Listen closer

Participants in the recent Preserving Aural Heritage in Deadwood seminar, led by Jennifer Heuson of New York University, put their blinders on to fully immerse themselves in the aural side of the city during a sound walk from the Homestake Adams Research and Cultural Center to the Saloon No. 10.

Pioneer photo by Jaci Conrad Pearson

DEADWOOD — Scholars regularly encourage individuals to open their minds. Jennifer L. Heuson, a PhD candidate at New York University is encouraging the world to open their ears, as well. And she’s using the Black Hills to demonstrate why.

“Sound plays a key role in understanding our selves and our place in the world,” Heuson said. “From the song of our grandmother’s voice to the hum or a summer cicada, our ears teach much about our past and our future. How we hear, listen to, make and experience sound is as much a part of our heritage as paintings, poetry or ponies. Using the Black Hills as a primary case study, this project investigates the role of sound in heritage production and preservation. It asks how sound mediates cultural memory, national identity and history.”

The Pioneer caught up with Heuson, who encourages the perpetuation of history via aural means, presenting a two-day seminar titled Preserving Aural Heritage in Deadwood to employees of Deadwood History, Inc. recently.

The seminar investigated the practice and politics of preserving Deadwood’s past using various sounds, including music, voice, soundscapes, imagined sounds and sound memories. Through readings, discussions and sound walks, participants explored some of the practical and ethical difficulties involved in documenting and preserving the shared senses of hearing and listening.

Through sound clips played by Heuson, participants who normally experience area events and attractions with eyes wide open, watched a still picture on the screen as the sounds of such stalwarts as the Days of ’76 rodeo and parade, Sturgis Motorcycle Rally and Mt. Moriah cemetery were the focus.

“I was interested in the role of sound in thinking about how we are and who we are, what we do and don’t believe in and how that related to each other,” Heuson said. “I decided to study sound in a different way. In academia, it’s parsed up. For example, there’s ethnomusicology or linguistics or acoustic ecology. No one puts it all together to connect all of the different ways of hearing and listening … when you start talking about mood in this larger way, we have to engage imagined sounds, fantasized sounds, remembered sounds, as well as the sounds we’re hearing. Music, sounds, voice, Harleys … you also have to be willing to expand those ideas to realize how sound affects us.”

To provide substance for her radical new way of thinking about sound and its role in history, Heuson has chosen the Black Hills to back up her theories, mainly because important and treasured aspects of her own aural heritage still echo through her mind.

“I grew up in central Nebraska (Grand Island) and my family has been coming out here since the 192os,” Heuson said. “It’s a really special place to us … I brought my grandpa out here and made a super 8 film about it. While we were doing that, I realized the narration and the atmosphere from the soundscapes of the Black Hills is very much a part of our relationship and us being here. The idea of heritage, passing along who we are through the senses. I write about that because that’s my experience.”

Heuson said she never would have used the word heritage until she started working out here.

“People talk about this place and the fact that it is part of their heritage,” Heuson said. “History is something that is an artifact, frozen and distant, not something we emulate and carry forward. I use the unesco definition of heritage, which is inheriting something from our ancestors and passing it along to our descendants. What that means in the present moment really has no role at all. The present moment is a medium. Something that moves you forward. Instead of the backward thinking of historians.”

Introducing such topics as frontier aurality, Heuson maintains that what is being preserved are the myths surrounding the Black Hills area.

“Preserving this as the edge of the world,” Heuson said. “Last time we looked at a tourist map. Within that map is an entry point for a certain boundary. Those entry points are preserved as artifacts of experience, a place where we can hear the wind blow and have frontier mythology elements together in one very small location. The question becomes what are heritage elements being observed and how are they being passed along.”

Using the example of the Lead fireworks display as a good example of aural heritage, Heuson plays a clip.

“This display is ranked in the top loudest fireworks displays,” Heuson said. “Its materiality, the way it is set up and vibrates through the canyon, it’s the vibration, the acoustic and physical sense of vibrating collectively, the idea of heritage is that we are passing it along together that makes it more powerful. We turn to the person we are with and say, ‘Did you just hear that?””

All academics aside, just what is Heuson’s favorite Black Hills sound?

“My favorite is the Rally,” Heuson said. “There’s nothing like it in the world and it gets at so much of what I’m talking about. Not as in, ‘I like it, it’s my favorite,’ in that, it is so interesting and complicated. It explodes all those traditional ways people have of talking about sound.”

In summary, Heuson prefers the word heritage over history.

“How aural heritage is preserved in Deadwood is a way of hearing and listening to sound, producing sound and passing it along. Our role in the present is really as a mediator, always forward-thinking, asking, ‘What are we leaving behind?’”

Heuson is a scholar, traveler, and media artist currently pursuing her PhD in the Department of Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University. Her work critically engages the mediated production, consumption, and circulation of knowledge, culture, memory, sentiment, and identity during travel, both real and imagined. Specifically, she is interested in exploring links between experience, sensation, sentiment, and liveness or everydayness, on one hand, and mediated histories, epistemologies, and politics, on the other.

Heuson's work engages these questions through traditional academic forms (conference, journal, thesis) and through various multimedia inquiries (sound ethnography, film documentary, tourist performance). Her award-winning films have screened internationally at venues as diverse as FLEX Fest, Big Muddy, Black Maria, and the Margaret Mead Film & Video Festival.

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