How to do Sonic Anthropology?

2020-10-26 by Holger Schulze | 0 comments

IMG_0314v3A scribbled paper and recording devices at the Sound Studies Lab (October 28th, 2019: Salomé Voegelin and Mark Peter Wright visited Carla Maier and Melissa Van Drie).

In the fall of 2019 Salomé Voegelin and Mark Peter Wright from the reseach project Listening across Disciplines (LxD) at the CRiSAP / University of the Arts London visited us several times here in Copenhagen, at the Sound Studies Lab. They inspired us to think and talk about listening protocols (e.g. I, II, III & more to come!).

Primarily, however, our both guests focused on their fieldwork. For this purpose they followed and participated as observers in our work on the anthropology of sound. They invited us, Melissa Van Drie, Carla Maier and Holger Schulze, also to a series of longer conversations on our research practices, our methods, and our major goals in our past, present and future research. We spoke about sensory and multi-sited ethnography, about public space, sculptures, and about food. 

This wednesday, 28th of October 2020 you can listen to this fourth episode, titled Sonic Anthropology in the project’s series on ResonanceFM. Enjoy!

Job Offer: Popular Music Studies

2020-07-21 by Holger Schulze | Comments Off on Job Offer: Popular Music Studies

Why not join us? The section of musicology at the University of Copenhagen is looking for a new colleague (assistant professor, tenure track) in the area of popular music studies – with approaches in cultural theory, anthropology, sociology, and history equally included.

You get the chance to work within an experienced group of seven colleagues (and various PhD’s & Postdoc’s) focusing on musical anthropology, music history, music analysis, and – what a surprise: sound studies.

This research environment offers one of the broadest set of approaches and backgrounds you can possibly find in musicology these days – all teaching in the same MA- and BA-programmes as well as collaborating in research.

Here is the announcement with all the details:
Tenure-track assistant professorship in Musicology

Sonic Talks Online

2020-07-17 by Holger Schulze | Comments Off on Sonic Talks Online

All three Sonic Talks In a Forest of Letters, performed on the evenings of July 13th, 14th and 15th, 2020, at CLB Berlin by Holger Schulze together with artists, researchers, writers and thinkers katrinem, Katja Kullmann and Christiane Frohmann are now online (in German):

The Hum of the Pandemic (From the installation: In a Forest of Letters, CLB 2020) Photo: Jeneba Komma - Text: Holger Schulze - Concept: Nina Backman.

The Hum of the Pandemic.(From the installation: In a Forest of Letters, CLB 2020; photo: Jeneba Komma, text: Holger Schulze, concept: Nina Backman).

Sonic Talk 1:
katrinem, walking artist & researcher:
Die Innenstadtstrasse

(CLB Berlin, 13.7.2020)


Sonic Talk 2:
Katja Kullmann, writer & essayist:
Balkonien

(CLB Berlin, 14.7.2020)


Sonic Talk 3:
Christiane Frohmann, thinker & head of Frohmann Verlag:
Der Garten am Haus

(CLB Berlin, 15.7.2020)


How did your or my sensology transform in recent weeks and months? How can one perceive the policies and their principles regarding the senses that have prevailed in urban and rural areas in the last years or decades? In what ways did you engage with a forest, with enveloping letters or language fragments, or other agents of sonic convivality and their generative and regenerative forces?

Sonic Talks explore the state of the senses and our sensory entangled and affected lives under the conditions of progressively urbanized and mediatized cultures. Holger Schulze invited earlier – together with sound artist Sam Auinger – to investigate their present, recent, or expected sensologies and sensibilities.

Three Sonic Talks

2020-07-10 by Holger Schulze | Comments Off on Three Sonic Talks

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Sonic Talks explore the state of the senses and our sensory entangled and affected lives under the conditions of progressively urbanized and mediatized cultures. Holger Schulze invited earlier – together with sound artist Sam Auinger – researchers, artists and writers to investigate their present, recent, or expected sensologies and sensibilities.

