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The Journal of Sonic Studies

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

AUDITORY SITUATIONS: NOTES FROM NOWHERE

Budhaditya Chattopadhyay

Abstract


As an increasingly migratory being, a wandering listener interacts with various places he/she traverses in fleeting and transitory ways, considering them as spatio-temporally evolving but gradually disorienting auditory situations. Instead of locating the source identities of sounds, the listener may relate to these situations through thought processes generated by means of a subjective perception of the various sonic phenomena occurring at these places. This essay describes an on-going project, “Doors of Nothingness,” that frames and textualizes streams of thought triggered by presence in certain immersive but evanescent auditory situations. Essentially personal and contemplative in nature, the project refers to the pervasive interaction that takes place between the constantly migrating man and his contextual sonic environment beyond sound’s immediately accessible meaning. In the context of describing the project and its methodology, this essay intends to develop a discourse on sound’s problematic relationship to locating its source, arguing that situational sonic phenomena activate thought processes that transcend mere epistemic comprehension of the source identity and involve subjectivity, contemplation, poetics, and the mood of the nomadic listener.

Prologue


As a self-proclaimed sonic nomad and an increasingly mobile and migratory being, I consider my auditory perception of where I belong and don’t belong to be fleeting and transitory. I encounter an immediate location and situate myself within it in ways that are intertwined; they are not only physical experiences but sometimes mediated as pervasive, digitalized environments, such as by mobile interaction. For example, my smartphone records sound from a place and sends it elsewhere to someone else; one place becomes merged with another as I overhear it on a call from somebody else, as I move, migrate, and navigate from one place to another more mentally than I do physically. My sonic interactions with these multiple places and the superimposed locations through which I move tend to be unfixed and evolving rather than having a concrete structure. Due to my extensive mobility as an active listener within constantly changing places, locales, landscapes, and environments, be they global, local, or digital, my perception and cognition of improbable sonic events cannot be posited within a specific “place”-based source or “location”-based identity because of the transient nature of the sounds. As my nomadic movements intensify, I cannot relate to one place at one time; my sense of “rootedness” dissolves into a perpetual state of exile by itinerant sonic interaction with semi-known and/or unknown places and pseudo-locales. Hence, my activity of listening to a “place” and the subsequent identification of a “location” in these unintelligible sound events become problematic. Knowledge about the locative source of sound becomes blurry in its juxtaposition with memory, contemplation, imagination and mood intersecting with my embedded insecurity of becoming an almost confirmed nomad and a perpetually migratory being.

Variations on the theme of the prologue: locating sound and the listener


There is considerable debate about where sounds are located. When we hear a sound, do we directly or indirectly locate the source? Addressing this question in their introduction to “Sounds and Perception,” Casey O’Callaghan and Matthew Nudds (O’Callaghan and Nudds 2009) have stressed one’s awareness of sounds. If that “one” would be a nomadic listener, the awareness of an unfamiliar or semi-familiar sound would be debatable, making the sound difficult to locate at a source except as it relates to the listener’s own lived auditory experiences, which include memory, triggered thoughts, and further contemplation. O’Callaghan and Nudds (O’Callaghan and Nudds 2009) elaborate in their essay on the question of whether, in addition to the sounds, we hear sources separately, suggesting two different approaches in understanding the issue of the location of sound: a source-based account of sound and a wave-based account of sound. The latter offers an explanation that locates sound in the medium itself and suggests that sound travels to occupy different locations over time (O’Callaghan and Nudds 2009). On the other hand, the former approach insists that sounds travel only if their sources do. This on-going debate seems to stem from the experiential constraints of sound, making the plausibility of locating sounds in their physical sources tend toward verification, which otherwise would potentially lead to “wholesale illusion.” In “Sounds and Perception,” O’Callaghan and Nudds (O’Callaghan and Nudds 2009) express this doubt:

Our access to sounds is through auditory experience, and our conceptions of sounds are grounded in experience. An account of sounds should be an account of things it is plausible to identify with sounds as we experience them to be. How our experiences of sounds present them to be thus constrains what account it is plausible to give of the nature of sounds. […] An account of sounds should entail that auditory experiences of sounds are for the most part veridical; all else equal, it should not imply that experiences of sounds involve wholesale illusions. (…) Avoid attributing unnecessary illusions. (O'Callaghan and Nudds 2009, 7)

