John Kannenberg


Major Sound Works

A SOUND MAP OF THE EGYPTIAN MUSEUM, CAIRO [2011]

A Sound Map of the Egyptian Museum, Cairo cover

Released by: 3LEAVES
Running time: 60:00
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Excerpt:

About the project:

A Sound Map of the Egyptian Museum, Cairo
With Notes on Sound’s Relationship to Space, Collection and Experience

Two channel stereo soundscape composition
Duration: 60:00

During a five-week stay in Egypt in April and May 2010, I devoted four days to recording the sounds present inside and outside the Egyptian Museum, Cairo, resulting in the eight hours of material from which this composition has been created. As a cultural institution, the Egyptian Museum in Cairo represents one of the foundations of human history; as a soundscape, it represents an unexpectedly rich sonic experience with its own place in the history of a country now in transition.

Opened in 1902, the current architectural structure housing the Egyptian Museum has had little renovation work since, with historic objects of world heritage stored in dusty, decaying galleries. Plans have been underway for years to move the collection to a new location at the Grand Egyptian Museum in the contemporary Cairo suburb Mohandiseen, the ancient site of Giza. Once the transition to the new museum space becomes a reality, the original museum in Cairo will never again sound as it did during the making of these recordings.

Even before this relocation project was undertaken, the uprising of January 25, 2011 transformed the Egyptian Museum’s location near Tahrir Square into a battleground in the struggle between anti-government protesters and forces loyal to Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian president whose thirty year-long rule served as the catalyst for revolt. As scores of citizens formed a human chain around the museum, looters entered the museum from its roof; many artifacts were stolen, damaged and eventually returned in pieces. With the subsequent resignation of Mubarak, Egypt became a changed land – and in the process, the sonic environment of the Egyptian Museum became altered as well.

As a record of the sonic experience of this entropic space, the sound map I have constructed presents a virtual tour of a museum in decay. Yet this physically needy structure is still an active node in the cultural network of humanity. With its contents partially looted, the museum’s identity has been ruptured; yet it has also been elevated to a new level of importance as the world scrutinizes the developing situation in Egypt. This soundscape composition preserves the museum’s pre-revolution sonic identity while foregrounding its ongoing role as a nexus where the paths of world history cross.

Process

At the time these recordings were made, the soldiers who patrolled the museum enforced a strict policy that prohibited all cameras or recording devices. I was forced to smuggle my recorders past three x-ray scanners, metal detectors, and a body search each time I entered the museum in order to avoid being banned from visiting. More than once my recorders were discovered. A polite yet nevertheless deceptive untruth on my part – the insistence that the recorder was a mobile phone – was usually enough explanation for the soldiers and other museum security officers to allow my work to continue, even when their inquiries about the possibility of my possessing a camera were occasionally punctuated with a rifle pointed in my direction. This constant deception and fear of discovery informed the recording process. I became obsessed with capturing sound in every room, right under the noses of the soldiers, determined to bring home a “complete” record of my experience. The idea of constructing a sound map similar to those of rivers made by Annea Lockwood came later; while recording, I was solely focused on completing a collection.

They are far from pristine recordings. The need for secrecy often overshadowed my ability to capture sound devoid of the evidence of my own physical presence – the listener occasionally hears my footsteps, the rustle of my messenger bag, my hands on the microphone, and wind noise from fans and open windows. This is not always easy listening, but it is true to the experience.

Museums are generally thought of as quiet spaces. This piece is far from quiet; paradoxically, it is the closest to a noise piece that I have ever produced as an artist. This along with its somewhat documentary subject matter makes it a departure, yet the piece's preoccupations with space, collection, and the experience of sound through time has deep roots in my artistic practice.

Space

Our perception of space is at the very least equally defined by both its visual and sonic properties. Yelling "hello" while hiking in the mountains doesn't just create a sonic event that we respond to, it helps us perceive the size and shape of the space we are in at that moment. Yet within contemporary society, the sonic is routinely and emphatically subsumed by the visual, the eye being the primary means by which we choose to perceive our world and its spaces. Spatial memory is most often driven by the visual: we want a picture of the inside of that cathedral, and we want to remember what that room containing the Mona Lisa looks like. But what do these spaces sound like? And what happens if we hear the sounds of those places again once we are back home? Can recorded sound help make our memories more real than real?

