Soundings: New Series

This Soundings blog will feature events and projects that might inspire sonic ethnography. The second post will feature an interview with Swiss-born sound artist and author of Sonic Somatic Christof Migone, whose performance installation Hit was featured at the Redpath Sugar Factory as part of Nuit Blanche Toronto. A third post will explore the prospect of an auditory ethics, drawing from journalism, anthropology and the law.

A running readings and listenings list will be maintained by me, and readers are encouraged to add new material to it. 

To many people who identify as scholars of sound studies, it is categorized less as a discipline, and more so as a field dispersed throughout academic endeavours in the arts, social sciences and humanities, including scholarship in science and technology. As ethnomusicologist, anthropologist and sociolinguist Steven Feld said, we do work “through sound”. So, where does one start doing sound studies?

This question was the impetus for a conference aptly titled Sound Studies: Art, Experience, Politics at the University of Cambridge in July of 2015. After a few years as the token sound studies student, first in an anthropology department and then in a music department, I reached out to sound studies networks through this conference. My fellow doctoral student Anija Dokter, who does sound studies through research into birthing practices, rightly pointed out that despite the proliferation of sonic research, it was far from centralised [for instance, see here]. Our conference weighed art and research practice equally, apropos of the themes and context.

With a new sound studies reader out on Jonathan Sterne’s Duke Press imprint by David Novak and Matt Sakakeeny, Keywords in Sound (2015), a number of newly formalized terms were fresh in the minds of our attendees. 

Notably, in this text Steven Feld writes a working definition of acoustemology: acoustic epistemology, or – ways of knowing through sound. Feld’s recordings on the Smithsonian Folkways label demonstrate how techniques borrowed from soundscape composition develop cultural narratives and disseminate local knowledge. For example, Feld’s Voices of the Rainforest uses tape splicing as a means of temporal compression, in which one hour of listening represents “a day in the life of the Kaluli people of Bosavi, Papua New Guinea”. This technique and Feld’s acoustemology concept offers ethnographers an entry point to using sound in their research. This sonic practice is a tool for understanding and collaborating with community members and cultural interlocutors – to borrow from Feld, to ‘do anthropology through sound’.

In his closing lecture to the Sound Studies: Art, Experience, Politics conference, Steven Connor contended that all sound is a way of knowing, therefore an acoustemology cannot exist on its own simply because there is no alternative. Fittingly, Connor’s argument was an extension of Cook’s opening remarks that “we are all doing sound studies now” (referring to his 2008 article We Are All Ethnomusicologists Now). 

How might we trace sound, hearing, and not hearing in ethnographic scholarship? And how can we think about novel ways to incorporate an acoustic epistemology into contemporary ethnography? 

Connor’s assertion is, simply, that knowing through sound is the very act of listening. However, the effects of listening and the various strategies applied bare new sonic practices, ones that ethnographers have used to great effect in recent years. Take, for example, the use of diegetic unedited sound in Leviathan (2012, directed by Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Ana Paravel). The audio captured by Point-of-View GoPro cameras provides the audience with a jarring and unflinching insight into the North American fishing industry, from the high decibel drones of the boat engines to the screeching of seagulls fishing for entrails.

To my delight, the participants created a wonderfully convivial environment for exchange of knowledge and contacts. Another event with the same personnel will hopefully take place in the coming years, incorporating an extended artists’ residency and even more sound art. What is most exciting from this event was interdisciplinary dialogue surrounded by those working through sound.

I can be reached at ezsr2@cam.ac.uk for questions, comments, and more importantly, leads to great projects!

Ely Rosenblum, October 2015

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Ely Rosenblum

PhD Candidate, Faculty of Music, University of Cambridge