What Do We Mean By ‘Portable Sound’?

An illustration based on IKEA product assembly instructions. At the top, an Ikea-like representation of our Director, with a beard, glasses, and our 'Listener Xing' t-shirt, holds the MOPS mobile and plays sound into the headphones on his face. A word balloon pointing at his mouth contains a bizarre phonetic spelling of "Portable Sound", "POARTUHBL SOWND", a reference to the Swedish names of Ikea products. Below the title, a group of icons representing different types of sound-related object – a microphone, a radio tower, headphones, a telegraph, a mobile, speech, a comics POW!, and a human ear, are grouped together like the icon lists of tools required in an Ikea booklet. On the right, the two Ikea figures representing a two-person lifting task hold a glowing blue sound waveform.

We sit down with our Director & Chief Curator to learn exactly what he thinks this somewhat nebulous term actually means.

What do we mean by ‘Portable Sound’? This is a question we are asked occasionally (though not nearly as often as we think we should be). As with some other elements of this institution, the term ‘portable sound’ and the name of our museum were slightly accidental.

When he first created the Museum of Portable Sound (MOPS), Director and Chief Curator Dr John Kannenberg wasn’t entirely certain, but hoped the name would make sense eventually. “The key part of MOPS to me at the beginning was that the museum itself was going to be portable – a mobile phone that I would carry it around from place to place and meet with people who would use it to listen to the museum’s collection of field recordings [i.e. sound recordings made with portable equipment outside of a recording studio – ed.] right there with me. So I wanted to make sure the word ‘portable’ was there in the name. It didn’t matter much to me where in the name ‘portable’ was positioned as long as the name sounded good.”

MOPS Director & Chief Curator Dr John Kannenberg
Dr John Kannenberg

“I thought ‘Museum of Portable Sound’ sounded equal parts legitimate and confusing, which in my mind was a huge advantage”

The obvious choice for a name was ‘The Portable Museum of Sound’, the first name that popped into his mind – which he immediately rejected. “It sounded too much like a gag or like a roadside museum in a shack on the outskirts of a tourist trap town that would be full of crazy made-up inventions,” he says. “It didn’t sound like the name of a legit, professional museum. Plus it didn’t exactly roll off the tongue.” Switching the order of the words solved the problem for him.

Phil Collins winks at the end of the official music video for his 1985 smash hit song 'Sussudio', whose keyboard riff the musician has admitted he actually straight-up stole from Prince's '1999'.

“‘Museum of Portable Sound’ sounded professional – most museums don’t include an adjective for ‘museum’ in their name, if there’s an adjective in there it describes the noun of the stuff inside the museum – and it just sounded a lot better. It’s kind of like how Phil Collins came up with the word ‘Sussudio’ while improvising lyrics and never got around to replacing it because he couldn’t think of a real word that sounded better phonetically.

“I thought ‘Museum of Portable Sound’ sounded equal parts legitimate and confusing, which in my mind was a huge advantage – at first glance it would look like the name of an ‘ordinary’, ‘real’ museum, but some people would probably end up thinking ‘what the heck is “portable sound”’? And that might make them curious to find out what the museum is actually about.”

A Google Images results page for the search "portable sound". It is entirely pictures of amplifiers, speaker systems, and party lighting on little rolling carts.
According to Google Images, our museum should almost exclusively be collecting gear used by wedding DJs.

It wasn’t until after already registering the name for a Facebook page and an Instagram account that Dr Kannenberg realised it might be a bit misleading, especially if it had a very specific established meaning. “I finally decided to google ‘portable sound’ because I knew I’d heard the term before but I didn’t know what the exact standard usage of it was. To my surprise the search came back with pictures of PA systems for parties or dance halls, Bluetooth speakers, microphones, and a lot of things that I wasn’t really prepared to include in the museum – at least not at first.

Icons representing a microphone, a radio tower, headphones, a telegraph, a mobile phone, speech, a comics "POW!" sound effect, and a human ear

“But then I decided that, since the term didn’t seem to have a definitive interpretation, I would go with my own take on it which was basically ‘sound that can be easily moved from place to place’. And that meant, at least in my head, it could potentially cover all of sound recording technology, radio, telegraphy, telephony, oral communication, language, word balloons and sound effects in comics and animation … a huge world of different kinds of sounds and sound-related concepts.

“So I left all of that in my back pocket at first, thinking that if I ever managed to run out of things to say about field recording in the museum, I could start talking about all this other stuff, which I eventually began to do on the MOPS social media accounts.

MOPS Director & Chief Curator Dr John Kannenberg
Dr John Kannenberg

“My own take on it is that ‘Portable Sound’ means ‘sound that can be easily moved from place to place’.”

“And honestly,” he says with a sheepish look on his face, “most people are a lot more interested in Walkmans and iPods and tape recorders than they are about field recording, because everyone’s had a music collection, but barely anybody makes field recordings – even though anyone with a smartphone is walking around with a little recorder in their pocket all day.

Stasisfield.com homepage screenshot, showing the record label's purple logo above a colourful photograph of trees and branches. Cover artwork for multiple record releases are visible, along with a link to an online exhibition derived from field recordings in Egypt entitled Mer-Wer.
Homepage of Stasisfield.com circa 2010, the experimental online record label run by our Director from 2002–2015.

“I knew from having run an experimental online record label for almost 15 years that most people – even most people who make field recordings – don’t particularly enjoy listening to field recordings all that much (at least, not anyone else’s field recordings beyond their own); other than a few notable exceptions, it always felt like pulling teeth to get people to respond to the straight field recording releases my label put out. Of course this is a bit of a generalisation since there have obviously been some moderately successful records of field recordings in the mainstream over the years. But I thought, in case I opened a museum containing nothing but field recordings and people overwhelmingly found it intensely boring, I could shift it to something else within sound studies if I wanted to keep it going.”

Luckily that didn’t happen – the field recordings in the MOPS Permanent Collection of Sounds have proven to be very popular with the museum’s visitors. But since (at first) the museum was only able to host visits from people who were in the same physical location as Dr Kannenberg, it was important to use social media to generate interest in the museum. Being able to talk about the world of sound beyond the carefully chosen content of the museum’s field recording collection has helped widen its appeal to online audiences.

MOPS Director & Chief Curator Dr John Kannenberg
Dr John Kannenberg

“I picked the name because I thought it allowed room for MOPS to organically grow to explore other areas of sound and sound-related culture, which is exactly what’s happened’.”

So now that you know what we mean, why not book an Online Visit to our museum where you’ll be able to meet our Director face to face and talk about what ‘portable sound’ means to you?