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Soundscape Ecology : interview with Steven M.Miller

Sound has this wonderful ability to slip past our defenses and infiltrate our experience of place in ways we aren’t aware of, yet respond to nonetheless. Music is just one aspect of this much larger world of sound: it (sound) can be art, it can be entertainment, it can be daily life and how we – as various cultures – understand ourselves and organize our lives

[dropcap style=”font-size:100px; color:#992211;”]G[/dropcap]amelan player, Fulbright Scholar, contributor to Trebuchet’s Make Better Music series; Steven M. Miller is a Singapore-based musician, sonic technician and soundscape ecologist.

Trebuchet’s Kailas Elmer puts some questions his way.

You explore sound that exists quite far from the usual musical norms, what inspired you to get into music that is so different from the mainstream?

I guess, at a certain point, I got more interested in sound than I did in music, though I didn’t really know this at the time. Music is just one aspect of this much larger world of sound: it (sound) can be art, it can be entertainment, it can be daily life and how we – as various cultures – understand ourselves and organize our lives.

More recently I’ve realized I am more (or, at least as much) interested in exploration and discovery than I am in creation – maybe that’s got something to do with it. I really find myself following my curiosity, in sound/music as in so much else. I’m voracious that way; I delve into things I find interesting and digest as much of them as I am able – then I follow the next thing that presents itself as worthy of my attention and involvement.

I guess that makes me the eternal dilettante, doesn’t it? I’m sort of the anathema of academia: the avowed generalist (as opposed to rarified specialist).

Your early music was pop rock  – what did you hear in those genres?

I still love a lot of rock and pop music – though not necessarily always the ‘Western’ version. For me, the raw emotion and affect of it is what I relate to. It’s all about the here and now, the emotion and angst of life. I love that. Also, as an American kid growing up in the late-60s and 70s, it was the music of my youth – it was what I was immersed in. I don’t remember hearing all that much classical or jazz growing up, but the stereo was always playing pop, folk, and rock music typical of the time.

As the youngest of three kids, I also got a lot of exposure from my older siblings in addition (or perhaps as a counter to) my parents. Now, my students often fill that role – sharing with me things they find exciting.

In a bit more detail, again, I guess I found sound to be as inviting as music, per se. The sheer sound of something like Dark Side of the Moon, or Black Sabbath’s Master of Reality, or ‘When the Levee Breaks’ was what drew me in as much as the music itself. Nowadays, the sounds of the last few Tool albums would be in the same vein.

A bit later – when I went to college – I got very interested in the whole process of recording and production. I found myself drawn to the work of various producers – Steve Lillywhite, Brian Eno, Daniel Lanois, etc. I’d listen to whatever they were involved in, regardless of the supposed style or genre of the music. I studied audio engineering, acoustics, a bit of electronics, etc., in order to figure out for myself how to make things sound that way.

[quote]an artist’s role

is to be the

R&D team of

human consciousness[/quote]

I ended up running a recording studio for a few years in Seattle in the early ‘90s before getting into the academic world. I quickly realized, however, that the everyday commercial world of recording was largely something very much removed from my ideal of exploration and innovation. It was much more a service industry, geared more to the needs of the bill-paying clientele than the curiosities of someone like myself.

No disrespect intended, it just wasn’t for me.

Do you have a singular approach to composition or is your music created more organically?

The only thing I have resembling an ‘approach’ to composition is the aforementioned curiosity. I dive into the things I find intriguing; if it rewards my interest it persists as part of my ‘tool kit’ for making music and sound art; if not it falls by the wayside. I tend to follow where an idea leads me, rather than predetermine how I’ll proceed. It may be top-down or bottom-up – it really depends on where the obvious (at least to me) path leads.

While this may sound somewhat haphazard, I like to think that my own sense of propriety, taste, conviction, and even perhaps integrity keep me from wandering too far astray. On the other hand, I am also conscious of the dangers of developing anything resembling a personal ‘style’ and tend to be of the belief that an artist’s primary job is to search, whether or not they find.

I’ve often told my students that an artist’s role is to be the R&D team of human consciousness. This implies both opportunities as well as responsibilities.

