sound

ICA 21/22 Ed. II

COLOFON

The ICA (Institute for Cultural Anthropology) is the semi-scientific journal of Itiwana, study association Cultural Anthropology and Development Sociology at the Leiden University. The ICA appears twice a year.

External Authors

Simon Frith, Foteini Salmouka, Daniel Paiva, Guy Livingston, Thomas Schönberger, Peter Verstraten

The editors reserve the right to shorten and edit articles or not to post them. Acquisition of (parts of) articles is only permitted after consultation with the editors.

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Media and Text editors Bente Heydelberg, Jelmer Sijperda, Saika Nishikawa     

Editor in Chief Marthe Baalbergen

Preface: Sound

 

We can see, feel, smell, taste, and hear as humankind. In the last millennium, our eyes have become better. We see things in all the colors that the rainbow offers us. But in the meantime, our ears have become poorer. Instead of listening to all the birds chirping or the wind, we liked to see the leaves dancing through this wind. This made our sight incredibly good for an animal, but our hearing was the sacrifice. 

 

When we as anthropologists talk about ethnography, we refer to it as joining the activities of the people we study with. Learning from them; looking as a bystander. But what if I say that fieldwork is not just looking. It is tasting and feeling, and mostly it is also hearing.

How could you ever describe the Carnival in Rio de Janeiro without describing the music? Or the culture on a fishing boat without hearing the seagulls or the water? Sounds make our experience whole; they illustrate things our eyes could never see.

 

In this magazine, we will explore how sounds are integrated into our society. We will talk about music and identity, soundscaping, and sound in movies. But to experience this magazine in its whole, I would suggest listening to the sounds that reach your ear while reading. Or put on some music to give your reading a taste of your own. But in every case, I wish you a happy read!

Marthe Baalbergen

Marthe is a second year Anthropology Student and is the Communications Officer in the current Itiwana Board. She is the Editor in Chief for the ICA and loves to Paint and to Travel.

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Underplayed: 'to understate or de-emphise, to downplay...

By Bente Heydelberg and Jelmer Sijperda

Such is the name of director Stacey Lee’s documentary on the current status of the gender, sexuality, and ethnic inequality issues in dance music. The documentary features a varied amount of female electronic dance musicians and portrays their struggle to succeed in the extremely demanding electronic dance environment. On the 25th of November 2021 the ICA committee went to see this documentary although we have to admit to have missed out on the documentary’s first few minutes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

After the men seemed to have dominated the industry, women were struggling to still have and create a career in electronic dance music. One of the pioneers stated during her interview that she was promised to get an education on electronic music, only to be told later that they had decided to change the program to only for men. She was denied the possibility purely based on her gender. Not based on her talent, not even anything else. No just her gender. 

We were shocked by the multitude of struggles the

women of the electronic music industry had to face.

As the documentary shifted towards our current

society we learned that, although there is currently

more awareness of the gender inequalities in every

industry, the large extent of these inequalities women

have to face in the electronic music industry was

something we were astonished about. We learned

that the women of the industry are harshly criticised

for how they represent themselves. If they wear too

much clothing they try to ‘cover themselves up to

look like a man’, but if they wear ‘too little’ clothing

they ‘only get attention because of their bodies’.

There seems to be no ‘good’ way. One artist was even

criticised for winning a Grammy due to the notion that

she had not “earned” this award, and had merely been

given it because of inclusivity measures, thereby

invalidating the effort she had put in. Another example is the story of the twin DJ duo, Nervo, who were filmed with their babies and their daily struggles. This portrayed new ways of being a DJ, challenging the masculine image that has dominated the industry. Many of the other musicians that appeared in the film presented themselves in a ‘masculine way’, to fit in and be taken seriously, even though this often contradicted their gender identity. However, what is intriguing about their portrayal is not only what is present – their ‘motherness’ – but what is omitted, notably, ‘where are their fathers?’

 

The documentary featured a lot of female artists and their perspective and experiences in the industry. However, it would have been nice if the documentary had included more men as well. Famous producer Mark Ronson, he worked with artists such as Whitney Houston, Amy Winehouse, Miley Cyrus among many others, however, was included, and shared his story showing a big contrast in how men and women are treated in the industry.  

 

As the ICA we would say that the documentary portrays the struggles of gender inequality in the music industry beautifully through an historic approach and personal stories. The domination of men, as well as its racial inequalities, is still prevalent in the industry. The film’s stress on gender inequality should be understood as the film producers wanted to project.

While portraying the struggles of women in the electronic music industry, Stacey Lee also depicts the influence women had during the earlier stages of electronic music. We were surprised to hear that women were the pioneers of electric music through their early experimentation with music technology. The documentary included personal stories of some of the pioneers, whose contributions have not been aptly considered. After the electronic music industry started to become dominated by men during the 80s and 90s, women started to be pushed aside and had to fight to still get a spot at the table. It seems as if any industry with economic potential, whether pioneered by women or men, ends up in the hands of men, consequentially leading to further male domination. 

"It seems as if any industry with economic potential, whether pioneered by women or men, ends up in the hands of men, consequentially leading to further male domination."

The role of sound in the multisensory turn of the museum:

Unlocking sound’s potential in museum interpretation

By Foteini Salmouka 

Introduction

 

The museum experience is shaped by all kinds of sensory stimuli; the smell of the wood or of the fresh paint of the exhibition walls, the creaking of the wood floors, the whispering voices of the visitors and the echo of the museum space, the silent reading of museum texts, the embodied experience of the multimedia artworks or interpretive media and, above all, by the visual stimuli that dominate the exhibition space. Although all the senses are involved in shaping the museum experience, only vision is the predominant means of aesthetic appreciation. The rest of the senses are present only when they are associated with an artistic practice or a relevant exhibition theme and rarely as main interpretive mediums. This essay focuses on embracing sound as an interpretive medium in the contemporary museum practice in the broader context of the multisensory turn of the last 30 years in museums. 

 

Fragments of a multisensory experience: the precursors of the modern museum

 

The notion of museum as a visual mechanism is an established practice that has shaped the museum’s functions since the 19th century. However, this was not always the case. In the precursors of the modern museum, the Cabinets of Curiosities and the private collections that were popular from the 16th to the 18th century, touch, sound, and smell were the main means of exploring a cultural object. The written testimonies of the travellers of that era reveal that exploring a collection was a multisensory and experiential experience. The tactile exploration of the objects was strongly encouraged, as a hands-on experience could link the objects with the stories and the people that surround their existence (Classen, 2017: 20-21). Moreover, an object’s value was depended on its ability to evoke multiple meanings, which were highlighted through theatre plays, concerts, poetry recitation and dinners inspired by the objects of the collection. This holistic approach to aesthetic appreciation has its origins in the ancient notion of the word “mouseion” (Μουσείο - Museum), a place dedicated to the muses that combined music, poetry, and conversation (De Wissher, 2018: 13). 

During the 18th century, public access to collections that were until then accessible only to the upper social classes began and was further strengthened by the establishment of the first public museums. However, the increase in the number of visitors and the widening of access to the lower social strata created the need to protect the exhibits, both functionally and symbolically, which resulted in fundamental changes in the philosophy and the operation of the museum. 

