Radio Nouspace

Research > Curating Sound

Curating Sound

These research notes consider curating sound. Curating is considered as selecting, organizing, and presenting objects so to provide 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.

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. 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.

Several successful outcomes are driven by these research notes. LEARN more.

Research questions grounding this inquiry include . . .
What approaches to curating sounds to consider?
Why curate sounds?
Which sounds to curate?


Radio Nouspace is an action/practice-based research project led by John Barber and focused on curating . . .
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. Additionally, Radio Nouspace focuses curatorial efforts on creative/experimental sound-based narratives, and the sonic space(s) between sound and voice.

Theory and Practice

Radio Nouspace, as a creative research project, rests upon theoretical and practical thinking about sound and curatorial practices. The evolving theoretical framework for sound, fundamentally argues that sound is the basis of our world, a world where we are immersed in sound (Smith 2003), a world worth observing (Titon 2015). 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 (Carpenter 1970).

The practical framework is also evolving, driven primarily by answers to a number of questions about curating sound. These questions include the following.

Why Curate Sound?

I consider curating selecting, organizing, and presenting objects so to provide access to, experience with, or learning from the curated object(s). Given this context, there are several reasons to curate sound . . .
public outreach
focusing attention
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."

Bruce R. Smith adds to this idea when he notes, ". . . most of us live immersed in a world of sound (Smith 2003, 127). . . . Sound is at once the most forceful stimulus that human beings experience, and the most evanescent" (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 2003, 129)

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).

How To Curate Sound?

Mark Tribe, speaking generally to curation, suggests three strategies: documentation, migration, and emulation. 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 (Tribe 2002, 142-143). Each strategy has benefits and drawbacks.

Tribe says documentation involves recounting the curated object through written accounts. Documentation might be descriptions of sound(s) that no longer exist except 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. Bruce R. Smith says such documentation is, in many cases, our only access to sounds no longer available for study (Smith 2003).

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 (White and White 2006).

Regarding migration, Tribe concedes it may only work "for certain kinds of projects" (Tribe 2002, 143). 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. As example, 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.

Like migration, emulation "may not work for a lot of projects" (Tribe 2002, 143). 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.

More broadly conceptualized, curating involves selecting, organizing, and presenting objects so to provide access to, experience with, or learning from the curated object(s). Some brief comments about each follow.

Radio Nouspace seeks to curate radio+audio drama, radio+sound art, sound poetry, creative/experimental sound-based narratives, and the sonic space(s) between sound and voice. This selection is based on my interest in combining and/or overlaying radio and and sound-based narratives. Other conceptual frameworks would surely be equally as valuable, but these respond to my interests as a researcher-creative practitioner.

With regard to organizing curated objects, I am interested to 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" (Dziekan 2012, 33).

Tamas Banovich argues that "space and arrangement of work and its presentation is fundamental in influencing how it is received and understood" (Banovich 2002, 47). 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 (Banovich 2002, 52).

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 (Vergo 1989, 48-49).

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.

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" (Dubber 2013).

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" (McLuhan 1964, 261)
Radio resonates as a tribal drum, its magic weaving a web of kinship and prompting more depth of involvement for everyone (McLuhan 1964, 259, 260)
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 (McLuhan 1964, 264)
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 (McLuhan 1964, 265, 267)
Radio, as a "fast hot medium," provides accelerated information throughput, thus contracting the world to village size oral contexts, the "global village" (McLuhan 1962, 63)
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. 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" (See Pauline Oliveros. "Acoustic and Virtual Space as a Dynamic Element of Music," Leonardo Music Journal vol. 5, 1995, pp. 19-22.) More information on The Deep Listening Institute.

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.


Curating = making sense of objects. With visual exhibitions, the gaze can quickly determine what is being presented, and determine its relevance/importance to the viewer. With sound, one must take a different approach, especially with regard to the time frame in which to fully experience the sonic experience. We can quickly turn our gaze somewhere else, having gained the information we need/want. With sound, we must listen through its entire duration, at the speed of its delivery, to receive its full message. This means, perhaps, that we must slow down, and concentrate our attention on listening. How might we, as curators, entice visitors to spend time with the sounds being curated? Some thoughts . . .

Print/text (transcriptions, artist statements, background, process descriptions, etc.). But, written documentation should do more than classify. It should inspire the experience first hand. Write performatively. How to approach the materiality of writing as it approaches the experience of sound(s)? Taking care with words may promote taking care with curation.
Web collections
Book collections and/or audio collections
Library collections
Collect a complete a record as possible of content associated with collected sound objects/curated objects, like prototypes, documentation, artist statements, etc.
Code/technology studies (audio as code?) But, art is paramount. Tools are a way of realizing ideas.

