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Sound Class, Week 2 of 15: A Brief History of Listening

Celebrity death, 150,000 years in 3 hours, John Cage, Kit Kats, Whitney Houston


The question at the heart of the second meeting of the sound course I teach to a mix of BA and MFA students is something of a hypothetical, a historical one: Imagine it is 1750 and the fellow who sang songs at the pub in your town every Friday night has, quite suddenly and unexpectedly, died. You will never hear his voice again. What is that like? How is that loss experienced — how was that 18th-century celebrity death experienced? And as we ponder the historical question, we consider further what someone in 1750 didn’t know, couldn’t necessarily have conceived of: that a few centuries later we would have recordings of our favorite musicians, recordings that would largely constitute their artistic legacy. To wrap one’s head around that kind of loss — that is what this week’s class meeting is an attempt at.

The second week of sound class is titled “A Brief History of Listening.” In three hours we cover roughly 150,000 years of human history, and still have time to talk about candy bars and Whitney Houston, and to go over the previous week’s homework, which included reading an essay by neuroscientist Seth S. Horowitz and reading an interview with composer and acoustic ecologist R. Murray Schafer.

Needless to say, this is all handled in a fairly succinct manner. This lecture and discussion is part of an initial three-week build up to the core of the course.

I teach my course about the role of sound in the media landscape at the Academy of Art in San Francisco. The first three weeks of the course focus on listening to media, followed by seven weeks on the “sounds of brands,” followed by the final five weeks, which are dedicated to “brands of sounds.” The class meets for three hours every Wednesday starting at noon, and there are nine hours of assigned homework. Each week my plan is to summarize the previous class session here. Please keep in mind that three hours of lecture and discussion is roughly 25,000 words; this summary is just an outline, less than 10 percent of what occurs in class.

Week 1 of class was largely given over to the syllabus and to a handful examples to get discussion and ideas flowing. I had 7 students last semester, and I have more than twice as many this semester, so I’m adjusting to the number of voices in class. As a result, I have a little bit of material left over from the opening week’s lecture that I need to cover, and this is where the candy bars come in.

Much as during the first week I found it useful to focus on various examples of JJ Abrams’ work in television and film to show how a single individual can embrace sound as a creative part of a broader, collaborative cultural pursuit, this week I spend a few minutes watching old TV commercials with the students. First I show two Kit Kat candy commercials from the late 1980s, in which the “Gimme a Break” jingle is so absurdly optimistic that it verges on, like the worst jingles, a kind of corporate pop-culture jingoism.

I apologize for my generation, though we were more victims of that culture than perpetrators of it. And then I show two Kit Kat commercials from the past five years, in which the same jingle plays out with each note sourced from on-screen, real-life, real-world sound — quotidian sound. One of these commercials is shot in a library, where books being shut and computer keyboards being typed on collectively play the Kit Kat jingle. There is a second such commercial set on the steps outside the library, the main difference being that the second one has the louder outdoor background sound of the city, a thick urban hum.

There’s an enormous amount that can be unpacked from these two commercials, in particular the idea of field recordings, of everyday sound, having sonorous, musical qualities, and of how these commercials connect the act of “taking a break” (that being the “idea,” such as it is, at the heart of this particular brand of candy, much as “happiness” is central to Coca-Cola’s marketing endeavors) to the actual jingle. After watching one of these commercials, the next time you type or close a book, you will likely hear the jingle in your head. These commercials take the corniest aspect of sound branding — the jingle — and make it somehow tasteful. The full fourth class meeting in this course will focus on jingles, so I pretty much leave it there, except to show one contemporaneous Kit Kat commercial from India that makes the 1980s American commercials look subtle by comparison.

We then close the loop with an exercise from the previous class meeting. The first class included two listening exercises. At the very start of the first class, students for 15 minutes wrote every sound they heard. This introduced them to the sound journal they will write in four times a week for the length of the course. After a brief mid-period break, for 10 minutes that first class meeting they wrote down every sound they associated with the first few minutes after waking up on an average Tuesday morning. For the second class, part of their homework was to do just that: wake on Tuesday, the morning before class, and write down everything they heard. In class I then return to them their exercise from the first week, and we compare and contrast what they had heard with what they thought they heard.

For most of the remainder of this class meeting, a timeline appears on the screen at the head of the room. It reads as follows. I apologize that this is a ridiculously brief & largely Western timeline, but it’s still useful:

•• A Brief Timeline of Listening

• 90k ~ 50k BC: human hearing & speech
• ~3300 BC: Sumerian proto-Cuneiform
• ~3000 BC: ancient Egypt homing pigeons
• 750 ~ 550 BC: “oral culture becomes written culture”
• 1450s: moveable type / Gutenberg
• 1850s: recorded sound
• 1870s: the telephone
• 1952: John Cage’s 4’33”
• 1993: Mosaic browser / World Wide Web

I’ll now, as briefly as possible, run through what we discuss for each of those items.

•• A Brief Timeline of Listening

• 90k ~ 50k BC: human hearing & speech

This number probably goes back another 50,000 to 100,000 years, and what is up for grabs is what it means to be human, what did communication constitute before we had the physical capability of hearing, and how long a gap was there between our ability to hear and our development of speech.

• ~3300 BC: Sumerian proto-Cuneiform

However long the gap between our development of hearing and speaking, there was in turn a gap before the rise and proliferation of notated speech — of notated thought. This all helps set the stage for the introduction, far in the future, of recorded (and notated, though we don’t discuss it in depth here) sound.

