release date: 19 july 2022

It’s been a while since I offered an episode built from field recordings and I had an idea about building a composition from overheard speech, from recordings made in many different contexts over the past twenty years that included or centered on speech – artist talks, interviews, conversations, accidental encounters, people together in different social contexts.

In addition to the wonderful diversity of human voices, languages and acculturated forms of expression, there is a wide variety of inherent musicalities in the rhythms, cadences and interplays of voice as speakers navigate different situations. The stage, the street, the lounge room are all different places that provoke, allow or demand different vocal presentation of speakers.

Then there’s the well-known phenomena of the surprising human ability to differentiate and comprehend the speech of a voice of particular interest, against a surrounding background of competing sounds including other voices – the cocktail party effect, also known as selective hearing, though I prefer selective listening.

I’ll say that its unlikely this ability is limited to humans – anyone who’s watched urban birds calling to each other across distances filled with buildings and machine sounds will appreciate that they can discern and respond to the vocalisations of their species within the auditory chaos of cities. And, of course, natural ecologies like rainforests can be very noisy places, especially at dawn and dusk, so this is not a recent adaptation forced by human impact…

Reading around the cocktail party effect reveals that the phenomena began to be scientifically investigated in earnest in the 1950s, on both sides of the Iron Curtain, with intentions around understanding aspects of how the brain functions and processes sensory input.

The suggestive phrase ‘speech shadowing’ was one method of experimental investigation – developed in Leningrad- where participant subjects are required to repeat phrases heard through headphones, sometimes with different speech being played to each ear simultaneously.

These experiments yielded many interesting observations including that we have the ability to selectively comprehend one stream of speech and at the same time recognise words or phrases of importance in a second stream, especially the mention of our own names.

Another more recent observation arising from ‘speech shadowing’ experiments is that drivers are more able to focus on the attentive demands of driving if the sound of a phone call they’re part of is coming from speakers in front of rather than to the side of or behind the driver – something to do with not splitting directional attention.

Current developments arising from cocktail party effect research include incorporating artificial intelligence and noise cancelling softwares with hearing aids  to provide a synthetic cocktail party effect that helps people with hearing loss be able to participate in noisy social situations.

I had already built this episode before beginning my reading research, and its a deep rabbit hole so I’ll stop here and let the composition unfold. I hope you find it an interesting listening experiment.

List of sounds heard in the episode
5:00 – GW describing a video by artist Paula de Solminihac he is watching at Rivus Biennale of Sydney 2022

6:20 – writer Nick Keys speaking to an outdoor gathering at Bundanon Siteworks 2010

7:00 – spoken word sound of a video at Rivus 2022

8:20 – streets of Redfern, outside my apartment 2021

8:40 – African labourers sitting in the street outside my apartment, eating lunch 202

9:40 – streets of Redfern, outside my apartment 2022

10:00 – GW in conversation with artist Julie Rapp 2022

10:40 – crowd at NAS art gallery, waiting for talk to begin 2022

11:25 – artist Hiraku Suzuki speaking at Tokyo book launch via Instagram live 2022

13:30 – writer & art crtiic Boris Gruys speaking at Biennale of Sydney 2006

15:00 – three house painters chatting while wokring across the road

15:20 – streets of Redfern, outside my apartment

16:20 – lecture at art school by visiting South American artist 2014
– conversation with art student Noah D.

18:10 – GW conversation in the art school grounds

19:00 – internet news broadcast from NHK Japan. 11 March 2021

22:50 – artist Wura Natasha Ogunji speaking at the National Art School, Sydney as part of Rivus Biennale of Sydney 2022

22:50 – interview with artist Barabra Campbell

27:00 – writers Ross Gibson and Vanessa Berry in conversation 2021

ambient backgrounds
4:30-19:00 – slowed and filter manipulated recordings of tapping containers in the kitchen larder

5:00 – 20:00 – small group of women chatting in a courtyard outside my apartment 2022

07:00 – 15:00 – travelling between stations on Sydney trains 2021

08:30-14:30 -class of my 2022 art students at NAtional Art School, Sydney

17:00 – 24:00 – sounds of performance staged by artist Wura Natasha Ogunji as part of Rivus 2022 Sydney BoS

21:50 – 24:15 – crowd at Shinto horse riding archery event Dermachi Yanagi, Kyoto 2017

28:00 – 30:00 slowed and filter manipulated recordings of lathe shards of an accidentally broken large bowl