of sound perception by the human auditory system. “It’s about the human ear and the human brain, and understanding how the human ear perceives sound,” Dr. Kyriakakis said.
I’m listening to the new Kate Bush album on Spotify and it sounds like it’s emanating from an old shoe box (yeah, old shoe boxes sound worse than new ones). To me, Kate Bush signifies a singular voice, “arty” dancing, artful lyrics, and an artist’s attention to sonic detail. So why does this album seem to have no depth of field, stereo separation, or high-frequency detail? Is this an artistic choice or am I hearing the limitations of the medium of its reproduction?
That’s the question I have so frequently in these halcyon digital days: why does everything sound like shit? In convergence culture, when media are streaming across multiple platforms and going through who-knows-how-many forms of digital compression, I never know where I stand. If you’re like me, you cycle through digital devices so frequently that you don’t really have a good sense of the sound of your system—and you get your music from so many different sources that you don’t have a good sense of the sound files either. If something sounds flat, is the problem in the studio production, the compression scheme, the D-to-A converters on my new smartphone, my headphones, or maybe my ears? When “the medium” is so amorphous and contingent, it’s hard to know.
Right now I’m listening to Kate Bush via a Mac linked to a decent stereo by an optical cable. I do know that some things sound pretty nice on this set up—and I refuse to question the production skills of Kate and co.—so it’s pretty easy to pin the blame on Spotify. But even if I download a FLAC and A-B compare the sound, I won’t know if the FLAC accurately reflects the intent of those at the start of the production chain, since imperfect FLAC files are common. As John Duram Peters has pointed out, our modern idea of communication enlists longstanding cultural fantasies of angelic telepathy, “the sense of immaterial contact between distinct souls.” The internet is often promoted as the fulfillment of this promise, but if we listen closely to it, we realize it makes us less and less secure in our sender-receiver assumptions.
And this is where we get to the crux of it, because it never really was possible to know what the sender intended and whether you received it—even on heavyweight vinyl and audiophile gear with $500 speaker wire. In fact, that inherent uncertainty is precisely why people purchase $500 speaker wire. So, my grousing really results from my outmoded (aspirational) audiophile anxieties being exacerbated by high-speed “treble culture.” In other words, yet another example of old grouch/new media. And it’s particularly ironic since so much of what I listen to is fetishistically distorted “world music 2.0” (PDF), but that’s a story for another time.
Nevertheless, you know what? I still say convergence usually sounds pretty shitty.
For people who experience what has come to be known as “misophonia,” the sound of other people eating can inspire “rage, panic, fear, terror and anger, all mixed together.” This fight-or-flight response can be triggered by other everyday sounds—footesteps, for example—but mouth sounds seem to be the most common complaint. Most of us have never heard of misophonia, but for those who identify with the term, it finally puts a name to a subjectivity that suffuses their everyday lives.
Coined only in 2003, misophonia is poorly understood at present. As with two longer-established auditory conditions I study—tinnitus and hyperacusis—the lines that define it are blurry. What is it? What isn’t it? What causes it? What ameliorates it? Is it even “real”? Misophonia has yet to be constructed as a clear object. A tumblr post such as the one above can be viewed as one person’s effort to help realize it as an affliction. The more real misophonia becomes as an object, the more sympathetically the poster’s actions will be interpreted socially. Better to be a “misophonia sufferer” than “that jerk who won’t ever eat with us.” Moreover, suffering from something that others don’t understand can be lonely and disempowering. Putting a name on this subjectivity and circulating it through social networks opens up possibilities of identity, community, and action.
Could there be a downside to socially networking misophonia, however? In realizing disparate and poorly defined auditory experiences as a singular pathology, do actors strengthen the neurological, conceptual, social, and technological connections that support its experience? In other words, given the plasticity of the brain, words, society, and science, do networks actually remake the world in misophonia’s image rather than merely clarifying the public image of a preexisting affliction? With a phenomenon such as misophonia, which is so subjective as to make the mind-body distinction seem rather absurd, the question seems pertinent.
