Has the ever-nascent field of sound studies finally “grown up”? After years of intellectual development and a constantly growing body of work, including quite a few classic texts and books, it has been rapidly establishing an identity of its own, independent from the many “parent” disciplines from which it originated. As with any teenager, this process of maturation comes with a dose of self-searching and, indeed, some navel-gazing. But are we ready to acknowledge sound studies as its own discipline?
At the first conference of the European Sound Studies Organization (ESSA) in Berlin in October 2013, a heated debate followed an otherwise routine announcement. The preliminary title for the second installment of the conference: “Sound Studies: A Discipline?” was not going to make it to Copenhagen in June 2014. Although the question mark suggested playfulness, many audience members either did not like the idea of an entire conference devoted to the meta-discussion on the pros and cons of interdisciplinarity or were not prepared to consider sound studies as a discipline at the first place.
Eventually, the Copenhagen conference was safely re-named “Sound Studies: Mapping the Field.” The discussion in Berlin however, continued at the opening session of the Sound Signatures Winter School in Amsterdam in early 2014. Co-organizer Mara Mills asked whether the publication of such anthologies as The Sound Studies Reader in 2012 and The Oxford Handbook of Sound Studies in 2013 meant that sound studies was a proper discipline. Is it, she asked, moving away from its roots as an interdisciplinary field consisting of displaced scholars formerly unable to tackle questions of sound within the confines of their traditional disciplines? The ensuing five days of the Winter School answered Mill’s question in a rather fittingly ambiguous way. The question remains: “Sound Studies: A Discipline?” Well, yes and no.
One of the most significant conclusions of the Winter School’s thought-provoking workshops, keynotes, performances and debates was phrased by co-organizer Carolyn Birdsall during the final discussion on Friday afternoon; she had come to realize that sound studies and its older, more distinguished, but often somewhat stale brother musicology are not the adversaries one is often led to believe. A musicologist by training, I have always found sound studies’ habit of explicitly not dealing with music (in conjunction with its sometimes disproportionate focus on sound art) a little tiresome; and what these five intensive days in Amsterdam convincingly showed, among other things, was that the older brother and its younger sibling can be rather complimentary.
Of course, the traditional objects and methods of the discipline of musicology—in its most dusty and clichéd form studying black dots written on paper by great men—have long been what sound studies scholars avoided. In the late 1980’s, however, musicology already started moving away from this stereotype by incorporating more critical methodologies and broadening its scope. Moreover, ethno- or cultural- musicologists have been breaking the armor of Eurocentrism in mainstream musicology. Now, with the steady rise of sound studies’ academic momentum, musicology is even giving up its intellectual monopoly on determining what does and what does not count as relevant research on music. The highly interdisciplinary body of knowledge developed in this mature sound studies can indeed be very useful in more conventional musicological research; likewise sound studies benefits from work conducted within the disciplinary confines of musicology.
At the Winter School, a prime example of such an exchange was Julia Kursell’s keynote lecture “Motor Media: On Aural Feedback in the History of Musical Instrument Playing.” Focusing on the experiments of nineteenth-century French pianist and teacher Marie Jaëll, Kursell showed how, prior to the advent of recording technology, musical instruments like the piano offered valuable points of entry into the world of sound and hearing. The piano-keyboard, Kursell argued, was not just a site of aesthetic, musical development, but was also employed as an epistemological tool in itself. Moreover, studying such historical cases also opens the door for broader questions engaging musicology, sound studies and science and technology studies.This interdisciplinary overlap allows for discussions of the body politics of music teaching as well as the didactics of a specific aesthetic regime in a particular social milieu.
Other sessions that explicitly dealt with music included Stephen Amico’s lecture combining sound studies, media studies and the “discipline formerly known as ethnomusicology” to discuss ethical difficulties facing ethnographic sound archivists. This discussion about the ownership and right of use of the recordings in such archives was among the most refreshing and timely raised through the week. On a much lighter note, Ashley Burgoyne’s Workshop “What Can You Learn from a Music Game?” represented yet another rapidly developing interdisciplinary field of music research: the study of music cognition.
Recently, after returning from the aforementioned ESSA conference in Copenhagen, Marcel Cobussen predicted in a Facebook update that “in 10-15 years from now, musicology will be a subspecies of sound studies.” He might be right, but rather than a “sub-discipline,” why not envision a continuum from “old-fashioned” musicology, via the much broader field of music studies towards the broader field of sound studies. As such, sound studies would maintain its interdisciplinary status as a field, rather than a discipline, allowing for engagement with the knowledge that has been produced and is still produced in musicology proper and music studies more generally.
