Life Unseen is a 70 minute radiophonic soundscape composition created with Alex Bulmer in 1996-97.
Listen to a mp3 version at: eContact, Canadian Electroacoustic Community, issue 2.3.
Over its seventy-minute duration, the work explores the subject of blindness from a variety of reference points. First of all, there is a tapestry of personal perspectives pulled together from interviews made in Vancouver, Canada during April of 1996: men and women of various ages with different experiences of blindness. Secondly, there is the leading voice of the writer-actress Alex Bulmer from Toronto, Canada who describes her gradual progression over ten years from being sighted to becoming legally blind. Finally, there is a mélange of styles and techniques blended from the recipe books of radio producers and electroacoustic composers by Darren Copeland: documentary commentary, storytelling, poetic monologue, acousmatic music, and soundscape composition.
The written commentary provides a scene by scene breakdown of Life Unseen. It also discusses two of the work’s central issues: the absence of blind people from the production and discourse of acousmatic art; the interdisciplinary nature of Life Unseen and the fluid interplay between realism and artifice that the work engages in.
Scene Breakdown for Life Unseen
Life Unseen is divided into two parts that are in turn broken up into individual scenes. The term ‘scene’ is used here in place of the term movement to denote the fact that the musical composition is embedded inside a dramatic framework. Also, it is used because the words of the text are themselves embedded in a sonic environment, which transforms according to developments that are either musical, physical (i.e., natural to an environmental sound recording), or dramaturgical. Thus, each scene can develop according to musical and dramatic choices, as well as environmental actualities contained in the soundscape recordings that lie at its acoustic foundation.
Part One (31:42)
The central issue in Part One is the importance of favouring vision over other forms of sensory input. Is losing vision the only means to exploring many uncharted realms of the senses? Conversely, is the loss of vision a loss of personal freedom? Perhaps it is a loss that should be mourned. On the other hand, it might be a bridge to a completely different path of discovery.
1. Introduction (12:11)
The problem of defining ‘legal’ blindness is presented right at the outset, as vision loss can take on many more forms than the common lay person would imagine. The scene also moves inside the psychological experience of blindness by examining how blindness upends basic concepts and functions easily taken for granted, such as the perception of time and space or the simple tasks of eating, walking, dreaming, and socializing.
2. Awareness of Space (2:45)
In this scene, the argument that blind people are at a disadvantage when it comes to orienting themselves around an environment is outlined and challenged.
3. Recharting the Senses (5:43)
Essentially, this scene does exactly what the title says. It reverses the sensory hierarchy prevalent in western society, and highlights the many intricacies of detail available to the other senses, particularly the sense of hearing.
4. Elegy (5:11)
Elegy was written in memory of those experiences that are no longer accessible to Alex Bulmer after she had lost her vision. The many plays of light, shape, and nuance that the eyes once consumed are recollected and cherished.
5. Listening in Place of Seeing (5:55)
This scene builds upon the premise of the third by focusing on the heightened listening of blind people. The ears like the eyes can reach out and collect the subtlest of clues about the people, things, and places that encircle the blind listener.
Part Two (38:28)
Part Two focuses on the social dimension of blind people’s experiences. It investigates how their particular needs are thwarted and challenged by a society revolving around a visual focus. Life Unseen concludes with the observation that a person losing his or her sight is not taking on a disability, but rather, gaining a new social perspective.
6. Vulnerability (5:58)
Two threads run side by side in this scene. The first is a conversation about the feelings of vulnerability brought on by the use of low vision aids in the social environment. The second is Alex Bulmer’s description of sitting down on a leather chair in a cafe, the process of which is tainted with difficulties as she attempts to conceal her blindness from the people around her.
7. Insensitivity (8:05)
In this scene we take a trip through a shopping mall and other public environments. Along the way we encounter the gulf that exists between sighted people’s attitudes and blind people’s needs.
8. Disrespect (5:28)
Blind people must trust the people around them a great deal more than sighted people. However, instances do occur when this trust is let down by an insensitive or greedy sighted person. Two instances are related and dramatized that are based on riding in a cab.
9. Social Interactions (5:47)
Most people find loud environments anti-social. For blind people, noisy environments are utterly paralyzing and constitute a kind of absolute darkness. In quiet social environments, however, the blind person’s perception of detail is far more sensitive than that of sighted people. In conversations, for instance, the blind person can pick up truths which speakers do not wish to disclose by tuning into voice qualities and general moods.
10. Conclusion (13:10)
The final scene brings together all of the key soundscapes and sound events before returning to Alex Bulmer. She reflects first on her experiences in Toronto, where she struggles with a fast paced sighted lifestyle. Then she reviews the trip to Vancouver, and marvels at how the activities in a day can be planned to accommodate blind people. Her Vancouver experiences provide hope that the special attributes and needs of blind people can add up to forming the building blocks of a unique culture.
