No. 2

aCCeSsions is the online journal of the Center for Curatorial Studies, Bard College, New York.

aCCeSsions takes curating as a basis for expanding and transforming the disciplinary limits of existing discourses, for engaging with knowledge and practices outside of art and exhibition-making, and for the transdisciplinary investigation of what curatorial praxis could be.

aCCeSsions commissions contributions over a biannual publication cycle. Each new issue is launched with feature pieces and provocations that explore the publication cycle’s central theme. The provocations are designed to elicit a chain reaction of responses and a wider conversation, which culminates at the end of the cycle with concluding remarks from the initial provocateur. Each issue of aCCeSsions is archived at the end of the publication cycle.

Editorial Board

2016

Benjamin Austin, Linden Baierl, Adriana Blidaru, Christian Camacho-Light, Tim Gentles, Josephine Graf, Rosario Güiraldes, Laura Herman, Patricia M. Hernandez, Emma James, Dana Kopel, Humberto Moro, Bhavisha Panchia, Yanhan Peng, Staci Bu Shea, Alexis Wilkinson

 

2017

Shehab Awad, Anna Gallagher-Ross, Pat Elifritz, Emer Grant, Lisa Long, Lynn Maliszewski, Julie Niemi

 

General Editor:

Paul O’Neill

 

Managing Editors:

Roxana Fabius

Orit Gat

 

Copyeditor:

Robin Mackay

Contact

aCCeSsions@bard.edu

Bard College

Annandale-on-Hudson,
NY 12504-5000

Credits

Design by Other Means

aCCeSsions

The Overview Effect

No. 2, 2016

Oscar: A Study in Needling Auditory Perspective — aCCeSsions

Provocation

Andrianna Campbell, Oscar: A Study in Needling Auditory Perspective

I sit in a valley surrounded by the hills of Storm King in upstate New York. Outside my studio window is Maya Lin’s Wave Field (2008), a series of rolling hills covered in sun-scorched grass and constructed from a cache of leftover gravel that had been used in the building of the nearby interstate. The wave-like undulation of the mounds does not conform to any natural land pattern; it is from water that Lin borrows the upsweep and curl of the knoll; it is the movement of liquid transplanted into the earth. Around the bend, the familiar buzzing of a hive of bees hums as they scurry back and forth in Peter Coffin’s Untitled (Bees Making Honey) (2012).[1] Beyond this corner of the sculpture park, there is a landscape dotted with other monumental and anti-monumental structures. Some, like the aforementioned artworks, are made of natural elements; yet they would never have cohered in these meadows without human intervention. In this environment which is both of nature and engineered for culture, the movement of sound can be disconcerting. Is that the song of the Red-winged Blackbird dipping down into the long tick-infested grass? Sound reverberates across the landscape and bounces around until it happens upon my ear.

View of Bunny Road Leading to the Lin and Coffin, 2016. Courtesy of the Author

View of Bunny Road Leading to the Lin and Coffin, 2016.
Courtesy of the Author

Reverberation is the primary feature of this overwhelming liveness of hearing, and is a signature mode of the binaural human, of how humans hear. Yet by 1933, sound engineers aimed to strip recorded sound of reverberation because they agreed that recordings in their modern form should follow set criteria in order to eliminate noise and to achieve a more distinctive source in listening. Efficiency and an obsession with sound purity influenced the recording and transmission of sound.[2] Alexander Provan’s “Getting Closer to the Source” highlights the obsession with the achievement of fidelity to the sound of the instruments, and emphasizes how this desire is a music geek’s delusion.[3] This obsession with purity was a part of the construction of the modern soundscape. Using auditory perspective, engineers meant to approximate in a recording the way in which humans experience sound in physical space, in order to give “music a sense of depth and of extensiveness,” with an emphasis on decreasing the possibility of extraneous background noise.[4] By recording sound using multiple microphones and channels, they could create stereophonic reproduction and transmission that evoked in the listener the feeling of being surrounded by a sound field. Thus from the very beginning of the homogenization of recording practices, sound was a cultural construction conceived according to spatial ideals and therefore exhibiting spatial limitations.

