Site of Sound: Of Architecture and the Ear

For some time we have been living in a culture where information, ideology and ideas disseminate primarily through visual media. This culture privileges the eyes, sight over the other senses, and we are witnessing the decline of printed and oral cultures and the ascendance of the picture in its many forms—photography, film, television and video. While continued investment in tele-communications, virtual reality, and artificial intelligence make it unlikely that this trend will be reversed, changes also may be in the works. Technological developments are providing opportunities for disparate media to come together in integrated packages, as multimedia. These new forms of multimedia create an experience, through spectacle and mediation, which acknowledges the body’s senses in the construction of everyday life.

Grounding itself firmly in the camp of the body, the main premise of Site of Sound: Of Architecture and the Ear is that sound exists as a powerful presence that determines the shape of the world, contributing to our understanding of self, community and environment. The book’s collection of art projects, essays, interviews and CD selections sets out to shake up our outmoded notions of music and hearing. They assert that listening as a practice can unveil systems of power, structures of society and rhythms of life.

While it sets out to explore highly intriguing questions, the book’s 32 contributions and 17 CD tracks fall short of any coherent and revealing answer. The book comes off more like an exhibition catalog than it does a serious work in its own right. With an average of one submission every four pages, there appears to be a scarcity of content, a whole lot of jargon and an over-reliance on eye-catching graphic design, ironic given the book’s stated mission. While the book also contains an attached CD, there is not enough connection between its tracks and the passages in the book to make it valuable.

There are, however, interesting moments and engaging selections. Asserting that music begins with perception rather than composition, David Dunn’s “Purposeful Listening in Complex States of Time” includes a musical score intended to orchestrate our attention. Through the score, he creates a composition that exists purely in conjunction with ones memory, aspirations and the surrounding ambient soundscape. The work functions as a “tactic” (in de Certeau’s sense of the word) through which one can escape the totalizing effects of mediated culture and instead carve out a realm of independent thought, action, bodily experience.

Editor Brandon LaBelle’s “Architecture of Noise” continues this line of thinking through a discussion of “musique concrète” and the Situationist International. In much the same way that the Situationists used the practice of walking in the city as a way of resisting the order that architecture imposes on the body, “musique concrète” used the recording process to re-appropriate and \re-contextualize the noise and events around us. The practice is similar to the contemporary use of computer sampling. The recomposed soundscape like the dérive had the potential “to disrupt ones organization of the senses in order to imagine the very nature of constructed reality.”

Some selections are downright silly. Christof Mignone’s piece “Crackers,” for instance, compiles recordings and written descriptions of people cracking their various body joints. The premise that one can “create a portrait of the city, through the cracking bones of its citizens” comes off as grossly reductive and somewhat insulting to real cities and real people. Other selections are highly technical and inaccessible to the lay reader. Jio Shimizu’s: “Concerning the Relationships between Space, Objects, and the Production of Sound” delves deeply into the phenomenology of sound, the specifics of its production and its human reception. While interesting on some level, one wonders about the relevance of such a project. The emphasis on sound for its own sake seems a bit indulgent and skirts the issue of how sound helps us understand social space.

On the whole however, Site of Sound appears to miss an opportunity to explore with depth a politics of place and body based on hearing. As multimedia it fails to coalesce. It might be better to put the book down and follow instead the advice of contributor Hildegarde Westercamp: put aside an hour of time and go for a walk in your neighborhood. Do nothing but listen.