What happened to the neutral sonic space ?
Sounds organised by musicians through acoustic, mechanical or electronic sources then electronically recorded and replayed through amplified loud-speaker systems in public and semi-public spaces, are ubiquitous in our urban environment. I do not know why this is so. I do know that the occupation of our shared aural environment by these sounds both oppresses my ears and antagonises my brain. On occasion the way the sound is organised or its insistent repetition can take me to the precipice of and into violent rage.
One contributing reason as to why this might be so for me, is that during those extreme reactions I feel that the sounds are violating my aural space (where does the body begin and end?), penetrating deeply into the intimate and sensitive experiential processing circuit within. The incoming signal is far greater than the sense organ, that is my brain, can accommodate and the overload causes pain (I know, I’m too sensitive !). The processing circuit is physical but it is also habituated in its formation, shaped by my aesthetic and by intellect. It is the latter aspect that experiences a most harrowing affect.
No doubt my experience is intensified through my avid listening. However, in general I seem to be able to accept sounds that emanate from functional electronic or mechanical systems such as aircon, lights, refrigeration, automobile engines and so on, (although I am constantly surprised by how many people do not register those sounds within our environment).
But it is the temerity of whomever makes the decision to impose a certain configuration of sonic overlay into an environment that raises my hackles. The presumption that each human who passes through or lingers in that space and time would want to be subjected to those sounds, and that those sounds, chosen for whatever reason, are going to impact each human in the anticipated way.
The action says that the humans lingering or passing through that aural space will either; not be aware of what they are hearing or will respond in the anticipated way to what they may or may not hear. Those implementing such action believe the public aural space is there for the taking, and they will use it as they like, regardless.
I realise much of our urban sonic environment could be categorised as noise pollution, extraneous sound as a by-product of industrialisation and consumerism and that this material I am discussing fits that category, but strangely, for example, I am able to accommodate the sound of passing motor vehicles and then their “parallel interaction” with the wind.
I can indeed find some acceptance of an ill-considered by-product that is, the sonic output of the motor car and its relation with the wind as simply constituting the ‘urban sonic environment’ within which I live. Maybe because sound emanating from motor cars, fridges and power lines are the by-product of a single-minded focus to build a functional object or mechanism and the by-product (resultant noise) is the unintentional (or acceptable) result of that focus.
The decision to install infrastructure for disseminating directly-considered-sounds (commonly thought of as music) into an aural environment is historically entirely conscious, even if one particular iteration of this action is less than conscious. Today, the behavior has become commonplace and I imagine little consideration is given to the actual interests and sensitivities of those to be exposed, before installing such a system.
So, I am calling it a violation of the rights of an aural space to be itself, what it might otherwise be. Perhaps a cacophony, or just a multitude of sonic sources doing what they do.
The organised sound system seeks to direct, to impose a mood, to represent its consumerist substance to our ears and brains, to normalise its behaviours, to colonise what it believes to be a kind of terra nullius. This is its purpose. I am not saying that other contributors to the sonic environment are free of a conscious sonic manipulation, even if their sound is classified as a by-product of function, but that I suspect there is a degree of difference between these and those whose sole purpose is to colonise a sonic space for their precise purpose.
What is that precise purpose is less important to me than what is being done and how it is being done.
As stated earlier, I regularly experience the manipulation of a public or semi-public space by such organised sonic material as an assault to intellect, to senses, to body. A violation of a “reasonable expectation” that I can freely move through or linger in a public or semi-public space and time unfettered by corporate/political harassment (Is this ‘unreasonable’ on my part, is not the entire urban domain, a state of constant harassment ?).
Is there any difference between aural and visual colonising of space ? Advertisers will typically pay for space. Do aural advertisers pay for sonic space ? Certainly we must contend with a visual information barrage in the urban space, but we can lower our eyes or look away. Can we ‘lower our ears’ and ‘hear away’ ?
If in a marketplace, I will accept the throng as an identifier of character and take delight in its multiplicity. There is a sonic jostling for attention that is directly presenting, directly entwined with all sensing of what constitutes a “reality” of that environment.
Is there something more sinister at work, for example, more commonly in bars, cafés and restaurants, where the highly resonant surfaces and spatial configurations of the architecture accentuate the organised and disseminated sounds I speak of, to such an extent that to verbally communicate is radically curtailed ? I understand the lack of interest in verbal communication inside a dance club and I understand there are numerous forms and techniques at work in voice communication, beyond just words, but my concern is not here.
The café is semi-public, it requires our patronage and it is the right of the owner to shape our experience within, in any way they see fit. My sense is that the owner is carrying on the status quo in adopting the sounding of recorded “music”. But should we not question the status quo at regular intervals to make sure our tendency toward habituation is not masking a behavior that is in essence a deadening action, that instead of affirming life, is numbing it, numbing us ?
“Neutral sonic space” is not uncoloured, uncluttered, unbiased, unoccupied, but it is democratic in a broad sense; that non-human and human, animate and inanimate, bodies and spirits are free to roam through, find place in and contribute to, over time.
The authoritarian attitude and dictatorial manner that consumerism’s foot soldiers decide to appropriate a most sacred of spheres, VIOLATES all.
Was there ever a “neutral” sonic space ?
Perhaps it was just easier to locate.