Stereophonica: Sound and Space in Science, Technology, and the Arts - Gascia Ouzounian. MIT Press, 2021
by Ezra J. Teboul
Stereophonica is a critical history of human hearing with two ears. It traces how our unevenly distributed ability to localize sound has informed the development of sound equipment and thinking. With a focus on the 19th and 20th centuries, Ouzounian investigates how devices like noise maps, the differential stethoscope or the Geophone equipment, along with the discourse surrounding them, shaped our understanding of sound not only as a technical medium but as a spatial one. Stereophonica thus functions as a new reference text for understanding how these hearing technologies relied on broader systems of militarism, a Western impulse for the extraction of information/value/materials, and heterogenous curiosities and motivations of inventors and artists. Beyond the extensive review of relevant materials, and clarity with which an interpretation of these artworks or technologies (and their significance) in the greater technoscientific project of the modern West is presented, Ouzounian's work also succeeds in the more difficult task of joining her deep understanding of how these artifacts and theories came to exist with personal insights arising from listening to the sounds of Beirut. The book deserves the status of landmark within works assessing our current understanding of stereo sound. However, readers engaging with it for this will also be rewarded with a deep, intuitive sense of how listening for differences can come to matter on cultural and embodied levels.
This project is noticeable in the grace with which it combines the necessarily descriptive discussions of devices and experiments which have fallen out of our shared consciousness (for everyone but the most historically knowledgeable of sound scholars) with critical interpretations of their role and meaning within larger sociocultural contexts. Chapter One blends an introduction of Ouzounians' critical scaffolding with a review of primarily 18th- century European discourses on sound and hearing. This establishes sound, hearing, and our "global intellect" of them as co-constructed mediums. Ideas are propagated into these mediums, reflecting the curiosities of their authors as much as accurate scientific understanding of acoustic phenomena. Stereophonica joins a wider project of sound studies meeting history of science technology studies.
How and why did things as strange-sounding as the Enchanted Lyre, the Homophone, the Pseudophone or the Rotating Chair come to exist? The strangeness of sound to the primarily Western crowd that had the opportunity to engage with these systems in the 19th century is made clear in the second chapter, "The Rise of the Binaural Listener": how we understand acoustical phenomena today emerged from a number of experiments, refuted assumptions, and the semi-chaotic process of science in an unfair world. By referring to these specific devices and contingencies, Ouzounian makes explicit where and when our culturally hegemonic understandings of sound as spatial and listening as binaural (with all the [dis]ability implications inherent in this) develops and the work of enrollment that made these understandings stabilize.
Chapter Three, "Powers of Hearing," contrasts the bestiary of odd 19th-century experiments from Chapter Two with the violent and systematic exploration of sound within early 20th-century warfare. Until the development of reliable microphones and vacuum tubes for amplification in the 1930s, sonic warfare tools relied primarily on mechanical filtering and resonance. These devices, such as the Acoustic Goniometer or the Perrin Telesitemeter, give physical form to the strategic aspects of sound and establish mechanical vibrations as a medium from which to extract information, and, therefore, military advantage. In a sense this is a response to the sound of machines: as the latter operate on a scale never before heard, they rattle, buzz, drone, and shake in equally new and dramatically meaningful ways.
Chapter Four elaborates on that connection between human hearing and electronic sound. Ouzounian highlights the research and development at Bell Laboratories in the 1930s that led most contemporary commercial audio signals to operate in stereo transmissions or recordings. Now that electronic sound encoded in some way the spatiality of sound, artists could (and very much did and continue to) take advantage of this. "Concert halls were turned into laboratories, and laboratories became spaces for musical and sonic experimentation. For a time, it seemed that the possibilities born of the marriage of music to science were boundless" (p. 82). Although technology studies scholars have since developed more critical perspectives on such intersections, this is still regularly the public position of research institutions working between sound and technology, which often build directly on the technologies developed at Bell Labs in the early 20th century.
A section connecting scientific studies of sound back with the body acts as a central pivot for the monograph. As electronic control of sound in a stereo field increased, applications of psycho-acoustics in research, film, music, and other commercial domains developed accordingly. The potential for synthesized sound to induce anything from discomfort to full on "hysteria in an audience in less than thirty seconds” (p. 94) is quickly seen as grounds for new research on possibilities for the emotional regulation of individuals and groups. A section on Muzak complements the more explicitly military research on directed acoustic beams weapons. Through these complementary research projects, Ouzounian writes, the body "was reconstituted as an entity that operated within an acoustic environment, and was operated on by that environment – controlled, regulated, and modulated, through sound" (p. 103).
Chapters Six, Seven and Eight investigate stereophonics from perspectives less committed to statecraft and war while maintaining a strong interest in institutional formations. Chapter Six, "From a Poetics to a Politics of Space," offers a much needed parallel history of space in sound art and detailing the joint emergence of these two mediums of expression. Scientific or weaponry experiments of the first half of the book are contrasted with musical or performance art ones, allowing different actors to express and build political agency in different ways. The end of the chapter is dedicated to sound art such as the work of Anishinaabe artist Rebecca Belmore. For example, Ayum-ee-aawach Oomama-mowan: Speaking to their Mother (1991, 1992, 1996) was made in response to the Oka crisis which developed out of a conflict between the settler Canadian government and the indigenous Haudenesaunee community near Kanesatake. After detailing the work, Ouzounian writes:
… the very scope of political boundaries is redrawn in Belmore’s installation: not only is the place of politics multiplied and diversified – and the boundaries between the powerful and the marginalized complicated – but the dimensions of political communication also are no longer limited to the sense of language. Here, the sound and the place of political speech are as important as its meaning, as is the unique ability of sound to bypass dominant modes of political containment and confinement. (p. 123)
This connection between land, politics, and the space of sound prefigures the eighth chapter's investigation of Beirut, and the conclusion's elaboration on sonic politics.
Chapter Seven serves as a bridge between the city and the political potential of sonic acts. Ouzounian assembles a clear history of how we have come to measure, qualify, and judge the noise that accompanies most city life. This includes its variations according to natural and social factors such as the time of day as well as class or race. Urban environments have informed much of why, how, and when governments and citizens measure noise. Chapter Seven and Eight act as two sides of a discussion around the sound of urban space. The former contextualizes various approaches to mapping noise while the latter explores what these mean for Beirut, putting the at-times violent and at-times curious investigations of sound from the earlier parts of the book into stark, living relief by collapsing them into the reality of everyday life in place of struggle. The book's themes - silence, space, trauma, violence, technology and art – are all recombined in the author's experience, and we see exactly why the contents of this book can be or are more than an academic pursuit.
In the conclusion, Ouzounian's translation of a composition by architect and musician Omaya Malaeb echoes this clear project to connect research and political practice:
"Our dear listeners,
Before we begin these exercises
Exercises of goodness
We need to remember together
All the goodness
That is around us.
The goodness of the land [...]" (p. 167)
This translation encapsulates the approach at the heart of Stereophonica: a deep and thoughtful investigation to make our past thoughts and experiments with sound accessible to the present, in an effort to understand what kind of future we care to work for. Only by listening for this can "we reorient our understanding not only of our surroundings, but equally of ourselves" and shape the future to be what it deserves to be (p. 168). This book offers a starting point grounded in our always situated listening and its fraught and complex history.