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Music Listening / Positions

Interim Results for Future Exhibition Planning

Results from the Humboldt Lab project “Music Listening” are slated for integration in current exhibition plans for the Humboldt-Forum’s ethnomusicological collection. With the goal of reviewing which aspects of the technology, design, and content had proven successful and which could be recycled – as well as which could be improved or even discarded –, on February 4, 2015, the Listening Space served as the venue for a half-time talk for the project participants: Lars-Christian Koch, Ricarda Kopal, and Albrecht Wiedmann (Ethnologisches Museum), Martin Heller and Agnes Wegner (Humboldt Lab Dahlem), Alexander Lindau (Technische Universität Berlin) and Vanessa Offen (Ralph Appelbaum Associates).
Compilation and editing: Barbara Schindler

Dimensions of the Interplay between Acoustic and Visual Aspects

Ricarda Kopal: The first question that we want to talk about is the combination of acoustic and visual elements (in both the “Listening Space” and the “Making of…” space) – and how that works. We’ve reached a good point, I believe, where we can discuss this topic: The first program from Werner Durand was purely acoustic, the second program, “Kathak dancing” by Nicole Lehmann, has very strong visual elements. Both have helped us understand how the screen works in this space and what we can learn as we continue our planning in the Humboldt-Forum – or where we need to take a different approach.

Lars-Christian Koch: There were strong opinions as to whether we should even include a screen at all – now in Humboldt Lab and later in the Humboldt-Forum – and whether we should use two or four monitors. Because an ideal setup wasn’t compatible with our budget, we agreed to not include any visual elements for the opening of “Music Listening” and then add the screen later for “Kathak” – as a test of sorts.

Martin Heller: Right now, the number of screens in the Listening Space seems like a secondary issue. What really counts, I think, is being able to tune out everything else and concentrate on a purely acoustic production. Supplementary information could be provided on a leaflet. Our current setup has a concentric symmetry, with a central screen and chairs arranged around it. Adding the voice of a speaker to the mix would create what I’d call a classic “slideshow situation” and destroy the space’s potential.

Kopal: How to combine acoustic and visual components was a very basic issue we faced. But I think it went too far; at some point the visual aspect was getting too much attention.

Albrecht Wiedmann: I think it’s a shame to be talking about visual components when what we’re doing is designing a Listening Space. We should be looking at the technical equipment and features that have been integrated so far and ask whether the current program is using its full potential. I think that holds for Durand’s program; for “Kathak” a 5.1 surround system could have done the job as well. We need to decide whether we want to integrate those types of programs in this type of space. “Kathak” is interesting, no doubt, but it doesn’t need all that this system can do.

Kopal: You could even say that the visual and acoustic aspects are at odds. The acoustic experience doesn’t develop its full potential because the visitor is focused on the screen – probably because there is only one.

Alexander Lindau: There are also some technical and dramaturgical options that could be employed to dissipate that tension, both in time and space. If images are going to be used, then you could give visitors the option to move through the space if they want to see them, but it’s not a requirement. Another great idea that came up was to project footsteps onto the floor to encourage visitors to follow along and dance with “Kathak”. Another option for decoupling acoustic and visual program elements would be to interweave the programs. For example, you could start off with “Kathak”, and then cut to black and listen to Werner Durand’s piece for five minutes. That would be an option for consciously switching between visual and acoustic time-space arrangements.

Wiedmann: But that doesn’t eliminate the need to give visitors some form of orientation as to their location in time and space.

Lindau: That’s exactly why I imagined a screen that would show the day’s schedule, for example. Then visitors would see what had just happened and what was coming up. The current program would be shown in bold and include the progress in minutes...

Vanessa Offen: Right, normally the individual programs shouldn’t last longer than 20 minutes.

Kopal: Early on it also wasn’t clear whether we would play the programs in a consecutive loop or whether it would be better to set a thematic focus, to play one program Tuesdays and another Wednesdays, and alternate on a weekly or daily basis. That’s something we could try. Then we could also rearrange the interior furnishings and get rid of all visual elements (basically, the screen) to listen to Durand’s program or the Cairo soundscape, because it’s not necessary in either of those contexts.

Heller: Another interesting aspect is very important: “Kathak” is a spoken program, and in terms of regulating the acoustics, the sounds are probably relatively subdued in comparison with the vocal elements. Ultimately it’s a didactic piece about a phenomenon – but it doesn’t matter whether I am sitting in the Listening Space or at a computer. What I have is a learning session or an educational unit and at the end I have a certain takeaway, but it’s no longer an experience.