Sound is ephemeral. Sound recordings = limited experience of sound, removed from direct experience in the space of its original sounding.
Recording is not the actual sound, but rather an interpretative experience of the original sound in its original context.
Sound requires a different kind of bracketing, framing, for best experience of something that is not seen.
Is there a difference in setting up an exhibition of sound? How to make it inviting?
How to present sound in relation to other media/objects? What is the significance of sound in a space focused on visual?
People do not know how to listen. Sound(s) can be distracting. Plus, many people suffer hearing impairments
Difficult to connect sound with objects/interpretation, especially if there are multiple sound sources.
How to make the audience comfortable enough to LISTEN?
Provide interpretation.
Leverage the power of sound to provide personal testimony narrative, stories. All provide hooks for listener attention.
Marry the audio and the objects/
Marry the audio and the environment. Where might one expect to find/hear sound? What sound(s) might one expect to hear at particular places, or in specific spaces? How much sound? How loud?
Place speakers as close to ear level as possible, and mark them clearly.
Make listening a communal experience.
Gallery sound art (with beginning, middle, end) versus generative sound?
Is exhibition in a fixed space essentially a performance/concert?
What does it mean to curate time-based media, like sound? For example, libraries curate spaces of silence well, but would be challenged by the curation of sound objects in those same spaces.
Other challenges: maintenance of equipment necessary for hearing sounds.
One solution: licensing sounds for streaming?
Generally, spoken words, found sounds, and field recordings are not collected, curated, or exhibition because of concerns for fidelity, to the event, to the exhibit, and to the experience.
Future preservation/exhibition may require more metadata, description, local sound objects.

Curating involves framing objects for experience by someone, setting up engagement with the object, the art, the experience. Some questions . . .
What is the object for preservation?
What resources are available for rendering the object?
Are uniform standards necessary>?
Or, is the ability to transfer work between platforms more important?
What about the fact that search only returns part of all the available knowledge about the object, and rarely to all users.
How to address the challenge of providing universal/global archival preservation/curated access, even while offering local focus?
How to provide permanent information connections and updating in response to changing hardware and software?
How to shift emphasis from gathering to including description of process?
How to create and present knowledge sets?
What about "folk content," produced by non-professional content providers?

Works Cited

Banovich, Tomas. Curating New Media: The Third Baltic International Seminar, edited by Sarah Cook, Beryl Graham, and Sarah Martin, Cornerhouse Publications 2002, p. 47.

Carpenter, Edmund. They Became What They Beheld. Outerbridge & Dienstfrey, 1970.

Dziekan, Vince. Virtuality and the Art of Exhibition: Curatorial Design for the Multimedial Museum. Intellect, 2012, p. 33.

McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. McGraw Hill, 1964.

McLuhan, Marshall McLuhan. The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man. University of Toronto Press, 1962.

Smith, Bruce R. "Tuning into London c. 1600." The Auditory Culture Reader, edited by Michael Bull and Les Back, Berg, 2003, pp. 127-135.

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

Tribe, Mark Tribe. Curating New Media: The Third Baltic International Seminar, edited by Sarah Cook, Beryl Graham, and Sarah Martin, BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, 2002, pp. 142-143.

Vergo, Peter Vergo. "The Reticent Object." The New Museology, edited by Peter Vergo, Reaktion Books, 1989, pp. 48-49.

White, Shane and Graham White. The Sounds of Slavery: Discovering African American History through Songs, Sermons, and Speech, Beacon Press, 2006.

Curation by re-creation

Curating sound(s) presents a number of challenges and opportunities . . .
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.

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" (Smith 1989, 20).

Speaking to this power, Peter Wollen says visual display "is the side of production rather than consumption or reception, the designer rather than the viewer, the agent rather than the patient. It is related to exhibitionism rather than scopophilia" (Wollen 1995, 9). Visual display, especially via media technology, not only can reveal new information about objects on display, but also information meant to be concealed (Wollen 1995, 10).

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]" (Dziekan 2012, 34).

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.

Works Cited

Dziekan, Vince. Virtuality and the Art of Exhibition: Curatorial Design for the Multimedial Museum. Intellect, 2012.

Smith, Charles Saumarez. "Museums, Artefacts, and Meanings." The New Museology, edited by Peter Vergo, Reaktion Books, 1989, pp. 6-21.

Wollen, Peter. "Introduction." Visual Display: Culture Beyond Appearances, edited by Lynne Cooke and Peter Wollen, Bay Press, 1995, pp. 8-13.