The Untapped Insight of Blind People
The blind community perceives details of life that sighted people can not easily access. In my experience, I find that seeing restrains the degree to which I can tune in my listening to the sounds of my common everyday environment. I never have to find a doorway by listening to the changes in footsteps as they disappear down the corridor. Nor do I have to pay attention to changes in acoustic reflections or air temperature as I pass from one corridor to the next. Therefore, my non-visual senses miss many subtle nuances of my environment, simply because my vision supplies me with everything that I need to know in order to travel safely down the corridor.
The aural orientation of blind people shows that there is more to sensitive listening than hunting for the fleeting traces of musicality existing in the sonic environment. Built inside the sounds of everyday life are many layers of human experience, and because of this, composers using soundscape recordings need to listen for more than just latent musicality.
To initiate such a listening process it is useful to ask questions about what is heard in a soundscape recording. How intelligible are voices in relationship to the effects of environmental masking and room reverberation? How would one in fact describe the room reverberation, and is it suitable for the purposes which the room may serve? What does the environment actually feel like? Such questions provide insight into the psychological and physical relationship between people and the environments around them. By listening to public environments with an aesthetic ear, one can attribute moods and feelings to the environments that one inhabits. These observations can in turn serve the purposes of composition and imbue the social dimension of environmental sounds with an understanding of their emotional impact.
It is also helpful to try visualizing the events taking place in a soundscape recording. For example, what languages are being spoken, and by people of what age, nationality, and gender? Are there any motor vehicles or any machinery being operated within earshot? Is the sound of footsteps audible and to what would you attribute their character? Such questioning could lead to the realization that a soundscape recording is a document of society in action. However, reaching this realization requires society to listen as much as it sees.
Unfortunately, acousmatic composers refuse to handle these documents of society as being something other than objects for musical construction. By doing this, they endorse the visual prejudice at work in society, and they allow cultural analysts to continue revisiting the sights of culture while ignoring the sounds. What is more unfortunate is that blind people (among other cultural minorities in the west) have inadvertently been excluded from participating in acousmatic music. This is remarkable because acousmatic music is an art-from that exists entirely in the aural domain from conception through to presentation, except for the visual biases designed into its software and mechanical interfaces. These biases can easily be overcome, however, since they are placed there somewhat arbitrarily by a corporate interest in mass appeal.
Blind people develop a special aural sensitivity by interacting with the environment and society primarily through their hearing and verbal communication. This is perhaps why many of them become fluent in musical practices where visual notation is not necessary, such as blues, jazz, folk, or rock’n’roll. In fact, virtually all of the blind persons interviewed in Life Unseen possessed either a musical talent or an avid interest in one of those genres. But none of them were familiar with acousmatic music, which, not surprisingly, stands as the norm for my encounters with blind people.
It is quite logical to assume that an art form that portrays or addresses contemporary society through recordings of environmental sounds, whether with one-second samples or continuous ambient backdrops, must involve the participation of people whose primary orientation is aural. Absence of the blind community from such activity places an acute limitation on whatever insight is gleaned from the work, since many sound technicians and artists will openly admit the extent to which visual attention reduces listening sensitivity. Just where and how far could this insight go if vision was removed from the equation altogether?
There is more to the soundscape than latent music. There is more to repetitions and patterns of sound events than mere rhythm. The eyes may tell a great deal, but the ears and the other senses are also filling up with many insightful details about people and society. In the black audio canvas stretched between a pair of loudspeakers, lies a side of life still largely unnoticed and unexplained. Life Unseen leads sighted listeners into this world in order for them to understand how blind people respond to the environment around them, and overcome the barriers presented by a visually centered society.
Interplays of the ‘Real’ and the ‘Artificial’
Although Life Unseen fits into the general category of radiophonic electroacoustic music, it actually spans a broader artistic base than that. Essentially, it is an interdisciplinary work, like film, which is projected not on a white screen, but rather on to the black screen of the imagination via loudspeakers. Its interdisciplinary nature derives from the interplay of acousmatic music, soundscape composition, radio drama, and radio documentary. These four disciplines feed into one another and the resulting fusion provides a multiplicity of realities and meanings for approaching the work.
On the surface, the interrelationship of these disciplines is based upon a stylistic continuum that swings between what I call audio realism and what is more generally known has musical abstraction (see Diagram above). Audio realism is an approach to electroacoustic composition where the sense of place inherent in environmental sounds is not only left intact, but provides a kernel for deeper social insight. Musical abstraction is essentially the means by which electroacoustic composition is conventionally approached. In this instance, the sense of place is discarded in favour of using environmental sounds as a basis for pure musical discourse, or what amounts to, in most cases, a musical exploration of environmental sound timbres.
There are two other continuums that run in parallel to this one. They also swing between the extremes of realism and abstraction, or as it were, the ‘real’ and the ‘artificial’.
In the speech domain, the two extremes are represented respectively in Life Unseen by documentary commentaries and poetic monologues. The first revolves around a random sample of blind people in Vancouver relating their experiences in casual everyday language (like in Social Interactions). The second engages a trained actress to perform her own a written text couched in more formal and emotionally heightened language (like in Elegy).
