Sonic Spatial Criteria: Concerning Sound Techniques and New Communities


Published in: Department of Public Sound, no. 1, 2011, pp. 9-14.


Marc Schuilenburg (1)


“Anyone who thinks up a new rhythm also discovers a new way of experiencing the world,” notes British author Kodwo Eshun in his More Brilliant Than the Sun (1998). This is the type of insight you are not likely to find in any official government documents or policy plans any time soon. Documents on the city are characterized by fairly cryptic sentences that are filled with terms like ‘restructuring’, ‘upscaling’, ‘creativity’, ‘sustainabilty’, ‘experiential value’, ‘differentiation’, ‘basis’, etc. Regardless of how vague these terms may be, it is immediately obvious that they play a increasing role in efforts to totally ignore an important aspect of the city. Sound. All things considered, sound opens all doors. Isn’t it true that sound travels through walls, after all? In a negative way, we experience this on a daily level in the form of neighborhood disturbances and noise pollution. But besides these negative examples, sound is not often taken into consideration when thinking about a city. And, in this way, we forget that sound plays an important role in the creation of the total living environment. He or she who listens closely will pretty quickly discover, that sound actually creates spaces where people from various backgrounds and lifestyles come together. The German philosopher, Diederich Diederichsen (2003, 2004), once stated that the current electronic music represents the sound of an entire community. But the last word has not been said on this subject. That is why it is so important to analyze how sound changes urban space and how this influences the meeting and gathering functions of the city.


How sound acquires a spatial dimension

The ability to actually reproduce sound first emerged somewhere in the first half of the 19th century. Until then, playing or listening to music was still a unique event that was expressly bound to a scheduled time at a certain location. To hear a piece of music required going to a market square, a café or a concert hall. As soon as the musicians stopped playing, the notes would forever vanish into thin air. It was impossible to hear the music again in the same exact circumstances. Moreover, it was also impossible to ascertain whether a performed composition was being played in exactly the same way at the next performance. Other than using sheet music, there was no way to check this with any certainty. This elusive quality forever disappeared when, in 1830, the German physicist Wilhelm Eduard Weber attached a pig’s hair to one of the prongs of his tuning fork. This was probably the first instance where sound was experienced as a tangible phenomenon. Here we see a physical manifestation of the frequency curve of the tuning fork. By making the hair to vibrate on a glass covered in soot, one could now actually see the various musical pitches and notes with one’s own eyes.
Elaborating on this idea, the Parisian printer Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville in 1857 fastened a needle to a membrane. As soon as the membrane began to vibrate upon applying sound that was amplified by a funnel, the needle also began vibrating, a movement that left its track behind on a revolving glass cylinder covered in black pigment. This was how Scott de Martinville, with the aid of his ‘phonoautograph’, was able to visualize sound that up until then had been invisible. This sound machine was almost immediately put to use in research involving language and dialects. As Kittler noted in his Gramophone, Film, Typewriter (1999), Scott de Martinville’s phonautograph was deployed to establish criteria for the ideal pronunciation in an effort to standardize or homogenize the various dialects.
Ten years later, the hard-of-hearing inventor Thomas Edison came up with the idea of combining the workings of the phonautograph with that of a Willis typewriter. This new phonograph or ‘talking machine’ made it possible to not only record sound but also play it back. “Hello?” was Edison’s first utterance recorded by this pioneering device. Shortly after Edison’s invention, the German-American electrical engineer Emile Berliner developed his flat, improved version of Edison’s cylindrical sound recording medium. He replaced the phonograph roll with a flat disc with spiral grooves so that the sound waves were recorded horizontally rather than vertically. Although this disc was incapable of actually recording sound, the flat discs had the advantage of being much cheaper to produce and distribute.
This series of early-19th century inventions had, by the end of the century, led to an unusual situation whereby sound could be reproduced without losing much by of its quality. It now became possible to simply repeat musical compositions and listen to them over and over again. Once it was recorded on a sound recording medium, musical pieces could now be experienced as three-dimensional spaces. The result of being able to reproduce sound was that it could be removed from its strict time dimension. The techniques with which sound was recorded drew sound into another dimension, a spatial dimension. As a result of the increased reliability of sound reproduction, a listener could wander around and become totally immersed in the sounds. Not unlike a space demarcated by its floor and walls, this space also distinguishes between inner and outer. And thus, as Baltic biologist Jakob Johann Von Uexküll noted, it created a unique Umwelt or environment.
In Umwelt und Innenwelt der Tiere (1909) and Theoretische Biologie (1920), Von Uexküll developed his thesis that, on the one hand, the environment influences the senses of a living being and, on the other, that beings experience their environments in a unique manner. This means that what surrounds us and where we find ourselves is not such a basic and incontrovertible fact, which is experienced by everyone in the same manner, but is dependent on each individual person. Every living being experiences, in other words, his world in his own way. Von Uexküll illustrated this by showing us the life of a tick. The tick reacts to three changes in its environment: light, smell and temperature. When there is a change in lighting, it climbs up a plant leaf or tree branch. The smell of a mammal means it will drop down onto its prey. A change in temperature, meanwhile, ensures that the tick will find the easiest place on the hide to suck blood. Obviously, the Umwelt of the tick is very different from that of the fish. And the environment of a fish is different from that of the heron. But human beings also live in an Umwelt, simply by resisting certain instincts, they create their own reality.


