This article explores the human experience, by both celebrating, and questioning our sense of hearing in a way that makes the reader question many other things about life with it through the artistic work of phonographer David Dunn. Ingram opens by explaining the consciousness of environmental, (including all environments, both manmade, and natural) sound that came about in the 1950’s and 60’s, through many, including Rachel Carson, and John Cage’s works. This concept eventually attained the term, “soundscape” to mean any, and all sounds in a certain area, which characterize the exact situation in which they are experienced, be it jungle, city, or concert hall.
Ingram goes on, citing philosopher, John Andrew Fisher’s explanation of the distinguishing factors between soundscapes that are made for commercial enjoyment, or relaxation, and those that are made for artistic purposes, or “serious listening,” which lends itself to the school of thought from which John Cage comes. Much in the way that Cage’s ‘4:33’ forces the listener to hear their surroundings as the music, rather than what is seen as traditional, or western music, David Dunn intends to capture soundscapes as they are, and to encourage a feeling of a deeper connection to the world for the listener. When reading this, one might think of the cliche ‘nature sounds’ recordings, found in the relaxation, or meditation section of book store, that happens to sell CDs. This is not the case, as Dunn intends to record every sound, from that of impending thunder, raucous people, and noisy traffic, to those of babbling water, leaves rustling, and ocean waves caressing a shoreline.
Still comparing Dunn and Cage, Ingram continues, pointing out their inherent differences in depiction of sound. Cage thinks of the sounds in his work as, ‘without meaning, or extraneous purpose, other than being itself’ while Dunn wants the listener to project connotations provided from their own life experiences onto the sounds presented in his recordings. This being said, Dunn wants listeners to think about nature, and our impedance, (or lack thereof) on it, which Ingram states, “serious listening involves a framework of interpretation derived from the holistic systems theory of the British anthropologist Gregory Bateson,” who, after explaining that all living organisms exist in a, ‘system,’ or, ’mind,’ completely capable of it’s own actions and thoughts, he goes on to quote:
“[if] you arrogate all mind to yourself, you will see the world around you as mindless and therefore not entitled to moral and ethical consideration. The environment will seem to be yours to exploit. Your survival unit will be you and your folks or conspecifics against the environment of other social units, other races and the brutes and vegetables.”
Ingram explains that Dunn processes this into his belief that humans have alienated ourselves from the natural world with the overwhelming dominance of sight as a primary sense, with hopes that ‘serious listening’ will undo some of the damage that has been done.
With this in mind, the author speaks about Dunn’s recording, ‘Besa Village, Zimbabwe: Night Sounds’ on the album Why Do Whales and Children Sing? Which is a recording of just that: night sound in a Zimbabwean village community. When reading the liner notes for this track, the listener sees that Dunn edited out the sound of passing traffic in the distance, and that, “‘The length of this example is just about the average time between passing vehicles.” This is a clear romanticisation of old Zimbabwean life, dissociated from that of western culture and technology, which is pertinent because Dunn has compared the soundscapes similar to this to have a perfect balance of forces, both natural, influenced by humans. Ingram further questions Dunn’s idea of auditory balance, by pointing out that it’s been processed, through the cacophony of recording techniques and nuances which need to be performed for a recording to be properly produced.
On the subject, Ingram determines that, “Dunn’s attitude to modern, industrial technology becomes clear in […] ‘Chimayo, New Mexico: Frogs, Insects, and Traffic’, recorded in Dunn’s own backyard,” describing the track as being comprised entirely of insect noises, occasionally interrupted by the auditory grace that frogs embody, until the very end, where a neighbor presumably starts a car, specifically described in his notes, as, “an ornately painted, ‘lowrider’ car,” dismissing it in his notes as a disruptive force to the calm presented prior. The author continues, exploring Dunn’s possible opinions of various machines, implying that if he finds the noise it makes to be ‘aesthetically displeasing’ it is then, a bad machine, whereas the example of bicycles is brought up, with Dunn showing a higher appreciation for them, for their “delicate” sonorous qualities.
To contrast his obvious thoughts on modernity, several of the proceeding tracks are recordings of a pier arcade in Santa Monica. The tracks are filled with noises one might expect in an arcade, which differ intensely from those of the previous recordings. Dunn writes:
“In contrast […] this free-for-all of video games, pinball machines, and street commotion sounds as if hardly any component is listening to another. What emerges from this uniquely human aggregate of noise-making, are sonic patterns […] without apparent integration. However, despite the negative sentiments that I’m expressing, I must admit that I made this recording because of the pure exhilaration that these sounds evoke.”
As Dunn ends his album with the folk music of another Zimbabwean community, so too does Ingram end his article, exploring the discontinuities of Dunn’s work, by pointing out his description of the music, which clearly romanticizes further the deficit of westernization in the area.
To paraphrase David Ingram, phonographers, like David Dunn, are similar to photographers, in that they both preserve, “what was” or, “has been,” not to provide an accurate experience of the subject, but to bring to the attention of an audience these “sonic marginalities” to be remembered, and appreciated through the lens of modernity to hopefully enrich the human experience.