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The Art of Listening: vuvuzelas

On the sound of the 2010 World Cup.

A couple of mornings ago, I awoke from a dream about being chased by a bee. I might have thought nothing of it, but in the days since, friends have reported similar occurrences. It would seem that the likely culprit is a long plastic horn which non-African football audiences are only now familiar with as the vuvuzela.

Many people do not like the cumulative and enveloping buzz produced by thousands of spectators blowing the horn in unison. Some have complained that it ruins the tournament atmosphere; others that it puts players off their game. RW Johnson, the South African historian unfavourably compares the sound to that of a chainsaw and says the instrument should be banned. (He's not alone in this, but the World Cup organisers have refused to do so.)

I beg to differ. For devotees of pure sound, as followers of the Art of Listening must surely be, massed vuvuzelas are a fascinating thing: more than simply the aural equivalent of a Mexican wave, the constant, tiny variations in volume and tone turn the crowd into a single, responsive entity. When a goal is scored, or a foul committed, there is no change as such, merely an intensification of the sound already there. The usual noises - cheers, chanting, insults, a brass band playing the theme from The Great Escape if it's an England match - are all subsumed into the drone emitted by the horns.

While the drone may be a new discovery for football fans, it has an extensive musical history. Perhaps one or more of the following clips will serve as a good alternative soundtrack to viewers who tire of the vuvuzela.

"De natura sonoris No. 2" by Krzysztof Penderecki. Readers may recognise this from Stanley Kubrick's The Shining - film being an area in which mass audiences have long been conditioned to accept sounds that would otherwise be dismissed as avant-garde or "unlistenable". (Hat-tip here to Zone Styx Travelcard.)

 

L Subramaniam, live at the Royal Albert Hall. An excellent example of how a drone - used extensively in Indian classical music - can act as a springboard for a virtuoso performer, in this case the violinist Subramaniam.

 

Sunn 0))), live in Berlin. Distorted guitars played in low tunings and at high volume.

 

The late guitarist Jack Rose. His reinterpretations of American folk and blues were anything but traditional - which brings us to a final point about the vuvuzela. The South African tourist board claims it is derived from the ancient kudu horn. But beware the authenticity trap! The vuvzela's manufacturers say instead that the prototype came from America, while they have traced its use to a Chinese women's basketball game. A true child of globalisation, then - and a reminder that what you hear is never less than the product of its circumstances.

 

You can read more from The Art of Listening column here.