The third installment of the ongoing podcast series, Bangkok is Ringing, is up now at Triple Canopy.
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Posts tagged with Sense politics
Save malls, Lumphini Park is the largest and most utilized public space in Bangkok. At all hours, the 150-acre Lumphini teems with performance and exercise programs that may involve anything from flags and matching uniforms to swords and tea, from high-octane aerobics jams to casual rounds of badminton between siblings. It is easy, actually, to find a quiet spot. But walk twenty feet and you might find yourself in the audible orbit of something completely different. Everyone, it seems, is busy honing their mind or body.
We hear many voices when we’re in public. But the logic between which ones we engage, ignore, or get frustrated by isn’t always apparent, even to ourselves.
One of the most perplexing examples is the cell phone conversation. To wit: if we’re sitting in front of two people on a bus, and they’re talking in a reasonable tone of voice, it’s very unlikely we’ll care at all. But if it’s only one person, and he’s talking at the same hypothetical volume on the phone, we might think bad thoughts about him, or have trouble concentrating. Why are we bothered by the latter and not the former?
We develop and adjust auditory filters throughout our lives. Our annoyance with overhearing cell phone chatter suggests that we’ve become accustomed to telephone conversations – however innocuous – being private. And so the sound of them in public space registers as a breach of etiquette, even if it’s no different in pitch, volume, or timbre than an old-fashioned, in-person conversation. This may change over time, perhaps after we’ve spent years and years confronted with the practice. For now, the memory of landline custom still obtains.
The following recording is a good example of this phenomenon, starring one of those much-despised Motorola walkie-talkies. As the F train went above ground during a snowstorm that had severely delayed train traffic, a man got a page (presaged by the famous tone) from a friend, and commenced telling him where he was, how long he expected to be there, and so on. There was a whole lot of eye-rolling on the busy car. The tones kept coming, and the voice of the man on the other end came through covered by a harsh, almost mean-sounding distortion. This mixed with the sound of train announcements which, as you might expect, were filtered into the normal bin.
Precious, out for about a month now, was a tremendously complicated movie to attend. Audience members were divided on how to respond, vocally. How should people react to difficult art? Loudly or quietly? And if loudly, how? This problem took on an ethical dimension, and the sound of the theater became one of the key ways that viewers experienced the movie as a document of race and racial difference.
One of the buzz safety issues this holiday shopping season is toy volume.
Sounding New Media: Immersion and Embodiment in the Arts and Culture
by Frances Dyson
University of California Press, 2009
262 pps., $24.95
There are, today, somewhere on the order of 1.67 billion internet users in the world. Staggeringly, about 1.65 billion of these are new since the mid-90s. Today nearly a quarter of the world’s population has a degree of internet access. Just over a decade ago, that figure was a fraction of a percent.
October 7, 2009
I recorded something last week. I don’t know what. First order of business: do you?
Movie theater culture varies dramatically, but in most places audiences respond out loud in ways that are normative and even, in a sense, ethical. These modes of response are a very important part of how people are expected to relate to artwork. For instance, Film Forum has sustained, respectful silence with dashes of old-man snore, followed by a hearty concluding round of applause to recognize auteurship. The UA on Court Street has text-pages and outdoor voices. You might be interested to know that Jaipur, India has crying, whistling, and viewers generally wearing their hearts on their sleeves.
Although none of us knew a word of Hindi, the plot of “Rab Ne Bana De Jodi” (“God Made This Couple”) was pretty transparent. We were riveted for more than three hours (plus an intermission) by a twisting love story in which two of India’s most glamorous models played an ordinary working couple struggling through an arranged marriage. In a device I found Shakespearian, especially for its implausibility, the male lead did double-duty as a working schmo and a hubristic fop, changing only his shirt, glasses, and mustache in the transformation.
