If One Night: An ethnographic soundscape and commentaries

if one night_0

 

Listen to If One Night here

‘If One Night’ Artist’s Statement

‘If One Night’ was composed for a theatre and music performance by Bryn McLeod and Patrick Blenkarn at Trinity St Paul’s Church. The performance showcases three young adults travelling and settling in new cities, searching for an idea of what makes a place home. It is named after “If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler”, a novel by Italo Calvino that follows a character reading a book of the same name. The odd-numbered chapters are in the second person, preparing them for reading the book within the book, while the even-numbered chapters are comprised of a variety of fictionalised texts the reader picks up. Quite aptly, the text begins with a chapter on the art and nature of reading. Accordingly, this soundscape composition attends not only to the locations visited in San Francisco and the Bay area, such as Muir Woods National Monument, Chinatown and Fisherman’s Wharf, but to the very nature and the art of listening into place.

The compositional form of the soundscape is based on Jean-Luc Nancy’s premise that “music is the art of hope for listening” (2007 pp.67): that the communicative and aesthetic value of sounds ought to be taken into consideration when listening or creating sounds. Soundscapes afford the listener an opportunity to treat the composition as an insight to the anthropology of sound and listening; urban phonography denotes particular geographies and their socialities. ‘If One Night’ is a collection of soundscapes that captures the sounds of city life, radio and television advertisements, the many languages heard in metropolitan areas, busker’s musical performances, sounds of transportation, and sound belonging to the domestic and to the public. Listening to the piece will be different for each listener, as the sounds become recognisable, or perhaps remain unfamiliar and acousmatic, decontextualised and reembodied in one’s own experience. This is the fascination and the danger of the soundscape. Each listener takes away from the piece what they will, making their own sense of place, just as we do with our conception of home and away.

Sound recordings collected for this post are part of Ely Rosenblum’s ethnographic work through Cape Breton University’s research project “Eastern and Central European Communities and Cultures of Cape Breton, Nova Scotia” project directed by Dr. Marcia Ostashewski, Canada Research Chair in Communities and Cultures at CBU; Funded by SSHRC (Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada) Public Outreach: Dissemination program.

Ely Rosenblum, 2013

 

Commentary on If One Night by Cristina Moretti

During my research in Italy in 2005, I met an older man who could not see. I asked him which were the most significant places in the city in his everyday life, just as I had asked my other interviewees. He told me that he loved the Duomo Cathedral, (one of the most significant landmarks in the center of Milan), and that he went there occasionally to visit. This response certainly did not surprise me. Most of my other interviewees mentioned this church and its vast piazza as one of the most important Milanese locations. What struck me however, was how he described his experiences during his visits. The Duomo, he said, is a wonderful place: he would enter the church and clap his hands together, listening intently to the echoes in the vast stone hall. For him, he explained, the space of the Cathedral was made entirely by a single sound – it came alive through a single clapping of hands.

Just like my interlocutor’s words that day, this soundscape by Ely Rosenblum is an invitation to listen to the world around us, and more particularly, to pay attention to the ways in which sound helps create the many spaces we traverse and experience. If space is a process – unfolding in complex relations with others – rather than a “thing”, certainly what we call music, noise, silence, pitch, and rhythm are some of the central elements in its production. Indeed, because we hear and we do not see, touch, or smell the locations Ely Rosenblum presents us with, this soundscape is an opportunity to reflect on how strongly some spaces we know are associated with specific sounds, and it is all the more intriguing to imagine that we could switch them just to experiment with how the world would feel like.

One of the aspects that I particularly enjoyed in If One Night was its strong sense of itinerary, punctuated by its wonderful coming together of voices, laughter, music, noises, and silences. The journey begins with a long sequence of footsteps inviting us to go for a walk, is accompanied by drifting voices that signal that we have reached a different location, and leads us through the wonderful creaking of a door into a space echoing with bells – before taking us further to other locations and encounters. Here I should tell you, listener and reader, that I am very fond of itineraries and of journeys of all sorts. This is because they are a form of being in the world that is always seeping with interrogations. Who is walking with me in this One Night, and why? Which memories, shadows, or stories are accompanying this walk even if I do not know them? Where are we going, and how will we know that we got there? In which ways will we get lost and who will find us? Which other elements without a voice or a sound are we brushing past without taking notice? How are my own sounds creating other sonic landscapes for other listeners and commentators?

