of Sounds and Soundscapes
Before investigating border identity and its relation to sounds, and to begin our exploration into how sounds came to be neglected, a brief historical account of soundscapes can help us understand why we lack a disposition for ear culture. Greg Goodale (2011) stated that our captivation by visual culture dates at least to Plato. The legacy of visual culture is maintained by the way scientists think and through the age of print: privileging the visual and denying the auditory and other senses. For Goodale, even humanities scholars succumb to “scholarly conventions that are deeply rooted in science and thus wed to observation and the shackles of visual evidence. Because the voice is ephemeral and fleeting, it cannot be made to fit into the scholarly scientific model that even scholars in the humanities must obey” (p. x). Even at the level of everyday language, the metaphors we use to describe our thinking, such as unveiling, illuminating, seeing, icon, gaze, and lens are connected to the visual.
For centuries, the historical records of humanity tell us that the first manifestations of sound were based on pictorial representations through primitive visual systems that attempted to express a “sound situation.” Although the primary way of communicating and transmitting sounds has been through the visual, our ancestors searched for a way to perpetuate the sounds of their culture using the technology of their time. For example, prior to the written tradition, music was transmitted orally. People imitated sounds and music was passed on from generation to generation. Cave paintings dating back to 40,000 BC show the relationship between music and humans (Figures 1, 2, and 3).
Steven Mithen (2005) proposed that expressions through dance, song, and rituals manifest that music and language have a common origin: communicating. Mithen gave us a basis to understand for how long humanity has used music as well as the emotional effect of sounds carried through songs and dances that remain to this day in cave paintings. A recent hypothesis about cave art located in deeper, remote parts of caves posited that those spaces were selected as “acoustic ‘hot spots’” where drawings were meant to be read or communicated with real-time sound (Miyagawa et al., 2018, p. 1). Similarly, when humans deemed it necessary to transmit musical sounds, the language of music originated.
We can infer, then, that the need to communicate goes hand in hand with the use of some kind of technology that helps us carry a message in the form of sounds so that a listener may interpret it. In this sense, the need to evolve technologically has always been as imminent. Yet sound preservation did not become possible until the late 19th century. Since the time of cave paintings, humanity has traversed four significant sound recording periods: the acoustic or mechanical era (1877–1925), the electric era (1925–1945), the magnetic era (1945–1975), and the digital era (1975–present day) (Hill, 2020). Ironically, in the quest to preserve and transmit sound, images have prevailed. Take, for example, the phonautograph of French inventor Leon Scott, a device created in 1857 that captures sound vibrations and converts them into a cylinder, similar to the waveforms we know today. For 150 years it was believed that phonautograph sound waves could not be heard. In 2008 we learned that it was possible to hear phonautograph sound waves (Rosen, 2008), but even so, for years the image of the phonautograph circulated more prominently than its sound. In this sense, is it possible that our fascination with the visual is not for the sake of images themselves, but rather is a consequence of our quest to preserve sound, at least to an extent?
For Michel Chion (1994), visual perception and auditory perception differed based on two important characteristics: motion and stasis. In other words, sounds are always fleeting, always ephemeral. Still, the visual and the auditory constantly influence each other; that is, they blend into the audiovisual. In that sense, perhaps Goodale would not simply seek to overcome the legacy of the visual—dominant for centuries—but, rather, find that axiologically both perceptions complement each other. Further, since the visual is overdeveloped and the auditory underdeveloped, our task as sound scholars is to identify tools whereby we can (1) become aware of and (2) develop an ear culture. For this reason, in our case, everything begins with a specific study, the border between Ciudad Juárez and El Paso. Much has been written about this territory, but have we really listened to the border? Have we opened our ears to it? This “other way” of investigating the border, starting from the particular case of Paso del Norte Region, seeks to examine the particular (sound) in order to understand in a general way how identity is constituted. Although we know that it will take time to reach a definitive conclusion, if indeed one is warranted, through the Border Soundscapes Project as a “beta phase” initiative, we begin to see the expansion that turning to ear culture offers to the articulation and understanding of a community. With this in mind, to become aware and develop an ear culture, in Sections 4 and 5 of this webtext, we gave ourselves to the task to create a conceptual framework as well as to identify digital audio tools to analyze sound. With the support of a logbook for field recordings and Google Maps to determine our GPS location, we map the border acoustic ecology, then we experiment with the results and create a juxtaposition of both tools. In a few words, we create visual systems to express our “sound situation” in the border.
The Border Soundscapes Project