Blanca Bercial – Sound & Silence
Intro (0:13): Oh, hey! Good to see you again. This street’s pretty quiet, huh? I remember just a few months ago there used to be all kinds of folks shouting and laughing, cars screeching/honking. What a change. Well, today on Audium Listens we’re going to explore what’s happened to the sound of our cities during COVID-19, and what we can learn from it. We’re going to be talking with Blanca Bercial, a sound artist who spends a lot of time listening to community spaces and contemplating what she hears. She recently finished a master’s thesis in which she developed a theory of sound and silence that I think is quite relevant to the reality we find ourselves in now. I’m going to talk to her about her findings, and see how we can think about reinventing our community spaces through sound and silence.
Dave (1:32): Ok, uh, let’s go ahead and give Blanca a call…
Blanca (1:45): Hi.
Dave (1:46): Hello! Hey Blanca. Good, how are you doing?
Blanca (1:52): I’m doing good.
Dave (1:57): Why don’t we just start off — what brought you into sound and sound art?
Blanca (2:02): I consider myself a poet and I’ve written poetry as far as I can remember, and it’s true that my way of writing poems, uh, has to do a lot with sound ‘cause I wrote a poem and then I recorded it, me reading the-the poem out loud, and then I-I really took care of the rhythms. Also, the fact of living in-in different places made me notice the different sounds cities kind of had, and a lot of questions started popping out in my head. It was like a path that was building itself until I got where I’m-I am.
Dave (2:37): Right. You spent some time in China as well, right? Were you thinking about sound at that point?
Blanca (2:42): (laughs) Yeah. So, so I’m-I’m originally from Madrid, Spain, and then I moved to Beijing and the soundscape was totally different. And there were too much traffic sounds where I lived, but at the same time, uh, when I got into, like, narrow alleys or the hotels in China, the soundscapes were totally different than what I, from what I knew. So those kinds of questions– and when I came to San Francisco and the sounds of the alarms in the streets were, like, super loud to what I was used to. So, those kind of reflections on the sounds of the everyday around me made me think about sound art a lot.
Dave (3:20): Getting into what you’ve been working on here in San Francisco, the name of your thesis is Listening to the Inframince— An Artistic Sensibility to Listen to the Liminal Crossings of Sound. That’s a lot of (laughs)– that’s a mouthful.
Blanca (3:38): I know. I like to make titles kind of long (laughs), ‘cause you want to put the cool title, but then you have to explain it (laughs).
Dave (4:48): So, maybe you can break that down, like what is the Inframince?
Blanca (3:52): So, that concept derives from Marcel Du Shamp. So the only way, uh, according to him, to explain this term is by examples. In-in my thesis, I think I mentioned the air that is in between your fingers and the keyboard – you know when you’re typing, those spaces, or the holes of the speech, like the pauses in between my words – those silences that I kind of took that term from Du Shamp and applied it to those moments when we tune out of one should and tune in to the next. The whole Idea of it was kind of listening to those in between moments between sounds, those things that we call silence. Uh, listen to what isn’t heard but could be sounding, yet it is muted because we are not paying attention to the sounds, not because they don’t exist. So, so that was the whole idea that I kind of, um, examined and, around the thesis.
Dave (4:55): Yeah, no I really like that idea though. There’s so many sounds in between the sounds we are paying attention to, you know? There’s this ocean of constant sound even in what we may consider to be silent.
Blanca (5:07): Yeah they never stop. It is us who, (laughs) who listen to those sounds or not.
Dave (5:14): Right, right. Before the pandemic anyway, most people, you know, you think about an urban soundscape as a lot of noise. (laughs) We call it “noise” — crashing, banging, all that. And so, the reaction for a lot of people is to tune that sound out. We, we value that, you know, the less of that noise, the better it is. But in your paper you’d say that we should maybe think about the opposite perspective, that these sounds we’re not paying attention to can be important?
Blanca (5:42): Yeah. What is silence and what is noise is highly subjective. We have to reexamine or question ourselves — why is this sound noise or why is this sound silence when we navigate the cities. ‘Cause sometimes we can be really predisposed to listen to certain sounds, but perhaps we are having like a lot of judgements toward them. The whole point is to kind of reexamine our own biases.
Dave (6:11): You also talk about, um, listening to the difference. It’s one thing to listen to things that you enjoy listening to, but what-what does it mean listening to difference?
Blanca (6:20): Yeah, it goes again with that same idea of what you are not expected to-to hear. When you go somewhere, or you go to a place that you have never been to, uh, maybe that kind of sounds that you experience are gonna be different. Uh, you really listen to what is around. Perhaps you will start listening to new sounds that you were not paying attention to before. As for sound, I-I think the idea is to, to not have judgement, uh, and try to expand what we are listening at the moment.
Dave (6:52): Yeah, and I mean it-it can also expand– it’s like a pretty apt metaphor for our current situation politically and socially, not just in the physical world but, you know, with all these apps on our phones, and…
Blanca (7:07): Oh yeah, exactly! That’s isolating ourselves even more, ‘cause we are only told what we want to hear. (laughs) The difference is totally — it’s being canceled from our lives. So we’re gonna go spiraling around a loop that just brings us to our own fake bubble. That’s why It’s so important that you keep questioning yourself, your own reality. LIke, the whole point of listening to difference, the whole thing is that you keep questioning your sounds, that you keep questioning your ideologies, you keep questioning your ideas ‘cause perhaps, perhaps there is room for change and there is room for new things to come into your life. That’s, that’s the whole meaning behind difference.
Dave (7:49): Yeah, yeah. It’s interesting ‘cause you say, uh, listening is the willingness to shorten differences by finding commonalities through the sounds that we all share. So I’m kind of wondering about, uh, I guess there’s like a kind of commonality that we’re losing, maybe?
Blanca (8:06): Well, I think in the, through my experiences in the city, I-I see a lot of people wearing headphones everywhere while being in public space, and it seems to me that we are more and more individualistic people and that really doesn’t leave any room or space to understand others’ reality. Instead of denying it or cancelling it out, we-we should, uh, explore the sounds that might be sounding but we are not listening to. So, the sounds between each other connect us more than keep us isolating ourselves within our own realities.
Dave (8:53): Yeah, yeah. Well, that’s a big thing, is these noise cancelling headphones. It’s quite ironic because I’m wearing a pair right now. (laughs)
Blanca (9:01): And I’ve been wearing them too, to ask myself what am I losing when I wear this. So, I wanna be conscious of how I use technology. Am I isolating myself? It is not like the-the technology is bad by itself, but you should question.
Dave (9:17): You know, I live right near Golden Gate Park and for many years I’ve been going out to practice my trumpet – you know, I like to do it out in nature – and it’s kind of like I’ve almost created an experiment in a way, (laughs) over the years because these days it’s, just seeing how people react to trumpet playing, it seems like it’s changed quite a bit. Whereas, you know, in the past there used to be a lot of people who would stop and say, you know, hi, just kind of acknowledge what’s happening. (laughs) And nowadays, there’s a lot more people with their noise cancelling devices or they’re, you know, either talking on the phone, or just listening to something. And they just walk right past me and I can’t tell if they, you know, if they’re not looking at me, did they even know that I was there? (laughs) Like, I don’t know.
Blanca (10:07): Yeah, thank you for bringing that up. ‘Cause that, yeah, that’s-that’s one of my points.
David: (10:10): Yeah, well it’s like, in your thesis you say “sound gives us meaning, if we listen.” If you’re not listening, you-you’re not gonna hear anything. (laughs)
Blanca (10:17): Exactly, exactly.
David (10:19): But one thing that you touch on in your thesis is that there is a value that we place on less noise and more quiet. I hesitate to call it silence now because (laughs), because of how we are talking. But yeah, in cities you have… rich neighborhoods are very different sonically from poorer ones.
Blanca (10:38): Yeah, exactly. Like, that idea that silence is a desire we kind of keep aspiring for and it’s been, almost been commodified, like, it’s been sold. In this city, with the prices of everything and the rent, how segregated it is, if you want silence you really have to be able to pay for that silence. It-it seems to me like an ideology, like, it is attached to certain ideas and to certain statuses, etc. But at the end, that desire has a collapse point. I mean, you can have a more quiet environment if you pay for it, but that silence that you are aspiring for, it’s-it’s a concept.
David (11:22): Yeah. Quarantine has kind of been the great leveler, you know? Everybody has silence now, so for a little while everyone enjoyed that and could kind of envision their lives in a different way, perhaps. I guess, as part of this project you did a number of listening exercises. What did that involve exactly, and how did you do that?
