Friday, January 15, 2010

The Archive of Sound

Over the break I had an interesting conversation with a family friend about history and sound. It was very short, as we were standing in the crowded kitchen at a New Years party and between the sounds of the oven and the kids passing with coats and hors d'oeuvres there was hardly time for an in-depth discussion. But I did manage to catch his remark about the past's relationship to sound. "They went to a concert and listened to a song...and that was it." He said with a comical raise of his eyebrows.

Maybe if you went to see the concert more than once, or a few years later, or were able to play it yourself on a piano or single instrument...but I agree that history's relationship to sound differs much from our own. There are everyday sounds we are used to, like the constant hum of the refrigerator. They tend to blend into the background. I think there are timeless sounds, like a baby crying or waves crashing up against a shoreline. We can imagine that those have changed little throughout history, but would our ability to hear them change the way that history is studied?

As we talked about in class yesterday, there has always been and will continue to be missing evidence, and sound is one of those sensory experiences that has been lost in history. We can listen to a Bach cantata but it isn't necessarily the same; like any ancient text it has been copied and recopied and edited and transposed for modern instruments and ears. There always has to be a creative element to the practice of history, in that the imagination must fill in some of the gaps. Especially in Public History, where sound becomes a crucial part of the public's understanding of history through television, movies, museums and even historical fiction. Just because it is in a text doesn't mean the author cannot and should not attempt to evoke the sounds of the past.

Because our discussion involved sound (specifically the Murmur project in Toronto) I mentioned an interview that I heard on CBC's radio program Spark a few months ago about a BBC project called Save Our Sounds. It is an online project that allows anyone in the world to upload a recorded sound on to an interactive map. When I visited the site I was surprised that there were so few recordings, though some of the selections were really interesting, such as the sound of dial-up internet. Kate Arkless Gray, the leader of the project, remarked that "acoustic ecology is all about preserving these sounds for future generations". This collection will eventually be given over to the British Library to do just that.

So people in the future will be able to listen to the sound of horse's hooves in Kyrgyzstan, or a tug of war competition at the 146th Antigonish Highland Games in Nova Scotia. I think that the most valuable sounds on here will be those that are already beginning to disappear, such as the dial-up recording. Hopefully, horses will not go extinct any time soon. Now that it's easier than ever to record sounds, anywhere and anytime, we are creating a huge digital archive of soundscapes. Will it change the study of history? It might. But perhaps more importantly it will affect our relationship to history in adding another sensory exposure to the past. We could recreate it, as we do with drawings or images in photoshop, but I think that when you know it is the real thing your connection with the past becomes more intimate.

It comes back to the question of what to preserve and what to keep, but I believe that there is value in capturing sounds of activity that may be lost in official records, and will be valued by future generations. The world of pre-twentieth century? Well, I think it's just another case of the missing record, and our own acknowledgment that some history will always remain mysterious; like a song itself, it is never played the same twice as we translate from author to interpreter to listener.

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