Unraveling the listening

Reviews 17.01.2024

Published within a few months of each other, two books by Juliette Volcler and Daniel Deshays examine the field of sound that surrounds us, unraveling the threats to our perception of it that most often come from the economic world, and underlining the extent to which sound can be a genuine vector for emancipation and relationships.

It's an encouraging sign, as well as a possible symptom of the state of our world, saturated (sutured?) with sonals and other visual and auditory solicitations(1): in recent years, the field of sound studies seems to have finally been the object of renewed interest in France, judging by the proliferation (everything is relative) of works on sound and its corollary, listening. After the very fine Histoire naturelle du silence published last April by eco-acoustician Jérôme Sueur in Actes Sud's "Mondes sauvages" collection, two books have recently been added to a body of thought that for a long time had to be confined to Raymond Murray Schaffer's seminal essay, The Soundscape(1977) and John Cage's Silence (1970). What these two books have in common is that they emanate from two people - Juliette Volcler and Daniel Deshays - who, beyond their age and gender differences, are not patent researchers with the letters of academic nobility that generally impose themselves; two people who clearly know and esteem each other (Juliette Volcler interviewed Daniel Deshays, who himself quotes her in his book). While Daniel Deshays is - as we shall come back to - an emeritus practitioner and pioneer of sound recording, who has never ceased to reflect on and share his practice, Juliette Volcler proudly asserts her status as an independent researcher. 

The standardization of sound

She came to sound through radio and her active participation in SyntoneJuliette Volcler is particularly interested in the way in which capitalism sanitizes, assigns and subjugates our contemporary sound environment, with the aim of contributing to the awakening of critical, even political listening. After Le son comme arme. The police and military uses of sound (2011) and Control. Comment s'inventa l'art de la manipulation sonore (2017), last spring she published, again with La Découverte, L'Orchestration du quotidien. Subtitled "Design sonore et écoute au 21e siècle" ("Sound design and listening in the 21st century"), this latest instalment extends her thinking in a series of brief chapters, punctuated by an alert, facetious tone: mini-investigations focusing on the many industrial variations of sound design over the course of the 20th century - from automobiles to streetcars, from urban spaces to computer sound signage - alternate with more reflective, "theoretical" chapters. The book's appeal lies above all in its "documentary" and journalistic dimension - a wealth of information is gleaned about the behind-the-scenes production of our everyday, mainly urban, sound environment - and in the freedom with which the author brings together "previously isolated eras, practices, sectors or objects" (dixit on the 4th cover). As described by Juliette Volcler, the era of the "generalized sonorization of everyday life" does indeed seem to be that of the standardization of our auditory behavior, and of the capture of our "available listening time" by the invisible hand of marketing; the capture of sound design itself, transformed into a tool of authoritarian and normative social control, based on a mechanistic conception of human behavior. Although he is resolutely accusatory (we can't fault him), sometimes at the risk of bad faith(2), his comments are often hard-hitting, leading us to wonder about this ongoing standardization, which leaves little room for freedom, whether in terms of listening or creation: we like to dream, for example, of a world where the alarm clock or police siren prototypes vainly developed by the great Max Neuhaus would eventually have been adopted... 

Max Neuhaus, Aural images of hidden cars, Siren Project, Drawing #4, 1991. Ink and colored pencil on paper, 91 x 112 cm. Estate of Max Neuhaus

It's a question today of making "the common" rather than "bubbles", concludes the author, of giving precedence to craftsmanship over industry. Even if, from the moment it is emitted into the public space, sound, whatever it may be, proves fundamentally ambiguous: we're not thinking so much of the loudspeakers blasting out music that invade the (historical or commercial) centers of certain medium-sized towns, or waiting rooms of all kinds, as of the downside of all technological innovation, which means that the emancipation of some can become a source of pollution for others; in the case of portable transistors in the 1960s or Bluetooth speakers today, where does the common begin, and the bubble end?

The book doesn't pretend to be an exhaustive synthesis - the list of initiatives for the "fabrication of the common" evoked in the last chapter could have been extended well beyond the only two examples she details, because we have to acknowledge the pleasing abundance of sound walks, sound massages and other proposals for emancipating and collective acoustic experiences in the programming of cultural institutions. It is regrettable that Juliette Volcler, while rightly highlighting the under-representation of women in the world of sound design, does not focus on figures such as Suzanne Ciani - a little-known pioneer of electronic music who earned her living working as a "sound designer" in advertising, notably for Coca-Cola - or sound artist Christina Kubisch - whose Electrical Walks bring to light sounds that are usually inaudible (those of the magnetic waves that noiselessly saturate our everyday environment).

We'd also have liked her to dwell more on the activity of the Muzak company (but she's already done so in Contrôle) or on the figure of Brian Eno, evoked only through his collaboration with Microsoft on the design of the Windows operating system sonal: A descendant ofErik Satie's "musique d'ameublement", ambient music - that music "as easy to ignore as it is interesting to listen to" that Eno conceptualized in the 1970s - would have deserved further elaboration (Daniel Deshays doesn't dwell on the subject either), so much so does it seem to lie at the exact intersection of art and design. We would also have liked to read what Juliette Volcler thinks of the current boom in ASMR (Autonomous sensory meridian response)...

