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I hear, therefore I am

Nobody escapes the sounds of the environment – sound studies researches the effects of all kinds of sounds

Freiburg, Oct 06, 2020

Art historian Desirée Düdder-Lechner studies phenomena that were only recently realized to be relevant to science: for instance the crinkling of a bag of crisps, the ticking of a Geiger counter or the far off ringing of church bells bringing back childhood memories. In the increasingly designed acoustic world of today, however, the once exotic sound studies – now a focus of research at the University of Freiburg’s Department of Media Culture Studies – has come into its own.

Objects can be linked acoustically to feelings, and sounds to images by certain sounds. Photo: pixelshot/ 

A few days ago Desirée Düdder-Lechner spent many hours at her desk and decided to walk round the block in the afternoon. The streets were empty. For the young researcher this walk was a magical mystery tour of a well-known yet unfamiliar landscape. “I didn’t hear any cars, any aircraft, any humming of a tram – just the birds twittering and the water gurgling in the drains,” she says. It was all so clear to her that she could hardly believe it. “I’ve seldom had such an intensive listening experience.”

This was a significant moment to the art historian who works at the University of Freiburg’s Department of Media Culture Studies looking into questions of sound in art, culture and everyday life. Her field of research, sound studies, is still relatively young. The earliest interdisciplinary efforts to analyze and scientifically describe audio phenomena besides music arose in the late 1960s; at the same time, artists from the Fluxus movement began to make sound into the material and medium of their performances, installations and video pieces, giving rise to radical works. For example, the American artist and composer John Cage wrote a piece where the audience had to listen to the environmental sounds that occur during three movements in which the performers do not play their instruments.

No such thing as absolute silence

For Düdder-Lechner this quality of inescapability is what makes sound such an exciting and rich subject. “Even before any of the rest of our senses, it is the perception of sound that brings us in contact with the environment even in the womb,” she says. “We are surrounded by sound, every day and almost everywhere.” Sometimes these sounds are produced by technology, sometimes by living creatures or natural phenomena such as wind and rain. However there is never absolute silence, except perhaps in death. And above all sound is never without an effect.

To identify the effects of sounds, analyze them and utilize this knowledge in improving our understanding of the world, to help focus attention or acoustically mark actions or products are some of the key themes of sound studies. Düdder-Lechner explains the fact that interest in sound studies now goes far beyond the context of science with the desire to contrast the disembodied, smooth surfaces of the digital sphere with the sensual perceptibility of the world. In the same way that the haptics of materials are seen as a sign of authenticity in product design, sound design deals with linking objects acoustically to feelings, linking sounds to images

Sound is hereby usually used to create atmosphere, whether that is in films like Apocalypse Now – Francis Ford Coppola’s anti-war drama that broke boundaries in sound technology, with its disturbing soundtrack transporting the audience to the sound environment of the killing fields of Vietnam – or to trigger specific mental images, memories or emotional states, or to make the construction of truth and perception by media visible, as in the work of film and video artist Bjørn Melhus, the subject of the dissertation that Düdder-Lechner is currently writing.

Acoustic marketing

The ear is an instrument that mechanics use to identify engine malfunctions, greengrocers to tell if a melon is ripe, doctors to pick up early signs of bronchitis. It’s also the organ that acoustic product design uses to stimulate the taste buds of potential buyers: when someone crunches on a handful of crisps in an advertisement it rouses the appetite. When a heavy car door clunks firmly shut, it gives a sense of security.

“Brand management using sound is everywhere now,” says Düdder-Lechner – it’s particularly noticeable for instance in the design of ringtones and the function signals of various operating systems. “It’s not just for recognition, the daily use of desktops or smartphones with constant repetition drums it so deeply into the subconscious that like tires screeching you can speak of a physical storage of auditory events. Depending on the sound we respond with alarm, attention, a good mood or relaxing.”

Sound as an exhibit

Based on the results of her dissertation, Desirée Düdder-Lechner now wants to research into how sound is used in the context of exhibitions. For many people the museum is a place of silence, she says. But that is only the case when no one is in the rooms. Even more than the inevitable sounds that occur in museums, she is interested in the idea of sound as an exhibit. “How could an exhibition be devised that presents sounds either instead of pictures or with pictures?” wonders the art historian. Visuals are only one of the potential manifestations of art, so it is important to consider how sound too could take up more space in the museum.

At the moment Düdder-Lechner is still in the middle of the research phase. One exhibition hall whose architecture has already been shaped by sound studies data is the Museum Brandhorst in Munich. Composed of colorful ceramic slabs, the facade is sound-absorbing. So the building helps to reduce the noise at the busy junction in the gallery quarter. Visitors to the exhibition also benefit indirectly from sound studies. For instance when an audio guide takes them through the rooms of the museum, turning them into intimate soundscapes, and producing an intensive connection between hearing and seeing.

Dietrich Roeschmann