Sonic Disclosures

Brian De Palma’s famous 1981 thriller film Blow Out starts with a movie sound effects technician, Jack, who, while recording sounds for a low-budget slasher film in a wooded area near a river, serendipitously captures audio evidence of an assassination involving a presidential candidate. The candidate is sitting in a car that gets a blowout; the car slips into the water, and the candidate drowns. However, listening to the audiotape he inadvertently recorded of the accident, Jack distinctly hears a gunshot just before the blowout. What appears to be an accident caused by a flat tire turns out to be an attempted murder.

What might seem to be just another successful thriller turns out to be a film that is quite interesting from a sound studies perspective as well. The plot (implicitly) centers on the premise that the combination of sound recording and careful listening leads to fundamental new insights into an event, insights which could not have been obtained otherwise. Here, sound gives access to new and crucial knowledge, which prevents a crime from being smothered up. Sonic evidence finally leads to the solving of an assassination.

Albeit on a modest and maybe even superficial level, Blow Out provides a model for the main questions that formed the basis of the call for papers for JSS4:

  • How can we approach, analyze, and study sound?
  • How can we disseminate our findings intersubjectively?

In fact, Blow Out’s most important agent is the attentive ear of the sound technician; only a well-trained listener would notice the quite subtle difference between a recorded gunshot and a blowout. It is through careful and attentive listening that the world appears in a different way, or, perhaps better, another world is brought into unconcealment. And the sonic disclosure of this world often happens through the use of technology, more and more through mobile audio recording devices. Recording techniques allow for repeated listening, for listening to places that are otherwise inaccessible, for listening to otherwise inaccessible sounds, for creating ever-new sonic environments, for re-experiencing an audible past.

In other words, it is primarily through technological developments that sounds are perceived, studied, disseminated, and intersubjectively shared.




                                    Marcel Cobussen, Holger Schulze, Vincent Meelberg


Towards a Sonic Materialism

Although research on sound may be widespread, widely accepted, and even already commodified by now, scant attention has been paid so far to its epistemological values. Although Veit Erlmann warns against a countermonopoly of the ear in a (western) world that seems to be dominated by the visual, and rightfully remarks that the senses should be regarded as an integrated network in one’s relating to the world, this does not invalidate the often proclaimed idea – an idea which we support – that the ear leads to a different orientation on the world. Although human perception is always synesthetic, and visual experiences, like aural ones, can permeate the whole body – the skin ‘sees’, the eyes ‘feel’ – the distinctions in the ways the ear and the eye can affect us should not be neglected.

In recent philosophical accounts we discover approaches towards integrating sonic epistemologies into contemporary thinking that could prove as inspiring as they (might) prove irritating. Those approaches even quite consciously engage in what Jonathan Sterne calls an unbalanced audiovisual litany: they invert the sensory order into a kind of sonocentrism, but they do so in order to open up a thinking which takes the sonic as its starting point.

In The World is Sound: Nada Brahma jazz critic and Osho disciple Joachim-Ernst Berend sets the field of the gaze (as being exterior) in opposition to the range of hearing (as being depth). The eye explores surfaces; it analyzes, divides, rules, and is directed towards the mind. The ear, on the contrary, cannot discern anything that does not penetrate; it is receptive and intuitive, belongs to the spirit, and perceives the whole as one.

In his essay “Wo sind wir, wenn wir Musik hören?” (Where are we when we listen to music?) the German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk supports similar premises. He observes a spatial chasm between the subject that sees and the object that is seen, a chasm which is also ontological. An ocular subjectivity implies a not-involved witnessing, distance, and external relationships: the seeing subject is located at the edge of the world. Conversely, the ear has no opposite; it knows no frontal “sighting” of an object located at some distance. Listening means being-in-sound, being amidst the acoustic event, an inter-esse, a being among things. This contact is beyond the control and possibilities of the eye.

Sloterdijk’s observations echo those of the American philosopher, psychologist, and educational reformer John Dewey who wrote already in 1927 that vision is a spectator, while hearing is participation.

