Listening Outward – Listening Inward
While analyzing the comments, we found it striking that the YouTube users showed very little interest in where the geophony was recorded or how it was recorded and edited. Neither did they describe or evaluate the winter wind in itself at any length. This means that the users did not present relevant comments speaking to what film theorist and composer Michel Chion (1994) describes as three listening “modes” when experiencing mediated sounds: “causal listening” (focusing on cause or source of a sound), “reduced listening” (focusing on the acoustic characteristics of the sound itself), or “semantic” listening (focusing on semantic meaning, usually of spoken language, Morse, or other “codes”). This lack of commentary is perhaps natural when considering the low level of complexity and dynamic changes in these sounds. After reaching an initial understanding of the source, including a possible dismissal of any semantic meaning, the geophony seems to mainly foster what might be understood as a kind of reduced listening. However, the users consistently report on the effect on their individual inner world rather than commenting on the source, the characteristics of the sound itself or referring to a possible semantic meaning.
The comments include very few mentions of other examples of mediated sounds, musical compositions or works of art, yet some users associate the recorded geophonies with the sound design of specific films. These associations point to “referential listening,” proposed by sound designer and author David Sonnenschein as a fourth possible listening mode, next to Chion’s three modes. Sonnenschein describes referential listening as
being aware of or affected by the context of the sound, linking not only to the source, but principally to the emotional and dramatic meaning. This can be an instinctual or universal level for all humans (e.g. a lion’s roar), culturally specific to a certain society or period (e.g. a horse and buggy on cobblestone), or within the confines of the sound coding of a specific film (e.g. Jaws’ famous dah-Dah … dah Dah). (Sonnenschein 2001: 78)
When comparing the comments with Sonnenschein’s examples of referential listening, the explicit references mentioned by the users are mostly personal – memories from their own life stories, associations with their personal experiences of sounds in films, etc. – rather than the universal or cultural meanings that Sonnenschein emphasizes. This listening mode can therefore be described as mostly “introspectional,” rather than “extrospectional,” and characterized by the listeners’ examination of their own thoughts and feelings. Accordingly, the listening mode involves a process where attention shifts between outer and inner worlds over time – between sounds, sonic environments, and the inner life: affects, memories, associations, and imagination. Herbert writes about everyday musical listening experiences involving, similarly, “an alternation between an inward and outward focus of attention – from preoccupation with internal thoughts and images to scanning the external environment” (Herbert 2016: 55).
When looking beyond the user comments, the experience of the seven videos does connect contextually to a number of other productions and listening experiences. Due to their particularly long durations, they can be identified as related to audio-visual productions like the so-called “Slow TV,” originating mostly from Norway (Puijk 2015), as well as sharing some attributes with “slow cinema” and the soundtracks thereof, or what film scholar Philippa Lovatt has described as “slow sound.” Slow TV refers to the coverage of an ordinary event in its full length, similar to the (extreme) long take in slow cinema, which includes lengthy continuous audio recordings within the “slow sound” that often accompany slow cinema.
However, while the typical slow audio-visuals (TV, cinema, sound) have at least some sense of narrative attached to them, the videos discussed here do not contain this kind of development. These videos are thereby even slower than the visuals in slow TV or slow cinema by being static and repetitive, as well as lacking changes in camera angles, camera movements, editing, etc. While it is easy to see connections between the recorded geophony and various “slow” expressions, recorded geophony does not present a narrative. Nevertheless, one example containing a minimal narrative, is the video titled “Pure Arctic Wind.” Here, the audio is quite static and the visuals can be said to have a “screensaver quality,” due to looping.
Although we recognize how the recorded geophony connects to the material of some musical or soundscape compositions – for example the work of Andrea Polli, Chris Watson or Hildegard Westerkamp – the winter winds in our discussion are not composed in any other sense than looped for purposes of extending the duration. The recorded geophony is typically presented as field recordings rather than offering some sort of expressive intent. The political and ecological concerns that are often expressed in response to soundscape compositions are also totally absent in the user comments. This absence is in itself interesting and is in sharp contrast to other cases where Arctic sounds and their aesthetics are involved, where such concerns are quite prominent. This concern has been extensively discussed within sound studies, for instance in The Farthest Place: The Music of John Luther Adams (Herzogenrath 2012) as well as in Far Field: Digital Culture, Climate Change, and the Poles (Marsching and Polli 2012).
In this case, the intentions of publishing recorded geophony align to the expressed intentions of publishing ambient music. When music historian Victor Szabo combines writings of Brian Eno with descriptive responses from music listeners, it results in the following description: “Ambient music is unobtrusive electronic music, made using sustained tones, that fosters an atmosphere, mood, or sense of place, often with a calming effect” (Szabo 2015: 6), a description that explicitly points to the intentional mental effects of ambient music. Furthermore, ambient music also reveals similarities in function with recorded geophony as concerns background listening. Eno’s oft-quoted statement describes his own intentions in an early stage of his carrier: “Ambient Music must be able to accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular; it must be as ignorable as it is interesting” (Eno 1978: liner notes).
The intentions for using what Hagood calls “orphic media” can also be brought into connection with the seven videos. Hagood describes his examples of orphic media as “technologies designed for the sonic control of one’s affective state and environment, usually deployed in utilitarian practices that privilege sleep, concentration, and the freedom to remain unaffected” (Hagood 2019: 25). Various kinds of sounds are used to achieve such “sonic self-control,” and in two cases this involves geophony. One case is when Hagood discusses the LP series Environments with sounds from nature from the 1970s, published by Irv Teibel and Syntonic Research, Inc., for commercial use. Teibel used simple questions from listening tests to gather information about the listening experience, and positive feedback from listeners (possibly also written by Teibel himself) were printed on the sleeves of the records (Szabo 2015: 36f).
Hagood’s discussions of the digital descendants of such recordings, as in the case of more recent applications for smart phones offering sounds of nature, are clearly relevant as well. The promoted effects of such apps are the very recognizable: “sleep, calm, and concentration.” “The economy of orphic apps indicates that these affective states are considered hard to come by and are therefore prized, worried over, and carefully conserved” (Hagood 2019: 121). However, subjective responses to the experience of recorded geophony can be quite diverse. While orphic media involves the attempted control of affect (Hagood 2019: 13), the actual results are far from predictable.
Hagood’s extensive discussions involve historical, commercial, promotional, technological, aesthetic, social, and cultural aspects of orphic media. In our case the discussion is focused on aesthetic experiential aspects of listening to recorded geophony, and grounded in individual reports on the listening experiences. This will be discussed in the next three sections, followed by some concluding remarks.