The three Sonic Talks In a Forest of Letters in July 2020 now invite three artists and writers, researchers and thinkers who contemplate together with Holger Schulze about their recent life with sounds and the senses:

How did their sensologies transform in recent weeks and months? How do they percieve the policies and their principles regarding the senses that have prevailed in urban and rural areas in the last years or decades? In what ways did they engage with a forest, with enveloping letters or language fragments, or other agents of sonic convivality and their generative and regenerative forces?

All three conversations will be recorded, in German. After the Sonic Talks they will be freely accessible online.

Conversation partners and dates (NOTE: only a maximum of 10 audience members are granted access to these conversations. Please make a reservation with a mail and the precise date you wish to attend to: gonzalez-galan@clb-berlin.de:

Monday, July 13th, 2020, 7pm
katrinem, walking artist & researcher:
The Inner City Streets

Tuesday, July 14th, 2020, 7pm
Katja Kullmann, writer & essayist:
The Balcony

Wednesday, July 15th, 2020, 7pm
Christiane Frohmann, thinker & head of Frohmann Verlag:
The Garden at the House

In a Forest of Letters

2020-07-06 by Holger Schulze | Comments Off on In a Forest of Letters

On July 10th, 2020, an exhibition and a series of conversations and concerts opens at CLB Berlin in the Aufbauhaus on Moritzplatz that was conceptualized during and for these times of contact restrictions: In a Forest of Letters.

In times of intense pressure, of medical emergencies and political insecurities, desires to stop and rest become strong. The Forest of Letters in the CLB provides an arena for these desires and wishes to be fulfilled. The Forest offers an occasion for a sensible encounter in quietude.

Tasting this space

Listening with you

Digesting new creations

Detecting the next steps to take

Visitors are invited just to enjoy this space, to write so-called Sensible Letters, to listen to three Sonic Talks on July 13th, 14th and 15th with with artists, writers and thinkers katrinem, Katja Kullmann and Christiane Frohmann, to attend 1:1-Concerts, and some visitors are being invited by the organizers to engage in a Silence Meal.

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Each visitor in the Forest receives a small card for a Sensible Letter. They are invited to write down their loving confessions to recent sentiments and to place them directly in the Forest – for future visitors to discover. Some Sensible Letters can be found in the Forest from the beginning.

Nina Backmann, Finnish artist and creator of the Silence Meal teamed up with Holger Schulze, Sound Studies-scholar at the University of Copenhagen and the CLB’s director Sven Sappelt to provide this arena for rest, reflection, and recreation.

This forest is an invitation: an invitation to listen, to sense, to articulate tentatively, to engage in a brief yet meaningful conversation. A conversation that does not deplete one of hope and energy – but a conversation that serves as a revitalizing, a reenergizing agent.

A Conversation on Sound Art

2020-07-03 by Holger Schulze | Comments Off on A Conversation on Sound Art

A few weeks ago, on June 11th of 2020, composer and sound artist Jeremy Woodruff invited Sanne Krogh Groth and me to a longer interview session. Being a member of the famous sound art project space Errant Sound in Berlin, he wanted to know from us how we had conceptualized The Bloomsbury Handbook of Sound Art and how all these highly diverse and rather unconventional conceptual cores composed into this volume came actually together.

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Whilst he had contributed himself a great and insightful chapter on the aesthetics of permaculture (chapter 2), he obviously was not involved in all of our editorial work with the other 34 authors, co-authors and interviewees in this handbook.

Woodruff’s intricate and insisting questions helped us in our conversation to carve out the concept and the various insights running through this handbook and, at least partially, altering the discourse around and within what has come to be called sound art in the broadest sense. The result is a concise, sonic introduction into this handbook as a whole.

You can listen to our conversation, with some added sound examples right here, on the website of Errant Sound:

Errant Sound Podcast: Interview with Holger Schulze and Sanne Groth, Editors of the Bloomsbury Handbook of Sound Art

My Listening Protocol III

2020-06-23 by Holger Schulze | Comments Off on My Listening Protocol III

Late in 2019 and early in 2020, Salomé Voegelin and Mark Wright, directing the impressive project Listening Across Disciplines visited us here at the Sound Studies Lab. They discussed with us our research approaches, our ways of developing research focuses, applying methods, and publishing research results.

