Interview on the Anthropology of Sound

(Interview in: Seismograf; the interviewer was Sanne Krogh Groth)

Seismograf: I just looked at your web page and you still have ’Klanganthropolgie’ as one of your signifiers. Could you please elaborate on this term?

Holger Schulze:: Klanganthropolgie or anthropology of sound is one of my main research issues. Currently I am writing a monograph on that issue and I have been working, well, for almost the last decade, on this whole issue of an anthropology of sound.Anthropology of sound relates to a form of anthropology, which is not in a traditional sense putting the human or the human being, at the centre of reflection, but acknowledges that the status and the relations and affections of the human have changed over the last one hundred years. It is more like a, if you will, symmetrical anthropology as you call it, a cultural and historical anthropology. This means that we, nowadays in the early 21st century, cannot speak about the human without speaking about its relations to machines, to other creatures, animals, to architectures, to urban lifestyle, to digital lifestyles, to various and changing sensory experiences and to the body in its changing form, in a changing perception. So, anthropology of sound is doing exactly that from the approach of sound, trying to understand how humanoids, human creatures today live with sound in everyday life, in vernacular or popular culture and what concepts of sound and media, sound and technology, sound and violence, sound and the body, sound and the senses – go in there, into our understanding and our living with sound.


So, you have a background in, of course, ‘klangantrophologie’ and sound studies, you have been working with both, developing both and now you are at musicology. What does sound studies bring to musicology or how do you intend to bring something to it?

It seems to me that the relationship between sound studies and musicology often has been described as a difficult one. Because musicology has its very own, highly intricate traditions, for centuries now. It’s own methods of analysis and a rich corpus of literature. Sound Studies is then still seen as a rather new field. But actually, it is not, because you also have the artistic side, and this has a long, long history, also outside European compositional practices and their related concert practices. Maybe sound studies raise an awareness of some aspects in musicology, which might have been lost. So, I would say, that it would be really weird if musicology and sound studies would have no relations.

What could have been lost if sound studies didn’t exist?

I think there are a lot of developments these days relating to technology, to listening practices, to the everyday of listening and to the applied forms of sound, which have become more and more difficult to analyse and to understand with the apparatus of analysis coming from the 19th century. There are a lot of traditions still going on of which musical analysis is the only tool that can analyse them. But, many of the new fields have simply been either ignored or have not yet been understood by musicology on their own terms. I think that sound studies, with it’s inter- or transdisciplinary approach can integrate fields like media studies, cultural studies, history, ethnography and many other approaches, which you nowadays need to understand the newer or older forms of sound practice and sound art. I’d say that many of the traditional disciplines in the last decades tried to integrate these other disciplines, like media studies. And I would also say that literary studies has done this to a large extent, philosophy also tried to do it, while art history is still trying these days. It seems to me that musicology, since the early 2000s is starting to begin to realise that it is very important to integrate it in the best way possible. Speaking about my position here as a musicologist, I’d say, that I am very glad that the department decided to give me the chance to work here, in this position, because I think that this will transform both disciplines: It will be transforming sound studies and musicology and I’d say this can only be good for both sides.


If we go to your own books and articles – you often take your point of departure in close sounds, in sounds you just listened to in your kitchen or on the street where you live. Could you elaborate on that? Your whole approach, I wonder… It is not because you are lazy…?

I hope not, oh, well, you never know… But seriously, I’d say that every single listening and sounding situation is specific. It is very difficult to describe those in general, because they are always so specific, idiosyncratic and very genuine. And to understand how a person (and be it a researcher) is speaking about sound, you have to understand, what is the actual sonic environment he or she is arguing about or taking as a point of departure. And, I realised very early that it is often the case that people are speaking from a point of departure, which everyone in the room claims is known to anyone but actually is not. So, I’d say, it is an absolute necessity to include the sonic point of departure in an article, because otherwise you are speaking about sonic experiences, which none of your readers are aware of. As soon as it is not easily possible to integrate several forms of recordings or other forms of sonic representation on a time based media scale, in any article in a paper journal, then it is necessary that you leave, for a moment, the mere practice of arguing, which is one of our main practices in academia, and switch over to the mode of narrating, sometimes poetically, a certain situation which you are in, and then start the argument. The listening situations are always different. Also right now. You and I are speaking here in this situation – we have two little devices before us, sitting at a table, it is past 3 on a Thursday afternoon, we are sitting in my office, there is a certain light out there. Before, we had a little lunch, we took some photographs – there are some things that have happened before. So also this speaking and listening situation is not abstract, general or anonymous – it is very specific and I think that this creates the listening and the interview situation, for instance right now.

The whole interview:
An Anthropologist of Sound