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The exploitation of ‘tangible ghosts’: conjectures on soundscape recording and its reappropriation in sound art

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  18 January 2001

Research, Performance Technology Centre, Dartington College of Arts, Totnes, Devon TQ9 6EJ, UK


As if the (terrified) Photographer must exert himself to the utmost to keep the Photograph from becoming Death. But I, already an object, I do not fight. (Barthes 1988: 14)

Perhaps this is the ultimate way of playing with reality. (Baudrillard 1997: 38)

Every day the urge grows stronger to get hold of an object at very close range by way of its likeness, its reproduction. (Benjamin 1992: 217)

This paper is born out of my experience as an electroacoustic composer/sound artist and consumer, who passionately engages in the procurance, employment and exchange of soundscape recordings: an ambivalent engagement which is aesthetically rewarding, yet on further reflection deeply unsettling. The aim of this paper is to question and explore why this ostensibly benign and increasingly common procedure (i.e. the routine of soundscape recording/sampling/abstracting, editing, retouching, transforming, mixing, recontextualising . . . ) may result in a durable confrontation with ‘terror’ accompanied by ethical compromise. To articulate a personal and intuitive response, I will refer to critical writings on photography to illuminate sound (i.e. utilising the photograph as a counterpoint to the sonic record). I will be focusing in particular on the recording and the reappropriation of human utterance in electro-acoustic music, as it is probably the most intimate, as well as familiar, sonic material to humans. You cannot escape from your own voice. ‘Soundscape’ denotes ‘any acoustic field of study’ (Schafer 1994: 7); however, in this context I wish to focus on acoustic fields which have a particular social or cultural significance.‘To photograph is to appropriate the thing photographed.’ (Sontag 1984: 4) Thus it is appropriated again when employed in sound art.

Student Article
© 1999 Cambridge University Press

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