However, they focused primarily on how we employ listening as a research method. Towards the end of our conversations, they asked each of us to outline our individual listening protocol: they »organise and articulate listening in a way that is useful and adaptable to various disciplines, enabling and legitimising sonic processes and materialities as part of research and knowledge production.«

In one of our Colloquia Sound & Senses this spring, the composer and performer Lars Graugaard contributed the following listening protocol:

For listening pleasure and professional listening I apply different modes.

Listening pleasure is non-expert and an immediate appreciation of the sound waves, as they envelop and transport the listening body.

In contrast, professional listening is an expert endeavour, and in my case it involves a number of steps where some are inescapable, and many more are significantly discretional. (This suggests the general opportunity in the professional realm for vastly different listening objectives outside of those I may happen to have.)

First I do a spot listening as a short-term appreciation of 0.5 – 2 seconds snippets at random locations, to get an impression of the sound’s presence independently of the composition’s form (and the composer’s purpose). I listen for sound features such as transcients, spectral balance, density, depth, roughness, transparency etc. and small contours. It gives me an impression of the relative weight and balance of the music’s immediate sonic attributes, as well as its immediate presence in local, physical space. It can be likened to a quick personality check that will decide how – and if – I continue to listen.

I may then listen for slightly longer segments, to grasp phrase contours on the time scale of, say, a spoken phrase. This gives me a more nuanced understanding of the musical ideas, as the underlying personality of the author (and thus any aims and intentions implied) will become clearer.

My listening may stop at any step given the attentiveness my listening so far has induced, but if I am sufficiently intrigued professionally, I will listen to larger parts of the composition, to see how ideas combine and contrast, how resolution and tension is managed and so forth. This could be determined as the narrative, and it is mostly where I begin to take real, personal benefit of the listening, sifting for (counter)ideas and inspirations.

What I am listening for is the sonic, or spectral features, as I separate mid-level units into performative and compositional. At this point I also begin to fold back my listening into that of the non-expert, as I establish a relationship between the factual ongoings and the – naïve – musical appreciation. This way I let what I hear impregnate me so that it ideally can take a future shape within my me, albeit in such a way that it integrates completely.

Sensologies of Contact Restrictions

2020-06-08 by Holger Schulze | Comments Off on Sensologies of Contact Restrictions

During this spring’s pandemic, a plentiful of artistic and research activities around sound and sensory studies were started by various researchers and artists: the relation of sound and music to the (mostly urban) environment seemed, apparently, especially intriguing to investigate in these weeks and months of contact restrictions in most and of lockdowns in some regions. Recently, Meri Kytö began collecting those projects. By now, May 27th of 2020, 55 items can be found in her list called »Pandemic+sound/music+environment«. In this list you can find more traditional soundmapping projects from a lot of nations and world regions, but also newspaper articles, blog posts, and scientific surveys focusing on the assumed transformations in the soundscape or the whole ecosystem, even viral videos and videostreams that document and archive the activities of sounding out, playing, singing, musicking in times of the pandemic.

Screenshot of the website of the University of Copenhagen on the evening of the 12th of March 2020.

Screenshot of the website of the University of Copenhagen on the evening of the 12th of March 2020.

To discuss the various aspects of these pandemic sensibilities (or »pandemisk sanselighed«, Anette Vandsø) we met in our regular Colloquium Sound & Senses. We were nine researchers and artists who scrutinized the various »frames, scales and categories« (Melissa van Drie) we could detect in this archive of projects exploring the sensory generativity of contact restrictions.

New Pandemic Listening Protocols

Our discussion started out with confessing a confusion: is it really a good thing – as many people assume – that public places seem to have gone silent or at least quiet these days, Merio Kytö asked herself and all of us? Maybe, Melissa van Drie added, it is more the case that our listening protocols (following Voegelin) are almost necessarily altered due to the contact restrictions? Van Drie stressed for instance the activity of listening behind oneself as a phenomenon of developing different habits and customs of listening when walking through a quieter and calmer urban environment. Aside from developing such new protocols also existing protocols seem to be reactivated and revitalized: for instance the old and fascinating idea of mediated telepresence – a strong attractor of media arts in the 1990s and 2000s – has now become an everyday practice and necessity. Up to the point where the decision to listen to the soundscape of a holiday region one wanted to visit can seem now, as Macon Holt pointed out, as a viable and handy alternative: he and his partner intended to visit Fukushima in April 2020 – which they now actually visited sonically, at least punctually, through soundscape recordings.

