The Preferential Sense

For many centuries our eyes have been the predominant sense for understanding the world around us – vision is how we comprehend and interact with our world. Our history is told through our eyes; painting and more recently photography and film offer us a glimpse into the past, the present and pos- sible futures. What cities looked like, how countryside undulated and even what clothing people thought fashionable is well documented. Once we move beyond vision, to the other senses, our understandings of the past and the incidental changes over time are vastly diminished.

Unlike with vision, sound has only the barest of records available, telling us of the change in our civilisations (and environment). There are understandable reasons for this gap. Limited recording technologies and the lack of portable recording devices until the mid part of the 20th century meant that until recently documentation of the environment surrounding us – including urban and natural sounds, music, language and other sonic artifacts has been impossible.

This absent audio history is increasingly the focus of study and conversation – specifically about the role sound may play in the comprehensions we build and maintain of the world around us. Questions must be asked as to why and what we choose to experience and now to ‘document’. Similarly the question of what we select to actively listen to brings with it issues surrounding the ways in which we listen, what we value and how those values are established. After all, the human ears are remarkable filters and it pays to be aware of what we subconsciously and consciously choose to block-out.

As you read this, stop for a moment and listen to the number of sounds around you. Traffic, birds, a dripping tap, children playing, expanding and contracting iron rooves, air conditioning, the sound of a computer, a neighbours’ television, a helicopter in the distance – in everyday life our brain, as if on auto-pilot, actively filters out numerous sounds that surround us. This neurological cotton wool serves an important function, allowing us not be overcome and confused with the sheer volumes of auditory data thrown at us. At the same time it can mean we are not listening as attentively as we could be and thus we miss out on a great many sounds that might otherwise catch our attention.

Invitation to Site-Listening

This website is an invitation to start listening. It’s a field guide to ‘site-listening’ – the act of attentive listening in any chosen location, privileging the auditory environment as the focus of awareness. There are several reasons that historically site- listening might not be as familiar as sight-seeing.

Firstly sound is temporal – whilst on a bus tour of Europe a sight-seer is able to photograph the Eiffel Tower or the Brandenburg Gate instantly on arrival at each location, only to torture friends and family with a slide night. Accessing the sounds of the city, in any meaningful way, is more time consuming. Sound requires the listener to take their time and listen, to allow the space to speak – the listener must be active in engaging with the environment around them.

Secondly, sound is less transferrable. In many ways sight- seeing lends itself easily to transferral of experience. Unless you’re equipped with a good recorder, and happen to have some experience using the device, it can be difficult

to replicate the experience that some sounds have when heard in-situ – the ringing of bells on a Sunday morning in some small village, the sound of nightfall in the Amazon or in fact the absolute silence of parts of the Antarctic Peninsula – are sounds difficult to truly appreciate without being in those actual spaces.

Thirdly sound takes effort. In fact, the search for some sound experiences can be utterly difficult, but then, nothing ventured; nothing gained. Moreover, sound is not static because weather, season and time of day all make a difference. Therefore certain experiences cannot be assured, meaning that the risk of not hearing a particular sound is higher than, for example, not seeing a famous tree or statuesque landmark. At the same time the opposite might also be true and you may happen to hear something exceptional few others have the chance to encounter. Sound is, in some ways, a gamble but one that arguably pays off exponentially.

Lawrence English – May 2010

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