The Ethnography Studio hosted its fourth-annual Ethnographic Salon on March 1st 2019. Titled SONIC, the event centered around interdisciplinary investigations of sound and featured a lively round table discussion with visiting guests Stefan Helmreich (MIT) and Marina Peterson (UT Austin), as well as presentations of 10 student-made soundscapes. Conceived, presented, and discussed in a spirit of experimentation, the soundscapes opened a range of exciting insights and provocations that energized conversations as well as new forms of listening.
The roundtable discussion centered around our visitors’ engagements with sonic thinking throughout their careers, how their unique encounters with sound have influenced their research on the topic, and what a sonic sensibility might offer to ethnographic practice more broadly. Converging around the importance of working with a “historically-sedimented” understanding of what listening and hearing mean, the conversation returned to the questions that were posed during the morning at a student workshop where we focused on the making of the soundscapes, and on the very idea of a soundscape – its sedimentation in use and its shortcomings. Throughout the day, two questions emerged as central to our explorations: can a sound be disentangled from its listener? Do sounds exist in a pure state (i.e. as waves) or is it their interaction with a particular medium (i.e. air, water, wind) and listener (i.e. human, nonhuman, audio recorder) that makes them “sound?” Questions such as these pushed us to critically consider the most basic assumptions held by participants and organizers alike prior to the event. For instance, we learned that the term “volume” once referred to the literal volume of the attachable funnel-like cone used to amplify the sounds of old phonographs (the larger the cone’s volume was, the louder the sound would be). Additionally, we mulled over resonances between the terms “soundscape” and “landscape” and how the aesthetic associated with each can often obscure the situated vantage point of a given observer or listener.
The event ended not only with a proliferation of questions about sound, listening, hearing, and what, precisely, a sonic sensibility can entail. It also made visible the collective labor of opening and asking such questions and how this will echo well-beyond the walls of Sewall Hall’s Sculpture Garden through students’ research projects. We are grateful for our brilliant and thoughtful guests, Marina Peterson and Stefan Helmreich, our brave and endlessly-curious student-participants, and, last, but certainly not least, our supportive friends and colleagues (old and new) who made the effort to come listen with us.
See you next year!