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Beyond listening, noise and everything

(one silence is worth a thousand sounds)

Floris van Manen

Summary

Einstein said "you have to describe things as simply as possible -- but not simpler". Personally, I try to be as lazy as possible. That would be my advice to others, too. E.g. before adding sound to your environment, first listen. Maybe it is there already, and you are finished before you even started.
To me, silence is an experience of distance over a given amount of time. The more time and/or distance you have, the more profound the silence will be. Sound is needed for hearing silence. You need the notes to mark the rests. My search is for solutions which are proof against irritation and boredom.
Solutions that wet the appetite for the refinement of simplicity.

Introduction

At age ten my son asked me what as is most essential in life?
He provided the answer himself:
It is not about power.
It is not about money.
It is about attention.
And attention needs time.

A good one-liner sticks in the memory.

There is enough music in this world, so lets be careful.

Listening takes time, it takes time to listen.

You see what you think you see. You hear what you think you hear.

Being right is easy - yet try living with it.

It seems more useful to avoid problems rather then trying to solve them afterwards.

You can not do something because you don't know or you can not do something because you don't want to. In both cases nothing happens. Yet there is a difference.

You can not do something because you are not allowed to, or because you don't want to.

You can omit because you don't care and/or because it's tuesday.

One picture is worth a thousand words.
One sound is worth a thousand pictures.
One silence is worth a thousand sounds.

You have to do something if you ain't no good for nothing.

Everybody programs in Basic because everybody programs in Basic.
But this doesn't make Basic as such a good programming language.

One cannot force people to their luck.

Europe is united, yet there are limits.

Er bestaan geen lelijke kleuren.

While solving a problem its helps if you know the solution.

One should not spend time on what others do wrong,
just make something yourself instead.

One-liners ain't everything.

Methods & Materials

With the four brothers we started a company euroGenie. Overlapping interests in the area of art, technique, hardware, electronics, software and logistics. Our motto "we don't know everything, but we do know everything better". We realize in practical terms complex projects within overlapping fields. We provide turnkey solutions that is. With a focus on the long term future. That means the costs of service and maintenance should be taken into account from the very beginning. Too many (art) projects are simply switched off after the first energy bill is received. Keep things as simple as possible. Avoid unnecessary complexity that is prone to failure in the first place. Do you want us to build what you say, or do you want us to build what you mean.

Green, eco / ego, art and everything. When dealing with soundscapes it is worth noting that it is the listener who decides what will be listened to. The listener creates the music. Many methods for classifying have been proposed. Being rather lazy myself, I try to keep it simple. Like there are two types of plants and two type of animals (those you can eat and those you cannot) there are also two types of sound (those you hear and those you don't). Yet they're both there. The sound you do hear are the sounds in the foreground, the rest is in the background. We don't listen to sound in the background. And we only hear a foreground if it distinguishes itself enough from the background. It doesn't have to be much more complicated. But it also means that we do need both to hear one of them. No yes without no. As (human) animals we will automatically scan our present surrounding with all our sensors. Within about two to three minutes we map those data as being our new background. Everything that will stand out, might (still) be a possible cause of danger. Hence we'll notice. And as far as sounds are concerned, we can exactly point to the source within the horizontal plane. The suppression of the background sounds from the acoustical image becomes automatic in the background processing of our brain. Nevertheless it costs us an enormous amount of energy to do so.

What I hear are great stories about sound, exciting expeditions, and difficult, complex and expensive projects. When I then listen to the audible creative results, I hear brown mud; e.g. poor fades, cheap reverb and a lot of sub-low. Where did things go wrong? So I ask myself. Lost in technical translation? Stuck in the catalog of the art work?

This is in large contrast to the modest hints we got from the Tarkovsky sound track. Keep the variety, he said. No single step twice. And how intriguing is the end result. Wind, footsteps, moving chairs and dialogs. And all in mono. And it didn't seem to matter keeping us focussed on the story.

Being able to tell a difference is so embedded in our roots that we seem to forget how amazing it actually is. It also allows us to spot and point out remarkable events and objects. The presence or absence of properties that we notice once we learned to recognize them. Every emperor needs new clothes once in a while. But that doesn’t mean we should impose laws or bans on methods and materials to avoid the creation of this fine art of haute couture. Creating awareness from an early age might enhance critical views and diverse perspectives, and allow for a fresh experience of old and new (sounding) events. Awareness as in pointing. Pointing as a way of pattern matching. Recognizing as you move or jump along. Hearing and seeing similar things over and over. Pointing as a way of life. Questioning apparent trivial backgrounds which do not stand out enough to become foreground hypes. Pointing for pointing out. Not to impose a mandatory set of values. Whether you like things or not comes only after you’ve seen the readings of your sensors. But in order to have medicines show any effect, you have to take them; even the placebos.

