Curating sound


As a virtual listening gallery and museum for sound, Radio Nouspace is inspired by the legacy radio culture and medium with its emphasis on sound(s) consciously curated and broadcast as related knowledge modalities (i.e. programs) for the purpose of interpreting and distributing information to a broad public. This inquiry explores curating sound, which sounds to curate and why. Radio+sound art and radio+sound drama are the focus for their ability to engage both the features and affordances (potentials for particular actions) of the radio medium and the listener's imagination. Curating is positioned as providing access to, experience with, or learning from the curated object(s). This is different from archiving—collecting and preserving as complete a record as possible of the context associated with collected/curated objects—even though these efforts may overlap.


Presentations and publications based on this inquiry include . . .
"Sound and Electronic Literature: 'Under Language' and 'Narrative Archaeology'" International Conference on Digital Media and Textuality, 3-5 November 2016.
This presentation described remixing (recombining, reconceptualizing) sound artifacts from pioneering works electronic literature no longer readily available to readdress the originals more effectively than through description or transcription, and challenge thinking about and practice of future digital media and textuality. The techne proposed here promotes new opportunities and challenges for moving forward with our conceptions and practices regarding sound based electronic literature. From something comes something more.

Barber, John. "Re-created radio dramas as innovative knowledge environments." Scholarly and Research Communication October 2016. Alyssa Arbuckle (, Lynne Siemens, and Alex Christie (Eds.). (Forthcoming, October 2016.
This essay describes live performance re-creations of vintage radio dramas as participatory knowledge environments in which to explore both the context of original production for these dramas as well as their continued ability to communicate complex narratives to listening audiences.

"Sound Curation by Re-creation: The War of the Worlds Radio (re)Broadcast." Leonardo Electronic Almanac. Histories, Theories and Practices of Sound Art special issue. Lanfranco Aceti, James Bulley, John Drever, eds. (in press; January 2017).

"Sound: A Literary Memory Media Art Experience." Archival Uncertainties: International Conference on Literary Archives. The British Library, London, England. 4 April 2016. (With Dene Grigar and Kate Pullinger)
Discussed my efforts to move archival efforts associated with sound-based literary artifacts, specifically radio dramas, from preservation to performance as a method for encouraging engagement with these archival objects, as well as increasing understanding regarding the cultural and historical context(s) surrounding their original creation.

"Curation by Re-Creation: Innovative, New Knowledge Model for Classic Radio Drama." INKE (Implementing New Knowledge Environments), Whistler, Canada, 19 January 2016.
Discussed curation by re-creation as a viable methodology for promoting new knowledge of audio drama from the so-called "Golden Age of radio," the 1920s-1950s. Using surviving recordings, scholars can consider the sound cultures and practices associated with listening to radio drama from this period. But, through their re-creation, we can better understand the ability of these radio dramas to communicate complex language, images, narratives, and storytelling to a listening audience.


This inquiry began as preparation for a presentation delivered at the Sound Art Curating Conference (part of International Sound Arts Curation Series), Goldsmith's, University of London, and The Courtauld Institute of Art, London, England, 15-17 May 2014. The purpose is to describe sound curation as applied to radio+sound art and radio+audio drama.

Curation is described broadly as selecting, organizing, and presenting artifacts for some purpose: information, education, entertainment. Any artifact might be curated: baseball cards, paintings, sound files.

More specific approaches to curation might include . . .

Contextualizing the sound with information
Creating interactive experiences focused on listening
Framing, setting up an experience with art
Providing the power of personal testimony
Promoting narrative, with hooks where visitors can connect their personal experiences
Sharing stories
Providing stewardship
Making sense of artifacts
Continuing preservation by making things available in the future

In all instances, curating is about providing access to, experience with, or learning from the curated object(s). This is different from archiving—collecting and preserving as complete a record as possible of the context associated with collected/curated objects—even though some efforts may overlap.

Why Curate Sound?

There are several reasons to curate sound: public outreach, sharing, scholarship, focusing attention, or interpreting / extending a sound experience. But perhaps most fundamentally, we curate sound because as noted ethnomusicologist and sound ecologist Jeff Todd Titon says, "Sound connects. It offers insight into a world worth observing." [1]

Bruce R. Smith adds to this idea when he notes, ". . . most of us live immersed in a world of sound (Smith, 127). . . . Sound is at once the most forceful stimulus that human beings experience, and the most evanescent" (Smith, 128). He lists three reasons for studying sound. By extension, I suggest these are also reasons for curating sound . . .