Sonic Personae in Videocalls

Related to the transformations through everyday auditory telepresence are then of course all the domestic soundscapes that everyone of us suddenly grants access to others joining in a videocall: Anette Vandsø pointed out that not only the visual self-presentation is different in videocalls, but also the auditory self-presentation, especially through all the non-intended sound sources maybe entering a job-related conversation – such as playing kids, cooking sounds, quarrels between siblings, chirping birds or activities of any dogs or cats present. The usual visual self-presentation in the public sphere is now almost coercively combined with an often involuntarily audible self-presentation that also manifests a conflict of social roles – or, ideally, a new amalgamation of those roles. What new sonic personae are emerging or developing here, I need to ask?

However, the options for listening to an environment or for strictly separating social roles point to one underlying, structural force in all these mapping activities of sensorial transformations: they rely on and are heavily driven by social stratification. This »partage du sensible« (Rancière), the distribution of sensibilities is a social effect. Social class and gender roles at least provide the economic and chronotopic dispositives for one’s options of listening to or sensing into the sonic effects of recent epidemiological recommendations for social interactions. People whose job-related activities are being considered essential (a noteworthy descriptor, as it is most often related to a lower or even the lowest range of salaries) will probably have a harder time scrutinizing sensorial transformations as their workload on every single day is either massively multiplied or even dropped radically to zero. Both developments tend to deplete a person of its energy to more freely explore and assess certain seemingly more marginal effects in their lives. The sometimes claimed slowdown of these days can definitely not be experienced by people with kids or working in one or more jobs, maybe with a necessitiy for stressful commuting. The so-called quietude of the pandemic presents itself here more often as a sort of vexatious hum if not overload of the pandemic.

Altered States of Everyday Life

So, should we instead consider these transformations of our social encounters not as a form of welcome (and somewhat decadent if not cynical) break – but more as a kind of syncopy, a stumble as Lars Graugaard called it: maybe these days need to be considered as a kind of, well, Freudian stumble (not a slip) of accelerated societies? The ongoing stream of meme music, for instance produced out of all the balcony concerts, home performances and superstar medleys in videoconferencing rectangles, surely can be regarded in this way, as Macon Holt and Meri Kytö pointed out: it is indeed that these circulating activities gained traction and even political resonance just because they were mediated, recorded, edited and memefied. When focusing in videos posted online – be they memes or videos leaked from a family group chat – one begins to wonder: what are the moments or rituals of singing or sounding out during the pandemic that are not videoed posted public? Emphasizing and accelerating the distribution of some of them is for sure highly selective. Which desire drives the protagonists of these memes to present themselves in these ways and what desire drives powerful distributors to accelerate the distribution of a particular sets of memes?

After almost three months, a quarter of a year, there is now a particular time structure firmly imprinted onto these weeks of contact restrictions and lockdowns: the excitement for new self-presentations, new memes, and altered states of everyday life soon degraded into a depression, and maybe has now reached the laconic and largely uninteresting boredom of the common and the habitual? Is there still a sort of resistance in these new sensibilities to be found, as Lars Graugaard insisted in our conversation? Will we indeed be able to maintain some of the transformations we consider important, for instance different ways of working from home and of arranging a sonic environment through streamed performances as Carla Maier reported? Will these new modes of listening of spring 2020, these emerging new listening protocols just vanish – or will they stick with us and live on with us?

Optimizing + Stabilizing = Reassuring?

After our discussion it seems to me that there are mainly three categories of how these coercively transformed sensibilities are being assessed, employed, or translated into various activities:

The first category is a paedagogical one that sees in these contact restrictions and their effects on social interactions a welcome occasion for personal optimization – be it in the personal lifestyle, the individual working style, styles of recreation, and even in regard to acquiring and training new work skills including digital media. Now seems the time, for many of us, to finally strive for the ultimate optimizing challenge.