The sonic itinerary offered by If One Night reminds me that often in our life we experience music, sound and noise as we move through space – here as we shift, in our listening, from a park to busy streets, to the interiors of buildings, and out again. And it is not only us who travel. Importantly, it is also the sounds themselves that are moving, coming from other places, being broadcasted from one corner of the city to the next, echoing across rooms and alleys, melting into one another, going somewhere else. This sense of multiple movements is for me a witness to the ephemerality of ordinary life. Even though we often experience a “sense of place” or even a sense of “home” by repeated, familiar soundscapes or patterns, in ordinary life we can never be, in a sonic sense, somewhere twice: it is almost impossible to hear exactly the same sounds in exactly the same way or space. If One Night, as an itinerary in and through sounds, then also beautifully describes how living in and journeying through a city, a market, or a neighborhood also means participating in the lives of other people and spaces always through fragments, traces, or snippets of sounds and stories that we listen to, interrupt, voice, and echo, and that are always coming from and traveling to somewhere else. To return to Calvino and the novel that inspired this soundscape, it is like being in a forest of sound, voices, and stories “so thick that it doesn’t allow light to pass (…) where you can move in all directions, as in space, always finding” more stories and more sounds, so that “ you encounter always the same density of material to be told” and listened to (Calvino, 1981: 109).

I want to conclude this brief commentary with one of my favorite parts of this soundscape. Listening to the striking sounds of an animal in the wood, a voice asks: “can you see it?” For a moment I feel like answering “of course I do”, before realizing that here vision, the medium I am most comfortable in, has been taken over by listening. In fact I reply I “see it” because, in this moment, I do not need nor want to see it, as I can hear it so clearly. Here, at least momentarily, seeing has become irrelevant, and listening has become a way of being – or at least of imagining of being  – in the wood, and in the world.

Calvino, Italo 1981 If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

 

Listen/If: Thoughts on “If One Night” by Ken Little

 

I am transfixed by “If One Night”, by what I hear, tour, and feel as I listen to Ely’s wonderful project of ambient sonic generativity, his “listening into place.” Each time I listen into his city soundscape I hear something more. Something different builds into those repetitions and it generates “worlds of difference” or what Kathleen Stewart (2010: 339) calls refrains “a scoring over a world’s repetitions. A scratching on the surface of rhythms, sensory habits, gathering materialities, intervals, and durations”.  Ely’s soundscape performs the city as an ever changing movement of interludes and fad ins, gaps, extensions and fade outs, reveries, vitalities, tangles of associations, accrued layers of impacts and reactions, all attunements that conjure stories that are generated through the inchoate feeling tones of that one word, “If”, introducing an open conditional.

What surprises me is the transitory nature of Ely’s soundscape, its fleeting movement, its evanescence as sound first, and then as a series of San Francisco sound-scenes. In the augmentations of his “soundings” countless things happen that keep them from settling into signification that otherwise actualize sounds with this place as home. Here, sounds remain ungathered and incommensurate as themes. They are emergent and generative intensities that make sound an unfolding presence that is polyphonically shifting, adaptable, dream-like, magical, confusing, joyful, agitating, unsteady, and that collectively saturate the senses where the sonic animates affective intensities as instantiations, compositional sites as vibrant singularities; in short, a poesis.

The act of listening animates and makes sense of sound at the point of its material-affective emergence. These are sounds and scenes that move me, felt impacts and unspeakable effects, conditional sounds in composition, the sounds of transitioning, of life unfolding. And as Ely’s sounds repeat they leave a trace, like a flaneur’s parapatetic footprints through the city–if one step then what of the next–getting lost in listening while falling into the textures, intensities and densities of city sounds. A restless calm of sounds assembles to become both a modality of emplacement and the tonalities of ordinary attention, without a map, an active worlding as a constitutive event.

Ely’s soundscape also catches me up in ways that take me places. The sensations these sounds stir up conjure stories of other places I know, recollections in body memories that act through sound and sensation haptically. Sounds and scenes actively re-position me in sense and story. And while I know from Ely’s description that these are located sounds, historical forces of San Francisco sound-scenes and sonic entanglements, material-semiotic compositions as version upon version of that city’s tonal and rhythmic dynamics, I become caught up imagining other places too, other stories, fabulations of my own experience in other social and cultural “elsewheres” that extend these sounds and fashion other attachments, attention, and attunements.