 

The gaze and the meaning: an inextricable bond

 

During the 19th century, touch, which was the dominant means of aesthetic appreciation of cultural objects until then, was banned under fear of destruction or damage and a new taxonomy of the senses was established in the Western societies. This taxonomy divided the senses into high/cerebral (vision and hearing) and low/bodily (touch, smell, and taste) (Classen & Howes, 2006: 206-208; Rodaway, 1994: 148). This categorization aimed at controlling the sensory experience and resulted in the formation of a new protocol of behaviour for the museum visitors and the establishment of vision as the predominant means of aesthetic appreciation. The museum of the 19th century is a space of governance, discipline, control, and personal self-improvement, where the visitors are perceived as observers and the exhibits as objects of contemplation (Bennett, 1995: 21-22; Howes, 2014: 288-289). 

    The limitation of the sensory spectrum established a distance between the visitor/observer and the cultural objects and cultivated the practice of silent contemplation in the exhibition space (Wiens & De Visscher, 2019: 277-278). As a result, any kind of sonic stimulus that could challenge the dominance of the gaze was significantly reduced. Under this scope, silence was perceived as a cultural practice for meaning-making in the exhibition context and turned the visitors into silent observers and readers of museum texts.  

 

Challenging the hierarchy of the senses: the multisensory turn of the museum

 

In the 20th century numerous factors challenged the established hierarchical taxonomy of the senses and cultivated a new multisensorial approach in museum practice. Firstly, the new artistic practices that emerged in the mid-20th century (e.g. Fluxus, Futurism, Dada) explored the correlation of the senses in artistic expression and creativity. For example, Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944) explored many aspects of the relationship between painting and music both in his artworks and in his theoretical texts (e.g. Kandinsky, 1977). Thus, interpreting and exhibiting these artworks cultivated a new approach in curatorial practice.

    Furthermore, as put forward by the New Museology (Vergo, 1989: 3), a shift from object-oriented to people-oriented approach in museum practice renewed the museum experience. This approach was further strengthened by the introduction of the new technologies in museums, which encourage interaction and participation. In this context, learning is not the only purpose of the modern museum; communication and entertainment are now at the core of its functions. 

  

 

   Moreover, the rise of the anthropology of the senses challenged the primacy of the vision and the gaze as the dominant means of aesthetic appreciation. This new scientific field highlighted the social role of the senses, their formation in each culture and the cultural significance of sensory stimuli (Classen, 1997; Cox, 2018; Howes, 2010). Thus, the sensory experience extends from the personal to the collective dimension and emerges as a field for meaning-making.

    The exploration of social and cultural significance of the senses cultivated a fertile ground for the rise of sensory museology (Howes, 2014) as part of the multisensory turn of the last 30 years in museums (Levent & Pascual-Leone, 2014). A variety of multisensory stimuli, such as interactive installations, tactile exhibits, historic odours or soundscapes and even edible elements, were initially introduced in science, ethnographic and folk museums and gradually extended to art and historical museums. This approach marks a significant turn not only in the visitor experience, which is now more inclusive, rich, stimulating and fun, but also to the philosophy of the curatorial practice. The senses emerge in the intersection of material and non-material culture and encourage the exploration of stories, practices and performances that are associated with cultural objects.

Towards a new museum sound culture

 

Although, the institutionalized perception of the museum as a silent place for visual contemplation is still in force, the expansion of museum’s sensory spectrum resulted in a three-fold integration of sound in the museum context; as a museum object, as an exhibition theme and as interpretive medium. The collection of sound objects, musical instruments and artworks of new artistic forms that were developed from 1960s onwards (e.g. new media arts) enriched the museum collections as well as the museum’s soundscape. Moreover, sound recordings, such as oral history, field recordings, and audio-visual heritage, further strengthened the presence of sound in museum collections as part of the broader interest of museums in exploring and disseminating intangible cultural heritage. 

    

The new sound culture in museums has, also, emerged through the study of hearing, listening practices and sound as a carrier of meaning (Cox & Warner, 2015: xiii). Moreover, a growing interest in the anthropology of sound and its recognition as an indicator of cultural differences has led to the rise of sound as an exhibition theme especially in the 21st century (e.g. Soundings: A Contemporary Score,  MOMA,

2013; Sound Art?, Fundació Joan Miró,

2019-2020; Sonic: Adventures in Audio and

Boom: Experiments in Sound, National Science

and Media Museum, UK, 2021). However, the

presentation of sound as an autonomous

artistic practice carries the risk of further

marginalizing sound and widening the gap

between the senses (Belinfante, 2016: 15). On

the contrary, the multisensory approach in

contemporary museum practice encourages

the combination of sensory stimuli in order to

enchance visitor experience and promote

alternative interpretations.

    The organic integration of sound as an

interpretive exhibition medium has great

potential in enriching both meaning and

experience due to the various roles that are accorded to sound in the exhibition environment; informative, interpretive and immersive (Salmouka & Gazi, 2021). The informative role of sound arises from its ability to transmit information and enhance the cognitive context of the exhibits. In this case, sound supports, enriches or replaces the museum texts with oral narration. For this purpose, audio tours are one of the most established practices of integrating sound in museums. Audio tours were first launched in the 1950s and are favoured by the majority of museums as they are non-invasive, auxiliary and optional. 

    The ability of sound to convey meaning and to communicate key exhibition messages highlights the interpretive role of sound in the exhibition context (Everrett, 2019: 313). Sound is a carrier of messages, ideas and memories and its correlative and representational possibilities can point out meanings that the gaze alone cannot convey. In this case, sound is being used for various purposes: as a sonic reference to the sound of objects that have lost their functionality (e.g. musical instruments); to connect an object with its historical, social, and cultural milieu (e.g. through the use of period music); to activate sonic cues that are depicted in a work of art; to enrich the exhibition’s conceptual context though the integration of sound heritage or site-specific sound exhibits. 

    The immersive role of sound is derived from its ability to create an atmosphere or a mood and to elicit. In the museum context immersion is approached from a psychological perspective rather than a technological one, as it is pointed out by Grau’s (2002: 13) definition of the term: ‘immersion can be an intellectually stimulating process […] It is characterized by diminishing critical distance to what is shown and increasing emotional involvement in what is happening’. Some of the most common sonic practices that promote immersion in the museum context are historical or cultural soundscape recreation, exhibition soundtracks, audio walks or immersive audio guides which combine sound, music and narrative with the use of innovative audio technologies that create an intense embodied experience. In addition, original compositions inspired by works of art aim at creating an abstract but dialogic relationship with the visual stimuli, which promotes personal meaning and contributes to the formation of a new way of experiencing art in museums. 

    Finally, sound may also contribute to enhancing accessibility for blind or visually impaired visitors. Audio descriptions are vivid verbal descriptions that make visual information accessible to these audiences and they are one of the main means for a more inclusive museum. The collaboration with the blind/visually impaired community in the process of producing audio descriptions is vital in order to provide more accessible and meaningful museum experiences.

