Sound Signatures 2014: From Hearing Tubes to Computer Hacking
[Report from Sound Studies Winter and Summer School in Amsterdam (January 13-17) and Berlin (August 18-22).]
How can the sounds of the past and present be studied? What are the questions to be asked and methods and vocabulary to be employed? What should the interdisciplinary study of sound and hearing look like, and who are the scholars that will engage with the topic? Such questions were discussed from a number of disciplinary perspectives in Amsterdam and Berlin this year, where the first major winter and summer school organized in the field of sound studies took place. The winter school, which was held at the University of Amsterdam as well as its summer follow-up in Berlin were made possible by the financial support of institutions such as the Netherlands Institute for Cultural Analysis, Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, New York University or the Volkswagen foundation.
Both schools were devoted to the multidisciplinary study of the phenomenon of sound and were formed around the concept of “sound signatures” that proposes to approach sound as it is embedded in specific social and cultural practices, media technologies, and frames of reference. It is argued that individual modes of listening as well as distinct conceptions of sound leave their signatures on the production of spaces, material objects and various forms of knowledge. At the same time, when being performed, sound retains certain spatial, technological, or vocal characteristics (signatures) determined by the physical environment or means of its transmission. The two schools discussed not only how different historical sounds influenced their spatial-temporal contexts, configured modes of communication and shaped communal and individual identities, but also the ways audio technologies and distinct regimes of knowledge helped fashioning particular historical sounds, techniques of listening and approaches to the aural communication.
The proclaimed objective of the two events was to bring together young scholars and advanced lecturers who were to explore new fields and methods of research in seminars, lectures and student presentations. About twenty graduate students from different disciplines were invited to engage with the topic of sound from perspectives of Media Studies, Cultural Studies, Musicology, History of Science, or Science and Technology Studies. Both events took form of seminars, which were taught by the organizers (Carolyn Birdsall, Myles Jackson, Mara Mills and Viktoria Tkaczyk) and invited scholars. The programme was further complemented by evening lectures and workshops held by keynote speakers Jonathan Sterne, Lisa Gitelman and Julia Kursell for the winter school, and Emily Thompson and Karin Bijsterveld for the summer school. Each week also included one morning that was devoted to the presentations of student project proposals, The fact that most of the sessions maintained the character of lively study groups or workshops, and managed to generate open interdisciplinary discussions proves that the right choices were made both in terms of the programme and the selection of participants who deal with the topic of sound and hearing in their own respective disciplines.
The Amsterdam school entitled Spaces, Objects and Embodied Practices focused on the interrelationship between physical spaces, material objects and audio technologies from mainly cultural historical perspectives. It addressed theoretical and methodological questions concerning the character of the field of sound studies (e.g., Mara Mills’ seminar), its crucial concepts, such as Jonathan Sterne’s lecture on the genealogy of the “soundscape” concept, or relationship to the history of technology, which was examined in Lisa Gitelman’s talk on the commodification of sound and listening in the coin-operated machines. Apart from that, the winter school paid special attention to the function of architectural space in the production of sound. In Viktoria Tkaczyk’s seminar, the participants were invited to approach acoustic space as an actor that is performed in the moment of sound production and that leaves its signature on the sound quality. The links between sonic spaces, politics of sound manipulation and discourses on musical effects were subsequently discussed in Hansjakob Ziemer’s seminar on formation of utopian sonic communities in Frankfurt am Main (1900-1930).
The summer school in Berlin (Epistemologies and the Order of Sound), on the other hand, situated sound in the context of the history of knowledge and science studies and proposed to approach it both as an object of investigation, dealing with topics such as sound identification and classification, or emergence of sound archives, and en epistemic tool in scientific observation. It his respect, it addressed topics as different as sound experiments carried out at the Royal Society in London in the second half of the seventeenth century (Benjamin Wardhaugh), creation of early modern hearing devices (Matteo Valeriani), underwater sound surveillance systems of the World War II (Lino Camprubi) or construction of “voice prints” in the Berlin Stasi Headquarters (Karin Bijsterveld).
