“Sounds of Brands / Brands of Sounds,” Week 2

A Brief History of Sound: celebrity death, oral culture, anatomy, perception, synaesthesia; Whitney Houston, Gordon Hempton, John Cage

Wednesday of this week was the second of the 15 weekly three-hour classes I’m teaching on sound at San Francisco’s Academy of Art (academyart.edu) this semester. Last week’s entry on the first class got a helpful and enthusiastic response, so I thought I’d do it again. As with last time, this isn’t the full lecture, and even less so is it a representation of the discussion, which this week was great; it’s just a quick run through the subjects we covered.

Per the syllabus (PDF), this second class meeting focused on “A Brief History of Sound:”

Overview: We’ll trace overlapping paths through the history of sound, beginning with the human conception of sound, and then exploring the developing role of sound in modern media.
Part I: Celebrity Death

The class starts each Wednesday at noon, and my intention was to begin this one by playing some music, specifically an instrumental version of a Whitney Houston hit. The subject at hand was “celebrity death,” more on which in a moment. The tech failed me (more likely I failed the tech), so I ended up playing the song after the class break, but in the interest of context, this is a video containing the audio:

One of the pleasures of this course is probing my own uncertainties. Last week, the specific uncertainty on which I focused related to the role of sound in the work of JJ Abrams (briefly: to what extent his notable sonic sensitivity contributes to the popularity of his projects). This week allowed me to touch on a question that haunts me: What was the emotional and cultural experience of losing a musician to death before development of recorded music?

Just ponder that for a second. It’s 1750 AD, and your favorite local opera singer or tavern troubadour has passed away unexpectedly. What does it mean that you will never again hear her or his voice? In class we discussed the way a largely oral culture might maintain the singer’s memory — there might be subsequent musicians who sing in imitation of the deceased singer, and new singers might begin their careers by emulating that singer, eventually developing their own styles. These are, of course, things that continue in our own time — there are enough Elvis impersonators and Beatles cover bands to fill Shea Stadium, and so many prominent groups originated deeply indebted melodically, and in other ways, to their forebears. We touched on various related subjects, like where theft and cultural production overlap.

I initially played the instrumental version of the Whitney Houston hit to show how our memories fill in the gap, how we can celebrate a musicians absence in this manner. I then played the opposite, a video that contains the audio of only Whitney Houston singing, minus all the instrumentation. It’s doubly affecting. First there’s the sense of loss — the performance is so emotional, it’s as if she’s mourning herself. Second there are the echoes in Houston’s singing of Michael Jackson, whose own a cappella edits circulated after his early passing (“ABC,” “I Want You Back”):

There’s a lot to discuss on this topic, and the point of these summary posts is to do just that: summarize the lecture points. So, I’ll leave that part for now.

Part 2: A (Very) Brief Timeline

I then displayed the following timeline, and I talked through the nine points. (One thing: I am particularly uncertain about the dating of the early development of human speech ability. There are a lot of divergent takes on this timing. Fortunately for my purposes, the dating doesn’t affect the sequence, whether it’s circa 100,000 or 200,000 years ago.)

In brief, it begins with a consideration of the extent to which we were or weren’t human before we developed hearing and speech, and notes the extensive period between the origins of spoken communication and the introduction of early writing. Of all early physical technology — and I use that term so as not to exclude, for example, language, which is itself a technology — it was the homing pigeon I focused on. I was trying to emphasize an early technology that allowed people to send information faster and further than they might be able to themselves. (Later that evening, a friend suggested the bow and arrow, which considerably predates the homing pigeon, but I’m not certain that the distance a bow and arrow travels makes it as significant a development in communication distribution as the homing pigeon.)

The “oral culture becomes written culture” moment was the focal point of the timeline discussion. I draw this transition primarily from the popular survey Alpha Beta: How 26 Letters Shaped the Western World (2000) by John Man, who summarizes the anxiety in ancient Greece as this transition was underway. In brief, when we gain the power to record, we begin to forget:

By the way, Man likes this quote; he also employs it in his book The Gutenberg Revolution: The Story of a Genius and an Invention That Changed the World, from 2003. Like Man, we moved from oral culture to written culture to Gutenberg and moveable type. Then we proceeded to recorded sound. (As time got closer to the present, the rapidity of innovations appeared to increase; I trust there is something of an ongoing accelerando, but there’s also the manner in which greater distance makes things appear to be coincidental.) We touched on early recordings (fun fact: the “phonautograph” of Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville was only intended for recording, not playback) and the telephone. As time marched on, I singled out John Cage’s 4’33, which just had its 60th birthday, because of its centrality to our comprehension of music in the broader context of sound — a subject that is at the core of the first three classes in this course. And we closed on the Mosaic browser, the first visual interface for the World Wide Web, which turns 20 next year. We discussed what has occurred in Mosaic’s wake — Napster, iTunes, HTML5 — but that’s just the point: those flowed from Mosaic.

Part 3: Gordon Hempton, Audio Ecologist and Soundtracker

The Cage discussion, which we returned to later in the class, led to one of the primary assignments from the previous class, which was a discussion of the documentary Soundtracker (directed by Nick Sherman), whose subject is the audio ecologist and field recorder Gordon Hempton. (The students were required to watch it before the start of class, which gave them a full week.) Hempton says at one point in the documentary, “What’s the matter with me that I could be 27 years old before I started to listen.” The goal of this class, of course, is for everyone to start listening earlier than Hempton did, even if we never achieve his level of ability. We discussed a variety of things, which I’ll summarize very briefly using the following screenshots from the film:

Hempton talks about the “American mantra,” by which he means the second-hand electrical noise pollution that is the backdrop of our lives.