Even if not wholesale and unnecessary illusion, it nevertheless seems that a sonic phenomenon develops a problematic relationship to its locative source once it is perceived and deciphered at the listener’s end. Traditional discourses on sound and environment have already acknowledged this epistemological problem. In The Soundscape, R. Murray Schafer (Murray Schafer 1977) has referred to the trajectory of sound as a journey from its locative source to its point of reception via reproduction through the multi-level processes of recording, storage, and transmission. However, it is the sound’s ephemeral character that ensures this journey from production to reception while being “dislocated” from the object or the source. Sound elements are recognized at different stages of reception when the object frees itself from its source. Thus, sound, by its very nature, implies subjective interpretation in order to establish the reception and recognition of sonic identity in deciphering information and knowledge about its locative source. In Sound Theory/Sound Practice, Rick Altman (Altman 1992) has claimed:

By offering itself up to be heard, every sound event loses its autonomy, surrendering the power and meaning of its own structure to the various contexts in which it might be heard, to the varying narratives that it might construct. (…) Sound is not actualised until it reaches the ear of the hearer, which translates molecular movement into the sensation of sound. (Altman 1992, 19)

What I listen to and what you listen to might be different from each other in their perceptual levels. Every such perception of a sonic phenomenon is registered in the mind of the listener with a certain identification and realization of a source. When I hear a new sound that I have never heard before, my mind records the texture, tone, and quality and relates it to an imagined source or recognized object from which the sound may emanate. Film theorist Edward Branigan has elsewhere (Branigan 1989) argued that:

We think of sound as coming from a source, from an object: a radio, a door, a boot. Color is (seemingly) possessed, but sound is made. Thus we tend to hear sound as transitory and contingent - an on/off phenomenon. (Branigan 1989, 311)

We find resonance with this line of thinking in Hamilton’s arguments that we hear only where the travelling sounds have come from rather than where they are. Therefore, we hear, veridically, only a subset of the locations of sounds (O’Callaghan and Nudds, 2009).

Here, if I take the liberty of converging the plural “we” into a singular “I”– a practice I engage in deliberately to ensure the first-person, subjective experience of sound (in keeping with a phenomenological approach to sound and listening) – I can talk about myself, that I tend to think and imagine a source of a sound event that easily goes beyond its locative source identity. If it is a problem, then my problem is: I do not always locate a sound within a definitive identity of its own drawn from its locative source. What I hear, concentrate on listening to, and try to make sense of in relation to its place of origin is juxtaposed with numerous other places and locations from which the sound event may emanate or what might cause the sonic phenomenon. For example, when I hear the distant sound of what may be a horn, it reminds me of numerous other horn-like sounds from different cities that I have heard, but I may not necessarily relate the sound to a car passing by the locale in which I currently find myself. Another example would be a certain recurring motif in sonic texture that repeats itself irrespective of any physical place with a specific cultural root, such as the sounds from construction sites, which are quite similar in all parts of the world. I decipher a certain mood of restlessness and perpetual motion when encountering and listening to sounds coming from these sites on my travels. The mood has nothing to do with locating and identifying a specific construction site concerned.

In the first case: even if I recognize the sounds of a horn coming from, let’s say, a passing truck, I cannot readily connect the sound to the truck, thus refusing to accept a structured understanding and epistemic knowledge of that sound event emanating from a passing truck, but I do relate the sound to a memory from my childhood of numerous other trucks that passed by our house on a distant road in the countryside. The recollection generates a mood of nostalgia and melancholia rather than specific knowledge about the source of the sound. In the second case: in accordance with my memory and imagination of the sound content of numerous construction sites I have come across as a traveller in various cities, hearing such sounds allows me to relate to the mood of mobility rather than the actual meaning and source identities of the sounds. In both cases, my understanding of the sound event goes beyond its source identity to generate thought processes that engage my imagination and the memories embedded in my mind from previous subjective experiences with similar sonic phenomena. As an increasingly migratory being, my interactions with various places have resulted in a wide variety of sound memories that disorient my future interactions with sonic phenomena and disrupt my attempts to decipher their meaning, recognize their source identities, or extract specific knowledge about them. These sonic interactions have occurred in fleeting and transitory ways, considering that the sonic events originated from physical places and locations and have been evolving spatially and temporally towards becoming illusory and disorienting auditory situations.

