what god hath wrought mary had a little lamb
Truncated version published in The Gramophone Special Edition 'Perspectives on Contemporary Music' 1997, full version published in The ReR Sourcebook Volume 4 No. 2. 1997
It may seem banal to point out that sounds, together with the space in which they propagate, naturally form the audio continuum we inhabit. Harder to grasp today is the fact that, until 1877 , the scale of sounds to the things that produced them could only ever be isometric, or 'true'. No sound and no auditor could escape the absolute relation of size to distance, since no sound could ever be at any scale other than 1:1 with the known world.
Nor is it by chance that we recall, compare and conclude facts about the world from sonic information received: our ears and the whole complex of mechanisms through which we interpret sounds have had millions of years to evolve, meaning that the structure of our hearing is not at all neutral, but comes highly predetermined. As Kant suggested, the limits of what we can know - and how we know - are determined by the structure of the senses with which we know. Thus, we are born with an ear-brain configuration already highly structured by our history, and this constitutes a pre-existing ecological background for any culturally determined system of sound organisation and sound appreciation we might originate within it. Music is exactly such a system and it's origins and development can usefully be seen as evolutionary, adapting to and constrained by various given 'environments', including the inherited specificities of human hearing, the physical laws of sound and the strange needs and discourses of human cultures as they have been sifted and have silted in the course of our collective evolution. That is to say, hearing seems to come to us unbidden - first as an inherited, then as a learned, system of meaning and signification. This is the ground of an ecology within which music of any kind has to be understood.
Physically, our hearing is limited to a fairly narrow range of frequencies, differing considerably from individual to individual but roughly between 16 and 20,000 vibrations a second, which is to say, from about one octave below to two octaves above the lowest and highest notes on a full Concert Grand. Importantly for our perception of scale, it is also bilateral, meaning that sound reaches the ear it is nearer to first, ensuring that any signal reaching both ears will always be both out of phase with itself and discriminated by two slightly different amplitudes. From these differences we derive the information needed to locate the source of a sound in space. And note, the source of playback sound, what contains and delivers it, is loudspeakers, in the same way that the source of a painting is a frame - the rest, in both cases, is an illusion. This is a non trivial point to which I shall later return. Two other controlling factors in the evolutionary morphology of the faculty of our hearing should also be considered here: first, survival - which could be much enhanced by any improvement in an ability to derive reliable information about size, distance and identity from clues picked up by accurate ears. Second, speech - the development and refinement of which made extraordinary demands on the ability of early homo loquens to appreciate the fine details of separation, integration, identification, location and interpretation of sounds embedded in the informational complex formed between speaker, hearing ear and interpreting brain. Thus, anything we have to say about music has to start from those significant structures formed by the non aesthetic functions of survival and effective vocal communication. These are structures that we inherit and thus appear to us as natural; which is to say, do not appear to us at all.
All acoustic musical instruments (like all objects in our soundscape) have a character and an absolute dynamic range which we learn and internalise. Moreover, we can tell from the harmonic characteristics and the dynamic shape of the sound they produce, whether they are being struck, blown, bowed or plucked lightly or hard With these clues and from the quality of reverberation we hear, we are able instinctively to gauge both the kind of acoustic space in which a thing is sounding and it's distance from us. So a whisper heard above the hubbub, means a communicant who is near, while a half heard shout below it indicates a body far away. Similarly, if we hear a mandolin above an orchestra, we know that either the orchestra is at ppp - a fact instantly audible from it's sounding character anyway - or that it is far from us while the mandolin is near. We acquire and carry with us an exhaustive lexicon of such known sounds, in all their incarnations, and - in the manner of visual perspective - we are able, without conscious thought, to judge size, position and the informational content of all manner of distortions, by reference to these known norms. This is the ground of what I am calling scale; an internalised bank of benchmark knowledge which is wholly transparent to us and seems to come to us as natural from out of the world we know. This is why we can be seduced by depicted perspective, trompes d'oeils or trompes d'oreilles, and why it is important that loudspeakers be considered as a frame and not as any kind of window.
It follows that, if everything that could make a sound is limited by nature to a fixed range of amplitudes, timbres and resonances (as measured, for instance, in an acoustically neutral, or 'dead' room) then it could only be through the selection, modification or construction of the physical place in which things were made to sound that these limits could, to any extent, be overcome. Indeed, there is a musical history that could be written simply in relation to the thickness of walls, the attributes of glass, the design of spaces and the reflectivity of surfaces (as Murray Schaefer has intimated) . Likewise musical instrument design and the qualities of sounding materials form an ecology with the spaces and uses of music. Significant is the fact that in our century electrification and recording technology have rendered all these factors, except in very limited cases, almost entirely irrelevant. Where, after all, is the place in which loudspeaker music sounds ? Ought we not to think it strange that we have accepted so easily the extraordinary distortions of aural scale ushered in by the age of sound recording ? And is this not for reasons similar to those which have made us accept the violence done to our visual expectations by film, with its cuts, close-ups, pans and careless disrespect for the immutabilities of coherent time and space ?
