Tuesday 3 February 2015

Michael Gallagher

Thinking through digital media, sound, music and geography

Decontextualising and recontextualising: making works that involve more than just sound

Field recording, the core method of environmental sound art, decontextualises sound, lifting it out of place and sending it into wider circulation: “as a listener, I hear just as much displacement as placement, just as much placelessness as place, for the extraction of sound from its environment partially wields its power by being boundless, uprooted and distinct.” (LaBelle, 2006: 211) But playback recontextualises sounds, re-placing them, and the nature of that process is crucial to how field recordings function.

To put it another way, it’s easy enough to make field recordings, but what then? Where are they going to be played back, who (if anyone) will be listening, and what kind of effects do we want the playback situation to create? This is largely a question of geography, about the kinds of social and physical spaces in which environmental audio works are presented.

If we pursue sound as sound-in-itself, to the exclusion of other aspects of life, ultimately this takes us towards an acousmatic approach which “strips sound of any visual referent, linguistic description, or direct narrative, relying instead on the qualities of sound itself, its manipulation and construction.” (LeBelle, 2006: 209). But however much context is removed – even if the audience is blindfold, a method favoured by sound artist Francisco Lopez – there is always a (multi-sensory) recontextualisation on playback. Life always involves more than just sound.

About Michael Gallagher

I’m a social and cultural geographer based at the University of Glasgow in Scotland. I also do sound recording and music production. Much of my work is experimental in method, using techniques borrowed from sound art, digital media production, soundscape composition, documentary photography, film and radio.

Critical analysis

Sound, sound art and digital media are sometimes celebrated as cool, exciting and interesting, as needing no further justification or explanation. For me, the academic’s role is to set such claims to one side and ask more incisive questions about what these things do: what is the function of this sound, in this place? This work of sound art – what is it doing? When we use networked digital media, what practices are involved? What spaces are being opened up – and what spaces are being closed down?

To answer such questions requires thinking critically about both the physical aspects, the forces and materials involved, and the social aspects, how sound and audio relate to the wider historical, political and economic context. It requires careful attention to particular instances, rather than sweeping generalisations – as though sound or digital media were just one thing, the same everywhere. It also requires a multi-sensory sensibility, since we live in a multi-sensory world. Sound art always involves more than just sound. Rather than privileging sound, hearing or particular kinds of media, the task here is to think about interconnections: how does sound relate to light, scent, heat? How does hearing work with, or against, seeing, smelling, touching? How are audio media reworked through their use in cinema, television, mobile telephony and the internet?

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