Auditory Ethics

by Ely Rosenblum

Part 1. The Responsible Sonic Act

Field recording is of course a sonic act: a technological progression from written accounts and orality that documents and describes events. Technological advances allowed recordings of acoustic events, which at first were meant to solve the problem of subjectivity. However, field recording only further complicated matters of documentation by presenting media that was still highly subjective (according to audio editing and microphone placement) as objective source material. This encouraged sound artists to create works that elucidate the presence of the recorder and recordist. One example is Seth Cooke’s Four No-Input Field Recordings (2013). Released on the aptly titled online imprint Every Contact Leaves a Trace, Cooke’s recordings were made in Bristol and Portishead over the course of a year. In listening, the locations could be taken to be seemingly meaningless, or too heavily veiled by the distortion of the preamplifiers to be heard at all. However, the microphone preamps pick up radio frequencies and other wireless signals that cannot be heard by the naked ear alone, revealing a sense of place captured only in the unique conditions Cooke has exhibited through the recorder. This frequency pickup also reveals the ways in which all recordings leave a technological trace.

Given the compositional nature of field recording, and its nascent recognition in varying academic disciplines (notably media arts and communications), how might ethnographers respond to the claim that every contact leaves a trace, which is to say that every encounter has a social impact? Returning to the beginning of this dissertation, how can embodied recordings aid listeners to – paraphrasing Veit Erlmann – ‘hear culture’?

How does a scholar act as responsible ‘earwitness’?

One strategy for responsibly linking sonic practices is not by comparative study, but by relational analysis. Relationality has been discussed most famously by Nicolas Bourriaud in Relational Aesthetics: a relational art practice is one that relies on “human interactions and their social context” (Bourriaud 1998, pp.84). Bourriaud’s text encourages the social study of art practice and performance. He asks the reader, how might the documentation and analysis of performance interactions manifest itself? One potential solution to the inherent ephemerality of performative interactions is through empirical scholarship based on recordings, through which musical events are made available for repeated analyses. While there remain obvious limitations to what a recording can capture, it creates a simulacrum of the actual performance for analysis and interpretation of a specific event. The ability to analyse and reinterpret particular performances challenges what a musical work is, and reveals the possibility of treating a recording as a musical document in the same way as one might treat a text.            

For the purposes of this research, relationality refers to aesthetic and social inquiry into how recordings are made, how recordists interact with the environment they record, and the messages conveyed through the recording process and social relationships formed within the recorded event. A relational practice for social scientists is that of ethnography, which often results in a written monograph. However, sensory ethnographers use multimedia to experiment with new forms of representation in their work where text will not suffice.

One example of field recorded relational practice is in Schwartz’ sound documentary, wherein he narrates the sounds of a locale, be it music, traffic noise or children playing. Schwartz’ sono-montage practice gave way to the soundscape and to the sonic practice of the WSP’s soundwalk, where environmental sound narratives are explicated through the act of touring a set of locations that contain soundmarks. The World Soundscape Project community radio series, initiated by Hildegard Westerkamp, used interviews with Vancouver residents and environmental sound to create sonic narratives drawn from individual and collective experiences of noise pollution. Steven Feld’s recordings in the Bosavi rainforest condense days and entire seasons into hour long sessions allowing us to listen in to local narratives. These examples in particular use and further develop methodological frameworks of soundscape composition with community participation. What is not formalised, however, is the ethical approach.

Part 2. Bearing Witness and Recording

Returning to the problem of auditory ethics in field recording methodologies, let us begin with the collection of recordings by new media-oriented journalists. A useful guide to ‘bearing witness’ is provided by the hour-long weekly radio program, On the Media, hosted by Bob Garfield and Brooke Gladstone. Produced by WNYC in New York City, and part of National Public Radio, On The Media’s programming focuses primarily on journalistic methods that use mobile technology, as well as the First Amendment rights of Americans. 


On The Media’s Breaking News Consumer’s Handbook Bearing Witness Edition

Apart from being hosted on the WNYC website, this guide (see Figure 1) is circulated through social media during national crises, riots in large American cities, and natural disasters. This simple list is meant as a helpful reminder to those ‘close to the action’, who have the means to approach the site of breaking news. The guide is meant to encourage responsible citizen journalism, and to protect those who capture footage that a news outlet may deem valuable. However, consider what is at stake when receiving consent during events where the recorded subjects are under duress. Can one claim to have proper consent, even if it is captured on audio or video, when the people recorded are pressed for time to consider the implications of their decision?