The point here is not to suggest that misophonia is “just” in people’s heads and therefore not real. Rather, as Annemarie Mol has shown with something as “concrete” as atherosclerosis, a great number of words, techniques, and technologies must be deployed to make symptoms cohere as disease—and this achievement subsequently exerts profound influence on future actions and material conditions. Mol’s ontological approach to disease has the potential to resolve nature-culture debates such as the controversy surrounding the inclusion of “culture-bound” psychiatric syndromes in the fourth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. It is a “both-and” rather than “either-or” approach to disease, treating cultural discourse as one of many types of associations that construct its reality, rather than an overlay that obscures or distorts that reality.
My ongoing ethnographic research into tinnitus (“ringing in the ears”) points to possibilities and potential pitfalls of misophonia’s emerging coherence and circulation as an object. Through networks of research and activism, tinnitus has gained wider recognition, specialized treatments and clinics, a fairly powerful advocacy group, and a loose system of physical and online support groups. However, there is no cure, and many of my clinician interlocutors express concern that their patients’ increased attention to tinnitus is perversely turning up its subjective volume. (Neurologists and audiologists often describe this in terms of strengthening the neural pathways of tinnitus through “checking on it”). We might anticipate, then, that socially networking misophonia may make it more real in social space and more real in subjective headspace. What empowers the sufferer may also empower the condition.
The front-page review of this Sunday’s New York Times book section is dedicated to Bernie Krause’s The Great Animal Orchestra. As Krause himself pointed out in a recent message to the listserv of the World Listening Project, this is the first book on the soundscape or acoustic ecology to roost in this esteemed literary perch. I haven’t read Krause’s book yet, but I was intrigued by the review, written by the wonderful pianist-blogger Jeremy Denk:
He asserts that in the wild, animals vocalize with a musicianly ear to the full score of the ecosystem — a mix of competition and cooperation. Since animals depend on being heard for various reasons (mating, predation, warning, play), they are forced to seek distinct niches: “Each resident species acquires its own preferred sonic bandwidth — to blend or contrast — much in the way that violins, woodwinds, trumpets and percussion instruments stake out acoustic territory in an orchestral arrangement.”
An extraordinary claim arises from this “niche hypothesis”: the healthier the habitat, the more “musical” the creatures, the richer and more diverse their scores. Sound complexity is a measure of health.
Based on Denk’s review, Krause’s sometimes “hectoring” tone seems to put him in the mold of fellow musician and acoustic ecologist R. Murray Schafer, the godfather of a genre of nonfiction that demands we listen to what a sonic mess we’ve made of the world. Krause’s close attention to wildlife, however, is also reminiscent of Purdue biologist Bryan Pijanowski’s recent work in soundscape ecology, which focuses not on single species, but on the interplay of animal sounds. (In fact, you can hear Krause and Pijanowski together in 2011 NPR interview.)
Just yesterday I spent the day interviewing two men who spent their professional lives fabricating the sounds of nature for use in Marsona sound machines, used for 40 years by the stressed and sleepless. We discussed the details of simulating crashing waves with an analog circuit, then randomly adding carefully edited digital samples of seagull cries. Krause stresses the fact that humans have lost touch with the natural soundscape through our own architecture and noise. Sound machines such as the Marsona mask both noise and our isolation from nature with samples and simulations of natural sounds.
However, I think it would be far too simplistic to suggest that sound machines only further deafen us to our own noise and estrangement from the shared soundscape. Krause would never have become so finely attuned to natural sounds had he not started recording them for a musical project. The relationships between “nature,” “reproduction,” and “fabrication” are deeply intertwined. It is no accident that acoustic ecologists tend to be musicians and sound artists. These are people who learn to listen deeply while engaged in the sonic arts—such listening is not natural, but a matter of human artifice. Playing with sound, using it as material, whether for art or scientific measurement, is a central aspect of how we define and experience the natural. In other words, the techne that reduced soundscape diversity to something approaching an acoustic monoculture is also our only hope for restoring that diversity.
Ethnographic research in new media, sound studies, performance studies, and popular music. Details on research and teaching are at mactrasound.com. (RSS)
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