  • Sound, as an object of study, has been neglected
  • Knowing the world through sound is fundamentally different from knowing the world through vision
  • Most academic disciplines are vision-based, not only in the materials they study, but in the theoretical models they deploy to interpret those materials (Smith, 129) [2]

Additional reasons for curating sound might include . . .

Sound is ephemeral, disappearing, its meaning quickly lost, traveling away from its source at fantastic speed.
Sound is temporal, but capable of returning, there but not there, a feeling, a sense, an experience, perhaps unheard.
Sound was the original and remained the fundamental sensory input and communication channel for human culture until the widespread acceptance of writing and printing.
Sound conveys deep, rich information; is capable of providing immersive, interactive contexts for listeners. Through the act of careful listening, listeners can derive a great deal of information about the world they inhabit.
Sound transforms space to place.
Sound is the phoneme for speech (verbalization of abstract thought).
Sound is the central component of narrative (the recounting of a sequence of events and their meaning).
Sound is the driver of storytelling (the addition of setting, plot, characters, logical unfolding of events, a climax).
Sound is the basis for literature (written works considered to possess lasting artistic merit) and the various practices and cultures associated with its production and consumption (reading, writing, and listening).

In short, sound is the basis of our world, a world where we are immersed in sound (Smith), a world worth observing (Titon). Sound is the basis for humankind's original oral explanations of and interactions with the surrounding physical world. Sound provides expansive, unseen possibilities more powerful and encompassing than visualization with its more precise but limited fixed point of view. Even after the ascendency of visual space, acoustic space is characterized by what Edmund Carpenter calls the verbal, musical, and poetic traces and fragments of oral culture. [3]

I develop these ideas more fully in my evolving theoretical framework for sound.

How To Curate Sound?

Keeping with a working definition that curating involves selecting, organizing, and presenting objects, how does curating proceed?


Mark Tribe, speaking to curation more generally, suggests three curatorial strategies: documentation, migration, and emulation. Documentation involves recounting the curated object through written accounts. Migration involves moving the curated object from one, no longer viable context to another which will provide continued access to the object. Emulation involves a simulated or virtual context in which the curated object can function, after its original context becomes non-functional. [4]

Applying Tribe's approaches to sound we can consider documentation as descriptions of sound(s) that no longer exist in historical literature, diaries, journals, accounts, travelogues, letters, and other written accounts. Documentation can also provide insight into responses these sounds may have produced from listeners. Smith says such documentation is, in many cases, our only access to sounds no longer available for study. [5]

We can "hear" these lost sounds in our imagination, but the results may be less than ideal. For example, eighteen audio files accompany the book The Sounds of Slavery: Discovering African American History through Songs, Sermons, and Speech. These sound files, along with their descriptions provide insight into these lost, historical sounds, but it is difficult, except through our imaginations, to enjoy an engaging, immersive experience with the contexts surrounding their original making. [6]

As for migration, Tribe concedes it "only works for certain kinds of projects." We can, for example, hear lost sounds through migration, from say, original cylinder recordings to digital files, but again may miss the contexts surrounding their original making. [7]

And emulation, again, "may not work for a lot of projects." [8] Generally, emulation attempts to recreate an object as close as possible to the original, or in some more creative, interpretative iteration. For example "Symphony of Sirens" was never intended to be recorded. Instead, it was to be a massive celebration sonified by steam whistles and other industrial sounds, accompanied by military parades and massed choirs. Spectators were expected to contribute to the performance. An example of how this might have sounded was created using the composer's score and computers. The result is provides for a new relationship with the original aural experience. However, without the composer's original score, this experience would be lost.


With regard to organizing curated objects, we might consider arranging them in relation to each other as an interaction between time and space. Vince Dziekan says this approach makes a connection between artworks and the space in which they are displayed emphatic, "supplanting the self-contained artwork through techniques of assemblage, arrangement and spatial composition." [9]

Tamas Banovich argues that "space and arrangement of work and its presentation is fundamental in influencing how it is received and understood." [10] With regard to new media (read digital sound files), Banovich says the curator must understand the work, the ideas, the intention of the artist and then find a specific way to exhibit the work, minus interference from a particular curatorial idea, in a way that communicates the ideas behind the work through the medium of its exhibition. [11]