If we remove the spatial framework within which engineers contrive sound recording, then we are left with time. What is liveness but the clash of different temporalities on the ear?[5] Could “getting closer to the source” mean accepting reverberation not only in an alternative format such as the “live concert” album, but in all recording, as a means of approaching the many ways in which we hear? I turn to my colleague Lauren Rosati’s research for elaboration. Having agreed to share her unpublished findings over wine, she holds out a grainy photograph which features two men facing each other, their bodies turned into each other. The men wear trim suits and skinny ties while occupying a room that looks surprisingly open and yet glassed in, very much like a sound studio. Light grazes over the figures from some source that is off-camera, casting looming shadows over their heads. Despite the accuracy of my quick read, Rosati explains that one of the men is not a man at all but is in fact a dummy named Oscar, who Bell Lab engineers developed between 1931 and 1933. The engineers had been trying to replicate how live sound vibrates in the ear through binaural recording, using Oscar’s ears as recording microphones. He could “instantly communicat[e] to others exactly what he heard, exactly as he had heard it.”[6] Think of the different subject position implied here: instead of microphones out in a space picking up sound that approximates distances, microphones on the body would acknowledge the body, which has different centers for receiving sound. Left and right ears hear different things, the nose casts its own sonic shadow, and the chest, a cavity, also participates in hearing. We take the stereophonic experience derived from auditory perspective to be a given; however, it represents but one direction that recorded sound could have taken; and Oscar represents another route, the binaural. As Rosati describes it, sound, music, and sound art are predicated on a set of broader cultural assumptions.[7]

Duration is a characteristic of recorded sound, more so than is the case for images. With or without auditory perspective, recorded sound is bound to its handmaiden: time. Perspective in recorded music, developed to increase efficiency and depth through schematization, also promotes a flatness that is a side-effect of direct aural lines to a source. In both auditory and pictorial expression, flatness is definitive of the modern experience; however, recorded sound has a certain contradictory relationship to avant-garde pictorial expression, which turned away from perspective. For instance, as Rosalind Krauss notes, modern painting’s use of the grid denies perspective, denies the pictorial unfolding of events, and therefore correlates to a temporal presentness. In modern painting, the focus was on the live, the lived experience, and the now, which artists thought could be achieved by jettisoning perspective. This was not so in music, where the aim was an approximation of depth even if it dampened immediacy. Flatness elicited different temporal experiences when pursued in music and in painting.

Auditory perspective, with its promise of the ever-greater possibility of faithfulness to the source, was the ultimate approximation. Thus the contemporary hangover present in the question “How can we move closer to the source that is live music?” is an abstraction, an attempt to rationalize hearing along cultural lines. As is the case when art historians discuss pictorial perspective, a purely spatial consideration of auditory perspective denies the other source: how perspective must situate its own subject and thus its own vantage point. [8] The normative subject that stands in a given relation to sound, as Provan proves, is a deceptive construct. It is impossible for any two humans to hear in the same way. If we were able to accept that we can never reach any one sonic source, then perhaps it would be of interest to turn our attention away from auditory perspective, and to accept it as a construction that was constitutive of and entangled with defining modernity.

As an art historian, I am taken aback by the possibility that perspective in recorded sound, which I had assumed was a given—as had even modernist challenges such as Arnold Schoenberg’s—was just as much as a construct as perspective in painting. If attempts to flatten out and disrupt recorded sound still used standard stereophonic recording techniques, then the flattening out of sound that we accept in recording is really also an acceptance of a certain subject position. That is, stereophonic recording using auditory perspective demands our acceptance of a certain rationality and schematization, and rejects the richer psycho-physiological expression of liveness.[9]

Perhaps our acceptance of auditory perspective and flatness as a naturalized mode of experience hints at an innate discomfort with the psycho-physiological intensity of listening. Listening is more intimate than seeing: it enters our body, coursing through us in a way that sight does not; it is impossible to turn off your ears and to block sound out as easily as you can shut your eyes. Stereophonic sound using auditory perspective feels clean, disembodied, and far from the uncertainties and wildness of uncultivated life.[10] Naturalization, which crystalized in modernity and promoted various knowledge systems that have so far been challenged in literature and in art, remains acceptable in music, where it operates as means of reassurance. After all, perspective is about becoming accustomed to a fixed vantage point, whereas reverberation implies multiple sources and many directions. Sound, as it moves across land, and even through cities, alights upon the body, touching its receivers unevenly. Oscar and his facilities for binaural recording and transmission demand attention to the particularities of hearing, which, as we have seen, tethers the listener to multiple temporalities and even acknowledges multivalent body types. Could we allow for liveness even in the replay?[11] Maybe this lack of spatio-temporal situatedness would be less sensible, but it would allow for the disconcertingly sensual world to enter at the edge of our acoustic comprehensibility, on which ecology already insists.

