Within the dominant narratives on sound art traditions we find very little mention of oral stories or storytelling. Additionally, the presence of storytelling can lead a sound art work to be consigned to other mediums, such as radio or theatre. Perhaps the inclusion of oral storytelling is perceived as weakening the listening experience of sound by imposing narrative and meaning and restricting the listener’s imagination. Although it may be difficult to find these views stated explicitly, if one looks (or listens) a little closer, the silence surrounding oral storytelling, and the lack of discussion of its uses and potentials in texts, reveals that it is overlooked, or even undervalued, within sound art.(1) However, it is possible to find hints at why this might be the case. For example, in Alan Licht’s Sound Art: Beyond music, between categories (2007), Licht proposes that sound art is a non-narrative medium, and seldom attempts to relate to, or express, human interaction.
Definitions such as Licht’s seem to understand sound art as merely a physical presence. Or perhaps rather, they focus on how sound interacts with the physical world as defined by acoustics, reverberations, algorithms and the physical ‘space’ of sound. Brandon LaBelle illustrates this view in the introduction to his book Background Noise: Perspectives on Sound Art (2006):
It is my view that sound’s relational condition can be traced through modes of spatiality, for sound and space in particular have a dynamic relationship. This no doubt stands at the core of the very practice of sound art – the activation of the existing relation between sound and space. (ix)
Here, LaBelle is describing the physical presence of sound, or the “science” of sound. Sound is something that reacts with space; waves that react with molecules and matter. Even though we do not see it, it is not in the mind. It is out there with all the other things that visibly make up the world. Sound is “real.”
These definitions imply that sound art consists of sophisticated sounds and their interactions with space, achieved through the use of advanced technologies as well as a deep understanding of sound as a “science.” These are of course important aspects to sound art. The sounds created using these techniques are also evocative and steeped in aural imagery for the listener, and LaBelle does also describe the mental associations triggered by sound throughout Background Noise. For example, he describes how “acoustical moments trigger images completed in the mind, pictures filled in by complementing the sonic signifier with its physical source” (2006: 40). Therefore, LaBelle does also illustrate how sound is about more than space. Interestingly, in Kenneth Goldsmith’s review of Licht’s Sound Art, he points out that “Licht cites numerous examples of sound art that do, in fact, strongly reflect aspects of the humanism he adamantly denies” (2008).
Sound is also about associations, memories, feelings, experiences, imagery and thoughts.(2) These aspects of sound do not instantaneously interact with the physical world and are often difficult to represent visually through text or image for they cannot immediately be seen. But, therefore, sound does provide a platform to explore the “unreal” or at least the indefinable or unseen. As Salome Voegelin suggests, “Sound narrates, outlines and fills, but it is always ephemeral and doubtful” (2011: 5). This ephemeral quality of the sonic is difficult to quantify, rationalise or understand, but it is perhaps one of the closest ways of relating it to the obscure nature of thought, memory and experience. Sound seamlessly conjures up imagery, emotion and atmospheres but can only be held onto through remembering its characteristics in our minds. As soon as sound has arrived, it has gone, and yet it fills every inch of space, seeps out from underneath doorways and through walls, surrounding us in an invisible presence. John Broadhouse describes sound’s mysterious ability to invisibly penetrate the “within” from the “without”:
The cause of sound is without us; the sensation of sound is within us; the ear is the medium which enables the external cause to become a sensation... but although we can trace the motions which produce it, and the machinery which transmits those motions from without to within, we cannot at present tell how the latter become a part of our consciousness. (2008: 1)
Sound is heard in the mind. Although our ears are the instruments that transmit sound, it is the mind that interprets it.(3) Therefore, sound not only has a relationship with space but also with our consciousness. How the mind interprets sound is still relatively under examined, but sound is an invisible presence in constant dialogue with our minds.
Oral narratives similarly inhabit an invisible territory; with each word drips another second in time, thought in space, and connection to memory. Stories, like sound, form within thin air, as if by magic, and yet they are part of our daily lives.(4) However, traditional oral storytelling rarely incorporates experimental uses of sound. Perhaps if a medium such as sound art defines itself by how it interacts with the physical world, the traditional storyteller might be deterred from exploring its potentials to express the ‘unseen’ worlds described in stories. For, although sound forms such a basic role in making connections and associations with the world around us, sound art is often criticised as being inaccessible to audiences who are not practitioners or scholars in the field.(5)
Perhaps also, just as sound artists may feel that oral storytelling can distract from our listening of sound, storytellers may fear the introduction of experimental sound might detract from the age-old tradition of storytelling. For, this is an activity that has existed for thousands of years in the form of a storyteller utilising solely their body as a means for communicating a story to their audience. However, I would argue that sound takes the listener further into the unseen imaginary world of stories and that in some contexts, oral storytelling, rather than restricting the listener’s imagination, can enable remarkably immersive and creative listening experiences.