Organizing curated objects promotes a spectrum of approaches ranging from aesthetic to contextual. The aesthetic promotes understanding through communion with the artwork, the audience listening privately to sound files using headphones associated with a curated exhibition, for example. Contextual exhibitions might place more emphasis on the ability of sound(s) to represent their association with other objects and resources that add information, comparison, and explication. [12]

But, sound is the most ephemeral of media. Traveling away from its source in all directions at fantastic speed, sound may be lost. As a result, the original sound object may not exist, or be easily accessible. Sound recordings may seem a solution but they are not the original sound(s). Instead, they are representations, bracketed, set apart, separate, contained from the original context of the sound source. The time of the recording is also bracketed, a representation of the original. As a result, a recording is not an "authentic presentation" of either sound or temporality, but rather a representation of both. Bracketing helps create a space in which something can happen: engagement, physical action, for example, but anything that might happen is different than what might have been possible at the time and in the context of the original sounding.

For example, a performance by a blues musician on a stage in a blues club in a black neighborhood is different from a performance by that same musician in a concert hall. Different experiences might occur at both locations over the time frame of the performance. Curating and organizing a sound recording of both these experiences removes, separates, isolates the sound object from the context and time of its original sounding. One might argue that an exhibition of sound in a fixed space, like a gallery, is essentially a performerless concert.

Normally, when we visit exhibitions, we adhere to our own time. We determine how much of our time to spend with any curated / exhibited object. Sound objects, however, have their own time. Unless they are generative works, sound objects have a beginning, a middle, and an end. In order to appreciate the experience of a sound object, one, generally, is best to listen to the complete timeline.

But, we are uncomfortable with time frames other than our own. Being exposed to sound objects with their own time frames makes us uncomfortable. However, the next time we encounter a similar situation in the future, we will be better prepared for the experience.

Finally, simply replaying the original sounds(s) does not necessarily tell an audience what it is hearing, or why that sound is important. Beyond simply recreating historical, or lost, sounds, a curator should provide information about the historical, social, and cultural considerations of the time and place for the production of the original sound(s), their process(es) of production and distribution, and their reception. Curatorial statements / explanatory information can help, as can curatorial information / activities that position the ephemeral aural experience in relation to the changing interpretations of knowledge modalities created by the passage of time. As a result, the curator may provide immersive cultural, social, and physical contexts that involve participants with ephemeral sonic experiences in ways beyond just listening.

Curation by re-creation

To help educate an audience regarding what it hears, an enterprising curator may provide information and activities focusing on the historical, social, and cultural considerations of the time and place for the production of the original sound(s), their process(es) of production and distribution, and their reception. Such efforts can help position the ephemeral aural experience in relation to changing interpretations fostered by the passage of time. As a result, the curator may provide immersive cultural, social, and physical contexts that involve participants with ephemeral sonic experiences in ways beyond just listening.

I call this approach curation by re-creation, and argue it may provide a viable methodology for curating a sound culture where participants can explore and experience the conditions under which the sounds were originally created.

Curation by re-creation may promote multiple display opportunities, each, according to Charles Saumarez Smith, "a system of theatrical artifice." Furthermore, Smith says, "the best museum displays are often those which are most evidently self-conscious, heightening the spectator's awareness of the means of representation, involving the spectator in the process of display." [13]

Put another way, Peter Wollen says visual display allows one to experience the production rather than consumption. [14]

An upshot of such practices is helping the audience to understand artwork as the outcome of some performed process "(both in the sense of simulated, read 'staged,' and lived, read 'experienced'), rather than as a fixed, consolidated artefact [sic]." [15]

To investigate curation by re-creation, I developed and maintain a practic-based research project where I re-create, perform, and curate historic radio dramas for live audiences. I call this project "Re-imagined Radio." Learn more here.

Where To Curate Sound?

Ideally, we will curate / exhibit sound in places that encourage listening. Some contexts may seem appropriate, but offer significant problems. For example, both libraries and museums enjoy long traditions of curating and exhibiting artifacts, but both are challenging as sites for curating / exhibiting sound. Why?

Both libraries and museums curate silence and thoughtful contemplation very well. They do not promote sound(s) well. Sound can be disrupting, distracting, especially with multiple sound sources in spaces not designed for listening. People don't know how to listen. It may be difficult for visitors to connect sound(s) with objects / interpretations. Finally, many visitors may suffer hearing impairments.

Some of these drawbacks can be addressed with technology: focused speakers, placement of speakers as close to visitor's ears as possible, clearly marking speakers and listening opportunities, and making listening a communal experience.

