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Illusions of Thunder, and Sound Art as Mainstream Cultural Commodity

December 18, 2013

John Dennis - Rorschach Audio Archive

The following paragraphs served as the introduction and preamble to the presentation on “Sound Art as Mainstream Cultural Commodity”, given at the “What is Sound Design?” symposium, at The Edinburgh College of Art, 28 Nov 2013, and are in turn based on elements of the “Rorschach Audio” talk presented at the “Theatre Noise” conference, at The Central School of Speech & Drama, London, 23 April 2009. With apologies here to those readers who will be familiar with some of these arguments already, the introduction adds some important points – not least about what you might call the prehistory of contemporary sonic art. The following paragraphs were followed by an abridged version of the existing “Rorschach Audio” talk; then, in terms of delivering this talk’s political punch-line, followed by a series of videos which show how almost all the audio illusions demonstrated in the preceding talk are already known to and employed by creative artists, albeit artists who primarily operate within popular culture, as opposed to what’s conventionally thought of as being fine-art…

“There is a perception, particularly among contemporary art critics and arts commentators, but also among members of the public, that sound art is a relatively new art form. Of course the truth is that sounds produced by voices are among the earliest raw materials ever subjected to any form of creative manipulation. Speech itself is an art-form, and therefore poetry and literature of the oral tradition are, alongside music, the oldest forms of sound art, and probably the oldest art-forms. On that basis it can be argued that far from being a marginal or in any way “difficult” art-form, sound art is instead the most primal, the most pervasive, and arguably the earliest form of creative art. The argument put forward in my book “Rorschach Audio” is that, paraphrasing Aristotle’s “Poetics”, since written language is based on symbolic visual representations of indivisible sounds, the earliest form of sound recording technology was not, as is generally presumed, any form of machine, but was in fact written language. Alongside poetry and literature of the oral tradition, even written literature and poetry are therefore forms of sound art. So, when one considers music, poetry, literature, theatrical dialogue, theatrical sound effects and architectural acoustics, and particularly also sound design for contemporary cinema and computer games, it can be argued that, in its various diverse and widespread manifestations, sound art is one of, if not the, most mainstream and commercially important of cultural commodities.

By way of illustration, the art of designing theatrical sound effects is for instance quite clearly a form of sound art, which goes back at least as far as those architects whose expertise ensured that the proverbial pin could be heard dropping throughout the auditoria of ancient Greek amphitheatres. As regards specifically British history, the theatrical historian Robert Mott describes how since as long ago as “Shakespearian days” a “popular” method for simulating thunder sounds in theatre involved using “a cannon-ball rolling down a trough and falling onto a huge drum”. Robert Mott states that “some people were not pleased with this cumbersome technique”, so, in 1708, the theatre critic and dramatist John Dennis designed a thunder effect for his play “Appius & Virginia” at Drury Lane. John Dennis “invented something more realistic and controllable – a large piece of thin copper sheeting suspended from a frame by wires”. “The thunder sheet was a great success, and as a result other stage productions began using his effect. This infuriated Dennis to the point where he would angrily confront the offending producer by charging ‘you, Sir, are stealing my thunder!’.” Dennis is also said to have stated that “that is my thunder, by God; the villains will play my thunder, but not my play”. What this anecdote provides is not just another example of “early” sound art – of sonic art that predates contemporary fine-arts practice by 200 years – but also potentially the earliest recorded instance of what amounts to an intellectual property dispute between sound artists. This dispute was in fact so important that the phrase “stealing my thunder” has, for hundreds of years, been immortalised as common usage in no less than the English language.

The fact that, despite such histories, sonic art is not generally perceived to be a mainstream art-form, has arguably a great deal to do with phenomena of psychology of perception, and it is the psychology of perception of audible speech which forms the central focus of the book I’ve mentioned – “Rorschach Audio”. “Rorschach Audio” starts as a critique of so-called Electronic Voice Phenomena research. EVP is a belief system, whose adherents believe they’re able to literally record the voices of ghosts; and, as the demonstrations I’m about to present show, the misperception of stray radio and communications chatter as ghost-voices stems from misrepresentations of psychoacoustic phenomena. EVP practitioners misperceive voices they’ve recorded because those voices are sufficiently ambiguous, and because the beliefs EVP followers attach to them are sufficiently strong, to produce sound illusions which can be, if not objectively convincing, at least emotionally appealing. As well as demonstrating intriguing auditory phenomena, this talk is relevant to the sonic arts because so many, often high-profile, sound artists work with EVP, and because the ideas presented link to the individual generally recognised as the most important Western artist ever, and because they link to what is arguably the most important work of visual arts theory! I will now present a shortened version of the “Rorschach Audio” talk. Then, referring back to our theme of Sound Art as Mainstream Cultural Commodity, show as many examples as time permits of similar illusions to those discussed in “Rorschach Audio”, as they’re employed in mass-market mainstream popular arts culture.”…

Copyright © Joe Banks 2009 to 2013

Many thanks to everyone who came to the talks!

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