Your Skull Is An Ear

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In my classes at Transom, I talk about the fact that many disciplines inform radio stories.

Picture, if you will, a sphere with many axes running through it. An axis for journalism and storytelling. Another for sociology and anthropology. Another for history. One for literature. And yet another representing sound art, and so on.

A story that is strictly acts and tracks and straight-ahead reporting might be located in the portion of the sphere closer to journalism and far from sound art and storytelling. A story on Love + Radio, by contrast, may be located closer to the storytelling and sound art corner. And, by sound art, I’m thinking about sound design and creative ways of cutting and mixing stories.

But, to be honest, when I’ve mentioned a student’s piece might be “sound arty,” I’ll be darned if I really know what I mean by that. Describing it as creative cutting and mixing hardly does the field justice. And, believe me, I’ve tried to comprehend sound art. I’ve read several books — or tried to read several books. Frequently they’re dense, indecipherable. Here are a few:

Noise, Water, Meat by Douglas Kahn

Wireless Imagination: Sound, Radio, and the Avant Garde edited by Douglas Kahn and Gregory Whitehead

Radio Rethink – Art, Sound, and Transmission Edited by Diana Augaitis and Dan Lander

Our Sonic Environment and the Soundscape: The Tuning of the World by R. Murray Schafer

Radiotext(e) edited by Neil Strauss

One theme I noticed popping up from time to time in these books and elsewhere is the connection between sound and the body, sound and meat as Douglas Kahn puts it. I’ve never fully understood the point. You’ve got your ears. Sound goes in. How do you get meat out of that?

That concept finally made sense to me while listening to a recent documentary from BBC Radio 3 called Right Between the Ears. In the doc, the narrator of the story, Ken Hollings, relates the curious story of the “music” he heard in his skull while his eye was operated on. He also talks about the experience John Cage had in the extreme silence of an anechoic chamber where he could hear his blood and his nervous system. And, Hollings tells the fantastical story of a fellow musician who, while deaf because of a rare syndrome effecting his ears, heard incredibly loud sounds rattling in his skull. Through these anecdotes and stellar sound design, I came away with an understanding of the connection between sound and the body, sound and meat, as it were – an understanding I don’t think I would have gleaned from reading another dozen sound and radio art books.

But, heck, maybe I’ve been reading the wrong books. I’d happily take your suggestions. Listen to this episode and post your reading list below.

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  • Joan Schuman

    12.30.18

    Reply

    Rob, this offers so much clarity—despite (or because of) your feeling flummoxed about how the written word dances around the aural experience.

    A book I’ve been sharing with students for five years has, seemingly, two divides: they either love it or hate it. I tell them to read it like it’s poetry (read it many times, imagine the metaphors, go out and listen deeply). It’s written by Salomé Voegelin and it’s called “Listening to Noise and Silence: Towards a Philosophy of Sound Art.”

    Here’s a link: https://www.bloomsbury.com/us/listening-to-noise-and-silence-9781441162076/

    Thanks for the great episode. I’ll be sharing.

  • Rob Rosenthal

    12.31.18

    Reply

    Joan!

    Great to hear from you. Thanks for your kind words and the link to “Listening to Noise and Silence.” I will give it a try. Really. 🙂

    Cheers,
    Rob

  • Andrew Cavette

    1.07.19

    Reply

    Mr. Rosenthal,

    You may wish to listen to the album “A Chance To Cut Is A Chance To Cure” by Matmos.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ofuv6LZ7KyE

    Plastic surgery, but danecable.

  • Rob

    1.07.19

    Reply

    Andrew! Plastic surgery, but danceable. Ha! Yes. Matmos. I’m a fan. Here’s Pan Sonic back atchya. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T8p1lo6OziY

    r

  • Douglas Kahn

    6.11.19

    Reply

    Sorry you had difficulty with that passage read so ably by Jay Allison. I would have thought that the thesis presented in the introduction of the book and the seventy pages in the section following the passage quoted from page 290 should have helped. It made perfect sense to me, perhaps because I wrote it over twenty years ago. Glad it made sense to you in the end. However next time you need clarification, no need to wring your hands and appeal to secondary or tertiary sources at the BBC, you can contact me directly. That’s what your PRX colleagues at Stylus did. https://stylusradio.org/post/91395754081/earth

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