Voice, Narrative, Place: Listening to stories


Published in The Journal of Sonic Studies, 2, 2012.


Within the dominant narratives on sound art traditions we find very little mention of oral stories or storytelling. Additionally, the presence of storytelling can lead a sound art work to be consigned to other mediums, such as radio or theatre. Perhaps the inclusion of oral storytelling is perceived as weakening the listening experience of sound by imposing narrative and meaning and restricting the listener’s imagination. Although it may be difficult to find these views stated explicitly, if one looks (or listens) a little closer, the silence surrounding oral storytelling, and the lack of discussion of its uses and potentials in texts, reveals that it is overlooked, or even undervalued, within sound art.(1) However, it is possible to find hints at why this might be the case. For example, in Alan Licht’s Sound Art: Beyond music, between categories (2007), Licht proposes that sound art is a non-narrative medium, and seldom attempts to relate to, or express, human interaction.

Definitions such as Licht’s seem to understand sound art as merely a physical presence. Or perhaps rather, they focus on how sound interacts with the physical world as defined by acoustics, reverberations, algorithms and the physical ‘space’ of sound. Brandon LaBelle illustrates this view in the introduction to his book Background Noise: Perspectives on Sound Art (2006):

It is my view that sound’s relational condition can be traced through modes of spatiality, for sound and space in particular have a dynamic relationship. This no doubt stands at the core of the very practice of sound art – the activation of the existing relation between sound and space. (ix)

Here, LaBelle is describing the physical presence of sound, or the “science” of sound. Sound is something that reacts with space; waves that react with molecules and matter. Even though we do not see it, it is not in the mind. It is out there with all the other things that visibly make up the world. Sound is “real.”

These definitions imply that sound art consists of sophisticated sounds and their interactions with space, achieved through the use of advanced technologies as well as a deep understanding of sound as a “science.” These are of course important aspects to sound art. The sounds created using these techniques are also evocative and steeped in aural imagery for the listener, and LaBelle does also describe the mental associations triggered by sound throughout Background Noise. For example, he describes how “acoustical moments trigger images completed in the mind, pictures filled in by complementing the sonic signifier with its physical source” (2006: 40). Therefore, LaBelle does also illustrate how sound is about more than space. Interestingly, in Kenneth Goldsmith’s review of Licht’s Sound Art, he points out that “Licht cites numerous examples of sound art that do, in fact, strongly reflect aspects of the humanism he adamantly denies” (2008).

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