Your involvement with sound and music is fairly total: lecturer, essayist, composer, improviser and performer. Are there any examples where you work your academic ideas out through sonic experiments?

Luckily, I find that the two go hand-in-hand, at least thus far in my academic career. Though I mentioned the emotional and affective aspects of music, I am also drawn to the intellectual, cognitive, and cultural aspects of sound/music as well. I have been involved in so many types and genres of music over the years that it may seem like the obvious question is ‘why I don’t consolidate all my musical interests into one style/approach?’.

To me, that’d be like trying to fit all the reasons I find the world-at-large interesting into one activity. I listen to music for so many different reasons it’d be futile – not to say counter-productive – to try to condense them all into one form.

In response specifically to your question, I find that they all feed one another – the more I delve, the more I find to explain and share; the more I teach, the more I learn; and the more I learn, the more I realize I don’t know. Full circle.

“Listening as strategy” – some of the points you raise sound a lot like Buddhist ideas of awareness and the mindfulness meditations – any influence?

Though I’ve read a great deal about various spiritual, philosophical, and religious paths, I’ve never formally studied Buddhism. However, the little I do know certainly supports the idea that the mindfulness required of active and attentive listening is of-a-piece with the larger project of Buddhist belief and practice.

As folks like Pauline Oliveros and others will tell you, listening and meditation can often intersect and overlap; there’s a focus and self-discipline needed to bring clarity to your listening.

[quote]we tend to put

much more stock

in our visual

perception of the

world than our

aural perception[/quote]

Do you think that sound has the ability to transcend the more deterministic structures of cognition that govern sight (i.e., we rarely see things that have no real analogue in the mind. The mind ‘sees’ faces in electrical plugs and ‘leaves’ in fractal images, whereas we often hear things in modern music that are not replicated in reality)?

While I’m not so sure that vision is actually any more a direct conduit to reality than is audition, I do agree with the general notion that music is the most abstract of all the arts. What I take from this proposition is the idea that we tend to put much more stock in our visual perception of the world than our aural perception – i.e., we defer to eyewitnesses and not to ear-witnesses in a court of law.

There’s still – even after all the postmodern and deconstructionist theorists – more of a notion of facticity or veracity in photography, for example, than in sound recording. The fact that any one of our perceptual systems is just as prone to illusion and distortion in their own way as any other seems less widely understood.

On the other hand I think I agree with Pater’s observation that “All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music” – it’s a seemingly perfect synthesis of the concrete and the abstract, content and form. Unlike sight, perception of sound is inherently bound up with the passage of time. Beyond even film and video, music – as a form of sonic art – is the quintessential time-art.

This fundamentally changes our experience of it in ways that, thankfully, we’re still sorting out.

In your analysis of Traux, Chion, and Moylan it seems like you’re on the cusp of defining auditory events in discursive terms defined by structural relations between the noisy and the listener. Is the defining of the three types of relations new, or is it building on previous sources?

That article you’re referring to really is primarily an overview and comparison of the three different authors, and by extension the backgrounds and influences from which each of them draw. As such, my intention was to bring some clarity and cross-fertilization to this trans-disciplinary concern with listening.

Coming from three rather different backgrounds – acoustic ecology and communication studies; film sound; and audio recording/production, respectively – these authors each reflect their own interests and biases (as we all do), and I found the overlaps and intersections to be complementary rather than either redundant or mutually antagonistic. So, I saw some value in an attempt to bridge the disciplinary chasms and sort of compare and contrast the approaches.

In the end, however, the approaches and terminology are theirs (and their respective influences), not mine. One obvious antecedent to all three – whether explicitly or implicitly – is the work of Pierre Schaeffer, particularly his work on developing a solfege of sound and his conception of the sound object.

While the former never really panned out, his work has had lasting influence in music, particularly of the electroacoustic variety, and sound studies more generally.

Does this discourse of auditory events relate to Modern structural/phenomenology polemics in so far as it relates to an agent and their experience (One can image a fertile piece on Bourdieu’s generative structuralism, habitus and listening emerging – this time weighted towards the phenomenon)?

