Friday, February 4, 2011


I sit here reading Pauline Oliveros' "Software for People" in the University of Michigan music library. I will be reaching over occasionally to type onto my laptop.

The following is a sonic diary of five minutes in the library:

I hear footsteps of ladies (perhaps men) in high heels as they enter and exit the library. The specific words of soft conversations are lost in the distance between us. A computer beeps with each book scan. A book page flutters as a patron turns it. A man's boots squeak from melted snow. Another patron zips up his bookbag. A door squeaks. A chair scrapes the floor. Blue jeans scuff as a man walks by. A patron stifles her sneeze. A flash drive is discussed. Cough. A xerox machine.

All these sounds float upon the bedrock of the air conditioning system, which rumbles away in the building's basement. This is combined with the constant wisp of air through the building's vents, two of which are several feet from my head.

After a brief flicker of the energy-saver lightbulbs, the bedrock sound has changed. A deep rumbling is no longer present, but a pitched hum remains. The other sounds in the library, noted above, continue in more or less random order.

These sounds do not belong to me. I contribute occasional quiet sounds by typing, and by shifting the position of my arms as they rest on the table. But these are likely only perceivable by me. Anyone else who notices them may well be typing a similar sonic diary, and may note that such sounds do not belong to them.

These sounds do not belong to me. They belong to the physical phenomena which generated them, but it is not an relationship of possession; it is a relationship of causation.

Human beings have a special relationship with the sounds of our own causation. There are two categories of human sound: intentional and incidental. Incidental sounds occur as a result of other activities, like walking or writing. Intentional sounds may be synonymous with communication. (Communication with the self is an oft-neglected area of interest.)

While communication can occur through any sense (think of pheromones), much of it takes place through sound and light. Communication exists on a spectrum of concrete to abstract. Concrete communication constitutes language; abstract communication constitutes what the West calls "art" (although neither can be 100% one or the other).

When we arrange our activities specifically to create abstract sound, music results. By sitting in the music library typing words in a specific order as I am doing, I contribute to the soundscape but I am not making music. This could easily change though: I can also use my laptop as an instrument, contributing to My Own Personal Soundscape:

Tha jfeafofofofofo qpru qpruq rpqurpq rupq asdfjjasdfjj asdfj asdfj afjf[ RJ
fup[fupufpfupufpufpufpufajorhqieijwe ij weijwe ojadifh

Doing so is surprisingly challenging. The limitations of my instrument are immediately clear: it is capable of brief, quiet, percussive clicks of slightly differing timbres. Social pressures are also present: I do not wish to draw attention to myself by typing nonsense onto my laptop. Cowardly perhaps, but these sounds seem to have a much fuller purpose when they are generated incidentally to my efforts to communicate with you, the reader.

What can - what should be done with our sonic surroundings? Should they be imperfectly captured with a recording device? Carefully constructed with an installation? Manipulated with abstract sounds for personal expression? Should we simply take them for granted, as we do 99% of the time?

I think, rather, that they should simply be acknowledged. They are the bedrock for all of our sonic communications, concrete or abstract. The sounds of our respiratory and nervous systems are always with us; the sounds of our atmosphere always surround us. For a fuller sonic experience we should acknowledge these as our foundations.

If he had copyrighted his piece, would we owe Dennis Johnson royalties whenever we "Listen"?