congress / reading room

Listening is an art

Interview with Patryk Zakrocki

“Modern civilization makes us nearly ‘deaf,’ and the process of conscious listening can help us diagnose our moods and avoid manipulation,” says Patryk Zakrocki, a musician, composer, author and one of the curators of the “Sound Cinema” project.

Listening to an audiobook, listening to a concert with eyes closed, and taking in an audiovisual installation at a gallery – which of these would you say is the closest to the experiences of Sound Cinema audiences?

I think you can take the “Sound Cinema” term quite literally, like with cinemas for the visually impaired. Have you ever tried closing your eyes during a screening just to check how much of the story you can glean from sound alone in a visual medium? I used to do that a lot as a kid.

But for me, “Sound Cinema’s” most natural and personal context would be the – nowadays almost extinct – tradition of radio plays. I think I might represent the last generation raised on radio dramas. When I was a kid there was no TV at our house, so listening to records or tapes issued by the Polish Radio recording company was a great adventure. I still have “Alice in Wonderland,” “The Enchanted Forest,” “Peter Pan,” “Jacek and Agatka,” and “Moomins” with Gustaw Holoubek stashed in a secret vault. We will be playing “Moomins” during the part of “Sound Cinema” aimed at kids.

When you listen to radio dramas, you can easily focus on the theatric qualities of the play, like the top notch voice acting. You can also spot the ways in which sound is used to create illusions of space and movement, how music and sound effects are used to further the narrative.

But there won’t be many of these “true” radio plays in Wrocław. On the other hand, the “Sound Cinema” project wouldn’t have taken off the ground if it wasn’t for the vast archives of French and German radio and the Polish Radio’s Experimental Studio.

Well, radio art, as developed in the second half of the 20th century quickly outgrew the simple framework of a typical radio play. Already in the 1950s, radio stations in Paris, Cologne, and Warsaw have started working with more experimental forms, in which acoustic phenomena replaced text as the primary medium for our imagination. Radio gave birth to genres collectively presented under the “Sound Cinema” label, like concrete music, sound-art, and electronic music, the latter increasingly popular nowadays.

The development of image reproduction techniques gave birth to photography and film. Sound recording and playback techniques turned out to be no less revolutionary. The problem is that these new forms were later forcibly adapted to fit the traditional ways of performing music, in concert halls and clubs. “Sound Cinema” became the poor cousin of classical music, rock, and pop.

It pains me that radio has moved away from that specific form, one that wasn’t music but was nonetheless dedicated to listening. And aside from providing news services and music for work or leisure, radio could teach us to listen, actively and creatively. Unfortunately, we’ve forgotten that not only image but also sound can educate, stimulate, and create aesthetic canons.

Are'nt you exagerating a bit in this particular instance? Nowadays, basically everyone can have a “Sound Cinema” experience in their own home, all you need is a hi-fi stereo.

Well, the problem is that when we listen to rock, jazz or classical recordings, we succumb to the illusion of participating in a traditional concert. We hear the violins in Beethoven’s symphonies or Hendrix’s guitar and forget that we’re not there, that we’re only hearing the vibrations of an electrically-stimulated hi-fi speaker.

Meanwhile, the potential of recorded sounds lies in the possibility of experiencing them removed from their primary material and visual context. In our everyday life, we often push listening to the background and treat it in a purely utilitarian way, as a source of information about the world. A recording severs the sound from its source, gives it multiple meanings. We’re no longer listening to frogs, cicadas or cars passing by, but to clear tones, amplitudes, and textures, which under normal conditions would be very hard if not impossible.

Pierre Schaeffer and Pierre Henry, the forerunners of French radio art and pioneers of concrete music, called this way of listening “acousmatic.” They were one of the first to create compositions by piecing together recorded sounds of a railway engine or creaky doors.

But musicians have been imitating songbirds and other natural sounds for thousands of years, the only exception being that they were using instruments. What’s the difference between traditional composition and creating music out of recorded sounds?

When we write down a composition on a piece of paper, we imagine sounds that we’ll hear only during their performance, while when we’re creating electronic or concrete music, we work with real, dense acoustic events. The main source of inspiration in the latter case is the sound itself, which can often surprise us, thus allowing us to overcome the limitations of musical conventions and our own imagination. Modern composers also have vast libraries at their disposal, filled with over half a century’s worth of collected sounds. There are times when we come upon a sound without any description attached to it, and we’re unable to identify neither its source nor the circumstances surrounding its creation.