A further impulse toward a sonic ontology and a philosophy in which the listening subject is central, has been presented by the French thinker Jean-Luc Nancy in his book Listening. Sound, Nancy explains, has an internal resonance without which there would be nothing to listen to. This internal resonance also projects outwards; it spreads in space and becomes perceptible, e.g. by a self, a subject. And it is Nancy’s claim that this self is marked by reflection and self-reflection, in other words by resonances, “resonating from self to self, in itself and for itself, hence outside of itself, at once the same and the other than itself, one in the echo of the other, and this echo is like the very sound of its sense.” (Nancy 2007: 9) The alleged stable identity of a subject is thus deconstructed through a shift from a primarily visual to a primarily aural orientation: a self that vibrates and resonates is in a constant state of becoming, never steady, never definitive.

Perhaps the ideas presented above, on the whole not systematically thought through, can be regarded as the contemporary germs of a sonic epistemology and ontology. More recently, two scholars in particular have initiated attempts to elaborate further on what a primarily aural orientation towards the world might be like. Christoph Cox’s article “Beyond Representation and Signification: Toward a Sonic Materialism” in the Journal of Visual Culture in 2011 argues in favor of a new sonic ontology in which the current aesthetic theories concerned with representation and signification should be replaced by a sonic materialism, and a sonic realism should dispel an anthropocentric idealism and humanism. This materialism and realism must be understood in a non-conventional, Deleuzian way, that is to say, as forces, powers, and intensities. A materialist theory of sound emphasizes events, change, and the dynamic flux of becoming instead of turning its focus on objects and meaning.


Salomé Voegelin’s sonic fiction and philosophical fairytale ‘Ethics of Listening’ appeared in 2012 in the second issue of the Journal of Sonic Studies. Like Cox, Voegelin is searching for a sonic materialism and a sonic reality that diverges from the prevailing ideas about concepts like materiality and reality: instead of fixed identities and meanings, stability, nouns, and stasis, the sonic exposes us to action and movement, to fleeting understandings, verbs, and contingent possibilities. The ear’s focus is on process, on objects and events existing in time. A sonic materialism is a temporal materialism, grounded in a contingent encounter of listening – contingent, as Voegelin connects this sonic materialism or sonic reality to the invention and appreciation of possibilities (what things could be instead of what they are).

Reconstructing Sonic Epistemologies

Sonic epistemologies can be found in specific sociocultural fields in which practices dominate that are not (yet) established as relevant epistemic or even scientific practices. For the most part, these practices lack the reproducibility, the discreteness in documenting, and, therefore, the elegance that is topically postulated from relevant research practices. They are often seen as rather esoteric or even unintelligible, not justifying any further research or even theoretical reflection, perhaps even deemed a craftsmanship that might be granted recognition for its richness of tacit knowledge. In so doing – even in the symbolic honoring of craftsmanship – the logocentric concept of epistemology still prevails. Consequently, if sonic epistemologies are to be taken seriously, it is necessary to ascribe to those alternate, thoroughly sonic, forms of knowledge the same dignity as ascribed to forms of knowledge that are easily transferred into discrete and reproducible, semiotic and alphanumeric codes, easily functionalized and commodified in contemporary consumer culture as well as in industrialized research.

If we approach sonic forms of knowledge in this way, from a new materialist perspective, it might be possible to gain specific knowledge and insight into the possible ways sensory constellations function in reality and how these create thoroughly different but insightful sensory representations of the physical emanations of the world. This might sound a bit strange, maybe even far-fetched and unnecessarily estranging, but only such a broad, sensorily-founded definition allows us to speak about the whole of sensory experience in a culturally and historically informed way, a way which does not favor the viewpoint and sensory dispositives of western, white and male-dominated cultures, but instead gives room to the very specific sensory approaches of other cultures, other subcultures and other individual biographies, with their own particular sensory setup inscribed and embodied in their flesh. To accept and to acknowledge this rich diversity in sensory dispositives and everyday performativity through all history and cultures is only a first, but crucial, step towards acknowledging the existence of specific sonic forms of knowledge, the sonic being only one particular form, in no way more noble, more subtle or more lucid than any other sensory constellation.