Why do I consider such situations illusory and disorienting? How do I differentiate between a physical location and a perceived auditory situation? John Perry and Jon Barwise in their ground-breaking work, Situations and Attitudes (Barwise and Perry 1999), have proposed that, from both an epistemological and a metaphysical point of view, reality consists primarily of situations, while physical locations arise as uniformities across such situations (Barwise and Perry 1999). In her article Situation Semantics (Stojanovic 2011), Isidora Stojanovic comments on their radical views of mind and action:

The idea is that agents get attuned to various kinds of uniformities, which allow them to classify the reality in ways that enhance their capacities for action and help them 'cope with the new situations that continually arise' (p. 10); constraints are then seen as uniformities that arise among the ways in which situations relate to one another, while attunement to such constraints enables cognitive agents to 'pick up information about one situation from another'. (Stojanovic 2011, 3/20)

In view of situation theory, an agent will look for uniformities across constantly arising situations in order to locate the situations as physical places. However, in the case of a nomadic listener, such uniformities would be increasingly sparse due to their ubiquitous mobility. By becoming nomadic (Braidotti 2012), these situations appear to a drifting listener, such as me, as liquid and amorphous, like a “nowhere”: hybrid spaces juxtaposed to newly heard sounds with embedded sonic memories trigger the aural imagination. I lose contact with physical places and locations, and my knowledge about these sound events becomes disfigured, contributing to the problematic relationship between sound and its locative source once it is perceived and deciphered at the listener’s end.

Therefore, as a sonic nomad, I cannot acquire concrete knowledge about a sonic phenomenon occurring at a specific location. Rather, sounds at a particular place with different layers of infinite sonic events (Altman 1992) trigger an emotive context within me, a kind of mood generated by a traveller’s memory associations. How can I then decipher the meaning of such an auditory situation from its locative source and its identity? As an active and radical listener, I may relate to these situations through thought processes generated within my mind by means of auditory cognition, immersion, and presence in the context of an on-going interaction with the sonic phenomenon occurring at the location. Mere recording, documenting, or describing the sound of the location will be unable to measure, scrutinize, and articulate the situation that has triggered the listener’s complex emotive context, imagination, memory associations, and mood.

The sound of my apartment’s doorbell transforms into the distant gong of a Buddhist temple; my thoughts and recollection invite a contemplative mood that is interrupted by shouts from the park, where kids are playing football. The shouting eventually dissolves into melancholia. The park, the kids, and the impatient doorbell do not seem to be mere sonic objects. They offer an entryway into a poetic contemplative mood in which a constant traveller of the phenomenal world may indulge. Instead of articulating corporeal “things” in the physical space of the world, the traveller prefers to remain detached as an onlooker and engage with thoughts triggered by the infinite sonic events emanating from the phenomenal world into the domain of a metaphysical “nowhere” and mindfulness of “nothing.”

Standing at the proverbial doors of an impending nothingness, I intend to explore the apparent nihilism of an auditory situation through the intuitive and introspective potential of thoughts that transcend mere epistemic comprehension of the sonic phenomenon involving my wandering “mind” or “consciousness” as a wayfaring listener. These thought processes, when textualized, produce much more than a knowledge-structure about sound by means of the subjectivity, poetics, and moods involved with the unwrapping of an intangible auditory situation insofar as it appears and dissolves into another.

Admittedly, it is not my intention in this essay to structure a theoretical framework of the triangular relationship between sound (event/medium/wave), location (physical/mental/virtual), and listening (perception/cognition/meaning). Rather, I am more interested in an understanding within myself of the ever-evolving auditory situations and their ramifications in the mind of the travelling listener. The driving motivation behind this essay, therefore, is to introduce my project “Doors of Nothingness” and the specifics of its methodology, which aims at finding a set of new explanations and triggering further discourses on how agents like me can both epistemologically and metaphysically relate to the fluid world around us. The “us” here necessarily refers to the emerging community of nomadic individuals and entities.