This leads me to the second category, which is a psychological one: the ongoing stream of diaries, daily protocols, videos, podcasts, series of memes and tweets seems to represent for many of their authors and producers an apt coping stratgy of materializing and thus stabilizing the vibrant flux of daily, hourly, instantly observations, experiences, doubts and fears, hopes and pleasures these days: to keep track of everything serves a persona precisely this stabilizing function.

The third and last category I recognize here is political. Any person who experiences these weeks as states of emergency and reaches out for stabilizing coping mechanisms is obivously an object to contemporary political reflections: what is needed to achieve practices of successful governance in such a state in flux? It seems to me that the most recent races towards a state that is sometimes being called Back to Normal! or Opening Up [insert nation name] Again! result as direct additions of the tendency to optimizing plus the tendency to stabilizing.

In addition they produce new sensologies of reassuring their consumer citizens. They are sensologies (following Mario Perniola), because they embody governing regimes through sensory or sonic practices that result from the contact restrictions or that are fostered by or forced onto the epidemological recommendations of contact restrictions. This desire to provide reassurance for all citizens affected from the pandemic extends then of course to all the existing habits, values, structures, power regimes and systems of exploitation and oppression. Bluntly said: the state of emergency produces politically an overly stabilizing, optimizing and reassuring governance. And this tendency towards reassurance can then even go far beyond any of the usual affirmations of existing policies. It maybe even intensify and fortify all of the existing demarcations and power relations: the racism, the sexism, the nationalism, the social inequality, the excessive wealth and the poverty – but maybe it intensifies also some of the political decisions for more planetary connectivity, commerce, much tighter synchronized research, development, sales and consumption. In recent days we can even see substantial protest bringing millions of people on the streets, all over this planet in advance of social and democratic change under the sign of #BLACKLIVESMATTER. It is yet to be seen, if these protests can be punchy enough to pressurize the reactionary powers that be, in many nationstates, into lasting and antiracist policies. Such prognostics, however, can only be speculations at this point, educated ones, hopefully.

Whilst underneath all of our optimizing, stabilizing and reassuring (or even rebellious) activities on every single day, the intimidating hum of the pandemic is still and incessantly tangible. Where all of this might lead us, into what detour or to which anxiously seeked for homeground, is yet undefined.

(Participants of this colloquium were: Anette Vandsø, Carla Jana Maier, Jacob Eriksen, Jenny Gräf Shepard, Lars Graugaard, Macon Holt, Melissa van Drie, Meri Kytö & Holger Schulze)

Sonic Fiction

2020-05-12 by Holger Schulze | Comments Off on Sonic Fiction

The formal structures of time collapse, regress to mud, and space is pushed back and forth until it bends to be trampled by the pulsations of alien music, while the thinking space becomes seasick (Kodwo Eshun)

This is the disruption as it can be experienced when ultrablackness hits you. When the all-consuming, all-absorbing and all-imploding might of ultrablackness exercises its power of radical, pervasive and fundamental negation. The one message, the one action, the one intervention of ultrablackness is taking an axe and ramming it into the fake common ground or shared table and says: NO.

sonic fiction 3 covers

Sonic fiction is everywhere: in conversations about vernacular culture, in music videos, sound art compositions and on record sleeves, in everyday encounters with sonic experiences and in every single piece of writing about sound. Where one can find sounds one will also detect bits of fiction.

The idea for this book – the first introduction on the pre-history, the applications, and the subsequent effects of Sonic Fiction – was born in several weeks in the spring of 1999, when I read the German translation of More Brilliant than the Sun by Dietmar Dath, titled Heller als die Sonne: Abenteuer in der Sonic Fiction.

DJ, music critic, and video essayist Kodwo Eshun proposed the concept of sonic fiction first in this book. Originally, he did so in order to explicate the manifold connections between Afrofuturism and Techno, connecting them to Jazz, Breakbeat and Electronica. His argument, his narrations and his explorative language operations however inspired researchers, artists, and scholars since then. Sonic Fiction became a myth and a mantra, a keyword and a magical spell.

Since then I discussed, applied, transformed, and worked on the concept of sonic fiction in numerous talks, paper presentations, academic articles, book chapters, and course modules. The ideas then developed into the chapters that constitute now this new book.

