“Hearing Modernity” has now gotten underway. The inaugural seminar, “Grand Narratives of Sound,” of the year-long series drew a crowd that filled tiny Holden Chapel in Harvard Yard leaving many standing for the one-hour and forty-five minute talk. Alexander Rehding, Chair of Harvard’s Department of Music, extended a warm welcome and invited everyone to join in these ongoing discussions. How do we start an exploration of the wider world of sound? Rehding referred us to a British urging, “go down to the Pub.”
Featured at the late Monday afternoon event were Veit Erlmann, Professor of Ethnomusicology and Anthropology, Butler School of Music, University of Texas and Jonathan Sterne, Professor, Department of Art History & Communication Studies, McGill University. In advance of the seminar, their papers were circulated online [here]. Neither speaker assumed though, that all had read his papers before coming to the Chapel (what’s new?). So, to that end, Erlmann and Sterne each took a half hour to go over salient points proffered in their respective papers “Acoustic Master Narratives and Paralogies” and “Compression: A Loose History.”
Erlmann’s delivery, a bit stiff in the early going, became more relaxed and natural later on, after his summary, when he became involved in a debate with Sterne. No sparks flew, though, in their disagreements over “mere efficiency,” a phrase coming from but one of only four questioners engaging with the two speakers during the session. Sterne clearly knows how to keep us on track with his resonant baritone-like speaking voice along with his humorous interjections spicing the otherwise serious tone of the seminar. Having softened his position on an issue in one of his own publications from over a decade ago, he said, “I can disagree with the author.”
Where Erlmann depended completely on the word in this sound study, Sterne amplified his summary with three audio examples each demonstrating various kinds of compression. The most obvious of the three would have to have been Alvin Lucier’s canonical process piece I Am Sitting in a Room. Here, as a result of compression, noise might very well have played into this illustration, but who is to say where the line can be drawn between music and noise? For most, Sterne declared, “compression is a transgression” on account of its lacking veracity.
The importance of “talking across disciplines” also surfaced and put into motion a theme that would pop up in my mind throughout this first seminar. As we moved through an abundance of words referencing philosophy, anthropology, sociology, epistemology, and phenomenology, how many of us attendees, I wondered, were also feeling a need for more of that kind of a narrative.
We were informed that three sound worlds exist: words, music, and noise. For “Grand Narratives of Sound,” it surely was a world of words. “Humans connecting with one another,” as Sterne put it, is key to a study of sound. In evidence, I would say, connections were being made at many different levels amongst the attendees. Let us see what others have to say about their experience. A blog is available for those who want to discuss the subject further.
In sum, the seminar held my attention. It was only when Erlmann glossed over a word or turned his head away from the microphone that I missed something. And as to understanding this presentation, I might compare the experience to that of listening to a new piece of music. While I caught some of it I would want to hear the piece again to find out more about it—maybe catch what eluded me the first time around.
The next seminar, “Decentering Sound,” is set for Monday, September 30, 4:15 to 6 pm, Holden Chapel.