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diverse readings, acute listenings

peter blamey: book review—hearing places


WHETHER CONSIDERED AS AUDITORY CULTURE OR SOUND STUDIES, THE CULTURAL, SOCIAL, PHILOSOPHICAL, HISTORICAL AND AESTHETIC INVESTIGATION INTO SOUND HAS NOT OFTEN BEEN CONSIDERED TO CONSTITUTE A DISCIPLINE IN AND OF ITSELF. INSTEAD, IT HAS BEEN AN AREA WHERE ACADEMICS AND ARTISTS FROM A DIVERSE RANGE OF BACKGROUNDS HAVE MADE VALUABLE CONTRIBUTIONS TO THE DEVELOPMENT OF AN INTELLECTUAL CLIMATE WHERE SOUND AND LISTENING HAVE BECOME SIGNIFICANT SUBJECTS, TO BE CONSIDERED ALONGSIDE THE IMMEDIATE SONIC CONCERNS OF EITHER MUSIC OR ACOUSTICS.

However, the publication of a number of anthologies in recent years, such as The Auditory Culture Reader (2003) and Hearing Cultures (2004), has created a locus around which many contemporary writers have gravitated, producing not a specific discipline but a more amorphous or generalised field, bringing multifarious approaches into contact to produce an array of dialogues about sound and listening. One of the more recent additions to this steady stream of writings and publications is Hearing Places.

The title itself holds a fairly apparent double meaning—positing both an activity (the auditing of a given environment) and localities where such an activity might occur (places for listening)—that only partially accounts for the multitude of approaches to the experience of sound and place contained within. Compiled and edited by Ros Bandt, Michelle Duffy and Dolly MacKinnon under the auspices of the Australian Centre at the University of Melbourne (which is also home to the Australian Sound Design Project, directed by Bandt), Hearing Places draws together 37 scholars and artists from Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Europe, North America and beyond, bringing a plethora of voices from a variety of cultural backgrounds to explore the concept of place through an attentiveness to its sounds, and the relative significance attributed to those sounds.

In light of these aims, the use of the term ‘hearing’ in the title comes across perhaps as a slight misnomer, referring as it does to the sensory mode that allows us to perceive sound. Instead, hearing in this context has been taken (as frequently occurs in everyday usage) to be synonymous with listening—a conscious act that involves the focusing of attention on to the sense of hearing—and also to operate as a synonym for processes of communication in general. This slippage between literal and metaphorical acts of audition is used by several authors to articulate the complex interweavings of voice, place and power. Jane Belfrage’s essay explores how the notion of “The Great Australian Silence”—initially a metaphor for colonial attitudes to both Indigenous people and the land—signifies the continuing unbalanced power relations between Indigenous and non-indigenous peoples in this country. Similarly, Kelley Johnson’s cataloguing of the everyday sounds and voices of an institution for people with intellectual disabilities highlights the explicit connections between communication and power. Hearing, or in these circumstances, to be given a hearing—the opportunity to air grievances, to express opinions, to participate in cultural life—becomes the first step in fostering an understanding based on dialogue rather than assumption.

Given that this volume investigates the relationship between place and listening, it is not surprising that a number of writers draw from the notion of the soundscape, first advanced by Canadian composer R Murray Schafer and popularised in his book The Tuning of the World (1977) and also the wider, related field of acoustic ecology. However, many of the artists and researchers here extend beyond Schafer’s geographical similes and schema of soundmarks, sound signals and keynote sounds, and perform an auditory reimagining of their locales of choice, one that incorporates memory and narrative, which emphasises the tensions between the natural, cultural and historical components of a given environment. Keiko Torigore brings all these factors to bear in designing a ‘soniferous garden’ to honour the life of Japanese composer Taki Rentaroh—using plants, watercourses and pavement materials to subtly infuse a modern location with the historical sounds relevant to her subject. Kiera Lindsey brings the full force of an imaginative listening to an aural recounting of the Hume and Hovell expedition party of 1824-25, eliciting from the historical documentation an embodied experience of animal encounters, new surroundings and intercultural contact.

Alongside the more typically academic pieces are a number of statements by artists and artist-researchers whose work engages with both sound and place, such as the interactive sonic environments of Garth Paine, the distributed choral performances of Johannes S Sistermanns, and American Aaron Ximm’s audio restoration project. Of particular note is Jay Needham’s radiophonic work Listening at the Border which explores the personal dimension of the wartime monitoring of military airspace. Also intriguing is Dutch artist Ricardo Huisman’s woollen sound pill, conceived of not only as a touchable sound producing object, but also operating as a “woollen time capsule” in that it reproduces (among others) the sounds of the powder-fold machinery once commonly heard in Dutch pharmacies. The push and pull of memory is also detailed in Paul Carter’s perceptive description of both the content and the reception of his sound installation Out of Their Feeling, which had been developed to accompany a memorial to the great Irish famine. The accompanying compact disc contains not only samples of these artists’ works, but a range of field and location recordings that relate to almost all of the chapters, giving the reader (and in this case, the listener) an all-important opportunity to experience some of the sonic aspects of place to which their work relates.

Even though it has an international ambit, what is most significant about Hearing Places is the inclusion of works that address Australian subjects. “Locks of Hair to Untangle” by Melbourne writer and poet Tony Birch outlines his attempts to open channels of communication between the competing social and audiory spheres of Indigenous and non-indigenous Australia. If, as Birch posits, “silence may or may not be golden” since it can attest not just to respectfulness but to ignorance, then any opening up of those channels would produce the kind of cacophony that I dare say many of us would prefer to hear, potentially making any future ‘hearings’ of this particular place much more interesting.


Hearing Places: Sound, Place, Time and Culture, edited by Ros Bandt, Michelle Duffy and Dolly MacKinnon, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, Newcastle, UK, 2007

RealTime issue #87 Oct-Nov 2008 pg. 45

© Peter Blamey; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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