You get the idea from the trailer:
Anyway, the crowd in the gigantic one-screen theater with the ice cream paint job treated the movie like an event from the opening shot. Particularly in the first and the last half-hour, every scene was accompanied by shouts of delight and expressions of concern. By the end, the crowd was worked up, and the babies were at their crankiest. As the protagonists (fop now revealed as schmo) were named the winners of the climactic dance contest, and the central motif began playing for the last time (1:45), there was a grand finale of appreciative clapping and whistling.
One day in downtown Bangkok, I crossed paths with a blind man using a lead pipe to echolocate his way down the street. The resonance of the hollow pipe is especially well-suited to producing sonic images that can reveal large objects at a distance – walls or buildings or sets of steps, say. This is a useful supplement to the cane as a means of feeling objects directly. As the man walked, a gym in the ground level of a shopping center played a trancy jingle through loudspeakers mounted outdoors. The gym is called California WOW Xperience, and they’re all over the city, enticing natives and visitors alike with kitschy, oily body-building imagery that nevertheless gets its point across.
Music in advertisements, rather obviously, recruits consumers. Songs plug into associations between identity and sensuality that we often don’t even realize we carry around. The California WOW Xperience ad declares in sensual terms (i.e., without needing to use words) that the gym is high-tech and modern. The accelerated tempos of trance suggest not only the pace of exercise but of the modern more broadly. The use of this ad thus creates and maintains a space that might “feel” “right” enough to passersby to entice them into laying down good Baht for a personal trainer or a yoga class or whatever.
Any useful acoustic analysis has to account not only for primary sound sources as they come into contact with materials, but also for reflections and noise. Sounds interact with one another in complicated ways that can confound engineers attempting to manage sound environments. This recording gestures to another source of confusion, one that lies beyond echo or interference – listening. The taps happen to be audible acts of listening that disrupt or at least mingle with the advertisement, which is what makes this work as a piece (I think). But it should also remind us that listening is a kind of work we do every time we encounter a sound, even if it seems to be second nature.
The ad and the taps are also, finally, kind of amusingly indifferent to each other. I like this a lot, because it rightly insinuates (to my ear) that human encounters are only fleetingly cooperative and never truly systematic.
Thai language teacher and first-year students practice vocabulary. August, 2009.
Thai is a tonal language and English is not. Thai has five tones, and every syllable in every word in the language has one. Disconcertingly, often comically, there are many groups of words that have exactly the same phonemic sounds, and yet because of different tones express very different meanings. For example, call a man “laaw” (low tone) and you’ve told him he’s handsome. Call him “laaw” (rising tone – pronounced like a cartoonish imitation of an Italian chef saying “Come-a on-a in-a!) and you’ve insinuated that he has no teeth.
You can hear this difference in action in the sound clip at the top of the post. From the first word, the teacher gives deliberately exaggerated inflection to every syllable, to make the tone as clear as possible. The students, who in their native language speak flatly and inflect only for emphasis (rather than meaning), imitate her fledglingly.
The teacher, by turn, inflects English in ways that have no meaning – except, as it turns out, to mark her speech as that of a native Thai speaker. Tone is excessive once she switches to English and yet, out of habit, her speech is still full of it. Notice how, at :18, she pronounces “selLER” with a high tone on the second syllable. Thais tend to do this with borrowed words, for reasons I can’t explain. Around 1:48, she does it again with “buyER” and then once more with “how ‘BOUT.” I think that accent is not only an impediment to clarity, but also a way of continuing to “speak” one’s native language while speaking another language. The patterns of nonsensical excess produced by speaking in an accent immediately take on new meaning beyond the parameters of the languages themselves, since they mark their speaker in totally relative terms.
The valences of accent, however, work differently depending on which direction you’re traveling, i.e. an American in Thailand is not the same kind of foreigner as a Thai is in the United States. Thais are used to foreigners being inept with tone, and will often laugh at them openly. The monotone of the foreigner (say it to yourself: for-ay-NERRR) is partially confusing, but also an unmistakeable marker of alienness, probably at least as potent as skin tone.