Another solution is radio. Andrew Dubber argues that the term radio refers to a number of different, though related, phenomena. For example, radio is an institution; an organizational structure; a category of media content with its own characteristics, conventions, and tropes; a series of professional practices and relationships; etc. As a result, radio work, content, technologies, or cultures cannot be considered as single subjects or processes, but rather must be considered as an "ecology." [16]

At its heart, however, and throughout its history, radio is a culture and a medium based on sound(s) consciously collected (curated) and broadcast as related knowledge modalities (programs) for the purpose of interpreting and distributing information to a broad public. Curatorial choices regarding content selection and chronology affect the layers of expectations and meaning(s) associated with each collection (program). Listeners, for example, expect to hear a different aurally defined (curated) experience when they tune in radio news versus radio drama.

So, radio provides a fertile context for archiving and curating ephemeral sound experiences by providing not only a platform for listening, but also a system of dissemination/communication to a wider public(s) / audience(s) / listener(s) / participant(s).

Additionally, radio may provide prototypes for curatiorial attempts to return some experience that is past. In the early days of radio, live, on-the-scene radio news broadcasting was technologically difficult, if not impossible. As a result, news shows were often nothing more than dramatized documentaries of events. Actors used newsreels in their attempt to exactly duplicate the voices of news makers.

The CBS radio series You Are There (1947-1950) provided listeners the chance to be virtually present at significant historical events. Newscasters John Daly, Don Hollenbeck, and Richard C. Hottelet reported "live" from each dramatized news event.

Stroke of Fate (1953) featured weekly episodes each providing an alternate history based on fateful decisions or accidents. The first half of each episode was dramatized historical fact. The second half, following a point of divergence, was dramatized historical speculation. A prominent historian explained the divergence, the stroke of fate, at the end of each episode and how it might have changed actual history.

These prototypes suggest radio may offer a perfect platform for archiving and curating sound, as well as providing listeners a deep and rich aural experience. Specifically . . .

Radio connects thousands of people across time and distance using invisible, disembodied sound (voices, music, other) rich with representation and fertile with ability to engage listeners' deep imaginations.
Radio offers a "world of unspoken communication between writer-speaker and the listener." [17]
Radio resonates as a tribal drum, its magic weaving a web of kinship and prompting more depth of involvement for everyone. [18]
Radio, an extension of the human nervous system matched only by speech, affords tremendous power as "a subliminal echo chamber" to touch and play chords (memories/associations) long forgotten or ignored. [19]
Radio, by providing news bulletins, time signals, traffic data, and especially weather reports, produces an insatiable thirst for gossip, rumor, and other genres of personal information frequently utilized to involve people with one another. [20]
Radio, as a "fast hot medium," provides accelerated information throughput, thus contracting the world to village size oral contexts, the "global village." [21]
Radio subsumes speech, reemphasizes the aural, and returns the paralanguage qualities that printed text strips from speech. Given only sound, one must fill in missing information using other senses, not simply relying on the sight of the action involved with the production of the sound. This promotes deep listening, imagination, interaction, even immersion. [22]

What Sounds To Curate

Radio Nouspace focuses its curatorial practices on
radio art
sound art
radio drama
audio drama
for their focus on sound and ability to engage with listerners' imaginations. Please see these inquires for more information and listening opportunities.

Questions and Challenges

How to best connect curated / exhibited sound(s) and the ideas they represent? Where might visitors expect to find sounds such as those under curation? What other sounds might be heard in that context, beside the one(s) under curation? How much of those sounds might we hear? At what volume? And is the sound(s) under curation authentic, likely to be found in the original context? Does putting sounds in new contexts change our understanding of how the sounds were collected? How they should be perceived?

As noted, sound is ephemeral, disappearing soon after its creation. Does sound die? Does sound have a life its own after first sounding? Do we remember sounds we have heard? Or, does sound live on in memory, or documentary recording? If so, then might we need to think about how to write descriptions and preserve the documentation of sound? On the other hand, we might just let sound go. Once the sound is gone the artifact/sound object becomes a reminder of the original listening experience.