We hear what we think we hear. And it is for that reason that we do not hear a piece of cardboard rattling in the corner of the room, but a string quartet in a chamber or a bird in a backyard. This seems like obvious open door facts. But we cannot live without them and at some point it is worth accepting even the simple basics in life. Awareness of sounds within the environment: it can make a difference.

Whispering will not become shouting if you turn up the volume and the shouting will not become whispering if you turn the TV down. But the whispering ain’t whispering anymore. The dynamics necessary for a subtle understanding and assessment of the message are viciously suppressed by the amount of compression in todays broadcasting channels. A rich culture needs nuances and contradictions. If you are not with us, you are against us. Listening monochrome in a full 5.1 surround experience.

At some point sound is linked to time. Here too it helps to have an awareness as of how the experience of time behaves and changes over both shorter and larger spans. As humans we are very, very sensitive to recognizing patterns and repetitions. We will notice an exact repetition immediately. We can also hear if this repetition is intended or not. Dealing with sound in a public space it is not too difficult to create a small masterpiece for the occasional visitor lasting a couple of minutes. However keeping people that live and/ or work in the neighborhood interested and excited for hours, days, months or years is a more demanding challenge for the composer. With an estimated 80% unintentional sounds in our (Western) environment, this seems an important issue to keep in mind.

Results

When you are trying to get the message across, it helps if you speak, in a broad sense, the same language as your audience. People do have iPods and mp3 players these days. These personal playback devices are very powerful tools. Distribution of content is very simple and low cost using the internet.

When recording a live event, be it music or otherwise, you will always just capture a small portion of the total activity: a limited audio bandwidth. However it seems enough to recreate the story for the listener. We hear music, we hear voices, we hear sounds, we hear space. All with just two simple audio channels and a headset.

While balancing time in space it is worth noting that many dimensions in listening are relative measures, not absolute. Something sounds louder because of something else being more silent. More distant because of something very nearby. Higher because lower. Fast because slow, large because small. Keeping track of an absolute reference (such as the K-System) will allow for proper sizing at playback.

Of course there is a difference between listening alone at home to a recording of a concert, or being within the audience of that live event itself. The silence of a large group of people does have its impact on how the listener hears.

Sculptural artists mingling with audio. An essential property of sound is its link to time. Our perception of time. Also the room and space resonates into the sound itself. Unsolicited and/or unintended side-effects upon the environment are to be avoided at all times.

While creating a work, the artist creates his/her own world. When presenting a sounding result to the real world, it is that and only that sounding result that counts. In the broad meaning. No matter how ingenious or expensive a project is, if it lacks basic properties of some sort of quality, the work fails. However there is nothing wrong with failure as such. Failure is the norm in science. Or in nature for that matter. But this should be no excuse to add unintended noise to our environment.

Reading a book or watching the movie. Who's imagination will gain most, the reader or the audience in the movies? The theater or the concert. The radio, television or the internet. Triggering the minds of individuals or groups of people. Together or apart. Yet listening comes first. If your audience is not listening they won’t hear anything. Kjell Samkopf adds to this point: for most people listening is a habit, listening happens to them as a reaction to a sound. For some people, listening is an intended action, so they themselves decide what they want to listen to, and for how long. With this understanding, boredom is a very personal phenomenon. What is boring for one, is not for the other. As Cage said: "If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, then eight. Then sixteen. Then thirty-two. Eventually one discovers that it is not boring at all." An interesting thing nowadays, is the YouTube-perspective. People can watch short appetizers on YouTube for hours, but they cannot keep their attention focused on a live performance for an extended period of time. A short sample on YouTube seems more interesting than the event itself. Some artists conform to this view, putting more effort into the documentation than into the live event itself. The idols-got-talent-shows are about marketing emotional experiences, not about music or a long-term cultural heritage.

Like most things in life listening too has different perspectives. You can listen in an open way and try to catch everything that floats by the ear. Or you can listen in a focussed way and wait for something very specific to happen. At all times it is the act of listening itself that makes hearing worth the effort. Quality of sound can only be judged after it has been heard. One of the most interesting properties of sound is that it becomes void as soon as it has sounded. What remains are memories.

Discussion

And how about a second picture, not to mention the first or both? Is it worth another million silences? Will it add context or does it merely dilute and blur? Or will it cause enough background for some foreground to stand out?

Ambiguity, resulting in unrest and confusion. It alerts the listener. Words as pebbles that can be picked as suited for a personal view.

For a listening experience it is not mandatory to modify the acoustic space itself, let alone adding sound to the environment. It is enough to silently provide a focus, a pointer to life itself.

References

J.J. van Manen, K. Samkopf, M. Hoenderdos, C. Ore, prof dr H. Honing, H.M.O. van Manen, prof C.H.A. Koster, M. Mengelberg, P. Struycken, D. Hünerberg, prof C. Lippe, dr M. van Ballegooijen MD PhD.

www.euroGenie.com www.samkopf.no www.klankschap.nl