As Ely’s sounds become unstuck from their geo-social location of San Francisco, from their own line of contextualized scenic and imaginative sonic movement-composition, to animate my recollections of other encounters and other stories, new worlds are caste that add to things as I listen, even if they never really add up to some big thing, a meaning system, a structure of experience, or a systematic framing of the world. In my listening acts of co-constitutive augmentation, then, I flash from world to world, scene to scene, as I move from sound to scene to sound, from one sonic dynamic to the next, from rhythm to rhythm. Yet, as I follow the singular dynamics of these city sounds there is no overarching regulation, no established pace, just plateaus of intensity as a residue of all my moments of listening. By plateau I mean what Deleuze and Guattari (1987:21-22), after Bateson, mean when they say that a plateau is a haptic space “always in the middle” of things, a “self-vibrating region of intensities whose development avoids any orientation toward a culmination point or external end.” Again, as Ely’s sound concatenations transition into sound scenes, they do not so much represent a world as much they are a worlding, sounds and scenes throwing together an ordinary that lingers on the edges of things, hybridized assemblages that suggest where things might lead if they are left unimpeded. Not yet identified, they remain sounds becoming scenes, a horizontal plane of becoming, limitless in their extensions as a planar surface. This is the immanence of sound impressions, an indeterminate plane of auditory intensities, flows and interruptions that stage difference through repetition, version upon version of city sounds through which scenes and places emerge.  

Ely’s soundscape picks up the progressions and rhythms of perambulation, bodies wandering and making sound as they move. Sound production is a mutual co-constitutive event of traversing in and through countless sounds of unequal forces that are indifferent to their inequality and are thus indeterminate. There is walking, walking together, there are voices, singular whispers, individual conversations, and full throated street talk, there is laughter, street music of different sorts, loons (yes, even the “awesome” sound of loons, or is it of the striking beauty of the loons themselves, maybe both), traffic noise, street vendor sounds, families in conversation, restaurant sounds, a leaf blower’s drone. Until the final fade out to silence there is always movement and transition.

Sounds organize as themes mostly over an ambient street noise and they labour to fashion a series of sonic structurings that build on, through and with each other, where themes pop up in surprising juxtapositions or entanglements to create a polyphonic city vibrancy with resolve but no resolution, just plateaus of intensity that take on a life of their own and sustain the possibilities, through sonic potentials, of place. A plateau is a co-constitutive entanglement that works to build a milieu, a crazy intensive worlding through which we find grip in the flux and surge of social life, and where things actualize enough for us to take our next step.

So, in Ely’s composition of sound events, scenes, and moments there is the sense-uncertainty of transition, silence and getting lost. Ely’s sonic scenes create surprising tonal entanglements that build as a resonant, contingent adding to: a parataxis. He tracks auditory themes, pressures, undertones, disturbances, overtones, commotions, corrections, and innovations in which I linger. I want to linger in the impossible moments of openness and transition that embrace unfinishedness while trying to find ways to footholds in the flux of transitioning. Sounds and the spaces between sounds are so precarious that we mostly want, as subjects, to penetrate them in order to identify things and so jump quickly into the safety of sense making. In the stabilizing resources of sense certainty and in the grip of identity thinking, representation and system, we can move unproblematically and habitually from concept to world without a thought about the uncertainties of transitioning, about our wild guesses about what seductive sounds we tune into and out of, and about radically different possibilities in futures conjured in soundings as unruly activity not fixed entities.

But guessing and attuning keep us open to what happens in unfolding worlds of sound as potential, as something that happens while an atmosphere throws itself together in incommensurable noises, registers, refrains, languages, modulations, tempos and publics? Ely’s soundscape is an intensification of sense/sound/scene events that ebbs and flows. The soundscape is a milieu of sensations that generates many versions of itself, mutually coexisting and affirming, always in the act of emergence, assembling. The sounds of an unfinished world–as an indefinite “not yet”, as the conditional and destabilizing “If” of “If one night”–flash through every determination of sound and image, meaning, or habit of listening here. That conditional “If” moves with the force of something nascent, or deferred, or maybe even missing, but always pressing. It is the condition of change that occurs when image touches matter and sound touches us.   

 

Deleuze, Giles, and Felix Guattari 1987  A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Stewart, Kathleen 2010  Worlding Refrains. In The Affect Theory Reader. Melissa Gregg and Gregory J. Seigworth, eds. Pp. 339-353. Durham and London: Duke University Press.