Aural detectives

Early humans first adapted to nature’s acoustic geography: open savannas and mountain ranges. Modern humans adapt, in a weaker way, to the acoustic architecture of urban centers and of enclosed dwellings and gathering places. Both natural and fabricated environments are relatively constant and difficult to change, but by changing their vocalization behavior, those who occupy them adapt, whether as individuals, groups, or species. Every acoustic arena is an application of the principle that social groups select or create an environment, which in turn, determines the resources of their acoustic arena. The vocal behavior of a social group creates an acoustic arena as a geographical region that supports an acoustic community. (27)

. . .

Reverberation gives rise to an interactive experience, with the space entering into an acoustic dialogue with its occupants. It is difficult to enter a reverberant space surreptitiously because the sound of your footsteps produces an acoustic reaction for all to hear. Metaphorically, the reverberated sound of footsteps is the reactive voice of the space; the spatial acoustics of a reverberant space announce the presence of active life by responding with an audible hello, as either a whisper or a shout. (62)

. . .

Although smaller spaces still produce reverberation, as a listening visitor, you experience it as changing the tonal color of the direct sound, not as enveloping you. The acoustic dialogue between you and the space changes, but it remains a dialogue nonetheless. The spatial acoustics of a shower stall may induce you to sing because a small space has numerous discrete resonances. When the pitch and overtones of your voice coincide with these resonances, the intensity of your voice decreases dramatically. Rather than remaining neutral, the space reacts to the presence of some frequencies and not others. Space may thus be said to have tonal preferences. A singer is an aural detective exploring an environment the way a child explores a toy. (63)

Spaces Speak, Are You Listening?, Barry Blesser and Linda-Ruth Salter.

As spaces become smaller, their defining characteristics are not set by their reverberation, but by their resonance. Resonance is a complicated matter; we are comfortable in certain spaces and uncomfortable in others. Comfort is certainly a cultural creation; it has to do with a sense of security and familiarity. Resonance is, by definition, reinforcement of a phenomena (sensually described in most cases). These descriptions nearly always make senses metaphorically overlap: e.g. tone color or anthropomorphized sound as quasi-conscious (the “dialog” example above).

McIntosh corporation has handy personifications typifying tone:


Harmonics are a flexible way of talking about the impure nature of most sounds, but it is much easier to simply dress them up in different clothes and imply a range of personalities (including our smug narrator in the kilt). Reverberation is involved, this time in a much more nuanced fashion because the harmonics of a sound grow/decay/reflect at the different rates.

Blesser and Salter make an interesting move by making space a partner in a dialogue with the beings that occupy it. It makes it easier to visualize even solitary spaces as social. The concept that space has a “preference” for certain types of tones and colors is relatively easy to grant (given the definitions of resonance, harmonics, etc.). But attributing personalities to space and objects within it is curious to say the least. Again, I defer to the little guy in the kilt:


Does music have a “message”? That doesn’t jibe well with the idea of the singer as an aural detective. Making sounds can simply be a way of exploring space. The McIntosh brochure is very much a product of its time (1952) with its modeling of aural space as an area where sound travels uninhibitedly without resonance. This is counter-intuitive to say the least. I find such notions of fidelity fascinating.

Listening to a 2008 interview with Roy Harper on the Stormcock podcast yesterday, Harper made some interesting assertions relevant to aural spaces. First, he described culture as a piece of architecture that we all live within, an “edifice” to be exact. Then, he went on to describe culture as “the history of interpretation.” This is a useful perspective in my (unrelated) discussion of aural space, because it is obvious that the McIntosh brochure provides a 50s interpretation/valuation of sound which emphasizes the purity of the signal as given. Taking things back a bit historically and culturally, Blesser and Salter seek to interpret/value sound within spaces, experienced as architecture culture: the edifice of culture as it were. Harper suggested, further, that meaning is created between the notes and between the words, of songs—the message isn’t something transmitted to a listener, but created by a listener. 

One interpretation of the “between the lines” concept is mystical and metaphysic (by definition, since metaphysic would be beyond the physically present message). But I would prefer to think that what Harper actually means here is that interpretation is the central and uncontrollable aspect of musical communication. We take songs and make meaning from them based on the psychological spaces we have available to them: messages are not pure and constant, but changeable over time. Messages, both musical and linguistic, find meaning through the resonances and harmonics they create within us.

Blesser and Salter provide a different view of the relationship of beings and sound by close comparison: sound/space/perception does not map the same as light/space/perception. We live in a world bathed in light that allows us to locate ourselves within it. Sound comes and goes based on motion and movement through life. The cues that we can use for location are transient, and interpretation of sounds are necessarily cultural and slippery. Not only that, they are profoundly accidental and unconscious. Reliance on “messages” makes understanding sounds quite mystical, particularly if the animated nature of sound is given preference.

Even though space reacts to all sonic events with its characteristic response, nobody from our modern cultures imagines that an enclosed space is actually alive. Using a similar concept, but without realizing that it still applies today, acoustic archeologists speculate that ancient shamans heard cave acoustics as the voice of the cave’s spirit. In ancient cultures, objects were animate, containing living spirits. Although, in modern terms, spatial acoustics have replaced animating spirits in describing the aural personality of a space, nevertheless, I prefer to believe that, however subliminally, some sense of spirits animating spaces resides within us even now. (ibid., 63-64)

Taken this way, the detective work of listening is analogous to spirit-catching. I like that idea quite a lot. The catch, however, is that such listening is as much a product of accidental transformation rather than conscious formation/transmission of messages. Spirit resides not in a “pure message” transmitted by an animate being, but rather in the dialog between messages (of animate origin or not) and spaces of/for interpretation.