Koch: The initial plans were different. We originally wanted to have four different information settings on four screens located at different points in the space – so what you hear would vary depending on your location.

Wegner: Now that’s an idea with potential! And we should definitely not forget the idea about footsteps on the floor. That would provide an added element to an “educational program” – then it would double as a dance class.

Kopal: That’s exactly what we thought and it’s why we did these recordings with Nicole Lehmann where she shows basic steps in Indian dance. It would have been possible to link that to illuminated spots on the floor that would encourage people to dance. It would have been an informational program on the one hand, where people learn something about the history of Kathak dance, for example, and then also give visitors the option to try it for themselves. But the project took a different course.

Heller: Those are things that people can take with them: one part that’s information and another that’s entertaining; it could also be interesting for other projects to decouple those two aspects.

Why Text and how to Integrate it

Kopal: That’s a good segue to the next question we want to talk about, which is whether a textual layer makes sense for each program and if so, how it can be integrated.

Wegner: What’s important is to give some sort of orientation in terms of time. When people are not immediately fascinated, they shift to “stroll mode” and wander through the house. Statistically, visitors spend 1.2 seconds at an object – they do stay longer here because of the seats and the screen, but then they keep strolling because they don’t know how long the program lasts.

Offen: And that effect will be reinforced in the Humboldt-Forum: first, because there will be more visitors and second, because there will be even more to see, especially in the neighboring rooms.

Heller: Getting back to the topic of text – with the Kathak program I thought the shift to the information layers was interesting, but just too packed. Up until the very end, I couldn’t help but wonder – how many topics do they want to convey here? It was never really clear: from colonial history to a comprehensive history of dance and then scenes from feature films – there were so many different elements competing for attention.

Kopal: Nicole Lehmann was striving for accuracy from a scientific perspective – especially when it came to representatives from the local source community and her colleagues from India. She didn’t want to make any mistakes and she wanted to provide a comprehensive picture.

Heller: In that case I would try to apply the principle of falsification as a guideline: nothing should be communicated that the source community would reject as incorrect. With other, more complex productions, we need to maintain a dialog with the authors about the material that’s been created and where the main focus lies.

Wegner: What are you planning for the new Sufi program?

Wiedmann: Our colleague Ulrich Wegner recorded a religious ceremony in Hamburg in a space that’s about the same size as what we have here and he now wants to collaborate with a sound artist to broadcast the sound recordings in our Listening Space. The installation will also include interviews with members of a Sufi congregation in Hamburg. All in all, the piece should last no longer than 30 minutes. Wegner wants to include a prayer corner as a fixed image; the picture should face toward the east. This program wouldn’t permit a random arrangement of screens...

Intensified Sight and Sound

Heller: Can we integrate what we’ve been talking about in our future planning: the idea of separate information and entertainment blocks, keeping a clear structure for the four levels – speaking, listening, seeing, and reading text – and making sure that there are less ambiguous passages, where I only see or only hear, so – unlike the radio feature – we always have variety.

Kopal: That will definitely be the case. Ulrich Wegner has also scrutinized the programs we’ve developed to date and given us some very specific feedback about things he would do differently. And he wants to hone in more on listening and make it the main focus.

Offen: So there won’t be a video or a still shot – not even for the Sufi, where the first thing that comes to mind is dance? I think one important issue that remains is to determine the programs or exhibits that really stand to gain from this technical setup. Of course there will also be situations in the Humboldt-Forum where acoustic elements will be part of an exhibition (for example old cassette recordings) and not require this type of sound system. We need to ask what situations it’s best suited for and when this effect takes hold.

Lindau: The Ambisonics equipment develops its full potential with dynamic scenes that develop a presence in space with many individual acoustic objects. The system gives us the possibility to manipulate each object in terms of its position, distance, and spatialization.

Koch: In the future we will also design these recordings differently (see the Sufi program). That’s the true added value that will transform our work, because these options will change how we make recordings in the field and the material we generate.

Martin Heller is a member of the management board of the Humboldt Lab Dahlem and responsible for the conceptual content of the Humboldt-Forum.

Prof. Dr. Lars-Christian Koch directs the Department of Ethnomusicology, Media Technology and the Berlin Phonogram Archive of the Ethnologisches Museum Berlin. He is Adjunct Professor of Ethnomusicology at the University of Cologne and Honorary Professor at the Academy of Arts, Berlin (UdK). His main research interests include theory and practice of Indian music, especially Northern Indian raga, organology, the intercultural study of musical aesthetics, interpretations of non-European music in historical context and music archeology.

