Toward an Anthropology of Ambient Sound - Christine Guillebaud (ed.). London: Routledge, 2017


by Marcel Cobussen

Hors d’oeuvre

Toward an Anthropology of Ambient Sound is part of Routledge’s book series “Studies in Anthropology.” The book is edited by Christine Guillebaud, researcher at the National Center of Scientific Research in Paris, and consists of eleven contributions, mainly coming from other French researchers.

The book is divided into four parts: “Listening into Others,” “Sound Displays and Social Effects,” “Sound Identity and Locality,” and “Sound Arts and Anthropology.” Often (and this includes the books I have edited myself), an editor spends quite some time carefully inventing and constructing an interesting structure, but the articles could have been quite randomly added to any of these sections. I find this to be the case with this book as well, perhaps with the exception of Part Four as it deals explicitly with sound art, a topic absent in the other essays. In other words, it is the editor’s almost inevitably thankless task to class, categorize, and interconnect an often rather heterogeneous collection of essays – a task usually accomplished by means of an Introduction. (I am quite sure that Jean-Charles Depaule’s contribution on sound poetry must have, in particular, given Guillebaud a hard time, as it is quite an alien topic within this collection and not really contributing to the book’s main theme: how people affect and are affected by their sonic environments, thereby being always already socially and politically active.)

However, in this Introduction, Guillebaud’s main focus is on a subject that is hardly explicitly thematized by the other contributors themselves (although, understandably, very much present in all their essays), namely listening – listening as a way people orient themselves in specific environments and listening as an (ethnographical) method to learn something about societies and social relations in which sonic events take place and receive their meaning. Re-addressing the classification of different listening types by Pierre Schaeffer, Michel Chion, and Henri Torgue in particular, Guillebaud concludes that there is no consensus among these scholars about how to think about the relation between sound and meaning; it is this topic which receives the most attention in the eleven essays.

Methodological pluralism

What (pleasantly) surprised me – perhaps because my own background is in the Humanities, where this is often absent – was the quite extensive way in which the contributors wrote about the specific methodologies they used in their own fieldwork and subsequent analyses. Not surprisingly, quite some overlap in the way these researchers work(ed) could be detected, but it is quite interesting to read how almost all of them applied a methodological pluralism, often a combination or choice of methods from the Humanities (hermeneutics, cultural analysis, critical theory) and the Social Sciences (interviews, action research, participant observation, field study). Whereas Oliver Féraud confines himself to the remark that he chose for a “deep and close observation performed over a relatively long period of time” (p.21) to investigate the ritual (religious), social, and emotional dimensions of “noising the city” of Naples through firecrackers, Heikki Uimonen, for example, notes that, in order to get a clear view as to how people – in his case the inhabitants of the Scottish village of Dollar – attribute meaning to sounds and their sonic environment, what is needed is a mixture of focusing on acoustical parameters; interviewing people living in that environment; discovering how their soundscape is represented in discussions, printed texts, and electronic media; and investigating how acoustic communities are (re)presented (p. 117). Concretely, he based the majority of his findings on the so-called Sound Preference Test (defining and listing pleasant and unpleasant sounds) and the Recorded Listening Walk (analytically listening to and systematically classifying environmental sounds with the help of mobile recording equipment during and after a walk). In trying to map the sounds of various suburbs in Cairo as well as the meaning Cairene people attribute to them, Vincent Battesti even goes a step further than Uimonen. Besides observations and interviews (tool 1), reactivated listening – informants listening to recorded soundscapes and commenting on them (tool 2), and the commented-walk method – a walk recorded by the researcher while informants describe and evaluate the sounds while walking (tool 3), Battesti developed the “mics in the ear” method: “Binaural mics in informants’ ears record the most possible intimate exposure to sound ambiance during a routine alone trip” (tool 4) (p. 135). Of course, as Battesti confirms, this fourth method is far from objective and doesn’t provide a recording of the soundscape; however, “these recordings are the most accurate reproduction of the reality experienced by the informant” (p. 147, my emphasis).

In short, contemporary ethnographical researchers seem to agree on the fact that a methodological pluralism – often made possible because of new technological tools – not only provides more (relevant) data but also a richer palette for making reliable analyses.

Contribution to knowledge

However important, methods are primarily tools to gather data, and data only achieve relevance when they are put to use in a more theoretical framework. In other words, at least for me the main reason for reading a book is that it somehow contributes something to the knowledge that I already have of a certain topic. So, my main question after having read a book, chapter, or article is: what have I learned? Informative but less important is, for example, finding out whether situation X is taking place not only in location Y but also in location Z. Things become more interesting when authors are adding ideas to more general theories, to existing discourses, and to current conceptualizations.

How did this work out in Toward an Anthropology of Ambient Sound? To answer this question I first turn to Jean-Paul Thibaud’s afterword in which he emphasizes that this collection of essays can first of all be read as a (further) introduction to “ambient sound,” a concept that should be distinguished from both “soundscape” and “auditory environment”:

Though the concept of ‘ambient sound’ shares this aim [that is, to focus attention on the sonic environments of daily life, MC], it seems to attach just as much importance to sonic actions as their perceptual counterparts, to the social modalities of producing the sonic environment as to those of its reception. In other words, and we may take this as our starting point, ambient sound above all concerns the pervasive noises of living in society and forms of social and emotional life insofar as they may be heard and make themselves audible to others (p. 226).

