Meetings

Music, Sound and Space: Transformation of Public and Private Experience

On March 4, our reading group convened to discuss two chapters from Cambridge UP’s 2015 anthology Music, Sound and Space: Transformations of Public and Private Experience.  We began with Eric F. Clarke’s “Music, Space and Subjectivity,” which acknowledges both the human capacity to hear space and the ways that sound and music can “specify various real and virtual spaces” (90).  Clarke notes the ocularcentric bias in spatial perception–we can see space so well that we often overlook how effectively we can actually hear space–and examines songs by Pink Floyd, Goldfrapp, and Bjork to highlight how each forms acoustic spaces.

We also explored Jonathan Sterne’s chapter “What the Mind’s Ear Doesn’t Hear,” which, building on his major study MP3: The Meaning of a Format, presents the MP3 as “a political modulation of private listening experience” (111).  Describing the development of the MP3, Sterne explores the criteria sound engineers used to create the most imperceptible decay in sound quality.  Yet, as Sterne explains, since “no two people can occupy the same exact subjective space,” the MP3 must at best rely “upon the measurement of something that can only be approximated: interior listening experience” (113).

We concluded by briefly mentioning another essay on the politics of sound and physical spaces: Michael Bull’s “The Audio-Visual Ipod.” This article observes how the iPod (or any mobile listening device,  I suppose) alters a listener’s perception of his/her environment.   Listening to, for instance, a sad song influences the way we perceive our current environment; the world may, as a result, seem melancholic. The iPod, then, transforms our perception of physical spaces, creating “a satisfying aestheticized reality for [listeners] as they move through daily life” (198).

Next month we will meet to analyze articles from, excitingly, the very first issue of Sound Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal!

Works Cited

Bull, Michael. “The Audio-Visual iPod.” The Sound Studies Reader. Ed. Jonathan Sterne. New York: Routledge, 2012. 197-208. Print.

Born, Georgina, ed. Music, Sound and Space: Transformations of Public and Private Experience. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015. Print.

Bruce R. Smith – The Acoustic World of Early Modern England: Attending to the O-factor

On October 22, Fordham’s Music and Sound Studies reading group reconvened to discuss its first monograph of the semester: Bruce R. Smith’s The Acoustic World of Early Modern England: Attending to the O-factor.  Smith’s book was well-received, and we found his spatial approach to sound especially compelling.  While sound instinctively seems temporal and ephemeral, Smith responds that it actually is also spatial and enduring.  When we study spaces constructed for particular sonorous environments, we can recover traces of past sounds.  In this way, we can still engage with and act upon absent sounds; the past can become an object of present inquiry.  In other words, thinking of sound spatially grants it a persistence that is not accessible when we think of sound temporally.

We also spent time observing Smith’s astute challenge to Derrida (pp. 11-12). Whereas Derrida wants to locate writing in voice, Smith observes the body in sound production.  Smith criticizes Derrida for effacing the body’s role in creating sounds, as Smith points out that the body stores a set of practices that enables us to produce intelligible speech.

Smith’s book raised other questions about interdisciplinary study (particularly about the literariness of Smith’s endeavor) and about the presence of noise in both theoretical writings (Attali) and historical and literary scholarship (Picker, Cockayne).  These questions concluded our engaging and lively meeting.

The reading group will next meet on November 12 to discuss R. Murray Schafer’s The Soundscape.

March Discussion Recap: Listening and Voice: Phenomenologies of Sound, by Don Ihde

listening and voice

In our third meeting, we discussed Don Ihde’s difficult but classic Listening and Voice: Phenomenologies of Sound. Below are some highlights from the conversation and Ihde’s ideas:

Ihde reminds his readers that to listen phenomenologically is to hear sounds as they are — to hear their essence — and not to perceive them as attached to some objects, i.e. the sounds of the jackhammer. Sounds are not “sounds of things,” Ihde writes (61). By studying the phenomena of sound, Ihde breaks from the “traditions of dominant visualism,” where sounds serve as “anticipatory clues for ultimate visual fulfillments” (54). He also points out that the limit of sight is not darkness but invisibility, and that even a strong invisible wind has a distinct and tangible spatial presence that we perceive by the sound it creates even if we cannot see it directly.

In response to this dominant visualism, one of Ihde’s biggest interventions is his interest in reclaiming sound as spatial. Ihde writes that the auditory is often associated with temporality; it seems to arise and disappear, not occupying a spatial presence. However, Ihde contends that all sounds, even muteness, have their own auditory space. Matt elucidated Ihde’s claim by noting that muteness is always visually noticeable on a spectrograph.  The absence of sound, then, also occupies space and has a demonstrable spatial presence.

Step by step Ihde illuminates how in listening we hear shapes and surfaces. We can hear if an object rolling in a box is round or some other shape. Simultaneously we hear the surface of the box, just as we can hear the surface of a sidewalk as luggage rolls along it. This association of the sonic with the spatial departs from or, perhaps more accurately, expands on the typical sonic-temporal pairing.

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February Discussion Recap: Noise, by Jacques Attali

Pieter Bruegel the Elder's Fight between Lent and Carnival

Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s Fight between Lent and Carnival

Last week, our sound studies group met to discuss Jacques Attali’s Noise. For over an hour we discussed the central claims of Attali’s textits implications on sound studies, and the many ways it still resonates today.

First, we defined what Attali means by noise.  He argues that noise is violence: it disturbs, creates disconnects, and brings disorder in music and, more generally, daily life. (Think of a phone call interrupted by static, for instance). Noise has a special relationship with music, which Attali claims is ordered and harmonic. For such ordered music to exist, chaotic noise must be repressed, if not eliminated. In this way, the “code of music simulates the accepted rule of society” (29): music creates harmony by marginalizing unpleasant noises, just as society retains order by squashing subversion.

We then noted how Attali constructs a developmental narrative of music featuring four stages: ritual sacrifice, which makes people forget the general violence of their society; representation, which makes people believe in the harmony of the world; repetition, which silences people by mass-producing a deafening music that censors undesirable other noises; and composition, which has not yet occurred, but if it does it will be an entirely non-commercial art, where composers make self-communicative art.

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Kickoff meeting

Liszt_at_the_Piano

On Thursday, January 16, the Music and Sound Studies Reading Group inaugurated itself with its first-ever meeting. All student members were present, and in addition to discussing a handful of articles, we drew up a plan for the rest of the semester. Kevin will serve as secretary, and Dan will help draw up a syllabus. The male-female ratio matched that represented in the above painting showcasing Lizst at the piano, in addition to perhaps Alexander Dumas, George Sand, Marie d’Agoult, Niccolo Paganini, Gioachino Rossini, with Lord Byron’s portrait overseeing the group from a frame on the wall.