Aural History

Aural History

I took my Mac to the laundromat yesterday, and sat out front enjoying some of the mp3s I’ve loaded on it. I’ve got tons of them around here, scattered on cds with no labels—leftovers from a subscription to emusic, way back when they offered unlimited downloads for $10 a month. I’m pretty much boycotting the apple store for music; I’d rather have the tangible artifact than the bits and bytes—especially at those prices. However, what seems to be happening is a return to “singles culture”—something that really is a throwback to the early sixties/ late fifties.

I was thinking I really would have loved this culture when I was a kid—thousands of songs at your fingertips, delivered to you in a nicely insulated headphone/headdrum kind of way. Now, I’m not so sure about many aspects of it—especially the commercial limits of proprietary formats. It’s interesting to compare that to the philosophy of Freeplay:

The Freeplay Foundation is committed to providing innovative and practical energy solutions to ensure sustained access to information via radio. Our on-going search for new applications for Freeplay’s patented wind-up and solar powered technology resulted in the creation of the unique Lifeline radio, for example. After extensive fieldwork, the Freeplay Foundation recognised the need for a radio built specifically for the humanitarian sector. The idea for the Lifeline radio was born – a robust radio that could be operated easily by adults and children alike, heard by groups of up to 40 and powered by either wind-up or solar-powered energy. Just 24 months after the concept paper for the Lifeline radio was written the first radios were distributed to Burundian youth living in refugee camps in Tanzania

I was reminded of Freeplay by an MSNBC story. Like “singles culture,” this approach to aural culture is noticeably anachronistic: designing the technology for small groups of up to 40 people, who could warm themselves with news, information, and music. This is a stark contrast to the streets of America, where people roam around with their “personal” devices like cell-phones and iPods, dividing themselves from their neighbors. But the schism goes back further than that.

My thoughts on this were kicked into high gear after listening/watching a lecture from 2002 on the MIT World site. The Soundscape of Modernity Architectural Acoustics and the Culture of Listening in America, 1900-1933 is well worth listening to. I ordered Emily Thompson’s book as a result; there were some really interesting points in the lecture. While Thompson focuses more on the history of acoustics in architectural practice than its cultural implications, you can’t help but think about them. The points that fascinate me from the lecture are the battle against noise, and the struggle to subdue reverberation.

One major key is the shift in thinking about what the essence of an aural “soundscape” is. Once sound became equated with signal (Thompson has some wonderful illustrations of that), then intelligibility became the most important thing. Because reverberation effects intelligibility, it was seen to be evil and in need of eradication. The shift in the twenties of the supposed “ideal” reverberation time for a concert hall is one of her major points of evidence. I think Thompson is right. Once we started thinking of sounds as “signals,” the creation of a nearly anechoic environment to place the signal in became of great importance. The Shannon-Weaver model of communication seems closely related. It’s amazing how we still are wrestling with this in webbed environments with the separation of content from presentation.

The fight against reverberation is a fight to insulate and sound-proof the world. Digital music, I think, takes this a step further. As a veteran of the “old days” of analog music, I remember that the first thing that made me not like cds is the way that sounds decay on them. Instead of having something trail off and linger in a reverberant way, they just flat out disappear. It’s a limit of the technology that is difficult to describe to someone who has not heard a really good analog music system. When eradicating noise became more important than preserving space, I think we encountered a profound shift. Oddly enough, that is part of Thompson’s point about the early twentieth century that seems equally applicable at the dawn of this one. Web design elements (like color and typefaces) are almost perceived as “noise” by information designers, something to be removed so that the real “signal” of the page can be extracted and aggregated.

I think that this postmodern approach to information is not all that different from the “modern” one. Somehow, I sort of miss getting friends together around the stereo to enjoy the space that music creates in a room. The artificial Dolby 5:1 synthetic variety that replaced the old concept of “stereo” doesn’t seem to me to be an improvement; nor does the exclusion of all listeners except the “personal” listener who has music directly injected into their brain— for their sole use as a purchasing consumer.