In his article “The ‘Storylistening’ Trance Experience” (2000), Brian W. Strum describes the altered state of consciousness experienced when listening to stories, or the “storylistening trance”:
...people who listen to stories can undergo a profound change in their experience of reality. The normal waking state of consciousness alters dramatically as the story takes on a new dimension; listeners seem to experience the story with remarkable immediacy, engaging in the story's plot and with the story's characters. (287-288)
When we engage our imaginations in a story, our feeling of reality shifts. By visualising the narrative the story tells (a narrative which exists only through the act of listening to its telling), we lose awareness of our surroundings, and time is distorted.(6) Marshall Gregory argues that the educational role of this listening experience is “to lift auditors up and out of their own tiny spots in time and space and to enlarge their sense of life's possibilities by putting them down in other spots” (1995: 39). With regards to hearing sound, Michael Brewster describes a similar sensation to the altered state of consciousness present in the “storylistening trance”:
Walking through it [sound] in its resonant state provides an experience similar to perusing a landscape but from the inside, with all of your body instead of from the outside with just your eyes. (1999: 102)
Brewster describes his experience of sound as not merely listening, but feeling and being with all your body. This description of listening to sound as if perusing a landscape could be compared to the sensation of being in the imaginary reality one experiences when listening to stories. This loss of perspective of space and time allows us to feel a profoundly different reality to our normal everyday lives. These are listening places formed of the places of these stories and their sounds, and, as Gregory describes above, the listener’s “spot in space and time.” Sound can “sound-out” these listening places, create atmospheres which quickly draw the listener in and offer the listener sounds that are extraordinary and uncanny by using advanced recording, processing, editing and diffusion techniques.
There are already various mediums that combine oral storytelling with elements of sound art in mainstream media, such as radio, television and film. However, they each have their own established practices, and, often, sound is secondary to visual elements, with the exception of radio.(7) They do though offer interesting insights into what is rarely written about in texts on sound art or storytelling: the creative and productive listening experience acquired through the combination of both these mediums. Perhaps the field most closely linked to sound art that explores these potentials is radio.
In Theatre of Sound: Radio and the Dramatic Imagination (2002), Dermot Rattigan describes the process of listening to a combination of oral narratives and sound in the context of the radio drama:
As the listener hears the drama the void is continually filled with mental visualisations as real and as vivid as the listener's imagination allows them to be. Through the neurological functions of electrochemical reactions in the brain triggered by aural stimulation, the willing listener enters into a state of individual “virtual reality” as they engage with the sounds of the production. (118)
Here, Rattigan describes how our imaginations fill the voids between our senses in experiences.(8) For example, we may hear the sounds of a car crash, such as breaks screeching to a halt and voices shouting, when listening to a piece of radio drama, but it is our imaginations that fill in our other senses, such as what we might see, smell, taste and feel. In radio drama though, in addition to sounds, there are other aspects articulated through the drama’s oral narrative, such as the characters involved in the crash, the context of the event within the greater narrative of the drama and the qualities of the character’s voices, all of which enhance the listener’s understanding and construction of the story in their imaginations. Thus, both the sounds of the described event and the aural presence of the storyteller interplay with one another to create, as Rattigan suggests, a “virtual reality.”
While there are various online platforms that cater for the listener who is actively searching, and therefore actively listening to radio, the vast amount of radio consumption is very often something that exists in the background of everyday life, behind the washing up and Sunday morning breakfast table. If one chooses to lose ones self in its “virtual realities,” it can be very rewarding, but it is also easy to ‘tune it out’ as just another background sound alongside the fridge, the television in the next room and the kettle boiling. However, in the context of sound art platforms such as soundwalks, the “virtual realities” described by Rattigan are intended for specific listening events. The listener hears the work at a specific time in a specific place, meaning the work draws its impact not exclusively from the audio heard, but other factors, such as the time of day and quality of light, the surrounding landscape’s fixtures and fittings and the presence (or absence) of other listeners. For example, in their chapter “Voice-Cast: The Distribution of the Voice via Podcasting” (2010), Virginia Madsen and John Potts describe the immersive effect of listening to audio while moving through space:
The iPod listener travelling through urban space is occupied in a private sound-world, listening to a voice apparent solely to that listener… The acousmatic voice is poured into the ears without disruption from the exterior world, enveloping the listener with the intimate expression of its character - its grain - before the content of its message is even considered. (43-45)
This experience of voice, narrative and place is an intimate one. Sound and the bodiless voice of the orator aurally wrap around the listener, pouring into their ears, occupying their thoughts. This embellishes their field of vision as they move through routes and pathways, unfolding over time with each second of audio and footstep trod.
This brings new possibilities for oral storytelling, as the narrative and sound described in a story can directly draw from the place in which the listener hears the story unfold. Therefore, the story does not melt into the background of a domestic situation or a long drive home at night. And because a soundwalk is so different to other, more traditional contexts of storytelling, such as film, radio and television, its narrative form can be constructed and communicated in more experimental ways.
For example, rather than the narrative being solely expressed through the words of the orator, other elements of the story may also be exclusively communicated through sounds in the audio and the characteristics of the walk’s setting. The possibilities of the listener’s surroundings open up, and the “virtual realities” they construct with their imagination become associated with a ‘real’ place. These stories, their sounds and their location-based associations are now a part of the listener’s consciousness even though they are unseen. Rattigan suggests that radio dramas similarly resonate with the listener in time and space, even after the actual audio event:
While radio drama performance exists in time and begins and finishes with a specific timeframe, its psychological affective resonance continues to exist in the listener's reproductive imagination as memories where time boundaries evaporate. (2002: 121)
This “psychological affective resonance” is heightened further in the context of site-specific stories that incorporate sound art practices; stories of place, and/or told in place. Our consciousness forms connections with places, and these connections travel with us after the event and beyond the space of the audio encounter. The places in which we encounter them take on new significance, and the “realities” of our surroundings are populated with infinite alternatives.
Although there are many factors that affect the productive listening of these site-specific stories, there are three main factors that significantly shape the listener’s experience of these works, which I will now discuss in more detail. These are  the listening environment or listening place,  the storyteller or disembodied voice, and  our own inner voice.