Jim Drobnick (ed)
Aural Cultures

(Toronto: YYZ Books, 2004)

Review by Carlo Nardi

Alfred Gell, in an article in which he describes the acoustic world of the Umeda , talks about his own “methodological deafness” which prevented him to appreciate, during his fieldwork, “the auditory domain, including natural sounds, language and song, as cultural systems in their own right, and not just adjuncts to culture at large, but as foundations, thematic at every level of cultural experience”.

This observation doesn’t simply point the finger at the western ranking of the senses, with sight at the top and hearing trailing behind. The question regarding “our” (here and forth, I’m speaking on behalf of an inveterate Westerner) cultural bias in favor of the visual is in fact more complex, involving construction of bodies of knowledge, and access to such knowledge. Assumed that the Westerner privileges a certain way of knowing, that is the evidence given by visuality, we can notice that also the methodologies of social and human sciences don’t make exception in this sense. Nevertheless, knowledge may be encoded also in non-verbal forms, let’s just think at what the anthropologist Stephen Feld names acustemology, that is a discipline which is supposed to give account for the peculiar modes of knowing enabled by acoustic experience – and not just in other societies. Hence we have a gap between our culture as it is put on play by social actors and the methods of analysis of these same behaviors. Moreover, the distinction itself between senses is reflected upon the ways in which the various perceptional experiences are categorized in social life, not excluding art.

The contributors of this book try to fill this gap, turning to different approaches. Experiences of sound seem to accept the merging of different perceptions, while the language used to comprehend and explain these same experiences often lacks of the ductility crucial to approach their sensorial wholeness. In the editor Jim Drobnick’s words, “sounds defy the explicatory powers of both image- and text-based theories”. This issue is assumed in many of the articles, with the recognition that sounds can reconfigure knowledge by means of “inflecting representation with affect, and interpretation with embodiment”, and that it always invokes corporeality, envelops listeners and resounds within the body.

Even behind these few preliminary observations, it can be assumed that the meaning of sound is always embedded in cultural, political and physical context, which arises questions like: what can we hear? Why do we hear and recognize as sound this phenomenon and not that? How do we interpret what we hear? In general, there’s an attempt not to pretend to consider sound as an autonomous realm, instead linking it to other senses, technology, society and culture in its whole. In fact we can’t deny that listening is a learned behaviour; still, “the act of hearing is itself conscious, implicated, and subject to cultivation”, reason why Drobnick suggest “a means of sonic engagement that emphasizes dialecticalness and ethical agency – listening awry”. On one side, the editor suggests that any discipline could embrace one or more subdisciplines devoted to sound within its domain; on the other, the need for differently structured multidisciplinary approaches is regarded as inescapable, due to the complexity of the world.

The common aim is reconstructing the soundscapes, or the noisy ball of the known world, that surround us, and in which we participate, suggesting explanations about the sound-capsule or perpetual sound-matrix “that encloses us in almost every moment of our waking life”, and how it shapes “our perception of the world, our contacts with others, and our self-awareness” (Gabor Csepregi, “On Sound Atmospheres”).

This includes not just learning how to hear - developing a “polyphonic aurality”, Robert Bean’s “Polyphonic Aurality and John Cage”, or even listening to what cannot be literally heard or understood, Kanta Kochhar-Lindgren’s “Performing at the Edge of Hearing: The Third Ear” -, but also how to experience sound through the other senses.

It comes to my mind Huysmans’s synaesthetic correspondences between the tastes of liqueurs and spices and the registers of the organ, and consequently between melodies and the blend of aromas, so that Des Esseintes could “hear the taste of music”; or as well Boris Vian’s “pianocktail”, which could obtain a marvellous mix of liqueurs from Ellington’s Black and Tan Fantasy. The hope is to manage to transform these intuition into verifiable means for comprehending reality. Anyway, Jim Drobnick recognizes a “sonic turn”, according to which there’s an increase, both in the academic and in the artistic domains, of “the significance of the acoustic as simultaneously a site for analysis, a medium for aesthetic engagement, and a model for theorization”.

Some qualities of sound and the experience of sound turn out to be especially crucial in several of the essays on this book. One of the most recurring themes is the dissipative dimension of sound: it lasts in time and then dies, what might remain is only an echo, but also echoes are ephemeral. Moreover they are a ghostly presence: an echo is something immaterial and unreal, it signifies loss for something once present and now gone, still it can bear material, real effects on the present; that’s why, in Nepalese Yolmo tradition, people aim for leaving good traces, for people speaking well about them after their departure, so that their cycle of rebirth can “upgrade” positively (Robert Desjarlais, “Echoes of a Yolmo Buddhists’s Life, in Death”).

In this sense, writing music isn’t only about storing sound, but it seems also an attempt, using Richard Leppert’s words, “to overcome the immensurability of absolute music, to concretise the nothingness of musical sonority” (“The Social Discipline of Listening”).