It is up to a new generation, raised as sound studies natives, to further the developments toward such an exchange of scholarship. Judging by the presentations, workshops, performances, and most tellingly, student presentations, during these five days in Amsterdam, this will undoubtedly happen. Notwithstanding the very broad scope of topics and approaches, backgrounds and interests, among participants and presenters there was the tacit acknowledgement of communality in the one thing they all shared: a profound interest in sound in the broadest sense of the word that needed very little justification. Initiatives like this Winter School and its upcoming second installment in the form of a Summer School in Berlin leave one with an optimistic outset of the intellectual potential of the young field of sound studies; it forges interdisciplinary connections by virtue of the common interest in an object–sound–that is simultaneously a very specific and seemingly endless scope of scholarly possibilities.
Perhaps the most telling example of this bright future was the fact that the keynote by Jonathan Sterne, without question the week’s big star, author of one of the founding books in the field, was a nice historical overview of the concept of the “soundscape,” although offering few new insights or questions. If anything, this unusually low-key performance from a very impressive scholar, underlined the most inspiring aspect of the Sound Signatures Winter School: there is still much to be done, and, as this very blog has been consistently showing since 2009, a new generation of sound scholars is already doing it. Therefore, I am looking forward to hearing our next generation of scholars weighing in on the question: “Sound Studies: A Discipline?” in the forthcoming discussion in Berlin. With an impressive, diverse and exciting program I’m sure I won’t be disappointed.
Melle Jan Kromhout is PhD-Fellow at the Amsterdam School for Cultural Analysis, University of Amsterdam. His research project entitled “Noise Identities” focuses on the revaluation of noise in recorded sound and music. The project aims to develop noise identities as a concept for assessing the relation between recording media and musical significance. He presented his work at conferences around the globe and published several articles including “‘Over the Ruined Factory There’s a Funny Noise’: Throbbing Gristle and the mediatized roots of noise in/as music” (2011), “As Distant and Close as Can Be. Lo-fi Recording: Site-specificity and (In)authenticity” (2012), “An Exceptional Purity of Sound: Noise Reduction Technology and the Inevitable Noise of Sound Recording” (2014) and “’Antennas Have Long Since Invaded Our Brains’: Listening to the ‘Other Music’ in Friedrich Kittler” (forthcoming, 2015). More information on www.mellekromhout.nl
Featured image: Carla Müller-Schulzke opening the first ESSA conference in Berlin, October 2013, by Jennifer Stoever, CC BY-SA 3.0
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Functional Sound (Studies): The First European Sound Studies Association Meeting— Erik Granly Jensen
“Sound at AMS/SEM/SMT 2012”— Bill Bahng Boyer
On October 4-6, 2013 ESSA – The European Sound Studies Association – will have its first conference in Berlin. This initiative is just the latest sign that an institutionalization is taking place within the inter-disciplinary field of sound studies. Erik Granly Jensen, who is one of the founding members and vice-chair of ESSA, tells the story here:
During the past decade, the field of sound studies – or auditory culture if you will –has been growing immensely. International conferences and seminars, numerous dissertations, monographs and research articles have shaped a vibrant, interdisciplinary area of study that of course has a much longer history within the more traditional disciplines of the humanities and social sciences, but which during the past 10-15 years has morphed into a discipline of its own. Just last year, two extensive collections of theoretical texts appeared with major publishing houses, The Oxford Handbook of Sound Studies (ed. Trevor Pinch & Karin Bijsterveld) on Oxford University Press and The Sound Studies Reader (ed. Jonathan Sterne) on Routledge. A second edition of the classic Auditory Culture Reader (ed. Michael Bull) is in the making and supposedly another Routledge anthology is being planned as well. Furthermore, in 2010 three European journals on sound cultures appeared within just a few months: the Holland-based Journal of Sonic Studies, the Ireland-based journal Interference and the Denmark-based SoundEffects; all three of them international online journals devoted to the analysis of sound cultures with an explicit ambition to integrate sound into academic analysis. To give an illustration of the interest that these journals are already enjoying is the fact that SoundEffects in 2012 alone had 15,000 individual article downloads.
With all these activities taking place, supplemented by the high number of research networks and transnational research projects throughout Europe, for instance “Sound in Media Culture” sponsored by the German Research Foundation or “The Nordic Research Network for Sound Studies” sponsored by the Nordic Research Foundation, Nordforsk, it seemed to be a question of time before the area of sound studies would take yet another disciplinary step and bring all the efforts together in an association. For even if the field of sound studies is alive and well, the advantage of creating a lasting academic platform where researchers, practitioners and artists can meet annually to exchange ideas and build new networks should not be underestimated. The existence of an association and an explicit reference to a global community for research and artistic practice into sound could be the decisive argument for both the introduction of university programs and job positions within sound studies. ESSA, The European Sound Studies Association that was founded last year could become such a forum.
