Bennett Hogg – when violins were trees . . .

 paper given at Beyond Soundscape symposium at Queen’s University Belfast as part of Sonorities Festival, 27th April 2013

“Seeing always happens in a meta-position, away from the seen, however close. And this distance enables a detachment and objectivity that presents itself as truth” (Voegelin 2010, xii). This is the “truth” of post-Enlightenment science, in which an externally existing reality is believed to be fully perceived by empirical observation that claims objective detachment from the distortions of subjectivity, what Donna Haraway has called the “modest_witness” of scientific observation, the observer who in performatively effacing their own subject position gets to claim their sense data as objective fact (Haraway 1998; Cranny-Francis 2006).

Although the aesthetic in Western culture cannot be restricted to the visual per se, it nevertheless seems to be organised according to a kind of objectification that is more characteristic of the visual than the auditory. Tim Morton writes, for example, that “The aesthetic is . . . a product of distance: of human beings from nature, of subjects from objects, of mind from matter” (Morton 2007, 24). Denis Cosgrove, in his seminal work on landscape writes “To speak of landscape beauty or quality is to adopt the role of observer rather than participant” (Cosgrove 1985, 18); aestheticisation of landscape, therefore, is grounded in objectification and distancing.

It is arguable that our listening is strongly overwritten with the aestheticizing logic of the visual, particularly so in the specific kind of listening we apply to concert music. We hear sound as it comes at us from all directions, but our vision is strongly directed. The concert, arising during the 18th Century, a period of intense commodification in European culture, quickly becomes conventionalised into a specular form. The source of the music is from the front, usually framed like a window or painting by some form of proscenium, and socially organised through rows of listeners facing the same direction. By the nineteenth century the audience is still and silent, directing all of their aural attention forwards, to absorb the masterworks of romantic genius. In the twentieth century, in an instance of what Foucault might call the ‘swarming of disciplinarity’ this specular organisation of the sonic is repeated in stereophony, the dominant modality of music recording and listening of the last fifty years, in which paired loudspeakers reproduce the framed, sonic proscenium of the concert. The notion of directed and attentive listening per se, then, when it is deployed for aesthetic purposes – conducted in silence by an unmoving body – fails to escape this same specular organisation.

Concert listening, stereophony, and what I have argued is the visually-structured nature of “attentive” listening in general can be understood as attributes of a cultural logic of the aesthetic that is organised by separation and objectification whose dominant modality is visual. This is a visuality conceptualised as being more autonomous than the other senses, and this conceptualisation thereby marginalises more intersensorial and embodied experiences. By contrast consciousness organised along auditory principles has been argued to be less distancing, more integrative, more intersensorial, and more participative.

If, for Voegelin, seeing “always happens in a meta-position” hearing does not;

“there is no place where I am not simultaneous with the heard. . . . a philosophy of sound art must have at its core the principle of sharing time and space with the object or event under consideration. It is a philosophical project that necessitates an involved participation, rather than enables a detached viewing position (Voegelin 2010, xii). . . . the auditory is generated in the listening practice” (Voegelin 2010, 5).

Rather than being distanced and objectified, then, listening and sound offer, for Voegelin, a serious phenomenological alternative to the dominance of the visual.

Merleau-Ponty talks about his world of perception in visual terms. The sensibility of his perception however is not that of vision. . . . it is sonic perception, which is free of the visual stranglehold on knowledge and experience. Sound does not describe [an already existent thing] but produces the object/phenomenon under consideration. It shares nothing of the totalizing ability of the visual. (Voegelin 2010, 10). . . . Objectivity and subjectivity are partners rather than adversaries in such a conception . . . constituted through each other without abandoning their own purpose” (Voegelin, p. 15).

We are implicit in our own sound worlds; we generate sound as well as perceiving it, and we therefore hear ourselves in the world in a way that we generally do not see ourselves. The silent, non-participative, uni-directional attention of concert listening, and its derivatives, is in fact entirely atypical of our perception of sound. Our normal mode of sonic perception includes bodily reaction – we jump at a loud sound, tap our feet in rhythm, turn to look because of something heard behind us – and sound is something we join in with. For me, which is most striking about taking a soundwalk is the way our motion, stance, pacing interacts with what we are hearing – pausing to listen to a distant or faint sound, we hold our breath as well as our atttention. From the position of aurality our senses are intermodal, not separated out, and closely imbricated with vision, motion and muscular reaction. Though in a balanced epistemology vision and hearing complement one another, an over-dominance of visuality risks leaving nothing to the sonic that is of the sonic.

Voegelin’s position is congruent with what might be termed an ecosystemic approach, an approach that opens up the possibility for an environmentally-situated sound art that does not simply repeat the visually-organised logic of representation, on loudspeakers. An ecosystemic approach is not fully compatible with cultural conventions that structure the aesthetic. As Tim Morton notes, the aesthetic, insofar as it involves a distancing “of human beings from nature, of subjects from objects, of mind from matter” is “rather suspiciously anti-ecological?” (Morton 2007, 24).

