Our auditory environment (and with “our” we mean both humans and animals) can be studied through many different approaches, leading to many different theories that are operative in many different discourses and disciplines. The approach, theory, and discourse that we choose will, to a large extent, determine what we choose to perceive and how and why we listen. In other words, our ears do not seem to be neutral transmitters. Influenced by our scientific predeterminations, disciplinary or institutional boundaries, and personal interests, they let us hear what we want to be audible – a scholarly cocktail party phenomenon, that is, being able to focus one’s auditory attention on a particular stimulus while filtering out a range of others.
So, what happened when these experts, somehow representing all those different approaches, theories, and discourses met on December 7, 2012 in Scheltema, Leiden, despite the weather conditions? Did it lead to a Babel-like confusion? To mutual incomprehension and a lack of interest? Or to fruitful discussions, to shattering prejudices and ignorance, to new insights, motivations, and topics? Of course the editors were hoping that institutional, scholarly and theoretical boundaries could be transgressed, that new collaborations and networks could occur; they were hoping for a biologist who could teach a sound artist while learning from an architect, and for a sound designer who could teach a philosopher while learning from a cognitive scientist. And vice versa of course.
This multimedia report should give an impression of the encounters that took place, encounters between people from various disciplines, encounters between various research interests, encounters between various discourses and inputs.
The expert meeting led to some interesting discussions that showed how notions, considered self-evident in one discipline, were questionable and problematic in other disciplines. Concepts such as memory, meaning, affect, and emotion appear to be ascribed different meanings within different disciplines. Of course, it was impossible to arrive at some kind of consensus about these issues during this one-day meeting, but the mere realization, and, to an extent, the acceptance that these concepts carry different meanings and values for researchers, artists, and policy makers, was in itself already very productive.
Convergence toward, or arrival at, some kind of interdisciplinary approach to sound did not occur. And perhaps one should not strive for that, either. The main aim of the meeting was not so much to bridge the gaps but to respect the differences, to notice them, to make them productive instead of simply ignoring scholars and discourses from non-familiar disciplines. What happened was that the study of sound was implicitly regarded as a transdiscipline: a field in which attempts were made to understand, and critique, each other’s discipline through the lens of an other discipline. Thus, instead of using concepts and methods from, say, physics to be used in philosophical research – which would be an interdisciplinary approach – philosophical issues were questioned from a scientific point of view, and vice versa. Through respectfully breaching disciplinary boundaries, a productive kind of misunderstanding emerged, one that might lead to new questions related to sonic phenomena.
“What is the meaning and significance of sound for living beings and their environment?” “Which position does sound take in your discipline or in your specific research? Is sound the object of your research? A methodological instrument? Is sound the outcome of your work or, conversely, the point of departure?” “What are the key concepts in your discipline or research?” “And what can someone from outside your discipline learn from your research?”
Those were some of the initial questions which directed the presentations of all participants. And these presentations revealed that all these different forms of sound studies might be seen (or heard) as addressing two, interrelated, themes: how sound is experienced and the relation between sound and space.
This will be apparent in the subjective – or rather: transdisciplinary – impression of the meeting below, in which we do not give a chronological overview of the day. Instead, we seek to show how the different presentations address these themes, viewed through our own disciplinary lenses: critical theory, continental philosophy, music.