Books

'Acoustic Territories': Sound and Sense Become Indistinguishable

Acoustic Territories argues that sound, far from being merely something that takes place in, occupies, or evokes space, is inherently spatial and determines our very sense of locatedness.


Acoustic Territories: Sound Culture and Everyday Life

Publisher: Continuum
Length: 304 pages
Author: Brandon LaBelle
Price: $24.95
Format: Paperback
Publication date: 2010-04
Amazon

Two of the problems encountered when dealing with space are knowing where to start and where to finish. How do we begin to delineate space? How do we bound it? As numerous philosophers and cultural geographers have found, spatial nominalization and delimitation, the naming and taming of space, are more geared towards describing place and places. Where places have names and seemingly fixed borders, space is blurred and unknowable. Even so, it is always thinkable, always a condition of our being in the world.

As we move through space or reflect on it, there remains a constant desire to divide it into other spaces. The French writer Georges Perec caught this desire briefly and beautifully in his essay "Species of Spaces", gradually zooming out from the space of the page on which he was writing (and his readers reading) to the desk, the room, the house, and so on until he imagined himself floating in space, looking back at Earth. All the time, of course, the writer never really left the scene of writing, nor the reader the scene of reading.

Many French writers and thinkers are mentioned in Brandon LaBelle's Acoustic Territories, though Perec is not among them. LaBelle seems in thrall to a similar taxonomy of space, however, as he organizes his book via chapters entitled "Underground", "Home", "Sidewalk", "Street", "Shopping Mall", and "Sky". Given the spatial range and the number of real and imagined sites visited, it's difficult to describe all the trajectories this book wishes to examine or set in motion. Essentially, though, LaBelle is concerned with the interrelation of a variety of sonic spaces and with the ways in which sound is not merely something that occupies space, but rather one of the main ways in which space is constituted and, in turn, constitutes its occupants.

Numerous theorists of space populate the corridors, freeways, and occasional labyrinths of LaBelle's pages: Henri Lefebvre with his ideas on everyday life, rhythmanalysis, and the production of space; Michel de Certeau on everyday life and walking in the city; Gaston Bachelard and his poetics of space; the Situationist International and its notions of psychogeography and the détournement of public space. This population of LaBelle's text with so many names and ideas is both a pleasure and a frustration. For a theoryhead, it is fascinating to follow the connections LaBelle makes and to perhaps add their own. Those less inclined to such speculative explorations may well be annoyed with this work.

Acoustic Territories is not a book about music as such, though there are passing mentions of Brian Eno's ambient music and Erik Satie's "furniture music", and interesting musical juxtapositions, such as a comparison between the contemporaneous work of experimental composer Pierre Schaefer and bandleader Ray Conniff in the 1950s. Rather, this is a book about sound, noise, and the acoustic.

LaBelle's tour takes us from the resonant tunnels of the subway, with its buskers and subterranean echoes, up to the noises of the city street, and out to the sonic politics of the suburbs where neighbors bicker about noise levels and sound refuses to be domesticated. LaBelle also takes us into the soundspace of the car and to the Muzak-filled non-places of the shopping mall and airport. Here, as in Joseph Lanza's book Elevator Music, the focus is on the use of sound to modulate mood and stimulate particular modes of behavior. The "Sky" chapter, meanwhile, sets its sights on the transmission of sound through airwaves and networks, with the concomitant intermingling of local and global spaces.

It's often difficult to get a handle on LaBelle's text. This is not so much due to the theories that the author draws upon as it is his occasional inability to communicate them and his tendency to follow connections to almost breaking point. The connection between underground railway systems and underground music scenes, for example, just about holds together but it is mainly due to fancy linguistic play that further complicates some already rather convoluted points.

LaBelle certainly doesn't have the communicative ease that David Toop, for example, has brought to his ruminations on noise and silence in his books Haunted Weather and Sinister Resonance, nor does his prose have the readability or quotability of Certeau. LaBelle shares the complexity of many of the poststructuralist authors whose theories he draws upon while lacking their poetic flare.

Chapter 2, entitled "Home", is a case in point. It's very difficult to follow the connections between domestic space as imagined so eloquently by Gaston Bachelard, the use of silence to discipline prisoners (Michel Foucault is brought in to help here), and the danger of noise as theorized by Michel Serres. The difficulty is compounded, here and through much of the book, by certain over-used rhetorical tics and occasionally dubious word grammar. That said, LaBelle just about pulls it off and manages, at the end of the chapter, to draw a number of strands together to make a compelling argument about acoustic violence and the ethics of noise.

Chapter 3 provides a smoother read, perhaps due to this part of the book having already been through the editorial mill in preparation for a previous publication. Or perhaps it's due to a gradual acclimatization to the author's style such that one allows oneself to be territorialized, or interpellated, or becalmed, or whatever, by the somewhat condensed style. There may be a case of recognizing one's own weakness here, for I write as someone whose own theoretical work has been labeled as condensed and abstract and who, like LaBelle, has a tendency to back up personal, phenomenological observation with an enormous cast of over-quoted theorists. Perhaps it just takes one to know one.

