Research: The Listening Project

The Listening Project is a collaborative project between Radio 4, BBC Local Radio stations and the British Library. Its premise is poetically simple: one listens to, or perhaps eavesdrop on, to two people having a conversation with each other. They are short – around about 3 minutes long, and the conversationalists know each other beforehand, often friends, and sometimes family.

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There is never a prescribed topic or theme, and I don’t think there are rules (although I never hear swearing) so each conversation is not only unique but also doesn’t necessarily fit with any of the other conversations at all.

The low barrier to entry – anybody in the UK could have their conversation recorded, either in their nearest BBC Radio, or in their home – means that not only do you get a variety of topics that are more reflective of the population that a lot of what is often broadcast on Radio 4, but you also get people who are better reflect societal demographics in terms of age, in terms of class, and in terms of accent. Far from ‘BBC English’, on conversations in ‘The listening project’ often have a broad Black country, or Yorkshire, Glaswegian or Swansea accents. This is a breath of fresh air on Radio 4 the West Midlands accent, in particular, feels like home.

Although much of this makes it similar to ‘This American Life’, The listening project’ is distinct in several key ways: the lack of overarching theme, the absolute brevity, the immediate familiarity of the British context, accents and references. It’s collaboration with the British Library also lends it another element – that of the archival. The conversations will act as, and the project is designed in part to generate, something like ‘Time Capsules’. This links with the British Library’s recent exhibition of sound resources. I’m reminded in particular of a clip from the beginning of Radio Four’s ‘Today’ program on the day after the European Union Referendum. The conversations in ‘The listening project’ are also a piece of recorded oral history, but coming from and connected more directly with the general population.

What I gained from this:

  • Personal stories, even inane ones are interesting to listen to, even if the speaker may not be convinced of this fact. The resultant recorded audio can act as either direct oral recorded history for future generations, but even just connecting with a few now is a noble cause.
  • It was listening to podcasts and radio broadcasts like this one that has steeped me in personal storytelling which is reflected in my writing.

What I’m going to take forward:

  • An appreciation of the importance and value of oral history as well as the value added by a base of technical professional grade recording equipment and technicians

 

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Research: Listen; 140 Years of Recorded Sound, The British Library

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The British Library has an extensive sound archive, which had been curated into an exhibition as part of the ‘Season of Sound‘ to promote not only the archive itself but also the efforts to digitise the works which are across a plethora of media.

 

 

 

The ‘Voices of the Forces’ piece was of great interest to me. The physical object was a five-inch aluminium disc, although the audio from it had been converted for digital playback on the iPad underneath. The two were also accompanied by a British Pathé film on the subject from 1945 (below).

Besides his love, your man in the forces will now be able to send you his voice – for one and ninepence. It’s a natty Naafi idea. At many of the Nafi clubs overseas, recording rooms have been installed, where the men can come and actually speak the messages they want to send to their people at home.”
British Pathé film ‘Voices of the Forces’ (1945)

The recording was at once an intimate message from a serving soldier to his home and a piece of oral history. In its original state, it was never intended for such wide consumption as an exhibition in a national library, and as the British Pathé film alludes to, the physical media was never meant to last indefinitely. This lent a curious air of voyeurism to the experience of listening.

 

Built Space and Curation

Wooden slats painted white separated into discrete sections ran along the length of the wall, with iPads mounted next to headphones where the listener could select what to listen to as well as the linked physical media sat above in small inset sections behind perspex.

There were also cove like listening booths, with headphones and seats set up in sections that were cut out from the wood. These cocoon-like spaces were surprisingly effective at removing the person from the immediate context of the large public building. This allowed greater immersion in the sounds, which listeners were able to pick from the large selection on the iPads.

British Library_Sounds Page

Although the context of space is quite different here than the space in which I will be exhibiting, this visit gave key insights to the practices of displaying audio works for public consumption.

https://sounds.bl.uk/

 

What I got from this:

  • How to successfully isolate someone from their immediate context so they can fully engage with a sound piece, something I need to be able to do for my final piece.
  • How small snippets of a strangers history can provide unique archival information for the future. Recording one’s own experiences will always be important and gain importance over time, it’s a powerful link back to a past history.

Research: This Is A Voice

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The Welcome Collection hosted an exhibition entitled ‘This Is A Voice”, which was something like a retrospective for the capacity of human speech. The large space tackled many facets of speech, through the lenses of anthropology, linguistics, sociology, psychology, medicine and art practice.

The entire space had been carefully constructed with sound and acoustics in mind, from acoustic foam panelling, similar to that of a recording studio, to directional parabolic speakers that offered to ‘shower’ the listener with sound.

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Something I’ve always been fascinated with accents, and the sociology surrounding it.

As the promo for a linked discussion entitled ‘What Does Your Voice Say About You’ puts it:

“Your voice is unique. As soon as you open your mouth to speak you reveal something deeply personal about yourself – your biology, status, geography and state of mind. Join us for a discussion on the relationship between the voice and identity.” 

                                                                         –   The Welcome Collection website

 

I think voice is far more revealing and interesting a thing to focus on, especially with someone you don’t know, than say clothing, or even perhaps race (although race and voice often have a complex and multi-faceted relationship). I’m careful here not to overstate this, but accent for me can be suggestive (not authoritative) of the location of the formative years of childhood, both geographically and socially, class and background – revealing often more than the speaker intends.

Convergence and Divergence come to mind here, wherein a speaker tries to ally themselves to or distinguish themselves from whomever they’re talking to, but this is only within bounds. There are markers of accent which are undisguisable.