SONIC FICTION turns your mind into a universe, an innerspace through which you the headphonaut are travelling. You become an alien astronaut at the flightdeck controls of Coltrane’s Sunship, of Parliament’s Mothership, of Lee Perry’s Black Ark, of Sun Ra’s fleet of 26 Arkestras, of Creation Rebel’s Starship Africa, of The JBs’ Monaurail. (Kodwo Eshun)

In six chapters it explicates the inspirations for and the transformations of this concept; it explores applications and extrapolations in sound art and sonic theory, in musicology, epistemology, in critical and political theory. Sonic fiction is presented in this book as a heuristic for critique and activism.

You can read now the sixth chapter NON: Ultrablack Resistance right here on NON.COPYRIOT.

You can have a look at the Table of Contents and you can order the book on this webpage directly from Bloomsbury Academic.

The Sound of Corona

2020-04-15 by Holger Schulze | Comments Off on The Sound of Corona

Can you hear the coronavirus? What does it sound like?

Recently, some compositions which used data gathered from the coronavirus, stirred up some conversations among listeners, composers, musicians, scientists, engineers, and artists: the Proteine Counterpoint Sonification.

This sonification was produced by the engineer and material scientist Markus J. Buehler and his team. They claim to have generated the sounds from original data stemming from the virus, following a sonification method for proteins which they described in an article from 2019: A Self-Consistent Sonification Method to Translate Amino Acid Sequences into Musical Compositions and Application in Protein Design Using Artificial Intelligence:

»The vibrational frequencies are transposed to the audible spectrum following the musical concept of transpositional equivalence, playing or writing music in a way that makes it sound higher or lower in pitch while retaining the relationships between tones or chords played.« (Yu, Qin, Martin-Martinez, Buehler 2019)

Sonifying a Virus

Their method demonstrates some of the fundamental steps for sonification: gathering data, assigning rules of transposition or transformation of these data entries into audible sound events (cf. Hermann, Hunt, Neuhoff 2011), organizing these sound events into a time-based structure that listeners of a largely westernized, vernacular music culture may recognize as ‘musical’ – and that allows for a new, scientific insight into the material. This last point is, allegedly, the main goal of a scientific sonification.

The results of Buehler and his team sound quite pleasing. One listener to the Soundcloud upload commented: »Reminds me of Chinese meditation music.« You might recognize the sound of a lute, a spinet or even a japanese koto. The tempo is somewhere between lento and larghetto, there is a constant pulse and a counterpoint; it has a character of minimal music and some listeners might even be reminded of Johann Pachelbel’s iconic Canon and Gigue in D major, that has been used recurrently to represent a notion of cosmic universality and unity between all lifeforms and all natural and cultural processes. Some listeners, hence, seem to have expected a more threatening sound – but of course it does not sound threatening: a biological process of viral expansion is only actually threatening from the perspective of the affected lifeforms, not from the perspective of the expanding virus. The expectation that a sonification of a virus potentially carrying deadly diseases would also sound threatening and deadly, is a deeply anthropocentric one: an expectation that treats a scientific sonification like an aesthetic artifact, a musical composition. Yet, a scientific sonification is not a musical composition.

However – and that is really the main flaw of this sonification, I‘d say – there is not really a scientific insight to be gained from it, at least not from what I heard or read or understood. The six pieces presented remain largely in the realm of somewhat pleasing sonic artifacts, with various references to existing musical genres and sound designs. As a result, the main goal of sonifying any dataset, the goal to gain new insights into the material, is not really achieved.

So, is this sonification then closer to a musical composition? And what would we expect from it then?

Composing a Pandemic?

As listeners we surely would expect something completely different from an actually contemporary, artistic interpretation of the coronavirus than from a sonification. In this case, the aesthetic decision for certain sounds or musical structures would then not be camouflaged by an often failing argument of being directly determined by a dataset and not by a producer’s personal decisions: whenever the personal is hidden underneath a notion of the objective, neutral or even the arithmetic, one can be very sure that deeply personal inclinations and idiosyncrasies will have a much stronger and unmitigated impact in the end. This means that also producers of sonifications are actually mainly composers of a certain kind, with certain aesthetic preferences and aversions, maybe even obsessions and definitely also a particular personal style and sonic or musical aesthetic (of what quality or of what expertise we would then be able to discuss).

