Editorial: Writing About and Through Sound
By Linda O Keeffe
This issue of Interference asked authors to consider sound as the means to which we can explain the sonic. Contributions to the study of sound, apart from practice-based works, are often disseminated through language and text. This is the case for most analysis or research into sensory based and phenomenological studies. There is of course a strong case to be made for text; it is the universal way in which contemporary knowledge is transmitted. But perhaps there is an argument to be made for new ways to not only explore sound but to disseminate ideas around the sonic. For example, in what way can ‘sonic papers’ represent ideas about the experience of space and place, local and community knowledge? How can emerging technologies engage with both the everyday soundscape and how we ‘curate this experience’? What is the potential of listening methods as a tool to engage community with ‘soundscape preservation’ and as a tool to critique and challenge urban planning projects?
This issue presents a series of papers by authors, who, in their research and practice, have taken up this methodological challenge. They argue for a revision in how we present sound theoretically as well as pedagogically. In addition, each author approaches their field using the already available discourse around sound related to their particular practice, while treading the difficult, but not impossible, trans-disciplinary (TR) model. TR research often employs prescriptive, practice based and normative approaches to everyday problems, but each element of a discipline carries with it the weight of its own histories and discourse. This can be problematic when trying to find an interrelation of knowledge; we must take into account the diversity of perceptions of each field. Yet as each author explores this TR approach, they also present models of innovative pedagogic practice, tied to the epistemic routes of particular disciplines, yet wholly concerned with sonic discourse.
Merate Barakat and Michael Weinstock ask the reader to reconsider the nature of the city soundscape as a morphological one. They state that cities should be treated in a similar way to the bio diverse spaces of nature, where the impact of shifting ecological factors shape species behaviours and the general environment. Spatial design needs to consider the biological elements of a city, including the production and maintenance of localised sounds. Urban ecologies are impacted on by such events as increased temperature due to the ever-growing pollutants within cities as well as the absorbing and reflecting nature of certain building materials. They suggest that sound too is affected by these “changes in atmospheric pressure and relative humidity” further affecting urban ecologies, presenting the city as a living and sentient biosphere, with communications – biological and technological – running through similar infrastructural processes. In presenting the city as a morphological space, both biotic and abiotic, where sounds are tied to certain spaces, connected by the availability of energy (consumable materials) and diversity (cultural and material), they offer a unique case for the merging of architecture and design with ecology studies. In essence, this is a refocus of ‘top-down’ approaches to not only the development of cities but to how, as biological entities, cities in the future must be able to support a healthy and diverse ecosystem of human and non human species.
Nicola Di Croce, on the other hand, suggests a ‘bottom-up’ approach to urban planning and development. The author argues that the lack of a listening awareness or a language to discuss sound by communities has an impact on both urban planning and design. City planners and managers can, in effect, reshape city spaces, without taking into consideration the importance of community soundscapes, local or traditional sounds. He further states that it is the historic soundscape that is key in identifying sites of sonic significance because they reflect or reverberate past and current practices within community places. Reflecting Shafer’s case for the acknowledgement of the importance of the ‘archetypal sound’, a sound inherited from the past, he argues that it is necessary to develop methodologies for communities and policy makers for the preservation of historic or meaningful sounds in the everyday. It is only through developing listening strategies that a community can trace changes within the soundscape and link them to the devolving of social and productive practices.
Finally he argues for the development of a “repertoire of innovative sonic methodologies”, which work to educate a public in listening methods while understanding that there are still inherent inequalities between expert and novice.
Dylan Van Der Schyff’s paper presents pedagogy for phenomenology within creative arts practice, grounded in the principles of Husserl and Don Ihde. He provides a discreet yet thorough overview of phenomenology within perception, allowing us to better understand a potential process for teaching a ‘phenomenological attitude’. He argues that praxis involves “the development and integration of a range of technical, theoretical, cultural and ethical understandings that are relevant to the lives of students and teachers”. He further asserts that the arts can be used as a process of sense making in the everyday, which becomes a fundamental pedagogical process. This approach reflects the Interpretivists model whereby the artist – educator – student – examines the world subjectively, understanding that each experience is tied to the surrounding social and cultural environment, while recognising the growing role of technology in praxis and what often seems like the unlimited potential of the tech tool. A case for reflection is argued – otherwise we risk “a non-critical celebration of new technologies” which “may contribute to a passive reliance on digital devices, a false sense of one’s own creative engagement”. The paper presents two multimedia projects that are potential case studies for student engagement with sound and other forms of media. These media types allow for an emphasis on the importance of sound in critical theory as well as perceptual and phenomenological study – a brilliant tool for both the artist and educator. As in other papers in this issue, the author is looking at a cross synthesis of theories and media platforms, for which sonic educators and artists can work with to further the discourse of sound as praxis and pedagogy.