Thibaud’s observation leads to at least two conclusions: first, we are not only immersed in a sonic environment; whether deliberately or not, everyone contributes to its production. Second, sound should be considered “as an operator and a condition for the possibility of social life […] Sound is not an epiphenomenon of practical action: it is an integral part of it, playing an active role ” (p. 227 and p. 230).

Thibaud’s words echo those of all other contributors to this volume: already on the first page of her Introduction, Guillebaud writes that she has a “particular interest in how ambient sound produces social relations” (p. 1, my emphasis), leading to the neologism “soundciability” coined by Féraud: “Living in a place is also putting it to sound” (p. 35). Inevitably this also touches upon the relation between sound and power, as Anne Damon-Guillot writes in her case study on the influence of sounds on the Christianization of Ethiopians by Catholic missionaries from the 16th to the 18th century: the Ethiopian “sounds of hell” (from frightening natural sounds to uncivilized native music) needed to be replaced by the Christian “sounds of Eden” (sacred bangers, bells, and ringing clocks). Sound and power are also related in Tripta Chandola’s contribution on “abusive” women in Govindpuri who displace patriarchal-spatial hierarchies and accepted standards of morality through the use of obscene language, thereby silencing others, including males. Human behavior is organized and regulated at Indian bus stations by ticket sellers and so-called station criers who announce the buses’ location, destination, and their departure times, as Guillebaud argues in her contribution. Pierre Manea maintains that more or less the same thing – rationalizing and disciplining behavior through sound – is happening in Japanese train stations, with the main difference here being that the sounds providing information about the trains are produced electronically. Uimonen, while analyzing and reflecting on the sonic atmosphere of Dollar, comes very close to Thibaud’s theory of ambient sound when he writes that “those living within an acoustic community are not only interpreting sonic information but also constructing their soundscapes through their activities” (p. 118), implicitly making clear that perception and judgment of a certain sonic environment is not only about individual preferences but also about community values and power relations: who controls a space, sonically or otherwise? Battesti, too, comes very close to Thibaud when he defines as his premise that “the sound ambiance of a place is the result of the activities taking place there” and “the competence to produce sound ambiance allows participation in the sound environment of the city” (p. 136 and 138). In his description of an urban renovation project in Lisbon’s Mouraria district, Iñigo Sánchez writes that “the refashioning of its urban spaces has reshaped the sound environment in significant ways” before immediately adding that “sound and music have been actively used as catalysts for this transformation” (p. 154). As concrete examples he gives the reintroduction of fado in this neighborhood, the introduction of pre-recorded music to a square in Mouraria, and the role of noise abatement policies in upscaling this part of the city. How sonic territories are shaped by norms and imaginaries as well as how the latter are shaped by the former is (also) the main topic of Claire Guiu’s essay on the sounds of certain places in the city of Barcelona.

As for me, Part IV, consisting of an essay by Jean-Charles Depaule on sound poetry and a text by Vincent Rioux describing an artistic project on a bridge in a small city near Paris, were hard to connect with the aims set by Guillebaud and Thibaud. Not uninteresting in themselves, they felt like anomalies within the book’s context and overall rationale.


Toward an Anthropology of Ambient Sound takes us on a trip from Lisbon to Delhi, from Cairo to Scotland, and from Choisy-le-Roi to Tokyo. In that sense, the book reminds me of Matthew Gandy and BJ Nilsen’s The Acoustic City, one of the few books which also pays attention to “non-Western” city soundscapes.

Whereas The Acoustic City comes with a CD, Toward an Anthropology of Ambient Sound has a website where some audio and video fragments can be heard and seen. Of course, I strongly advocate that every book on sound/music contains as many audio or A/V files as possible, but in the same way that I rarely get up to go to my CD player when reading a book, I also hardly ever run to my computer in response to the announcement of an audio-visual document in the middle of a chapter. For me at least, it simply doesn’t work and it seems a failed hybrid form utilized only because publishers and (academic) authors are still reluctant to present their work exclusively as an e-pub or e-pdf.

Typos such as “Shaferian” (p. 22), “pupils to talks about” (p. 131), “esthetics” versus “aesthetics” (p. 141), “rythmanalyst” (p. 170), “Heidseick” versus “Heidsieck” (p. 199), and “Jaeglé demonstrated to remarkable effect,” are perhaps unavoidable; Hörspiel doesn’t literally mean “ear games,” as asserted by Depaule (p. 198), and Russolo made “intonarumori” instead of “suoni-rumori” (p. 200). However, more bothersome was the relatively poor English in Uimonen’s contribution; here, the editor could and should have been more attentive and precise.

However, Toward an Anthropology of Ambient Sound is a nice and welcome addition to a steadily growing corps of literature on sounds in and of the city. As scholarly reflection and theoretical deepening are profoundly important for me (and, I think, for the entire field of sound studies as well), the contributions written by Chandola, Guillebaud, Battesti, and Thibaud stand out as they go beyond the mere noticing of specific sonic events. However, taken together, this anthology provides a really useful overview of the current research and discourse on ambient city sounds.