The failure of voice

I’ve been writing a paper about the sounds of the voice. Thinking about the topic reminded me of a brilliant gaffe from BBC Radio 4 presenter Jim Naughtie a few years ago. I’m not sure if this will make it into the final paper, but here’s a bit lifted from my current draft, with a YouTube clip of the memorable moment.

 

Voices are machinic from the very beginning. They arise from vibrational systems, as lungs, vocal cords, throats, tongues and ears get hooked up to architectural spaces, bodies of air, microphones and amplifiers, telephones and answerphones, audio and video recording, headsets, headphones and loudspeakers, scripts and autocues. From the first moment that Bell spoke to Watson on the telephone, from the earliest etchings of Edison’s words into phonograph foil, sound machines have pulled apart the humanist subject, reminding the voice of its humble origins amongst vibrating body parts. Not only does listening to the technologized voice tell us as much about contemporary existence as the classic interpersonal interview encounter, but that encounter itself must be rethought to recognize the voice recorder as a key actant.

 

In its restless movements through multiple machines, voice can never completely express the self as a conscious, contained, definable identity. It may present an illusion of rational self-possession and self-presence; it may be eloquent, articulate and clipped, with received pronunciation; the machines may black box its body out of sight and out of mind; and yet still the voice fails.

 

Take the Scottish radio presenter Jim Naughtie. For over two decades his voice was a regular feature of the Today programme, BBC Radio 4’s flagship morning news and current affairs show. Naughtie’s voice, like most official BBC voices, produces a sense of effortless rationality. It’s male Scottish accent achieves perfect clarity of enunciation, authoritative without ever being overbearing. Vocal apparatus combines with large diaphragm condenser microphones, pre-prepared scripts, acoustically treated studios and carefully optimised dynamic range compression to produce the most articulate and comprehensible of utterances. Phonemes roll out fully formed. Cadences rise and fall properly. And yet on one memorable occasion in 2010, when introducing Conservative minister Jeremy Hunt the Culture Secretary, Naughtie’s voice accidentally swapped the ‘H’ of Hunt and the ‘C’ of Culture to shocking and hilarious effect.

Whether this incident was simple Spoonerism or Freudian slip is beside the point. Of more interest is how Naughtie’s voice broke down in the immediate aftermath, like a tower block crumbling following the dynamite blast of demolition. Valiantly continuing to read out the headlines, the voice starts choking on its words, beset by dry coughs and awkward pauses. Utterances are spat out, forced through hoarseness, vocal cords seizing up. In this thickened, viscous tone, veering between laughter and tears, mundane lines about high speed broadband networks and Egyptian shark attacks take on a strangely gasping, almost morbid quality. The rational voice-from-the-ether suddenly acquires a body, which intrudes noisily, all-too-human in its frailty and fallibility. “Excuse me,” Naughtie eventually splutters, “coughing fit” – an excuse whose obvious inadequacy compounds matters. Such is the desperation of a man struggling with his own mouth. At points the strangulated voice is reminiscent of a scene from TV comedy I’m Alan Partridge, in which the eponymous antihero, invisible in a darkened bedroom, tries to speak about the pedestrianisation of Norwich city centre whilst receiving fellatio, vocal tone becoming warped by sexual arousal.

 

Such incidents, where the body trips up the voice, are not uncommon. Broadcasters, presenters, actors and singers routinely experience voices misfiring, script lines being forgotten, communication lines going dead, bouts of laryngitis, guests who say too much or not enough. There is a whole programme genre based on outtakes and bloopers, exploiting the humour that bubbles out when gaffes and fluffed lines puncture the performance of voice. If vocal breakdown can happen to trained, experienced, rehearsed voices surrounded by sophisticated technologies, it can happen to anyone.

 

Some thoughts about listening

As part of my AHRC fellowship about audio methods and sonic environments, I’ve been thinking a lot about listening. Angus Carlyle and Cathy lane from CRiSAP have an edited book on the topic about to come out soon, ‘On Listening’, to which I’ve contributed a chapter, so I thought I’d rattle out a few of my ideas here.

