Pure, Perfect Sound–Forever

My wife is profoundly deaf in one ear and severely deaf in the other. What this means, from a practical standpoint, is that without electronic signal processing she cannot parse anything. This was strange to discover, partly because I met her in classes where conversation was a central feature of the class. She doesn’t speak with any sort of an accent, to my ears at least, and understands most everything (apart from the normal marital deafness, that is) that I say. We don’t talk about deafness much, and haven’t over the last 17 years or so, until the last few years where it’s been a topic of theoretical consideration.

This might seem odd to some, given my history of being a bit of an audiophile and music lover. My wife loves music and has a broad musical knowledge— in fact, we spend a lot of time talking about it. In the early days of our relationship, I did spend some time trying to figure out the sensual differences between us. She doesn’t hear in stereo, and until digital hearing aids (about 4 months before we met) she didn’t have any access to high frequency information. Obviously, her experience of music should be different from mine. Not exactly. We share more than you might think. From my years as an audio salesman and equipment trainer, I have been aware that even people with perfect hearing simply don’t hear subtle differences unless they learn how.

Music, like most human interactions, depends on a high degree of intuition to decode into meaningful content. Some folks don’t get it, or don’t give it much thought. Part of what really made me fall in love with my wife is her incredible intuition, learned in part I think from having to operate on less information than other people. She became deaf as a small child and has virtually no memory of standard hearing. Because of this, she has adjusted to technology fairly seamlessly. Each new generation of hearing aids brings greater information, making it easier to understand and interact with the world around her with less mental effort in filling in the gaps.

George Berkeley argued that the universe exists only in our minds because sensual information is incommensurate. Everyone perceives and processes the world differently, largely through the comparison between things which looks for difference. James Gibson’s big revelation regarding visual perception is that we are bodies in space and movement (both our own and of objects in the world) plays a large part in the way we mentally construct images. It’s not just the data, it’s how it changes as we interact with the world. In short, all perception is processed.

Attempts to transfer this processing to machine algorithms have given us socially agreed upon constructs as the JPEG, the acronym for Joint Photographic Experts Group, in 1992. Prior to this in 1980, the compact disc format was loosed upon the world by agreement on the Red Book standard. The promise, as promoted on a 1982 sampler recording from Philips, was Pure, Perfect Sound–Forever.

The slogan was met with almost immediate ridicule, with good reason. I remember the first CD machines we received at Sun Stereo in California– they were the size of a large toaster, and sounded downright strident and hard to listen to for long periods of time. Pure is not an adjective anyone could reasonably apply to sound except in the form of sine and square waves, certainly not music. And these machines did not sound like music. Nonetheless, the machines continued to improve and eventually took the world by storm. The consensus was that digital was convenient and “good enough” to satisfy our music recording needs.

The ironic part of the Phillips marketing strategy was the “forever” part. Early digital disks degraded quickly, becoming unplayable in 10-15 years. It was a bit like the early days of mass color photography; there’s a gap in the historical record because the dyes used were not permanent and present a jaundiced view of what colors in the 1950s and 1960s actually were. Natural degradation is a part of any artifact, usually a slow fade or a deposited patina on objects like oil paintings from atmospheric contamination. Digital did not repeal the laws of entropy.

Perfect, of course, is a matter of degree. People have long argued that the Red Book standard saddled the world with an imperfect musical product. Digital devices quantize sound in terms of the rate of samples and the number of discrete steps measured in those samples. The sample rate of Red Book is 44.1khz  with 16 bit steps. There are more choices available now, with more information, but not everyone cares or can be bothered to seek out better sound resolution.

The jury is still out as to whether more information (and larger digital files) really improve the subjective experience of digital audio. As my wife is quick to point out, having more information doesn’t always lead to greater understanding; for example, she still has difficulty appreciating early Joni Mitchell, or most all Joan Baez, because their vocal ranges are high and even when the frequencies are transposed down to the range she can hear she finds them painful to listen to, even though she can appreciate the artistry and craftsmanship of the songs and lyrics.

A better example, though, is her listening difficulties in large groups, particularly in noisy environments. She makes sense of situations by reading a variety of cues, body language and lip movements (though, no, she cannot read lips). When there are more people and more sounds tossed in, it becomes harder to discriminate between what is important and unimportant. She can handle four people at a time these days, but five is pushing it. I have another deaf friend who works well when in close proximity with one person and can direct his attention solely to them. There is a human labor in all this beyond algorithmic signal processing.

Which brings me to the real difficulty, as I see it, with digital sound and picture files— the way they will endure through time. The only real answer to the problem of “forever” with digital files is to continually copy them to new media as it becomes available, and digital copies cannot be perfect. Dropped bits, in small or large quantities are replaced using CIRC error correction, and when this fails to live up to the “pure, perfect” hype, artifacts are the result. Machines interpolating missing information are not the same as humans reconstructing a sense of the world. There is an alien DNA wedding itself to our cultural memory

As time goes on, our world is increasingly digitally smoothed. In a profound sense, analog records (non-biodegradable petrochemical discs) are made when breath (aura) is transformed into motion incised in the world. They degrade, generally through clicks and pops and shadows from adjacent grooves. Digital files don’t degrade, they simply get interpolated out of existence.