This is Hempton achieving his goal, getting the sound he desired. It’s an awkward moment for viewers because his perception of his art, the act of framing sound recordings, while perfectly normal from a photographic standpoint isn’t widely comprehended from an aural one, what is often termed “phonography.” The portion of him smiling while listening to something we cannot hear makes for an excellent contrast to the famous sequence in Grizzly Man (2005), when we watch the director, Werner Herzog, listening to something he refuses to play for the sheer brutality of it.

One key reason I selected this documentary is because Hempton represents the uneasy tension between perceived “natural” and “manmade” sound, and he speaks eagerly of his time in the city, and has an interesting perspective on trains, whose sound he appreciates. While he refers to a plane as “an off-road vehicle defacing the skies,” he thinks there’s something in a train’s bearing that more comfortably makes it part of the acoustic landscape. He’s quite critical of false sounds used in place of real ones; he says of some nature recordings that use, say, a toilet to represent a mountain stream, or of recordings that selectively edit to cut out passing planes and cars: “Those places don’t exist except in the imaginations of those who sit in the editing suite.” (I also asked the students to make note of the waveform that appears on screen during these title cards. We’ll be talking about visual iconography of sound much later in the course.)

There’s a fair amount of underlying personal tension in the film, too. Why is he no longer with his family? How strongly does his hold to his depiction of people as a “noise source.” Where does his sonic attention originate?

I neglected to show the above slide in class, regrettably. It’s a fine depiction of Hempton’s talent. In the film, that circle starts large and closes in slowly on its subject. It’s an economical presentation of Hempton’s ability to locate and identify sounds.

In light of Hempton and his attention to sound, we also discussed one of the other homework assignments for the week. The first week I had them all write down memories of sounds they associate with Wednesday mornings. This week, as part of their daily sound journal entries, I asked them to write down what they heard. We discussed what was and wasn’t evident — how initial recollections might, for example, have been of loud noises, but how in turn the students found themselves paying attention this morning to quiet ones. Also, we discussed false memories, like things they thought they heard but later realized they couldn’t have actually heard.

Then we took our break.

Part 4: Listening Exercise

The class takes a 15 minute break midway through. As part of an in-class listening exercise, I asked them to take 20 minutes instead, and I instructed them to use five of those minutes to walk the four-block circumference of the school, and to pay attention to what they heard. Our class is in the Academy of Art building at 410 Bush Street, closer to Kearny than to Grant, as depicted on this Google map:

When they got back to the room after the break, I immediately paired them up and had them do a listening exercise. Each pair would walk the four-block circumference, arm in arm. For two blocks, one of them would keep their eyes closed, and then they would switch for the second two blocks. Afterwards we discussed the sense of disorientation, fear, and heightened senses that resulted — not only sound but smell, even elements of touch. They had just walked this same route by themselves, and yet with one sense removed, it was fully new. The classroom couldn’t be much better located for such an exercise. If you walk up Bush to Grant and make a right, you are at the entrance to Chinatown, a commercial block as uniquely sonorous as it is colorful (photo via wikipedia.org). (And thanks to Paolo Salvagione, of salvagione.com, for helping me think of using this exercise.)

Part 5: Three Aspects of Listening (Physiology, Synaesthesia, Perception)

The next part of the class focused on aspects of listening. First, we went quickly over the structure of the ear, mostly to put that aside and talk about broader aspects of the listening experience, such as non-ear sensation (chest, hair follicles), and memory/experience.

We then moved on to synaesthesia, which I often incorrectly refer to as a “confusion” of the senses, though I mean confusion in a neutral, even positive, way (along the lines of the Jimmy McHugh and Frank Loesser song “Let’s Get Lost”). We discussed the Brian Eno essay on perfume I had assigned for the class (“Scents & Sensibility,” which dates from 1992), and that led to a brief overview of ambient music in the broader context of ambient sound. For a working definition of “synaesthesia,” I employed this description (see below) from the catalog to the excellent Visual Music exhibit that showed in Los Angeles, California, and Washington, D.C., around 2005. (You’ll no doubt note the way the key quote is highlighted. I don’t trust pithy quotes, as I feel they artificially yank something out of context, so I try to display them in the context in which they first appeared, and then talk about that context a little. In explaining this presentation style to the students, I mentioned the classic example of the Stewart Brand phrase “Information wants to be free,” which for a long time was usually quoted without the sentence that originally followed it: “Information also wants to be expensive.”)

And then things came around to the final portion of the class, a discussion of “perception,” which clearly had been the thread running through the entire day’s selection of subjects, from the Greeks’ anxiety about knowledge separated from experience, to Gordon Hempton’s extraordinary ear, to the two listening exercises, and so on. The starting point for this was a selection from John Cage’s book Silence, which celebrated its 50th anniversary last year:

Part 6: Next Week’s Assignments

And then I went over the homework for the following week. The structure of the assignments for this course is that some reinforce what’s just been covered and some prepare for what’s about to be covered, while others bridge the gap — and every week, every day really, the students are expected to write in their sound journals. Next week is class number three, which is the final part of the first of this course’s three arcs, the one on “Listening to Media.” The class will take as its subject “The Score”:

Overview: Music and sound in film and television, its purposes, and what we can learn from its history of development.
These are the assignments due for completion by the start of the third class. The Michael Jarrett conversation with Walter Murch is at yk.psu.edu and the Bonnie Gordon piece on Thomas Jefferson is at slate.com. (Thanks to Peter Nyboer of lividinstruments.com for having reminded me about the Murch piece.)

I didn’t expect to do a second of these roundups, but the first one proved useful. Not sure if I’ll do more such posts, but we’ll see. Still 13 weeks of classes to go.

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