He notes that

“The word environment still haunts us, because in a society that took care of its surroundings in a more comprehensive sense, our idea of environment would have withered away. . . . Society would be so involved in taking care of ‘it’ that it would no longer be a case of some ‘thing’ that surrounds us, that environs us and differs from us. . . . In a society that fully acknowledged that we were always already involved in our world, there would be no need to point it out” (Morton 2007, 141, italics in original).

soundscape and acoustic ecology

The term “soundscape” has its roots in “landscape”, and in general shares a logic of specular framing with the visual arts’ understanding of landscape; the stereo field organises a frontally-oriented relationship between listener and sound, that is derived historically from concert practices. It would be a mistake though to imagine that simply replacing stereo with multitrack or binaural recordings, or presenting work in surround sound performances/installations would be an end to this issue; such a move would in fact do virtually nothing to address the central philosophical and ideological issues, which are not about spatiality but participation, not directionality but involvement. One could make a perfect recording of a forest in thirty-two channels and redistribute this material on the same number of loudspeakers, reproducing the sonic experience of being in the forest very closely, and yet it would still be an objectification, a representation, a function of a listening subject who remains silent and attentive, not a listener who is a constitutive part of the soundscape they experience. If something is to be truly sonic and ecosystemic, soundscape or acoustic ecology, it cannot pretend that the artist is not there. Mike Pearson, for example states that “Landscape is part of us, just as we are part of it . . . But this embodiment is not inscription but rather incorporation. Landscape has no pre-existing form that is then inscribed with human activity: both being and environment are mutually emergent; continuously brought into being together” (Pearson 2006, 12).

The idea of landscape has been subject to extensive critique and reconceptualisation over the past thirty years, or so, and if soundscape is derived from landscape, it seems appropriate to critically reconsider the idea of soundscape. For many years now I have tried to find ways to integrate my fascination with and love of the natural world with my creative work as a musician, but have never felt satisfied with the results. The problem in all of my attempts, as I recently realised, was representation; I was listening like a member of an audience expecting to have the environment represented to me; I was not listening like a musician listens. Audience listening and musician listening are forms of attentive listening, but the audience responds in silence and without moving, while the musician responds with sound and in movement – this audience listening, though, is often the position that composers – unconsciously – find themselves trapped into. Rather than bringing home pristine lumps of the world (in the form of environmental sound recordings) to represent to an audience, the creative impasse I found myself in was broken by taking things to the world – going into it with my knowledge, skills, ideas, and technologies, acknowledging my inescapable involvement with the world, working in it and with it, not collecting abstractions destined only to be used in representations. It was by literally dragging my violin through the woods, and floating it on rivers, and listening to the results, that I learned that a sound art that engages with the environment would be participative, inclusive, and involved. It would mean listening like a participant in the “soundscape”, like an improviser not like a member of an audience. Developing an environmental sound art would be a process of learning through action rather than a search for something already “out there” that “needed” representing.

No Representation, then, without Participation. Morton calls art works that strive to represent the reality of the environment “ecomimetic”. Ecomimesis, and the unspoken ideological ground that it marks, is, I think, a feature of much acoustic ecology and soundscape composition, including aspects of my own. Recordings of natural and urban spaces that are presented as “soundscapes” strive to conceal their own constructedness. As Morton puts it:

“When ecomimesis renders an environment, it is implicitly saying: ‘This environment is real; do not think that there is an aesthetic framework here’. All signals that we are in a constructed realm have been minimized” (Morton 2007, 35).

Though many soundscape artists are acutely aware of this, and in fact work with it, there is nevertheless a sense of a “hands-off” approach, the illusion that the listener’s attention is merely directed at environmental sound, rather than a creative process that explicitly chooses and actively constructs a representation of reality. My own recent environmentally-situated work, though, actively works against ecomimesis, which is not to say that ecomimesis is overcome, but I find myself refusing to conceal the constructed nature of the sounds used, refusing to frame the sounds as being “out there”, and instead claiming a hands-on, participative, and involved relationship with my materials. Central to this is my background in free improvisation, in which you only know what you’ve made when you’ve made it. Voegelin’s “aesthetic subject in sound”, to me, is almost synonymous with the improviser.

The aesthetic subject in sound is defined by this fact of interaction with the auditory world. He is placed in the midst of its materiality, complicit with its production. The sounds of his footsteps are part of the auditory city he produces in his movements through it. His subject position is different from the viewing self, whose body is at a distance from the seen. The listener is entwined with the heard. His sense of the world and of himself is constituted in this bond (Voegelin 2010, 5).

The work I have been doing with violins in the environment hopes to model an ecosystemic approach to the world, it aspires to be an active and participative ecology of “interrelatedness”.

Although the setting up of nature reserves and National Parks was an important response to the ecological crisis as it emerged in the fifties and sixties, the “preservation” model is an unsustainable solution in the long run. Contemporary ecology demands that we move beyond preservation, and radically change our cultural as well as our economic interactions with the environment. What is required is that we learn to experience our interrelatedness with the world, and to foster a much broader and more comprehensive ethics of involvement, rather than a bottom line of exploitation barely hidden behind the fig leaf of “nature conservation”. A shift from representing the world – recording and preserving its image, be that visual or sonic – towards a sonic arts practice of balanced involvement seems, to me at least, to offer the potential of moving towards this.

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