The Language of Sounds

 

The checkout lanes at Target are always loud. I dread them. Every time my walkie emits that flurry of static, followed by those words: “who is available for backup?” I sigh. 

“I can come up,” I throw back through the walkie. I abandon the table of sweaters I was folding. My white sneakers glide silently across the red speckled tiles as I ascend toward the front of the store. Toward the lanes. Toward the noise.

It is loud from the influx of people chatting, grabbing carts, hanging around. The volume increases from the woosh of the doors that suction together in sync to the rhythm of guests petering in and out. More noise emits from the machines themselves—whirling conveyor belts, clattering keys, and a thick layer of beeps and erps. I find a lane to open then I, too, join in—the clattering of my keys meshes into the procession. Click, clack, click.

“I can help who’s next!” I call to no one in particular.

A guest rolls their cart up to the lane (squeak!), mumbles some form of “hello,” and hands me their first item. I wave it over the scanner.

And then: Beep!

A staccato, satisfying beep resounds. It is moderately low in pitch, but quick to the attack. I continue scanning, the sound as my guide. Beep! Muscle memory takes over. Grab the item. Over the scanner. A red flash. Beep!

Again. Beep!

Again. Beep!

Again. Beep!

And after the guest has paid, a new sound emits from the card reader: a quick double low gurgle, bwamp-bwamp! It is extremely unpleasant. If translated to English, surely the sound would mean “error,” or “danger,” or “cannot compute.” Every guest that hears this noise looks down in alarm. Their expressions are frantic. Has something gone wrong? Has my card not been accepted? Their eyes narrow on the source of the sound. In big, blinking letters, the screen reads: PLEASE REMOVE CARD. The guest yanks their card out with unnecessary force. (I suspect as spiteful payback for their confusion.)

The response that people have to the bwamp-bwamp!—the wide-eyed glare, the tiny jump back —is not a reaction of surprise to the emission of a sound, but rather, to this sound’s specific quality. The guttural texture, the low pitch, the quick repetition—everything about this little bwamp-bwamp! is wrong for the event it indicates.

Ultimately the bwamp-bwamp! does accomplish its goal. For the most part, guests do eventually remove their cards from the card reader (occasionally prompted by an “Oh, actually Sir, you can take your card out now”), grab their bags, and trudge their cart away. However the level of dissonance is highly unnecessary. A different sound, one that was more coherent with the action, would certainly omit this strange moment of confusion that I encounter with every transaction. However, despite my complaints, I do not desire for the bwamp-bwamp! to be changed. This short moment at the card reader intrigues me. It causes me to pause.

I have uncovered two main reasons for my intrigue—a) because in its wrongness, in its dissonance, the design of the bwamp-bwamp! sound is suddenly revealed to us. We are able to see it so plainly; it becomes distinctively noticeable. And b) every guest that rolls through the lanes at Target has nearly an identical reaction—every guest comes to a full stop. The bwamp-bwamp! receives a collective, universal response.

(Fueti). 

(Fueti). 

 

This special case of the bwamp-bwamp! stands out to me, specifically because in the digital age, sounds that correspond to actions are entirely commonplace. This was not always the case. In the 1920s, when NBC added three chimes (boum, biiing, binnn) to the beginning of their broadcast, the idea of a sound relating to an action was somewhat cutting edge (Mars). Other sounds over the past century have proved iconic; however, by the year 2017, sounds have become more far more numerous, and in turn, far less specific. (Trademarked sounds are difficult to approve; only about one hundred trademarked sounds exist.) I hear these generic types of sounds—these beeps, these rings, these bloops all the time. Undoubtedly, these sounds are further ingrained into my daily life the more I use digital devices. Not unlike Target’s card reader, these sounds are used to convey specific information—they mark events, actions, and processes. A text message arrives with a zzzz. An email sends with a blurup. Transaction accepted. Press one for more options. Download complete. Breaking news. Door ajar. Bing. Eerup. Booboop. Dunnn-dun. Iiiinng-iing.

In my art practice, I explore these types of artificial response sounds, along with sounds associated with artifice in general, such as mechanized sounds (e.g., machines, generators, computers). I create compositions of both sound and images. In some works, the images are more straightforward: machines, metal textures, repetitive linear patterns. In others, I opt for less literal imagery: abstract and weird, untraceable scenes. 

My process starts with the creation of a sound and image inventory that I can pull from when I enter the construction phase. And so, equipped with my Zoom H4n recorder, a stash of memory cards, and a pair of big, over-ear headphones, I head out. I look to gather a range of sounds that I know will work well in the layered setting that most of my work inhabits. A variety of qualities in the sounds appeal to me; I record some low, some high, some in between. Some rumbling, static sounds. Some high, vibrating sounds. I pay attention to the different rhythms that feed through my headphones. I want some steady. I want some erratic. My favorite sounds are seemingly untraceable—they are so odd, so unconnected to an object that even I eventually will forget what they are or where they came from. My radiator makes one of these sounds; it is wonderful—a spluttering, hissing sound that clicks and clacks and rrrrrrs and sounds both natural and mechanical at the same time. It begs the question: “what is that?” and furthermore, “what does it mean?”

