Presenting Experiences of Listening to Rubbish


HW: I wasn't planning on making a recording, but then I met these interesting people at this party, and I only had my smartphone so I just asked: “Can I record our conversation?” I put the smartphone on the ground, and I recorded for almost an hour. It was at a family gathering that a politician friend of mine invited me to. I was really excited by all the things that went on there. And then I went back to my lodgings and tried to listen to it: “Oh, this is useless, what a pity.” I took really brief notes, and I thought that I would never return to this. But I decided to make a consistent effort for the sake of our special issue, and I think it paid off [laughs]. Although I'm not sure if the recording will be useful to any other person beside myself. It happened around seven years ago, and I felt that my memories from the event had empty gaps, so I combined my notes, memories, and this exercise in listening, and then I reconstructed this narrative [for the article]. I'm still not sure what to make of the rubbish aspects of the recording. I see how all the distortion that's going on there is in dialogue with the social context. You have these Islamic learned people who are true masters of oratory, and they start building up their oratories, and then, at the end of the speech the recording goes: Brrrrr, BRRR, BRRRRR. This was a Javanese Islamic gathering, but the bureaucrat that showed up from the local government was a Christian, so he had to employ completely different rhetorical and oratorical tricks in order to gain standing within the event, and he speaks so softly that the recording is almost perfect during his speech [laughing]. So when you look at the amplitude of the recording, the distortion follows the dramatic arc of the whole event. I don't know if it's meaningful, but I keep coming back to the Brian Eno anecdote. I just needed to dive into the recording and really suffer through it, and then all kinds of interesting things started to come out of it, even though I had sort of given up on it before.


EK: Obviously, it wasn’t in the sound, but the meanings that you've just been talking about, bringing out, are fascinating. The relationship between the oratorical style and the development and the presence of that distortion at the same time: so whenever he builds up intensity, it also becomes more and more distorted. There are lots of figurative meanings there. It sounds like it’s been fruitful for all those reasons, and seeing that, you wouldn't have had to look at the waveform if it hadn’t been for the fact that the recording was so distorted.


HW: Yes, it's not that I took a sound engineer’s point of view, but, at least, I had to remove myself from the usual sort of anthropological perspective in order to get something out of it. And it was a really useful exercise, but if it was a reasonable exercise, is it still rubbish? We are back at the same dilemma.


JL: In one of his papers, Brian Larkin (2014) made a brilliant analysis about the mediality of loudspeakers in Nigeria. He perfectly described the sonic layers produced by loudspeakers and the competition that took place through amplified sound. It helped me, because in the neighborhood I worked in, there was a competition between young people who had impressive sound systems. As you cannot call the police, you need to develop what Larkin calls “techniques of inattention.” But his paper also revealed the different dilemmas an ethnographer and a visual or multimodal anthropologist face when they decide to present experiences of listening to rubbish. For instance, I don't think Larkin made recordings of these very loud sounds in order to present them as a result of his inquiry. It was not an anthropology through sound recordings (Feld and Brenneis 2004); he did not deal directly with the audio. So for him, and for most ethnographers I guess, it is only a matter of describing rubbishness or loudness through words. But for a visual anthropologist or a multimodal anthropologist, the question is: “How do I publish that?” “How can I present it in order to make my readers, or audience, listen?” As an ethnographer, you can pull out things, based on your experience and embodied knowledge, but when you present it, people will relate to it without your experience, and it will be rubbish to them.


EK: That is right, that’s going back to the earlier history of visual anthropology, like David McDougall who writes about the suspicion of the moving image, because there's too much information (MacDougall 1998). The ethnographer can’t direct the attention of the audience or readers in the way that they want to – like Brian Larkin can, for example, with respect to these loudspeaker sounds. He is able to tell us exactly what he wants to say about them, all the aspects of it, but he doesn't make you enter into it. This “too much information” is exactly what becomes of interest for visual anthropologists or multimodal anthropologists. That’s what we’re interested in, at least speaking for myself, that inability to focus the listeners attention. Saying that this [overwhelming information] is distracting is missing the point. It’s not possible to be distracted by something that’s part of the world that we're entering into here. It’s more like being interested in something [laughs]. But with Heikki’s recording, there's an additional problem, which is that it is just literally painful to listen to it [laughing]. The nature of that distortion is ... and I tried a couple of things on it, like noise reduction strategies: I tried de-clipping, and I tried a dialogue isolate plugin and different things. But that distortion is really throughout the entire spectrum of the audio, from low to high.


HW: Yes, but if there hadn’t been distortion, I would probably have overly focused on the “near-field” discussion; but thanks to the distortion, I had to think of the three layers, and they’re in a sort of dynamic balance, because the people giving the speeches have to fight for the attention of the audience. And if they don't, the level of background noise starts rising, and then they need to speak louder or employ some other tricks. And then there's the place where I was sitting, the VIP dais, which had its own side conversations, and they had their own dynamic balance – sometimes they had to pause conversing if a person with higher authority was speaking. But, for example, when the Christian bureaucrat was speaking, they were making jokes about the way he spoke. So, I was mainly figuring out this sort of dynamic relationship between these layers, because there was very little discursive content I could make out of the recording because of the poor quality. My approach to listening was completely different. And that was an interesting exercise.


JL: Maybe we could conclude with a question that relates to the theme we raised in the beginning of our conversation about the differences between analog and digital artifacts. How do we rely on both of them? Is it really that the digital artifacts are more painful and less poetic by essence, or is it just a relation between the time of the recording and the moment of listening that somehow is indexed by the perceived rubbishness of the sound? I'm not sure how I relate to it. And with Heikki’s phone recording, I think we are reaching a threshold.


HW: In other words, will my recording ever be considered nostalgic and poetic 40 years from now?


EK: Well, I don't know. It is hard on the ears for sure. I would also say that Heikki’s dynasty excerpt is just so … you could say that, in objective terms, the digital audio is capable of much brighter and harsher sounds than analog tape is. It will reproduce that stuff way up to 20 kilohertz … It can really hurt your ears in a way that the analog stuff maybe can’t. It's like there might be something going on above 12 kilohertz, but not too much: 15 or 16 kilohertz. Whereas there can be incredibly loud stuff happening digitally at 16 to 18 kilohertz, and it is going to hurt your ears. So it’s not just an aesthetic interpretation. Meanwhile, that’s not really possible with analog stuff. I mean, maybe it is subjective, because for me, very high frequency stuff is painful. Either I don’t hear it, or it’s painful. Whereas the clunks, speed changes, and clicks of the analog tape, the Nagra that Rockefeller is using, are never actually painful.

Audio recording made by Heikki Wilenius with a smartphone, during his fieldwork in East Java, Indonesia, September 2013.
Warning, the sound sample contains harsh digital distortion.