The possibility of composing one single sound, which has become common practice nowadays, even in recording traditional music, is absolutely fascinating. And we should also remember the casus of Glenn Gould, one of the greatest pianists of the 20th century, who at the beginning of his career almost gave up performing live to focus on the sound engineering. And it didn’t stem from a desire to piece together the best versions of particular phrases or motifs. The important part was the ability to precisely shape a single sound, regulating the attacks and releases.

The aforementioned pioneers of concrete music, Pierre Henry and Pierre Schaeffer, used the process of editing to create compositions analogous to Bach’s fugues or Beethoven’s string quartets, using sounds that we hear everyday. There’s also “field recording” – represented in Wrocław by the works of Chris Watson – its practitioners record only natural-occurring soundscapes.

But can we really call field recording practitioners “composers”? Is there really any creative process behind it?

Of course. Just as there is with photography, which for decades has been criticized as passive reproduction of reality. Nowadays no one questions that “looking at the world through a lens” is an art in itself. Similarly, we can say that there is an “art of listening,” consisting of choosing a specific place and time, microphone selection and placement. And it’s not just a theory: “La Selva” by Francisco López is nothing more and nothing less than a recording of the sounds of the Costa Rican jungle. But in no way does it resemble a typical “tropical soundscape,” it’s more like a sophisticated piece of electronic music.

If we were to listen closely to the cicadas in our Beskids, we would notice tonally-beautiful and rhythmically-sophisticated compositions. But under everyday conditions, we don’t even pay attention to these kinds of phenomena around us, and instead we say “that’s what vacation is for.” Meanwhile, looking at the same sound from a certain distance, putting it in a proper frame might make it a masterpiece.

So the entire universe is just a big musical composition?

Rather it’s us – the people listening – who can create our compositions by looking for links between acoustic events, which are accidental in nature. On the other hand, recording enables us to share that subjective, intimate experience.

Is there anything that you can say with sounds that you can’t with either words or pictures?

Sure, like a recipe for church organs or “choir, mixed and stewed.” Wojtek Marzec and I presented such surreal ideas, impossible to convey with words, in short pieces created for the Sound Production Works. Wojtek’s “I don’t want to stay here forever,” which will be performed in Wrocław, is a story taking place within the human psyche, where its two main characters are phantoms, memories of certain people: they fight for survival, trying to get across from short-term to long-term memory.

Human speech is another interesting sound phenomenon, which we tend to treat as “transparent” in our everyday life. We’re only awakened from our indifference when we come upon a serious speech impediment or a language that is completely foreign. To our own surprise, instead of speech we might then hear an interesting composition. That theme is quite popular among composers participating in the “Sound Cinema” project. In Wrocław, we’ll hear Alessandro Bosetti’s “A Collection of Smiles,” which is composed out of fragments of everyday conversations and Rudolf Ebner’s “Une Bacchanale pour Henrii”, an amazing collage of sounds produced by the vocal apparatus and the entire human body.

The “sound postcard” genre will also be well represented in Wrocław. We’ll play Pierre Henry’s classic piece dedicated to Paris and Barry Bermange’s “portrait” of modern London. Krzysiek Topolski will play field recordings from Vancouver captured in the 1970s and confront them with recordings captured in the 1990s to show how radically, and yet imperceptibly, the acoustic panorama of the city has changed in two decades. Well, it’s not exactly a secret that we live in a culture based on visuals. When presented a photograph of London and Paris, we have no problem distinguishing which is which, but can we do the same thing when presented with the “sounds” of both cities?

Isn’t this kind of listening “art for art’s sake”? Is there any purpose to it outside of purely aesthetical considerations?

On the contrary, it’s a very practical issue, one with implications for the quality of our everyday life. Compared to the dwellers of the tropical jungles, who from can hear and interpret even the tiniest acoustic stimuli from hundreds of meters away, we are cognitively impaired. Already in the 1970s, Canadian composer and music theoretician Raymond Murray Schaffer tried to turn our attention to the fact that the Western post-industrial man spends his life in a lo-fi environment, in which noise displaces clear acoustic stimuli and makes us nearly “deaf.”

The aesthetics and ergonomics of our work and leisure environments are very important to us, and yet we ignore the acoustic issues inherent in these spaces, even though they exert a great amount of influence on the quality of our existence. Note that both marble floors, generating tremendous reverb, and interiors muffled with soft carpeting, have a specific psychological effect. The process of conscious listening can help us diagnose our moods and avoid manipulation.

Anthropologists researching more “acoustic” cultures and those analyzing the everyday experiences of the visually impaired claim that “deep listening” leads to a completely different perception of time, space, and logical relations. But that’s a story for a whole other conversation...

Interview conducted by Michał Mendyk

Translated by Jan Szelągiewicz