     

Conclusion

 

This essay explored the evolution of the use of sound in museums in the broader context of the multisensory turn of the museum of the 21st century. Even though the presence of sound in museum exhibitions has been enhanced over the last decades, the possibilities arising from the use of sound as a means of interpretation are endless and they have not yet been explored in depth by curatorial practices. The need for new conceptual, methodological, and functional frameworks for the use of sound for meaning-making is more urgent than ever in cultivating a more inclusive, diverse, and relevant museum interpretation. 

"The rise of the anthropology of the senses challenged the primacy of the vision and the gaze as the dominant means of aesthetic appreciation"

Foteini Salmouka is a PhD Candidate in Museum Studies at the Department of Communication, Media, and Culture, Panteion University of Social and Political Sciences, Athens, Greece. Her thesis focuses on the use of sound as an interpretive medium in museum exhibitions. She holds a MA in Cultural Management (Panteion University of Social and Political Studies), a BSc in Mathematics (University of Athens) and a Diploma in Composition. Her research interests include sensory museology, sound studies, visitor studies and digital museology. 

 
 
 

By Simon Frith 

Music& identity

Reality lurks

In 1996 I wrote a paper on music and identity which turned out to be the most cited article I’ve

written.  I wrote it because I’d begun to notice people at academic conferences saying not “I

think” but “speaking as a [woman, gay, Latino, survivor …] I think”.  This seemed to me an oddly

determinist approach to discussion and, indeed, a way of making discussion impossible.  In my

paper I challenged the idea that music expressed or represented identities, that there was a

necessary fit between people and the music they played.  I argued that identity is not a thing

but a process.  Identity is something one becomes and not something one is.  Identity is an

ever-shifting performance of self.

 

There are problems with this argument, as numerous commentators pointed out.  To describe jazz or soul as ‘black music’ is to draw attention to the sounds’ materiality, to the ways in which it is made and by whom.  One can enjoy the music as a white listener, even ‘identify’ with it as a white musician, but this is not to somehow make oneself black.  The pleasure of the music may, in fact, be the imaginative experience of an identity that is clearly not one’s own.  A musical experience is by its nature temporary. It will end; reality always lurks. Terry Hooley, a music promoter in Belfast in the 1970s, remembers putting punk gigs on in the Harp, a “relatively accessible, quasi-neutral, punk friendly venue”.  Here you could be “a punk rocker first and foremost and everything else was secondary.”  Rivalry between bands (and their fans) was infinitely preferable to the sectarian war between Ulster Protestants and Irish Catholics. The problem for the bands and their fans was getting to gigs, from both sides of the sectarian divide:

You definitely had to be wary of marauding ‘Spidermen’ looking to pluck off unwary stragglers on your way there and home. So, relying on safety in numbers, everybody used to walk round to the City Hall en masse to get the last bus home at 11pm.


 

Feeling at home

 

From a recent article in the Guardian by Hannah May Kilroy:

It’s Friday night in north London’s Black Heart, a rock and metal bar tucked away on a Camden side street. The walls and ceiling are – inevitably – painted black, the beer taps are furnished with antlers, and the speakers are blasting out Metallica’s Enter Sandman. As the chorus hits, the whole bar breaks into song, and the bartender turns down the volume so all that can be heard is a room full of joyous metalheads belting out: “We’re off to never-never land!”. 

 

The rock and metal bar is an unsung but significant corner of British culture, where the drinks are strong, the music loud, and you can try to decipher illegible band logos with fellow enthusiasts as your feet collectively stick to the floor. “You come in, sit down and take all the pressure off,” says David May, who’s been going to the Solid Rock in Glasgow since the early 90s. “I don’t need to worry about who comes in, or about somebody starting a fight. I really don’t have a better word for this place than home.”

 

What does it mean to feel at home in music?  It seems the answer is being with other people in the know. These days music festivals are, for example, routinely reported as gatherings of like-minded people, offering annual opportunities for musical performances of collective identities.  But this process is not straightforward.    As journalist Alice Azania-Jarvis told BBC news in 2010:

The reputation of a festival is more important to some people than the acts who are playing. If watching your favourite band means standing in a field of people who look like mobile phone salesmen, then some people will decide not to go. It’s not what you’re watching, more who you are watching them with. 

At live music events fan identities come up against other kinds of identity marker.  Public gatherings bring together friends and strangers and rituals develop to enable people feel at home when not at home.  In a study of Sheffield clubbing in the mid 1980s, Steven Evans found that “many people could clearly specify a typical, often rigid routine” that they would follow on a night out: getting ready with friends, meeting others at pre-arranged pubs and bars. On arrival at the club, the women would always go straight to the toilets (“That’s what they do, you know. Just to look at themselves, put some makeup on, wind’s blown their hair out of place”), order a drink, walk around the club to “see who was in” and then stand around or find a seat (“often in exactly the same place as on previous visits”). Evans is describing a going-out ritual that has changed little since the people started flocking to dance halls in the early 20th Century.  

 

By the 1990s clubbing had also become important for people who didn’t feel at home at home. Lesbian and gay clubs became safe spaces in which young men and women learnt to perform alternative sexualities. In 1994 Richard Smith described in Gay Times the male gay club experience: 

We all explode … All us boys together clinging. Somehow managing to have a good time in these terrible times. We know the world outside is shit and that all there really is is us. Drugs are just part of the glue that joins us together. What we’re really rushing off is each other.

 

Queuing

I first queued all night for concert tickets as a teenager in Cambridge,

outside the Regal cinema in 1962.  I wanted to make sure I got to see

the Beatles.  By the 1970s queuing for concert tickets had become a

familiar rock ritual.  Kevin Geraghty-Shewan:

Getting tickets to see bands at the [Newcastle] City Hall was a matter

of making sure you got there before anyone else … In most cases 

tickets would go on sale at 10am on Saturday, which would mean

jumping on a train after finishing my paper round … We prayed that

 

 

 

 

 

 

when we rounded the corner into Northumberland Road there wasn’t a massive queue there already … Our first all-night queuing session was in 1978 for Eric Clapton. We arrived just after 6pm and though we were first in the queue we were soon joined by others. We spent most of the night talking to a bunch of students from the Polytechnic. This would prove to be advantageous when we needed someone to sign us into the Student Union for a Dire Straits gig.
 

The concert queue may be organised as a competition for tickets but as a social gathering it becomes a collaborative space in which people learn to take on the identity of the true fan.  The interloper is the ticket tout offering the opportunity (at a price) to cheat, an opportunity that is rarely taken.

 

Another queue culture developed in Britain in the next decade at club doors.  By the mid-1990s, as Ben Malbon writes, “the rituals of the queue and the door [had] become situations in which the clubbers act out certain roles in order to gain entry to the club—they behave as they are expected to behave”.  Gaining entry meant reaching the head of the queue and not being rejected by the door staff.   These queuers’ collective rituals involved, as it were, a conspiracy to pass the entrance test. 

 

Twenty years later journalist Hannah Ewens reported that

Through winter 2016 and early spring 2017 I’ve been waking up at 2 or 3am and taking the nightbus across London from my Peckham flat to a music venue. I don’t know who I’m going to find but since there’s a pop or rock gig on the following night, the fans will be there, wanting to be the first in. It doesn’t feel particularly exclusive to any type of music, as long as the fan base includes a lot of them. When I say “them” I mean almost exclusively teen girls, since that is who I find every time.

