pour une anthropologie des milieux sonores

EASA Conference – July 2012

« Sound environments: forms, perception, and meanings »

easa-logoWorkshop convenors Christine Guillebaud (MILSON) and Heikki Uimonen (School of Social Sciences and Humanities, University of Tampere, Finland)


12th European Association of Social Anthropologists (EASA) Biennal Conference ‘Uncertainty and disquiet (10-13 july), Nanterre University.

Short Abstract

This panel seeks to explore research concerned with sound environments: the perception modalities of everyday life environments; the attitudes and discourses of sound appreciation; the emotions and memories related to places; the social imaginaries that sound contributes to shape.

Long Abstract

This panel seeks to explore research concerned with sensory environments, and in particular with sound environments. Studies dedicated to sound emerged in different disciplines: musicology, architecture and urbanism, ethnomusicology, acoustics and psychology, history as well as computer sciences. Though the study of ethnographic cases, we will take into account the heritage of such disciplines, while seeking to identify the anthropological stakes of ambient sounds. We will discuss the notions of noise, sound, and silence in general – and explore the complexity of « soundscapes » in particular in order to understand their forms, dynamics, and social and cultural settings. Sound environments might be defined by different surfaces, weather conditions and other materials affecting to sound propagation. However, they are also by nature immaterial and rooted in the daily sensory experience. Taking into consideration this ambiguity, we will deal with a composite practical knowledge, that relies on a wide spectrum of attention modalities (ranging from the daily inattention to sounds to the legal frameworks governing its physical norms). In this panel, we will suggest the themes: the perception modalities of everyday life environments; the attitudes and discourses of sound appreciation; the emotions and memories related to places and sonic interactions; the social imaginaries that sound contributes to shape.


« Get set for decibel rain! »: sound normalisation and local practices in India

Author: Christine Guillebaud (CNRS, Laboratoire d’Ethnologie et de Sociologie Comparative (LESC-CREM)

Short Abstract

The rise of so-called « sound pollution » in India has fostered the reinforcement of public policies concerning noise issues. On the basis of ethnographic cases (ritual, commercial and political sphere) the paper attempt to identify the local implications of the sound normalisation.

Long Abstract

Indian cities are known to be among the noisiest cities in the world. As many other countries, the rise of so-called « sound pollution » has fostered the reinforcement of public policies concerning noise issues. Although a regulatory environment has slowly been built up around many activities, those that address noise pollution specifically emerged recently. These regulations contribute to impose new forms of sound normalisation. They regulate noise levels through physical norms (mainly in terms of decibels) according to the activities (industrial, commercial etc.) and established zones of silence around the public infrastructures. In their practical application, number of prescriptions get into conflict with many local sound practices, part of them ancient and deeply rooted in the local society (and its particular socioreligious backgrounds) giving them their specific meaning. For instance, one could mention the great diversity of musical practices and the numerous ritual activities (calendar festivals, marriages, processions etc.) performed in the public sphere, as well as the different sonic commercial techniques using amplification or a wide range of sound effects for capturing attention. This paper will discuss the conflicting values that have recently emerged with the implementation of noise issues in the arena of arts, culture and religion. On the basis of ethnographic cases – pertaining to the ritual, commercial and political sphere – it will attempt to identify the local implications of the sound normalisation at the everyday, small-scale and strategic mergers between « sound makers » and their audience.

Sensory environments and sonic experiences: ethnography of blindness and sound in the Israeli public sphere

Author: Gili Hammer (The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel)

Short Abstract

This paper explores the sonic environments, experiences, and knowledge of blind people in Israel; sound-awareness-raising sites, and sound discourse in the imagining of the human subject.

Long Abstract

For the last seven years, « Dialogue in the Dark » — an absolute darkness experience — has been one of the most popular museum exhibits in Israel. Led by blind and visually impaired guides, the exhibition focuses on « non-visual awareness, » offering visitors the opportunity to navigate, in total darkness, a park, a noisy city, and a boating excursion. My paper will address novel, unique environments such as Dialogue in the Dark which evoke sound and sonic awareness among the general public, as well as the everyday sonic experiences of blind people.

Following scholars within anthropology of the senses, this paper offers a « multi-sensory » approach, initiating an ethnographic encounter with sonic experiences and sound environments rarely documented in the past, shifting the focus from the eye and the gaze to alternative sensory realities and possibilities, such as the use of sound in the imagining of the human subject.

