13 Apr 2019

Ways of Hearing

From RNZ Music, 2:30 pm on 13 April 2019

Galaxie 500 drummer Damon Krukowski has produced a podcast and book called Ways of Hearing. Over six segments, Krukowski breaks down the way digital audio has changed our relationships with sound, music and even each other. He speaks with Elliott Childs about the project.

Drummer and author Damon Krukowski

Drummer and author Damon Krukowski Photo: Damon Krukowski

There is an irony to using a smart phone to listen to a podcast about the ways portable digital audio has changed our perception and experience of the world. I find myself stopping the show every few minutes, just to make sure I'm appreciating the audible aspects of my walk to work.

But this rather meta concept is all part of Ways of Hearing, the podcast and book by Damon Krukowski.

The use of this intimate digital format to ask questions about how our lives have been changed by the tsunami of digital audio in the past decade is designed to demonstrate Krukowski's point.

Talking to me over the phone from his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Krukowski explains that he was inspired by Ways of Seeing, a 1970's TV series created by art critic John Berger who looked at how the context of art and its subjects changed given the passage of time and advances in technology. “The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled,” Berger wrote.

"There are moments [in Ways of Hearing] where I was trying to call the listener's attention to the artifact of it. So there'll be moments when we're manipulating the sound and we tell you we're manipulating the sound. And there are moments where you feel, this could not be done live. And that's deliberate."

Krukowski suggests that our relationship with music has been affected by the move to digital in more ways than we realise. As well as obvious changes such as declining music sales over the last 20 years and the rise of streaming services, there are more subtle adjustments, like the way that the recommendation algorithms of these streaming services rarely offer you anything surprising to listen to.

"What they're trying to predict is what will keep you engaged with their programme. It's a fight for attention.

"It's a peculiar situation and it's one that discourages surprise. Because surprise has the potential to push you off into some new direction. And that's precisely what they don't want. Spotify wants you not to shut the thing off. And how do get someone not to shut something off? Well, don't play them anything that they hate. But of course how do you find what you love without hearing what you hate?"

Krukowski's career began as a drummer. As part of the hugely influential indie bands Galaxie 500 and Damon & Naomi, Krukowski was part of the generation of musicians who began making records in an analogue studio and recording to tape, but as time and technology progressed found themselves making music in a new, digital environment.

While the convenience of digital recording - and the ease with which a musician can remove mistakes, re-record parts and manipulate sound - was impressive and useful to him, Krukowski found himself vexed by one element of the digital process.

"There's always a lag. Sometimes it's a big lag. Sometimes it's so tiny … but if you're a drummer, you notice it.

"We're dealing with these weird, slight, time lags all the time. I have to back shuffle my drum tracks by 43 microseconds or something to get my drum hits back to where they are in real time, because the computer has taken a slight bit of microsecond time to process it and get it laid down on the track."

Ways of Hearing

Ways of Hearing Photo: MIT Press

Though it serves as a jumping off point, Ways of Hearing does not just focus on music.

'Space', the chapter that covers how our relationship with our surroundings has been changed, discusses how the portability of audio has allowed us to isolate ourselves and create our own, private bubbles in very public spaces.

"What started to make more and more sense to me was to approach the ways this was connected to the trouble that we're having at large in the culture," explains Krukowski.

The chapter on Love also delves into how the digitisation of phones has changed the way we use them to communicate. The unreliable nature of cell phone connections and the harsher sound of compressed voices captured by smaller microphones has made phone conversations a lot less enjoyable in recent years.

I point out that our conversation itself is a rather good illustration of Krukowski's point on this matter. We're talking over a landline with him using an older, standard phone and me using a studio quality microphone.

"We haven't dropped the call right?! There's no time delay ... I could talk to my wife just down the block and it would sound worse."

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