Hmm, this is a little outside my area so I’m going to have to pass on this one, besides passing along some pointers to some readings that address the philosophical side of sound, listening, hearing, etc. Sounds by Casey O’Callaghan (MIT Press, 2010) is an interesting and thought-provoking read; his primary claim is that sounds are not things, not waves or vibrations, but events.

These events propagate through a medium (usually air) as vibrations, but the root phenomenon is properly understood as an event.

The second edition of Don Ihde’s Listening and Voice: Phenomenologies of Sound (SUNY Press, 2007) is an update on his classic 1970s exploration of sound and listening through a phenomenological approach. Noise Matters: Towards an Ontology of Noise (Bloomsbury Academic, 2013) by Greg Hainge is an interesting – if not unproblematic – reappraisal of the concept of noise, which he takes far beyond (and beneath) the popular conception into the very matter of existence and expression in fields as disparate as music, film, literature, etc.

In John Cage’s ‘4’33″‘ to what extent do you think that people are mistaking its quality of silence for listening?

4’33” is one of those pieces of (sound) art that still has the power to be controversial, misunderstood, misinterpreted, and misrepresented more than 60 years after its creation. As Kyle Gann’s book [No Such Thing as Silence: John Cage’s 4’33” (Yale University Press, 2011)] so lovingly explores, that piece had both a long gestation and an enduring impact far beyond the precincts of ‘experimental music.’ At one and the same time it is both a radical statement and a simple idea, simultaneously a philosophical proposition and a pretext for purely sonic experience, and both music and anti-music. Douglas Kahn, in his Noise Water Meat: A History of Sound in the Arts (MIT Press, 2001), explores some of the ramifications of the piece and Cage’s overall stance in terms of his approach to ‘all sound being music’ and the quandaries and inconsistencies inherent in his project of ‘letting sounds be sounds.’

More recently, Hainge’s book referred to above takes yet another look at (listen to?) the piece in terms of our experience, understanding, and operating definitions of noise (he finds none in 4’33”, by the way). I’m not sure, however, that Hainge’s definitions of either music or noise are themselves sufficiently noisy.



Overall, though, I think that a piece like 4’33” is valuable for precisely the reason that it foregrounds listening as a responsibility for the adequate presentation of music; in other words, it highlights the participatory nature of the art experience. It’s not unique in addressing this concern, though perhaps it is unique in the extent to which it places it squarely on the shoulders of the listening audience. It offers them no guidance, merely opportunity.

What is your relationship to listening?

Hmm, that’s a bit like asking about my relationship to air. As a person with reasonably normal hearing acuity (despite years as a rock drummer and electronic musician!) listening is a vital part of everyday existence. As a composer and sound artist, however, I guess I’m more attuned to that fact than many folks.

[quote]with so much

emphasis on the

visual in the built

environment and forms

of cultural production

we seem to lose

an awareness of

the sonic environment

and its importance

to us[/quote]

Do you think listening should be taught to musicians as a formal subject?

It is, though generally not in a terribly comprehensive manner. “Ear training” is a big part of basic musicianship skills development, and there are a number of approaches to it. But I think, like so many things in academia, it’s rather narrowly focused. I think listening should be taught to all students, and not only once they get to college or in specialist contexts like musicianship.

In the same way that we really should be teaching media literacy as a foundational skill in the contemporary world, aural awareness is something all people should develop. Aurality is such a key aspect of daily experience, yet with so much emphasis on the visual in the built environment and forms of cultural production we seem to lose an awareness of the sonic environment and its importance to us, both as individuals and as social creatures.

Learning to reconnect to the sounds around us and what they tell us about ourselves and our relationship to place and to others is becoming increasingly important.

There are a few folks working on this idea of ‘listening skills development’, broadly conceived. Pauline Oliveros, for example, has been developing her Deep Listening approach for more than a few decades. As I understand it, it’s about developing a deeper understanding and relationship both to oneself and to one’s surroundings through focused listening and sound-making exercises.