Recording sound

The creation of an Umwelt through sound has been researched extensively by the French musician Pierre Schaeffer, who was educated as a sound engineer at the École Polytechnique in Paris. Schaeffer began leading research for Radiodiffusion Télévision Française (RTF) on musical acoustics in electronic music in 1942. RTF supplied Schaeffer with all of the necessary equipment: record players, sound recording equipment, editing facilities, mixers and access to RTF’s library where a wide variety of all kinds of sounds and sound effects were archived. For Schaeffer, this led to the technique of listening to sounds divorced from their sources, which led to an unusual experience. This way of listening to sound was already an old practice used by students of philosopher Pythagoras in the 6th century B.C. For five years they listened to their master as he lectured from behind a curtain. Schaeffer, in following in Pythagoras’s footsteps, declared this way of experiencing sound as ‘acousmatic’ listening. This literally means hearing a sound without being aware of the source that produced it. Schaeffer was not interested in the sound source of an instrument, focusing instead on his research into what one hears in the sound as it emerges from the speakers. Later, Canadian composer Murray Schafer (1977) would refer to these sounds as ‘schizophonia’ or sounds without sources. These sounds are no longer directly linked to a recognizable environment or an event that occurred naturally.
As one of the first sound engineers, Schaeffer discovered that one could create a unique sonic environment simply by using audiotape. In his comparisons music to genres like film and theatre, he became convinced that these new technologies presented unforeseen possibilities for the making of music. After the breakthrough of the record player, Schaeffer traded in the musical score for the recording studio. He shut himself up in his sound lab, the Club d’Essai, where he investigated the new rhythms he discovered when a needle got stuck in a record’s groove. He now began to understand that the altering of playing speeds and direction of rotation are some of the record player’s properties as a musical instrument.
Schaeffer became increasingly fascinated by the possibilities of isolating sounds and mixing them into his musical compositions. With the advent of the tape recorder, the Italian futurists’ call for making the sounds of the city part of musical compositions became a distinct possibility. Schaeffer, influenced by Italian composer Luigi Russolo, referred to the sound pieces he compiled from his environment as ‘musique concrète’. Schaeffer wanted to use this term to highlight the difference between it and musique abstraite which was still being composed using the ‘detours’ of musical notation and a conductor. As a consummate DJ, Schaeffer created his first composition, Concert de Bruits, in 1948, by changing the speed and rotation direction of gramophone records during a live performance and creating loops of individual grooves on the record. His next composition, Etude aux Chemins de Fer (1948), was a montage consisting of sounds pre-recorded with a tape recorder in a Paris train station. In that same year, Schaeffer also broadcast a composition on French national radio that consisted entirely of recordings of train whistles, spinning pots and pans, boats, percussion instruments and piano sounds.
The possibilities afforded by these new techniques are best described in German philosopher Walter Benjamin’s famous essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction ([1935] 2008). Although Benjamin is not specifically referring to sound here, he does establish the fact that the mechanical reproduction of an original artwork has dramatic repercussions for the arts. Benjamin points out that “For the first time in world history, mechanical reproduction emancipates the work of art from its parasitical dependence on ritual. (…) From a photographic negative, for example, one can make any number of prints; to ask for the ‘authentic’ print makes no sense.” In the essay, he compares film to traditional painting. While the cameraman resembles the surgeon, the painter is more like the magician. The surgeon makes incisions into a patient’s body, while the magician cures a sick patient by laying his hands on the patient’s body. Benjamin stretches this comparison by noting that the cameraman penetrates this reality, unlike the painter who keeps a natural distance from reality in his work. By assembling various fragments the cameraman can construct a new version of the same reality. The montage techniques offer an opportunity to experience a different world. Close-ups, slow motion and strange camera angles lead to new experiences that did not exist before the advent of film.
The montage techniques that Benjamin discusses in The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction ([1935] 2008) can be applied to music with the aid of audiotape. Because the sound quality of magnetic audiotape was not comparable to that of the gramophone record until WWII, it took audio techniques a while longer to catch up with those already being applied in film. It would only be in the mid-20th century that changes would finally be realized, in part, because of research done by Schaeffer. The tape recorder suddenly emerged as the most suitable for recording sound that can later be reproduced. While the gramophone record was handy for making copies of an original recording, the tape recorder was handier for creating originals because the technology was simpler and cheaper. Lengths of audiotape could easily be cut up into smaller pieces like strips of celluloid film and reassembled in a different sequence and spliced together. In this respect, Schaeffer refers to a ‘sonic object’, a unique, individual sonic spatiality with its own characteristics and effects.