• ~3000 BC: ancient Egypt homing pigeons

We could mark this transition in human expression at several points along our collective timeline, but the homing pigeon makes a stronger model than the horse because a message carried by a horse suggests a distance, a form of travel, that a human might take, while the pigeon follows a path that people cannot as easily traverse. This is, in essence, the telephone, the Internet, of its time. The ability to send information a very long distance emphasizes how language is, itself, a form of technology.

• 750 ~ 550 BC: “oral culture becomes written culture”

In the homework reading from week 1, R. Murray Schafer talks about how complaints about noise pollution go back to Roman days. Here we talk about an ancient Greek anxiety expressed by Socrates, who says to his interlocutor, Phaedrus: “If men learn this, it will plant forgetfulness in their souls.” What is the “this” in this sentence? This is: writing. I pause here and play some music by the late Whitney Houston, not her singing, just the background music, what is listed on singles as the “instrumental track.” We listen to what a Whitney Houston song sounds like without Whitney Houston, which leads to an extended group conversation that explores the 1750 hypothetical I mention up top. It’s a very engaging topic for discussion, and we try to imagine what loss was like at a time before recorded sound. I can barely scratch the surface here, but this is one of my favorite topics in a class that I love to teach.

• 1450s: moveable type / Gutenberg 1850s: recorded sound

It remains the case that people mistakenly say Gutenberg “invented the printing press,” and after clearing that up we talk about moveable type as a precursor to recorded sound. Our experience of recorded sound has a strong precedent in the development of printing and, later, moveable type.

• 1870s: the telephone

I go over a brief history of its development, and matters of technological adoption in general. Much as humans didn’t all wake up one day able to hear and speak, or later with the ability to read and write, nor did we all suddenly have telephones delivered to our front doors. Recent episodes of Downtown Abbey, set exactly 90 years ago, helpfully reinforce this. (Also: radio.)

• 1952: John Cage’s 4’33”

I introduced the concept of an anechoic chamber — a space designed to have no echo — in the previous class, and here expand on it by talking about John Cage. I stick to his greatest hits: his famous anechoic-chamber anecdote, his 4’33” composition, and his book Silence. I quote him from Silence, in which he connects the ideas behind 4’33″” to the glass houses of Mies van der Rohe (how they “reflect their environment, presenting to the eye images of clouds, trees, or grass, according to the situation”) and the sculptures of Richard Lippold (“it is inevitable that one will see other things, and people too, if they happen to be there at the same time”). We focus discussion on this statement of Cage’s: “There is always something to see, something to hear. In fact, try as we may to make a silence, we cannot.” The students have undertaken sound journals, and emphasizing that silence is an “idea” not an actual real thing is helpful in getting them to listen to that which we have long been taught not to hear. If, as William Gibson said, “cyberspace” is a consensual hallucination of a place, then “silence” is a consensual hallucination of an absence.

• 1993: Mosaic browser / World Wide Web

If I’ve learned anything in the six semesters I’ve taught this class, it is to not overestimate the benefits of talking to students about the past 20 years of rapid increase in technology. So, I just end my timeline with the introduction of the Mosaic browser, which I posit as a division not unlike the one on the other side of which stand those people back in 1750 who didn’t know what they were missing — or so we 21st-century listeners might contend, and condescend.

• Homework

And I’ll close here with the homework that I assign in advance of the third week. There will be four more weekly sound journal entries. There will be a viewing, of the 1974 Francis Ford Coppola film The Conversation. There will be one reading: an interview with sound designer Walter Murch conducted by Michael Jarrett (whose recent book Producing Country: The Inside Story of the Great Recordings is great — and shares its publisher, Wesleyan, with Cage’s Silence). And there is one listening exercise. I’ll end by copying and pasting the exercise directly from the homework:

Exercise: This should take between an hour and a half and two hours to complete. Part A: First, plot out a bus ride or a walk (BART is also fine) that will take approximately one half hour, and during which you’re unlikely to run into anyone or be required to speak with anyone. (If you elect for the bus route, which I recommend, you should remain on the same bus for the full half hour.) Use your phone or another device to record the complete half-hour length of your trip. Part B: Immediately after the trip is over, sit down and make an annotated list of the sounds you recall from the trip. Part C: Immediately after that, listen back to the tape all the way through; make an annotated list of the relative prominence of sounds you had or hadn’t noticed or paid attention to. Part D: Create and send to me a document containing the lists that resulted from Parts B and C above.

And next week, in part three of “Listening to Media,” the class will focus on “The Score”: not on 150,000 years of human history, but on 100 years of film and, later, television. Which is why we’re watching — and listening to — Coppola’s The Conversation.

Note: I’ve tried to do these week-by-week updates of the course in the past, and I’m hopeful this time I’ll make it through all 15 weeks. Part of what held me up in the past was adding videos and documents, so this time I’m going to likely bypass that.

This first appeared in the February 10, 2015, edition of the free Disquiet email newsletter:

By Marc Weidenbaum

Tags: , / Comments: 2 ]

One Comment

  1. Mike Rhode
    [ Posted February 11, 2015, at 5:31 am ]

    I would like to take this course, and I don’t care about sound all that much.

    As an archivist, I completely relate to your 1750 exercise. I often suggest to people that we don’t really have any idea what Jenny Lind, the Swedish Nightingale was so famous for.

    IN classical music, some player piano roles by Rachmaninoff have been reverse-engineered to give us his sound.

One Trackback

  • By Sound Course, Week 2 of 15 on February 18, 2016 at 11:03 am

    […] Each week I summarize the lecture and discussion from my course on the role of sound in the media landscape. In cases where I’ve already documented the discussion fairly thoroughly, as with week two, I’ll link to the full summary, and do a more concise one here. […]

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