Retrospective: Beginning Soundscapes

This is a piece I wrote one year ago. I was living in Chicago, finishing my undergraduate studies at Northwestern, and becoming interested in the process of making field recordings in public spaces and then finding satisfying ways to describe them. I am about to start doing so again.

The following is a guided walk-through of the Art Institute of Chicago on a cold, rainy Sunday in the spring of 2015. It accompanies a set of field recordings to be found here.

Gallery spaces will be indexed by names and room numbers, in reference to this map; only permanent exhibitions were visited. Not all recordings taken will be discussed here; some extras are included in the interest of comparison and to give a slightly more continuous sense of the aural experience. Also, turn up the volume and check out the recording of Modern Wing elevator.

Christopher Small writes in his Prelude to Musicking: “The fundamental nature and meaning of music lie not in objects, not in musical works at all, but in action, in what people do.” (Small, 8) I find that this notion equally applies to the objects of art in a museum, and the soundscape made for an ideal and incredibly moving vehicle by which to explore the depth and variety of interpretive meaning as it is being made in the museum.

By isolating only the temporal, acoustic experience, we were able to “mute” the role of the visual art objects and instead hone in the aural artifacts of human interaction with art and space. Our accompanying interpretations represent the interactions of art with architecture, family, education, social mores, aesthetics, and technology we found through analysis of the soundscape. We generally try to integrate a Peircean approach as outlined by Turino in Music as Social Life with our own cultural and sonic experiences and expectations.

I would like to take just a moment to look at two of Christopher Small’s concepts from Musicking to expand on the social constructions of participatory and presentational roles in the gallery space, and how that may have manifested (or remained covert) in the recordings and analysis. The first comes from his concept of the development of professionalized music: “The third idea is that of a formal and independent setting where people come together solely for the purpose of performing and listening to music…” (Small 71). The Art Institute of Chicago has the unique project of presenting a cross-cultural, cross-historical representation of visual art, to be entertaining and educating to its visitors. Visitors to the Art Institute arrive with the expectation of an “away space”, a separate world that offers up cohesive displays of artwork through its own internal logic of temporal and aesthetic connection.

I feel I speak for most people when I say that I live most of my life in a sensory mess, reactively shifting which input is prioritized in a fairly unconscious and tangled-up way. As Small suggests, formalized experiences with visual art can provide a fairly proscriptive channel for engaging with my surroundings, serving both as a challenge to extend myself visually and as a relief from the pressure to be processing stimuli on my own terms.

Small also writes: “Ritual is a form of organized behavior in which humans use the language of gesture, or paralanguage, to affirm, to explore and to celebrate their ideas of how the relationships of the cosmos (or a part of it) operate, and thus of how they themselves relate to it and to one another. Through their gestures, those taking part in the ritual act articulate relationships among themselves that model the relationships of their world as they imagine them to be and as they think (or feel) that they ought to be.” (Small, 95).

Even children knew that the gallery is a space to be fairly quiet and reflective, to be engaging visually and to try to allow oneself to be absorbed--to some extent--in the aesthetic experience as it is presented. In most spaces, too, there was a feeling of freedom to converse intimately about the art, and those who were talking about something less-than-topical invariably had turned their backs to the displays.

Though it is hard to articulate, there is a strong sense of ritual about the relationships modeled in the soundscapes: they are decidedly not the sounds of a crowded train station or airport, a busy office or a kitchen table. These murmurs are not the anticipatory pre-concert buzz: these sounds are the aural aesthetic event as it is happening in time.

The resonances of the galleries and the forms of the human sounds themselves coalesce to form a linguistic gesture (talk-in-space, talk-in-time) that indexes ritualized social engagement with art. All problematic conceptions of silent+reverence and “great work of art” aside, the large-scale museum foregrounds the ritualized, “formal and independent setting” and essentializes a clearly defined role for the visitor. To me, this makes a strong incipient case for the participatory nature of this (seemingly) presentational museum format.

I found the recording process incredibly moving, as I got to observe first-hand the ways people “model the relationships of their world as they imagine them to be and as they think (or feel) that they ought to be”, as a little boy walked down the Grand Staircase saying, “Mommy, when I get home I’m going to do an Impressionism for our house!” and as a middle-aged woman whispered to her husband in front of ‘La Grande Jatte’ as she recalled childhood summertime memories of her sister, who had died just a year ago this Friday.

These people are pulling art into their own lives--and pulling their own lives into art--not because of some inherent quality of the art but because the fundamental generation of meaning from aesthetic experiences lies in what people do.


A fragment of my writing from the body of the piece:

  1. The Thorne Miniature Rooms

The space of the Thorne Miniature Rooms is markedly family-oriented--sonically, presentationally, and socially insular. Though the gallery is relatively unoccupied for a rainy Sunday afternoon, children’s voices and intergenerational conversations murmur throughout the space. Carpeting and low ceilings warm up the sonic space of the small hallways: this is a place to think small, to be quiet and at home and to vicariously enter the tiny historical recreations.

Children balance along a raised platform with near-silent footsteps, peering into tiny worlds from the past. They sneeze and bless each other, shush each other when the talking gets loud, and one bothers her mother and grandmother who are here to get inspiration for remodeling their house. The mother thinks this suite style would sell better.

A young married couple beeps on their digital camera to take a picture of the Georgian English drawing room. A French mother holding a toddler whispers, pointing to things in a Pullman carriage.

These small, fuzzy corridors are designed to be entered imaginatively as a family, a comfortable space where everything is tidy, tiny and accessible.