Dr. Ricarda Kopal is a research associate and curator at the Department of Ethnomusicology, Media Technology and the Berlin Phonogram Archive of the Ethnologisches Museum Berlin. In her research, she primarily focuses on (popular) music in and from Northern Europe, interactions between new media technology, music cultures and ethnomusicological research, as well as how ethnomusicology can approach “classical” music.

Dr. Alexander Lindau studied communication science, electrical engineering, and engineering acoustics at the Technische Universität (TU) Berlin, and completed his PhD at the Telekom Innovation Laboratories and the Department of Audio Communication at the TU Berlin. He currently works as a postdoctoral associate and research coordinator at the German Research Foundation (DFG) research group SEACEN (Simulation and Evaluation of Acoustical Environments). Alexander Lindau has authored, co-authored, and co-edited more than 50 conference presentations, journal articles, conference transcripts, and book chapters. His publications include contributions on the psychoacoustic and cognitive assessment of virtual acoustic environments as well as their technical optimization.

Vanessa Offen became an Interpretive Planner at Ralph Appelbaum Associates, Inc. (RAA), Berlin, in 2012 and is responsible in this capacity for all content-related matters in conjunction with the Humboldt-Forum. Prior to joining RAA, she worked at the offices of Praxis für Ausstellungen und Theorie [Hürlimann | Lepp | Tyradellis] as a project manager for large temporary exhibitions which included the projects “Wunder” (Hamburg, 2011), “Schmerz” (Berlin, 2007), “Arbeit. Sinn und Sorge” (Dresden, Frankfurt am Main, 2009/2012), “Max Frisch” (Zurich and Berlin, 2011/2012), “PSYCHOanalyse” (Berlin, 2006). She worked in press and PR for Studio Daniel Libeskind after studies in history, art history and law.

Agnes Wegner became Managing Director of the Humboldt Lab Dahlem in July 2012.

Albrecht Wiedmann completed training as a sound technician and studied comparative musicology and journalism. He currently works as a sound technician in the Ethnologisches Museum Berlin.

Barbara Schindler specializes in PR for cultural projects and events. Together with Dagmar Deuring and Christiane Kühl, she is responsible for the online project documentation of the Humboldt Lab Dahlem.

Words meet Sound. Accompanying Text for Musical Exhibitions

by Elisabeth Magesacher

As part of a project for the German Research Foundation (DFG), my research involves examining current musical exhibitions that present musical instruments from non-European contexts. Analyzing the concepts and interpretations offered by exhibits in the Ethnologisches Museum in Berlin, the Musée de la musique in Paris, or the Münchner Stadtmuseum is part of this project. Because one of the main focuses lies on public reception, visitors’ impressions are recorded in brief interviews. What I’ve noticed as I compare these statements is that nearly all interviewees either emphasize listening opportunities – samplings from different instruments, media stations, sound installations, and similar offers – as an especially memorable part of their visit or they criticize the lack thereof in exhibitions. This illustrates, on the one hand, the  (understandable) expectation on the part of museum-goers of visiting a musical exhibition and actually hearing something during their visit. On the other hand, it seems that despite all the technical possibilities we have today, listening is still not par for the course in this context.

How recipients listen to sounds, make sense of, and assign a relevance to what they hear is primarily influenced by what they already know about music, the musical context, the aural aesthetics, and similar aspects. In musical exhibitions, written information about exhibition content can therefore take on an important role. This information affects how visitors perceive an exhibition by suggesting individual readings, conclusions, “aha” experiences, and thought processes. It can also limit or expand possibilities of interpretation. In addition to conveying information and labeling, explaining, or commenting on exhibit content, written text also provides a source of orientation by guiding visitors through an exhibition and creating links between content. The type, quantity, and position of text are also important to how exhibitions are received.

In the following, I will discuss the “Listening Space” conceptualized for the Humboldt Lab project “Music Listening” and the instrument making project “Making of ...” from an analytical perspective with a specific focus on accompanying text. How much text is used and where is it placed? Which functions does the text have and does it serve an informational or an orientational purpose? Does it encourage individual conclusions or reflection? Can it be read as separate blocks or does it only work in a specific sequence? How does it account for the varying backgrounds and previous knowledge of visitors?