Based on three years of anthropological fieldwork with blind people in Israel, the paper includes a threefold exploration of sound environments and acoustic knowledge: (a) The everyday auditory experiences of blind people, and specifically auditory awareness within blind women’s appearance management; (b) Sonic discourse within cultural sites which bring together sighted, blind, and visually impaired people and evoke acoustic awareness, such as a radio-drama class, a cycling club pairing blind and sighted tandem bicyclists, a restaurant in the dark, and more; and (c) Sonic interactions that took place between the researcher and participants in the field.

Acoustic communities articulated: sound preferences in village of Dollar, Scotland

Author: Heikki Uimonen (University of Tampere)

Short Abstract

The paper introduces Sound Preference Tests carried out during fieldwork in Scottish Village of Dollar in years 1975, 2000 & 2011. The method enables a comparison of the liked and disliked sounds of three different generations and thus helps the study of soundscapes in change, acoustic communication and acoustic communities of a given place.

Long Abstract

The ubiquitous but often unnoticed sounds make the research of everyday sonic environment somewhat challenging for anthropologists, ethnomusicologists or anyone studying soundscapes in urban and rural environments. One method to overcome this obstacle is Sound Preference Test invented by World Soundscape Project (1975) and further developed by Acoustic Environments in Change (2000) and Soundscapes and Sustainabilty (2011) projects carried out in various European villages, including Scottish village of Dollar.

Theoretically, the paper draws on concept of acoustic community. By Barry Truax’s definition it is ‘any soundscape in which acoustic information plays a pervasive role in the lives of the inhabitants (no matter how the commonality of such people is understood)’. The paper seeks to answer how the acoustic community of Dollar, and more specifically the ones consisting of the local Strathdevon Primary School pupils, have changed over the last quarter of the century.

The empirical part of the paper introduces the recent Sound Preference Test carried out with pupils of Strathdevon Primary School paying special attention on how their acoustic communities were articulated. The results are then compared to ones of the previous studies. In addition to that, a method called Recorded Listening Walk will be briefly presented.

Há sons na Mouraria: sound environments, identity and urban change

Author: Inigo Sanchez (Universidad Nova de Lisboa)

Short Abstract

This paper reflects on the daily sensory environment of a place in transformation, the Mouraria quarter in Lisbon, in order to analyze how urban renewal projects modify, shape or recreate the atmospheres of places and in particular its sound environments.

Long Abstract

Under the slogan «redeveloping the past to build the future», Mouraria, one of the oldest, most typical and yet at the same time forgotten quarters of Lisbon, is currently undergoing an ambitious process or urban transformation driven by the City Council. This includes specific actions oriented towards the renewal of its public spaces and the dinamization of the economic, social and cultural life. The plan also seeks to (re)create a new identity for the neighbourhood, for Mouraria has dragged on the stigma of insecurity, poverty, decadence and social exclusion back through the mist of time. A new identity that could serve as a come-on for new residents, visitors and tourists.

Taking as the starting point the idea that the identity of places does not reduce to the material environment but also includes the sounds, smells, voices and faces of the people, this paper seeks to explore the impact of these renewal processes on the everyday sounds and sound environments of Mouraria. More specifically, it seeks to examine how they transform the sensory qualities of places which in turn shape the exclusion and inclusion of certain cultural practices and expressions in the public life.

« We are a radio family »: theorizing radio sound from an ethnographic point of listening

Author: Filipe Reis (CIES ISCTE-IUL)

Short Abstract

My interest in the concept of soundscapes comes from an ethnographic research on local radio broadcasting in Portugal conducted few years ago (1999-2003). Using my fieldwork data, and in the spirit of the workshop proposal, I want to discuss how listeners and participants of these radio shows use radio frequencies to express emotions and share memories with the audience.

Long Abstract

My interest in the concept of soundscapes comes from an ethnographic research on local radio broadcasting in Portugal conducted few years ago (1999-2003). My fieldwork was mainly focused on two popular radio call-in programs broadcasted by two different portuguese local radios. Using my fieldwork data, and in the spirit of the workshop proposal, I want to discuss how listeners and participants of these radio shows use radio frequencies to express emotions and share memories with the audience. Through several examples I will demonstrate how the « sonic interactions » that occur on air contribute to shape a sense of belonging to a community of listeners by sharing histories, songs, prays, instrumental music and ritualized « small talk ». In short, I want to show how the immateriality of these (radio) sounds is materialized in the everyday life of the listeners and how these radio shows provide not just « company » but also a large network of online and offline interactions.

Cultural components of sound environments and the management of uncertainty in Japanese public transportation

Author: Pierre Manea (Keio University)

Short Abstract

By describing sound practices and hearing modalities in contemporary Japan public (transportation) spaces, this paper will show both passengers and transportation companies willingness to manage uncertainty and disquiet through various and numerous melodies, announcements and sound signals.