In fact, it's probably the promise of its subtitle that proves disappointing and frustrating in this book. For Juliette Volcler, who concludes that it is impossible to give a satisfactory definition of sound design, does not always escape contradictions, for example when she criticizes "functionality" as the very raison d'être of design. And when she talks about podcasts - to deplore their increasingly industrial modes of production - doesn't she stray somewhat from her subject? Or perhaps we should have tried to clarify the dividing line between design and artistic creation - and focused on the nature of sound design. Since it doesn't produce objects, aren't its applications necessarily more restricted, and aren't its authors destined to use their prototypes for industrial commissions? Likewise, the question of listening is dealt with only very briefly, at the very end of the book: we would have liked the author to develop her evocations of psychoacoustics or "atmospheric listening" further... Perhaps these questions will be at the heart of Juliette Volcler's future work. Be that as it may, these reservations in no way detract from the highly stimulating character of a work which, by revealing the behind-the-scenes workings of our everyday sound, makes a vibrant plea for freedom of listening.

Sharing the senses

Libertés d'écoute This is the title of the book Daniel Deshays published a few weeks ago in Musica Falsa's excellent "Répercussions" collection. Like his previous books, this one is more of a collection, grouping together in large thematic blocks previously scattered writings, augmented by short poems that only serve to underline the overall tone.

Daniel Deshays is, as we said, first and foremost a practitioner. A practitioner who has never ceased to share, either orally or through his writings, his quest, in other words his research, his tireless auscultation of the nature of sound. As Marie-Madeleine Mervant-Roux points out in her beautiful afterword, the originality of Deshays' career lies in the fact that it is rooted in the theater: while he has also worked extensively with filmmakers (from Chantal Akerman to Tariq Teguia) and musicians (he can be found on 255 records, including those by Jac(ques) Berrocal), Daniel Deshays has above all distinguished himself on the stage, notably alongside Alain Françon. As Marie-Madeleine Mervant-Roux points out: "Such a perspective gives his thinking something unique in the field of sound studies, insofar as it stands in opposition to the three major a priori prevailing there, sometimes together, sometimes separately, mostly implicit, often unthought of: the acceptance - more or less nuanced - of the musical model; the acceptance - rarely nuanced - of the idea that sound is fundamentally non-verbal; the acceptance - frequent - of the idea that the study of sound could be carried out solely on the basis of recordings, without any particular attention to the initial acoustic events and their 'takes'. " This is because, according to Deshays, the theater is perhaps the best place to capture sound as it is in itself, by nature "event-driven, moving and chaotic".

Daniel Deshays, like Juliette Volcler, has his own hobbyhorses. The technological obsession of our times is one of them, and this panic cult of "technical novelty": the inflation of increasingly programmed obsolescent machines, particularly digital ones, and our fascination with the ever-renewed promise of technology, makes us lose sight of the essential, and take the medium for a concept. While he identifies our "desire to listen", he observes the extent to which "media devices have ended up unravelling collective bonds, reducing them to deferred links".

As the subtitle suggests - "Sound as relationship" - Daniel Deshays' aim here is above all to consider the relational dimension of sound. He insists on the way in which listening excels in "weaving a network linking everyone": "Listening holds us tightly by the imaginary it produces. It is by holding the visible in the distance that proximity emerges. The ear is the voice of intimacy. It is outside the visual presence of a body that the voice takes on strength and listening becomes active. As a result, speech - that which could not have been expressed visually- engages. There is speech because there is listening, and it is only on this condition that listening can develop.

In a style of great elegance, Daniel Deshays articulates a singularly clear-sighted reflection as a phenomenologist. As a poet, too, and as a wise man who never gives in to "it was better before". He's up to date with the most innovative technologies, in direct touch with the times. But he also knows that, just as the source of every sound is a gesture, an intention or even an address, the secret of a successful sound recording lies first and foremost in the choice of tool - the choice of the right tool for the right purpose. Although he is wary of the mystical aims of Murray Schafer, his faith in the cultural and political potential - and emancipation - of "sounding objects" is nonetheless, in the end, imbued with a form of quasi-Oriental wisdom, inhabited as they are by the tireless desire to consider sound in a more ecological way.

David Sanson

1) And we are reminded of the prophetic words of Pierre Schaeffer, in 1950, in his preface to Stéphane Cordier's book La radio, reflet des temps, quoted on the Syntone website: "One of these days, we risk seeing humanity as if plugged into itself, prey to what technicians call the 'Larsen Effect', this time of gigantic proportions. The enormous hissing of the void threatens a humanity that does nothing but listen to and stare at itself through its microphones and cameras..."
2) For example, when she ironizes the high-sounding speeches produced by the various designers of the sound design of the Paris tramway to justify their bias: because not only are the designers genuine artists, but above all, whether it's a call for tenders from the industry or a call for creation from an artistic venue, even the most underground, designers are systematically expected to justify their approach by producing a discourse, in terms that certainly don't escape formatting. 


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