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The Power and the Noise

Sound and resistance in Damon Krukowski’s Ways of Hearing

Ways of Hearing by Damon Krukowski. MIT Press, 136 pages.

At a time of peak anxiety about the effects of television on the culture, John Berger subverted the form, using his 1972 Ways of Seeing, first a BBC TV series and then a Penguin book, to teach the public about arts criticism. Not only did Berger extrapolate the aesthetic distance between, say, a postcard and a painting, he also showed viewers how the female body was depicted in both oil paintings and advertisements. One recent reviewer suggested that Berger, in his time, had managed to demonstrate, at least in part, “how art revealed the social and political systems in which it was made.” Instead of bemoaning, in the form of an abstracted grievance, a society supersaturated with images, Berger took up a popular form—television—and helped ordinary people see its effects. He opened an aperture onto a sea of spectacle by breaking it down, wave for wave.

Contemporary technological anxiety—when not directed towards the internet wholesale—is just as often pitched against sound. We’ve recently started to ask what platform monopolies are doing to the quality of music, or whether Amazon is killing record (and book) stores, or if podcasts are further ensnaring us online, destroying our private thoughts. It’s enough, given his pedagogical wisdom, to make us wonder: What would Berger say?—about earbuds or streambait pop.

To that end, musician and author Damon Krukowski launched a podcast, and now a book, that nods in Berger’s direction. Ways of Hearing is a slim work, really a blown-out podcast script, beautifully designed and illustrated, which takes readers on an admirably reported tour of sound from analog to digital, from 1960s New York to our era of “hyper-gentrification,” all the while considering the relation between noise and power. And, crucially, Krukowski doesn’t privilege a hierarchy between digital and analog but contests it by appreciating—that is, paying attention to—their material differences. All the better to apprehend the political systems that arrange what we hear in the world.

For Krukowski, a simplistic critique of the digital sound and a nostalgic lust for analog aren’t good enough, or even the point. Like Berger, he wants his audience to understand the subtle differences between forms. As such, the book begins by analyzing time, which Krukowski posits is fundamentally altered when digitized.

Krukowski doesn’t privilege a hierarchy between digital and analog but contests it by appreciating—that is, paying attention to—their material differences.

Analog recording (specifically tape) was prone to the vagaries of the medium: shifting, imperfect machines and temperamental rolls of tape. The idea that a recording could be captured perfectly in time was a false one. Likewise, it isn’t (and wasn’t) the case that musicians actually play “in time.” Krukowski notes that “musicians know that time is flexible.” For Jazz players this is called “swing,” for rock performers it’s “groove,” and classical musicians refer to it as “tempo rubato,” which translates to “stolen time.” But the rise of digital recordings—and digital instruments—gave way to a more precise and ridged notion of time, swapping “real time,” that is, lived and experienced time, for a “machine [or digital] time” that can be edited easily and locked perfectly to a clock, though it cannot replicate “lived time.” Krukowski chronicles this transition with vivid examples. Take the case of the analog telephone: the sound of our voices has precipitously worsened in quality with our switch to digital. While analog phones once transmitted the full range recorded by a microphone, cell phones process our voices digitally, compressing sound to “remove whatever engineers have decided is unnecessary data.”

Nor is the notion of a disruptive, industry-changing technology especially new—even considering mass platforms and digital revolution—though our moment has its contours. As Krukowski points out, when player pianos came along, the rights holder’s claim to sheet music was contested all the way up to the Supreme Court. Now, music has become largely immaterial, transmitted through the cloud (which is a misnomer given its vast energy-sucking physical infrastructure) instead of plastic CDs and tapes that were much more easily bought and sold. But, as we learn when Krukowski speaks with Joey DeFrancesco, guitarist of the Providence punk band Downtown Boys, the myth of the internet as a bastion of equality should be radically contested on the grounds that it has not equalized material relations for musicians but exacerbated them—capitalism forms the music industry in such a way that it disguises musicians’ labor. DeFrancesco adds that, in many ways, musicians are the canaries in the coal mines; these days, memers are unionized, and many musicians are not.                                           

Beyond obscuring labor, the switch to digital has reprogrammed our discovery and consumption of music. Despite the seemingly unprecedented supply of music, Krukowski suggests that internet companies, like Spotify and Amazon, “are replacing the freedom and chaos of the internet at large, with the control and predictability of their programs.” In other words, they generally provide access to art that we are or would be comfortable with, and they otherwise restrict or obscure alternatives. “When you go into a bookstore, or record store, or library—any physical space devoted to information,” Krukowski writes, “you enter another world . . . But when you open a browser—it’s an irony that’s the word, isn’t it?—that relationship to information is reversed. It conforms to you.”

In the mode of Berger, the delineation of each of these changes speaks not just to sound—its distribution and quality—but also to its broader political and economic context. The book is divided into sections on time, space, love, money, power, and “signal and noise.” The last of these is a term both recording engineers and doctors use, with “signal” denoting the sounds we are directly aware of (a podcaster’s voice, a guitar solo) and noise referring to everything else (cars in the street, a refrigerator hum, an adjacent conversation). In the book’s introduction, Krukowski sets his premise by noting, “we don’t seem to be listening to each other very well right now in the world. Our voices carry further than they ever did before, thanks to digital media. But how are they being heard?” It’s an echo, in its way, of the common complaint about the superabundance of content.

The book’s strength—and, only occasionally, its weakness—rests in how much it relies on the study of sound as almost a foil for more obviously materialist or sociological criticism of tech monopolies. Still, it’s a radical gesture, asserting that we cannot uncouple sound from the economies and environments in which it is produced. In this respect, Ways of Hearing poses a compelling counternarrative to typical tech criticism: instead of glibly lamenting how digital life destroys intimacy, Krukowski asks listeners to pay attention to both the sonic as well as the political qualities of sound. Krukowski makes us consider sound—what we hear, what we don’t, how, and why—as a means of listening but also, perhaps, of resisting.