My intention within the work often lacks any outright conclusion or meaning. I combine the sounds and images I gather in an interesting, sometimes unexpected way, and it is this combination that becomes the meaning. Rather, the very act of the combination is what the work is about. The process—the layering—is the most vital part. I showcase the medium in my work; these pieces must be sound and video. They are presented to the viewer, and then experimented upon. I twist and bend. I distort and damage. In the end, the product reflects an experience only possible with video and sound.

Often, I will assign an image or set of images a sound and repeat it throughout the piece. The combinations may or may not be coherent. I find a theme in the batch of my recordings and let that determine the piece’s direction. In switch, the siding of a building always appears on screen with the sharp sound of my index finger tugging down a strip of vertical blinds. (Click clickclick clickclickclickclick.) The building chugs past you like a conveyor belt. 

In another piece, one by five, the images are projected onto concrete blocks stacked five high, spaced by wooden slats. The sound that accompanies this piece, which can be summarized as low zzzzzzs and errrrrrrs, mixes with distant, far-off voices—a sound bite of JFK’s space exploration stump speech, a modulated countdown, a faint voice speaking “Houston to Discovery,” among a few others. Periodically, a sharp, loud, jittering sound—bitittiti—disrupts the piece and highlights the fragmentation of the sounds. The piece in its entirety, with the overlaps and collisions of sound, emulates a machine whirring to life as it tests its functions and stretches its capabilities. Within the duration, some of the five “monitors” cut out. Their images are reduced to static—taking their sounds, the zzzzzzs and errrrrrrs, with them.

In speaking and writing about my work, I always found it hard to explain what these sounds mean, why I chose them, or what they add to the meaning of my pieces. I was unable to communicate anything more than that these sounds added interest, added tension, added complexity and layers. The sounds were nothing more than abstractions and testaments to my editing abilities. In my misunderstanding (and modest downplay) of my own intentions, I defaulted to a standard, easy answer: these sounds provided interesting textures—they were a supplementary soundtrack to correspond to the visual experience, which I believed was the main focus of the piece. In short, I claimed these sounds were meaningless under the guise of their abstractness.

However, that explanation is too simple. I find, now, in retrospect, that I can easily disprove it: to group all of those sounds as “abstract” and “textural” is to directly contradict the way that the sounds reference specific events, actions, and processes. The sounds are innately references; they trigger memories, experiences, and reactions that are entirely concrete. A phone ringing, a light switch clicking, a dial tone. When I hear those sounds, it conjures up an image of its action. It conjures that sensation; the sound becomes tangible in this way. I can feel the plastic phone against my face. I know the amount of resistance a light switch gives as my fingers push it down.

When we hear these sounds—these beeps, these rings, these bloops—they tell us something. And when these sounds tell us something, we not only hear it, but we understand it. The sounds partially depend on our awareness of our surroundings and on our brain’s abilities to make inferences and associations in order to communicate their meaning. But there’s also something independent at work here—a learned behavior, a language that we have picked up on over the years of interacting with machines, computers, and other technologies. Artificial sounds—the whole lot of them, the bings, eerups, booboops, dunnn-duns, iiiinng-iings, even the bwamp-bwamp!s—are words from a language, specifically designed to tell us something about what has just happened, what is about to happen, or what should happen next.

The more I think about Target, the more I think about that tiny bwamp-bwamp! that tacks on an extra twenty seconds to each transaction, the more I think that maybe that is why I use digital sounds. I use the bings, eerups, and booboops to tap into this language of the digital age and communicate something unspoken, something that does not have a direct translation. As a general rule, we’ve moved beyond using actual language as sound—AOL’s alert sound from the early 2000s, “You’ve got mail!” seems archaic to us now. It is too long. Too complicated. A simple beep now substitutes those words. In essence, sounds have become shorthand for the information we need to convey or receive.

Evidence of this conclusion is found in switch; as the images slide into place, there is a click. They blur out. Click. They refocus. Click. The actions on screen have a satisfying sound in response. These sounds are not just textural additions; these clicks have very specific associations. In this piece, they represent the sound of the ON/OFF function. They stand in for different settings, different gears. Clicks mean something is changing. The short rectangle masks of images flicker across the screen to the sound of click click click click.

Before I fully recognized this language, I used to categorize my work as collage. To me, this categorization carried a negative, trivial connotation—my pieces were somehow only spontaneous and only disjointed and only abstract. However when I consider the sounds I use as a language and as a specific meaning—then, the opposite becomes true. These pieces exhibit not spontaneity, but instead, a heightened sense of control. Spontaneity would include raw recordings, serendipitous happenings; in contrast, I select these sounds. I choose them. I clip, modulate, and mix them. I determine the order. The pace. The timing. The rhythm. And in turn, I am not composing the accompaniment, but rather, writing the transcript to correspond to the visual.

However, my pieces are not about what exactly this transcript might say—just that it says something at all. My work proves that there is language inherent in sound, and more than that—we are able to understand it. All of the resolution and tension within my work lies in the connect and disconnect between the sound and its corresponding imagery. In essence, I am utilizing the bwamp-bwamp! effect—the tension arises when the correspondence fails. Like the bwamp-bwamp!, the power of sound—the language of sound—is suddenly revealed to the viewer in its wrongness, in its dissonance. My work highlights that we only recognize our fluency in the language of sound when it fails us.

 

 

Notes

Fueti, Norm. “Chip Readers.” Retail. 2016

Mars, Roman. “NBC Chimes: Behind the Scenes with the First Trademarked Sound.” 99% Invisible. 2016.