All Aboard the Soundscape Express!

Watha T. Daniel/Shaw Library

All Aboard the Soundscape Express!

Sometimes while watching a film with great music, I think, "Wow, I don’t even need the dialogue—I can tell what’s going on just by the music."

Well-written scores and relevant songs help guide the viewer from scene to scene, and establish timing and tone. A brilliant soundtrack—Star Wars (John Williams), Glory (James Horner), Last of the Mohicans (Trevor Jones and Randy Edelman), and Braveheart (James Horner) come to mind—amplifies and hints at the emotions inexpressible through dialogue and photography.

“This is where Yoda teaches Luke telekinesis!” I’ve said, while listening to John Williams’ masterpiece soundtrack for The Empire Strikes Back. As a kid I would tune the television to a movie channel, turning the volume all the way down, and play records to fill the sonic space.

For example, if you play the disco version of Star Wars songs on top of General Hospital, you get instant comedy! These “actors” and “actresses” were taking part in performance art, lampooning themselves without even knowing it. Sometimes other records actually fit the mood of a scene; sometimes the mismatch was comical, but somehow it always worked. I guess it’s easier to create fantasy worlds as children, but even as adults our minds insist on connecting the sound and the image. If the association is not obvious, then we create one. Adaptable creatures, we humans.
“If you’re under 90, chances are you’ve spent most of your life listening to electronic music. The experience that used to be called music up until the 1920s—listening to someone sing or play a musical instrument live and unamplified—actually forms an increasingly minor percentage of our listening experiences now, Instead, we listen to records, or we listen to the radio.”
—Brian Eno*
Growing up in a town as small as mine meant access to, in today’s terms, a very limited variety of music. We had the classic rock station, NPR, the oldies station, and the station that only played heavy metal. You had to just pick a genre and hope they would play a few bands you liked. This was a mixture of suffering and relief, because you had no option but to sit through the other songs, no matter how unappealing they were. Depending on the mood of the DJ, you might get lucky and hear a couple of good songs per hour. If we were out in the car sometimes, we could get something more hip coming out of nearby Ithaca. I know I’m picky, but try imagining your favorite television show with twice as many commercials. It would take twice as long and you’d be twice as brainwashed. Unacceptable! Ahem…

As a baby, the only thing that could stop my crying was when mom put the adult-sized headphones on my infant-sized head and blasted "Macho Man" by The Village People.

The…Village…People—as a teenage musician it burned my tongue to say those three words. This is because, as a kid, I witnessed and became caught up in a phenomenon in electronics that would change the world, and my life: the portable audio player.
"If it keeps up, man will atrophy all his limbs but the push-button finger."
—Frank Lloyd Wright*
The first prototype for such a device was made for a rich Sony executive in 1978, so he could listen to opera on long flights. He was so impressed that he took the idea to Sony, and the rest was history. The Walkman became commercially available in 1980 but was not affordable until the mid-eighties, when it exploded in popularity. This unwittingly launched a social trend that continues today (its mighty descendant, the iPod, would amplify the cultural waves made by the Walkman, but the social shift started with the Walkman).

Suddenly it seemed like everyone everywhere was strapped into the personal audio universe. Unlike the limits that radio imposed, anyone with a Walkman could essentially create soundtracks for silent, uninteresting parts of their lives, tailoring them to fit and enhance their moods. A walk to work could become a symphonic event (musicologist Iain Chambers calls this the Aural Walk). We started scoring our own personal movies, creating what producer/non-musician/musician Brian Eno called soundscapes. Sony helped us to return to our childlike fantasy worlds, the perfect escape just when we Cold War kids/Gen-X’ers needed the distraction most. Portable audio systems had truly created an imaginary audio universe—cassette sales soared.
"Technological progress has merely provided us with more efficient means for going backwards."
—Aldous Huxley*
By nature, the aural walk is a profoundly private experience. Like a sonic version of dark sunglasses, it tends to force listeners to deemphasize their physical environment, to disengage from fellow humans on the street—mere extras in the listener's own film, not fellow actors in a shared movie. This takes on an even more sinister hue when you look at electronics that seem bent on blocking out the external world. I recently upgraded from a great pair of normal Bose headphones to a pair of Bose noise-canceling headphones. I say upgraded, but I am still evaluating this on personal and social levels. I think it largely depends on how you use your device.

Some city-dwellers attempt to fill the perceived (I believe this to be imaginary) emptiness of metropolitan life with an ever-changing cornucopia of external stimuli. This is a lonely path Gen-X has blazed with help from the Sony Walkman and now the iPod. However, I see value in using music as medicine to improve mood and escape pain, as long as it's not expected to do all the work. When taken too far, it can be a little like over-applying makeup to a permanently ugly face. At some point you need to embrace what's real and be willing to live with it in silence.

If walking around feels truly meaningless, even the most beautiful sounds can only fill so much space. I see the seas of young people plugged-in and tuned-out, and I choose to believe they are probably just a bunch of people who love music. Some people are urban nomads at heart, having taken the aural walk and melded it with their lives, creating a sort of art form that explores endless combinations of music and surroundings. Along the way these folks inadvertently internalize certain laws of aesthetics and probably enter a meditative, healing musical state. Whether you think of it as wandering a musically-enhanced landscape or navigating a visually-enhanced soundscape, in the end the aural walk helps us to feel like ourselves, even to become ourselves. Maybe it's a little sick, but for better or worse technology has helped bring us back to our fantasy lands. Please enjoy responsibly.


Suggested Listening: