The Heuristics of Repetitive Listening


HW: I have been thinking about listening patterns and habits during our discussions around the topic of sound and rubbish. In David Toop’s book, Ocean of sound (2001), there’s an anecdote on Brian Eno, who makes a random recording of city noise in London, and then he gets this idea of taking a small snippet, around three minutes long, and listening to it on repeat, until he knows it by heart, understands every little nuance of the recording, as if learning a piece of music. Eno says that a structure emerges, a structure that wasn't there before. So, according to him, the sounds get augmented. In the credits of Expedition Content you described your role as composers of an augmented sound piece. So, this is just my convoluted way of asking if, by focusing on the rubbish aspects of sound recordings, can we think of a similar process emerging? Because Eno claimed that this changed his approach to recordings, he listened to everything in a different way after this exercise. Could we make a similar move regarding anthropologists’ attitude to field recordings by switching the focus like that? Because it was very tedious when I was listening to my own recording I wrote about for this Journal of Sonic Studies issue. It’s a 15-minute smartphone recording, and it’s very taxing to listen to. There's this distortion from the poor microphone. But all these fascinating layers emerged there, after torturing my ear long enough.


EK: That’s a wonderful exercise. Too often, there’s a common attitude to sound recording that it is simply a representation of a sound, you know, and that the recording itself, or the qualities of the audio itself are meant to be kind of ignored, and you somehow get through it just to the sound that’s being represented there. The exercise that you’re describing here is about understanding the whole texture of the sound recording. This is where the distinction that Micah Silver (2014) makes, that I mentioned earlier, between audio and sound is so useful, where the term audio is reserved for intentionally produced sound. For example a recording played back through speakers is audio, while the sound that I’m hearing out and about is sound. When they listen to a recording, people, anthropologists, and everyone else are trying to hear sound, and they’re not really listening to the audio. You know what I mean? This mistaken idea, in my view, the acousmatic idea that we’re listening to the sound without seeing the source of the sound, is missing this whole point of what audio is. No, we're hearing audio, that is referring somehow to a sound. It is not the sound without seeing the source of the sound; that’s not at all what's happening. We’re hearing audio, and somehow, and this is where it's mysterious, there's a semiotic process that enables some idea of something that was recorded to come into our mind. And it happens because we’re listening to this audio, and it somehow reminds us through this combination of iconicity, memory, and indexicality, all these things coming together, so even if we haven't experienced or recorded the scene, we can have a mental image of what it might have been. It is not because that sound is presenting itself – it’s happening in our mind because of the audio that is happening in this room. So, focusing on that level of audio, like what Brian Eno is doing, and what you're doing, Heikki, when listening to your piece, over and over again, you appreciate it in a whole new way. And it becomes less about what it refers to and more about the structure of the audio itself.


HW: Yeah, if we compare visual culture and aural culture – from the perspective of visual culture, even in anthropology, the mainstream attitude to sound or sound recordings is quite naive. It is lagging behind because of the semiotic ideology of anthropology: sound hasn't been sufficiently reflected on.


EK: I think you're right.