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Hearing Through the Body at Harvard


The small Holden Chapel at Harvard University was once again brimming with attendees of the ongoing series of seminars, “Hearing Modernity.” The website reads, “As our knowledge of our body and of hearing increase, sharp distinctions between body and mind become increasingly untenable. The body is not only the site of listening, it facilitates, mediates, and delimits the very possibility of hearing.”

This, the fifth installment, held promise but did not really deliver. Entitled “Hearing Through the Body,” we did learn something about technology and the deaf. What electronic dance music had to do with the advertised topic seemed quite a bit of a stretch.

In case you are not familiar with the format of these seminars, you might want to know that each invited presenter circulates a paper online weeks in advance of the meeting. Just as our high school teachers would have asked, Professor Mills came right out at the start inquiring how many had, in fact, read her paper. Only but a few hands went up.

Discussion followed their summaries of the two papers. Well into the afternoon, Mark J. Butler, Associate Professor and Coordinator of the Program in Music Theory and Cognition at Northwestern University, finally noted that electronic dance music can be “heard through the body in real visceral ways.” This, however, appeared parenthetical to his presentation, which was centered on “repeating, cycling, going, and grooving,” his scholarly research into Berlin DJs who turn fixed objects (recorded sound) into fluid creations.

With Mara Mills, Assistant Professor of Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University, there was much more to do with the central topic, that of hearing through the body. Mills, who works at the intersection of disability studies and media studies, and communication engineering, is currently focusing on moving from print materials to Talking Books and electronic reading machines.

A brief history of “body as receptor and mediator” from Mills’ paper “Earless Hearing” fascinated. In Boston, Alexander Graham Bell worked in tandem with Therese Dudley exploring hearing, the deaf, and mediation, evidence of such coming from a Library of Congress document dating from 1872. American inventor Hugo Gernsback experimented with the conduction of sound to the inner ear through the bones of the skull—his machine was attached to the forehead. Before working with keyboards, inventor Ray Kurzweil had devoted his energy to developing reading machines.

Mills posed the question: “Is hearing a medical or media issue?” She emphasized the importance of remembering that the word “deaf” can and does mean a wide range of hearing from the hard of hearing to signers. As to implants, “brain training” is now replacing “ear training.”

Butler would have us assume that repetition is viewed as stasis, an assumption that I would have to consider as naïve, ‘repetition,’ like “deaf” also has a rich and extensive history of meaning. Locked grooves and cycles can be understood as a geometric shape, namely, the circle. It is worth noting that during his summary, we were actually exposed to sound, other than the word. He played four examples of grooves. We were directed to locate the downbeat of each with the suggestion that each of us could come up with a different answer. For him, this means that repetition is not stasis, but action, given the fact that interpretation is at play, “process” being the point. How temporality and Berlin’s electronic dance music “interfaces,” to use a favorite word found in these interdisciplinary seminars, with hearing through the body went unexplained.

This seminar was over at 5:45 or fifteen minutes shy of the scheduled end. I wondered if that had anything to do with these “contrasting papers” leaving others, as well, somewhat in the dark—if  not somewhat let down.

“Sounds and the Brain” is scheduled for Tuesday, March 11 at Holden Chapel, Harvard Yard with a 4:15 start.

David Patterson, Professor of Music and former chairman of the Performing Arts Department at UMass Boston, was recipient of a Fulbright Scholar Award and the Chancellor’s Distinction in Teaching Award. He studied with Nadia Boulanger and Olivier Messiaen in Paris and holds a PhD from Harvard University.

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