Ways of Hearing
The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2019
136 pp., illus., 136 col. Trade, $19.95
One of the many contributions to communications and technology theory by Marshall McLuhan is his transposition of the eye and ear as primary human sensory inputs. "The ear favours no particular 'point of view,'" he wrote in The Medium is the Massage. "We are enveloped by sound. It forms a seamless web around us. We hear sounds from everywhere, without ever having to focus. We can‘t shut out sound automatically. We simply are not equipped with earlids. Where a visual space is an organised continuum of a uniformed connected kind, the ear world is a world of simultaneous relationships" (McLuhan and Fiore 1967, 111).
Damon Krukowski applies McLuhan's critical imagination to sound recording when he writes in his new book, Ways of Hearing, that microphones "are like our ears—they hear everything" (127). By "everything" Krukowski means all the layers and textures of sound energy within proximity of a microphone that can be turned into electrical or digital information and preserved, or recorded.
Fundamentally, all these sounds are noise, undelineated sonic sources, according to Krukowski. But somewhere in that noise is the signal, the important sound(s) that bring a message, whether speech, music, or ambient sounds. Both McLuhan and Krukowski note the marvelous ability of the ear to shift its focus through the layers of surrounding noise (the unwanted sounds) and to isolate and foreground specific sounds, the signal(s), and present them for our hearing. In short, our ears separate the signal from the noise and focus our hearing on an intended sound subject.
Krukowski explores these ideas within the context of analogue and digital sound, music, and recording, in Ways of Hearing, a small, but thought-provoking book transcribed from his six-part podcast by the same title, a production of Showcase, from Radiotopia and PRX. The six podcast episodes, now book chapters, explore how switching from analog to digital audio (recorded sounds) changes our perceptions of time, space, love, money, and power. Sound is a medium shared by a lot of people, says Krukowski, "but I'm worried about the quality of that sharing—because we don't seem to be listening to each other very well right now in the world. Our voices carry further than they ever did before, thanks to digital media. But, how are they being heard?" (2).
It's all about signal and noise. For example, in episode/chapter one, Krukowski, considers the difference between real time as flexible, experienced and expressed by humans, and machine time as exact, consistent, unchanging as expressed by computers. Real time is full of noise, the spaces between the beats of the drummer, for example, and what is felt, or can be felt, or might be felt in that space. Sounds of other instruments are added, even voice. These other sounds layer and weave themselves into a richness of noise from which our ears can select a particular signal and listen. Machine time is all signal. There is no noise. Machine time is exact, unchanging. A sense of richness does not present itself. When we trade real time for machine time in music, and broadcast for podcast, says Krukowski, "we give up the opportunity to experience time together—in the same moment—through our media" (19) and "lose the ability to share our individual timing with one another," to groove locked to one another, not a machine (20).
Episode two considers noise in urban spaces and the way that digital media allows us to control signals we hear in public. Whatever we hear through our headphones and/or earbuds commands our attention, "cocooning each of us in signal even as we occupy shared space" (131). The personalized soundscapes coming through earbuds create an interior space as a refuge even while extending that interior space into the street. "Through audio we're privatizing our public spaces," says Kurkowski (44).
Heard through headphones or earbuds, Krukowski considers recordings as heard within the echo chamber walls of our own skulls, "and I would argue that's even more asocial" (45). Missing is the shared collective experience of listening to sounds with others, together. Krukowski concludes this episode by recounting a visit with composer John Cage in his New York apartment. The windows were open, and the street sounds below were easily heard. Krukowski tells us that Cage never closed his windows. "Why would he? There was so much to listen to all the time" (47).
The loss of shared, collective listening experiences, and the loss of noise in digital recordings, are combined and used in episode three to consider how cell phones isolate the signal of our voices from the noise of our spoken communications. What's lost in cell phone conversations "is the part of our voices that communicates without language," the non-verbal parts, the sighs and spaces, rhythmic flows of our voices up and down for emphasis (65). "We hear less of one another on the phone now. And no matter how close we hold them to our mouths, there's no proximity effect on a cell phone—everyone sounds just as near, or just as far, as everyone else. The reason is that unlike the old analog phones, cell phones don't transmit the full range of sound picked up by their mics. Instead, they digitally process that sound, compressing it to remove whatever engineers have decided is unnecessary data" (62, emphasis original). "Cell phones are engineered to communicate our words, above all. Everything else is pushed aside—the background noise that indicates where we are. And the myriad small sounds that indicate we're there too. The sounds of our breathing. The sounds of our listening" (63, emphasis original).
Episode four considers how the internet altered the terms of exchange for music with a shift in emphasis, like in cell telephones, from noise to signal. "Streaming services strip recorded sound away from its physical format, isolating the signal of music and deleting the noise of its context—not only the material package, but all the information that went along with it: the songwriters, producers, even the names of the musicians themselves" (132).
Episode five, the final episode, considers how the isolated signals explored in previous episodes are being manipulated by online corporations, "transformed into signal for profitable use by those businesses" (133, emphasis original).
The essential theme consistent throughout Ways of Hearing, both the podcast and this transcription, is the difference between a world enriched by noise (the beautiful cacophony of multiple, layered, interwoven sounds from multiple surrounding sources), "and a world that strives toward signal only" (133). This, says Krukowski, is the essential change in the shift from analog to digital communications.
Krukowski concludes by restating his aim of calling attention to unconsidered aspects of sound, "to highlight different parts of the noise around us. By listening to a wider swath of noise, we might discover more about what is meaningful signal for each of us. And how we might best share those signals with one another" (133).
Ways of Hearing is interesting and successful on several levels. First, it is an excellent transcription from an audio-based to a text/image-based medium, from a podcast to a book. It is thought provoking in its challenge for readers to become more attentive of what they might hear. And finally, to return to McLuhan, Ways of Hearing elevates attentive, contemplative listening as a way of extending the human sensorium to enhance our interaction with the world through technology. Hearing involves awareness of surrounding sounds. Listening, paying attention to what we hear, elevates our engagement with those sounds and all they have to offer. By listening closely, writes Krukowski, "we might discover more about what is meaningful signal for each of us. And how we might best share those signals with one another" (133).