By All Means Listen By All Means: Reading Aural Cultures
YYZ Books and the Walter Phillips Gallery’s anthology of essays, Aural Cultures (2004), compiled by one-time Parachute editor Jim Drobnick, begins with Richard Leppart’s essay, “The Social Discipline of Listening,” which examines visual representations of sound, specifically with respect to music. This opening entry seems, initially, like a step in the wrong (read as “typical”) direction. The visual comes first, as usual, once again providing the analytical template for the other senses, including specifically qua sound. Surely this is an inauspicious beginning for an anthology ostensibly dedicated to so-called “aural cultures,” a subject area arguably in good need of its own specific critical examination. Could this be the same old visual bias at work, a bias now routinely castigated as a fundamental aspect of the “grand ocular empire of enlightened Western rationality”? And yet, here is the irony: What is any book on sound, both good and bad, but basically a visual representation of its purported object, where the only sound typically heard is the ghostlike voice in the reader’s own head, silently intoning lines of text for an audience of one?
Materially, YYZ, the Walter Phillips Gallery, and Drobnick address the absence of actual sound (or, to put it another way, the presence only of “haunted” sound, as referred to previously) by including an accompanying fifteen-track CD compilation, which offers a recommendable mixture of music, sound-based works, and sound art (with Dave Dyment’s concluding microtonal monochrome drone, “24 Hours (A Day in the Life)” a particular favourite). As Drobnick contextualizes, this CD and book, the pages of which also include images of various artworks similarly concerned in some way with sound (or, rather, with aural cultures), all find their past source in an evolving conference, residency program, exhibition, and performance series on the same subject, as shepherded by Drobnick. Inclusive, then, Aural Cultures is a total package—a document. Rhetorically, Drobnick’s introduction also offers a notion transposed from the Lacanian theorist and critic Slavoj Žižek, which offers brief extra instruction vis-à-vis this anthology’s initial “look” at the visual: the notion of (or, maybe more to the point, the strategy of) “listening awry.” “Listening Awry” is also the title of Drobnick’s piece here, by which he means, in his words, to listen from an angle, with interest.
In his introduction, Drobnick also reiterates a common observation with respect to other studies on all things related to sound, an observation that, not incidentally, I have already echoed above. There is an evident shortage of specific, practicable resources in the emerging field of sound studies—if, in truth, there is sufficient material available already to even fairly describe this field as properly constituting a field to begin with. Responding in part to this perceived lack, Drobnick’s retooled notion of listening awry is both provocative and useful while also providing the norm by which his interdisciplinary-minded editorial choices should be respected. Indeed, with this notion in mind, what better way to listen awry than by looking? And, as it turns out, the essay following Leppart’s, Peter L. Schmunk’s “What Did Van Gogh Hear?: Vibrations, Wagner, and Voices,” also departs first from the visual, further signifying the commitment Drobnick has to his intriguing proposal. But what does listening awry entail? For an expanded answer, it is worth first leapfrogging Drobnick, Žižek, and Jacques Lacan back to Roland Barthes and Sigmund Freud, before returning again to our departure point.
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About the Author
Brady Cranfield is an interdisciplinary artist, musician, writer, and curator. He teaches at Emily Carr Institute. Among the numerous music events he helps to organize is the annual experimental music festival Open Circuits at the Or Gallery. He has a master’s degree in Communication from Simon Fraser University.