Malte Kobel – ›Simple Headphone Mind‹ - Listening environments around the skull

In 1997 Stereolab and Nurse with Wound released a collaborative 12″ record: ›Simple Headphone Mind‹. It is a witty take on Krautrock tropes meant to be enjoyed on headphones. I am interested not only in the ›headphone mind‹ but furthermore in the physicality of the head and therefore also the body between the two earpads – that body, that head and its bones, which resonate: »The head, as the real control desk of the nervous system and not only as the metaphoric site of what is thought of as thinking, becomes one with all the information pouring in; not just with so-called objectivity, but with actual sound.« Kittler, The God of Ears, 9

Eric Clarke has successfully introduced James Gibson’s ideas of ecological psychology into current music research. Steffen Lepa draws on Clarke and elaborates on the differences between listening over headphones and over loudspeakers, thereby reinforcing a technological side of sonic perception. Arguing alongside Clarke and Lepa and following Jonathan Sterne’s idea of a headset culture, I will take a closer look at sonic environments of headphone listening and am particularly interested in the division of the sensory body of the listener. It is here, where we can observe simultaneously multiple sensory and therefore also sonic (technological, physical, ›virtual‹) environments in which the body is situated.

Instead of adopting a negative notion of separated sensory territories (cf. R. Murray Schafer’s term Schizophonia), which results in a rather simplistic dichotomy of real/natural and virtual/artificial sonic environments, I want to stress the physicality of headphone listening. What happens at and around the head of the listeners in headphone environments? How is the body affected?

The current sound practice ASMR (Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response) will be used as a positive example of corporeal affect in headphone environments and will be discussed by means of ideas of intimacy. Hereby, I will try to sketch a complex listening situation that is arranged around the head and the two ears and which can be analysed by means of ideas of ecological perception and sonic affectivity.

Malte Kobel studied musicology at the University of Vienna and at Humboldt University of Berlin. He has worked and written mostly on new and electronic music, finished his bachelor in Vienna with a thesis on the music of Beat Furrer. In Berlin he has increasingly been involved in Pop Music and Sound/Media Studies, working on Hi-Fi-Cultures of the 1950s and more generally electronic music. Currently he is writing his master thesis on headphone listening environments.

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