Analog recording is metonymic in that air pressure is transformed into incision and then back to air pressure through transformation. In each groove, there is a part of the musical experience directly connected with the moment. As it degrades, the analog recording’s original vibrations disappear in a sea of random sounds: white noise.

Digital recording starts with a sample of the musical moment.  As it degrades, the algorithm will interpolate data until no original data exists. Then it will interpolate the interpolations until the sound that emerges has no direct connection with the original event. It will survive forever, but only as a metaphor for something that once existed.

There was a short piece that my wife wrote long ago in Arkansas about the time just after we met. I was trying to explain what boiling water sounded like (she couldn’t hear it). I put some dry beans in some water in a jar and swirled it around, thinking that the rattling of the beans against the glass would be more within her range. It worked, this argument by analogy. Communication longs to succeed.

The recording angel has labored long across the twentieth century. I often think about Edward Curtis’s efforts at recording North American native tribes, both in sound and image. The images were designed for photogravure and broad circulation rather than as artifacts for a museum. And there were sounds, on Edison wax cylinders, mostly lost to degradation and accident. But some survive, as digital samples lurking on the internet. I think it’s important to keep emphasis on the human aspects of songs. Above all, humans fade.

I heard a perfect echo die into an anonymous wall of digital sound

I am reminded of the story of Echo and Narcissus. They failed to communicate, so he fell in love with himself.

Electric Whirl

Some things have appropriate names. The electric whirl is a device that consists of brass wires or plates, poised upon a pivot, that spin around when static electricity is applied. The gentle breeze, which results from the flow of electrons from the tips of the wires is known as an aura.

I didn’t consider this when I was writing about Walter Benjamin a few days ago, nor did I consider that the oldest definition of aura listed in the OED is “a zephyr,” a gentle breeze. In fact, in 1398 the terms aura and zephyr were interchangeable. It is a latinized version of the Greek αὔρα, now translated as breeze or breath.

There is a particularly interesting use of the word by George Berkeley from 1732 in Alciphron: “After which [i.e. the flying off of the volatile salt or spirit] the Oil remains dead and insipid, but without any sensible diminution of its weight, by the loss of that volatile essence of the Soul, that æthereal aura.” The connection of aura with soul foreshadows the way it was taken up in the late nineteenth century. An odd confluence is the inclusion, in this 1732 publication of Berkeley’s 1709 “An Essay Toward a New Theory of Vision” in which Berkeley embarked on his program of “immaterialism.”

A cornerstone of Berkeley’s explanation of vision pivots upon the difficulty we have in determining distance from visual evidence, arguing further that the sense of sight and the sense of touch were totally incommensurate. With incongruous sensual information, we cannot ever really know objects outside our mental conceptions of them.

The OED also connects aura with an odor, or a smell that arises as a “subtle emanation.” Curiously, the explanation reconnects with the Anemoi Zephyrus. From The cyclopædia of anatomy and physiology (1835–1859):

Fecundation is attributable to the agency of an aura from..the seminal fluid

Painters frequently depict Zephyr with maidens with blossoms emerging from them when graced with the west wind, as is the case with this detail from Botticelli’s Primavera. There’s a distinct network of connotations for “living spirit” with the term aura, whether it is soul or simply fertility.

During Walter Benjamin’s time, spiritualism was still very much a force in the world and surely he was familiar with (though he avoids it in his definition) of that level of meaning to the term: “A supposed subtle emanation from and enveloping living persons and things, viewed by mystics as consisting of the essence of the individual, serving as the medium for the operation of mesmeric and similar influences.” Benjamin isn’t applying it to people, but strictly to objects.

In a note in the Pennsylvania Gazette in 1737, Benjamin Franklin suggests that earthquakes in Pennsylvania might be caused by an “imprisoned aura” like the discharge of the electric whirl, and pathologists also connected aura with the onset of seizures “A sensation, as of a current of cold air rising from some part of the body to the head, which occurs as a premonitory symptom in epilepsy and hysterics.” So, it might not just be a pleasant fertile wind— an aura might be an ill wind as well.

Aura is ultimately an incredibly synesthetic description. It might be taken as tactile, as aural, as an odor or, as Walter Benjamin suggests, as a visual phenomena. When gazing up at a branch where the sun has cast its shadow on you, as he describes in The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, one would obviously see a halo of sorts, as the light was diffracted by the edges of the leaves.

And like this illusion, the meaning and applicability of aura is always difficult to pin down with any degree of certainty. But it makes me happy to think of it as a form of living spirit that might cling to objects, not literally of course, but as a metaphoric effect.