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Two Ears Are Better Than One: Gascia Ouzounian’s Stereophonica
Nicholas Burman , May 8th, 2021 08:16

From the stethoscope to contemporary sound art via wartime psychoacoustics, a new book dives into the strange history of binaural sound

The history of sound and music has often been told from the performer's point of view. Gascia Ouzounian’s Stereophonica instead places listeners and the act of listening front and centre, drawing particular attention to the way in which sound and space have become conceptually wedded.

While reading Ouzounian’s book I often found myself thinking about Francis Ford Coppola’s 1974 film The Conversation. In it, Gene Hackman’s character surveils the world by attempting to listen to what people are saying. It is generally understood as a depiction of the paranoia which permeated Western culture, especially in America, throughout the 1970s. Stereophonica traces the history of how exactly the sonic realm became a space where humans would suspiciously listen out for danger.

According to Ouzounian’s history, the roots of “listening for evidence” began with the birth of binaural hearing thanks to instruments such as the stethoscope. Through the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, experiments in listening devices became adopted and adapted by elements within the military-industrial complex, where it was thought that perhaps their other new war machines – especially aeroplanes – might be located and tracked with tools such as the Perrin telesitemeter.

Such tactics of “acoustic defence” were brought into civilian life by displays of technical ingenuity at AT&T and Philips (such companies were also often places where early electroacoustic music was produced and performed, as Kees Tazelaar’s On the Threshold of Beauty discusses in detail in relation to Philips). Impressive stereophonic amplification – the transmission of binaurality – encouraged listeners to start pondering the physical and vibrational nature of sound.

The chapters here work either in order or read in isolation. The one on psycho-acoustics is especially gripping. It details how sound and music started to be understood as something which affect human behaviour. George Owen Squire’s Muzak Corporation is a key case study. Urban studies professor Rowland Atkinson has described Muzak as a type of music categorised by its perceived “blandness” and utilised primarily as a way to create a temporal disjuncture in the mind of the urban working class. Ouzounian is less explicit about the class aspect, but is interested in how music was implemented within factory environments to increase productivity, and also connects the history of Muzak to broader concerns around sound as a material for emotional control.

You get more of a sense of how certain sounds have been discursively associated with class later in the book, when Ouzounian writes about anti-noise campaigns in New York, and how Joe Namy and Ilaria Lupo’s performance piece Concrete Sampling drew attention to role of Syrian refugees as manual labourers in Beirut.

Concrete Sampling took place on a construction site in the Lebanese capital in 2014. Described by the organisers as a performance set to produce an “interference” in the local urban soundscape, the participants used their work tools to perform an original and improvised composition. Such an event clearly owes something to the Fluxus tradition, that had its heyday in the 1960s and 70s. And Fluxus artists were also keenly interested in exploring the interaction between people, time and space – in particular through the medium of the event score, “brief, haiku-esque verbal scores that comprised lists of terms or open-ended instructions”. As Ouzonian says of Fluxus artist Yoko Ono’s score, Tape Piece II, in which the sound of the room “breathing” recorded at different times of the day comprises the musical material, “The focus in this tape piece thus shifts from the evolution of sounds inside a space to the evolution of the space itself.”

Stereophonica’s aim is to get us to recognise how space and sound are in constant contact, and how we as people are formed by their duet. Finnish architect Juhani Pallasmaa is quoted as saying that “I dwell in the city and the city dwells in me.” The same could equally be said for music. But the book suggests to me that society has not trained us to listen hopefully, or generously, or kindheartedly, but instead to act like Hackman in The Conversation. As listeners, we are waiting to hear what cannot yet be heard, paranoid about the paradoxical worries that some malicious sound may both dominate us and pass us by unnoticed.

Ouzounian does provide examples which point to possible escape routes from such a distrusting mindset. The likes of Concrete Sampling are opportunities for people to engage in creating the sonic world which they live in and through. In this context, agency seems bound to who has the ability to make some noise.

Stereophonica: Sound and Space in Science, Technology, and the Arts by Gascia Ouzoonian is published by MIT Press