Soundscape composition and acousmatic music are musical territories where composers can choose to engage or disengage themselves with the existence of place and the social references that may spring forth when the notion of place is evident. By this virtue alone they are allowed to stand separate from one another as different styles of electroacoustic composition.
Life Unseen attempts to draw freely, however, from both styles. The social imagery of identifiable environmental sounds is often supported or juxtaposed in the work with electroacoustic manipulations of (the same or other) environmental sounds. This combination imbues socially referential imagery with an emotional and visceral dimension. The outcome of such fusion is not unlike how a Munch or a Van Gogh may distort the colour palette to draw out certain responses in the viewer.
It is important to note that the relationship between audio realism and musical abstraction is more complicated in Life Unseen than these parallel continuums adequately represent. Quite often in the work two ends of any continuum will co-exist or follow one another without undergoing in time any identifiable metamorphosis. Thus, like the channels on a TV remote, activities in a scene can jump forwards and backwards to a point on any continuum as often as necessary. In Elegy, there are instances where sounds jump freely from one node of one continuum to another, and there other moments where a soundscape is a composite rendering of two or more points on any continuum. This interdependence enables the ‘sonic underpinning’ of the text in Elegy to be much more illustrative than if it was fixed purely inside a realistic realm.
The fusion and random access in Life Unseen of different points from different continuums ultimately wears out the usefulness of the continuum model. Instead, the multi-level interaction necessitates a three dimensional model, such as a prism, where all of the points interconnect with one another (see Diagram above). This means that a phrase belonging to the documentary end of the speech spectrum, such as “a lot of noise annoys me” in Social Interactions, can be cut up into musical phonemes which impact the scene with sufficient emotional punch to propel it forward dramatically. It is important to understand is that this transformation does not metamorphose over time. Instead, it jumps out in one brief utterance, simultaneously touching upon various points on different continuums.
There are some soundscapes in Life Unseen which are composite mixes of several component environments. These instances fall into a gray area between the finer extremes of reality and artifice. This ambiguous area is employed frequently to evoke referential imagery. The thematic recapitulation at the outset of the Conclusion begins with a dense and fast paced composite rendering of various natural and manipulated sound environments. Different events in the sequence suggest different visual images: the continuous chiming of a low bell; cars speeding through heavy rain; chains rattling on a swing with a dog barking; the rattling of a cab interior; and a door opening with a very long squeak. These images all fuse together to represent a single experience which is more surreal than real. But like a dream, the listener encounters them with a certain suspension of disbelief and accepts them as real, or at least, reminiscent of a real occurrence.
Even in the guise of total realism, the ear will accept illogical representations of reality. This has to do with the dynamic spatial behaviour of sounds in the environment, which, like their listeners, rarely stand still. Visually speaking, the world is comprised of more rigid and static elements. This makes the eye of the cinema spectator much less forgiving when it comes to configuring a believable rendering of reality. For instance, a chair can not wander from one place to another without the spectator watching it being moved by an actor. In a drawing-room radio mystery, the chair probably will not even exist unless it is intrinsic to the plot or the motivation of a character. This suggests that once the vision of a sighted spectator is removed, he or she is asked to add with their imagination more detail about a place than what is provided by the radio programme. In a work like Life Unseen, where the radiophonic illusion of authenticity works in partnership with musical abstraction, the chair can either be struck to tell the listener of its existence in a place, or used as an object for musical exploration. In Vulnerability, both uses prevail side by side. The realistic sound of a hand scraping the seat of a leather chair is developed texturally immediately after the metal arm of the chair is struck. In the spatial domain, the surrounding cafe environment wanders this way and that, while also disappearing and reappearing at will. Thus, function and fabrication are distinctions that whither away in Life Unseen’s multi-level discourse.
Life Unseen is conceived as a work of aural cinema whose discourse depends on a fluid interplay between textual meaning, vocal nuance, voice quality, place recognition, and musical gesture. There are no limits to the degree of overlap and interrelationship between these different realms of artistic discourse. In fact, the more interplay there is among them, the broader the field of imagery and meaning available to the listener.
There is a cast of generous contributors to whom we owe our thanks.
Alex Bulmer and Darren Copeland interviewed the following visually impaired persons from Vancouver: John Lyon, Linda Evans, Michelle Creedy, Allan Morgan, Teresa Andrews, Gary Steeves, Nora Sarsons, Peg Mercer, Monty Lilburn, and Shawn Kirkpatrick. Many thanks to Patricia Worrell at the CNIB (BC-Yukon division) for coordinating the interviews and to Chris Miller for transcribing them into printed text. We are grateful for the critical insight and encouragement offered by Dr. Jonty Harrison, Lyn Wright, Hildegard Westerkamp, and Barry Truax. And finally, the trip to Vancouver would not have run so smoothly without help of Daniel Jans, Norman Armour, Deborah Dunn, and Rita Bozi.
The movements Recharting the Senses and Listening in Place of Seeing were realized with financial assistance from the Media Arts Section of the Canada Council for the Arts. The former movement appears on the Soundscape Vancouver CD compilation published by Cambridge Street Records.
(c) 1997/99, Darren Copeland