Chris DeLaurenti, field recording specialist and member of the Phonographer’s Union, was on KUOW‘s “Weekday” program yesterday to discuss many of the most important issues around the study of sound. This post is a listening guide to the discussion, and serves also as a pretty decent primer for understanding how and why sound is useful as a type of analytic material.

“Sound Studies,” while increasingly common in the academy, still lacks basic definitions. This post is part of an ongoing effort to provide clear, descriptive expositions of what the study of sound encompasses – as an art form, as a humanistic science, and as a general philosophy.

The piece is 54 minutes in total, but the interview is only the first 45 minutes or so. Follow along with the annotations below as you listen, for further comment on some of the issues that might be extracted from the conversation.

0:00 – 1:40 Introduction, bio

1:40 – 2:40 Discussion of a silent moment in The Beach Boys’ “The Little Girl I once Knew

Music is one of the most important areas where “Sound Studies” makes its interventions. This discussion is a nice example off the bat of how attention to sound can connect with other topics. DeLaurenti aptly identifies that radio often functions like a friend, a companion on long drives, for example. And that, “like a good friend, you want to make sure that that good friend doesn’t go away.” For this reason, dead air is the scourge of radio, the thing to avoid above all else – even babbling is far better than making the listener feel abandoned. This accounts for the failure of an otherwise marketable pop song.

2:40 – 3:45 Discussion of places where radio transmitters overlap

We all know what this sounds like. DeLaurenti regrets not having recorded some instances of it on a recent drive in the western U.S. Moments like this, where sound is disconnected from intentional meaning (i.e., where it strikes most ears as noise) is exactly what the Phonographers Union is most interested in treating as art.

3:45 – 8:15 How the Phonographers Union performs live

As a process, the Union takes concrete sounds and organizes them into improvised compositions. Shades of musique concrète. The host plays an example of one of the Union’s improvisations. Japanese temple bells, water, accelerating in pace, birds. Compiled from multiple sources. DeLaurenti quotes Stravinsky in suggesting that this improvisation should be heard as a composition, since it’s “frozen.”

7:50 On not relying on visual cues onstage

“We are incredibly boring to look at, and that’s deliberate … we have to react only with our ears.” There is no way for the members of the group to know who is doing what. In Sound Studies, there is a tendency to rely on a supposed binary between sound and vision. Proponents of this binary will argue in broad generalizations, that western culture is visualistic, that it relies on fixed images, but is meanwhile inept at coping with the ephemeral relationality immanent to sound. This position has a point, even if it is extremely overdetermined. DeLaurenti, however, is too good at what he does to engage in this kind of polemic.

His goal in withholding visual cues is to facilitate heightened attention. If the listener leaves a performance more aware of the world, the performance was successful. “The world is continually trying to give us gifts through our ears.”

9:30 – 10:45 The host will play some listener recordings

10:45 – 13:10 First sound sent in by a listener – boat passing under a drawbridge

Colossal metal scrapes, pulleys. The big, soft reverb of wide-open spaces. Melancholy, if you feel like reading it in emotional terms. Followed by an excerpt from that Beach Boys song.

15:10 – 16:50 Second sound sent in by a listener – hummingbird’s wing

Jim Culp, a former city-dweller now living in the country, one day heard a hummingbird at his feeder, and liked the sound. “It was kind of like listening to a didgeridoo played by an Australian aboriginal, but there was a little hint of helicopter in there.” References to aboriginal/native/primitive people are quite common in descriptions of sound, especially abstract ones. In classes I’ve taught, when playing unfamiliar sounds for students and asking them to note their impressions, the notion of “tribal people” (usually of unspecified ethnicity) is often invoked to account for wild strangeness. Many scholars of sound have suggested that imagistic descriptions serve to domesticate aural mystery.

16:50 – 18:50 Awareness of the microphone’s presence
Listening to the recording, DeLaurenti picks up the gentle friction of Mr. Culp’s sleeve against the feeder, as well as the proximity effect of the microphone as it moves around. DeLaurenti explains how the proximity effect works – in both mics and ears. “Microphones are themselves instruments.” This is a wise, if surprisingly rare, point. As with cameras, listeners tend to assume that what a microphone picks up is immediate – that is to say, not mediated – and that it is therefore true. In fact, microphones are very idiosyncratic, and what they pick up depends heavily on both their design and on how we use them. Being aware of the microphone as a form of mediation that affects sound is a key part of being a good sound artist/scholar.

18:50 – 20:50 Fidelity

DeLaurentis says that high-fidelity is a fine goal, but that the aura of imperfection becomes “part of the music” on many recordings. “Fidelity is wonderful, however, you can walk to my CD shelf and you’ll still see Robert Johnson there.” Microphones lie, but it’s a noble lie.

The host mentions the phenomenon of cleaned-up, remastered recordings, on which old pieces are “rescued from the way they were recorded.” Sound is more manipulable now.


20:50 – 21:20
Third sound sent in by a listener – an old tugboat engine from the Center for Wooden Boats in Seattle

Hydraulic, clanking, exhausted-sounding. The host calls it “forlorn,” and it reminds DeLaurenti of the fact that Stravinsky used to notate environmental sounds, especially mechanical ones.