Focusing again on pedagogy and praxis, Frank Dufour presents an analysis of a teaching method he designed and taught, which places a strong focus on sound as ‘object’ for future sound designers. A number of authors for this issue have presented a case for the reconfiguration of phenomenology to be more sonically focused than previous research, stressing the importance of sound as an equal part of the field of sensory studies and not one that is relegated to supporting visual experiences (Sterne 2003; Truax 2000). Dufour’s teaching practice explores the inter-relationship between sound, eye and body, particularly in the field of sound design for audio-visual environments. This ‘phenomenological method’ trains the student to think of sound and then to describe and design sound based on a heightened awareness of sound types, sound meanings and the development over time of increased auditory awareness. He has adopted ‘Schaeffer’s typo-morphology of the sound object’; this allows students develop a language for sonic experiences, one that he argues is verifiable within sound design research. The paper’s explanation of Schafer’s typo-morphology may initially seem overwhelming in its detail, but when the description of the process is applied to practice, (in particular, what the students learned and how this was then applied to sound design in practice) the value of the method becomes very clear. From this point on the student moves from understanding the sonic object to thinking about sonic structures using Temporal Semiotic Units (TSUs). This is a process that examines sound or musical structures as temporal units or segments. This paper, like Gerloff and Schwesinger’s (see below) recognises the importance of using and working with sound in praxis; sound and listening become the tool, method, practice and process for learning about sound.
The work of Milena Droumeva finds natural links with that of Van Der Schyf through the development of a sensory studies project using mobile technologies. Droumeva explores the ubiquity of the mobile phone and its potential to explore and remediate everyday sonic experience. She focuses on mobile devices, particularly how phones have become “increasingly integrated into and co-constitutive of the very fabric of everyday experience and perception”; therefore, adapting this tool for sensory-based public engagement seems like a logical move. The convergence of media since the 2000’s works in two ways: as a technological shift in processes and practices, as well as a shift of the audience/consumer engagement. However, the author adds to this a shift in our perceptual engagement with the everyday.
Using a number of applications, which document audio, visual and text based information, participants of her research project engaged in a practice of ‘Curating the Self’. Each participant created a work, which is an analysis of a sonic and everyday experience. They then frame that within contextual sensory data, sometimes video, sometimes audio. It is then argued that the ubiquitous nature of mobile technologies has allowed for this explosion of self-curated experiences, which in certain contexts allows for a purposeful examination of everyday sensory experiences. However, there is also a need for critical reflection on this technology. Its ease of use in documenting every experience and every moment of every person’s life, which then unfolds in mediated social spheres, is less concerned with framing an artistic experience and more with mediating every social and even non-social experience.
Felix Gerloff and Sebastian Schwesinger have taken on the process of shifting the textual discourse of the sonic back to sound – the audio paper format – and then back to text. Through an examination of sonic epistemologies, guided by a reworking and reconfiguring of Steven Feld’s work on the Kaluli culture, they suggest that it may be possible to present notions about place and space through and with sound. In their paper they discuss a presentation they made for which two sites of significance were discussed ‘using the sonic format’. These sites – spaces undergoing unique physical transformations – were altering not only the soundscape but also the experience of place as it is shaped by sound. Using Feld’s method as a starting point, they explore sonic meanings and interpretations. However, the authors critically adopt a creative – even interpretive – approach, playing with meaning and non-linear narrative to present these spaces as sonic stories. The difficulties of sound as a medium to present semiotic metaphors or meaning are highlighted, but equally the potential of sound as a medium of meaning different to that of text. More importantly, it is suggested that it is not necessary “for a sonic pattern found in analysis to be rendered audible in the audio paper”. Instead, one can use other models of analysis, including creative ones, which may provide an alternate reading of space and sound. Those working in the fields of the senses and phenomenology often consider this contradiction: how can one express ideas about perception solely through language? De Certeau argued, for example, that maps, a cartographic narrative of space, ignore the subjective experience of walking through space. Yet text and language is the common tool which all disciplinary discourse falls into. Gerloff and Schwesinger argue that perhaps there could be a common form of discourse related more specifically to a discipline. If sound is the discourse of space, then ‘how’ space is presented should be through sound.
Yiannis Christidis & Michael Quinton present their methodological approach for examining two distinct urban spaces: Cyprus and Malta. Taking the traditional approaches of soundwalking and listening, sound mapping, as well as traditional sociological methods such as interviews, they explore, current and past soundscapes. While there have been a number of studies – both in practice and within theoretically grounded research – on the meaning of sounds within space, and to locals, it is always important to explore the unexamined cultures lest we think the sonic experience is generalisable. The authors argue that we must approach each space of study as places of ‘variety’ with ‘diverse cultural elements’, which shape not only perception but also ‘meaning making’. They state that Mediterranean cities have evolved along unique growth lines, different to their northern European counterparts. A piecemeal approach to growing city populations has meant that housing areas have evolved as large sprawling areas with little or no green areas or planned pedestrian routes such as footpaths or roadways. These contribute to unique soundscapes, as there are no clear demarcations between communities. In cities such as Malta and Cyprus, a lack of foresight in urban planning failed to include interconnecting green belts between zones of habitus, a now recognisable format in city planning since the 1960s in Europe. Like Barakat, Weinstock and Di Croce, they point to urban planning and urban design as significant to the shaping of city soundscapes. Their findings have highlighted how the uniqueness of the local cultural temperament as well as the actual temperature of these spaces (we often associate the Mediterranean with heat), significantly shapes auditory perception and connection to space.
People live their lives at street level engaging and contributing to the everyday soundscape, creating a unique sound profile that can be added to the annals of knowledge of the growing confluence of a world soundscape study.
Sterne, J., 2003. The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction, USA: Duke University Press.
Truax, B., 2000. Acoustic Communication 2nd ed., USA: Praeger.