Summing it all up, sonically-centered forms of knowledge may enable us (a) to present a specific knowledge that is only, or primarily, accessible and presentable via the auditory, (b) to develop a number of distinct, trainable, refinable and methodologically-executable epistemic practices, and (c) to formulate a number of epistemic axioms and research interests that fundamentally differ from epistemic axioms in well-known logocentric epistemologies, such as the epistemology of processing sensory data or the epistemology of separated channels of sensory perception.

New Ontological, Epistemological, and Methodological Developments

The current issue of the Journal of Sonic Studies elaborates on these initiatives to theorize more fundamentally on the epistemologies and methodologies of sound studies. It opens with a short reflection by Barry Truax whose soundscape compositions are shaped by specific knowledge about acoustic, but also social, political, or cultural concepts and contexts. As such Truax’s works invoke a listener’s knowledge of those contexts.

The editors adhered to the vital principle that a special role should be reserved for sound art contributions, as some of the most intriguing questions are what sound as sound – that is, beyond or before linguistic discursivity – can contribute to the accumulation or transformation of knowledge. What can sound art projects teach us about potential methodologies typical for sound studies? Besides Truax’s “From Epistemology to Creativity”, both Katharine Norman’s “Window – an Undecided Sound Essay” and J. Milo Taylor’s “Open Sound Art Project” therefore deserve special attention.

During a year, Norman’s bedroom window - hence the title “Window” - acted as a frame for collecting photos and sounds, deployed to connect differently to everyday sensible impressions. However, as Norman writes in her accompanying text “it was not the materials, the sounds and images of a familiar place, but the way in which familiarity arises” that turned out to be the main topic of her project: “The subject was the dynamic construction of place and the human experience of place through the accumulation of sensory perception, repetition, memory and emotion.” Her artwork, in which the auditory and the visual support each other but also diverge from one another, added to (her) knowledge on the concept of casualness.

J. Milo Taylor’s Internet artwork Open Sound is a European cooperative aiming at educating people through sound. With its focus on local, regional, and international sonic differences, Open Sound creates a space to hear each other and to respect one another’s relative identities within an ever-changing continental soundscape. In one part of the site one can listen to a soundscape recording, after which one is invited to answer questions such as “How much information are you able to ‘read’ from this recording?” and “Can you, only by listening, find out where it was recorded?” Open Sound makes clear that sounds contain all kinds of information contributing to our knowledge about a place, an event, a time, and a culture.

Whereas Norman and Taylor investigate how sound art in itself can contribute to the way we gain knowledge about the world, Marinos Koutsomichalis poses the question as to how sound art that incorporates field recordings relates to the soundscape of a particular place. In “On Soundscapes, Phonography and Environmental Sound Art” Koutsomichalis rejects the idea that field recordings are somehow able to adequately and realistically represent particular soundscapes. His claim is that sound art inaugurates alternative ways to think of, interpret, evaluate, and represent soundscapes. The impossibility of representing a soundscape can be made productive in and through an artistic practice, thereby offering its audience alternative ways to encounter soundscapes, disclosing new experiences and thereby also new knowledge.

Implicitly reacting to Taylor’s project, Budhaditya Chattopadhyay, in his essay "Auditory Situations: Notes from Nowhere," intends to develop a discourse on sound’s problematic relationship to locating its source. He argues that situational sonic phenomena activate thought processes that transcend mere epistemic comprehension of the source identity and involve subjectivity, contemplation, poetics, and the mood of the nomadic listener. Sonic accounts thus not only inform us about the possible sources of sound, but also about the subjectivities of those who construct these accounts.

As Hayden White states in his well-known Tropics of Discourse from 1978, subjectivity and objectivity must, of necessity, meet in any historical research: although a historian makes use of (so-called) historical facts, he inevitably has to construct a story, that is, to connect those facts through the use of certain tropes and interpretative choices. In his essay “History and its Acoustic Context: Silence, Resonance, Echo and Where to Find Them in the Archive” Maarten Walraven investigates how history can and perhaps needs to be revisited, rethought, and reinvented by paying more attention to the sounds of a particular time or past event. However, in order to do so, Walraven claims, historians should have sufficient knowledge of acoustics and the physics of sound. Only then can historical research truly benefit from the input of sonic data.