Listening as practice

The more I work on environmental sound art, the more I’m convinced that what makes it interesting when it works well is a combination of both representation (an echo of another space and time, a there-and-then) and elements of performance, of practice (something happening in the present, here-and-now). Both are important. Thinking about the performative and practice aspects, listening is fundamental. It’s the most basic practice in sound art, the activity from which work begins and with which it ends. Here’s sound artist Mark Peter Wright sharing his thoughts on the matter:

I think Mark’s right: forget about all that purist sound-as-sound stuff, listening is a multisensory, multidimensional form of attentive experience, a messy mingling of self and world. The common social-scientific, political and mass media definitions of listening are a dead loss here. Social scientists in particular have cloth ears when it comes to sound. They make much of the importance of listening to the ‘voices’ of people, but in practice they’re mainly interested in the communication of meaning, an almost anaural fixation with writable words, a “linguistic imperialism that subordinates the sonic to semiotic registers” (Goodman, 2009: 82). Musical notions of listening at least acknowledge aurality, but still tend to privilege the expressive communication of human emotions. I like how sound art can open up a much more expansive sense of listening.

Listening as affective

In his writing on film sound, Michel Chion suggests a three-way typology: causal listening, in which the listener strives to determine the source of a sound; semantic listening, which involves interpreting meaning, as in listening to spoken language; and reduced listening, a term borrowed from musique concrète pioneer Pierre Schaeffer, in which attention is focussed on the aesthetic qualities of sound (timbre, texture, pitch, rhythm, etc.) without reference to source, context or meaning. But this is too limited as a schema for understanding environmental sound art, which gives rise to other kinds of listening as well. How about, for example:

  • Embodied listening, that part of listening in which sounds are felt not only in the ears and head but throughout the whole body as physical vibration. Geographer Michelle Duffy has been developing this idea through what she calls a visceral conception of listening.
  • Affective listening, those elements of embodied listening that give rise to palpable affects. If brought into conscious awareness, these affects will likely be understood afterwards as emotions. Steve Goodman writes about how certain extremely low or high frequency sounds, at high amplitudes, can generate a sense of dread, fear or anxiety. Other recent work on this theme includes Anja Kanngieser’s paper about the affective geographies of voices, and Paul Simpson’s paper developing a postphenomenological account of listening, drawing on Jean-Luc Nancy. All of this is quite different to the more anthropocentric understanding of emotional listening common in music, where emotions are understood as something communicated by the performer to the audience.
  • Associative listening, in which sounds evoke imaginative associations, the listener drifting into something more akin to Proustian reverie than a search for distinct causes or meanings.
Listening in Waverley
A listening walk in Edinburgh, led by Jonathan Prior, stopping to take in the cavernous reverberations of Waverley Station.

Listening as power

It’s time to ditch the assumption, common amongst sound artists, acoustic ecologists, musicians etc., that listening is always a ‘good thing’, that more of it will make the world a ‘better place’. Listening is involved in many techniques of power, if power is understood in Foucaultian terms as simply actions that affect other actions, operating at an everyday, micro-scale (see my papers here and here). If we follow Foucault we also have to accept that power is not necessarily bad; rather it is ambivalent, a productive force full of possibilities, but also dangerous, open to abuse. Like all good things in life.

Foucault emphasised the power of sight, the ‘gaze’ and technologies of “permanent visibility” (1977: 201), but many techniques of power centre on aurality. Think of listening in processes of self-creation, as in counselling and therapy; territorial sound-making, from animal distress and warning cries to geopolitical broadcasts to sound system culture; scientific forms of listening, from stethoscopes to hospital alarms to ultrasound imaging (Tom Rice has a new book all about this); listening as part of surveillance and controlling people’s behaviour in institutions such as schools; the increasingly common addition of audio recording to CCTV technologies; the automated voice announcements of modern transport, machines incessantly telling us what to do; all the tantalising and tedious forms of capitalist sound production in marketing and advertising; the use of forensic audio in crime detection; and exercises of outright control and domination through listening, such as in espionage and military situations. That’s quite a list.

