Sonic Triangulations

(from: Sonic Triangulations. On Alltagsklänge, an exemplary sonic ethnography by Jochen Bonz, book review, in: Seismograf/DMT (2015))

These days an anthropology of sound and of listening is the focus of various researchers and research fields. This special attention to practices, experiences and narrations concerning sound as performed by humanoids on this humble satellite seems to be an intriguing and inspiring way to get access to the sonic world. After roughly a decade where media, inventions and discoveries in the natural and in the engineering sciences have been prominent research topics, such a shift might provide a change in hearing perspective, a change in research habitus, and – not the least – a change in the political and social impact of sound studies.

Jochen Bonz, writer and sociologist, ethnographer and cultural studies scholar in Innsbruck/Austria, has just published a collection of studies engaging with five different sonic environments and their particular sound practices and auditory dispositives. Under the title of Alltagsklänge (i.e. Everyday Sounds) these studies exemplify how a cultural anthropology of sound can take shape as a sonic ethnography. With this approach, Bonz makes a plea to respect the individual experience of a listening subject as a scientific entity: an entity, which grants researchers an insight into the actual repercussions and influences of sound events on humanoids and their everyday habits:

»Das kann beispielsweise heißen, die Eigenschaften des Klanglichen als Forschungshaltung zu übernehmen und unvoreingenommen danach zu fragen, was in spezifischen kulturellen Situationen anwesend ist. Es kann auch heißen, dem Niederschlag nachzugehen, den klanglichen Wahrnehmungen im Subjekt des Hörens bilden« (4)

Bonz proposes to follow the sound, to follow the resonances and reflections, and therefore to follow the resulting perceptions in individual listeners – instead of researching sound events as such, isolated, as if produced for no actual listeners. In the introductory chapter 1 of his book, he proposes therefore to make resonance and reflection the actual Forschungshaltung, the main approach to research on sound.

Between 1999 and 2002 the researcher Gregg Wagstaff made a field research in the Outer Hebrides, especially on the two isles of Harris and Lewis. This research, published as 3 CD’s, presents the results of his research through sound walks, in sound portraits and in a soundscape-composition; a text with the title Towards a Social Ecological Soundscape is also added as a research deliverable – but the main argument in this study is made in form of the auditory recordings and sound productions. Bonz understands this study (in chapter 2 of his book) as a sonic triangulation that approaches the cultural area of the Outer Hebrides through the people living there (on CD2 with their handcrafted sound portraits), through the knowledge of natural sciences (on CD3 with an explanatory sound walk), and through Wagstaff’s individual approach as a soundscape-composer (on CD1). Bonz contrasts this approach (by reference to post-structural studies by Jacques Lacan, Claude Lévi-Strauss und Slavoj Žižek) with two listening practices and concepts: first with the orthodox soundscape-research as programmatically proposed by R. Murray Schafer in the late 1970s in The Tuning of the World – secondly with listening practices as they have been present in popular culture since the same period, especially in the emerging disco & club culture. Surprisingly and quite convincingly, Bonz connects the methodology of Wagstaff closer to this approach of popular culture than to original soundscape studies. Bonz’ approach does not aim for reconstructing and evaluating the soundscape as such from an aesthetic distance – but it shows an interest in the transformation of the individual listener, of his or her subject by means of this sonic environment: be it the topological and zoological area of the Outer Hebrides or the immersive experience in a club or in rave culture. A transformation of Hörgewohnheiten, of listening habits, might take place.

Especially this immersive interpretational approach to sonic ethnographies proves to be highly inspiring and generative in the following smaller chapters on EDM and contemporary soundscape-composition (chapter 3, exploring foremost the situated transformations of the subject of experience, Dynamiken klanglicher Subjektivierung), on the use of Autotune (chapter 4, interpreted as a sonic representation of the progressive artificialization, the cyborgization of humanoid bodies in late-modern societies), and in a critical reading of Steven Feld’s seminal Kaluli studies (chapter 5, to describe the social production of subjectivity by the means of sound practices and listening habits). In these three chapters the author argues convincingly for an immersive and far-reaching »Materialität des Sounds [als ein] Jenseits der symbolischen Ordnung« (60): an approach thoroughly in accordance with explorations of sonic materialism in recent years (e.g. Eshun 1998, Goodman 2010, Cox 2011, Cobussen/Schulze/Meelberg 2013 et. al). Sound in such a hearing perspective is not an external, conceptual entity outside of humanoid culture and individual experience – but it is inseparably intertwined with and a materially intense constituent of both culture and subjectivity. The second half of Bonz’ book therefore presents an extended and pointed ethnographical study on one specific research subject, following this approach: the sound culture in a soccer stadium (chapter 6).

This sonic ethnography consists of yet another sonic triangluation, similar to the one presented in chapter 1: an analysis (a) of being a fan in the soundscape of the stadium, (b) of a detailed transcription and analysis of experiencing a soccer match on TV in a German Kneipe, and (c) of fieldwork while being a spectator at a soccer team’s training session. Bonz shows how the particular processes of interpersonal contact, the social dynamics, and the particular contribution of spectators (be it at a training session or watching a match on TV) actually produces the shared experience of Fußballbegeisterung, the collective excitement around soccer. On the occasion of a match of the SV Werder Bremen against the team of VfB Stuttgart, Bonz amplifies the sonic aspects in these situations and he puts special emphasis on the epistemological potential of the subject, the individual sensibilities of a researcher. He writes:

»es ist das forschende Subjekt, dessen Wahrnehmung den gesamten Forschungsprozess durchzieht, indem es die zur Interpretation stehende Situation erlebt und in Form des Feldforschungsmaterials dargestellt hat« (137)

In this in-depth fieldwork and its interpretation of experiencing sound in soccer, Bonz proves impressively that especially the subjectivity of a researcher can contribute to analyzing the manifold, dynamic aspects of a situated sonic experience. Likewise he proves that it is possible to access contemporary cultural practices through the sonic affectations of the researcher, through systematic fieldnotes and their reflection in sonic ethnographies, and through a fundamental interpretative approach to research. A sonic ethnography along these lines can consequently provide an understanding of aspects of cultures that may be invisible (on various levels):

»Das Interesse am Klanglichen hat sich deshalb als im Grunde methodischer Ansatz erwiesen: Es eröffnet einen Zugang zu unsichtbaren Aspekten der zeitgenössischen Kultur« (101)

It is this interpretational research habitus, this Forschungshaltung, that can thus be regarded as a core element in an emerging cultural anthropology of sound and of listening: a Kulturanthropologie des Hörens.