A migration to the future

How does sound manage to escape from our immediate environment? Or, more precisely, how has the advent of new sound technologies affected how people are related to one another? Not long after Pierre Schaeffer’s discoveries, avant-garde composers like Karlheinz Stockhausen and Edgard Varèse began engaging in experiments at the Club d’Essai, using various electronic techniques in their new work. But it wasn’t until audiotape techniques began to make their way into pop music that there emerged actually a global sphere, or Umwelt, with unprecedented capacities for social change. Sound can, in the words of French philosopher Gilles Deleuze (1980), “invoke a new people”. This is precisely how some Black artists have since the 1950s applied various sonic techniques to construct alternative worlds for their own community. In the search for a better world, sound is intimately linked to ‘a way out of here’, with a concrete escape route to other types of societies.
According to theorist Mark Dery, it doesn’t necessarily involve personal escape, but a broader social movement where elements of science fiction, historical realism and magical themes are combined with utopic dreams and actual efforts to rewrite history. In his 1994 article Black to the Future: Afro-futurism 1.0, Dery refers to the movement ‘Afrofuturism’. Based on the work of various Black musicians and producers, he concludes that many Black Americans live in permanent state of alienation. According to Dery, they are the ancestors of hostages who were forcibly kidnapped from their homelands by alien beings. They live in a science fiction nightmare where their every move is frustrated by invisible and impenetrable force fields of intolerance. Music plays an important role in this transatlantic society in the creation of a social dynamic and identity. Blacks have traditionally always occupied a marginal position in the culture in the land where they ended up as the ancestors of slaves. Music is usually one of the only forms available to them for exchanging the stories, information and ideas on global scale about their African heritage and the diaspora of the Black community. The extraterrestrial domain sought by the forces of Afrofuturism, is a last step in these efforts.
Kodwo Eshun, in his More Brilliant Than the Sun (1998) describes this same movement as a binding sonic fiction where stories, concepts and ideas are communicated via the music and only partly visualized using images. In this speculative fiction, African-American themes are addressed in the context of music styles such as jazz, techno, reggae, grime and dubstep. Thus, Afrofuturism creates a different kind of vision of the future than what we have come to expect in films and literature, where metaphors from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), Frank R. Paul illustrations for Hugo Gernsback’s fanzine Amazing Stories (1926-1929) and Disneyland’s Tomorrowland are some major illustrations. These works sketch the future out in visual images, but as Afrofuturism has already shown, sound is just as important a part of the escape rout to new Umwelten.
The notion that ‘outer space’ is the destination of Black people has its precedents in Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland (1968), Miles Davis’s On the Corner (1972), Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters (1973), Parliament’s Mothership Connection (1975), The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel (1981) by Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five, the Detroit techno of Cybotron and Model 500 (Cosmic Cars from 1982 and No Ufos from 1985), Earth People by rapper Dr. Octagon (1995) and the already classic Metropolis (2007) by Janelle Monáe. One of the first afronauts was free-jazz musician Sun Ra (1914-1993). His passport may indeed indicate that he was born as Herman ‘Sunny’ Blount in the American town of Birmingham, but Sun Ra was actually from Saturn and landed on Earth to play heavenly music from outer space with his band the Arkestra. The appearance of Sun Ra himself serves as proof for black people that there is life beyond planet earth. The right note or chord, Sun Ra explains, “can transport you into space using music and energy flow. And the listeners can travel along with you.”
Sun Ra is not the only being to fall to earth in order to lead Black people toward a better life. Jamaican dub-producer Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry vehemently denies being born on the planet Earth: “I am an alien from the other world, from outer space, I don’t have no land, no estate, no property, no house. Not on this earth. I live in space – I’m only a visitor here.” In the 1960s and 1970s, Perry was part of an extensive scene of Jamaican producers and musicians who were consistently trying to outdo each other with the latest rhythms, lyrics and singing to get people enthused about the local dance clubs. During production work for the artist Duke Reid, Perry’s colleague King Tubby discovered that with a tape recorder he could separate the vocals from the background sounds. This technique soon found its way back to Perry’s Black Ark Studio, where, using a diverse arsenal of techniques and effects, Perry proved his extraterrestrial origins.
In his article ‘What Is This “Black”’ in Black Popular Culture? (1992), British sociologist Stuart Hall described how Perry, with his drop-outs, tempo accelerations, spatial echoes, reverb, flanges, phases, noise gates, echo feedbacks, shotgun snare drums and rubbery bass mixed the indefinable sounds of his universe together. In his studio, he produced unique sounds that you would never hear in our everyday world. These Black artists, with their unique techniques form the foundation of a shared sonic spatiality, which forms the binding link between fellow travelers spread around the world form the northern part of South America, to the Caribbean, the east coast of Central America, the US, Canada, the UK and Africa. This led British author Paul Gilroy, in his book The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (1993), to compare the dispersal of the ‘kidnapped’ Africans with the Jewish diaspora.


