Raymond Sookram, Goldsmiths, University of London
When contemplating experiences from a musical perspective, it’s perhaps easier to communicate by memorable conventions — of a 12 tone tuning system or Western art chord progressions. This is especially the case with audiovisual moments which follow previous standards of visual and auditory expectations. But there are times and objects whose existence cause such conventions to become ill-suited. For me, a focus away from media texts as triggers for media fascination warrants a consideration of tools that allow the playing of that very media. Some of the most memorable and viscerally tangible objects and their sounds occurred, for me at least, in childhood.
Amongst these was my parents’ VHS tape machine. It performed a strange, non-harmonic whirring whenever the tape was rewound, becoming louder and more dissonant, only to then calm as the tape machine neared its completion. At about 5 years old, I distinctly remember deliberately fast-forwarding a tape cassette of Babe (1995) to the very end, just so that I could then rewind and hear that weird sound journey. The YouTube video embedded below captures some of these strange mechanical sounds.
Then again, a more ubiquitous machine to contemplate is the television screen. Not the impressive 4K Ultra HD widescreens of today, but the older, humongous boxes that could hardly be lifted up. With the push of the power-on button, a short buzz blurted out with a sizzling of static on the curved glass screen.
Or there is the evermore alien landscape of the internet dial-up connection. Heard through grey dampened speakers that plugged into the back of a PC tower computer, connecting to the internet of old involved experiencing an almost non-sequitur process of a high-pitched ‘beep, beep, beep’ introduction, synthesised rumbles and crashing static, amongst other bizarre sounds which can be heard in the YouTube video below. Logging onto the internet felt otherworldly. It’s curious now to consider how listening to that dial-up sequence created this sense of anticipation, just like film music.
Of course, as with all musical experiences, when you hear the same thing over and over, you can get bored. There were certainly times when I was fed up with the alien sound collage and just wanted to access Yahoo.com. But even now, that soundscape resounds with an equally captivating fascination. Turn on the TV or radio or a podcast or anything else and chances are that you would not experience anything like it.
But today, the voices from my iPhone dominate. In the morning, it’s the softly angelic harp of my alarm. At the close of my screen, the click-crunch sound that triggers with every press of the sleep/wake button. And then there are the panicky moments when I realise I’m at that dreaded 1% battery level. Running towards a plug, frantically jamming in the charging cable, that ridiculous rush is lightened by a confirmatory dampened ‘ping’, almost like a sigh of relief from my phone.
What I find striking is how pervasive sound is for my own experiences of the physical. At least where technology is concerned, tranquility, excitement, anticipation and even outright fear and relief are intimately connected with non-textual audiovisual experiences. Whilst it is conventional to focus on media texts as sources of emotion and nostalgia, there is significant value is examining the everyday object for its own link with the audiovisual.
ap2go. “VHS in an old VCR - Mechanical Sounds”. YouTube video. Posted 1 July, 2017. Accessed 02 October 2020. Available at: https://youtu.be/RZTBrZaLbbU
willterminus. “The Sound of dial-up Internet”. YouTube video. Posted 9 November, 2008. Accessed 03 October 2020. Available at: https://youtu.be/gsNaR6FRuO0