 

These girls lived across southern England and knew each other through meeting in such queues. They always queued for shows and went to as many as they could afford, queuing for music “as disparate as hardcore punk and bubblegum mainstream pop”. They were avid users of mobile phones and the internet, and were committed queuers because “the waiting connects the public and private parts of fandom” 

 

The time these girls wait in the queue is the time during which they get to possess the experience of the gig—the music, the crush of bodies, the thrill, the proximity to their idols. They’re looking forward with all their hearts to something that might seem miserably brief … but by queuing, they’re making the wait that might irritate or be ignored by you or me into a mini break from reality.

 

This was, Ewen came to realise, in some ways the most enjoyable part of these fans’ live music experience: sharing the anticipation and the tension, being with friends who had the same expectations.

 

Booing

 

As a reviewer I came across various reasons why audiences boo. Patti Smith was booed for responding to the audience with the Americanism “Thanks guys!”; Talking Heads and Yazoo for ostentatiously using pre-recorded sounds and tape loops; Kim Wilde for thanking Nottingham when arriving on stage in Birmingham.  In these cases the performers were belittling the audiences’ identities—as feminists, rock fans or Brummies.  In other concerts the disapproving noises were addressed from one set of fans to another: “Shush!” “Sit down!” As Stephanie Pitts and her colleagues have documented, at jazz and folk clubs and during classical concerts audiences are continually being taught (or are disputing) the etiquette of different kinds of listening identity, learning when to make a noise and when to be silent, when to stand and when to sit, when and what to eat and drink, how to express appreciation.

 

In late 2012 a dispute arose in London clubs over the shuffle, “a crouchy, jerky dance style” mostly performed by young black dancers. Kieran Yates reported in the Guardian that:

Complaints are typically to do with shufflers taking up too much dance- floor space, and dressing in a way which is incongruous with the socially accepted styles favoured by the non-shuffling crowd.
 

Remembering

 

For many of my friends, now, like me, in their 70s, gigs are prominent features of autobiographical narratives (this is probably why they are my friends).  But what they seem to remember most vividly is not the music or the emotions it aroused but the sociality, the collective travel to and the aftermath of great concerts, where they sat or stood and with whom, the people they met for the first time or fell out with.   For most of my gig-going life I went as a reviewer, alone, set apart from the crowd as well as being part of it.  I straddled back and front stage and in was continually ‘passing’, now as an audience member, now as part of the performers’ entourage.  Even now, a decade or more since I last wrote a review, I attend concerts with a kind of detachment, I watch musicians and audiences perform and assess their performances in my head.  I identify with neither the music nor its fans but remain, rather, fascinated by the social act of ‘concert going’.  It is that, in my own autobiographical narrative, that has shaped my identity.

"I argued that identity is not a thing but a process.  Identity is something one becomes and not something one is.  Identity is an ever-shifting performance of self."

Simon Frith is Emeritus Professor of Music at the University of Edinburgh.  His first book, The Sociology of Rock was published in 1978; his most recent, the third and final volume of The History of Live Music in Britain since 1950, appeared in 2021.  For most of his professional life he also worked as music journalist, attending two to three concerts a week.

 

By Thomas Schönberger

In the picture

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QaQ is a Palestinian native singer/songwriter. You may know him as our fellow anthropology student Adam. He was one of our participants during fieldwork, giving us a behind the scenes of his music career. Since our research revolved around identity making we focused on the elements that were crucial to Adams perception of his musical identity. He shared some interesting stories about his past, how he was already writing, at a young age, about the Palestinian socio-cultural position and his personal struggles and privileges, and how his friends encouraged him to write more. His apartment was also a clear reflection of his identity, furniture with Palestinian motives and a beautiful rug. One of these motives was used in an artistic representation of Adam by one of his friends, which you can see in the picture. QaQ is an artist who really embraces his background and showed us how having a strong conviction in his own story is very important for building your own identity, especially in these times.

 

By  Daniel Paiva

We are the soundscape

sound-making and territories #3 - New York.jpg

The soundscape is all around us. The soundscape traverses our bodies. It connects us to things nearby and far away, at all times, everywhere. We cannot help but listen. And we cannot avoid sounding back.

The concept of soundscape has a long history. It was first used in literature and anthropology studies to refer to representations of environmental sounds, but it was not until 1969, when the urbanist Michael Southworth approached the topic in his Master’s dissertation, that soundscape had its first proper conceptualization and application. Despite the novelty of Southworth’s research, it was the World Soundscape Project at Simon Fraser University that popularized the term during the 1970s. The World Soundscape Project was an educational and research group composed by music scholars led by Raymond Murray Schafer. Their approach differed from the studies on noise that had been undertaken by engineers and architects until then, as they were primarily interested in understanding sound as a quality and not as a mere nuisance. Schafer and his colleagues were especially concerned with the rapid changes in urban soundscapes and their effects on how people experienced and valued their living environments. They believed that the quality of the soundscape was decreasing as cities became noisier and more confusing and that this should be tackled by promoting aural awareness and protecting soundscapes. With this in mind, their practical work was devoted to conducting field recordings to capture changing soundscapes and blending these recordings into soundscape compositions that represented the sonic environment of certain places. Their first publication was the ‘Vancouver Soundscape’ in 1973, and others followed. At the same time, Schafer was dedicated to musical education and developed ‘ear cleaning’ exercises to promote a greater engagement with the sounds that surround people.

 

But Murray Schafer is mostly remembered for his conceptualization of soundscape, the term that become widely used to refer to the set of sounds hearable at a certain location. For Schafer (1977), soundscapes, like musical works, have a dominant keynote that gives them a sense of place, as well as recognizable soundmarks, which are the sonic version of landmarks. Besides this, soundscapes also contain a series of signals which provide environmental information. This issue was further developed by Truax (1984). The prime method of research developed for the study of soundscapes was the soundwalk, which can be defined as excursions to actively listen to the environment (Westerkamp, 1974). Soundscape became a suggestive and inspiring concept that led to the development of significant literature on the relation between sound, space, and the human experience.

Nevertheless, criticism of Murray Schafer’s conception of soundscape emerged over time. Perhaps one of the most pungent critiques was Paul Rodaway’s (1994) reflection on auditory geographies. Rodaway believed that the concept of soundscape is anthropocentric as it focuses on sound from the viewpoint of the human listener. He also criticized the language of the World Soundscape Project for its proximity to visual phenomena; for example, it substitutes landscape with soundscape or landmark for soundmark. Rodaway argued that it is not accurate to use visual terminology to address sounds because visual phenomena tend to be objects for contemplation, while the sound experience is more of a process of engagement with the environment, for three reasons. First, sounds change as individuals move through space. Secondly, sounds may change in the same space over time. Thirdly, the presence of the individual’s body always participates in the production of sounds in a given environment. Although he did not propose alternative concepts, Rodaway’s criticism of soundscape and related concepts raised important issues that were later also picked up by authors such the anthropologist Tim Ingold (2011) or the sociologist Ari Y. Kelman (2010).

