I am electrical by nature, music is the electric soil in which the spirit lives, thinks, and invents.
Ludwig von Beethoven
The Shadow of Your Smile… Theoretical papers often quote Plato’s Cave – such a nice, primitive dawn of consciousness image, with its shadowy representations flickering sootily across the cave’s rear wall and the line of onlookers warming their backs by the fire! Strangely there is scant mention of the crackle of burning wood, or the sounds of those protagonists prancing around the flames, not to mention the perfectly formed sound reflections returning from the cave’s surfaces. With a moment’s contemplation it should be clear that the ‘captive audience’ seated in the cave would have understood significantly more from their audio environment than from the appallingly low-tech visuals!
From classical simulacra to contemporary Virtual Reality caves there is strangely little shift in such insistence upon visual dominance, or should we call it a ‘blindness’ to sound? Despite a technological history in which audio invention has consistently preceded that of the visual, the ‘synthetic’ eye has it over the ‘analytic’ ear in the commercial worlds of representation and reproduction.
The sense of hearing is an archaic attribute, but the act of listening is a predictive sense. To listen is to harness the present in an act gainsaying the immediate future.
You fill up my senses like a night in the Forest…. The primitive mammalian ear developed as a specialisation of skin’s sensory hair cells combined in co-evolution with adaptations of cranial bone structures. In evolutionary terms hearing is both very complex and ancient being directly connected to our perception of environmental danger. Unlike the specific and intermittent focus of the eye, the ear never sleeps, we are, in a sense, equipped to hear the invisible and a rush of Adrenalin is the typical response to any loud or sudden and noise - especially those without an immediate visual reference.
The desert floor, is in acoustic terms, a “half space” a domain in which the inverse square law reigns supreme and the eye is free to scan like a beacon. But compare this open horizon to an experience such as sleeping deep in a forest - where we obsessively hear that which we cannot see - where we see only outlines, interfaces and gaps in the forest cover. As ex-tree dwellers we have inherited a two and a half-dimensional world in which our sense of hearing is spatial, but our sense of vision is somewhat linear and vectorised.
We might generalise the ear as an analytic organ, continually monitoring 360° space. By contrast, we might consider the eye as a synthetic organ – able to scan the world and assemble synthetic images. Whilst we are fortunate to take pleasure in hearing we should not overlook the strong relationship the Ur-ear has to adrenaline and to fear – it is a tool which analyses sounds in four rapid sequences. Inside a 200-millisecond envelope we localise a source, register the amplitude, pitch and finally timbre – a hierarchy of survival skills!
Technology and Discourse. Sound and Sound-Art (as distinct from Music) have no specific discipline and consequently no authoritative canon, to either encourage or constrain their development. Rather sound and its metaphors; exist as a series of pervasive but fragmented discourses acting within and flowing nomadically between, other disciplines (for example – the Physics of sound propagation, or the study of Psycho-acoustics). Hence, the cultural development of Sound-Art and even the development of audio technology, does not exist as a unified field of research and has no single, authoritative historical canon or discourse - its lineage consists instead, of a diaspora of fragments existing nomadically and symbiotically with other disciplines.
Sound-Art lives with this double-edged sword which is simultaneously a disadvantage, as Sound-Art operates as a morphic field rather than as a purposeful agent, but it is also an advantage in that it creates a vital necessity to co-exist, to dialogue and to hybridise.
Research and creative development in both the conceptual and technical field occurs in a sprawling and discontinuous manner, the majority of which do not form sensible connections, let alone integrate in a systematic fashion. Thus Sound-Art occupies one of the few remaining ‘open spaces’ in which the evolution of new unifying metaphors and the congregation of parallel histories is possible under a new paradigm of non-linear development. This offers the potential to capitalise upon contemporary tendencies in art practice that are moving away from the dominant self-expressive art of the twentieth century towards collaborative inter-disciplinary projects, both within the arts and within the broader context of the sciences, be they new media and technology, biology or physics.
The development of phonography in the second half of the 19th Century constituted the pre-history of contemporary communications technology, predating most developments in image reproduction technologies. But despite this precociousness, our sensitivity and appreciation of acoustic worlds has habitually been forced to play poor cousin within our visually over-driven culture.
“The eye is the master, the ear a slave” so at least would Jakob Grimm and the histories of Radio, Cinema and Television have us believe. All of these media (even radio) borrow visual devices to frame the perspective of their audiences who lurk passively on the other side of a virtual proscenium arch awaiting entertainment.
Such is the cultural context in which Sound-artists operate and in the words of the sage “boldly go where no one has gone before” theirs is a polyvalent mission in apparently hostile (or sadly indifferent) territory!
Schizophrenia and Schitzophonia. Sound Artists, in a somewhat schizophrenic (or to use Schaeffer’s term) schizophonic manner have maintained close ties to both the discourse of Art and the discourse of Technology, retaining their position as pioneers of both new creative methodologies and technologies. Indeed it is not surprising that many contemporary sound-artists are deeply fascinated by the original inflorescence of creative and technical imagination that fuelled the development of acoustic and electro-mechanical invention in the 19th Century which in effect forms the foundation for the contemporary communications technology that we take for granted.
The explorations of the dual alliance formed by Sound-Artists between technology and cultural discourse reveal far reaching implications as we witness two powerful forces at work - the convergence of electronic media and the simultaneous collapse of discipline boundaries. It is the combination of these two tendencies, which is fuelling the emergence of lateral and hybrid cultural forms.
Sound Art, as if resonating sympathetically with the nature of Sound itself, is both immersive and predominantly experiential (whilst intrinsically possessing the capacity for representation). As such, sound reproduction systems have been the paradigm for the emergent concepts of immersion and surrounded-ness that future generations of telecommunications technologies are attempting to achieve in augmented and virtual realities, developments that in turn will affect out perceptions of and actions in the world.
We might consider Sound-Art as a type of originary model for these new cultural conditions - in that Sound-Art is by definition cross-disciplinary and that it has always operated in a synergetic manner between art and science, as a cultural form expressed via a technological vehicle, it is in fact a perfect template for re-thinking our modus operandi.