Editorial – Enjoy Sound Art and Sound Studies at Home During Hard Times

Marcel Cobussen



That most of us must have experienced a rather radical change in our sonic environments over the past few months is not a bold assumption. Not one country has been able to escape from the (negative) effects on health, health care, social life, economic developments, and cultural clear-cutting that COVID-19 has caused, and this has also heavily impacted everyday sounds: less cars on the roads, less planes in the air, less trains, less people on the streets, no yelling kids on their way to school. As a result, this reduction of activity, both inside and outside, opened our ears to the many sounds that are normally masked: animal sounds (mostly birds), rustling trees and plants, but of course also those human sounds that are usually masked by other, louder sounds. Judging by, for example, newspaper articles and radio broadcasts, the effect COVID-19 had on our ears seemed more notable than the visual changes our environment underwent. Many sound artists were asked to make field recordings in now almost empty, silent cities; many sound scholars were asked for their reflections on the effects of a quieter, more hi-fi sonic ambiance on the human body and mind. Perhaps we ourselves have become better listeners; at least many of us have experienced very directly how our ears and sonic environment fundamentally contribute to our orientation and being in the world. Perhaps it has made people more aware of the sonic ambiance they are inhabiting, more critically reflective, that is, more convinced that their sonic milieu is not a given but can be influenced, (re)designed, adapted, changed, improved. Considered from this vantage point, sound studies might even benefit from the current, unusual, and problematic situation.


This twentieth issue of the Journal of Sonic Studies contains expositions that were, for the most part, composed and submitted before the virus struck the world. Only one essay directly refers to and is based on the influence the pandemic has on our sonic habitat. However, while JSS20 is not a thematic issue, consisting instead of expositions submitted outside of any specific call for papers, it is still possible to trace a common thread that links all eight presentations. Namely, each author has been concentrating on the work of basically one or two persons. However divergent each of the expositions are in both content and form, the point of departure seems to have been particular individuals and their unique contributions.


In “Odontophones: An Empirical Approach to the Baschet Use of Clamped Oscillators for Sound Sculptures (and Beyond),” the Spanish sound artist and scholar Martí Ruiz i Carulla and India-based Sudhanshu Tewari introduce the work of the French sound artists and instrument builders François and Bernard Baschet, especially their treatment of clamped rods. Like the do-it-yourself sculptural works of the Baschets, Ruiz and Tewari’s contribution forms a multi-layered instrument which you, as a reader and listener, can explore endlessly, discovering new sonic, visual, and tactile worlds.


In “The Timbre of Tone, the Texture of Space: An Embodied Approach to the Atmospheric Modulations of Éliane Radigue,” the American music scholar and linguist Mark Saccomano focuses on the electronic music of this French composer, considering how her work reveals a certain interdependence of sound, space, and the active engagement of the listener. The listening subject and the musical object participate in an event that is mutually constitutive of these roles, whereas the space shared by both is more than simply a transparent medium through which the music flows.


Egyptian urban scholar and architect Noha Gamal Saïd has offered us the contribution entitled “Sonic Affordances of a Sacred Spring. The Urban Courtyard as a Figure of Rehabilitation of the Medina.” Her essay investigates, from an in situ sonic experience, the architectural rehabilitation project of the Source Bleue in Tiznit, Morocco, realized in 2015 by the architect and anthropologist Salima Naji. Gamal Saïd presents three concepts – affordances, thresholds, and ambiances – to analyze her field recordings, interviews with users of the space, and her personal reflections.


The American ornithologist Roxy Laybourne is a key figure in “The Pteropoetics of Birdstrike,” an audio documentary (+ curatorial essay) by the American radio, TV, and film scholar Jacob Smith. Laybourne developed forensic techniques for identifying species of birds involved in birdstrikes, the study of which led to aircraft safety improvements. Recordings of air traffic control conversions during birdstrike incidents, poetry recitations, and recordings of a skylark, layered with excerpts of recorded interviews with Laybourne, form the ingredients of Smith’s audio paper.


The Canadian writer, educator, and curator Shauna Jean Doherty focuses our attention on yet another sound artist, the Israeli-Canadian Adam Basanta. In “Noise and Silence: The Contemporary Sound Sculptures of Adam Basanta,” Doherty reflects on the radical and destabilizing sonic power that is generated by several of Basanta’s sound sculptures. She especially addresses the connotative complexities present in noise and silence as tools for or against control and their ability to influence a listener's behavior in disruptive, compliant, or coercive ways.


Marcel Duchamp is the main character in the exposition of Krzysztof Fijalkowski, a visual culture scholar from the UK. In “Secret Noise: Marcel Duchamp and the (Un)sound Object,” he specifically reflects on Duchamp’s enigmatic sculpture With Hidden Noise from 1916. This sculpture contains a secret object whose presence and identity can only be registered by the noise it makes inside a ball of twine held between metal plates. However, this sonic aspect of the work remains mostly unavailable for contemporary audiences; as such, it joins the performances and objects of the “unsound,” the latent aural registers of silence or suppressed noise. 


While these six contributions concentrate on concrete individuals – the Baschet brothers, Radigue, Naji, Laybourne, Basanta, and Duchamp – one could say that the remaining two essays deal with a more abstract and general category of individuals: the neighbor and the listener. In “The Soundscape of Quarantine: The Role of Sound During a Public Health Crisis,” the American music technology scholar Braxton Boren presents some suggestions to help mitigate the deleterious effects of a quarantine, namely, to reduce low frequency noise transmission in adjacent apartment units. The author hopes that this attempt to use his specific skillsets to make a positive contribution can indeed make a long quarantine more tolerable as we and our neighbors become better equipped to deal with the sounds and music made by people who are somehow forced to stay at home. 

Finally, and also related to listening at home, in “Experiencing Recorded Geophony. Listening to Arctic Winter Winds at Home” the Norwegian sound designers and music scholars Svein Høier and Asbjørn Tiller discuss how YouTube users describe their experience of listening to long durations of recorded geophony, in this case the sounds of winter winds. User comments reveal that listening to these sounds can have profound mental as well as physical effects. For Høier and Tiller, such a listener-centered approach can generate new knowledge on everyday listening to recorded geophony, also focusing specifically on the comparison with listening to background music.


Whether you are at home or elsewhere, the JSS editors hope and expect that you will enjoy these expositions, a small cross-section of current research taking place in sound studies. We hope the pandemic is over by the time you have read, watched, and listened to these eight articles. But, if that is not the case … the next issue will be out soon!