The on-going project “Doors of Nothingness” frames and textualizes temporal thoughts that emerge from certain immersive but evanescent auditory situations. Essentially contemplative and personal in nature, this project explores the pervasive interaction between constantly migrating man and his contextual sonic environment, using as its entryway perceptual and cognitive processes. Working from these sets of assumptions, the methodology of the project incorporates fieldwork in places where the listener/artist acts as a mobile and migratory being. The everyday life of the nomadic listener/artist offers such situations in random urban spaces. The fieldwork includes ubiquitous recording and simultaneous writing of thoughts to develop an archive of sound and text in close relationship with each other. This collection of automatic writings as well as binaural sound files (scribblings of thoughts and their corresponding audio recordings) make up the body of the archive, which becomes the definitive repository through which the process and production of artworks (and other forms of presentation that the project envisions) take place.

Doors of Nothingness: excerpts and notes


1.

Yes, I am here, although I am not present at this time of day, which is evolving towards maturity and evening. The age of this moment is transfixed, as is the gaze on a wall of sound. What if I am part of the people who are passing by? Not I, but my ears avoid listening to sounds except my own footsteps; clouds are hanging over the people who pass by the site of recording; they traverse the site as if they are trying not to understand the auditory act; I wonder what they think, looking at a microphone with me as its shadow. But my thoughts do not remain static at all; they dissolve quickly into the rising level of sounds from a machine drill that comes from the city at the distance. Here, in front of a large pile of debris, I have been standing alone and perplexed all morning in front of the buttons of the recording machine. Is listening in a public place to be considered madness? If that is so, why do people stop their ears with silicon plugs, still watching other passers-by? In essence, everybody wants to touch each other; everybody wants to build contact; everybody longs for empathy and to reach out in intimacy to someone. How difficult is it to translate these longings from that slightly pale girl who seems to be perpetually frightened, or is she not?
Morning, January 2012, Copenhagen

The location is the Amager campus of Copenhagen University. The time is morning, a busy hour before lunch break. A large-scale construction site overwhelms the location in front of the university library. Students are passing by the open courtyard; some of them may stop to light a cigarette. I am a fugitive; I ran away from my office to stand at the corner of the courtyard and look at and listen to the construction site. In this busy hour of the day, when work has resumed at desks and people are enthusiastic about the work hours to come, the sounds of a construction site intrude into my wandering mind through the predictable and mundane sonic fabric of the location. As I engage myself in recording the sonic phenomenon, the sound of the construction site does not remain the mere sound of construction but becomes a fleeting and uprooted situation at the margin of everyday life. I am positioned as a “self” who accommodates the situation in subjective thoughts with all their incongruence and impermanence.

2.

I open the window in earnest, and a flurry of events enters into a room full of myself; they fly above my head, under my feet, and beyond my submerged hands; they pause, lose direction and resume circling around me; they start to disintegrate, and the fragmented intensity of all that is happening outside the window turns into the day’s end, like a series of mirrored glasses, ashes, and smoke. I grasp the window, and the sky takes the shape of a square with each of its corners tied to the wall of sound; they start to fly away; the immense, coloured sky, maroon, blue, and pink, struggles against today’s wind; the day has become windy without letting me know.
Late afternoon, February 2012, Copenhagen

Inside my office at the faculty of humanities, the late afternoons come with a definitive sense of release. The workday has developed into a situation of tranquillity, as the rush of morning e-mails and the busy footsteps of focus groups have died down. The window behind the office appears with immediate intensity, and the sonic frame it suggests becomes the reference of the slowly appearing and gradually diminishing situation from the afternoon. It is the time of day when looking outside for a breath sustains the coming of tomorrow. As the release of the day from the clutches of activity becomes apparent, I indulge in listening beyond my desk to the expanded sonic horizon enveloping this situation.

3.