Further issues arise when ‘stealth recording’ is incorporated into the capture of events. Sound recording has become inexpensive, miniature, stealthy, and largely unobtrusive – save for the microphone itself. Even then, there are lavaliere microphones with a noise floor low enough to capture ambience, most notably used by Chris Watson. But many social scientists and fine arts scholars use simpler setups that have microphone capsules, preamplifiers and recorder in a single unit. Presently the most popular unit is the Zoom H4n, a small stereo recorder with particularly high fidelity.

Body-worn cameras and microphones are within economic reach of many consumers. And while the guide is designed for capturing video, there are important considerations to be made for audio as well. In a recent article concerning the viability of recording in public spaces, Mok, Cornish & Tarr examine the legality of audiovisual capture:

In general, the question of the ethical acceptability of recording in public places is a grey, and changing area…Laws and regulations on filming in public places vary between countries, for example, France does not permit public filming in all public places, while the USA and the UK do, with some restrictions depending on political context. Moreover, norms, customs, and laws evolve in tandem with changing technologies and uses of those technologies. (Mok, Cornish & Tarr 2014, p312)

In addition to this, The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press has published on the limits of citizen recording[1].

Courts and the government have made it illegal for information gatherers and others to engage in any of the following activities (always keep in mind, however, that these prohibitions may not apply to law enforcement and other government officials):

  • bugging a room, secretly monitoring telephone conversations (to which the recording subject is not a party) or intercepting computer communications (publishers [newspapers, blogs, etc] may, however, disseminate illegally taped conversations if they are of great public interest and the publisher broke no law in acquiring them);
  • hacking into telephone systems to acquire previously recorded conversations; and acquiring a person’s phone records from a phone company by posing as someone authorized to see the records.

For those who work within research institutions, there are additional steps toward receiving consent even to bring a recorder to an event or interview. Research ethics boards in the UK, Canada and USA require assessments of the risks involved in recording. However, recording in open-air spaces remains uncategorized: they are not qualified as interviews or performances. Like the laws and regulations that Mok, Cornish & Tarr identify, it is evident that grey areas remain in public spaces.

If one is to consider an open-air space as belonging not to a particular legal entity but to a community, then the issues involved in sonic ethnography are not legal but rather involve the ethical and moral imperatives of best practice. Take for example the recent cultural repatriation of recordings at Smithsonian Folkways Recordings. In Sound Returns: Toward Ethical “Best Practices” at Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, Sita Reddy and D.A. Sonneborn voice questions, concerns and an appreciation of the cultural value of sound recordings in museum exhibits and record distribution:

While returning control over the use of a recording such as this is an important goal in theory, it raises several questions in practice. How should privacy, and restricted access to traditional knowledge, be balanced against greater public access to such material? What are museum obligations to balance respect for the privacy or secrecy of those groups who were recorded, with requests to hear and study them?…Archives of recorded music are not only sound sites, they are also contested sites of power, sites of reinvention, and self-determination. If we treat these diverse recordings as mere records or documentation of information about music traditions (some of which were recorded more than 70 years ago), we may end up reifying stereotypes about indigenous groups, denying them some capacity to recover their own traditional resources for creating their own futures. But if we see the full social capacity of recorded songs (in terms of the real cultural work that they accomplish), and if we try consistently to redistribute this power and knowledge—to ethically transfer control over use—we will be in a better position to articulate the mission of museum collections. (Reddy and Sonneborn 2013, pp133-136)

The practice of sonic ethnography requires that practitioners participate in the ‘cultural work’ of recording by working with the individuals and communities to whom the recordings are attributed. In my own research, I examine the process of recording in an ethnographic context, often to reveal the way that recording compilations ‘filter out’ subtleties within a community or culture (for example the use of wax cylinders to record and eventually represent indigenous and minority communities; and the creation of folk music anthologies). Treating the process of recording and production as a component of ethnography during the process provides researchers with a greater understanding of what the potential effect might be. Further, making the distribution network accessible to the community and open only to those approved by the community shifts the conventional power relation between recordist and recorded, and sets a precedent for collaboration with minimal compromise.

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