Towards collective listening

So I think it makes sense to ask the question, of any instance of listening: what work is this listening doing? What are its effects? Sometimes the listening situations offered by sound art just reproduce the tired docility of the concert hall or fine art gallery: a passive audience, listening obediently to a revered artist. At the other end of the spectrum, home listening and headphones, while affording the comforts of privacy, can feel overly individualising, especially with internet audio. I find sitting at a computer checking out recordings on SoundCloud quite isolating after a while.

The kinds of listening I’ve been more enthused by lately have been set up to have more collective, participatory effects. There’s nothing particularly new about such approaches, and they are incredibly simple to set up. For example, Jonathan Prior recently led a listening walk around Edinburgh, taking a group of 12 people around the city centre through various sonic environments. At the end we all chatted about our responses, and all kinds of ideas and experiences came out. The walk properly reconfigured my sense of the city.

And as mentioned in my previous post, I’ve really enjoyed taking up James Wyness’s idea of the ‘soond gaitherin’ or, since I sound fake-ass trying to do a Scottish accent, the sound gathering: an informal situation where you book a room, set up a playback system with some half-decent speakers, and invite people to come along to play field recordings they’ve made, or just to listen, and have a chat about them. I find I listen more openly in a group setting, and as long as you can steer clear of it turning into a ‘guess the sound’ pub quiz round, the range of responses can be fascinating and thought provoking.

Actually giving people a chance to listen together, then to discuss and make sense of what they’ve heard: a simple, almost traditional idea, with none of the wow factor of the latest new music genre or technological invention, and yet with a quietly radical potential to reconfigure the audience/artist relationship.

Sounds of the Olympics

Like many people in the UK, I’ve come down with a severe case of Olympic fever over the last couple of weeks, finding myself living all the clichés. Temporarily shelving misgivings about large-scale gentrification, corporate sponsorship and dubious legacy claims, I’ve been shouting at television sets, developing unexpected enthusiasm for any sport in which brits are doing even moderately well, and generally joining in with the party.

One thing I hadn’t anticipated was quite how important sound seems to be to the proceedings. British competitors have repeatedly remarked upon the overwhelming volume of cheering from the home support. At Wimbledon, where audiences are usually fairly well mannered, the volume was cranked up for the Olympic tennis, turning Andy Murray’s matches into proper rowdy affairs. Heptathlete Jessica Ennis said that the crowd was so loud it gave her goosebumps, and made her want to raise her game even further. The ovation she received when she won gold – 80,000 people all screaming their heads off – must surely be one of the biggest unamplified human sound events the nation has ever produced, a stunning piece of collectively improvised noise music.

This has led to a series of headlines about Olympic noise. Cyclist Mark Cavendish said that his ears were ringing after the road race, and in the velodrome noise levels reportedly reached almost 140 decibels (A-weighted, one assumes) during finals involving Chris Hoy and Victoria Pendleton. That’s easily loud enough to cause hearing damage. Most of the headlines have been celebratory – noise in this context is being constructed as an outpouring of fun, enthusiasm, conviviality, patriotism. The noise abatement discourse has been notably muted, although there have been some (belated, probably very sensible, but likely to be ignored) suggestions that athletes should wear earplugs, and some grumblings about the loud music being played at venues. There is a detailed noise management plan for the games, which cites a raft of applicable regulations, but in relation to crowd noise it makes this rather intriguing statement: “No precedent and no locus in law for controlling human activity or crowd noise.” This was somewhat unfortunate for the Australian rowers, who complained that the noise from the Team GB supporters was drowning out the calls their rowers use to synchronise with each other in their boats.