My ears are open to the slightest movement in the nature of things. This hyper-alertness captures part of my attention; I start to belong to the events happening around me; I become more fragmented, and the essence of myself becomes transitory; I exist only as the keyboard pressing each letter at a certain frequency in another cubicle, detached from mine but connected by a corridor; I exist only as the slamming of a door and migratory footsteps; I exist only as the copy-machine, repeating its sliding motions with paper coming out; somebody throws out words to somebody else and that somebody is none other than myself; the words become alien - I stop understanding their meaning and signification; they remain the mere sound of spoken words, fractured human voices without any audible information; the keyboard, the copy-machine, the footsteps and the voice, all of them slowly take bits and pieces of flesh from my body; even my fragile bones disappear into the nature of things and their mighty soundings. My ears become an abstraction of the listening process.
Noon, March 2012, Copenhagen

At high noon of the working day, listening to sounds in the immediate environment of the office elicits hyperreal reactions to details. The confinement of the situation is simultaneously informed and disrupted by each potential sound event. A footstep in the corridor, an overheard snippet of an otherwise inaudible dialogue, or the sound of a keyboard elicit heightened attention in the middle of an intense involvement with work responsibilities. The immediacy of auditory perception does not allow for a conclusive understanding of a sonic phenomenon; rather, it momentarily triggers convoluted thought processes beyond the meaning of the sonic phenomenon, prone to activate disorientation within an immersive engagement with work. To remain on the other side of a schizophrenic attention to sound events and a breakdown of thought processes, one has to sacrifice the faculty of listening to the bodily presence of things within the “self” of the listener.

4.

What does waiting sound like? Waiting opens objects up to attention; they blossom like morning flowers; they start to reveal their essence. A paper-weight regains its shape; a coffee cup maintains its emptiness around the marks of yesterday’s drink; an apple becomes desirable; an optical mouse appears as a brand; the open book becomes a page by itself; the headphone is understood as a split between myself and the surroundings if it is not connected to a microphone. I simply cannot shift my gaze from everything that presents itself. I wait for the answering machine, and the time unfolds in a relentless string of relatedness between myself and the objects around me; as an extension of practice, I touch my skin, and the object-hood of me becomes clearer; the hair on my hand and the marks of age on the fingers; uncut nails appear as social parasites, and the eagerness of each fingertip to reach out to the other is recognized as an organizational strategy of hyper-communication. In the situation of the waiting, I do not hear a thing; as a result, I see, cognize, and recognize things around me.
Afternoon, April 2012, Copenhagen

Time and space are stretched to their actual limit in the situation of waiting. A phone call can be on hold, an important e-mail may remain unanswered, or an on-going dialogue can become disrupted by another, but the situation of waiting allows the extended time and space to engage with sounds in a mode of expanded listening. Since there is ample and indefinite time in waiting, the spatio-temporal unfolding of a sound event is gradual; there is no compulsive rush to decipher its meaning. In this situation, expanded listening gives way to taking sound for granted; hence, the participation of the eye becomes prominent. Seeing and understanding “things” and “objects” lead the way to comprehension, while sonic phenomena hide in their gradual unfolding.

Commentaries


In his seminal work Listening, Jean-Luc Nancy has argued that the philosopher is one who hears but cannot listen, “or who, more precisely, neutralizes listening within himself, so that he can philosophize” (Nancy 2007). This mode of argumentation challenges the trends of epistemic discourse in sound studies that equate “listening” with “understanding,” “audibility,” and “intelligibility,” or the “sonic” with the “logical.” At the outset, this equation seems simplistic – relegating the epistemological to merely a framework for studying sound. Nancy has already initiated an alternative line of thinking in Listening:

If “to hear” is to understand the sense (either in the so-called figurative sense, or in the so-called proper sense: to hear a siren, a bird, or a drum is already each time to understand at least the rough outline of a situation, a context if not a text), to listen is to be straining toward a possible meaning, and consequently one that is not immediately accessible. (Nancy 2007, 6)

Therefore, it would be worthwhile to explore beyond the immediately accessible meaning of sound toward the contemplative and emotive potential of sonic phenomena at the listener’s end. Taking our point of departure from the phenomenological aspects of sound, the subjective and personal experience can articulate spatial sound events in their holistic entirety, including the mental and emotive context within the situation of the listener. The thought processes activated by sonic phenomena transcend mere epistemic comprehension of the source identity to involve poetics and the mood of the listener in outlining the auditory situation in a context that tends to articulate sound events in an all-encompassing, accommodative, and inclusive fashion beyond structured theorizing and rigid conceptualization.