A piece which particularly fascinated me was ‘Emily’ by Danica Dakić which showed a young girl being given British Sign Language elocution lessons, with the voice of a middle-aged woman (off-screen) pushing her to hold tension in her fingers, and be precise about her movements – all in an effort to be more readily understood.

Emily; Video Stills; Loop

What was incredible about this was that previously I had held BSL and elocution in two very separate categories in my mind: though of course, it makes sense that as part of BSL education, something like elocution would be involved.

Another piece involved a mid 20s MtF (Male to Female) Trans Woman talked about trying to develop a vocal patterns that presented more readily as female – accompanied by a physician suggesting that this was a common experience among Trans Women, much more so than Trans Men, as Trans Men’s voices are in partly transformed by the Testosterone that many choose to take.

What I got from this:

  • This exhibition spoke to the breadth and power of speech and recorded sound, both as a rich area of linguistic and sociological exploration, but also for the purposes of contemporary fine art practice.
  • It also was very helpful to see how the various spaces had been constructed and curated, and as I work towards installing my final show, I can and am referring back to some of the techniques used in ‘This Is A Voice’.

 

 

Research: ‘How English sounds to non-English speakers’

‘Skwerl’ is, according to the description attached to the YouTube upload, “a short film in fake English”.

The gag here is that everything else about this piece has the trappings of a short, highly charged drama exert, the only thing missing is recognisable English vocabulary. It has been exchanged for English phonics, the actual constructed sounds that make up word, delivered with conviction and in character, so that the audience can infer everything that you may be able to infer from watching a foreign language film without subtitles or dubbing – the setting, the atmosphere, the interpersonal tension and the swings of mood, as well as broadly from this context – the “meaning” of the dialogue.

Screen Shot 2017-11-03 at 12.13.12This whole grand delusion is designed to give an insight into what it would be like to watch an English Foreign Language film, if you had no grasp of the English language itself – the strict ties of vocabulary and meaning are pulled out from under you, leaving you with noises that are tantalisingly familiar sounding, but whose precise meaning is impenetrable.

This particular experiment has strong cultural undertones – with the prevalence of English across the world as a stable of cultural expression, recasting English as a foreign language that native English speakers are not familiar with allows. A degree of insight into another world – the wealth of English culture not being directly accessible to you.

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There are some occasional attestations as to the truth of this rendering of “How English sounds to non-English speakers” from honest-to-god ESOL (English as a second or other language) speakers from the days before their fluency. This is a testament to the thorough research or prior understanding of English phonics, or perhaps merely an intuitive ability of the presumably English native speaking screenwriters to create English sounding non-English words.

 

What I got from this:

  • This is a novel but effective approach to discussing how a non English native speaker hears English. Its tackling an issue that previously wouldn’t have been experienced by englosh native speakers as every language sounds inherently different. Someone whoes always spoken english was never going to know what iy sounds like as an outsider. This piece forces everyone to be an outsider of their own language. It’s an equaliser.
  • Part of what makes this piece so successful is that it takes a common but isolating experience and turns it into something that brings the expierencers together.

What I want to take forward:

  • In my final piece I want to share that elusive feeling of isolation and otherness and, by sharing, bring people together. This piece shows that I don’t have to share universal experiences for the to be shared universal emotions.

Research: I Am Sitting In A Room

plus some youtube comment commentary

I Am Sitting In A Room

The real skill of Alvin Lucier’s work “I Am Sitting In A Room” for me is the perfect matchup between the thematic and intellectual base and its technical delivery. The medium of the work and its methodology (the execution) is a matchup with the artist’s intention and pre-occupations.

Namely, Lucier’s stammer is laid bare but then swallowed by the evolution of the sound as we move towards hearing “the natural resonant frequencies of the room articulated by speech”. Within the text itself he states that this endeavour is “not so much as a demonstration of a physical fact, but more as a way to smooth out any irregularities my speech might have

I read piece this as a catharsis. Although it has been repeated with the same methodology – playing the initially recorded voice into the room and rerecording repeatedly – it lacks for me an authenticity. Lucier had a specific irregularity in mind – his stammer. The creation of the work and the particular way in which the voice dissipates and its degradation becomes the tool of catharsis. The form and function match perfectly.

 

What I got from this:

  • In my Unit 9 Final Piece, I am seeking to have a similarly close relationship between the concept and the delivery, to have every aspect of the installation have purpose and be appropriate for the content. This might mean digging down as to my motivation in creating the piece in the first place, obsessed as it is with memory, in order to link these motivations with specific decisions about the medium.

Research: A Prarie Home Companion

A Prairie Home Companion has been on seemingly forever. I first came across it when it used to be played on Radio 4 at odd times, usually late into the night, perhaps it’s still on.

His voice, that of Garrison Keillor is hypnotic, soothing, and iconic.

What’s wonderful about it is how lasting it has been, created and hosted by the same man since 1974, no doubt thanks to its formula; inoffensive yet compelling cockamamie tidbits within a reliable and quickly familiar setting – that is Lake Wobegon. Any mention of the show conjures instantly the words in that familiar deep voice “the news from Lake Wobegon”.

What I got this from this:

  • What I take most from this though is that it’s okay to just keep on producing seemingly stodgy content, especially on the radio. It has its place. It can be noble work. Not everything has to be cynical or bold or ruthless. Sometimes, you can just make the familiar. It’s inclusive, not divisive, and that’s something I want in my work. To bring people together, not create controversy.