The Bloomsbury Handbook of Sonic Methodologies - Michael Bull and Marcel Cobussen. New York: Bloomsbury, 2020


by Vincent Meelberg


The Bloomsbury Handbook of Sonic Methodologies is a work that consists of 49 contributions by different authors, three introductions to the different parts by one of the two editors, Michael Bull and Marcel Cobussen, and a general introduction written by the editors. This not only is an indication of the fast scope this book covers, which is already apparent when looking at its table of contents, but also a justification for the fact that this review won't include summaries of the individual chapters. Not only would this result in a review that is very long, but also probably not one that is very enjoyable to read. Instead, I will reflect on the core topic of the book, methods in sonic studies, by focusing mainly on the introductions of the different part, as these contain interesting thoughts regarding methodology in general, and sonic methodologies in particular. Of course, I will also refer to other contributions whenever relevant.

This, in fact, is in line with the approach chosen by the editors themselves. In the general introduction to the volume, they explain that "[t]he editors had already decided that these three part introductions were to function as 'interventions' rather than as traditional overviews of contents, a common format that so often goes unread by those browsing through volumes such as this."[1] Furthermore, their intention with this book was not to represent a descriptive catalogue of a wide range of methods used by all of the contributors; "[r]ather, they actively encouraged authors to critically reflect upon their own use of methods within their own research, thereby explicating their own theoretical assumptions whilst also describing 'how' they carried out their research." Unfortunately, this did not happen in all contributions, as some of them mainly read as discussions of research done by the authors without an explicit reflection on the methods chosen, let alone the rationale behind these choices. Other chapters, however, did, such as "Fragile Devices: Improvisation as an Interdisciplinary Research Methodology," by Rebecca Caines. Caines argues that "[...] the improvisatory qualities of risk, active listening, collaborative response, and the reconfiguration of mistake into creativity can form a strong basis for research; and can also trouble disciplinary techniques and expectations; as well as productively disrupting borders between art, research, and pedagogy." Here the practice of improvisation becomes both object of inquiry and the method to conduct this inquiry, one in which active listening and a constant and deliberate awareness of mistakes are necessary. 

Another contribution that stood out to me as far as explicit reflection on method is concerned was Tom Tlalim's chapter, "The Sound System of the State: Critical Listening as Performative Resistance." Tlalim defines critical listening as the act of "[...] recognizing the performative meaning of sounds and considering the ideological significance embedded in them."  This kind of listening "[...] involves suspending any immediate response to the sound, in order to identify the cultural or political expectation it holds." As such, critical listening is not just a method to discover these cultural and political expectations, but it can also become an act of resistance, as Tlalim points out. As soon as listeners "[...] acknowledge their position as the sound's addressee yet questions who the instigator is, and the purpose and consequence oI their call," they open up the possibility to consider whether and how to respond to the sound. Critical listening thus is a method that allows critical reflection as well as a method to actively intervene in sonic interactions.

In the examples discussed above specific methods are used to, as the editors in the general introduction put it, "[...] provide the lenses through which we view or, better, construct something that we call sound, the sonic, sonic ambiance, music, or auditory culture." Yet, the general introduction does not explicitly address the question what a method or methodology actually is, or can be. This is not done until the introduction to Part II of the volume, written by Marcel Cobussen. Whereas Part I provides a theoretical overview as to how researchers have studied, used, or perhaps even abused sound within each discipline, Part II consists largely of discussions of artistic research projects. In the introduction to this Part Cobussen critically reflects on the relation between art, research, and method. 

Cobussen defines methodology a "[...] the system of methods and principles used in a particular discipline or the science of method; it is the larger body of knowledge – consisting of practical applications, abstract reflections, and epistemological foundations – on which choices of methods are based." A method is a description of a way of working or a recipe for action in order to accomplish a particular goal, and methodology provides the rationale for the choice of method or methods. 

Cobussen asks whether sticking to a particular, preset method in research may be too limiting. In paraphrasing Paul Feyerabend Cobussen suggests that "the only 'method' which will not inhibit scientific progress is an epistemological anarchism in which 'everything' is permissible, for example contradicting well-confirmed theories and working counter-inductively." New knowledge and insights can only be gained when well-trotten paths are dismissed and alternatives are explored. 