Epilogue


It is evident that the constant and itinerant flow of listening states and elusively ephemeral auditory situations lead to sound’s interpretation and understanding in thought processes that go beyond their possible identification and meaning. This is a transformation of the original sound to create a sense of context within which the subjectivity, poetics, and moods of the listener can be accommodated. Sound generates knowledge not merely through the epistemological understanding of its meaning by immediately accessing its source identity, but sonic phenomena trigger thought processes that transcend mere identification of the events to involve the individual or the “self” by way of framing triggered cognitive associations with the situation. As an increasingly migratory being, a listener interacts with the various places he/she traverses in fleeting and transitory ways, experiencing them as amorphously evolving and gradually disorienting auditory situations. The listener may relate to these spatio-temporally fluid and impalpable situations through a stream of thoughts set in process by means of auditory cognition, immersion, and presence in the context of listener’s on-going interaction with the sonic phenomenon. Situational sonic phenomena, therefore, activate an amalgam of thoughts that transcend the immediately accessible meaning of the sound to involve the mind of the listener, while the epistemic knowledge-structure of the sound is informed, disrupted, and enriched by means of the subjectivity, poetics, and moods involved. We, the migratory beings, live in the perpetual dislocation, one that finds auditory perception constantly migrating across places into uprooted sonic geographies, producing meanings for a sonic phenomenon that, at times, are arguably independent from the actual source identity. In the context of pursuing the project and its various disseminations, the rapidly emerging discourse on migration, mobility, and nomadism is addressed and furthered within the everyday practice of listening, pointing towards the context-awareness of the nomadic listener.

References


Altman, Rick (1992). Sound Theory/Sound Practice. New York: Routledge.

Barwise, Jon and John Perry (1999). Situations and Attitudes. Center for the Study of Language and Information.

Braidotti, Rosi (2012). Nomadic Theory: The Portable Rosi Braidotti. New York: Columbia University Press.

Branigan, Edward (1989). “Sound and Epistemology in Film.” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 47/4: 311-324.

Chattopadhyay, Budhaditya (2012). “Doors of Nothingness.” jərˈmān (English Department, University of Montana), June edition. Retrieved on 1 August 2012 from http://www.cutbankonline.org/2012/06/16/jərˈman-doors-of-nothingness-by-budhaditya-chattopadhyay/

Murray Schafer, Raymond (1977). The Soundscape: Our Sonic Environment and the Tuning of the World. Rochester: Destiny Books.

Nancy, Jean-Luc (2007). Listening. (Trans. Charlotte Mandell). New York: Fordham University Press.

O’Callaghan, Casey and Matthew Nudds (eds.) (2009). Sounds and Perception: New Philosophical Essays. New York: Oxford University Press.

Stojanovic, Isidora (2011). “Situation Semantics.” In Albert Newen and Raphael van Riel (eds.), Identity, Language, and Mind: Introduction to the Philosophy of John Perry. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Retrieved on 4 april 2013 from http://jeannicod.ccsd.cnrs.fr/docs/00/62/98/50/PDF/situationsemantics.pdf


Budhaditya Chattopadhyay is an artist and researcher primarily engaged with sound and listening. Working at the intersection between cinema, digital media, and sound art, and interpenetrating research, artistic process, and practice, he incorporates audio, video, and text to generate a diverse range of sound-based artworks for exhibition, publication, installation, and live performance. He studied cinema, specializing in audiography, at the National Film School SRFTI, India, and completed a Master of Arts degree in new media with a dissertation in sound art at Aarhus University, Denmark. Among other awards and distinctions, his work was nominated for the PRIX Ars Electronica 2011 in the digital music/sound art category. Currently, he is engaged in a PhD project at the Faculty of Humanities, University of Copenhagen, working on the perception and cognition of sound in cinema.