The Domestic Soundscape

The Sonic Tuck Shop believes that food sounds tasty, that we should play with it, and that the everyday routines of cooking and eating are full of sonic interest. The Sonic Tuck Shop reframes every meal as a potential concert of sounds in its making and consumption, and every foodstuff as an instrument in the orchestra of life. The Sonic Tuck Shop enhances the essential everyday act of eating by applying a sense of specialness to it. The central idea of The Sonic Tuck Shop is that ALL FOOD is a potential feast for the ears as well as for the belly and that we should start a trend in EAR CANDY.

– excerpt, The Sonic Tuck Shop Manifesto

This is a plate that my friend Stav got me for my birthday. It has a design which looks like embroidery, and the words say ‘no matter where I serve my guests, it seems they like my kitchen best.’ I love this plate, as it reminds me of how I favour entertaining people in my kitchen, and of all the happy cooking sounds that attend those informal, social gatherings. The thought of someone visiting and there being no bubbling, droning, sizzling, boiling, pouring or draining sounds to accompany our friendly chatter is unthinkable to me,and the words on the plate succinctly state that sociable warmth which I associate so unequivocally with food and the sharing and making of it. I have used the plate almost daily since Stav gave it to me, and I have noticed that its surface has a particular quality which means that cutlery scrapes on it in a certain way. I wrote about this sound in detail in the SOUNDBANK in July and I have enjoyed eating off the plate and experiencing its distinctive materiality ever since. It looks like my plate, it feels like my plate, and perhaps most of all in the context of this post, it sounds like my plate.

Now it may seem a small thing to introduce a new plate into the selection of items from which one eats, but every new object that comes into the kitchen brings with it new sounds and these all add up to form the collective sonic wash that backdrops my life. The sounds of such things as the scraping of a spoon in a dish or the specific resonance of an often-used steel saucepan clanging on the hob are the incidental nothings which deeply and intimately shape the daily soundscape that I inhabit. They are tiny and seem inconsequential when considered in isolation; but when all the parts are added together, they form an intricate, unique and detailed aural accompaniment to life. This forms my domestic soundscape, and it is the sonic information that tells me I am home. I know what my pans sound like, I know what noise I am listening out for when I push the toaster button down. I know it is Summer now because I cannot hear the faithful roaring of the gas boiler. I am intimately familiar with the ring of my specific cutlery drawer when I open it to select an implement, and I know what sounds indicate that I must attend to the clogging waterpipe under the sink in the kitchen. When I stay in my bedsit, I know what time it is according to the volume of traffic on the main road outside the building, and when I stay at Mark’s house I know what season it is by the species of birds who sing in the garden. I have noticed that when I stay in a strange place, the unfamiliar smells and sounds are far more unsettling than the different view, and – conversely – the familiar smells and sounds of my home spaces are what give me the cherished sensation of feeling like I am in my familiar habitat. And the specific, impossible-to-replicate qualities of your domestic soundscape will have a similar effect for you. I bet you have in your home somewhere some curtains that sound a certain way – which swish to indicate the end or the start of the day – or a cat whose comings and goings through a noisy cat-flap punctuate the hours. Perhaps you have a wonky drawer in the kitchen which makes a distinctive and familiar sound as you heft it in and out to utilise its contents? Those sounds, those sounds in your house and in mine, are what Georges Perec would have dubbed the ‘infra-ordinary‘ sonic content of our lives; the stuff that is habitual, the stuff that we are habituated (and therefore insensible) to. In his essay – the infra-ordinary – Perec rightly states that ‘the daily newspapers talk of everything except the daily,’ and he implores us to investigate the spaces and situations immediately to hand and to question our teaspoons*.

How should we take account of, question, describe what happens every day and recurs everyday: the banal, the quotidian, the obvious, the common, the ordinary, the infra-ordinary, the background noise, the habitual?

To question the habitual. But that’s just it, we’re habituated to it. We don’t question it, it doesn’t question us, it doesn’t seem to pose a problem, we live it without thinking, as if it carried within it neither question nor answers, as if it weren’t the bearer of any information. This is not longer even conditioning, it’s anaesthesia. We sleep through our lives in a dreamless sleep. But where is our life? Where is our body? Where is our space?

How are we to speak of these ‘common things’, how to track them down rather, how to flush them out, wrest them from the dross in which they remain mired, how to give them a meaning, a tongue, to let them, finally, speak of what is, of what we are.

What’s needed perhaps is finally to found our own anthropology, one that will speak about us, will look in ourselves for what for so long we’ve been pillaging from others. Not the exotic anymore, but the endotic.

What we need to question is bricks, concrete, glass, our table manners, our utensils, our tools, the way we spend our time, our rhythms. To question that which seems to have ceased forever to astonish us. We live, true, we breathe, true; we walk, we open doors, we go down staircases, we sit at a table in order to eat, we lie down on a bed in order to sleep. How? Why? Where? When? Why?

Describe your street. Describe another street. Compare.

Make an inventory of you pockets, of your bag. Ask yourself about the provenance, the use, what will become of each of the objects you take out.

Question your tea spoons.

– Georges Perece, The Infra-Ordinary

Imagine in your mind if you will – just for a second – the sound of whatever you ate for breakfast this morning. I bet you can remember whether or not you had the radio on, whether the washing machine was making its clunking slooshes, (if you can hear the washing-machine from where you eat) what the ambience of the room was, (do you have carpets or bare floorboards?) and what culinary sounds punctuated the experience… (toast popping? an egg frying? keys flying into the depths of a bag as you skipped breakfast?) …if you have never thought about it before, then it is probably a surprise to you to realise the detail with which you can recall that soundscape if you try to draw it into your mind. But this is the soundtrack that gave your morning its distinctive sense of familiarity, and your ears have heard it so well that they can recall it like the way your cells can tell you when the season is starting to turn.