Yet another way in which sounds connect to knowledge is presented in "Resounding Science: A Sonic Ethnography of an Urban Fifth Grade Classroom" by Walter Gershon. Gershon discusses the process of listening to the sounds of science. His sonic ethnography represents two years in an ongoing study in which urban elementary and middle grades students wrote songs about the science content they learned. His aim is to examine whether processes of songwriting might help bridge race and gender gaps in science education for city kids. This project was explicitly intended to document what fifth graders were able to express about science through song and talk in their weekly meetings after school and occasional lunch and recesses. According to Gershon, the sonic portion of this contribution can serve as another means for considering what city kids know about science, how they are able to express those ideas, and the ways in which their teacher approaches supporting their science learning.

A second ethnographic study, “Caught in the Current: Writing Ethnography that Listens” by Justin Patch addresses the fundamentally epistemological and methodological question as to how the praxis of ethnography, primarily or almost exclusively a writing praxis after performing some fieldwork, might be able to capture the essence of sounded life. Patch is not interested in an ethnography that simply includes some descriptions of sound events in its reporting; his main question is: how can the ethnographical text become what ears are: responsive, changing, and constantly new? As one of several possible options, Patch suggests an ethnography of “getting spun” as an affective mode of adding the sonic to the written – one that is temporal and ephemeral. In writing the act of getting spun, Patch concludes, scholars can produce resonant writings, texts that listen and continue to change with the reader.

The question how to write about/around sound is also the point of departure and most important motive of Holger Schulze’s “Adventures in Sonic Fiction: A Heuristic of Sound Studies.” As the title already indicates, Schulze is mainly interested in “telling stories” about/around sound (which seems to have some overlap with Hayden White’s ideas, briefly mentioned above). According to Schulze, Kodwo Eshun’s More Brilliant Than the Sun, Steve Goodman’s Sonic Warfare, and Michel Serres’ The Five Senses could count as almost paradigmatic examples as to how to write (about/around) sound. He ends his essay with an exploration of how sonic fiction could serve as a heuristic for sound studies by presenting ten criteria, the most important one being that sonic fiction, through its “deviating” “descriptions” of one’s sensuous experiences, contributes to a better understanding of these.

Florian Hollerweger is primarily interested in finding new ways of articulating sonic experience. In "Straßenmusikand EaRdverts: Public Listening Interventions as an Artistic Practice for Encouraging Aural Awareness in an Everyday Context" Hollerweger discusses public listening interventions as an artistic research method to encourage and study aural awareness in everyday environments. Through a discussion of his public listening interventionsStraßenmusik and EaRdverts, Hollerweger suggests possible contributions that sound art can make to discourses on sonic experience.

Michelle Lewis-King has a similar aim. In her contribution “Touching as Listening” she discusses her Pulse Project, a performance series that explores the social interfaces between self and other, art and science, contemporary western music composition and traditional Chinese medicine. In doing so she aims to investigate the ways in whichPulse Project offers a new approach to the study and contextualization of sound.

In "Sonic Facts for Sound Arguments: Medicine, Experimental Physiology, and the Auditory Construction of Knowledge in the 19th Century," Axel Volmar explores the auditory culture of science. By reconstructing case studies from the history of medicine and the life sciences, he intends to assess some questions regarding sonic ways of producing, representing, and constructing scientific knowledge. According to Volmar, sonic practices such as percussion, mediate auscultation, and the telephonic method in electrophysiology clearly show that acoustemic practices and technologies contributed to the production of scientific knowledge.

It is with these often erudite, thought provoking, artistic, exploring, and trailblazing essays that the Journal of Sonic Studies offers versatile tracks to consider and reconsider the epistemological, ontological, and methodological opportunities for sound studies. In other words, please encounter these contributions as an invitation to develop your own ideas concerning this topic.