Response to Sterne’s The Audible Past

09 Feb
Jonathan Sterne’s semi-behemoth of a book gives a coherent narrative the different ways of hearing and listening that stemmed from the advent of sound technologies. His idea of audile techniques are helpful in framing the way we think about how we listen in a world of intense sound mediation and sound reproduction. He strips the ideas of hearing and listening down to the basic biologies, then building up techniques and technologies of listening and sound reproduction and mediation on top of these philosophies that stemmed from biology and anatomy.

His discussion of how public acoustic space turned private in order to enable the commodification of sounds and music and class distinctions that it constructed and into which it interpolated individuals illuminated something that seems so normal to us that we never think to deconstruct it. This is a cohesive continuation from the articles we had been reading earlier, about how sound is immersive and inescapable, with bells, with Islam soundscape, environments in which sound is NOT private. Could we go as far as to think about this “equity” of accessibility to sound as democratic? What are the implications here? After all, Sterne discusses how audile techniques privilege certain sounds and render them into a privatized space, whether it be with stethoscopes or headphones, or sound telegraphy and Morse codes. How does this isolation effect habits of listening, how has it changed, and how has commercialized entities turned sound commodification to their advantage?

Mediated sound as “better” hearing seems to be a theme that is relevant today. Back in the day, sound mediation tools and technologies (like the stethoscope) was needed to hear properly. Even today, people use headphones, especially those with noise canceling capabilities, in order to become fully immersed in sound. They hear the music “better” (or perhaps just more like how the people who control these privatized sonic spaces want you to hear it). Sterne’s discussion of audile technique as “dissemination of a specific kind of bourgeoise sensibility” (Sterne, 160) ties into private space, and this commodification of sound. After all, one needs to be able to afford the equipment in order to experience privatized music.

With this idea of privatized music comes the idea of how, with sound recordings, people have more control over how they spend their time listening to music or experiencing sound recordings. Sound recordings essentially divorce sound from its necessity to be present, to be in the now. Attali, through Sterne, talks about “stockpiling” others’ use-time. While I won’t attempt to tackle the Marxist implications in what he says, I do want to mention that sound recordings have huge implications for the idea of temporal capital, in that being able to separate a sonic experience from its presence in time allows more control over temporal capital (or how one spends their time). There is more flexibility in this, and temporal capital is much more widely spread – people are able to spend their time increasing their cultural capital (ie: as Kenney, through Sterne, points out, “recorded music allowed people to experience concert music they might otherwise not have encountered.” (Sterne, 243) I would argue that sound recording actually increases one’s temporal capital, as temporal capital is not necessarily the time available for a sonic experience, but one’s control over such time. Hence, in a concert, forget about the fact that going to the concert, dressing up for it, buying the tickets, providing transportation, etc would cost not only economically, but the individual who is going to the concert would need to, ironically, have the temporal capital, or the flexibility, in order to enjoy this sonic experience in the NOW, in the inflexibility of the experience. Sound recordings free the individual from the constraints of the concert hall in time and space.

Sterne also discusses the question of authenticity. The idea that the “original” does not exist until “copies” are made is poignant on many levels. They are both “products of the process of reproducibility.” (Sterne, 241) We also should think about the fact that many of the “original,” live shows tend to try and mimic the “copy,” or the sound recording of a record. After all, in most cases, albums are not recorded live. They are heavily engineered and layered, with each part being recorded at a different time, then compressed together on the same timeline in order to create that “authentic” sound. The real test is whether or not the “authentic” live performance can live up to the sound recording. This become a real conundrum. What is the original? Is it the recorded and engineered music? Or is it the ability of the artist or musician to reproduce what was heard on the record? It becomes a Catch-22.

Finally, Sterne talks about preserving sound, and creating an audible history. All I can think about is, sadly, we will never ever hear Mozart play his own piano concertos, because sound recording and reproduction technologies have not been invented yet.

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Posted by on February 9, 2011 in Uncategorized


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