my eyes ... my ears ...

October 9, 2009
Lori Napoleon

Ear to the Earth, a festival of environmental sound, is based on the idea that by listening to the world, we become sensitive to the state of the world. Ear to the Earth 2009 consists of three concerts and a forum that focus on biodiversity. One of the concerts, dealing with urban issues, is part of an ongoing project called New York Soundscape. Bruce Odland, one of the commissioned artists in the New York Soundscape project, with his partner Sam Auinger, has composed my eyes ... my ears ..., to be presented on October 9, 2009. We asked him about it.

LN: With regards to the premiere of your piece my eyes ... my ears ..., can you speak about what urban biodiversity means to you? And how it fits the underlying theme of New York Soundscape?

my eyes ... my ears ...

BO: I would apply the term urban biodiversity not only to the type of Jane Jacobs critique of the city, where the varied, multipurpose, multi-use, economic and cultural diversity can create the city as a livable art form. But also to something happening in each of our brains, a diversity of the senses. We have accepted as inevitable that our cities will be mainly visual spaces, organized by visual logic, serving visual interpretations of economic needs. Our other senses have been abandoned. We have become visually insane, and one of the best tools we can apply to regain our balance is to restore our ability to hear what is going on around us—to listen and respond to what we honestly hear.

LN: The title my eyes ... my ears ... spotlights the piece's simultaneous thrust towards the senses of vision and hearing. Can you elaborate upon the significance this relationship? Also, can you talk about how your work reveals the, to quote you, "politics of the senses" and exposes us to assimilated perceptual habits that we ordinarily take for granted regarding both our hearing and our vision? Do you think that the dominance of visuals in our culture is an everlasting and increasing situation, or is attention to sound becoming more prevalent in designing public space?

BO: To paint it in broad general historical strokes, we have moved from an auditory culture to a visual one at an increased acceleration. There has been a shift from oral to written history, and verbal agreements have segued to written laws; from architecture with strong sonic elements (including the marvelous neolithic resonant caves with their lithophones, Greek amphitheaters, Mayan echo temples, and Gothic cathedrals, to name just a few) to bland acoustic living rooms and modernist glass and steel acoustic nightmares. The culture seems to be retreating from all types of listening, except for those that support visuals in some subservient role, or those that help us isolate ourselves in private sonic retreats, such as the ipod. Our abilities to locate ourselves in our environment have been replaced by expertise in shutting out the world. We are living in the late Baroque era of fossil-fueled toys and we spend enormous amounts of our own brainpower to shut off our hunter-gatherer hearing abilities. The result is a break with nature where we risk not being able to find ourselves in a relationship with our environment.

Resonance installation at the Kongresshalle in the Tiergarten, Berlin, 1993

LN: You've mentioned the colonization of our sense of hearing to ipods. Indeed, many city-dwellers insulate themselves from the cacophony of unwanted noises by seeking refuge in music of their own programming, tuning out the world. Most New Yorkers will agree that private space is difficult to find, therefore this activity functions as a temporary sonic respite. Do you feel that artistically/poetically crafted situations that encourage a deeper, more attentive listening environment to the urban noises we often filter out can or should cause urban dwellers to feel re-connected, and actually appreciative, of all the accidental combinations of sounds that swarm about our daily lives? Can a deeper awareness of urban "background" noises transform them into something musical and inspiring when brought to the foreground, or at least teach us about our current situation (our specific place and time) and/or our bodies' own cognitive abilities (our natural instincts regarding our senses)? What are the benefits of this newfound awareness?

BO: The first step out of this wild imbalance of senses is to just listen. Just listen to what is. Our reliance on the eye is so great, but hidden from plain sight is the complex and baffling roar of the economy, like the elephant in the room that no one speaks of. With my work, I pose a question: what if this huge roar means something deep and troubling? What if hidden in this roar is the key, the answer, the antidote to the imbalance of our culture? I propose that it is. It is not good or bad. It is only noise because we are not decoding it. By listening, the information can be decoded, and in that decoding are surprising levels of detailed information on the reality of how we live, hidden in plain sight. We just have to have the patience, compassion, and honesty to listen and react. I would support any such art, architecture, study, or course of activities that promotes reconnecting with our environments through active listening.

Tuning diagram for Harmonic Bridge at MASS MoCA

LN: Your work has used various means to extend and transform the constant tapestry of dominant industrial and electrical sounds that infiltrate the senses of all urban-dwellers. On their own, the blending of electrical hum, the constant rush of traffic, air conditioning units, screeching subways, etc. are filtered out by most, the sense of hearing awakened only when a startling sound jars it from the urban trance so many of us unwittingly fall into. I'm interested in hearing how you have used various technical and electro-acoustical elements in your past work to awaken us to the soundscape around us, and how you manipulate or extend the sounds used in "my ears"

BO:  We learn through our senses and have become acclimatized to our patterns of perception. We fall into habit until something happens that wakes us again so that our senses are revitalized and we look and hear with a sense of freshness. It is in that freshness, that regained sense of awareness that we begin to interact with the world around us, responding to it instead of to an ingrained pattern. We humans are inventive beasts. We construct prosthetic devices to alter the way we interact: telescopes, microphones, computers, telephones, scanners, all of these devices bring a fresh perspective of the world to our eyes and ears. We learn how to see and hear again.

The same is true with art: we create a prosthetic situation so that people can hear the world with new ears and actually break through old patterns. In the case of O+A, Sam Auinger and I always aim to enable people to wake up to the world and hear with greater clarity and connectivity. This is why we have made mainly real-time installations for years, such as our tuning tube resonance pieces. We would use tubes of specific lengths to make an overtone series that dances, resonates, and continually lives in response to the sounds of the world around us. This musicalized version of ambient noises played back in real-time shifts the experience of listening over to the musical part of the brain, where patterns are easily read, where interest in melody and rhythm generate expectations and pull us into a listening loop with the world around us. Normally, we would just shut out the traffic, but at such an installation we may find ourselves counting the number of helicopters per hour and waiting for the next. Engagement with that massive system of transport, with the four dimensions of hearing around us, thus ensues, and results in a connection to an ecosystem. The habit of not listening has been broken.

In "my eyes. . . my ears. . ., " we examine our habits of seeing and hearing the space around us, and make a sort of theatrical experiment of listening to and seeing various sonic ecosystems in New York City. We call these sonic ecosystems the sonic commons because, like it or not, we live in a shared sound-space. More specifically, we live in a series of overlapping shared sound-spaces. In our piece, we would like to introduce the notion that these shared sound-spaces have value and specific character; that our social interactions are shaped by the offer the sonic commons makes to our senses. We have developed a method of recording and documenting such spaces that we call 4ears, which allows more casual listeners to hear spaces the way Sam and I hear them, with extremely detailed and discerning attention. A movie lets you see Paris the way Godard sees it, but how do you hear New York the way that Bruce and Sam hear it? Not with a movie! That is a sort of media architecture that bows down to the visual monolith, supporting more visual thinking and visual architecture. We will be using 4ears recording to present an extremely detailed spatial sonic story accompanied by visuals that give the brain clues. This is how we actually process space as humans: we use 4-dimensional audio that orients us in space, accompanied by thousands of darting 2-D glances stitched together by the brain. This will be our premiere presentation of this method of spatial story telling, and it makes sense for us to bring it out at a festival dedicated to how our ears connect us to the environment.