To such critiques, I would add that the concept of soundscape has been limiting in the sense that describes the sonic environment as a sort of an external phenomenon that people perceive. While the intimate relation between the soundscape and the human body is often underlined, this intimate relationship is often conceived as a one-way flow in which the human body is affected by the timbre, rhythm or volume of the surrounding sounds. The exceptions to this understanding of soundscape are rare but very interesting to read. Perhaps the first author to think and discuss this issue was Hildegard Westerkamp. In her Master’s dissertation, Westerkamp considered listening and soundmaking as ongoing activities that are dependent upon each other to create acoustic balance for the body. However, her main argument was that “there is a direct relationship between the quality of the acoustic environment and the quality of our listening and soundmaking” (Westerkamp, 1988, p. 5), meaning that some sonic environments provide better opportunities for listening or soundmaking than others. Westerkamp grounds her analysis on Schafer’s and Truax’s concept of hi-fi and lo-fi soundscapes. Hi-fi soundscapes are those which have a favorable signal-to-noise ratio, i.e. the listener can clearly distinguish each sound source he hears, whereas in the lo-fi soundscape there are too many sound sources that blur each other out. Westerkamp argues that the clarity of the hi-fi soundscape, which she identifies as the soundscape of natural spaces, sparks a desire to listen, and with that, a desire to make sounds also emerges. In these spaces, she argues that: 

 

“(…) we become aware of the fact that we are soundmakers simply by moving through the soundscape. Many urban people are unaware of themselves as soundmakers on this basic a level. Yet our own sounds, such as walking, breathing, talking, and so on, tell us, via the feedback process, where and who we are in that place. We may even experience our sounds as being too loud.” (Westerkamp, 1988, p. 15) 

 

In contrast, lo-fi soundscapes, which Westerkamp associates with cities, would have negative effects on our listening and soundmaking. Westerkamp argues that the loudness of urban sounds means that the listener cannot have a clear acoustic perception: there is a poor signal-to-noise ratio and high noise levels. This also means that soundmaking is reduced. First, it is reduced because as the sonic space is overcrowded one becomes less eager to make sounds, since they will not be heard. Secondly, the loudness of other sounds masks the sounds our own body makes, leaving few possibilities for feedback. Westerkamp calls this ‘the silence of our cities’:

 

“an eerie silence that underlies the racket of the lo-fi soundscape. Human soundmaking is reduced to the bare essentials, or needs to be shouted above the din” (1988, p. 18). 

 

She argues that this affects our sense of self, because our sense of self is a product of the relationship between our body and environment. In terms of soundmaking, this means that we can lose the notion of the quality of the sounds we are making and how they affect certain situations or spaces. The most common occurrence is when our hearing threshold shifts due to prolonged exposure to a loud environment, i.e. our hearing becomes desensitized by the loud sounds, and we are no longer able to hear the subtlest sounds, which can be a temporary or permanent condition depending on the length of the exposure period. When a person in this condition makes sounds in a quiet place, such as speaking, yelling, or clapping, these sounds are usually above the average sound level, and therefore do not correspond to the mood of the sonic environment. While Westerkamp’s association of hi-fi and lo-fi soundscapes with natural and urban spaces, respectively, can be criticized because it overlooks the diversity of sonic situations within both natural and urban spaces (and this dichotomy is itself unreliable), her analysis provides a significant starting point to think about soundmaking in everyday spaces from the viewpoint of the relationship between sonic environments and soundmaking.

Indeed, while for a long time Westerkamp was alone in her exploration of soundmaking, the last decade was fruitful in terms of new ideas to rethink the soundscape as a field of agency. For instance, Anja Kanngieser (2012) opened up a debate on the geographies of the voice, emphasising its expressive and ethico-political force. She argues that the voice expresses more than language and calls our attention to “[h]ow we say things, and not just what we say [due to its] significant effects on our capacities to listen and respond to one another, effects that also play out on the level of the political” (2012, pp. 347-348). The voice, as Kanngieser argues, opens up “spaces for different ways of being through dialogue, through their anticipation of a response” (2012, p. 337). While Kanngieser focused on the power of the voice, others have unveiled the agency and empowerment that sound itself affords. I would highlight the work of Brandon LaBelle, who has been thinking about acoustics as a social practice. In his earlier work, LaBelle already described the feedback between subjects and their sonic environments, claiming that it forms a communicative channel and affords environmental sensitivity as it “generates a locative sense for place and emplacement – how my own presence is an active participant within the larger acoustic ecology” (2010, p. 169). More recently, LaBelle (2021) called for greater attention to acoustics not only as the material and physical conditions that shape the propagation of sound but also as the dynamic performative social and political contexts in which listening and soundmaking take place. For LaBelle, this wider understanding of acoustics highlights the agency that subjects achieve through listening and soundmaking, which in turn directs our attention to the issue of acoustic justice, that is, the questioning of who and what is capable of listening and sounding.

Studying sound practices from the perspective of soundmaking discloses the agency of beings and other materialities in the making of sonic spaces, worlds, and territories. From the point of view of listening, the individual is often a mere receiver of a reified external soundscape. Despite the emphasis on the affective relation between listening bodies and sounding spaces, the individual in the soundscape is often an entity that perceives the sonic environment, but rarely contributes toward it. From the point of view of soundmaking, the individual is an active player in the soundscape. Sound is no longer a mere medium with agency over bodies, but a medium in which the agencies of bodies and other materialities compete with each other to perform social practices. Sonic environments become lively arenas of social activity in which bodies make worlds and territories. If we think of soundscape from the perspective of what we listen to, the soundscape is an outsider, a stranger. When we think of the soundscape as an open field of soundmakers in which we are active participants, suddenly, we are the soundscape.

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Foteini Salmouka is a PhD Candidate in Museum Studies at the Department of Communication, Media, and Culture, Panteion University of Social and Political Sciences, Athens, Greece. Her thesis focuses on the use of sound as an interpretive medium in museum exhibitions. She holds a MA in Cultural Management (Panteion University of Social and Political Studies), a BSc in Mathematics (University of Athens) and a Diploma in Composition. Her research interests include sensory museology, sound studies, visitor studies and digital museology. 

 

 

In his City Lights (1931), Charlie Chaplin continued to use title cards for conversations, even though sound had been introduced in the film industry four years earlier. Moreover, Chaplin used random noise as a source of humour, downplaying the relevance of spoken words. In City Lights, an official speech has to be postponed because the Tramp has accidently swallowed a whistle and his hiccups create too great a disturbance; a bell clings continually during a boxing match because a rope has been tied around the Tramp’s neck. Even in the successor to City Lights, Modern Times (1936), the credo remains, to quote one of the film’s title cards, ‘Never mind the words’. The Tramp receives this advice after he has lost the white sleeves containing the handwritten lyrics of a song he was supposed to sing. He then improvises a nonsense text in some approximation of Italian. Like Chaplin, the Marx Brothers also tended to undermine speech from within. Harpo, who does not speak at all, can be considered a remnant from the silent era. In one hilarious scene from Animal Crackers (Victor Heerman, 1930), Chico asks him whether he has a flash (light), and Harpo pinches the flesh of his cheek and then produces a series of items from his pockets: a fish, a flush (of cards), a flute. Harpo’s reaction is so silly because he is responding to the sound of the first letters of the word ‘flash’ and not to the word’s meaning. In contrast to the silent Harpo, his brother Groucho is very talkative, but since most of the time he utters nonsensical phrases and verbal puns, his conversations tend to result in miscommunication. Because the ‘meaning’ of his utterances hardly makes sense, his word cascades wreak havoc on language, as Siegfried Kracauer put it (109).