A perceived collective disinterest in sounds is generally bemoaned amongst folks with an interest in sound. But I think that po-facedly lamenting a lack of sonic awareness re: the architecture of domestic space, the acoustically cacophonous design of cities, or the insufficient attention assumed to be given to designing the sound of domestic appliances, are disempowering and unimaginative responses to the problem. In talking to people about sounds over the past 3 years, I have realised that most people – when asked – actually have very detailed knowledge of their daily soundscapes. The difficulty is that there are very few situations where it is socially acceptable to discuss or consider this detailed knowledge that we have, because – like everything that is not untoward and extraordinary -  everyday sounds seem to be unworthy of the kind of attention we bring to, say, The Opera. But what would happen if we decided that all everyday sounds were potentially special and worthy of that attention? And if the everyday soundscapes that we generally experience as unconscious drudge could become playgrounds for the imagination? What would happen if we did all indeed question our teaspoons?

These were some of the questions in my mind when I started playing with the idea of The Sonic Tuck Shop, and for me the main strategy has been to find ways of reframing what is ‘banal’ and ‘boring’ through forms which make them somehow special.

John Cage is a big inspiration for the project since he set the precedent for this kind of work when he used the ‘extraordinary’ circumstances of the concert situation to present utterly ‘ordinary’ ambient sounds to an audience during his most famous work – 4″33 – in 1952. The score for this piece specifically instructs the performer not to play their instrument during the entire duration of the piece; therefore sounds heard during the performance are comprised entirely of random environmental noises. The piece works because people bring certain expectations to the concert situation, which result in the kind of attentive listening which would be difficult to effect in another setting. Because people are listening to normal sounds in a heightened, extraordinary context, those infra-ordinary sounds to which we are normally habituated are framed in a way that makes them sound different. Nearly all of the sound projects which attempt to revise our relationship to everyday sounds use a related approach; one such theme involves performing ‘normal’ everyday tasks (such as cooking) in the ‘extraordinary’ context of the concert or the gig. Indeed one of the features in The Sonic Tuck Shop book is an interview I did last week with Sonic Catering who – when describing their gigs – said that ‘people would come to a venue to see a gig and we would have a pre-prepared menu of what we were going to cook. Among the favourites were pancakes, (which the audience always got to eat) milkshakes, and stirfried vegetables. Popcorn was always a very popular menu item at our gigs, too.’ I particularly liked what Sonic Catering had to say about the real sounds of cooking:

It seemed interesting to take something that most people in the Western World hear all the time, and just take for granted, and to put a microscope over it and amplify it, and to just explore those sounds…Our aesthetic was very much ‘we’re not going to bang a pan specifically to make the sound of it; we’ll cook the dish and whatever sounds come from actually really cooking the dish, are the sounds that we’ll use.’’

– Peter Strickland & Colin Fletcher on Sonic Catering

Cathy Lane and Matthew Herbert have also produced audio works which use the sounds of food-preparation as their main inspiration, again with different but related approaches. Herbert’s album – Plat du Jour – very much transforms source sounds taken from cooking situations (many more industrial than domestic) so that they sound more conventionally like music. The sounds themselves are made extraordinary, so that in the end what we have is essentially an extraordinary dance album which was derived from ‘ordinary’ sounds. And Cathy Lane takes yet another approach in The Pickle Jar is her home;

This composition is an multi-faceted exploration of food as a material, a commodity and as a sounding substance. It also aims to explore the many  relationships between food and sound from their basic ephemerality to the links and metaphors that tie them as materials to be processed and transformed – from ideas of “mixing”, “chopping”, “cutting” and “blending”.  Mixed, cut and blended together in this ‘ear-piece’ are sound recordings, from both the UK and India, of  food being prepared and cooked, of the places where food is grown and sold, of people and companies selling food and food products and of people talking about food that reminds them of home and childhood and foods that they like to cook and how to prepare them.

The Pickle Jar is her home, quoted from the modisti site

So there is a long legacy of people exploring the sounds of cooking and our imaginative relationship with the domestic soundscape, and The Sonic Tuck Shop is my new version of this old idea. I love the grace with which John Cage talks about sounds in this video, and I am not altogether sure he would approve of the deliberately OTT styling of The Sonic Tuck Shop, but we are agreed that listening is no more than just listening and I like to think that he enjoyed the distinctive sound of his plate whenever he ate his beloved wild mushrooms from it.

*Georges Perec is my favourite philosopher.

2 Responses to The Domestic Soundscape

  1. Kate says:

    great essay. I’ve found that one way to really question the teaspoons is to take them away for a while – this pertains in my own case, with the loss and rediscovery of habitual gestures, but is definitely also relevant to sound – for example, there is a pedestrian crossing outside our flat which BEEPS BEEPS BEEPS with the green man &c. I never really notice it, but for the past few weeks they have been re-laying gas mains – no pedestrian crossing. I found myself thinking the other morning that the street outside sounded like *night* – realised then that it was because there was no crossing and no beeping. It was the first time I’d really noticed its absence, or presence. Perhaps you also start to question the teaspoons if they are slightly the wrong kind – if they are bent or sit in your hand a different way – which makes you reconsider what particular qualities make up the right kind of teaspoon….or even if there *is* a right kind.

  2. Hello Felicity
    Full circle……..’Peel’ came out of a residency at MoDA 2006, we spoke in my kitchen, I peeled potatoes, poured water….and now you are linked to MoDA, beautiful work!
    Hilary

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