In is search for alternatives to rigid methods, Cobussen turns to Hans-Jörg Rheinberger, who questions the hegemony of theory. Instead, Rheinberger emphasizes the dynamics of research and its related methods of experimentation. Experimental processes, Cobussen asserts, "[...] open up unforeseen directions; they are generators of surprises." Experimentation can be considered a method "[...] to gain access to something new, be it art or scientific knowledge." Cobussen concludes that this implies that experimentation, considered as a method, can be considered as the act of "[...] creating conditions where the unexpected can happen." As a result, Cobussen asserts, method should be reconceptualised so that it is "[...] at least partly be deprived of its functionality and teleology and be rethought as simply a way of doing." Methodology, in turn, could be understood as "[...] as making numerous and surprising connections, an exploratory means for the discovery oI potentiality and contingency." And since experimentation is at the core of artistic practices, the practice of creating sound art may be considered a valid research method in sound studies, Cobussen suggests.

Indeed, many of the contributions in Part II can be regarded as accounts of artistic research in which experimentation takes centre stage. Jonathan Gilmurray, for instance, in his chapter "Ecological Sound Art," explores how sound artworks can demonstrate an active engagement with contemporary ecological issues through its form, content or subject matter. Such works, Gilmurray suggests, often itself function as ecosystems, "[...] comprising a number of interconnected parts whose interaction determines the final form of the overall work." Creating such works implies letting go of complete control and instead provoke experimentation with different kinds of interactions between the different sonic and non-sonic parts the artwork consists of.

Lucia D’Errico, in "Sound beyond Representation: Experimental Performance Practices in Music," discusses another kind of experimentation, that of rethinking the role and function of the musical score. In the experimental approach D'Errico proposes, "[...] musical works as codified by notation cease to be considered as instructions to be obeyed, or as fixed structures to be interiorized and mirrored. Rather, they become dynamic reservoirs of forces, functions, traits, and materialities." Jordan Lacey, for his part, experiments with the sounds of the city. In "Sound Installations for the Production of Atmosphere as a Limited Field of Sounds" he explains how sound installation artists can be considered "[...] a new type of spatial musician who reorganizes the sounds of the city to simultaneously produce alternative atmospheres and affect new ways of experiencing."

The chapters that I have referred to up until now use methods, experimental or otherwise, in order to gain new insights into either sound or sonic practices. Sonic methodologies, however, can also be used as a lens to study non-sonic objects and phenomena. As the editors write in the general introduction: "[T]hrough recording, processing, and listening to sounds or our sonic environments, new knowledge can be gained, new experiences are possible, unfamiliar worlds can be discovered – knowledge, experiences, and worlds that in themselves are not necessarily audible." How sonic methodologies can be used to study non-sonic objects and phenomena is discussed in Part III.

As Cobussen writes in the introduction to Part III, the relation between sound studies and other disciplines can take two paths. On the one hand, already established (academic) disciplines affect sound studies and discourses around sound. Methods from other disciplines are put into the service of gaining new insights into sound and sonic practices. On the other hand, "[...] the attention for sound, sound studies, and/or methods which are based on listening can form, inform, and transform certain (academic) disciplines and discourses." Here sound indeed becomes a tool to inform other disciplines. Data sonification is an example of a practice in which the creation of sounds is used to gain knowledge about objects and phenomena belonging to other disciplines. In "Sonifications Sometimes Behave So Strangely" Paul Vickers presents strategies to create sonifications that might influence the way we interpret the data, "[...] leading us to change the way we perceive it, a sort of auditory version of seeing something in a new light: it causes us to appreciate the data, or the phenomenon from which it was measured, anew." At the same time, however, the process of designing new sonification strategies may also lead to new insights int0 sound and sound perception itself.

Other contributions in Part III discuss different relations between sound studies and other discipines. Jacqueline Waldock, in "The Conflicting Sounds of Urban Regeneration in Liverpool" uses a sonic approach in urban studies by asking local residents to record their sound environments. In this way these residents became both artists, academics, and activists: "[...] artists, through making sound recordings, capturing, editing, and presenting their sounds; academics, through listening to and commenting upon the sounds that they had recorded, giving a unique insight into their relationship with the sonic events; and activists, through sharing the sounds with one another and with the wider public." 

Vincent Battesti applies sonic methods in his ethnographic research. In "Ethnographies Sounded on What? Methodologies, Sounds and Experiences in Cairo," Battesti asserts that it is crucial that whenever ethnographers decide on which method to use, the "how" as he calls it, to base this decisions on the "what" (what will I research) and "why" (what do I want to know) of the research project. Battesti points out that "[...] it goes without saying that I cannot suggest a ‘good’ and sound methodology to be used in doing ethnographic research, as it depends on the purposes and the context of the fieldwork." The Bloomsbury Handbook of Sonic Methodologies, because of its vast scope -- I have only scratched the surface of its richness in this review -- may be very helpful in deciding if, and if so which, sonic method may be best suited to act as the "what" in research projects that in some way involve sound.