Yet I also write as someone who, reading this book in the middle of a sleepless night while torrential rain splashed against the roof and windows and dripped an uncanny cacophony onto an upturned bucket in the garden outside, felt that its author was on to something very important. One of the most important things that Acoustic Territories insists upon is that, far from being merely something that takes place in, occupies, or evokes space, sound is inherently spatial and determines to an often unacknowledged extent our very sense of locatedness. Sound and sense become indistinguishable.

If LaBelle has not been completely successful at taking the reader with him as he zooms in and out of his species of spaces, it is quite probable that a smooth negotiation of these sites is neither possible nor desirable. The agonism performed by this rather strangulated text is perhaps indicative of the difficulties of bounding space. The fantasy of a smooth drift between coterminous sites or the possibility to switch from one site to another at the speed of thought (or at least the speed of telecommunication) remains, for now, the realm of cyberfiction.

The difficulty of dealing with space is reinforced at the end of the book when it closes seemingly midway through an argument and, against established scholarly practice, with a quotation. It is as if there is no way to conclude a discussion of space, no possibility to box or bound it. We can only provisionally pin it down, take a reading or sounding, and move on.

6

Music

Books

Film

Recent
Books

'World War 3 Illustrated #51: The World We Are Fighting For'

World War 3 Illustrated #51 displays an eclectic range of artists united in their call to save democracy from rising fascism.

Music

Tiphanie Doucet's "You and I" Is an Exercise in Pastoral Poignancy (premiere)

French singer-songwriter Tiphanie Doucet gives a glimpse of her upcoming EP, Painted Blue, via the sublimely sentimental ode, "You and I".

Music

PM Picks Playlist 3: WEIRDO, Psychobuildings, Lili Pistorius

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of WEIRDO, Brooklyn chillwavers Psychobuildings, the clever alt-pop of Lili Pistorius, visceral post-punk from Sapphire Blues, Team Solo's ska-pop confection, and dubby beats from Ink Project.

By the Book

The Story of Life in 10 1/2 Species (excerpt)

If an alien visitor were to collect ten souvenir life forms to represent life on earth, which would they be? This excerpt of Marianne Taylor's The Story of Life in 10 and a Half Species explores in text and photos the tiny but powerful earthling, the virus.

Marianne Taylor
Film

Exploitation Shenanigans 'Test Tube Babies' and 'Guilty Parents' Contend with the Aftermath

As with so many of these movies about daughters who go astray, Test Tube Babies blames the uptight mothers who never told them about S-E-X. Meanwhile, Guilty Parents exploits poor impulse control and chorus girls showing their underwear.

Music

Deftones Pull a Late-Career Rabbit Out of a Hat with 'Ohms'

Twenty years removed from Deftones' debut album, the iconic alt-metal outfit gel more than ever and discover their poise on Ohms.

Music

Arcade Fire's Will Butler Personalizes History on 'Generations'

Arcade Fire's Will Butler creates bouncy, infectious rhythms and covers them with socially responsible, cerebral lyrics about American life past and present on Generations.

Music

Thelonious Monk's Recently Unearthed 'Palo Alto' Is a Stellar Posthumous Live Set

With a backstory as exhilarating as the music itself, a Thelonious Monk concert recorded at a California high school in 1968 is a rare treat for jazz fans.

Music

Jonnine's 'Blue Hills' Is an Intimate Collection of Half-Awake Pop Songs

What sets experimental pop's Jonnine apart on Blue Hills is her attention to detail, her poetic lyricism, and the indelibly personal touch her sound bears.

Music

Renegade Connection's Gary Asquith Indulges in Creative Tension

From Renegade Soundwave to Renegade Connection, electronic legend Gary Asquith talks about how he continues to produce infectiously innovative music.

Film

What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .

Music

A Certain Ratio Return with a Message of Hope on 'ACR Loco'

Inspired by 2019's career-spanning box set, legendary Manchester post-punkers A Certain Ratio return with their first new album in 12 years, ACR Loco.

Books

Oscar Hijuelos' 'Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love' Dances On

Oscar Hijuelos' dizzyingly ambitious foot-tapping family epic, Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love, opened the door for Latinx writers to tell their stories in all their richness.

Music

PM Picks Playlist 2: Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES, SOUNDQ

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES' stunning dream folk, Polish producer SOUNDQ, the indie pop of Pylon Heights, a timely message from Exit Kid, and Natalie McCool's latest alt-pop banger.

Film

'Lost Girls and Love Hotels' and Finding Comfort in Sadness

William Olsson's Lost Girls and Love Hotels finds optimism in its message that life tears us apart and puts us back together again differently.

Music

Bright Eyes' 'Down in the Weeds' Is a Return to Form and a Statement of Hope

Bright Eyes may not technically be emo, but they are transcendently expressive, beatifically melancholic. Down in the Weeds is just the statement of grounding that we need as a respite from the churning chaos around us.

Film

Audrey Hepburn + Rome = Grace, Class, and Beauty

William Wyler's Roman Holiday crosses the postcard genre with a hardy trope: Old World royalty seeks escape from stuffy, ritual-bound, lives for a fling with the modern world, especially with Americans.

Music

Colombia's Simón Mejía Plugs Into the Natural World on 'Mirla'

Bomba Estéreo founder Simón Mejía electrifies nature for a different kind of jungle music on his debut solo album, Mirla.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.