Editorial: Aiming for an Impossibility?

Vincent Meelberg, Marcel Cobussen

If writing about music is like dancing about architecture, theorizing about sound must be like running about interior design. It would be useless, a hopeless endeavor that would not lead to any insight into the phenomenon under analysis. Nevertheless, stubborn as we are, we are convinced that it is possible, and even necessary, to attempt to articulate, through language as well as through other means, sound and sonic encounters in all their diversities.

The Internet and new media provide us with new possibilities to communicate conceptualizations and articulations concerning the sonic. We no longer need to rely on language alone, but can introduce still and moving images, and yes, even sounds as well, into our sonic studies. We are convinced that these expanded possibilities might help us to better articulate sound and the way sound helps shape the cultures we live in.

In this first issue of the Journal of Sonic Studies we present the work of theorists and artists who take up the challenge to articulate sound’s workings through language and other media. We, the editors, were looking for contributions that show the diversity and wide scope of the field of sonic studies, and we feel that with the papers included in this issue this aim has been accomplished. Jean-Paul Thibaud investigates urban ambiances through focusing on the world of sounds. Thibaud explores what can be learned about an ambiance when we just listen to it. His inquiry into this subject involves theoretical, epistemological and methodological arguments. Three main perspectives are highlighted. The first relates to the tuning into an ambiance; instead of interpreting, recognizing, and understanding an ambiance, ‘tuning into’ refers to the ways we feel and sense it, we who are also always also participating in and contributing to the unfolding of it. The second relates to the unfolding of an ambiance: sound can help us to record, document, and describe the dynamics of an ambiance. The third perspective relates to the situating within an ambiance: each ambiance is unique and evokes specific sensory experiences.

Björn Hellström, Per Sjösten, Anders Hultqvist, Catharina Dyrssen, and Staffan Mossenmark also discuss the notion of ambiance, approaching it, however, from the perspective of sound art. They explore the possibilities of composing a site-specific sound-art installation for a commercial space, seeking to positively enhance the experience of the visitors, while taking perceptual, social, aesthetical, temporal and spatial criteria into account. Their research objective was to elucidate different qualities of a sound installation in regard to the acousmatics of a shopping mall, promoting discussions on the articulation of sound-space configurations in relation to time and site-specific contexts, issues of musical-architectural qualities as well as objective, subjective and inter-subjective interrelationships between the experience of the sound-art installation and the experience of the shopping mall soundscape.

The site specificity of sound and its appreciation is explored by Michael Butera in his essay as well. He articulates phenomenological connections between private and public interpretations of urban sound through focusing on the case of Nashville, Tennessee’s urban noise ordinances. Its constructed identity as ‘Music City’ requires strategic maintenance to ensure that certain sounds are given priority (institutionalized live music) while others are suppressed (pre-recorded music) or marginalized (busking). The specificity of these laws indicates and reinforces a capitalist cultural nostalgia as well as a fundamental preference for perceptual stability for residents, tourists, and lawmakers alike. Butera suggests that the ability to predict and control which sounds will be heard, to sustain a certain acoustic order, highlights the challenge of the listener’s perceptual stability in the context of urban noise and silence.

Jaqueline Waldock discusses other political dimensions of the organization and dissemination of sound. She focuses on soundmaps, maps on the Internet that have situated soundscape collections and research in a more public and interactive space than ever before. Waldock asks whether this new form reflects some of the polarizations of past sound projects and paradigms. Furthermore, she explores possible new fractures, such as gender, economy and the domestic/public divide, fractures that are provoked by this new form of sonic engagement. Waldock reflects upon the challenges and hierarchies that have developed alongside this new medium and begins to critique and question this new form of sound engagement. The majority of the soundmaps are administered and contributed to by males, capture public rather than private moments of life, and demonstrate a preference for recordings made by professional recording equipment. Allowing more people to participate in the construction of these soundmaps (women, children), encouraging less professional recordings, and adding private soundscapes could augment the significance of these soundmaps.

Yet another political aspect of sound is addressed by Evy Schubert. Underpinning her research with Barry Truax’s Acoustic Communication, she discusses the acoustic territory of post-war Sarajevo and a history of its acoustic performance. Schubert asks whether urban sound can be considered a direct mirror image of the underlying socio-political condition and, thus, a performance of its source. Also, she asks whether political peace can have its own sound. She allows us to hear the voices, in both written and audible media, of many Sarajevo residents, interviewed in order to gain insight in the way they relate to the changing soundscapes of the city, first in the context of war, and secondly, in the context of current post-war reconstruction. The result is a poignant personal document.

Elen Flügge focuses on the individualized auditory experience in sound spaces filled with many layers of potential sound, perhaps also becoming political in the implications of the choices one might make as an active listener exercising agency. Her article proposes an account of personal sound space, a way of describing the auditory environment of individuals that emphasizes the individuals’ conscious participation in a dynamic social exchange within such a space. The concept draws on ideas from across cultural studies to articulate a form of individualized auditory experience latent in the discourse. The term is structured into sound space, personal space and personal sound. These concepts are explored individually as well as integrated in the collective term. Consequently, sonic experience is framed as a dynamic spatial-social complex and conceptualized involving culturally informed ideas of territory and authority.

Julian Henriques addresses a different kind of sonic experience. He describes how sound engineers in Jamaica fine-tune the huge and powerful dancehall sound systems to achieve their best auditory performance. He suggests that this provides an example of how cybernetic systems combine musical and technological processes. The sound system engineers fine-tune with a technique of compensation, described in terms of two sensorimotor practices: (1) the kinetic motor process of manipulating the value of particular components, or substituting one for another; and (2) the sensory process of monitoring the auditory output of the sound system. Further, the engineers are engaged in evaluating or skilled listening for the particular sonic qualities such as “balance,” “weight” and “attack” that the fine-tuning aims to achieve. Henriques explains that engineers learn to evaluate, select and combine sounds in the sociocultural milieu of an apprenticeship – as elements of a communication system. All this is done by relying on their ears, not their eyes.

Isaac Vayo’s paper critiques the predominance of visuality in relation to narratives of 9/11, concluding that aurality, typically undervalued in such discourses, is a more accurate and effective representation of 9/11-as-event. To support his conclusion, Vayo analyzes three specific examples in terms of their original context and their presentation to audiences via popular media: the voices of pilot-hijackers Mohamed Atta and Ziad Jarrah, the impacts of those jumping from the burning World Trade Center towers, and George W. Bush’s 14 September 2001 speech delivered from atop the rubble at the World Trade Center site.

We, the editors, finally, have tried to capture the sonic by reflecting on the sonic environments we encounter in our lives. These reflections are not supposed to provide a conclusive description of our auditory environment and methods of perception, but rather to reveal and revel in the complexity and depth of sounds in our everyday lives, in a manner analogous to the way the Journal of Sonic Studies aims to articulate the sonic in all its fecund complexity. In this way, we address the personal sound space Flügge discusses in her article.

All contributions include audio-visual material to supplement the propositions elaborated in the texts. This enabled the authors to successfully aim for the impossible: to theorize about sound in all its complexity.