Amsterdam: Sonic Interventions – On the Other Side of Theory

Brandon LaBelle
Brandon LaBelle

With the ongoing proliferation of interest in the auditory, from the cultures of experimental music and sound art to theoretical elaborations as witnessed in a number of anthologies recently published, a general need for harnessing the radical diversity of all such theories and voices seems at hand. For continually one witnesses a general longing for “common ground.” Common ground may come by way of shared vocabulary (how sound may be spoken of) or historical referents that may create a territory of understanding (of where sound has come from), or through disciplinary mutuality (for instance, how the context of film studies may speak to the context of musicology).

The Sonic Interventions conference initiated and organized by Amsterdam School for Cultural Analysis further indicated the ongoing struggles to establish common ground, yet managed to arrive at mutual understanding by the sheer investment of those participating. For even though all the participants seem to arrive at the issue of sound from different vantage points, the desire to share and create dialogue led to fruitful results.

Organized around a general call for submissions, the conference brought together an intensely diverse gathering of individuals from Europe and the U.S., across all levels of expertise. It was broken into four panels governed by the sub-themes (or groupings of sub-themes): “sound and the moving image & sound technologies and cultural change”; “the sonic in the ‘silent’ arts & bring in the noise”; “silences/orality”; “soundscapes: sound, space, and the body & sound practices and events”. Papers were given in the form of 10-minute summations with the intention of creating dialogue and exchange among the panellists. To add to the discussion, as well as to guide or lend definition to the conference in general, keynote lectures were given by Douglas Kahn, Emily Thompson, and Mieke Bal (who replaced Fred Moten at the last moment), each representing critical aspects of current histories and cultural analysis being done today on and around the subject. Kahn’s writings on post-war American culture continue to draw connections between composers, such as John Cage, and artists, such as Robert Irwin or James Turrell, whose works lend to exploring the perception of sound and light. Adding to such history, Thompson’s investigative work on the early use of sound recording in Hollywood cinema opened up an as yet written history highlighting the innovations film studios forged in the 1930s. Alongside these histories of sound cultures and technologies, Mieke Bal moved more consciously into exploring questions of personal experience. Recounting visiting an installation, Bal describes her wonder and amazement at feeling what she called “lost in space:” immersed in a room of mist and sound, Bal’s dreamy memory led her to a deeper realization of sound to not only disorient but also to create new possibilities for finding home. Each lecturer, while drawing upon their own backgrounds and academic disciplines, initiated various concerns, from the historical and cultural, to the technological and perceptual. Such broad topics found their counterpoint in the panels that followed throughout the day.

Spanning three intensive days, discussions ran from issues related to the voice and what it means to speak; architecture and the spatiality of sound, (which has its own unique history as witnessed in the works of Iannis Xenakis, Edgar Varèse, and David Tudor); sub-cultures of music (from raves in Goa to reggae sound systems in Jamaica) and what they lend to understandings of community and social space; cinema and its undercurrent of auditory specialization, which remains a relevant shadow to questions of sound technology; the relationship between visuality and audition and what each may lend to the other, from creating narrative to animating the senses; the project of soundscape studies and its continual concern for environmental sound, noise pollution, and music compositions that create bonds between listener and place; philosophies of listening and the culture of aural ideas; and lastly, various historical tracings of particular composers, artists, writers, and cultural moments in which sound may be teased into relief as lineage to the current media age. Of course, there was much more, as what became increasingly apparent was the degree to which each participant spoke from their respective vantage point, supplied with their own particular cultural and theoretical baggage, tools of investigation, and overarching concerns. Mingling within such diversity, at times I was led to wonder what led each participant to sound, and what was at stake in bringing sound into so many diverse academic categories? Can sound really help literary studies of the Victorian age? Does it add to developing possibilities for new forms of thinking about architecture? Possibly this raises what became an unspoken yet ever-present question: What does it mean to initiate a staging of sound on the field of cultural theory, history, and analysis in general? What does sound lend to the history of culture, and more important, to its writing? For as an underbelly to the output of writings, articulations, and research, was a general recognition of the tensions inherent to sound being brought forward into the arena of language, by way of text. Whether essentializing sound as the “other” to language and all forms of representation—that sound may provide an escape route to the embedded meanings within the sign systems of the world—or using sound to unravel any master narrative left-over from the Modern, the question of how to construct theory particular to the materiality and cultural teachings of sound outside any adoption of theories based on “visualist” thinking recurred as a backdrop.

To move toward the auditory within the field of language, and cultural analysis based on the production of text, it would seem stages a tussle with the discourse that allows access to sound—we may ask, what words can perform their task in fully integrating themselves within the sonorous? In discovering, through an engagement with words and their referents, the full body of sound? We may register this body in the form of movements of cultural signifiers, whether that be musical sub-cultures, the formation of built environments, the exchange of information through oral networks, or the historical tracings left by sound technologies, but on a foundational level one remains bound to cultural “readings” that already imply a reliance upon “visualist” discourse and the act of looking and reading.

Not that the form of cultural work and analysis need be done with the same material of that which it speaks of, for surely theory allows one to intervene within the field of practice and production, social relations and physical reality, by being altogether different from that reality: Sylvere Lotringer once described theory as a pair of headlights that allow you to see the road ahead while also blinding you to everything beyond. As headlights, theory cuts into the dark, by being altogether out of place, inappropriate to the scene, disrupting through a kind of alien invasion the environment of reality.

From Bruce Johnson’s proposal of sound as “anti-theory,” Michelle Duffy’s pursuit of sound through semiotic rhythms, to Marcel Cobussen and his use of the philosophical work of Alain Badiou along with the free jazz of Evan Parker, and Chelle Mcnaughton’s soundmapping of Daniel Liebskind’s Jewish Museum in Berlin, the move toward the auditory may reflect the general longing for theory to possibly become less of a headlight and more of a sympathetic intrusion, less of a car cutting into the landscape and more of a nurturing force aligned with what it seeks to analyse or unearth. As Mieke Bal seemed to suggest in her keynote presentation, the auditory may offer us the chance to truly speak of the contemporary world by always attending to the larger global situation while keeping tuned to the particulars of individual voices. Thus, the global perspective and the local particular remain connected by turning cultural analysis and textual production into an act participating in culture rather than solely speaking about it. That sound lends us opportunity in this way speaks toward what it teaches us, what it allows to take place, by always being involved in the greater context, through modalities of affect, relation, and excess, while also always returning, through acoustic mirrors of social reflection, to the individual body. The gathering at Sonic Interventions may have proven, by being both absolutely individualistic as well as totally collective, that to write of sound is to also redesign the potential of theory to not only be critically acute, but to nurture and lend welcome.

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Brandon LaBelle is an artist and writer working with sound and the specifics of location. He is the co-editor of “Site of Sound: Of Architecture and the Ear” (1999), “Writing Aloud: The Sonics of Language” (2001), and “Surface Tension: Problematics of Site” (2003). His sound installations and performances have been featured in exhibitions and festivals around the world, such as “Sound as Media” (2000) ICC Tokyo, “Bitstreams” (2001) Whitney Museum, “Pleasure of Language” (2002) Netherlands Media Institute, and “Undercover” (2003) Museet for Samtidskunst, Roskilde Denmark, and his writings have been published in various books and journals, including “Experimental Sound and Radio” (MIT Press) and “Soundspace: Architecture for Sound and Vision” (Birkhauser). He recently presented a solo exhibition at Singuhr galerie, Berlin, and is completing a book/CD project, Eavesdrops.