Other filmmakers, however, have tried to use the possibilities offered by sound

and dialogues to their benefit. Alfred Hitchcock brought forth an audio version of

expressionism in a remarkable scene from Blackmail (1929). Acting in self-defence,

a woman has accidently killed a man with a knife. The next morning, a gossipy

neighbour visits the woman’s parents, and in her account of the killing, she frequently

uses the word ‘knife’: ‘Whatever the provocation, I would never use a knife. Now mind

you, a knife is difficult to handle.’ When Alice’s father asks: ‘Alice, cut the bread, will you?’,

the neighbour’s chatter is channelled into a single word, echoing louder and louder:

‘knife … knife … knife … knife.’ At a very loud ‘knife,’ the knife slips from Alice’s hand and

falls onto the floor. ‘You should have been more careful.

You might have cut somebody with that’, her father says.

The neighbour’s chatter becomes unintelligible for Alice, since in her perception it

seems as if the woman next door is only repeating, with increasing emphasis,

the word ‘knife’. This one word, which exerts such a traumatic impact upon Alice,

drowns out all the other words she might otherwise have heard. The soundtrack is no ‘objective’ registration of the conversation; rather, the narrator is aligned with what Alice is hearing. In narratological terms, the spoken words are focalized by the female protagonist: we hear how she experiences the neighbour’s babbling.

Whereas Hitchcock uses a specific word to convey internal focalization, music is generally used in film melodramas to express the mood of characters in an analogous way. In tragic love stories with a female protagonist, as Mary Ann Doane argues, music evokes a desire in excess of the rational (97). The protagonist is in doubt about what she wants: Is she aiming to achieve independence, or will she be satisfied with become a wife and mother who nurtures her husband and children? The music on the soundtrack mediates her dilemma: because her wishes lack concrete content, she is subjected to ‘the desire to desire’ (the title of Doane’s study). The overemphasis on music is related to the woman’s inner turmoil, and, significantly, the man who crosses her life’s path is often himself a musician, as if this role makes him the best candidate for manipulating her desire in accord with his interests.

In film musicology it is frequently noted that film music can function like a railroad switch: a song can be nondiegetic (the viewers hear it but the characters don’t) but then, via a quite imperceptible transition, it can become diegetic (the music is heard and/or played by the characters). Or in retrospect it can turn out that the song had in fact been diegetic from the moment it was introduced. Just as film music can switch from being nondiegetic to being diegetic, such a process can as easily move in the opposite direction, from diegetic to nondiegetic. Most intriguing, however, are instances when the music goes from diegetic to internal focalization. In his study Music and Levels of Narration in Film Guido Heldt mentions an illuminating example from Love Actually (Richard Curtis, 2003). Because the Prime Minister has been re-elected, the song ‘Jump’ by the Pointer Sisters is played on the radio. His dancing to the music becomes increasingly enthusiastic, but then, just after he has made a gracious pirouette, he is shocked to see his secretary staring at him. At that very moment, the music breaks off, and not, of course, because the radio has fallen silent. The diegetic song ‘Jump’ has become music playing in his mind: a ‘representation of his inner ear’ (Heldt, 126).

An even subtler example of internally focalized music used in film is found in the Dutch family picture Mariken (André van Duren, 2000), inspired by a story from the Middle Ages. The foundling Mariken has been raised by an old hermit, who tells her that his mother used to beat him when he was young, implying that she is lucky she has no mother. Nonetheless, Mariken keeps longing for a mother. One day she wanders off and joins a theatre group that performs a play at a castle about motherly love. Watching the performance the Countess gets angry, for she is childless but had hoped to become a mother. The young Mariken states that God does not grant children to evil women. The troupe is chased away, but Mariken is made a captive to compensate for the unfulfilled wishes of the Countess, who wants to turn her into a damsel. A few days later Isabella, one of the troupe’s members, requests that Mariken be returned to them. Eventually, the Countess gives Mariken the choice either to go with Isabella or to remain at the castle, with the enticement that she can keep the young horse she has just received as a present if she chooses the latter option. Mariken, overjoyed to see Isabella, jumps into her arms. We get a medium close-up of a flabbergasted Countess, while we hear a sad tune. The scene evokes a mixture of moods. Visually, Mariken’s re-union with Isabella is experienced as a liberation. The auditive track, however, does not strike the sort of cheerful music that would underscore the girl’s happiness. On the contrary, what we hear sounds tragic, related inevitably to the Countess’s emotions. She deserves our sympathy, for during Mariken’s stay she has proved to be a woman beset with ill fortune and not the evil schemer we had presumed her to be. The music is thus at odds with the scene’s overall tone: Mariken is thrilled to leave with Isabella, but the soundtrack gives expression to the loss suffered by the Countess, who, it turns out, was not so bad after all.

By Peter Verstraten

Sound in Cinema

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Peter Verstraten is Assistant Professor in Film and Literary Studies at Leiden University. He is the author of among others Film Narratology (2009), Humour and Irony in Dutch Post-war Fiction Film (2016) and its 'sequel' Dutch Post-war Fiction Film through a Lens of Psychoanalysis (2021).

 

Like any other concept we ponder on in anthropology, sounds have a variety of different definitions. They are stimulating, inspiring, sometimes contradictory, fluid, and insightful. And, like any other concept in anthropology, sound is not solely an ‘object’, fixed in time and fundamentally defined. We have collected reflective pieces on what sounds mean to our fellow anthropologists. 

Column: Living in sounds
‘What does sound mean to you?’ 

 

A staged excitement  

By Lila (CADS BSc, first-year student)

Listening to music makes me excited. I am a massive fan of Seventeen. Hyping about music is such an experience. My favourite thing about Seventeen is their satisfying lyrics. One that makes my backbone shiver. My favourite and most memorable piece is in Seventeen’s My My. Woozi that starts with the chorus and it is just utterly insane. Combined with dashing choreo, their performances are amazing. I enjoy listening to their songs and just being able to bounce along, while dreaming of the choreo in my head. 

Even though I know it might all be staged, it is still fun. Making a reference to Dealing in Desire (Hoang 2015), kpop fans are just like the men who visit bars and date the workers. Approaching the matter, while acknowledging it is to some extent staged, will be the best for you, them, and your wallet. (Here I go with saying ‘to some extent’, just to create some sort of hope for myself.)

(written while listening to the album ‘Face the Sun’ of Seventeen)

Music means a lot more…friendship and freedom by   

Liselot Voordouw (CADS BSc, second-year student) 

For a lot of people music may just be some notes on a page, or just a sound you listen to. To me music means a lot more, mainly friendship and freedom. It’s the way through which I meet people, get lost in stories and quiet my mind when the sound of my own voice becomes unbearable sometimes. Playing violin has given me a way to connect with people who are also passionate about making music. Whether that is through the orchestras I have been part of, or projects that try to prove that all music is the same by combining the sounds of HipHop with Classical, which was really fun by the way.

