Can Sound be Spaceless?

Greg J. Smith

Sound is inherently tied to space, it traverses. Once you start considering the possibility of a spaceless sound, you are delving into a realm of abstraction. Two types of re-encodings of sound that might be considered aspatial are the conversion of "vibrations moving through the air" to a digital signal and our memory of sonic events.

Sound is inherently tied to space, it traverses. Once you start considering the possibility of a spaceless sound, you are delving into a realm of abstraction. Two types of re-encodings of sound that might be considered aspatial are the conversion of “vibrations moving through the air” to a digital signal and our memory of sonic events. An immediately recognizable example of the first is the MP3, the ubiquitous consumer audio format that utilizes so-called lossy compression to yield small, manageable files, ushering in a new era of immaterial media consumption in the process. The latter re-encoding – that of the memory of sound – brings with it myriad questions of authenticity, nostalgia and ownership. How strongly is a field recording tied to the site where it was collected? Is the relationship between a musical sample and the song from which it was extracted similarly nuanced? This panel ruminated on these and related questions. Mitchell Akiyama brought a measured analysis of the history of recording and the everyday deployment of sound to this discussion. Drawing from the annals of the last century of pop and experimental music, Geeta Dayal described the creation and transmission of sound as a nuanced, ever-evolving process. Extending out of her ongoing interrogation of domestic consumer electronics, Darsha Hewitt spoke to the character of media formats and the physics that underpin sound as a qualitatively experienced phenomenon. While the format specifications (or even data storage footprint) associated with the MP3 and the ethics of sampling may not relate to space in the everyday sense, both of these trajectories informed a broad, freewheeling consideration of sound and culture.

GREG J. SMITH is a Toronto-based designer and researcher with interests in media theory and digital culture. Extending from a background in architecture, his research considers how contemporary information paradigms affect representational and spatial systems. Greg is a designer at Mission Specialist and a contributing editor at Creative Applications Network [CAN]. His writing has appeared in Rhizome, Vectors, ICON, 3:AM Magazine, Current Intelligence and other publications. Greg has presented work internationally at institutions including Resonate (Belgrade), Eyeo Festival (Minneapolis), Medialab-Prado (Madrid) and the Western Front (Vancouver). He is an adjunct instructor in the CCIT program (U of T Mississauga/Sheridan College) and a member of the LA Game Space external advisory board. Greg received a Master of Architecture from John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape and Design at the University of Toronto in 2007. He also studied design at LAIAD and received a B.A. (Philosophy) from the University of Toronto in 1999.

The heart of the conference involves four separate discussions on the relationship of sound and space to be led by four artists/researchers; bringing together creative thinkers from Montréal, Toronto, New York City, San Francisco, and of course right here in Ottawa. Planned as dynamic free flow conversations, we are excited about what ideas will unfold from these exchanges! Building up to the major discussion panels is a keynote address from Dr. Barry Blesser, a digital audio pioneer and co-author of the fascinating interdisciplinary exploration – Spaces Speak: Are you listening? On Friday, a daytime symposium with the Carleton School of Architecture will explore specific ideas about the built environment and the sonic experience, while at night a collaboration with Pecha Kucha Ottawa brings together artists, designer and researchers for a rapid fire exploration of the role of sound in the urban fabric.

In the screen / But not seen … Neither matter / Neither taste / Neither solid / Neither space SWANS, “THE DAUGHTER BRINGS THE WATER”

This ‘lossy’ compression is all about streamlining, an economizing of both sound and disk storage.


Greg J. Smith

When considered in terms of physics and physiology, the answer to this question is clearly a resounding no. But what are the strange exceptions where we might be inclined to answer maybe? There are two overarching sets of circumstances where sound might be considered “outside” of space and both result from a re-encoding of sorts. The first occurs when sound is converted from “vibrations moving through the air” into a digital signal for storage, processing and playback. The second is a far less precise transcription, where sound is experienced in the world and then logged within what Aldous Huxley called the “private literature” of memory.

In November 2001, approximately four months after a massive copyright infringement lawsuit saw the peer-to-peer file sharing service Napster shuttered, chipper marketing copy for the first generation of Apple’s iPod promised to “put 1,000 songs in your pocket”. While this sloganeering championed the compact form factor of the Cupertino California-based company’s revolutionary new MP3 player, its primary goal was to underscore the seeming “weightlessness” of digital audio files. Clearly, a new age of abundance had arrived.

Although the MP3 was not the first digital audio format it represented a significant step forward from compact discs. If Sony’s utopian rhetoric announcing the arrival of CDs (over-)promised “perfect sound forever,” the format did deliver a marketable combination of pristine sound quality and handiness that eclipsed both cassette tapes and vinyl. Jonathan Sterne has noted that a persistent thread within media technologies is a reliance on spinning mechanisms that allow the playback of compressed analog and digital signals. Compression is the miniaturization and plotting of encoded information and this “spooling” of data is employed across various media including reels of magnetic tape, the grooves of records and the pits of compact discs. The MP3 represents a break from this tradition; while a hard drive still whirs away in the background, a file is essentially a ghost in the machine, dissolved into the software that plays it back for the listener.

