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  • Listening Beyond the Visible
  • Pamela Jordan (bio)

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Figure 1.

Muyu-Uray Amphitheaters, nested and terraced landform carvings by the Incas in the Peruvian mountains (from Rudofsky, Architecture without Architects, 7; image courtesy of the Wenner-Gren Foundation and the University of Pennsylvania Library)

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Presented with the preceding image, and the observation that the acoustics within the large structures are "superb," what would you conclude about the original use of the depicted site?

Bernard Rudofsky launched his 1964 Architecture without Architects with the image above (taken from a plane by archaeologists in 1931) and a brief description of the Incan archaeological site. He recounted five separate cavities in the mountains of Peru, sculpted through evident terracing where the acoustics were "superb." Combined with the architectural tectonic forms that resemble a Greek amphitheater, he concluded that the structures were ancient amphitheaters for crowds of sixty thousand or more.1 Subsequent research at the site has challenged this conclusion, finding possible material evidence of either sophisticated agricultural or ceremonial purposes for the terraces, but so far no acoustic study has been conducted at the site to link acoustics to the landforms as the Incas designed them.2 Significantly for the discussion that follows, the simple presence of extraordinary or unexpected acoustic properties does not necessarily demonstrate one kind of architectural intent or operation in the past. "Good" acoustics with clear sight lines does not necessitate a theater. Sound can be a strong signaler and can equally be a powerful research tool, but sonic analysis in historic space is not a yes or no endeavor. Rudofsky's conclusion does not cite consultations with indigenous knowledge keepers or local practices; instead, he seems to have reverted to familiar visual cues from Western references (i.e., the Greek amphitheater) in order to place the acoustic pattern he perceived at Muyu-Uray (known today as Moray). The presence of noteworthy sonic effect should be researched with a nuanced understanding of the technics of acoustics combined with physical and cultural evidence.

Perhaps the need for such a specialized knowledge base precludes many in the conservation fields from directly tackling sound in historic spaces. It is usually a matter left to specialists: acoustic or sound engineers, acousticians, city planners with noise maps, or archivists and media studies scholars examining past sound recordings. Moreover, there can be a tendency to think of the past as silent, both metaphorically and literally. Sonic effect appears temporary, captured only in recordings since Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville's invention of the "phonautograph" in 1860 and Thomas Edison's phonograph in 1877. But the work presented in this issue—of Sabine von Fischer; Florence Feiereisen and Erin Sassin; Miriam Kolar et al.; Zorana Đorđević, Dragan Novković, and Filip Pantelić; Mark A. Pottinger; and Jun Zheng—joins that of a diverse group of scholars and practitioners at work today who contend that a perceived silence of the past is misunderstood—historic [End Page 119] places still sound, or can still be sounded, be they intentionally resonant interiors or spaces associated with sonic attributes over time. A few adjacent fields that have much to offer, including a sample of studies pertaining to built heritage, are sensory studies and affect theory,3 sound and media studies,4 sensory archaeology,5 what can be termed critical listening in architectural contexts,6 tourism studies,7 audible history,8 technical acoustics and psychoacoustics,9 and sensory history.10 Heritage researchers do well to consider these fields as coconspirators in situating sonic experience within specific architectural heritage contexts. This issue of Change Over Time seeks to continue the bridge building between such fields and, in presenting the varied connections between heritage and sound, empower conservation practitioners to address such issues in their own projects directly.

Sounding Architecture Through Time

Turning toward built heritage conservation, a familiar research tactic in the field is to outline the history of the site in question. Sonic architecture is equally subject to such scrutiny, with acoustic roots and manifestations possibly extending quite far into the past. Rudofsky himself was likely aware that formalized considerations of sound can be traced through Western built tradition to...


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