Introduction: Sounds of Science: Composition, recording and listening as laboratory practice

Henrik Frisk, Sanne Krogh Groth

Research output: Contribution to journalDebate/Note/Editorialpeer-review


Research in music, sound art and sound studies is not only a matter of listening and experiencing auditory phenomena. Neither is it limited to the study of scores, graphic notations or sonograms. With the still increasing expansion of practice-based research methods, many artists and scholars of music, sound art and sound studies now gain their knowledge through their creative practice, or through the process of recording soundscapes and various sound experiments such as filtering or editing them. These often inductive processes are comparable to natural science executed in laboratories, where one also can find carefully planned practices leading to new knowledge that could not have been achieved otherwise. It is not only the carefully planned acts that count – so do all the embedded mistakes, unintended turns, unexpected discoveries and unintentional outcomes.The title “Sounds of Science” of this special issue is not only catchy, it is also a direct reference to such scientific studies. In the 2005 article “The Sounds of Science: Listening to Laboratory Practice” – an anthropological study of a variety of laboratory practices among researchers and engineers working in and around materials science and surface science – the author of the article, Cyrus C. M. Mody, states:Labs are full of sounds and noises, wanted and unwanted, many of which are coordinated with the bodily work of moving through space, looking at specimens, and manipulating instruments. Sounds are fully woven into the knowledge that emerges from experimental practice. … this article is an invitation to practitioners of lab studies to stage performances of John Cage’s 4’33” at the sites of scientific work and listen to laboratory practice. (176)Mody invites fellow anthropologists to listen carefully to the (non-aesthetic) sounds emerging in the laboratory, and to produce new knowledge from them – the same way John Cage invited participants to listen to the non-intentional sounds in the concert hall in his canonic silent work. Related research can be found in Pinch and Bijsterveld’s edited volume The Oxford Handbook of Sound Studies (2011), where scholars with backgrounds in history, sociology and Science Technology Studies (STS) reflect on phenomena of sound in laboratories as well as in other professional, everyday and even musical settings. Bijsterveld’s own monograph Sonic Skills (2019) adds extensive insights into the role of the scientist today and historically, and how they relate to sound in their laboratory practices. Further, the anthropologist Stefan Helmreich introduces what he calls “transduced” sounds, when observing and analysing scientists’ experience of mediated sound in underwater settings, by joining them during their work situations in submarines (Helmreich 2007, 2009, 2015).Some of the papers in the current special issue bear a direct relation to the anthropological and STS inspired work above. Others relate to the John Cage inspired invitation from Mody, but in an almost reverse way: coming from the tradition of the musical avantgarde, these papers produce new knowledge by turning the open aesthetics and aleatoric acts into inductive laboratory processes. The authors of these papers explore and learn from their musical practices, their listening to soundscapes or their recording experiments as if they were taking place in scientific laboratories. Yet another research practice, the emerging field of Sound and Music Computing (SMC), combines an even wider range of scientific methodologies related to sound and music where the music contributes to research practices that are not artistically or musicologically oriented.Another articulation of interdisciplinary research practice of relevance to this issue is the field of media archeology. Not yet a formalized discipline, media archaeology can be seen as the attempt to resist a focus on the present and the ‘newness’ of new media, and enter into an investigative approach to the understanding of the progression of media. Originally its theoretical understructure was shaped by Foucauldian thinking, but the cultural critic Walter Benjamin and media theorist Marshall McLuhan are other obvious points of reference. With the ever faster development cycles in today’s new technologies, the critical characteristic of media archeology can be seen to have an obvious relevance given present communication technologies. A 20 year old mobile phone may not even register with the contemporary mobile networks, 15 year old media may not play in current media players, and other kinds of technologies and interfaces are growing out of fashion even quicker than that.With sound as the laboratory the media archaeological investigation is extended even further. Exploring obsolete technology, such as old synthesizers, oscillators and cassette tapes for contemporary artistic practice, may bring forth new invocations. Or, as Huhtamo and Parikka describe it:[…] these artists create a cyclical motion in a way many media archaeologists no doubt endorse. There is no separation; instead, there is constant interchange, a cruise in time. The past is brought to the present, and the present to the past; both inform and explain each other, raising questions and pointing to futures that may or may not be. (Huhtamo & Parikka 2011, 15)Media archaeology takes a step back in order to explore media on, so to say, its own premises. As a consequence, prominent as well as less prominent media are brought to life in order to revisit their functions and behaviours, and to gain an understanding of why they came – or why they did not come – to play a dominant role in media history. Along with many other theories, part of the theoretical undercurrents of the attempt by media archeology to rewrite media history are postcolonial studies, the influence of which can also be seen in several of the contributions in this issue.The perspectives from which the research is performed and analysed differ throughout the contributions in this special issue. Several of the papers are developed from the perspective of so-called “practice-researchers”, discussing empirical work that is both created and analysed by the author. Others explore phenomena created or told by a third person. It is possible, but also slightly naïve, to see a field recording as a representation of an emic perspective, as if it is neutral in relation to that which it represents. Recording technology, however, is nothing but neutral. It invades the thing it records, which is something sound artists have used to their advantage for at least 50 years, but also something that needs to be considered in ethnographic research. The very format of the audio paper is a stage for exploring the range of possibilities with recording as a method: a means of representing and positioning several voices, and as a tool for documentation.While the contributions differ in their perspectives, and in theoretical and methodological approaches, they share the principle that all the researchers authoring these articles and audio papers have gained their knowledge directly from the sonic material they work with, whether it is a piano tune, an interview, a field recording or an old gramophone.
Original languageEnglish
Issue number26
Publication statusPublished - 2021 Apr 6

Subject classification (UKÄ)

  • Other Humanities not elsewhere specified


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