The general definition of sounds for me would be: anything you hear when you consciously or unconsciously listen to it. That could be birds chirping, music playing on your headphones or a conversation you or someone else has in the street. Whatever it is, sound has in some way always played a big role in my life. It’s funny to me now that the music my dad used to play in the car when I was younger, are the songs I know by heart in my twenties. The classical music that seemed really boring as a kid is the music I now love to bring to life playing my violin. And most of all, the way I learned English was by listening to it through pop songs I did not understand at all at the time, but I could hear the sound of. Making and creating music has given me a new perspective on how I listen to music but also the sounds around me. So I guess you could also say that music in a way made me who I am today. 

 

Music is like cooking: we can be a consumer as well as a creator 

Wouter (CADS BSc, fourth-year student)

Music’s one of those magical things that are too easy to take for granted. The sounds can have many meanings and experiences. It’s like cooking. You can eat delicious food and be on the receiving end; but you can also be the creator. And any moment can be different. To me, that’s the most amazing part of music. In contemporary society, music’s endlessly versatile. Besides being accessible to be listened to at pretty much any time, the sounds can serve different functions; it can sooth, heal, empower, energize, entertain, distract, whatever. It can be a tool or medium, but listening might as well be a goal in itself, to take time and experience being with yourself and the music. 

Making music / playing an instrument has those same characteristics. It’s an emotional experience that can take up any shape. But this act has an extra addition: the responsibility of the sounds that come out. Exactly this can be liberating and serve as a confidence boost, or a way of expressing what you feel. Five minutes later, it can be infuriating because it’s not working the way you want it to. 

That’s the beauty of the art. For the listener, it’s a fluid meaningful experience, whilst for the creator, it is just that, but detached from that of the listener. Each has their own experience, and each experience is unique.

Sound in a fluid world: ‘world wordling’ 

Andrew Littlejohn (CADS, Assistant Professor)

I think of (and try to experience) sound as what philosopher Salomé Voegelin calls ‘things thinging.’ We might also call sound the world worlding: acoustic events are audible traces of our earth and its inhabitants' actions and processes. They render things as verbs rather than nouns, and for this reason, I find listening reveals the world differently than seeing. It often teaches me things I would miss if I relied on sight alone. So, I try to listen, both through my ears and other kinds of interfaces. When I do, I feel immersed in a world not fixed but constantly in flux.

Music: a looking glass to the past 

Annika (CADS BSc, second-year student

Music has been one of the things constant in my life. While the type and genre are ever-changing, because there is so much to discover making it all the more exciting, the concept of music was always present. Music is more than just sounds strung together. It is a looking glass to the past, a way I recall memories, good and bad. It is a way for me to tell stories. I think it is a medium that connects people, and it can be extremely powerful. Music moves people, physically and spiritually. If it touches you, it touches you. I can’t even begin to imagine a life without melodies and harmonies intertwined to create all the headbangers and smile inducers.

 

Imperfect Passion

Ana Julia (CADS BSc, first-year student) 

My relationship to music is similar to other relationships and yet different. I would say I am quite perfectionistic, so much so that I am afraid to fail before even starting something. Sometimes in vocal class, I will be afraid of doing it badly and consequently my throat will tense up and it sounds ‘bad’. However, when I manage not to be in my head, singing is the most liberating feeling I have ever experienced. In those moments I am reminded why I want to make music; it is because it makes people feel and process their emotions. When I let go, all my emotion starts pouring out of me and it feels so powerful and yet vulnerable. On occasion, I try to remain in control when singing; however, when I don’t, it’s the only time I feel free. Free of thoughts, free from fears and free from having to take control. I just am. Music is one of the most beautiful ways to express oneself, in my opinion and it brings people together. It is a reminder that you are not alone.

 

Sound mediates the info we can’t put into words

Benjamín Maldonado Fernàndez (CADS BSc, first-year student)

People who are smarter than me define sound with concepts like vibrations, acoustics and frequencies. And while that might be accurate or certain or correct, I can’t really relate to that. When I hear the bass in Them Changes I don’t think “Wow, the rapid vibration of the strings (which are being transmitted as an acoustic wave) makes my body want to displace itself over time ”, I think more in the lines of “How is this so GROOVY?”. This doesn't mean I don't respect the work of smart people (Without them we wouldn't have penicillin or smartphones or chocolate bars) but it just doesn't speak to me.  

I think of sound as a medium. A medium that constantly alters one's perception of reality: If I hear a fire alarm, I know that I have to run for my life. If I hear a plane in the sky, I look up. If you tell me you love me, I feel weird because we are not quite there yet. Sound, is a way to get all sorts of new information into your head. But specially, the info you can't put into words. I can't for the love of God measure the grooviness of Them Changes, nor I think I have to. I feel it. And thanks to sound, that's enough.

By  Guy Livingston

No such thing as silence

Where is silence? 

As any scientist can tell you, there is no such thing as silence –

the world is a noisy place. Deserts, forests, and even the Arctic

are now full of sound. Some of it was already there: for example

the sounds of natural systems like wind and waves; or the sounds

of birds and animals. But more and more of the noise is from humans.

True acoustical silence has become unattainable.

We are destroying the silence that many of us seek. 

 

But wait, you say– if we can’t find silence outside ourselves,

then surely we can find silence within?

Can’t we experience societal or cultural silences?

For example, isn’t there musical silence and inner silence;

personal silence and religious silence? 

 

And, of course, that’s true – these types of non-silent silence do exist, especially if we look for them. And if we find silence, how do we look at it? This article tries to define silence and how we understand it.

 

Why silence is so hard to hear, and how music could help us

Silence itself is so difficult to hear, so difficult to define, that musical analogies may be helpful for us, especially to comprehend societal silences. I believe this is in large part because music offers us a potential framework for understanding silence. Language is too slippery, and definitions are too easily confused. 

 

Perhaps with a small paradigm shift, we can understand silence better and be more in touch with the possibility of silence in our daily lives. 

 

The French philosopher Georges Bataille labeled silence “the abolition of the sound which the word is; among all words it is the most perverse, or the most poetic: it is the token of its own death.” So you cannot speak of silence without using language; you cannot explain it without breaking it. Bataille was referring to the ineffable, ungraspable nature of silence. Like the concepts of ‘negative’ or ‘absence’, silence is difficult to define. When we try to grasp it, it disappears. 

 

How do we define silence?

Even the origins of the word silence are ambiguous. ‘Silence,’ which came from the Old French around the 11th century, meant “muteness, state of being silent,” and was derived from the Latin silentium, “a state of being silent,” after silens, from the verb silere “be quiet or still.” This one word is already slippery – for example, being mute could imply wanting to say something and not saying it. ‘Silence’ doesn’t necessarily have that connotation anymore. Being quiet is definitely different from being still (ask any 4-year old). So this etymology seems to complicate things, especially in the realm of passive vs. active. In what sense is silence an action, or in what way is it an experience? When are we muted, and when are we mute? And have we lost something by no longer conjugating silens as a verb? I silentio, you silens, we all silensimus... wouldn’t that make our language richer?

