The Journal of Sonic Studies

To refer to this article use this url: http://journal.sonicstudies.org/vol04/nr01/a03

Journal of Sonic Studies, volume 4, nr. 1 (May 2013)


Katharine Norman

“Deciding which method to use to study sound already implies the manner in which the results will be articulated.” So states the call for this very journal issue. I would add that a method can itself act as a “dynamic” decision that engages with the object of study in ways that are likely to lead to particular kinds of destinations.

Window is an experiment in writing about sound, listening and environment, in a manner that deliberately subverts any sense of direction, focus or conclusion. But it is also a work of art—both scholarly and “playful”, born of indecision and from having no desire to go anywhere special. There was no preordained subject of study. Instead, the subject of study revealed itself during the making of the piece as being ordinary experience - an activity embedded in individuals rather than things - gradually explored through deliberate indirection. These notes are written to offer some extra insights into how, and why, I made this piece. But, in truth, I would rather you try Window yourself before you read on:


For a year, I spent a few minutes each day looking out of my bedroom window, usually in the morning, as I got ready for work. Initially I was going to focus on taking photographs of the tree that reminded me, slightly, of a tree in a painting by Claude. But in the end I fell into the unplanned ritual of taking a sequence of photographs each time: the window, the tree, the garden, the sky, and the distant view. Just some of the “window” photographs are used in this piece. I also recorded sound, generally with no attempt to choose “special” moments or to listen attentively. My only conscious decision was not to choose. There were exceptions of course – because, after all, who could resist the sudden percussive rain shower, the glorious sunset, or the wind that bangs the fence panels with unusual ferocity. But that inconsistency is nothing out of the ordinary; in everyday life sometimes we are just living in sound, oblivious to its envelopment, and sometimes sound rises up and demands full attention.

Sonic collecting is not that unusual, especially now that many of us have a digital camera and sound recorder easily to hand. Habitual rituals can be important, nourishing activities that elicit a closer - perhaps just different - relationship to everyday experience. Some might call this mindfulness. And certainly the experience of spending a sustained time engaged in this particular small ritual has in a subtle manner “changed” my mind. For a while, even a year after collecting the materials and several months after completing Window, I glanced out of the window each morning and found ears, eyes and memories tracing those inscribed journeys - tree, sky, window, garden, view - with a more appreciative gaze. And interestingly, having since moved house, I have retained that journey in relation to a new tree, a changed view and a different sky. But for me that solitary, personal ritual was only a starting point. Describing personal ritual is always dangerously near to solipsism, neither a communicative act nor a work of art - nor, of itself, a method for studying sound and sonic experience.

I kept collecting, without quite considering the consequences. The hard disk filled up with accumulating files that, silent and unseen, awaited some kind of purpose. At the end of December I confronted a body of materials that had surreptitiously transmuted into a documentary record of a year of ordinary mornings. They were nothing special, nothing to write home about. For me these familiar images reasserted a sense of “being” at home. Scrolling through the images and clicking on the sounds I realized the materials were largely irrelevant to others. For someone else, they meant very little at all. They were not especially beautiful, eye- or ear-catching. In fact, they were rather ordinary stuff. But gradually the subject of study revealed itself - it was not the materials, the sounds and images of a familiar place, but the way in which familiarity arises. The subject was the dynamic construction of place and the human experience of place through the accumulation of sensory perception, repetition, memory and emotion. I wanted to make a piece in which the sonic, as in life, is only part of the picture, existing as an all-pervasive “layer” within quotidian experience. So, finally, a decision arose: to make something that extrapolated from the personal towards the general, something dynamic and interactive - encouraging others to create a play of sounds, images, memories, associations and personal history. An allegory of the ordinary.

And to be honest, it feels rather strange now to be writing this backstory about how Window came to be, which at the end of the day (week, month and year) is not about my window - it’s about yours. But let me tell you a little about how the piece is made, in case you are interested. In many ways, Window is a homage to John Cage - I made it in 2012, the centenary of his birth, and wanted to take the opportunity to celebrate that great listener and thinker.

Once Window has loaded - a process that on a slower internet connection generates a short sequence of texts on listening to help pass the time - the participant encounters a window view and sounds. By default, Window loads the current month, but that’s about it when it comes to direction. Both the interface and the premise of Window are deliberately non-directive, trusting that useful results will come from individual exploration and even mild confusion, initially. There are twelve months, each presenting images and sounds recorded during the month in question, and the participant can move from one to the other via small images at the bottom of the screen. For each month there are also several “layers” to choose between - presenting texts, words, and sounds. These can be selected via a horizontal slider. In the text layer, short essays in homage to John Cage or about listening in general are arranged over the course of a year. While in this “Cage” layer texts can be read in any order, they are narrative and often anecdotal. In the other “words”-based layer, the text is deliberately fragmentary and elusive, with words only “found” by moving the cursor around in the visual landscape. They are randomly chosen phrases, but come from groups of text designed to focus, poetically, on how sensory perceptions in a familiar place are inextricably bound up with ingrained memories, emotions, and previous experience. It is all very ordinary so far, and that’s the point. My challenge was how to recreate that immersive experience of quotidian experience without drawing attention to it. Because attending to the ordinary makes it extraordinary. I wanted to offer an immersive, self-directed reading where sound, and listening, seems incidental. But, of course, is not. Catching that pervasive presence of “ordinary” sonic experience - and what it contributes to our sense of place - is hard. It is like grasping water through sand.

Window travels, I hope, beyond the visual frame. It celebrates ordinary listening at the edgelands: the clink of the spoon in the cup, distant cars, the wind in the trees or the creak of the stairs. I wanted to dwell on these vital sonic experiences without forcing them into centre stage where they would immediately lose their peripheral identities. We may barely notice them in normal circumstances, yet without them we are diminished. How time passes is entirely up to the participant - choosing whether to read the series of short essays or forage for fragmentary textual “memories”, or to turn down the visual images in favour of listening in the dark for a while. Linear narratives are frustrated, and decisions are left to the individual - travelling from month to month or using the slider to fade layers up or down. As in life, sound is always there and always part of the place. The sounds can be moved around in place, via small “handles” in the main screen that can be dragged individually up and down to affect volume or from side to side to change the left to right balance. My hope is that every participant makes her own listening environment, so forming a self-constructed “place” in which to engage with the texts and the visual images, but without necessarily prioritizing sound. The invitation to listen is surreptitious and interwoven with the simultaneous opportunities to read, explore, and see. To my mind, sound study succeeds when it contextualizes aural experience in the rest of life, where sensory priorities constantly fluctuate according to need.

And I am reminded of one of my favourite photographs of John Cage, that great forager in perception and everyday experience. It is on the back of my well-thumbed copy of his book of essays, Empty Words. He is striding across a field with a basket of wild mushrooms on one arm, eyes wide open to the ordinary. And, of course, he is grinning from ear to ear.

Katharine Norman is a composer, sound artist, writer and scholar, currently a research fellow at De Montfort University. She has published widely, including an experimental monograph, Sounding Art (Ashgate, 2004) and two issues of Organised Sound (Cambridge University Press 2011 and 2012) on the theme of “Sound, Listening and Place”. Her interactive digital sound essay, Window, won the 2012 New Media Writing Prize and her 2013 work, Making Place, for performers, live audio and visual processing received funding from both the Arts Council of England and the Britten-Pears Foundation. More information at www.novamara.com.