Presentness in Displaced Sound

Research —

‘Presentness in Displaced Sound’, paper in Leonardo Music Journal, (Vol.23) MIT Press

Abstract: The author discusses her works that explore sound’s influence on creating a sense of presentness and her aim to increase the audience’s awareness of this influence.

Excerpt: The deceptively simple process of recording sounds from a chosen environment and replaying them at another time and place is laden with assumptions about context and portability. Whether considered documentation, preservation or musical material, this practice, usually referred to as “field recording,” provokes important questions about establishing relationship to place through listening. The theory and practice of sound artists and acoustic ecologists from the 1970s to today, such as Schafer, Westerkamp, Lockwood, Oliveros, Dunn and LaBelle, and echoed in visual art, e.g. Robert Smithson’s concept of “Site/Nonsite,” provide a rich variety of approaches to this topic. Although field recordings make sounds available to a distant public, any de-contextualization of a soundscape from its environment forces us to listen as outsiders, inevitably biasing our understanding. This can lead to a pseudo-understanding of a distant location, which, at its worst, I call “sonic colonialism.” When listening to field recordings, we need to consider our relationship to the recorded sounds: the context in which they originate, the place in which we hear them and how our experience is mediated by technology. This also applies to environments that we cannot physically access, such as underwater, inside the body or other extremes of physical and temporal scales.

If sound is a form of energy, generated and embedded in place and describing acoustic relationships occurring within a specific location, then a recording is like a sonic ghost of place. How can a sense of presentness—an acute awareness of embodied location—be achieved in such displaced soundscapes? In my work, I consider the listener as the spatio-temporal locus of a perceptual event, emphasizing how techniques of listening can potentially invigorate the use of field recording in sound art. The following three works approach displaced sound through different means: a visual arts exhibition, an Internet sound exhibition and a sound walk workshop, demonstrating various strategies for exploring these ideas. ­­

Tropical Storm (2009) (Fig. 1) poses these questions of displaced sound through the tradition of an immersive playback space [1]. Sound and video recordings of a tropical storm evoke the multisensory experience of being immersed in a torrential rainforest downpour. The installation presents the intensity of noise and energy through minimal editing, allowing the exact synchronization of sound and image to work up an affective space of palpable intensity that can be both overwhelming and meditative. Rather than presenting this in a completely darkened space, I carefully consider the actual exhibition space when installing the work, encouraging visitors to be fully aware of their surroundings and thus question the displaced nature of the field recording.

You Me Swim Blackbird (2012) addresses the listener’s awareness of bodies in place and the everyday technology used to retrieve and present personal sounds [2]. Exploring bodily rhythms through sound, the work presents interlocking pulses of a mother and her unborn baby’s heartbeats, breathing while swimming and a blackbird’s springtime call: the sound of a body inside a body, a body crossing from water to air and a body calling through air. The sounds were recorded using consumer technology: a handheld prenatal ultrasound device, a small waterproof camera and a laptop computer’s built-in microphone. Each captures a different sonic quality that makes the intensity of the sounds more palpable, more internal or more open. Furthermore, this short stereo work was composed for the unpredictable, distributed listening environments of the exhibition website.

In Displaced Sound Walks (2010/2012), workshop participants use binaural microphones and handheld recorders to record sounds on a short walk of their choosing [3]. On their return, they listen to these recordings inside the workshop space. Next, participants listen to their recording on headphones while retracing the exact walk, overlaying the same space with sound displaced in time. The final stage is to experience other participants’ recordings and routes. The shift in temporal relationship between the location seen and the sounds heard provokes a perceptual awareness of our reliance on sound, its influence on the visual and on our sense of place. Participants in the workshop walks learn to use simple sound recording technology in a precise way to create a heightened awareness of sensory perception and to enhance their sense of presentness in the immediate environment.

1. Exhibited at “Cage 100: Opening Spaces for Action,” Museum of Contemporary Art, Leipzig, 2012.
2. Commissioned for “Soundworks” exhibition, Institute of Contemporary Art, London, 2012; <>.
3. Most recently exhibited at Cage 100 [1].