 

Scientific silence

Perhaps I should switch from questions of language to answers of science. Acoustic definitions of silence focus on the source (an absence of vibration) or the transmission (an absence of reflection), or the receptor (an absence/loss/incapacity for hearing). In musical terms: the performer, the room, and the audience. Special rooms called anechoic chambers exist, which are eerily quiet. Lined with spiky triangles of foam rubber, these are rooms within rooms, totally isolated from the outside world. I’ve spent many hours inside various anechoic chambers and find them fascinatingly bizarre. The experience is a disorienting one, like being on a spaceship in another galaxy. Sounds are deadened so much that you begin to question all of your senses. 

 

The composer John Cage was inspired to write his famous silence piece (4’33”, or four minutes and thirty-three seconds) after entering the anechoic chamber at Harvard University. In that composition, the performer makes no sound for four-and-a-half minutes. I’ve played Cage’s piece in concert many times, and it’s fascinating to sit there at the piano for so long. Some people listen to the sounds around them and become fascinated by the (lack of) silence. And others grow restless. It’s a strange experience and gives you fresh ears to hear the world afterwards.

 

More words for silence

Another useful word for silence is tacet: a word used often in musical scores. Tacet is imperative to stay silent, noted on orchestral parts. I remember sitting in the back of the orchestra in front of a blank page (only marked tacet) waiting interminably for the end of a Mahler symphony, so I could finally play the cymbals. So the marking tacet often indicates “count like hell” to the symphonic trumpetist or percussionist, who might otherwise doze off after 300 empty bars. Tacet is the instruction, tacit is the adjective, meaning “expressed in silence; implied, but not made explicit; silent.”

 

In Latin the verb taceo describes silencing something already existing (to silence in oneself, perhaps); whereas sileo is the void of something that never came to be. Roland Barthes also makes the distinction between sileo silence and taceo silence in his lecture series The Neutral. He interprets tacere as verbal silence; while silere suggests stillness, absence of movement and noise. Barthes poetically uses silere to refer to things, night, the sea, and winds. “Hence a series of very beautiful ordinary metaphors: the moon turned invisible at its waning, the bud or the tendril that hasn’t yet opened up, the egg that is not yet hatched: silet, sileunt.” In his definition, silence is not just a nothingness, but rather it offers a potential for somethingness. And when I perform silences in a piece of music, I like to think of them that way: each pause or rest in a musical composition is not a gap, or a flaw, nor the ineffable néant; but rather a potential, a becoming, an evolving of the musical direction. Silence doesn’t have to interrupt the notes, it can be itself a part of the melody or the phrase.

 

Returning to the question of definitions, the word silence has taken on so many meanings in music and in society that it has become maddeningly imprecise. The word stillness is a bit more helpful and is familiar with mindfulness, yoga, and other reflective practices. When you get into the flow during a yoga session or meditation, you might well be experiencing stillness as physicality, a sort of bodily silence. When I’m onstage playing minimalist music of Philip Glass or Simeon Ten Holt, I get into the zone, a trance-like state. This experience of a stillness which quiets the mind resembles silence, a silence which is physical, euphoric.

 

Since the Western words for silence seem so overloaded with societal, spiritual, and political baggage, much writing on sound adopts the Japanese word ma. Japanese traditional art, including music, describes ma (間) as the space between things, a far more eloquent and useful trope than the western idea of mere ‘emptiness’. This centuries-old concept is illustrated in scroll paintings, in Zen gardens, and in the design of temples. In modern terms, any graphic designer today is familiar with the concept of ‘white-space’ and its usefulness in creating tension and coherence on the page. 

 

But in English, we also have more ways of labelling silence. There is a wonderful distinction made by linguist Michal Ephratt between silence, silencing, and eloquent silence. Silencing has a societal context and is imposed. Eloquent silence is meaningful silence in discourse, art, or music. This highlights a key distinction between who chooses to be silent…and who is forced to be silent.

 

Example 1. Silence and Diplomacy 

In Elisabeth Schweiger’s thesis, “Listening to Silence: Targeted Killing

and the Politics of Silence in Customary International Law”, she discusses

the use of silence as an analytical lens for understanding issues of diplomacy,

political assassinations, protest and lack of protest. She considers contrasts

between silencing and silence, marginalization, and the myriad meanings

in the absence of text. Each chapter begins with a quotation from John Cage’s

Lecture on Nothing, used as a commentary upon her text, a sort of meta-text.

 

Could this work the other way around? Could the semi-concealed violence

of modern governments become a metaphor for musical silence? I doubt it;

certainly John Cage the pacifist would be horrified. But there are other

composers whose music might be more analogous: for example iconoclast

saxophonist John Zorn, who experimented with violence, power plays, and

musical games. One of these games was Cobra, a piece of music in which

players competed against each other. When I performed this work in Boston in the 1990s, I remember the aggression that burst out on stage, from otherwise easy-going musicians. By imposing aggressive borders, he created aggressive art. He unsilenced our worst nature. Because there is plenty that we don’t say, out of respect; societal codes; politeness. If you remove those social borders, then we un-mute our worst selves, even in music.

 

Example 2. Silence and the un-said

“I want to write a book about silence. The things people don’t say.”

—Virginia Woolf

 

In Jonathan Safran Foer’s hilariously tragic essay for The New Yorker, entitled “A Primer for the Punctuation of Heart Disease”, the author invents an alphabet of squares and circles to demonstrate the powerful silences that his family employs in conversation. Here’s one example:

The ‘Silence Mark’ signifies an absence of language, and there is at least one on every page of the story of my family life. […] Note the use of silence in the following brief exchange, when my father called me at college, the morning of his most recent angioplasty: 

This example of deriving meaning from silence exists across disciplines, accessible from a psychological perspective, a social-historical one, or a musical one – in fact, one could easily perform a musical composition using Foer’s Silence Marks. Intriguingly, the writer manages to merge both active (aggressive) and passive (elective or non-actioning) silences in the same passage, reminding us that silence can be a choice, or it can be imposed on us.

 

Example 3. Silence and Covid-19

The disastrous isolations imposed by the corona crisis created a worldwide awareness of silence, especially silence in nature, but also traffic silence, airplane silence, street silence, trade silence, medical silence, and the silence of death. From my personal viewpoint, this offered a mixed blessing. On the one hand, my performing career stopped for two years, leaving me in financial straits. My pianistic voice was literally silenced. On the other hand, there was a groundswell of interest in the topic of silence, with articles appearing daily in the newspapers, and even silent minutes and silent concerts on mainstream television. Suddenly everyone was thinking about it, and everyone was feeling it. Suddenly everyone had a story about silence.

 

Finding Silence

What I find intriguing about these examples of musical and societal silence overlapping is that there are so many of them. I could suggest more examples – the reverent silence of Japanese, karesansui (枯山水) rock gardens; the alert stillness of a country observing a minute of silence after a war; the peacefulness of a monastery, where the regularity of noisy bells mark the silence; the collective hush in a huge concert hall after a symphony…

 

Music offers us a helpful framework for understanding silence, and for finding it behind other, noisier, events. Language is so slippery, and definitions are too easily confused. Silence itself is so difficult to hear, so difficult to define, that the musical analogies may even be necessary for us, to comprehend societal silences. So, while there may be no such thing as silence, there are many ways of experiencing it. Perhaps music offers a key for finding silence behind the noise.

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