And then there are the sounds of the sporting action: splashes, smacks, thunks, pings, swishes. In the sound sculpture slot on Radio 4 at the weekend, an archer explained how the click of the bow’s mechanism and the thud of arrows hitting the target give him important cues as to whether he is on target or not. During one of the tennis games, I found myself able to judge that certain shots were going out before the ball landed – an overhit was obvious from the heavy plunk of ball on racket. There has also been some commentary about the sounds made by athletes, such as grunts and whistles.

Swiss rider Fabian Cancellara in the road race time trials.

I was lucky enough to attend the road race time trials whilst in London last week, and took a full and enthusiastic part in the mexican wave of shouting surging through Surrey as Chris Froome and Bradley Wiggins whizzed past. Wiggins later said that the noise had been phenomenal and almost deafening, without any gap for the whole 44 kilometres of the course. But for most of us, most of the time, our experiences of sporting soundscapes take place at more distant times and places, through radio, television, computers or handheld devices. The three dimensional, full frequency swirling mass of vibrations inside a stadium ends up being squished down and scrunched out by a little mono speaker at the back of your telly.

Olympics presenters have repeatedly pointed out how impossible it is to convey to people watching at home just how loud the venues are. At one point during the opening ceremony, one commentator suggested that viewers should turn their TVs up a bit just to get a better sense of what it was ‘really’ like. This raises the question of fidelity, as discussed by Jonathan Sterne (2003), following Michel Chion, Rick Altman and others. Sterne questions the notion that audio technology operates by reproducing an (always imperfect) ‘copy’ of an ‘original’ sound event. He points out that the idea of ‘original’ sound events only arises once ‘copies’ are possible. Thus the very existence of sports broadcasting is what enables claims to be made about the superiority of actually ‘being there’.

We might therefore think of audio more as an art of creative production than reproduction. The evidence bears this out in relation to sports broadcasting. What might seem like a highly realistic sound track will invariably have been carefully constructed to convey the action, making full use of the magic of modern audio technologies. Check out this podcast, in which some of the key players in sports sound design lift the lid on the tricks of their trade:

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Thus sound engineering for sports broadcasts might be compared to film or computer game sound design, in which, as Sterne and Chion would have it, definition (i.e. sound conveying a clear sense of the action taking place) is more important than fidelity (i.e. the accurate ‘capture’ and reproduction of what might be a more muffled, masked or mundane reality). Take diving for example. The walkway at the top of the diving boards is rigged with multiple shotgun mics, the audio equivalent of an array of zoom lenses. These pick up intimate sounds of the divers walking, moving, breathing and speaking, sounds that would be all but inaudible to a spectator at the venue. Hydrophones are also submerged in the pool to pick up sounds as the divers enter the water. Other techniques include the use of contact mics on gymnastics equipment to pick up the movement of the bars. You can read more about this and listen to some audio examples here.

At risk of being brand policed...

To conclude, here’s a clip of one of my favourite pieces of Olympics-related broadcasting: a Freudian slip from Jim Naughtie on Radio 4’s Today Programme, in the run up to the games, mispronouncing the word Arcelor:

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The Orbit. Photo from ArcelorMittal.com

Which one's the biggest Arcelor? Photo by Kirsty Wigglesworth/AP via the Guardian
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Listening to a dead rabbit

As I mentioned in my previous post, last week sound recordist Chris Watson came up to the University of Edinburgh for a visit which I’d organised. It was fantastic. An amazing man. As expected, I learned lots about field recording, but he also turned out to be a great storyteller, full of tales about his many travels, including recent visits to both poles, and stories of Factory Records, David Attenborough and so on.

As part of his visit, Jonathan Prior and I ran an audio recording training day for researchers and PhD students from the university. About ten of us travelled by train to the nearby seaside town of North Berwick, chosen to give us a range of environments to experiment in. Journalist Neil Cooper also joined us to write a piece for the Herald newspaper, which you can read here.