Recording provides a limited interpretative experience of the original sound, removed from direct experience in the space of its original context/sounding. If something site specific is presented elsewhere, the curator must imagine exhibit spaces that work with bracketing. How then to preserve information about the sound and the context of its original sounding? How to give site specific sound(s) a life beyond their original time frame? How to make the sound inviting? How to encourage the visitor to listen? Listening nooks, for example, are good for having sounds become the focus of the listening experience. Away from the main track of the exhibition, they may encourage visitors to stop and linger, and listen, to appreciate the time of the curated sound object.

These questions speak to some of the problems associated with curating / exhibiting sound. Both sound and listening are temporal experiences, experienced in time. The times of the original sounding and the later listening may be equal, but are they the same experience? Is either an authentic experience?

How to promote these opportunities with curated / exhibited sound(s)? How to curate so to shake up perception, to make more people listen differently. How to engage sound so it will have impact as well as honesty? These are challenges of curation: both for how we curate our live and how we exhibit our creative work.

I have suggested radio. A problem is, like sound, the momentary ephemerality of radio and its relation to time. Based entirely on sound, an ephemeral artifact for a broad range of experiences from art to zydeco, the content of radio disappears soon after it is invoked. Time passes, and a radio program cannot be curated in its original context.

The challenges associated with curating sound are robust. In the practices described, we suffer a loss of connection between sounds and the times, places, and contexts surrounding their original sounding. This loss can be significant to our understanding of particular sound artifacts.

Notes and References

[1] Jeff Todd Titon. "The Sound of Climate Change." Keynote presentation. Exhibiting Sound Conference, Canadian Centre for Ethonmusicology, University of Alberta, Edmonton, Canada, 30 October 2015.

[2] Bruce R. Smith. "Tuning into London c. 1600" in The Auditory Culture Reader, Michael Bull and Les Back, eds. (Oxford, UK: Berg, 2003), 127-135.

[3] Edmund Carpenter. They Became What They Beheld. (New York: Outerbridge & Dienstfrey, 1970).

[4] Mark Tribe, in Curating New Media: The Third Baltic International Seminar, Sarah Cook, Beryl Graham, and Sarah Martin, eds. (Gateshead, UK: BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, 2002), 142-143.

[5] Bruce R. Smith. "Tuning into London c. 1600" in The Auditory Culture Reader, Michael Bull and Les Back, eds. (Oxford, UK: Berg, 2003), 127-135.

[6] Shane White and Graham White. The Sounds of Slavery: Discovering African American History through Songs, Sermons, and Speech (Boston: Beacon Press, 2006).

[7] A number of collections of cylinder recordings have been digitized and are available for online listening. Browse, for example, the UCSB Cylinder Archive Collection by genre, instruments, topical subject, or ethnic origin.

[8] Mark Tribe, in Curating New Media: The Third Baltic International Seminar, Sarah Cook, Beryl Graham, and Sarah Martin, eds. (Gateshead, UK: BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, 2002), 142-143.

[9] Vince Dziekan, Virtuality and the Art of Exhibition: Curatorial Design for the Multimedial Museum (Bristol, UK: Intellect, 2012), 33.

[10] Tomas Banovich, in Curating New Media: The Third Baltic International Seminar, Sarah Cook, Beryl Graham, and Sarah Martin, eds. (Manchester, UK: Cornerhouse Publications 2002), 47.

[11] idib, 52.

[12] Peter Vergo, "The Reticent Object," in The New Museology Peter Vergo, ed. (London: Reaktion Books, 1989), 48-49.

[13] Charles Saumarez Smith, "Museums, Artefacts, and Meanings," in The New Museology, Peter Vergo, ed. (London: Reaktion Books, 1989), 20.

[14] Peter Wollen, "Introduction," in Visual Display: Culture Beyond Appearances, Lynne Cooke and Peter Wollen, eds. (Seattle, WA: Bay Press, 1995), 9.

[15] Vince Dziekan, Virtuality and the Art of Exhibition: Curatorial Design for the Multimedial Museum (Bristol, UK: Intellect, 2012), 34.

[16] Andrew Dubber, Radio in The Digital Age (Cambridge, UK: Polity Books 2013).

[17] Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (New York: McGraw Hill, 1964), 261.

[18] idib, 259, 260.

[19] idib, 264.

[20] idib, 265, 267.

[21] Marshall McLuhan, The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1962), 63.

[22] The term "deep listening" was proposed by Pauline Oliveros in the 1970s to describe a philosophy of "listening in every possible way to everything possible" ("Acoustic and Virtual Space as a Dynamic Element of Music," in Leonardo Music Journal 5 (1995): 19-22. More information on The Deep Listening Institute.