Applying the Enhanced Hearing Abilities of Digital Media to More Deeply Understand the Relational

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Technologies aren’t new to sound, or music-making, as those that have crafted our beloved guitars, pianos and drums, to name a few instruments, know. But digital technologies as instruments of expression now offer vast possibilities of contribution to our musicking abilities, the expanse of which we are just beginning to discover. One attribute that digital media notably contributes to my research and practice of sound art is its ability to hear. Digital technologies are extremely effective at sensing sound, its impacts, and relaying the gathered information. With various sensors, such as transducers or electrophysiological monitors, and their accompanying analysis tools, such as spectral analysis software, we have access to a wealth of detail regarding the presence and characters of sound, its impact on, and interactions with, acoustic space and the heterogenous bodies therein.

 

An enhanced ability to hear has particularly strong applications for those of us working in the practice of site-oriented sound art. Site-oriented sound composition and performance is by nature dialogic, as it originates in situ, arising out of interaction with elements in a place. Listening is, of course, one-half of the equation of dialog, and digital tools bring to the site-oriented sound artist an increased capacity to hear, that in turn contributes to our listening state. With a microphone of the appropriate sensitivity, I can analyze the response of an environment to a sound impulse, and adjust my compositional response accordingly. For example, we can sense that the material make-up of a surface might have changed (perhaps due to weather, decay or overgrowth) because its resonant response has shifted. With this new knowledge, I may change the frequency, duration or amplitude of my own sonic output, and thus a composition arises. An example of this process is Listening Is As Listening Does, a piece I composed for Caramoor Center for Music and the Arts inaugural sound art exhibit, In the Garden of Sonic Delights, Katonah, NY, 2013.  Listening Is As Listening Does simulates sonar, a system of navigation that determines the location of objects via reflected sound. In a Spanish-style courtyard at Caramoor, I carefully placed microphones to listen for the echo of specific impulses, generated by software. Using the same software, I was able to analyze qualities of the echo, which changed often due to the shifting content and nature of the outdoor environment, and produce musical responses accordingly, in real-time.

 

With “Listening Is As Listening Does” we have an example of how the feedback provided by digital tools can help us craft sonic entanglements with environments that are dynamic and generative, especially when these processes are engaged in real-time. And, with this example, we can also propose that, with the hearing power of digital technologies, that our musicking, much like our living, is a real-time assemblage of many agential actors, not just that of sound producers or composers. With this in mind, I posit that this type of sound art can be framed as a non-anthropocentric mode of musicking, one that decentralizes the human, and features the agency and vitality of the nonhuman constituents. Site-oriented sound art produced in an environmentally dialogic mode has an expanded ability to offer humans active affirmations of our interdependent, generative processes. This reveals what critical theorist Rosi Braidotti calls a “non-unitary” form of subjectivity, which rests on an ethics of becoming.1 A non-unitary view of subjectivity proposes “an enlarged sense of inter-connection between self and others, including the non-human or earth others, by removing the obstacle of self-centered individualism.”2 With an enhanced ability to hear that digital technologies offers us, we can listen to the call and response among resonant bodies, and experience the sonic materializing of an inter-material world, relationally co-constructed amidst its own ecology. Thus, listening deeply, with the assistance of digital tools, has the potential to destabilize the habits of human-centeredness among us.

1. Rosi Braidotti, The Posthuman (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2013), 49.

2. Ibid., 49.