More recently Kim Cascone has been developing his Subtle Listening workshops for sound artists, composers, media artists and professionals, etc., to work on developing listening skills, drawing on a variety of spiritual traditions, meditation, Jungian psychology, etc. In both cases, the goal seems to be to more holistically integrate your inner and outer experiences through sound and listening.

Where does ASMR (Autonomous sensory meridian response) fit within your understanding of listening?

Oh, now this one is completely new for me. I did some digging around online to find out what the hell that video is all about. Absolutely brilliant! In all her videos there’s such a wonderful concern with small, intimate, tactile sound – supposed ‘triggers’ for the ASMR experience.

Beyond the quite fascinating pseudo-science of it, the aesthetics of the audio production values sort of turns typical media (films, videos, tv, etc.) on their head. It’s almost a sort of radio theater with visual assist, or a visual context for acousmatic music/sound. I particularly love her two ‘mic test’ videos and the one about the dominoes and tissue paper – such a lovely sensitivity to sound! They strike me as almost a type of unpretentious postmodern sound art. Or maybe it’s just sound fetishism. Haha!

Certainly, I think sound has some properties which let it slip past the watchful eyes (ears?) of our usual boundary mechanisms. Because, perceptually speaking, we can never turn sound off, we’re often not consciously aware of it even as we’re responding to it. Sound has this wonderful ability to slip past our defenses and infiltrate our experience of place in ways we aren’t aware of, yet respond to nonetheless.

Film composers and sound designers stake their entire careers on this situation, for example. These ASMR videos seem like an attempt to foreground what is normally a rather peripheral aspect of daily sonic experience towards a specific end. I’m all for that!

What is acoustic ecology and why is it important?

Acoustic ecology – and related areas such as soundscape studies – is about trying to understand how the sound environment plays a role in how individuals, societies, and cultures organize themselves, understand themselves and their relationships to others. As such, it’s an interdiscipline located at the intersection of acoustics, environmental studies, communication, architecture, sociology, history, psychology, sound art, engineering, etc.

As the Handbook for Acoustic Ecology defines it:

Ecology is the study of the relationship between individuals and communities and their environment. Soundscape ecology is thus the study of the effects of the acoustic environment, or SOUNDSCAPE, on the physical responses or behavioural characteristics of those living within it. Its particular aim is to draw attention to imbalances which may have unhealthy or inimical effects. Also termed acoustic ecology.

Its importance lies in the notion that as we humans have altered so many aspects of our habitats – particularly, and with increasing pace, since the industrial revolution, advent of electricity, and development of massive urban centers – the environment of sound in which we live is also being altered.

This may seem like a statement of the obvious, but the fact remains that attention to the sonic environment is – at least to anyone who seriously listens to it – obviously very low on the list of priorities of many architects, urban planners, civil engineers, landscape architects, industrial designers, etc. The question then becomes, how does this change the way we live, and the way we understand ourselves and our relationships to that environment and to each other?

Historically, perhaps, the field (or at least the perception of it) was a bit too closely aligned with Romantic ideals of the purity of nature and a seemingly almost Luddite anti-technology stance. It also, at least for some, was too closely allied with the anti-noise movement. More recently it has evolved into a more mature, inclusive, forward-looking, and proactive field where the activities include creative, technical, academic, curatorial, as well as remedial work.

A little bit has been made of acoustic ecology and tourism – what are some of the most beautiful sounding places you’ve been to?

Hmmm, that’s really hard to answer, for a few reasons. First, the term ‘beautiful’ is a pretty loaded one and hard to define objectively. I’m sure my definition would be pretty different from many others, but I’ll use it here to mean ‘emotionally and/or intellectually powerful and engaging’. That obviously covers a lot of ground, and is less about the sound(s) and more about the response to it.

Second, similar to concerns about the rise of global monoculture (i.e., in art, architecture, agriculture, fashion, media, etc.), certain aspects of modern aural existence (the ubiquity of global electronic media and of the internal combustion engine being merely two of them) increasingly mitigate against local/regional specificity of the soundscape.

Maybe an easier way to answer might be to mention some of the places I’ve had really powerful and engaging listening experiences over the past few years.

