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.