As is so often the case, the idea for a sound studies association arose at an occasion that was scheduled for other purposes. In January of 2012, twelve members of the Nordic Research Network for Sound Studies were gathered in Copenhagen to plan the activities of the Nordic research network, www.sdu.dk/norsound. During discussions of a possible doctoral school that would include not just doctoral students from the Nordic countries, but be a traveling European doctoral school, the idea for both a European summer school and for a forum that could facilitate sound studies throughout the European continent was put on the table. Everybody present (including Anahid Kassabian, Michael Bull, Heikki Uimonen, and Marcel Cobussen to mention a few) agreed that this was both a great and a timely idea and the association ESSA, European Sound Studies Association, was born.
ESSA is a groundbreaking organization, bringing together the widest range of approaches to the study of sound. It’s exciting to be involved in its earliest stages and to participate in shaping this new community. I’m very much looking forward to its growth over the next few years and to ESSA becoming a productive environment for scholars working with many aspects of sound. –Anahid Kassabian, University of Liverpool
During the past year, an ESSA website was launched and discussions of a possible legal statute of the association have been circulating in the group parallel with the planning of the first ESSA conference. The reason for the working of the legal statute is, that ESSA in the future will be run by membership donations and through a democratically elected board of members.
In particular musicologist Morten Michelsen from the University of Copenhagen and Holger Schulze, professor of historical anthropology of Sound at the Academy of Arts in Berlin (two other members of the founding group) have been the driving forces of ESSA in this initial phase. At this point where everything is still waiting to happen, it is of course hard to predict what ESSA will be and what kind of an association it can be in the future. However, the ambition is to provide “a forum where those involved in the study of sound can meet and exchange ideas.” ESSA will also encourage “the development of research and systematic study in topics and in areas where such study in not well developed” as is stated on the website. In addition to these overall ambitions, the initial idea of a European doctoral summer school for sound studies still has a high priority as a future goal for ESSA.
With the founding of the European Sound Studies Association – the study of sound in all it’s inter-disciplinary richness and diversity now has an independent institutional voice for the first time. The range of sonic scholars that is converging on Berlin for ESSA’s first annual conference in October is evidence of both the need and the success of ESSA. The presence of ESSA will provide a platform, not just for European scholars, but for all those working on sound globally. –Michael Bull, University of Sussex
The theme for the upcoming conference in Berlin is “Functional Sound.” The conference will focus on existing as well as emergent and cutting-edge approaches to functional sound design, sonification, auditory culture, everyday soundscapes, artistic concepts and popular culture. In particular, the conference encourages presentations that include both theoretical and practical aspects and presentations that address everyday contexts within which sound—in its relation to media, technology, and the arts—is constitutive for new ways of thinking, listening, and becoming. The conference is a joint venture with the international research network “Sound in Media Culture” (led by Holger Schulze). During the three conference days, paper presentations in six parallel streams will cover topics such as “Soundscape of the Urban Future,” “Sound Design Practices,” “Sonic Artistic Practices and Research,” and “Cultural Politics & Sonic Experience.” [Editor: Click here for the full program, which includes several Sounding Out! editors and writers: Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman, Neil Verma, reina alejandra prado saldivar, Mack Hagood, and Regina Arnold. –JSA]
The confirmed keynote speakers are all leading scholars in the field and include Douglas Kahn, who is professor of Media and Innovation at the University of New South Wales in Sydney. Professor Kahn has been a driving force for the development of sound studies, primarily due to his influential 2001 book Noise, Water, Meat: A History of Sound in the Arts. Jason Stanyek, professor at the Faculty of Music at Oxford University, is also a keynote speaker. Professor Stanyek is a musicologist, who specializes in Brazilian hip-hop and Pan-African Jazz. Also he is the co-editor of The Oxford Handbook of Mobile Music Studies. The final keynote speaker is Thomas Macho, professor in cultural history at the Humboldt University in Berlin. Professor Macho has published on numerous subjects but of special interest for the sound studies field is his work concerned with the human voice and most recently his book on synchronization, Kulturtechniken der Synchronisation from 2011.
For those who cannot make it to Berlin this year, the place and dates for the 2014 ESSA conference have already been decided. It will take place in Denmark on June 27-29 2014 at the University of Southern Denmark in Odense. To be updated about ESSA and future events, please visit the website, http://www.soundstudies.eu, and sign up.
Featured Image Courtesy of Mediateletipos. In 2008, artist Akio Suzuki presented a sound installation around Berlin’s water tower focused on listening to everyday situations, directing listener’s attention through audial symbols painted on the ground.
Erik Granly Jensen is associate professor at the Department for the Study of Culture at the University of Southern Denmark. He is the research leader of The Nordic Research Network for Sound Studies, sponsored by Nordforsk 2011-2014. He is also the co-editor of the online journal SoundEffects and a founding member of ESSA, The European Sound Studies Association. His most recent research areas include historical sound archives and radio art. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
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Sound at ASA 2012–Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman