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The serenity of the vuvuzela

June 24, 2010
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Whatever happens over the next couple of weeks, we can safely say that when we come to recall the current World Cup we will remember a sound – the much discussed vuvuzela. The thing’s been a bloody internet phenomenon for the past fortnight. Very belatedly, I have something to say about the vuvuzela.

I am not in South Africa. I can only imagine what thousands of the brightly coloured plastic horns must sound like when you’re in and amongst them. What I’m talking about here is the vuvuzela as a media experience – how the thing comes across as it finds its way into your living room.

I’ve complained long and hard about the fact that our culture tends to make false distinctions between “foreground” and “background” sounds. The “foreground”/”background” distinction is an inappropriate one because this separation is expressed in very visual terms. In the acoustic environment, sound is circumambient – all around, everywhere, all at once. There are centres and peripheries, but not backgrounds and foregrounds. Only when sound is channeled through the television that you are lazily slouched in front of does a false notion of foreground suggest itself. (Surround sound was created to solve this problem.) Ambient sound in television is generally designed to be heard but not heard – to assist and serve, without being noticed for its own sake. The vuvuzela does not remain in any sort of background – the infamy of the vuvuzela is such that people are now talking, writing, photoshopping and youtubing about ambient sound.

The most common reaction has been that the vuvuzela, when used thousands at a time, sounds like a lot of angry bees. My own thought was that it was a bit like something from one of Iannis Xenakis’s brassier, noisier compositions. There is certainly musicality in the mass-vuvuzela sound – although the interest is rhythmic rather than harmonic (almost all vuvuzelas are apparently pitched around B-flat). In the last week especially, pulses in the aggregate sound have begun to emerge. The other day I heard little throbbing clusters of triplets. It was a lot of fun.

Commenters on the vuvuzela have noted that the experience is thoroughly TV-unfriendly (untelevisual, if you will), but few if any have remarked that, given the sorry attitude to sound production in almost all modern television programmes, this is certainly a good thing. The vuvuzela is entirely untelevisual because it is entirely neutral.

TV programmes typically use “background” or peripheral sound to dictate to the viewer/listener how to respond. Typically, the art of writing narrative into television (whether drama, documentary, news, sports, or whatever) is practiced with such lack of subtlety that there is a widespread dependence on battering the audience round the ears with audio clues / cues – here’s the sentimental story about a dead relative, here’s the exciting action sequence, here’s the uplifting happy end, and so on… Sound is employed to guard against any degree of complexity or ambiguity manifesting itself.

Televised football doesn’t have an edited-in musical backing, but it does have platitude-wielding commentators, who take on the burden of threading some kind of narrative into the thing. Smart alecs around the world have remarked that an irritating drone is not an unusual soundtrack to televised football, as anyone familiar with the wittering of Clive Tyldesley (or, in the footage I get in Canada, John Helm or some other identikit staters-of-the-obvious) will confirm. Usually, crowd sounds will assist the commentator in seconding the audience cues; the vuvuzela, though, does not play along – in fact, the unfalteringly neutral hum of the vuvuzela serves to completely undermine the attempts of the commentator to coax responses from the viewer. I read a daft comment on the vuvuzela recently giving special mention to the few sets of fans so far who have managed to make themselves heard (on television) above the drone, noting that the Mexican supporters have been the most audible so far in shouting “PUTO!” really loud when the opposition keeper takes a goal kick. Great – because what the sport really needs is more homophobic abuse, right?

There is a serenity to the vuvuzela – all of the effort and excitement of the sport, all of the banalities of the pundits and the nasty English jingoism (I’m out of the country but I’m imagining here, based on past experience) is wonderfully neturalised and the game – as all games should be – is made more abstract.

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