Sunday, January 9, 2011

with or without the headphones....

At this moment I'm writing something revolving around our listening experience and the consumer society and I'm looking around things that can help me. Simon Fraser University Library allows us to read the sound artist Hildegard Westerkamp's master thesis Listening and Soundmaking: a Study of Music-as-Environment (1988). I think this is a good example of how sound ecologists were thinking in the 1980s. She is a pupil of R. Murray Schafer. The Schafer's concept of "the tuning of the world" was in a way transcendent: "The world is imbalance because of our polluting of the environment sound, so let's tune the world." On the other hand, Westerkamp's emphasis is on the individual's listening experience. While she often cites Jacques Attali's Noise: the Political Economy of Music, her study is not exactly sociology and politics, but what happens to an individual's listening experience in the society Attali depicts. While, like Schafer, she also argues about some kind of imbalance, but her "imbalance" is not of the world, but of an individual's psyche. According to her, with a healthy individual, the act of listening and the act of soundmaking (your speaking, your footsteps, the sound and the noise your body makes...)are balanced, but in our society, an individual's soundmaking is oppressed by the massive noise and sounds of the cities.

She also makes some Foucauldian study of the Muzak Corporation, which rapidly developed during World War II. The Muzak provides not only BGMs, but also surveillance systems, and has a deep connection with the military. This reminds me of what we often say when we talk about food issues: fertilizer and pesticide are developed from the technologies of explosives and nervegas, so we are eating the leftover of World War II; in this sense, we are listening to the leftover of World War II.

Her point is that, ultimately, sound artists can do something to restore the balance, making sound outside the commodity exchange.

She is not negative about the "schizophonic" environment. She argues that schizophonia can be a tool to find the balance. Her works are indeed schizophonic, combining field recordings, poetry, and both instrumental and electronic sounds. She is not so negative about Walkman, though she calls it "ultimate schizophonia." The problem for her is the passivity of the listener and the listener's isolation. On the other hand she is positive about the fact that headphones allow the listener to choose what to listen to.

I once wrote about the headphones here. What I was vaguely trying to say was that wearing the headphones does something else other than isolating one from the environment. It would signal something to a public, showing where you belong or where you do not belong.

Marc Weidenbaum of Disquiet sees Virginia Heffernan's article appearing in The New York Times, January 7, 2011, problematic. Heffernan discusses the risk of use of headphones and earbuds: deafening. And she suggests to use headphones less. Then Weidenbaum simply suggests to use better headphones. What irritates him appears to be Heffernan's this sentence: "If you think about all the recordings, production tricks, conversions and compressions required to turn human voices and acoustic instruments into MP3 signals, and then add the coil-magnet-diaphragm magic in our headphones, it’s amazing that the intensely engineered frankensounds that hit our eardrums when we listen to iPhones are still called music." He appears to dislike her naive rejection of the technologies. He also appears to dislike her kind of moralization. He says: "She dismisses the pleasure of solo listening as 'antisocial,' quoting The Atlantic's Llewellyn Hinkes Jones about how the 'shared experience of listening' is 'not unlike the cultural rituals of communal eating.' Left out: the fact that concert attendance is, in fact, up; communal listening is on the rise."

What interests me is that, while Heffernan mentions the history of headphone and its military origin, she is in support of another kind of surveillance/protection: that of parents. Parents should know what children is listening to. She concludes her article this way:

Headphones work best for people who need or want to hear one sound story and no other; who don’t want to have to choose which sounds to listen to and which to ignore; and who don’t want their sounds overheard. Under these circumstances, headphones are extremely useful — and necessary for sound professionals, like intelligence and radio workers — but it’s a strange fact of our times that this rarefied experience of sound has become so common and widespread. In the name of living a sensory life, it’s worth letting sounds exist in their audio habitat more often, even if that means contending with interruptions and background sound.

Make it a New Year’s resolution, then, to use headphones less. Allow kids and spouses periodically to play music, audiobooks, videos, movie, television and radio audibly. Listen to what they’re listening to, and make them listen to your stuff. Escapism is great, and submission and denial, too, have their places. But sound thrives amid other sounds. And protecting our kids’ hearing is not just as important as protecting their brains; it is protecting their brains.

Of course, parents should protect their children. But could we feel that how she argues sounds a bit authoritative?: it is the authorities who choose and give what you listen to; surveillance often comes in the name of protection.

By the way, what a device provides is one thing, and how to use it is another. I saw a scene of Heroes, in which Claire Bennet shares the earbuds with her boyfriend in the bed. The scene implies the ultimate intimacy. They are together isolated not only by the walls of the bedroom, but also by what they are listening to. And that's exactly what we often do with this device, not only in the bedroom, but also in the subway. In such occasions, the device becomes a means of non-verbal communication. (Or, was it a scene of Kim Bauer of 24? I forgot!)

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