Go back to article: ‘Organising Sound’: how a research network might help structure an exhibition

Histories of listening

The composer Trevor Wishart voiced one cumulative inspiration of the series during the last workshop’s final conversation. He suggested that the common denominator of the workshops’ provocations and discussions, as indeed of our relevant collections, is that it is listening that unites all the practice that the workshops discussed. The acts of hearing and listening unite us all as sound practitioners – whether or not we are producers as well as consumers of music. Or, to put it another way: the history of the interaction of science, technology and music is marked by the development of new kinds of listening undertaken by professors of acoustics, by composers, by musicians and by music audiences, not to mention manufacturers of phonographs, iPods and hi-fi devices, as well as noise abatement officers.

The workshop participants witnessed the power of listening in our visit to the South Bank University anechoic and reverberant chambers, and again with the Wandelweiser pieces performed in the evening concert of the first workshop. Here the extended silences in the music created a charged awareness of the duration and impure nature of musical pauses. These extended silences came to be experienced as being anything but ‘rests’, except in the musical notation sense, instead creating a tension all of their own. Sound and silence exist in a dynamic, though not necessarily a dialectical, relationship; just as Cage heard not silence, but other sound, in the anechoic chamber (Campbell, 2017). Every performance of 4’33” reiterates the lesson. David Toop’s suggestion that noise might be considered as sound out of place is perhaps similar to Hillel Schwartz’s emphasis on barely perceptible sounds (in his case of the bird in the vacuum pump). The intensified listening of natural philosophers in that image may not be so very different from the ‘golden ears’ among the hi-fi enthusiasts that Sarah Angliss mentioned, those who claim the listening acuity to hear degrees of harmonic distortion that would be beyond the capacity of the more casual listener.

Our conclusion was that an emphasis on listening and its history, if used as the governing concern of an exhibition, would provide a way of emphasising the subjective experience of music, and could therefore help in the selection of display stories and objects that would resonate with visitors’ own experience. We are all listeners, so it follows that provoked listening could produce a very distinctive kind of exhibition.

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/170814/006