As you read these words there are multiple layers of sounds occurring around you, most of which we block out to focus on whatever the task is at hand. So put the paper down. Take a deep breath, close your eyes and just listen for a minute or so to your surroundings. What can you hear? Is there a dominant sound? Is there more than one sound combining to create this dominant sound. Try and reach underneath it now to uncover those less obvious sounds lurking under there, perhaps those quieter ones at a higher frequency. Once we’ve identified these sounds perhaps we can begin to consider their meanings, as there’s no such things as benign sounds. Every sound is loaded with information, and our minds are incredibly adept at decoding them, more often than not without our knowledge. So what does sound tell us about our world?
It’s the question at the heart of Norweigan artist and author Brandon Labelle’s book Acoustic Territories/ Sound Culture and Everyday Life (Continuum/ Macmillan) in which he investigates the locales in which we live our lives, highlighting the meanings we unconsciously understand yet rarely consider. He begins with a boy on a train asking one of those impossible questions that only a child can. ‘Where do sounds come from and where do they go?’ Pity the parent who has to answer that. Labelle’s approach is academic, he addresses philosophy, theoretical models, sociology, architecture, sonic research and art practice. He draws long, almost tangental bows, and as a result his hypothesies at times feel altogether cheeky. Yet that’s part of the dilemna, the nature of sound is so subjective, it’s something so personal and intimate. It comes into our body and we experience it alone, yet it’s also something that is immediately shared with others who are also having their own personal intimate experiences. It’s this collective experience that allows Labelle to undertake this study, drawing upon his own personal experiences in various locations. He says as much in an artist talk/introduction to his book that you can listen to online at http://www.cabinetmagazine.org/events/labelle.php.
He investigates the street, the home, the underground, prisons, cars, shopping malls, airports, even the sky and the media, using vibration, echo, feedback, resonance, and transmission, as a framework in which to view the communication of sound. He then attempts to decode the sounds and understand the contextual meanings that we attribute to them. He references everyone from street buskers to John Cage, hip hop to Saturday Night Fever, Brian Eno to sirens in WW1 bomb shelters, and challenges notions about the politics of the spaces we inhabit. His take on noise pollution is interesting too. He touches upon the notion of acoustic violence to discuss some of societies ills. Noise can be a confrontation, a symptom of disruption. However in society confrontations and disruptions are often necessary for progression. Then there’s silence, the absence (or reduction) of noise, which can also be an act of violence, particularly when when it’s politically motivated noise reduction. Just ask the Empress.
It’s this kind of thinking, a few steps progressed from noise=bad, silence=good, that make this study/ academic reflection so interesting and inspiring. It’s required reading for any sound artists out there, a text to help them take stock of the ammunition they’re loading into their compositions. But it also reveals how we’re such a visual culture, ignoring (but still processing) sound, using it to contribute to our understanding and experience of our environments, yet only raising it to our consciousness when we find it objectionable. Why that is however is a whole other book and more than likely involves cavemen, dinosaurs, and our fight or flight response.
Finally one of the the most adventurous risk taking musicians who ever lived passed away at the ripe old age of 88 last month. A Scott, Bill Millin was a renowned bagpipe player. It wasn’t so much his compositional dexterity as the fact that he played his bagpipes on a Normandy beach on the 6th of June 1944 as his commando brigade swarmed up the coast. He kept playing ditties like ‘Highland Laddie,’ as his comrades fell around him. German POW’s later admitted that they didn’t shoot him because they thought he was mad, and the moniker stuck: The mad piper of D-Day. He kept playing for four days until shrapnel apparently destroyed his pipes. But you can just imagine it, after 4 days of bagpipes mad or not, the Germans must have hit a wall and taken them out.