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Eavesdropping at Harvard’s Hearing Modernity


“As scholars awaken to the sounds around us, we invite you to join us for an interdisciplinary exploration of the cultures of sound.” So Harvard’s Hearing Modernity welcoming website reads. On Monday afternoon, March 31st, at Holden Chapel, the seventh seminar, this on “Aural Memory,” featured Karin Bijsterveld, Professor of Science and Modern Culture at Maastricht University in the Netherlands and Wolfgang Ernst, Professor for Media Theories at the Institute for Musicology and Media Studies at Humboldt University in Berlin.

It was a chilly, damp day. Herbie Hancock was over at Sanders Theatre continuing his series of Norton lectures on the ethics of jazz. So there may be reasons why there were more empty chairs than at previous meetings in the tiny chapel. Yet, signs of a diminishing number of attendees to these interdisciplinary seminars is in evidence.

Attendees are expected to read the papers pre-circulated on the Hearing Modernity website. Few, it turns out, have.  Remarkably, very little “sound,” other than that of the word, is heard. Brief, and I do mean brief, examples of sound played through the computer thinly dot these word-driven gatherings. Illustrations, auditory or visual, clearly seem also not to play a real role in their formats.

Content can be elusive, definitive findings of these scholars often still unsettled. Expected is an interdisciplinary language for this interdisciplinary exploration, however, the language of specialization prevails. Unsurprisingly, parsing of terms is not rare, as was again the case for “Aural Memory.”

Bijsteveld’s paper pursued sound as knowledge, a path that remains on the periphery of scientific utility, which she hopes to change. What sounds can doctors, engineers and the like hear that could yield knowledge she asked. Specifically, she has been looking into voice prints and identification of speakers at the Stasi (Ministerium für Staatssicherheit) the Ministry for State Security for East Germany, where the “art” or science of eavesdropping and wiretapping did not develop as was planned. Auditory samples turned to long written descriptions turned to spectral analysis turned out to be largely undependable in tracking down dissidents, the major problem being that of the classification and retrieval of an overwhelming amount of information. Edward Snowden’s name came up.

Defining himself as a “media archeologist,” Wolfgang Ernst is also in pursuit of understanding sonic memory. What were once “audio signals” are now “data streams.” What is temporal and what is not in the technical arena of media spurred much discussion—and argument. Ernst aims to open history up to sound augmenting words and visuals. Mystifying is his notion that everything boils down to waves, many of them inaudible! Ernst has even investigated those mythological creatures, the sirens, seeking to find the real story behind the story of their unsolved soundings.

Enter the Cornell ornithologists. In the 1980s, sound scientists called into question those pure recordings created with the use of parabolic devices whereby the “context,” or surrounding sounds, were either eliminated or kept to a minimum. As we have been learning at Hearing Modernity, “context” rates high these days. And that birdsongs vary according to their environment and the sounds around them, a more accurate, complete identification of their songs must take into account their habitats.

What does all this mean for music lovers?

Two more meetings remain: “Reflections on the Voice” scheduled for April 14th and the ending session set for a week later.

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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