Despite the somewhat different focuses, both schools shared some fundamental perspectives on the relationship between media, technology, and society. First of all, sound media, and, by extension, media in general, were approached as activities that are articulated and standardized through a complex process of social, economic, and political negotiation in which material objects, spaces and technologies play a vital, but not determinative, role. Such notion of auditory media was closely bound up with the debate on the standardization and stabilization of media technology, which was repeatedly brought forward both in Amsterdam and Berlin. In this respect, Julia Kursell’s lecture on the feedback-loop between technological invention and expertise in the history of the piano keyboard was especially significant: The final design of the instrument as well as its function were prompted by the establishment of the piano as a key musical instrument in the nineteenth century. Specific embodied knowledge (playing technique) needed to be developed and accepted on the level of standardization. The piano keyboard therefore functioned as an epistemic and didactic tool that generated new forms of expertise, which, in turn, played a vital role in defining the design and use of the instrument. The summer school offered somewhat different insights into the history of musical standardization: Myles Jackson, for instance, discussed the role of science in standardization of musical pitch and tempo in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, based on mathematical-physical notion of aesthetics. The process of negotiating aesthetic musical parameters reveals much about the links between science, technology and economics on the one hand, and musical tastes and practical notions of performance on the other.
Even though the two schools approached sound and hearing from historical perspectives, they did not pay systematic attention to the theme of the reconstruction of historical sounds. One of the few exception in this respect was Emily Thompson’s presentation of her website project The Roaring Twenties, conveying the historical soundscape of New York City in the 1920’s. The website is a good example of the way audio technology and sound recordings contribute to the study of past sounds, however, it also demonstrates some fundamental limits concerning the use of such recordings. In order to understand the past sounds correctly, Thompson proposed to generate a historicized way of listening by building a “sonic time machine”, which would, she argued, provide the listener with the necessary information about the historical context of the sounds he was is about to hear. The notion of accessibility of historical sounds however opens up fundamental questions concerning the nature of the past soundscapes (what are we listening to when we listen to the recordings?) and sonic experience (is it historically unique or can it be repeated?).
The practices of storing and archiving sound were more frequently discussed with respect to the construction of sonic cultural heritage. Viktoria Tkaczyk, Carolyn Birdsall and Britta Lange discussed different historical strategies of sound preservation with respect to the foundation of sound archives around 1900 – such as Berlin’s Phonogram Archive and Lautarchiv – and early radio broadcasting. In this respect, sonic heritage concerns not only sounds that were historically believed to merit conservation (i.e., musical or linguistic recordings or “vocal signatures” of famous personae), but also technological devices or media formats of the past. The latter was explored in Raviv Ganchrow’s workshop session and site-specific installation in the Amsterdam Telecom tower in which he presented old radio shipping forecasts as sound souvenirs belonging to the cultural heritage. Ethical and political aspects of ethnographic sound recording and archiving were discussed in Stephen Amico’s seminar in the winter school.
Finally, a very different treatment of sonic heritage was introduced in one of the last sessions of the summer school that took place in the Berlin Signal Laboratory. Its researchers, working with old computers, are not concerned with the conventional history of technology or the ways the past devices were used to generate sounds, but they take the vintage apparatuses as their point of departure to study how the machines can be redesigned/hacked to generate new sounds. Such an approach deconstructs technological devices and goes beyond the processes of their stabilization by designing/programming the existing apparatuses in entirely new ways. The subversive use of technology represents yet another way of acknowledging the dynamic nature of sound media, which are by far not confined to their technological/material dimension but defined by the ways in which they are used. This brings us back to the question of stabilization of media technology which is no longer approached historically, but rather “materially” by engaging with actual objects and devices. The challenge is to discover not only how these objects were/are supposed to work, but what other functions and sonic effects they can possibly perform.
Anna Kvíčalová is a PhD student at the Free University in Berlin and a research fellow at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science. Her research investigates the role of sound and hearing in early Calvinism with special focus on the auditory memory, acoustic surveillance, and politics of sound manipulation. She received her MA in Religious studies at the University of Amsterdam.