Sampling sonic space

The introduction of the Mirage DSK-1 digital sampler in the 1980s made the editing techniques of Grandmaster Flash, Scratch Lee Perry and King Tubby available to average music lovers. This digital montage device, introduced by Ensoniq, is a complete sound studio in a practical case that is easily operated by manipulating a few buttons and knobs. The Mirage DSK-1 is actually an 8-bit, 32-KHz computer that can write, read, save, record, scan and play back sound. It converts sounds into computer data and without loss of quality, can be played back at random speeds and reused in various new contexts. In scientific terms, sampling is defined as the procedure that, gathers the necessary snippet of a certain audio continuum to effectively stimulate this very same continuum using as little memory as possible. The number of samples per unit of time period is known as the sample rate.
When we look at its many applications, we notice that the sampler has, since its invention, been used primarily as a citation machine. The sampler is chiefly popular because existing sound fragments can be easily recorded and then played back on a keyboard using any tempo desired. This creates effects comparable to those produced by hip-hop DJs who ‘scratch & cut’ using vinyl records on turntables, with the difference being that the analog techniques require a lot more skill. Each record has to be meticulously researched for sounds and grooves. Using a cross-fader on the mixer, the DJ can suggest a continuum between two records. The first samplers mastered the game of disappropriation, re-appropriation and appropriation down to the absolute finest details. Disappropriation, or sonic thievery, happens when sonic artists borrow sound fragments to mix into their own tracks. Sampling has in this way opened up a can of worms regarding the issues of counterfeit, copying, and copyright, the role of the author, quotes and quoting. The difference between an original and a copy, between an artists and a connoisseur becomes very vague indeed.
The sampler’s techniques we’ve thus so far seen seem to indicate that sampling is just an easier variation of the tape recorder’s montage technique. More than fifty years before the sampler was invented, however, the tape recorder used a very similar technique. Sampling simply made editing and montage work easier. Or, in other words, the sampler is simply an improvement of the tape recorder. A tape recorder’s functions are embodied in the sampler. In principle, the well-known copy & paste computer command is basically just a montage technique. The sampler has not just appropriated the tape recorder’s montage techniques but all of the related sound concepts as well. The construction of a new environment and its subsequent deconstruction, the dis-, re- appropriation and appropriation of existing material can all be considered essential sampler functions.
But, nevertheless, a sampler is more than just some digital tape recorder. While very expensive recording studios were a mainstay of montage techniques, the sampler is an instrument almost anyone can afford. Moreover, it is easy to operate. The intricate and labor-intensive montage techniques Pierre Schaeffer used on his musique concrète works have largely become superfluous with the emergence of the sampler. No more time-consuming cutting, slicing, re-recording of magnetic audiotapes ever again. Now its possible and very easy to distort and edit in real-time fragments that seamlessly flow together and by using sample rates the seamless quality of a mixed track is complete. In other words, the sampler has flung us into the digital era, a period allowing us to re-experience Pierre Schaeffer’s acousmatic listening. There has been a veritable explosion of new genres that treat the sampler as the basic instrument. The English pop theorist Simon Reynolds, in his book Energy Flash (1998), refers to these musical styles as ‘sampladelia’ which includes trip-hop, techno, jungle, drum & bass, clickhouse, post-rock, jazzdance, and UK garage. Sampladelia involves the cutting of sound fragments so that the source material is morphed to produce new sounds that seem to be played by almost unimaginable instruments. Reynolds uses ‘sampladelia’ to describe the revolutionary consequences of the distorted music made with the sampler and other digital technology: “Its a radical break with the ideals of real-time interactive playing and natural acoustic space that still govern most music-making.”