22:10 – 24:25 Fourth sound sent in by a listener – tree branches rustling in Riverfront Park, recorded with a contact mic

Rubbery, internal. Again on the subject of how microphones mediate what we hear and thus experience, contact microphones (which are super cheap and easy to build) respond to sound in a very different way from mics that respond to disturbances in the air.

For those who haven’t gotten to it, the physics of sound is a great read. Once you understand that air is a medium through which sound travels, but that other materials (including walls, bodies, etc.) also conduct sound, you can understand the fundamental difference between normal mics and contact mics.

24:25 – 26:30
A listener calls in to talk about a mysterious sound – he confused Beluga whales for horses

“Whale recordings have been proliferating for the last forty years.” Water is also a medium for sound; marine animals have rich aural communication systems that we understand only in part. Don Ihde has written about whether what whales do is singing. But no conversation about whale sound is complete without consulting the work of Roger Payne.

The device of choice for recording underwater is called a hydrophone.

26:40 – 28:55 Fifth recording sent in by a listener – bats (slowed down)

Chirping, mild. Bats use a technique called echolocation to assess their surroundings. They send out chirps, and then interpret the resonance created by them to figure out their spatial position. Their ears are sensitive enough that they can immediately tell where they are, and what’s nearby. In familiar terms, this is akin to “seeing” with the ears. By listening to echoes, bats can tell the precise shape of nearby walls, whether there are bugs (food) in range, and even how those bugs might be moving.

The first thing the hosts notice is the variety of sound in the recording. “Our ears are not only receptacles, but they’re also filters.” At noisy, polyphonic cocktail parties, for example, we can focus on the sounds that matter to us, but a microphone could not reproduce that kind of filtering.

DeLaurenti suggests that we are “trained” to focus on specific, clearly relevant things, and to filter out noise. He says he’s spent years trying to untrain himself, to listen more broadly.

28:55 – 30:55 On listening polyphonically

DeLaurenti made an album of “surreptitiously recorded intermissions” at concerts. Other phonographers and composers have also specifically tuned in to crowds as a source of sonic interest.

Different people, even recording the same event or same type of event (which happens often), will inevitably come up with different recordings. This effort is predicated on deep listening and environmental awareness.

31:00 – 33:00 Sixth sound sent in by a listener – irrigation pipe

Round, small glissandos, fluid. The piece was made by Gordon Hempton, who DeLaurenti has written on. GH evokes place, depth. Master field recorder.

One more piece by Hempton. Dropping pieces of wood into a well. Fuzzy lasers, neurotic ghouls.

34:15 – 35:40 Station identification, ads, weather

35:40 – 37:30 Phonographers Union will perform in Seattle a few times in the coming days

DeLaurenti compares the Union to Yes and Deep Purple.

37:30 – 39:25 Seventh sound sent in by a listener – wasp in bedroom

High, pleading, slippery, human. Leads to a discussion of recording eerie things. DeLaurenti did this recently, only to figure out it was I-5 being repaved.

39:25 – 40:30 Eighth sound sent in by a listener – kitten in heat

Unnerving, piercing, moist. “Sound helps us see through walls … compresses the distance.” Sound is a source of information about the otherwise unaccessible. I would add that sound-without-vision is also, frequently, a major source of consternation. People dislike being aware of things whose identity they can’t confirm. Sound, then, can be an invasion of privacy, a way of asking for our attention (maybe repeatedly) without saying why. Neighbors, at least those I’ve spoken to, usually hate hearing each other. One of the great things about the Union is that they invert this relationship into one of fascination.

40:30 – 41:35 Ninth sound sent in by a listener – walking over a wooden floor with microphones attached to feet

Doom and leather. There are multiple labels devoted to releasing albums of field recordings.

41:35 – 43:05 Tinnitus

The host has tinnitus (my wife the doctor says TINN – it – tus, but apparently pronunciation varies), and puts an electronic “masking sound” in his ears to quell its effects. DeLaurenti adds that the ears actually emit sound. I’ve heard this physiological phenomenon described as akin to warming up a gong before hitting it, so that it will react with more sensitivity when struck. The eardrum is covered with little hairs that move constantly, keeping the drum “warm.” Their movement creates a sound of its own. Hearing is also sonorous.

43:05 – 44:25 Tenth sound sent in by a listener – walking down a muddy stream at midnight

How might this sound different if you hadn’t heard it was recorded at midnight? Part of a movement of “improvising with natural sound in natural spaces.” As a field recorded, it is sometimes necessary to provoke reactions in order to make a recording. A muddy creek bed on its own may not be recognizable, but once you walk through it you’ve got something clear to record. This is also true for, often, interview subjects.

45:00 – 46:05 Email from listener

Banal sounds can become musical. We hear with our entire bodies, in a sense. I would add that they also connect very powerfully to space – this particular listener hears wind and boat sound as “quintessential western Washington.” Our aural experiences are a huge part of the way we define and remember the areas we inhabit. Usually, cities are represented by their skylines, but cities also have sonic identities.

46:05 – 47:00 Eleventh sound sent in by a listener – drumming busker in San Francisco

Street performers improvise with objects at hand. Public performances have a particular immediacy.

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