Wednesday, February 2, 2011

10th meeting report

A great turnout for Carlo Cubero's talk about the use and role of sound within the field of anthropology. Carlo himself has this to say:

In my talk I wanted to address several issues that are highlighted when a social science - like anthropology - engages with the field of sound studies. On first impression, it would seem that the connections between sound studies and anthropology would be apparent and easy to explain. Anthropology claims to be the study of the lived experience, of the quality of social relations that make up our daily lives from a holistic and cross cultural perspective. Given that sound is an integral aspect of our experiences of being human and of living in the world, it would seem evident that anthropology be interested in how is it that people perceive and design sound in different parts of the world. However, during my initial research into this matter, I was surprised that there is not a wealth of research material on this subject. If anything, I found that the researchers that look into the relationship between sound and society, by and large, approach the matter from a multi-disciplinary perspective. But as for anthropology itself, the study of sound has mostly been addressed through the study of music and the social and political representations that can be articulated through music. But sound, as a social experience in itself, has not played a major role in the development of the discipline. And yet, sound producing technology has always been present throughout the history of the discipline. Tape recording interviews, musical groups, and the use of audiovisual material have been a central aspect of ethnographic research. However, the tendency has been to look at these materials as research materials, as data from where symbolic, structural, or political representations can be extracted from. Methodologically, treating sound recordings in this way, suggests that the material of the recording is consistent and objective, that it is reproducing interactions in the field with fidelity. It also suggests that the recordings do not produce knowledge in themselves, but that mainly lay inert until the expertise of an anthropologist decodes the material and makes it intelligible cross-culturally. And this is one of the first conceptual hurdles that one faces, as an anthropologist, when engaging with sound studies. If a sound ethnography is to seek to understand the different ways in which sound inter-relates with the social experience, how can we use sound on its own terms and expect it to communicate cross-culturally? In other words, what kind of technical and conceptual tools can we use, as anthropologists, to communicate a sense of the sonic across cultural contexts that are not related? How do we deal with the issue of cultural difference? How can we use sound in a way that does not exoticize cultures? 

Current generations of anthropologists have been reviewing the paradigm that looks at the materials collected during fieldwork as mere data and started to look at the experience of doing fieldwork itself as a suitable means of understanding social relations cross-culturally. This kind of approach places the ethnographic encounter at the centre of the research text. Methodologically, it is an approach that is practise centred rather than meaning centred. Better said, the quest for cultural meanings does not lie exclusively in understanding the discourses through intellectual exercise, but also includes corporeal and affective dimensions of knowledge. That in the practise of doing participant observation of engaging with culture through associations, of focusing on the process of knowledge production a more open ended and processual understanding of culture emerges. The questions posed by this kind of anthropology do not part from the cultural comparative approach, but centres its attention on the inter-subjective encounter in the field. It asks about the quality of relationships that are embedded in the text, its asks questions about the narrative and the ethical and methodological process of constructing the text, it seeks to produce a knowledge that is corporeal – which is felt in the body – rather than exclusively intellectual. It seeks to go provide the “reader” with a sense of being there by representing the fieldwork experience on its own terms rather than relying on intellectual schemes that lie outside of the context of encounter. A result of this approach is the creation of texts that place the reader in the centre of the action - they give a sense of the textures of the place, of the various subtleties that makes life meaningful. For some authors, it is an approach that approximates to giving the reader a sense of being there. The search for these kind of interactive texts has led to anthropologists to consider the limitations of academic text as a means of rendering the affective, improvisational, sensual, and chaotic dimensions of daily life. Some more salient examples of these approaches are ethnographies that addressed the format and politics of ethnographic writing and looked into formats such as novels, poetry, autobiography, and other means of experimenting with the ethnographic genre. It is my contention that sound studies has a great deal to contribute to this kind of scholarship for it engages the anthropologist through a more experiential and sensual dimension of producing knowledge.
This is an ideal and the question still remains on whether this paradigm is successful in being consistent and convincing. In my view, a very important issue to look into is to look into how other disciplines and paradigms have addressed similar issues. For example, in architecture there is a whole field and speciality that focuses on acoustic design for the construction of concert halls and churches. Musicians are constantly seeking new ways to produce music or to re-interpret and re-contextualise the classics. Sound artists are continuously interacting with engineers and designers as a means to seek different ways to articulate an experience sonically. This kind of interdisciplinarity is what I have attempted to follow in the designing of the course "Soundscape: Perception and Design" to be offered during the spring semester of 2011 in the Anthropology Department of Tallinn University.   
- Carlo Cubero, Tallinn, 2011 

We also introduced a new segment to the Helikoosolek, the Ear Cleaner, or opening listening session. In future we will begin each meeting by listening to a recording (composition, sound poem, field-recording, radio show, etc, etc...) proposed either by myself, or a member of our group. If you have any suggestions for recordings that could be suitable for a Helikoosolek Ear Cleaner, let me know!

Last night we listened to a piece by American artist Steve Peters entitled Canyons from his online release The Very Rick Hours. You can listen to and/or download it here:

You can also here these pieces as featured in the last several editions of framework, the weekly field-recording based radio show that I produce:

The Very Rich Hours presents an interesting mix of field-recording, spoken word, and choral singing. it raised many questions in our group: was it intentional that all of the spoken word description was specifically of visual aspects of the space? What role, conceptually, did the singing play in the work? Did the spoken word add to or detract from the experience of the composed soundscapes?

I plan to ask these questions of Steve himself. I'll post his responses here.

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