This town is a different town today

English theorist and founder of the Hyperdub label, Steve Goodman (aka musician Kode 9), sees a relationship between the number of sampled beats per minute and the formation of various communities. In his book Sonic Warfare (2010), Goodman describes ‘speedtribes’; communities united in their distinction of shared enthusiasm for the particular bpms of their favorite music. Speedtribe members of the encounter one another in musical environments with their own specific beat rates. For example, reggae and dub employ somewhere 1 to 80 beats per minute (bpm). Hip hop, trip-hop, dancehall and R&B employ anywhere from 80 to 120 bpm. Most sampladelia genres are characterized by 120 and 145 bpm. House, techno, and breakbeat are clocked at between 120 to 130 bpm. The fastest musical genres include jungle, drum & bass, and gabber. Jungle and drum & bass vary between 145 and 180 bpm, while gabber may peak at 220 bpm. Young people who share similar styles of fashion, dancing, language, and drug use are united by the beat rates of these various genres.
Social factors such as faith, race, gender or origin are less important as binding factors in these speedtribes. These communities do not truly conform to the classical notions of Gemeinschaft, as described by German sociologist Ferdinand Tönnies in his book Community and society ([1887] 2002). Tönnies’s theory basically states that each community is a mixture of Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft. On the one hand, in a Gemeinschaft, individuals focus on their own group and on themselves. They’re guided by communal values and convictions. The Gemeinschaft, on the other, is characterized by strong personal relationships and family bonds and relatively simple social institutions. The family is the prototypical Gemeinschaft. Tönnies believed that the hegemony of modernity has gradually replaced the Gemeinschaft with the Gesellschaft. Since Tönnies, sociologists have become increasingly uncertain about the Gemeinschaft’s future in modern society.
The electronic globalization of the Earth has almost been accomplished thanks to the proliferation of iPods, the Internet, radio and television, which means that the sense of community must be found elsewhere, since most links to the nineteenth-century notion of Gemeinschaft have all but vanished. Sociologist Craig Calhoun (1980), in describing the secularization of the concept of community, argues that “Community life can be understood as the life people live in dense, multiplex, relatively autonomous networks of social relationship. Community life, thus, is not a place or simply a small-scale population aggregate, but a mode of relating, variable in extent.” In relation to this, we can refer to those social relationships that emerge as a consequence of sounds and rhythms as ‘sound communities’. The power and seduction of sound are strong enough to unite people without ever needing to refer to any overarching morality or identity as guiding principles. This means that in real situations by performing together and the use of sampling and montage techniques, new spaces emerge and are organized based on shared experiences and desires.


Exile from main street

So, there are two striking developments that were made possible by the advent of new sound reproduction technologies. First, the techniques of montage and sampling have made it increasingly easier to give sound a spatial quality. Montage and sampling are techniques that rip you out of your social and physical environments and represent the basis of the subtle formation of space. When you listen to music, you hear another space other than the one you are currently physically occupying. Second, the spatial aspects are not simply abstract and neutral environments. The spatial conditions produced by montage and sampling offer an environment for the development of social relations between people influenced by sound. Because these sounds can be reproduced, the entire notion of community has gained a new meaning. To gain an understanding of this kind of processes it is required to consider matters such as clothing, language, social patterns, drugs and music. But however versatile and important the element of ‘sound’ may be, its political meaning is hardly ever described or even mentioned as an item of any interest in studies of the city. Everybody seems to overlook the fact that sound is a symbol for entire communities and that it provides an escape route for social groups when put with their backs against the wall or subjected to political stigmatization.



(1) This is a reworked version of the ‘Sampladelic spatialities’ chapter from the book Mediapolis: Popular Culture and the City by Alex de Jong and Marc Schuilenburg (010-Publishers, 2007).



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