In case of a clearly musical representation some of us would probably expect it to sound indeed threatening and to represent – obviously in a refined and aesthetically interesting and challenging way – the phenomena of social distancing, masks, hand sanitizers and gloves. It could even include in its artistic and instrumentalist techniques some of the harsher symptoms one does apparently experience when fallen ill with the lung disease of COVID-19 such as troubles with breathing and a persistent pain or pressure in the chest. Maybe the musical material of circular breathing techniques could be employed, explored, skilfully disrupted and expanded in such a composition?

Other listeners might wish to hear more of the punctually decreased social activities in public places that seem so characteristic for social life these days. A hum of looming danger, underneath all of our activities – at times louder, then almost inaudible – but in general not a musical structure, more an arithmetic display of expansion and decrease that avoids the more trivial illustrations. Such a composition could then maybe sound like this recent record by Thomas Köner: Motus. The hum of the pandemic.

But maybe we wish even to recognize the sound of getting in touch through one of the videoconferencing tools that dominate social activities under Corona. I am thinking here of the strange effect that through these tools two, three, five or ten people can interact with each other, sonically and visually, and each of them can be seen and heard in totally different rooms and environments. Sometimes the characteristics of these rooms are wiped out, but in many more focused productions of a higher quality, one can actually hear the switch between and the mash-up of these various room acoustics: a quite unusual experience for a lifeform like ours that is not yet familiar with teleportation.

For me, personally speaking, this mash-up of room acoustics is perhaps the strongest sonic signature of the pandemic these days: a sonic icon of being bodily distanced yet socially even more connected (and I haven’t even yet touched upon the painful class struggle between precarious gig economy workers on the streets and the privileged self-quarantined in larger mansions or spacious appartments: the actual challenge for any musical piece might lie precisely in this struggle).

Viral Science Communication

All in all, I would claim this sonification by Buehler and his team serves primarily the purpose of science communication, which is fair enough. It needs to be compared, understood and interpreted as a sonic equivalent of the visual representation we all know so well by now (a grizzly, fluffy ball with loads of scary and bright red triangular spikes attached to it), crafted by Alissa Eckert and Dan Higgins for the CDC: an iconic design, ready to be used for communication purposes across all media and publication formats. But neither the visual design nor the sonic design of the coronavirus is a means of research or a tool for further insights, right now.

How could one then employ sonification for a more scientific purpose in this particular case? One proposal came recently from the sound designers around Rainer Hirt: they proposed a series of single sounds for the single most important constituents of the coronavirus and their activities. So, they designed the »Spike Glycoprotein, the Hemagglutinin-esterasem, the Matrixprotein, the Envelope, and the ssRNA und N-Protein« and they subsequently combined so-called »audio scenes for 4 major processes within the viral infection cycle: (A) Attachment & entry, (B) Replicase protein expression, (C) Replication & transcription, (D) Assembly & release«. These individual sounds and scenes now indeed could help to identify and to analyze the activities of the virus; I am still not sure, what insight could be gained; however, it seems to me that these sound dewigners propose primarily a sonic repertoire that can now be used by researchers, designers, artists. It offers, if you will, a sonic toolbox for analysis less than an aesthetically pleasing artifact, ready for dissemination across all media platforms. And that is an inspiring and generative first step, in my understanding.

Aside from this, a sonification could also focus on the global spread of the virus and its acceleration: this could provide indeed deeper insights. Or a sonification of the actual propagation of a virus (or a plethora of virus particles) through one individual body’s various respiratory pathways, organs and systems. One could then even craft a sonic artifact close to this legendary sonification, almost two decades old now, developed and refined by Isao Hashimoto in 2003: a visualized and sonified sequence of all the nuclear explosions, their locations, and their home nations in the years between 1945 and 1998.

This piece offers – only through the method of sonification – a synopsis of events and of developments that one could not gain access and insight into in any other way:

Isao Hashimoto: 1945-1998 (2003)

(note: this article has been republished by Passive/Aggressive on May 1st, 2020)