Bangkok, Thailand – walking along one of the canals that runs adjacent to the famed ‘Jim Thompson House’ opposite the historically Muslim weaving village of Ban Krua:

New Mexico, USA – an early morning recording and listening session along the Pecos River, just east of the town of Roswell:

Ghent, Belgium – an evening stroll along the historic city center, listening to people, bicycles, and light vehicle traffic on one of the many cobblestone streets:

Den Haag, Netherlands – sitting outside a café on a cold morning listening to the morning commute:

Sayan, Bali, Indonesia – standing along the route of a large funeral procession on the way to the cremation grounds:

Bandung, West Java, Indonesia – evening sounds and calls-to-prayer from numerous mosques in the surrounding area:

Paris, France – city sounds and the bells of Notre Dame from along the Seine:

You’ve travelled quite widely with music. What are some of your favourite discoveries?

Hmm, a few favorite discoveries (or, more often, things shared from friends and/or students) over the years include: the music of American composer Harold Budd; Mauritanian singer Dimi Mint Abba; Pakistani Sufi singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan (with whom I had the very good fortune to work while running that recording studio in Seattle); the work of Estonian composer Arvo Pärt the string quartets of American composer Ben Johnston; Cuban salsa group Los Van Van; the work of Hungarian composer Gÿorgy Ligeti; American progressive metal group Tool; the court gamelan of Central Java, Indonesia; and the work of American composer and trumpet player Jon Hassell.

Do you see a progression in your own music making as you’ve become a more advanced listener?

I think that the more I’ve learned to listen, the more I’ve been drawn to exploration and discovery as opposed to creation… in other words, my music has gotten in some ways simpler and less overtly managed, I guess. These days I’m more comfortable with letting things unfold, as opposed to making sure lots of things happen.

What are your five favourite pieces of music and why?

Wow, that’s an impossible question!

I’m going to take the liberty of freely intermingling individual pieces with albums here. Also, this list could (and most definitely would) change by next week…depending on my mood. In no particular order:
‘String Quartet No. 5’ by Ben Johnston – rarely do rigor of form, timbre, tuning, and creativity intersect so beautifully and with such powerful effect as they do in this piece. The recent project to record all of Johnston’s quartets (by the Kepler Quartet) is a long overdue documentation of some of the most intriguing music of the 20th Century string quartet genre/format.A picture of Along the Pecos

Dark Side of the Moon by Pink Floyd – a sentimental favorite from my younger days; in addition to the extremely high level musicianship, songwriting, and production values, this album crystallizes so many memories that it’s hard to separate the music from the context, for me.

Tabula Rasa by Arvo Pärt – one of those rare examples where very tightly structured music results in a powerfully emotional experience. Pärt’s tintinnabuli style/system is very methodical, almost algorithmic, yet the seeming simplicity of it results in a very strong emotional impact.

‘The Harp of New Albion’ by Terry Riley – like much of Riley’s keyboard music of the 70s and 80s, this piece is a structured improvisation, a series of themes and motifs on which Riley improvises. The timbral properties of the resonances of just intonation (so-called ‘pure tuning’) intersecting with the modern piano (itself a bit of a tuning nightmare due to the physics of its construction) alternate between lush consonances and biting dissonances, creating a rich emotional palette with which Riley creates a special sort of magic.A picture of Ang Mo Faux

Lateralus by Tool – proof of popular music’s continuing ability to simultaneously evolve, recycle, and reinvent itself, this album is, in equal parts, hopeful and terrifying; an essay in texture, rhythm, timbre, ambiance and extended form, all wrapped up in virtuosic studio production.

Where can people listen to your music/attend a lecture/talk?

I’ve had recent CD and DVD releases on the Everglade and Palace of Lights labels (with photographer Jennifer Schlesinger, and the ensemble Ang Mo Faux, respectively), and I regularly give public lectures, performances, and workshops around SE Asia, the US, and elsewhere. Most of my activity is documented on my website,  my blog,  and on my SoundCloud page.

Many thanks for your time.


Sidebar image by Jennifer Schlesinger, from Along the Pecos

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