Yet, we often don’t consider that we can listen to music with all our body, like when the blind, deaf and mute writer Helen Keller captured something of Caruso’s voice by placing her fingers on his lips and throat. She also gave a written account of this experience, then we have a picture of the episode which gives us a clue of the varieties of ways of “hearing” sound and of “talking” about it, ways which are actually broader and more variegated than what the strictness of the bracketed words I used would suggest. As Andra McCartney writes, “hearing is done not only with the ears, but also with every fibre of our beings as vibrations of sound move into our bodies. Sound touches us, inside and out. And this feeling of being touched by sound is heightened by technology” (“Soundscape Works, Listening, and the Touch of Sound”). On the other hand, using hearing instead of the sense which, within a determined activity, is considered the most proper, can be even degrading: as Georgina Kleege (“Voices in My Head”) sensibly explains, listening to books instead of reading them is often considered a form of regression, as if closing our eyes meant also losing the control on the text.

Moreover, sound “amplifies” the corporal body, extending its presence over its boundaries: assumed the great importance attached to being heard for the Trobriandese Massim people, a Massim man will pride himself of the fact that there are islands in the Kula Ring where people have never seen his face, but who know his name (David Howes, “Sound Thinking”). Another example is the importance of the voicing of others over one’s own journey after death in Yolmo culture (again Robert Desjarlais), without considering the social control implied by this kind of tradition.

Sometimes this feature acquires a political connotation, if we look for instance at the role of Andean radio in constituting the identity of indigeneity by giving it a microphone from which to speak and a space in which to resound (Daniel Fisher’s “Local Sounds, Popular Technologies: History and Historicity in Andean Radio”), or the function of the da’wa tapes, containing sermons of Islamic preachers, as a popular form of public practice and participation, providing the citizens with a means for mediating in an immune private domain multiple forms of arguments and contestation regarding also the public sphere of politics, society and culture (Charles Hirschkind, “Civil Virtue and Religious Reason: An Islamic Counter-Public”).

The relationships between the visual and the aural is one of the most recurring themes: visual or literary records of musical practices, starting from instance from a Shakespearian play (Wes Folkerth, “Tempaurality in Twelfth Night”), are required in order to locating and communicating the place of music, or the acoustic experience in general within a certain culture. The same happens for present acts: Jodi Brooks (“Inaudible Beats in the Gangsta Film”) explains how the “inaudible beats” in the gangsta films are supposed to give us hints on a distinctive structuring of time “where time is always missing”.

Then we can record the use of sound in visual arts, in order to “go beyond the boundaries of vision” and “expand the resonance of the exhibition and give intensity to inert objects”, involving the viewer “in the affective climate generated by the sound script” and by voices which amplify the significance of the objects at display (Jennifer Fisher, “Speeches of Display: Museum Audioguides by Artists”) plus an intention to involve actively the visitor, through the engagement guaranteed by sound. Often, in these cases, sound, as an expansion of the unseen, it is about memory, bringing back echoes from the past (see again Desjarlais’s article on Yolmo culture).

In general we can’t escape to notice the relevance of conceptualisation both for joining different fields of knowledge, which our culture tend to keep separate in watertight compartments, into novel forms of art, and for grasping inspiration from other arts, through the mediation of a metalanguage or, as Gino Stefani would say, of a more general level of competence – like in the case illustrated by Peter L. Schmunk about Van Gogh’s reliance on a musical paradigm mostly derived from Wagner and mediated by the written language (“What Did Van Gogh Hear? Vibrations, Wagner, and Voices”).

Sometimes, the evidence given by visuality obtains the effect of naturalizing sounds, as if they weren’t also the results of a cultural construction. In this regard, Sherry Simon gives account for the surprise of seeing a countertenor for the first time: “the mismatch between body and voice continues to exert a particular power. It’s as if the visual dissociation, the breaks with naturalism, frees the listener to hear the voice as separate from the body” (“Accidental Voices: The Return of the Countertenor”).

Though, the centrality of hearing doesn’t characterize every aspect of our culture: according to Philip Auslander (“Looking at Records”), “the visual can function as a site of resistance within those subsectors of the society of the spectacle where commodification and consumption are defined in terms of a sense other than vision”. Finally, we have Christof Migone’s article entitled “Flatus Vocis: Somatic Winds” – as a precaution I’ve kept it separate -, which inter alia raises issues about control, and particularly self-control: “flatulence is insubstantial, it does not produce an object, it assaults the ears, it offends the nose, and then dissipates”.

The book also contains a CD and the photographic reproductions of some art pieces, generally locked by the contradiction between addressing the audience in a participatory and engaging relationship, and the necessity to conceptualise this relationship mostly with words, that is with the core of which also a multimedia book like this is mostly made of. Without considering that also my review necessarily consists of words.

For this reason, I’m attaching an Mp3 with an attempt of aural review of the CD included in this publication. A further note: the CD I got has a big crack on its recorded surface; skips are clearly audible on the first 4 tracks; I didn’t attempt to restore all the audio files, leaving the skips as traces of the many travels the book-plus-CD had made before reaching my mail box.

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