By the beach, with a thick haar (the local word for sea mist) rolling in, Chris showed us some of his equipment, including a parabolic reflector mic for very focussed work, such as isolating particular bird calls, and a pair of miniature omnidirectional mics he uses for more ambient recordings. As the name suggests, omnidirectional mics pick up sound from all around the mic capsule. Compared to cardiod mics – which pick up sound in front of the capsule – omnis are less sensitive to wind and handling noise and also tend to have a flatter, wider frequency response, particularly in the low end.

One technique Chris uses with the omnis is to attach them to a wire coat hanger. This gives a nice spacing for stereo, is super-lightweight, and very versatile: the hanger can be hung from vegetation or spiked into the ground.

Like all non-coincident stereo techniques, the coat hanger setup compromises mono compatibility, but if you can live with that the resulting recordings are superb. As I’ve said here before, my main mic for field recording is the Rode NT4 which has a fixed 90 degree XY pair of cardioid capsules. This could be seen as the opposite of the omnis, in that it is directional and coincident. I find the directionality useful, especially in urban environments where I often want to block out the traffic noise coming from behind me. However, compared with the omnis, the NT4 sounded quite ‘closed’, almost slightly stifled, whereas the omnis were incredibly open and natural sounding. Obviously this is all subjective, but I was taken aback by the difference. For ambient soundscape recording, the omnis were definitely better in my opinion. Plus there is the versatility of having two tiny, lightweight mics to position as you wish. The only advantages of the NT4 would be mono compatibility and directionality. Better get saving for some of those omnis…

I experimented with both the NT4 and the omnis recording the waves rolling in and the general ambience of the beach. Chris’s tip was to make several recordings from different perspectives and then layer these – he said in his experience this would give a more recognisable impression of the sea than just using one recording. Listening to the results I’m inclined to agree. The following mix was made from six different recordings, including some made very close to the breaking waves and others made further back up the beach:

[audio:http://www.michaelgallagher.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2011/04/N-Berwick-Beach-Sea-mix-1.mp3|titles=North Berwick sea mix]

During a break for lunch, Chris spoke about his experiments attaching mics to animal carcasses to record birds feeding. The most well-known example of this is on the track Cracking Viscera from the album Outside the Circle of Fire. He produced that track by attaching mics to a zebra carcass, enabling him to record feeding vultures. However, it seems that Chris has used this technique on a number of occasions, starting one Christmas with a mic’ed up turkey carcass, pinned down in his garden using tent pegs, and starlings descending to peck at it, to the delight of his children. Deadpan, he explained that even though his daughter had left home by that point, their turkey was still big enough to fit four mics inside for a surround sound recording. Another story involved a roadkill rabbit and some ravens on the Isle of Mull. I quickly got the gear rolling to record this:

[audio:http://www.michaelgallagher.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2011/04/Dead-rabbit-clip.mp3|titles=Listening to a dead rabbit]

A few notes of thanks, first to Chris for sharing his incredible expertise with us. For help with funding and organising his visit, thanks to: the Institute for Academic Development; Martin Parker and Jules Rawlinson from music; Dan Swanton and Jonathan Prior from geography; and my admin team in CRFR (all at the University of Edinburgh)..

Sound, space and power in a primary school

I’ve just had a paper published in Social and Cultural Geography based on my PhD research in a primary school. It’s all about how sound is used in the exercise of power in schools. It’s part of a special issue on spaces of education. If you have access to the journal, you can download it here.

I had another paper in Surveillance and Society last year that is a bit broader but also has some stuff about sonic surveillance. That journal is free to access, and you can get my paper here.

This is all pretty cool as these are my first academic publications touching on questions of sound. The research was just conventional ethnography – no audio recordings sadly. However, I did go on to make a short film called Seven Primary School Spaces in 2008 where the sound was a major focus. Check it out:

I’ll be showing this film at the Royal Geographical Society annual conference this year in a session on ‘Moving Geographies: Film and Video as Research Method’ which is being organised by Katherine Brickell, Bradley L. Garrett and Jessica Jacobs from Royal Holloway..