Sound not only defines our perception of space, it can also change it. If I sit in the living room of my tiny apartment listening to a recording of a freeway and feel the traffic moving across the stereo field, I am instantly outside in my mind, in a virtually endless space. Switch to the sound inside of a massive library, and suddenly the walls around me feel further away. If I close my eyes the effect is even more tangible. Listen to the sound through headphones and the effect becomes hyperreal, more real than the actual space I am sitting in, because of the sound's physical proximity to – and inside – my body. Even this simulated, artificially reproduced sound activates the space I occupy in ways that alter my perception of my current surroundings. It is transformative and transportive. Looking at a picture of a canyon is like looking at a model ship in a bottle; hearing the sound of that canyon is more like standing on the deck of a full-sized ship. Recorded sound's physical properties allow us to travel to other spaces, even to other times, by fundamentally and physically altering our perception of the space we occupy while listening to it.

Upon entering the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, I suppressed the urge to yell "hello." The sounds I made (footsteps, the Velcro and zippers on my messenger bag, the cracks and gurgles of my plastic water bottle) helped me perceive the vastness of space inside the museum. If I closed my eyes and just listened, I could still feel myself being dwarfed by colossal statues, by a massive central court whose damaged skylights kept a fragile barrier between the objects inside and the elements outside. I felt this space not only because I saw it, but also because I heard it. The invisible physicality of sound acts as an ephemeral yardstick, measuring ourselves against our environment.

Collection

I am a collector of sounds. Museums collect objects. I prioritize my memories of space and place through a collection of the sounds I find most representational of my experience. Museums prioritize society's memories of history through a collection of objects they find most representative of the culture that their mission compels them to represent.

Museums as sonic environments contain a record of the present day mingled with the past. Every echo, every footstep, every creaking floor, every cough that I record while in a museum captures information about my time in that place – but it also captures information about how these sounds are affected by the historic objects in that space. Paintings absorb sounds, sculptures reflect them – these are the active sounds of history. Can objects somehow retain a record of these sonic collisions? Do objects remember us through sound, and us them? I walk through a museum and I walk through time itself, my sonic body interacting with the objects on view to create a new history of sound objects – fragments of ongoing history that I am driven to collect.

During the time I spent there, the sonic environment of the Egyptian Museum produced an endless array of sonic objects of its own: the squeaking fan at the entrance to the Tutankhamun galleries, the buzz of “ancient” fluorescent lights about to burn out, ticking security devices in nearly every room, drills and hammers making spot repairs. After four days I had collected sounds in every publicly accessible space in the museum, mapping each of the gallery spaces through a series of unique acoustic events. The collection was complete.

Experience

It is tempting to think of our experience of time as linear. We only seem to move in one direction: forward. Yet we spend much of that linear time dwelling on events of the past or anticipating the future. Similarly, while walking through a museum our sense of history is seldom linear. Even if the museum’s exhibition designers have organized their collection chronologically, we as museum visitors rarely follow that path – our eyes draw us to certain objects, or we seek out objects we might not ordinarily be compelled to spend time with because they are free of a crowd and are therefore more easily looked at. We may methodically read every word on the objects’ descriptive labels or choose to experience them non-verbally, in a purely visual, visceral manner. Our experience of the histories that museums present involves a great deal of chance operations.

Similarly, when constructing a soundscape composition it rarely benefits the composer or the listener to approach the material from a purely linear, documentary perspective. While I have attempted to make this sound map feel logical to the ear, it plays with time and space in illogical yet deeply considered ways. Although the piece follows a predominantly linear path through the museum, the laws of physics are often tossed out the window, making transitions between events and spaces that are physically impossible or merging multiple recordings of the same space from different viewpoints in order to present a more "authentic" sonic experience. As the piece progresses it adheres less and less to representational space and follows its own internal logic, focusing the listener's attention on juxtaposed areas of interest through a sort of sonic impressionism. The deeper the listener becomes immersed in the experience of listening, the less conventional representation is necessary: you are a part of this constructed sound world now, in this moment, and the rules of actual time and space no longer need apply. The piece becomes a map of sound with sound, one that both represents and reconfigures the physical space that generated it. As museum curators have their own perspectives and biases supported by the objects they choose to display, so I as the composer display what I believe the audience would most benefit from hearing.

The piece's final minutes are a transition back to the physical world, the world of reality and of the present, echoing the same sensation a museum visitor has upon leaving the internal logic of a curated collection of objects to return to the unfiltered and unmediated world of the everyday. As the sound map leaves the museum, the rules snap back into place and linearity returns. The listener and I exit – like all good museum visitors do – through the gift shop. The ending reprise of the museum's outdoor water fountain cleanses the listener's ear in preparation to return to the real sonic world around them, one undoubtedly far away from this particular museum and the turmoil that has recently surrounded it.

Production notes

Original recordings captured in the Egyptian Museum, Cairo on April 30, May 3, May 7, and May 28, 2010 with a Zoom H2 and an Olympus LS-10.

Composed, edited and mastered August 2010 - January 2011