Pauline Oliveros and I used to always find our conversations coming back to similar topics about individual perspective in sound and how personal experience shapes the sound we choose to hear or listen to. I always felt that the purpose of my work was to question why we believe certain sounds come off as wrong and ask if there was a way for the "wrong sound" to redeem itself? Beyond the idea of “wrong sounds,” there is also the question of personal experience with sound and how one treats those sounds with favorability (i.e. nostalgia) or with rejection (i.e. certain genre of music that is not favorable). This kind of mind conditioning can be seen as happening on all fronts, from the people we grew up with to the community we live in and, of course, how our personal tastes within these genres play out when it comes to the music industry.
Within these contexts, I began to think of a speech that Pauline gave, reminding me of what I consider in my sonic expectations within society.
In 2015, Pauline and I were both booked in Belfast to perform as part of a symposium on improvisation and how it can improve child protective services: “Just Improvisation: Enriching child protection law through musical techniques, discourses and pedagogies.”
Pauline was there to perform and give the keynote speech “Safe to Play.” She began with the always simple yet poignant opening words, “We come into the world ready to play … Improvisation implies some kind of relationship with play ... The primary play thing is voice. There are no rules for primary improvisation … Voice is power.” She continued. “A loud shriek of frustration is unmistakable ... Sounds are the language of emotions.”
As she went on with her keynote I was reminded of a scenario I like to bring up in my lectures about listening and improvisation:
As children, when we play, we are still developing our understanding of our size in relationship to a room. Sometimes, we play too rough and may end up bumping into things. Take the scenario of a child running in a narrow hallway. The hallway could have an end table with a ceramic or glass vase on it. The child, running wild, deep in the act of play, by chance, by accident, bumps into the table at a speed that knocks the vase off its base.
What happens next? The story is all too familiar to many of us.
The vase falls and crashes onto the floor, shattering into pieces. This loud, shattering sound is followed by another loud sound. The sound of the parent or guardian who is now yelling at the child for breaking something that has a value. A value that is unbeknownst to the child.
What child understands value when they are wild with the sense of play?
“The imposition of RULES for play creates the many games and styles that we experience in life. Rules also make it possible to be wrong and unsafe. Ability to learn and follow rules can also bring a sense of safety and accomplishment provided that the rules are taught in a loving way,” Pauline continued.
After the lecture, Pauline, her partner Ione, and I had dinner at a nearby restaurant and I applauded her on her lecture. She was skeptical of my praise, always challenging me, as mentors do, and asked what exactly I liked about it.
“I like that you gave children a chance. That you allowed them to play,” I said.
I went on to tell her the scenario of the wild child running through a hallway, breaking the vase.
I explained, “When the parent raises their voice in an aggressive manner, following the loud crash of the vase, they have immediately given the sound of the crash a negative meaning. For the rest of that child’s life, when they hear the sound of glass crashing they will think that the sound is wrong. The sound of something changing its shape, is wrong.”
Pauline agreed, to my relief.
Individual experience and perspective shapes our sonic lives yet can also confine us to the senses. As with the child that has now assigned the crash of glass to represent a negative scenario, the child grows up only to be greeted with similar crashing glass sounds that are being perpetuated in movies and television. Most likely with a negative event occurring due to the crash.
This kind of sonic cultivation is one of many that is constantly overlooked by the media, which can be deemed as highly irresponsible since the media holds a monopoly on sound effects for the purpose of selling stories (cartoons, tv episodes, music).
As the child grows, the individual's ear that is trained to hear and to listen will no doubt begin to attach a memory to a popular song, thereby giving that song more importance in one’s memory than others, simply due to experience. One may attach a feeling to an entire genre of music that then creates market for radio stations, online and other, to make stations as what I call “sonic manipulators”, or as we all call it, the Oldies stations. While the media has gotten a strong hold on how to manipulate nostalgia while abusing sound effects to sell stories, the responsibility still falls on the individual.
Pauline helped me further these ideas on individual perspective in sound, reminding me to not just look at the content of hearing/listening but also at the amplitude, dynamics and volume that the sounds are being pushed through.
What of the majority of humans who are constantly surrounded by powered amplification during this time in our history? Whether it be through small earbuds or when one is in a car listening to the radio to amplified speakers in stores, in the 21st Century, amplification is the way the world listens. A measurable volume now has the ability to determine the legitimacy of a sound. This type of legitimizing tends to allow the listener to confine the senses.
My favorite example to explain this form of one confining themselves to their senses happened this past May when I created a large scale sound installation called String Room.
400 feet of piano wire was strung up from the floor to ceiling and along the cement pillars of Co-Lab Projects, an art space in Austin, Texas.
The point of the piece was to give the city an instrument that visitors could interact with, first by me providing the participants with custom made guitar picks to strum around the space while also encouraging people to provide their own implements to instigate a new sonic relationship with the gallery.
The reviews for the installation were, pardon my pun, tone deaf.
The main complaint was that the strumming of the piece simply wasn't "loud enough." People felt it didn't work simply based on volume which then rendered the installation useless.
The tone deaf argument that the reviewers were unknowingly posing was questioning if volume determined legitimacy within the framework of sound installation. If so, what does that mean of acoustic sounds that are not amplified? Is silence obsolete? If a sound is not sharp, up front, attention grabbing due to powered volume, does that make the piece a failure? How does one determine legitimacy of sound installations if they don't consider all volume levels?
"... for most people, hearing occurs all of the time, listening occurs most of the time and remains mysterious in its process ... listening remains a private matter for each of us." (Pauline Oliveros, Stony Brook Keynote speech, 2010)
This was one of many times that I wish Pauline was still around, I wish I could ask her opinions about it. But in a way I already know her answer; all sound is legitimate, it’s the individual's ear that gets trained by society. But it's a private matter when it comes to how the ear is trained by each person. Hence the use of the word 'confine' for some.
One day, a young man came into the installation with a plastic cup that had a lot of condensation on its outside. The young man ran his fingers up and down one of the strings which made a large, echoing warm tone, à la Ellen Fullman.
This change of sonic direction only proved to me that the piece did, in fact, work. If anything, it worked beautifully. I was simply the facilitator, offering one implement to play the piece. The CITY decided how it wanted to hear the piece simply by this young gentleman experimenting with the water on the wire. His individual perspective was not as confined as the reviewers because he was willing to experience through experimentation. Which was what the piece was made for, to encourage participants to interact with it in order to expand their own experience within it.
Just like Pauline has said in the past, some hear all the time but “the act of listening remains mysterious, private and unknown.” I often forget, when discussing my concerns about hearing in contemporary times that I was taught to question this by Pauline. Our ears are being trained in all ways, with content and power. The role that we provide as sound artists is to continue to introduce these sonic ideas that are outside of the mind of the general listener. By doing so we must also introduce and challenge our own ideas as well since we as sound artists are not completely detached from this form of hearing/listening. The act of reminding each person to take a second to listen can be uncomfortable, due to our personal histories and experiences, but by asking oneself why they are uncomfortable, we could help break open a new way of listening. What a gift to be able to change an ear.
"On Pauline," 2017. Copyright of the author.