 

Andrianna Campbell is an art historian and doctoral candidate at the CUNY Graduate Center. She is the author of numerous reviews and essays on contemporary art for Frieze, Art in America and Artforum and currently a resident at the Shandaken Project hosted at Storm King.

 

[1] Coffin’s Untitled reminds me that bees are really the music of the garden—and of this quote from Maurice Maeterlinck’s The Life of the Bee, 1901: Here, as in all places, the hives lent a new meaning to the flowers and the silence, the balm of the air and the rays of the sun. One seemed to have drawn very near to the festival state of nature. One was content to rest at this radiant crossroad, where the aerial ways converge and divide that the busy and tuneful bearers of country perfumes unceasingly travel from dawn unto dusk. One heard the musical voice of the garden whose loveliest hours received their rejoicing soul and sang of their gladness.”

[2] Emily Ann Thompson, The Soundscape of Modernity: Architectural Acoustics and the Culture of Culture of Listening in America, 1900–1933 (Cambridge, MIT Press, 2004), 2.

[3] Alexander Provan, in “Getting Closer to the Source,excerpts a transcript of an address delivered by an unnamed audio engineer to a conference of the Audio Engineering

Society, mid-2000s. Accessions (April 2016), <https://accessions.org/article2/getting-closer-to-the-source/>. The full quote is as follows:A friend of mine, a designer of custom loudspeakers—he’s always being asked to assess the relationship between the sound coming out of the speakers and the real, live sound—calls this ‘the geek squad delusion.”

[4] J. C. Steinberg and W. B. Snow, “Auditory Perspective—Physical Factors,” Transactions of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers 61:1 (February 1934): 12–17: 12.

[5] Here I am thinking of Alex Nagel and Christopher Wood and their exhortation to move away from the terms of modernity—namely linear perspective—as defined by Panofsky. See Anachronic Renaissance (New York: Zone Books, 2010), 47–48.

[6] Harvey Fletcher, “An Acoustic Illusion Telephonically Achieved,” Bell Laboratories Record 11:9 (May 1933): 286–89. Quoted in Lauren Rosati, “Mechanical Kingdoms: Sound Technologies and the Avant-Garde, 1930–1933” (Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Graduate Center, City University of New York, 2016).

[7] But what happened to Oscar? Rosati remarks “The bionic capabilities of machines like Oscar elicited widespread panic in the 1930s.” “Why?” I ask. “They thought that machine labor would replace human labor.” It seemed so 1950s, the idea of machines replacing humans, but perhaps even in the pre-war years the boom in industry had already begun to spark the unease of the working population. Recent articles in the New York Times discuss how technologies based on binaural hearing are now popping up, being used in experimental plays, built environments, and headphones; however, the binaural remains the alternative auditory technique, with auditory perspective being accepted as the norm.

[8] Hito Steyerl, “In Free Fall: A Thought Experiment on Vertical Perspective,” e-flux (April 2011) <http://www.e-flux.com/journal/in-free-fall-a-thought-experiment-on-vertical-perspective/>. Erwin Panofsky, Perspective as Symbolic Form (New York: Zone Books, 1991), 27.

[9] A distancing that Theodor Adorno refers to, “As the recordings become more perfect in terms of plasticity and volume, the subtlety of color and the authenticity of vocal sound declines as if the singer were being distanced more and more from the apparatus.” In “The Curves of the Needle” Trans. By Thomas Y Levin. October (Winter, 1990): 48. Adorno is discussing the gramophone and not stereophonic sound, which one assumes would disrupt the distancing effect, but only enhances it.

[10] Provan’s provocation focuses my essay’s response to the “music geek’s” obsession of source fidelity. Musicians for the last few decades have been charting territories outside of fidelity with a reliance on remixing and sound processing. For an in-depth discussion see Friedrich A. Kittler, Gramophone, Film, Typewriter, trans. Geoffrey Winthrop-Young and Michael Witz (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1996), 108-109.

[11] There is also a certain irony, of course, in enacting subjectivity based on the test-subject of a machine; however, what if replicas of different bodies were used in order to marshal challenges to our assumptions about what perfection in sound is?

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In response to: Andrianna Campbell, Oscar: A Study in Needling Auditory Perspective