“Listening Space”

The Listening Space, a separate room within the exhibition area, serves as a platform for four different audiovisual programs. There is no text in the Listening Space proper; all key information is provided outside the room: visitors can see the program title, duration, and authors – giving them a quick source of orientation and a preview of the adjoining room. This format is accommodating to recipients who merely want a brief overview without reading any additional text. Further information on the programs is available in the form of brief descriptions which explain the program development, content, and structure in a few sentences and are worded to eliminate the need for specific expertise to understand the program. This text serves to spark the visitors’ interest and make them want to enter the Listening Space. In addition to program descriptions, a poster with text, photos, and sketches provides information on the technical features and equipment in the Listening Space. Although some more demanding explanations might not always be easy to understand for all visitors, the figures and sketches provide a vivid glance at the technical equipment and how the Listening Space developed in its acoustics. Two additional descriptions discuss the underlying concept of this space as well as the exhibition “Music Listening” as a whole. They not only inform, but also reflect on options for presenting audiovisual sources in exhibitions. Particularly the questions1 that are formulated in these texts encourage an individual engagement and analysis.

The Listening Space itself contains no text, a choice that enables visitors to concentrate on the program, their perceptions, and their individual sound experience. Text situated outside the space, in contrast, provides information about different aspects of this concept and offers a more in-depth engagement with the content.

“Making of ...”

The “Making of ...” area contains a text about the project that led up to the exhibition: two instrument makers, one from Germany and one from India, set out to convert two identical string instruments in order to reflect their respective acoustic ideals. Audiovisual documentation of this intercultural project is shown on a monitor in the exhibition area. The actual project description is preceded by a text segment2 that explains the relationship between making instruments and culture-specific ideas of sound. Beyond being informative, the text also encourages an individual consideration of sound aesthetics. In the exhibition itself, text segments, which can be read independently, are placed in the immediate vicinity of instruments to comment3 on these objects. Because they refer directly to the instruments on display, they convey a variety of information in a very clear and concise format. This breadth appeals to visitors with different backgrounds and prior knowledge, despite the use of specific jargon.

Connections between exhibited instruments, video material, and the intercultural instrument-making project as the actual point of departure for the exhibition could be emphasized more clearly in the descriptions to allow visitors to grasp the overall concept more easily. For example, while the text about the featured instrument, a Danelectro Coral sitar, describes how the instruments were modified by the two makers from Germany and India, the connection to the project is only understandable after having read the description in the previously mentioned text entitled “Making of ...” Because of the intriguing nature of the intercultural experiment, this explanation could be positioned far more prominently and placed, for example, on an individual panel in a central location. This would also provide a better source of orientation in the exhibition. References to the videos shown would also clarify the relationships between individual elements and help bring out the overall concept more clearly.

Beyond Listening

The Humboldt Lab project “Music Listening” is highly responsive to the wish expressed by visitors to actually “hear things” in musical exhibitions. The Listening Space creates a place where audiovisual sources can be presented to an audience in a unique tonal quality and – especially by eliminating any text in the space itself – the focus can be kept on listening. Not only sound samples, but also longer programs can be presented in a separate area, so listening can assume a greater importance compared to exhibitions in other museums. The “Making of ...” concept shows how musical instruments can be approached through an intercultural project and deals with the topic of instrument making, which is frequently neglected in other musical exhibitions.

In terms of its accompanying text, “Music Listening” is similar to other current musical exhibits, to the extent that it relies on a minimal quantity of text. These segments provide information at different knowledge levels and can largely be read as independent modules. This approach to exhibition text enables an individual interaction with the topic and goes beyond a purely informative function to initiate multiple readings among recipients.

1 “What can visitors see, when they listen? What should they hear and see?” “How can a sound archive, and its extremely diverse contents, be exhibited and thus made audible and tangible [...]?”
2 “Musical instruments and sound objects are constructed according to aesthetic concepts that are based on culturally specific sound expectations [...]”.
3 “A sarod is fashioned out of a block of wood, has a tapered body, a skin soundboard and a conically tapered neck as well as resonating strings. It is a fretless stringed instrument and with a metal plate as a fingerboard.”

Elisabeth Magesacher (MMag.) studied musicology with a concentration in ethnomusicology at the University of Vienna. Her thesis “Mandoliny: Die Halslaute Südwestmadagaskars” (Mandoliny: the lute of southwest Madagascar) received a research award from the Dr. Walther Liebehenz Foundation for excellence in cultural musicology/ethnomusicology (Georg-August-Universität Göttingen). She is currently a project member in the German Research Foundation (DFG) project “Music exhibitions. Studies on presentation and reception of musical topics in museums” directed by Prof. Dr. Andreas Meyer at the Folkwang University of the Arts in Essen.