While a gut guitar may sound large in a flamenco bar or small in a field, and a voice large in a cathedral but enfeebled in a small hall, our ears tell us still that the conservation of scale has not been violated. It may seem that the heroics of opera singing express the triumph of a single voice over an orchestra - but a heavy price has been exacted for this in terms of the limitations of pronunciation, vocal expressivity and timbral range imposed upon the singer. In other words, heroic humanity is elevated above the other instruments by Art and illusion, and at the cost of vocal distortions and severe instrumental restraint. Far from overcoming the immutable absolutes of scale, such illusions are only made possible by them. And such illusions are the provenance of art because of the way that they surmount known absolutes of scale.
PUMP UP THE VOLUME
And then: microphones - in clubs, studios, and auditoria, singers suddenly no longer had to compromise their delivery to the power of large, lush orchestrations or raucous jazzbands playing at full tilt. New forms of vocal expression developed. Now enlarged by a microphone, singers no longer had to power up to the accompaniment, nor orchestrations down to intimate styles of vocalisation formerly restricted to small rooms and close gatherings. Hence crooning, which became an eloquent expression of the new power of the electrically assisted human voice. Where radio, and then cinema, had led, life followed. Amplification through speakers in the concert hall brought the voice to the same acoustically impossible equality with the orchestra that it had enjoyed on the air or out of the phonograph horn. Absolutes of scale were disturbed at last and scalar relativity began to appear, though in pursuit of no more than a heightened naturalism. Unlike the completely controllable output sound of radio or Gramophone records however, a singer or instrumental soloist at a concert could only be boosted while the accompaniment sounded at its natural acoustic level. In other words, there was a tendency for live music to become louder.
If microphones at least even the score at public concerts, recording abolishes scale and place altogether. This is one of it's most radical achievements, and it's history long predates the application of the microphone and loudspeaker. Back in the mechanical days, when sound was cut direct from horn to cylinder or disc, a true, but unusual, aspect of scale had to be exploited to create a kind of trompe d'oreille, curiously inverting the trompe d'oeil of visual perspective. While in painting and drawing a small object seems to retain it's absolute size, but is seen as further away, in sound recording a sound which is, in fact, further away, simply appears quieter than it's scale suggests. Something like this is achieved by putting orchestras and theatre bands in the pit at the front of the stage, making their sound muted and indirect and giving unaided singers who can project directly into the auditorium a slight but crucial advantage. It was soon discovered that, in a recording studio, unburdened by considerations of visual coherence, control of relative volumes could be far more finely exercised simply through judicious placement. A singer could be put right next to the horn, while everyone else was arranged at different distances from it; how far depending on the ratio between the natural loudness of the instrument and how loud the producer wanted it to sound. Thus the relative volume between instruments became a function not of instrumental acoustics and design, but of distance from a fixed point.
In fact all recording is always made for this fixed point listener, a listener who is in a sense created by the nature of the recording process itself.
At the beginning of the twentieth century then, between the recording horn and the listening horn, a new kind of imaginary space was engendered, in which for the first time different acoustic environments (an intimate distance from a singer, a large room for the orchestra, for instance) could apparently co-exist. And since unseen, the actual, bizarre, disposition of instruments in the studio could be reconstructed in the listener's imagination to produce an acceptable picture, which was, after all, the sound producer's goal (and I think that the mental plausibility of this picture was an important factor in the early acceptance of recorded sound). What might have seemed normal, however, was in fact a radical distortion of anything normal. It was an illusion, and one which depended on our inherited sensitivity to scale, since the unique position of the recording horn was reproduced on playback as the position of our listening ear, and what could be heard was, from that position, real - however unlikely. It was precisely the acousmatic nature of the sound - the fact that it's source was invisible - that allowed the ear-brain complex, working under millennia of training, to construct a meaningful illusion of spatial coherence from the sound information received. This is the sonic equivalent of the picture in the frame. And like a picture, such sound, constructed and delivered through loudspeakers, is always at once both deeply personal and profoundly alienated, since only one ear in one place could ever hear what that originating ear hears - and now every listener has to share that single ear. This may be dictatorship or it may be liberation, but it surely speaks eloquently of the condition of recorded music in it's - mostly unremarked - elision of the One and the Many and their projection into an imaginary, virtual space where scale and distance disconnect from one another; infinitesimally at first and now irremediably.
