Report on Sonic Skills Public Day Maastricht 17th January 2014

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In mid-January, a group of sound studies experts came together at Maastricht University to comment on the Sonic Skills project initiated by Karin Bijsterveld, professor of Science and Technology Studies at the Research Institute of Arts and Social Sciences – “a project that studies sound and listening as entrances for acquiring knowledge in twentieth-century science, engineering and medicine”, as concisely summarised in the announcement.
This occasion was accompanied by a public one-day conference which presented some of the invited expert’s own research, which resulted in a thematically diverse and stimulating programme. The broad spectrum of perspectives on sonic skills that were brought up in the public talks cannot be discussed in it’s entirety in this report, but I would like to share a few insights and impressions in the following passages.
Trevor Pinch, author of Analog Days: The Invention and Impact of the Moog Synthesizer (2002), presented his ideas on circuit-bending by giving examples from the circuit-bending community of the last two decades with a focus on the use of electric toys such as “Speak and Spell”, as well as from the perspective of his own musical practice. Pinch built his own synthesizer in the 1970s and has since then continued to explore the sonic possibilities that arise from the unpredictability of manipulating musical interfaces. The tacit knowledge that is required and acquired in circuit-bending is a hands-on knowledge, a sonic skill of “meta-control”, i.e. the producer is not in control of all the technological and substantial details but knows how the different physical, sensational and aesthetic components of the music making process interact.
Focusing on an altogether different example, but one which can still be productively linked to the previous presentation, Julia Kursell demonstrated how Helmholtz fostered ideas of an built-in-knowledge of hearing with his “resonant theory” which he developed in relation to the “physiology of the piano”. Helmholtz related the particular manufacturing of the piano to the mechanics and physiology of the ear in order to propose a new concept of hearing which emphasises the productive relationship between the way in which the piano imposes a specific “tuning” of hearing, and at the same time gives a feedback, a response to what we do with the instrument. Kursell highlights that instruments should be conceived of as “being operated as a model” rather than being seen “as a model”, as if the instrument was something stable and unchanging.
A way in which historical instruments can be operated as a model through the recording, performance and reconstruction these sounding artefacts was vividly presented by Aleks Kolkowski regarding his work as a sound artist in residence at the London Science Museum (see In the early 20th century, the Auxetophone-Gramophone, a gramophone with a large tube, was regularly performed in different ensembles, for instance in the Auxetophone Orchestra Concert in 1909. At Exhibition Road Music Day in 2012, Kolkowski performed an Auxetophone from 1905 “in a performance featuring the long-departed voices of Enrico Caruso and Nellie Melba on 78rpm records” (, accompanied by musicians from the Royal College of Music. Kolkowski’s presentation accentuated the acoustic craft that is involved while bringing historical instruments back to life.
Tom Rice presented some early results from his current research on the particular sound culture of prison life. Based on his analysis of a number of semi-fictional diaries, notebooks and tales written by inhabitants of different prisons throughout Europe and the U.S., Rice identifies recurring accounts that point to the daily rhythm of prison life, expressed through the metallic sounds of opening and closing of doors, the rattling of keys dangling from the guard’s key chains, or bells and footsteps. A central question he raised in his talk was how prisoners develop specific, “non-professional” sonic skills in order to gain knowledge about the internal power structures and informational flows of prison life that are expressed through the arrival of new prisoners or the release of others, the conversations between guards that are overheard by and passed on between detainees. Furthermore, Rice highlights how different sounds are used in order to express acoustic agency within the confines of the prison walls, for instance through window shouting or stereo blasting which can be described as forms of demonstration of power and competition over sonic space.
The day was rounded up by an intriguing podcast-presentation of the Sonic Skills research project, and my impression was that it was a stimulating and thought-provoking event for all who attended.

Link to the Sonic Skills project and the conference programme: