Thoughts on ‘Sound Studies: Art, Experience, Politics’

10th July 2015 [final day of the conference]

Yesterday I attended the final day of the excellent conference, Sound Studies: Art, Experience, Politics, held at the Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities at the University of Cambridge. (I couldn’t make the previous two days due to other work commitments.) I wanted to record some notes on what I found particularly productive about the presentations and the day in general.

As a general point, it’s worth mentioning that this was an interdisciplinary conference at its best. Interdisciplinarity was something that just seemed to “just happen”, instead of being – as is much more often the case – a fetishized ideal imagined as a cure-all to perceived intradisciplinary limitations; no one felt it worth mentioning or evoking how “interdisciplinary” they were being. The genuine disciplinary mix of delegates also contributed to a very open atmosphere for discussion. Those asking questions after papers actually seemed to want to hear the answers(!), to know more, or to contribute to the discussion of work in progress; there was, as far as I saw, no posturing by those seeking to sure-up their name or position within their own disciplinary area.

The first of four sessions included papers on sound and embodiment. In his paper, Professor John Levack Drever pointed to an important and central notion that underpins much of our thinking about sound: that sound studies, and sound design more broadly, tends to presume a normative or idealised listener. He introduced the term auraltypical (as comparable to neurotypical) to describe this listener; he argued that we need to recognise the “hearing needs” of those who do not fit this presumed universalised hearer. Dr Caleb Kelly then gave an excellent paper in which he explored work under development as part of his forthcoming book on Gallery Sound. He discussed a number of contrasting artworks in which gallery spaces, in their sonic capacities, were foreground as embodied spaces. Simply put, this was done through the silencing of the space or the overwhelming of the audience/listener through excess noise. Importantly, he moved a step further to consider what this said about art practices and their place within late twentieth-century and contemporary cultures – e.g. the experience of art as revelatory, pseudo-religious practice, or as entertainment, as commodification of “the experience”.

In the second session, Professor Karin Bijsterveld presented findings from ongoing work about the role of sound as means of study (as opposed to being the object of study) – the classic example would be the doctor using his or her stethoscope as diagnostic tool. She presented a typology of different listening strategies. She also showed how information/data has been undergone “sonification” (made into sound) in order to be understood or presented to new audiences. For me, however, there was a pressing question about the politics of different forms of sonifying, which could have been addressed more explicitly – although, to be fair, it was perhaps beyond the scope of this presentation. Scientific data can be presented as music. But this is a very specific – aesthetic – form of sonification; it is very different from the sonification of pulse on the ECG. For me, such aestheticizing projects of sonification also invite questions about the role of composer: the re-presentation of “objective” data as music seems to me at least as an attempt to withdraw the “subjective” aspect of composition from the compositional process – i.e. it refigures the composer as a filter for the data, and reduces their compositional “choices” to deciding the manner in which data is translated into sound. This aestheticizing sonification re-presents abstract data as a form of revelation: to be experienced “directly” through the imagined directness of music itself.

Professor Kate Lacey stepped in at the last moment to give a paper in place of a speaker who had unfortunately fallen ill. Lacey’s paper was simply excellent, in my opinion. She considered the ‘auditory capital’ associated with different modalities of listening and of making sound. (This “auditory capital” refigured Bourdieu’s “cultural capital”, for sonic practices.) Beside her central thesis, I was also struck by her observation about the politics of ‘giving a voice’ to some material, of making material sonically active while implicating a denigration of the passive. This act we see in the attempts ‘to haul mute subjects into the lively world of sound’. Unfortunately I didn’t have to time to ask how this idea sat in the context of broader contemporary debates about nonhuman materials and subjects; Lacey seemed to suggest that all forms of materials “speaking up” was a form of anthropomorphisation, of subjectifying them in some way. I am honestly not sure where I stand on this idea, but I do know that many would object to this.

In the third session, Dr J.R. Carpenter gave a lecture-performance about the ocean as a sonic space. Some aspects of her presentation were, I thought, very successful. What I liked in particular was her discussion of air and water figured as “in betweens” – as mediums that are themselves considered as intermediary spaces (she developed this idea from Aristotle). Dr Kate Galloway then presenting on projects broadcast on Canadian radio in the 70s. After this talk, I’d be very interested to hear in full some of the broadcasts that were discussed – in particular, a programme presented by R. Murray Schafer that engaged the listener directly, guiding them through the practice of new ways to listen.

Professor Steven Connor gave the keynote address, on ‘Acousmania’ [available on his website]. Focusing on and questioning the “discipline” of sound studies, Connor explored the idea of an imagined ‘cohering force’ behind different studies sound – he called this a fantasy. The most problematic aspect of this fantasy is the alleged assumption that sound and sonic culture are immediate, dynamic, and ‘alive’ (as a opposed to the static, dead, representationalism of visual culture). Sound is always secondary, he argued; when writing (e.g.) histories of sound we are in fact writing histories of the production of sound. I thought he presented a wonderful and engaging talk. His main thesis was made very effectively, although I did disagree with a few details of his argument. The point that sound is indexical or secondary to something other is a fair one. But I thought that this was at times a little overstated. Connor argued for instance that sound is always an epistemology rather than an ontology; it is always secondary to something else, and is a manner of knowing this something. There is no “is” in sound, he said. I asked a question about this (one which, to be honest, could have been better communated after a long day!): can’t epistemologies and ontologies be regarded as in some form of relationship – don’t ontologies get produced epistemologically, for instance? (We could go further down this line of questioning and ask why one couldn’t take a position on the ontology of sound as itself relational – i.e. a relational ontology….) What I was struck by was that despite the talk’s focus on the imagined immediacy of sound there was, as far as I could tell, no mention of the word mediation. Surely this term could let us effectively navigate this relationship between epistemology and ontology, between the production of sound and fantastical imaginings of “sound itself”? However, these points should be taken in the context of what was a thought-provoking and far-reaching presentation.

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