Thus the subtle demolition of our sense of scale began, through an illusion based on scale itself, at the moment when relative levels and the control of acoustic spaces became voluntary rather than given. At first the strangeness of this was eclipsed by the greater strangeness of the tiny and tinny sound that came out of the gramophone horn, a sound which was of course nothing whatsoever like anything real anyone had ever heard, and which bore no relation either to the acoustic volume of the instruments represented, nor to their timbral range. For such a crude simulacrum it was a given that imagination would have to fill in the details and compensate for the mismatches - not only between groove and horn but also between represented and absent acoustic sound. This quotient of imaginative engagement was, I think, critical in loosening the grip of instinctive scalar hearing. To put it in Marshall McLuhan's terms, early recording was an extremely 'cool' medium.
In the years that have followed, an ever improved fidelity has crept up on us step by step, with each improvement in representational accuracy being accompanied by increasingly extreme distortions in scalar veracity and possible geometry - tracking the way sound itself retreated ever further into electronically mediated manipulations . Almost unawares, we have assimilated and adapted to each further improvement and each further distortion, as our ears and brains have slowly been reprogrammed (a) to interpret sound as symbolically rather than literally representational (b) to extrapolate scales and spatial images from a medium we instinctively know is flat and two dimensional, and (c) to approach tone and movement as essentially abstract phenomena, engendering an increasingly abstract sonic dialect. In fact, we are learning to hear loudspeaker sound as an autonomous affective medium, like film, with its own rules and discourses and it's own highly qualified and metaphorical relation to 'the real'. This quality of abstraction has nothing to do necessarily with any absence of 'reality' in sound or with it's representational fidelity - just go to any dolby stereo[TM] action movie: every 'natural' sound is hyper-real, and quite as artificial as anything that came out of the tinny old phonograph horn - it's just more experientially seductive (and in McLuhan's terms, hotter). In fact, fidelity doesn't really come in to our judgement any more - except as fidelity to concept, to illusory consistency.
Nevertheless, our loudspeaker listening is still underdeveloped. And, failing to realise what exactly it is we are listening to, means that we can't properly interpret what we hear - and therefore can't properly judge, since we are judging by the wrong standards. It is also the reason why there is so much poor work in the new field: critical facilities are generally under-informed and under theorised.
I have laid emphasis on the relatively sudden collapse of scale, and with it certain kinds of inherited listening that was brought about by the invention of sound recording and then electrification. I am arguing that this requires that we make different demands and ask different questions of what we hear presented to us (usually still as 'music') on record. I think it is useful to understand what the difference is, and why recorded music is not simply enhanced acoustic music (even when it seems to be). Electrification is the key. When the microphone replaced the horn, sound disappeared, because between sound vibration and the laws of electronics lies a whole universe of manipulations - subject to electrical and not acoustic laws - that can be performed electrically on the electrical data before it is reconverted back into sound . Like the difference between reflex and consideration, what happens in that space is crucial. And, once recording tape and mixing desks were imported into it, it was freed also from the constraints of sequential time and of any vestige of natural scale (other than the deliberately referential). Multi-track tape (and now digital recording systems) have opened this space even further. And it is in this space that we have now to learn to listen. It is here, in the virtual space of reified imagination, that scale reconstructs itself as the grammar and syntax of an art; that it reinvents itself through a heightened acuity of hearing and in the internal logic of acousmatic abstraction.
Where is scale ? What is space ? We could ask the drummer - A Grand Canyon echo on the bass drum, 'gated' to cut off unnaturally suddenly, two tom-toms extreme right and left but at the far end of two Dead Rooms, cymbals dry and very close to the ear, a snare drum with a repeat echo far in the distance and a hi-hat sweeping through frequencies from high to low filtration then running through a phaser (which sounds like poorly tuned radio reception). One person might have played it, even in real time, but it's no longer possible to visualise - true relative volume is gone, possible position is gone and there is no coherent acoustic space any more (except one which is created, and embodies a magical coherence, like that of a dream, a painting, story or a film). The loudspeaker has become it's own virtual domain and we have to learn how to navigate about in it (donning headphones, we place this impossible world inside our own heads). It is only by learning how to listen inside the frame that we can extend our ability to hear and to aestheticise our hearing, and, in Cage's words, though not with his meaning, 'allow sounds to be themselves'.
Quietly, scale has disappeared from our acoustic arts. Now there are ciphers: rows of 0000's and 1111's. With instruments electronically customised for each new recording, base sounding qualities are gone and so are coherent acoustic spaces for them to sound in - these too are typically customised today. Sampling makes a system of recording into a creative instrument and turns sound production into sound consumption (making choices from existing materials). Inside the frame of the loudspeaker, anything which can be imagined or artificially constructed, can be made to sound. All natural constraints have been lifted. The rules of speaker world are not the rules of the real world and this radical shift of possible ground presents daunting problems for ears and practices still rooted in old certainties and interpretative paradigms. Without confronting this, it is impossible to understand why today's music sounds the way it does.
|other writing:||Scale||Plunderphonia||Looking Back|
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text and images chris cutler; site squidco 8454