The MP3 is a perfect mascot for the reterritorialization of the media landscape that has occurred over the last decade. Suspended in tension between replicability and distributability on one hand, and protectionist digital-rights management (DRM) access control restrictions on the other, the file format neatly embodies the contradictory tenets of our current era of so-called frictionless sharing. The MP3’s tiny file size is derived through perceptual coding techniques that employ a mathematical model of average human hearing “to actively remove sound in the audible part of the spectrum under the assumption it will not be heard. (Sterne)”

This ‘lossy’ compression is all about streamlining, an economizing of both sound and disk storage.

While MP3s have resurrected the “single” as key cultural artifact, they have also ushered in a new age of sprawling playlists and overflowing media libraries. One of the savviest critiques of post-attention economy listening tendencies is Soulnessless, a 2012 Terre Thaemlitz project. Billed as “The first full-length MP3 album”, the recording crams 32 hours of audio, 80 minutes of video and 165 pages of writing onto a 16GB microSDHC card. The centrepiece of this media inventory is a 4GB 320kbps MP3 file containing an astonishing 29 hours, 42 minutes and 30 second piano solo. Edited to exactly fill the FAT32 single file size limits, the project is a ‘full-length’ in the truest sense of the term. Thaemlitz’s commentary is twofold. First, the unwieldy amount of content is a sardonic commentary on the circus of multimedia production expected of contemporary artists. Secondly, it points out that “the album” is not so much a “theoretical framework device” but a mode of working that is explicitly “rooted in media formats and durations” (Thaemlitz).

The composer Cornelius Cardew dismissed recordings of improvisations as “essentially empty”, providing “at best an indistinct hint as to the feeling [of a performance]” and unable to “convey any sense of time and place (Cardew). While clearly a jab at the inferiority of reproductions of sonic environments versus original experience of hearing, we might also read these comments as a critique of the unreliability of memory. Memory may well be the purest example of a “spaceless” sound and the echoes of sonic events that we carry with us are worth dwelling on.

Schizophonia is a term invented by R. Murray Schafer to describe how modern life had been “ventriloquized”. Inferring both mental illness and violence, schizophonia is what happens when sounds are “torn from their natural sockets and given an amplified and independent existence” (Schafer). Compare that conservationist rhetoric to the delirious experimentation with sampling during rap’s so-called “Golden Age” in the late 1980s and you might be tempted to pose the following question: is the use of disparate sonic memories as compositional building blocks an example of headstrong defamilarization or mischievous bricolage? I would say it is neither.  Rather, it is the tension between the “violence” of recontextualization and the critical agency involved in citation that makes sampling such a rich practice.

Depending who you ask, Public Enemy’s 1988 album It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back may be the high water mark in daredevil sampling and sound collage in rap. The unforgettable looped glissando squeal of the lead single, “Rebel Without a Pause”, was forged through mixing a pair of mangled trumpet samples culled from The J.B.’s and Miles Davis. This shrill, infectious loop is a microcosm of the brilliance of Public Enemy’s production team, The Bomb Squad, who wove a variety of incongruous elements into a dense, dissonant “environment of endless emergency” (Eshun) that eviscerated the prevailing mass media tropes of the era while sounding the air raid sirens to reawaken post-Black Power America. Much of Nation of Millions’ gravitas was derived from its obsessive sampling and the mix across each of the tracks was completely “congested” with funk, soul and jazz snippets ranging “from the familiar to the obscure to the completely unrecognizable” (Weingarten). For but a moment, sonic memory was completely malleable and a pop musician could sample gratuitously without deep pockets or fear of triggering copyright armageddon It is worth zooming out from Public Enemy’s legacy in order to attain a big picture view of the migratory route of the aforementioned sample, as its journey is quite demonstrative.

In 1970, The J.B.’s track “The Grunt” announced its arrival with a funky glissando. Almost two decades later, The Bomb Squad lifted, manipulated and looped this four-second sample into one of the definitive hooks of the halycon days of hip hop. Another twenty-five years pass, and a dead ringer of the same waivering tone makes a cameo in “Kan”, a rough-and-ready percussive beatdown on the B-side of an EP by South East London’s sub bass emissary Kode9. This is a 43 year vector that tethers together distinct musical traditions, eradicates space and compresses time – sound truly does travel.

There is a productive friction that emerges from juxtaposing schizophonia and the mix/match/mashup milieu of producers like The Bomb Squad and those that have followed in their footsteps. Essentially, we might extrapolate that recorded audio is to the soundscape as memory is to original experience; one can view this “ventriloquization” as an estrangement, or as an arena for creative recombination. Likewise, Thaemlitz’s Soulnessless lays bare how the marketplace and our listening habits are shaped by the constraints of the MP3 (and more broadly, all media formats). While sound cannot truly be spaceless, these examples of re-encoding generate fuzziness, curious anomalies and contradiction. A decade ago, in trying to grasp the architectural implications of networked culture,  Anthony Vidler diagnosed the impossibility of a return to the comfort of “a temporal discourse, the authorities of narrative, of beginnings, middles, and ends, of pasts, presents, and futures” (Vidler). – digital immateriality and sonic memory are two phenomena that are awash in exactly this turmoil.