Blanca (11:52): What I did is I went to the place that I consider very loud in the city, which happened to be the cross of 24th street and Mission and I just sit there for many days, just listening (laughs), trying to — listening to what I was not, trying to listen to difference. So I wanted to extrapolate that absurdity, so I sat down there at that intersection of the streets and looked for silence. Which, I knew it was impossible, but that was the whole point. Like, the struggle of finding silence in a loud place — the struggle of defining sounds with words ‘cause it’s so difficult, and the absurdity of seeking silence when you can’t reach it. So, after an hour I did not find silence (laughs), of course. I assigned like a symbol for every sound that I heard. What at the beginning was just noise and silence, as categories they become more and more and more sounds. To kind of bring up, like, the idea of how absurd it is also to categories sounds as noise and silence in that dichotomy.
David (13:14): So, like, even when you break apart the sounds that you think you’re hearing and really pay attention, you’re always gonna find something, another sound beneath that. You mentioned that Paulina Oliveros talked about that, as well as, uh, John Cage was one of original inquisitors of that idea of, like, where-what is silence?
Blanca (13:34): And what does it mean to listen, and deep listening, uh, to your environment?
David (13:43): Actually, I guess you finished your work and presented it, uh, at the beginning of the pandemic, right? (laughs) How did that all feel?
Blanca (13:52): I was grateful that, when the pandemic reached the city of San Francisco, I already had made the whole, um, listening books. (laughs) Because, If it really happened like three weeks before, I could have not done the whole project that I’ve been working for almost two years. So, it made me really, uh, appreciate sounds and listening, and other differences. In one way it seems that the things that I was talking there are referring to, uh, something that is not there anymore. But on the other hand, it also feels like this is so important that I wrote this, because it’s bringing a consciousness about listening to our environment in a moment where we are going to be isolating ourselves more.
David (14:39): Right, yeah. We are talking about isolation from technology, but right now everybody is isolated from an even bigger issue here.
Bianca (14:45): Yeah, it seems like there are like these two forces of are we going to isolate ourselves more, or are we going to have more empathy towards each other — what’s gonna happen? So, in a way I’m, I-I was happy that I-I did this work as-as precisely a call for empathy and for consciousness. And I thought it came perfectly, like in-in the right time.
David (15:08): Yeah, and, well, it’s interesting now the streets are so much quieter. Streets are shut down. Many streets, they kind of closed throughout the city, and how is this going to– how is our relationship to sound changing now because of the pandemic?
Blanca (15:23): A lot of people is claiming silence, too. Like, now we’re– we have a lot of silence. And I, I like to think that, not really– there are still a lot of sounds.The sounds are still there, it’s us who are not moving. It’s us who are not going that fast perhaps.
David (15:41): Yeah. Yeah. I mean, my hope is that people begin to value the sounds that we haven’t been hearing. Just like, you know, birds and the sound of the wind in the trees and stuff, like, you never– you can’t hear that most of the time in the city, you know? It’s great to have that.
Blanca (15:56): It is, it is a moment right now to really think about the-the places we live in, the places we make, and perhaps dream about the places we want. I think sound is a great medium to make us aware of our reality, of our way of behaving in social space and public space. They tell us a lot about how-how we live and how we navigate our everyday, and that’s kind of the consciousness and awareness I-I try to bring in with my, with my work.
David (16:32): How can we use this time to redefine what’s important to us, and to our city and community, when it comes to sound?
Blanca (16:44): I think the important thing, and I think it’s very clear – especially with this social change – uh, is to keep questioning and to keep listening, ‘cause there is really no one answer about what’s good for everyone. But, what you can do is question yourself to find a, uh, a commonality between the gap that separates our own sounds from each other. And in that, uh, commonality in that, in between, uh, find places that can, uh, suit everyone a little better.
David (17:20): Well, thanks so much for your time Blanca.
Blanca (17:23): Yeah.
David (17:24): Looking forward to hearing what’s happening next with all your work.
Blanca (17:27): Well thank you for your questions, it was a pleasure.
Outro (17:36): Thanks again to Blanca for her time and insight. You can find out more about her work at blancabercial.com. I’ll put a link to that in the episode notes. Also, many thanks to our intern Nate Tedesco for his help putting this episode all together. In the next episode, I’ll be talking with musician Jean Yaste about her music as Future Twin, as well as her activism, and artist housing and security during the pandemic. Until then, use those ears and keep listening.