Journal of Sonic Studies, volume 6, nr. 1 (January 2014)Marie Højlund; Sofie Kinch: ALARMING ATMOSPHERES - EMBODIED SOUND HABITUATION AS DESIGN STRATEGY IN A NEURO-INTENSIVE CARE UNIT
5.3 Sound Design
Magnus, a seven-year-old boy is going to visit his hospitalised sister who has a brain tumour. In the waiting room he meets Kidkit and pushes one button at a time, triggering the sounds. When he asks, ”Can these sounds be heard by Julia right now?” the nurse answers, ”No, the sounds around Julia are coming from the equipment and the two other patients. The equipment is noisy because it wants the nurse to look at it. It does not make noise because the patients are in pain”. This conversation gives the boy insight into the sounds of the apparatus, and after this conversation, he and the nurse decide to go and see Julia. Upon entering the ward and during the meeting, Magnus is focused on his sister. He appears relaxed and tells stories. Afterwards, when we are in the waiting room, we ask him about the alarming sounds in the ward, but he says that he did not notice them at the time. We then asked him if he thinks he heard any of the sounds from Kidkit introduced earlier in the ward. He answers, “Yes, I heard the funny dododododo sound”, and he repeats it in a rhythmic pattern similar to the sound from the Kidkit, which was sampled from one of the alarm sounds in the ward. (Højlund and Kinch, field notes)
Following the specific sound design focus presented in this article, Époché is implemented as a tactic to design for embodied sound habituation in the waiting room. Époché refers to a practice presented by Pierre Schaeffer (reworked by Michel Chion). Adapted from a phenomenological understanding of how the bracketing of a phenomenon can open up a method to examine it aside from one’s associated assumptions and beliefs, the concept refers to the process of putting specific sounds in parentheses in order to actively create reduced listening circumstances (Chion 2009: 28). Reduced listening can change listening from serving as a vehicle of meaning concerning the source, asking us, instead, to listen to the sound itself. By isolating or moving the sound from its source and out of the audio-visual complex to which it initially belonged (what Schaeffer calls acousmatic listening) and listening to it repeatedly, one can actively recondition one’s habitual listening patterns and references. This will allow “us to clarify many phenomena implicit in our perception” (Chion 2009: 31). Although the most natural mode of listening is to try and understand the sound by identifying its source, this repeated reduced listening can “perhaps ‘exhaust’ this curiosity and little by little impose ‘the sound object as a perception worthy of being listened to for itself’” (Chion 2009: 12).
Époché, through repeated reduced listening, can set the ground for habituating sounds quickly, thus changing the attitude towards them, e.g. through developing a more musical perception in the waiting room. This tactic is unfolded by presenting the eight sounds separately from each other. One button triggers one sound file as feedback, made with touch sensors and a phidgets board. Hidden beneath the upholstery, a computer and loudspeaker play the sounds that have been sampled directly from the ward. These sounds are based on a one-hour recording made in the ward - where the nurses presented all sounds they found dominating, not only alarm sounds, but also noises made while handling equipment - that were thought to be suitable for sampling. The duration of the different sound files is two seconds, maximum, and the sounds are categorised into three groups: yellow areas play three different alarm sounds, red areas play two suction sounds from a respirator, and the blue areas play three dominating equipment sounds, e.g. the lid of a bin being shut. The characters of the eight sounds are quite different in pitch, timbre, rhythm, and expression. The feedback is immediate and can be triggered again and again when pushed, and the system can play several sounds on top of each other if more than one trigger is activated. In this way the child is able to create a rhythmic pattern corresponding to well-known beat structure, resembling a drum loop with various drums, and thus conditioning a musical interpretation of the sounds.
The embodied experience of controlling the concrete rhythms of the environment repeatedly in one’s own tempo can help children to synchronise the sounds with their own bodily rhythms. In this way, the alarming sounds can be shifted to background awareness upon entering the ward, as they are now habituated as familiar, expected, and predictable in the context rather than frightening and uncontrollable.
Magnus’ interaction with Kidkit indicates that he habituated the “dododododo” alarm sound anew and could separate it from the rest of the sounds in the ward.
The way he repeated the sound, rhythmically and melodically as in the sound sample, and referred to it as funny indicates that the strategy of embodied sound habituation through Époché in the waiting room helped him transform his perception of the sound into something primarily musical and not frightening. Furthermore, his statement that during the visit in the ward he did not really notice the sounds indicates that he was able to put the alarming atmosphere in his background awareness, leaving room for the visit to take the foreground of attention.