Long Abstract

Japan Railways East (JR East), the largest railway company in Japan and in the world, uses a highly advanced and dense sound information system in its network: localized departure melodies, fine-tuned automatic annoucements, detailed real-time annoucements by employees, sound signals illustrating states or mechanical functions are part of the daily life for 16 milion passangers only in the Tokyo area. They represent an exhaustive attempt to tackle uncertainty of transportation.

But there is more here than a mere information system. Speakers, megaphones and mics (as well as visual informations and advertising campaigns) are also used to manage public/personnal behavior. Historically, there was a need to soften disquiet due to new forms of social contacts in shared spaces. It was the result of the aggressive developments of railway companies around 1900, allowing people from different social backgrounds to share the same spaces in extreme proximity for long distances. Passengers claims met the company policies for rationalization, and today, the public itself seeks out for sounds as space markers, but also as social guides.

Still, as highly and precisely coded as it is, this sound environment is also predictable. Its impact on listening modalities, the reassuring ambiance it creates, will be discussed in this paper, mainly in the light of Japan cultural and social characteristics. We will show how sound was perceived as a mean to manage complexity, dramatically changing the daily environment, and gaining social functions that enables it to be, in modern Japan, a preferred tool to manage public attitudes.

Being alone among others : the ambivalent interpretation of sound in the subway, between isolation and relation

Authors: Benjamin Cartron (RATP)
Denis Sochon (RATP)
Xavier Brisbois (RATP)

Short Abstract

The RATP leads a pluridisciplinary study about sounds perceptions, interpretation and feelings, among users and workers in Paris subway. Three themes were considered : comfort (sound as an ambiance), navigation (sound as an information) and identification (sound sketching the scene’s identity).

Long Abstract

The metro is a monument itself for Paris ; a public place as well as a transportation for ten billion users every day. In a user-oriented fashion, the RATP seeks ways of a better experience for underground passengers and workers. Throughout the understanding of perception and interpretation of sounds, we aim at evaluating their impact over emotions, cognition and attitudes. In addition to acousticians matter, we put together sociology and psychosociology methods, with ethnographic observations, as an asset for this exploratory, in progress research.

First, a qualitative data collection focused on discourses and free speech of travelers (randomly chosen for interviews, or following a given route inside the subway). We eventually tend to build experimental tryouts in « subway real-life », collecting the feedback and attitudes of passengers towards portable or set sonorous devices.

In our primary analysis, we sort and compared the elements of collected discourses, then showed the ambivalence of sound reception in the metro. Although every person points out noises and disturbance, many revealed how sound would reassure them, and guarantee an intimacy area among other travelers. Moreover, we see how the interpretation of a given sound relies on the source it refers in the mind of the user. Therefore, a great deal of mechanism sounds are perceive as typical and acceptable. On the other side, a human-sourced sound will disturb the intimacy « bubble », giving rise to positive or negative emotion, connecting them with others (music, discussion, eye-contact…) or feeding surprise, fear, anxiety or solitude.

Sound banks, city frames: images of public spaces and noises private memories

Author: Madhuja Mukherjee (Jadavpur University)

Short Abstract

This audio-visual essay presents the sounds of cities namely, Paris, Venice, and Istanbul. It examines the decisive role played by existing prototypes, and moulds the ways in which we approach these locations. Produced from personal recordings, my ‘sound banks’ and ‘city frames’ attempt to disturb dominant structures of representations.

Long Abstract

This audio-visual essay presents (disparate) sounds of three cities namely, Paris, Venice, and Istanbul. Produced from personal recordings and juxtaposing the same with evocative images of these cities as circulated through other media, this multi-media essay analyzes the ways in which certain cities are re-presented in various art forms and reconstitutes personal memories. While Venice has been framed in a specific way in Renaissance paintings, in Shakespearean drama and alternative films, Paris has been inscribed as a sign of modern urban cultures in famed paintings, novels as well as in avant garde films. However, Istanbul has been by and large, shown through more typical compositions (showcasing its exoticness) until contemporary filmmakers like Ceylan and Fatih Akin produced the distinctive images of the city.

This essay examines the decisive role played by the pool of images in forming prototypes about locations and its everyday, and moulds the manner in which we seem to approach these destinations. In addition, such image banks often overlap with private and personal experiences, creating an environment of continuous flows between mediated motifs and realities. It is in this context that, one enquires the processes through which one remembers iconic cities. Furthermore, what role does specific sounds – recorded during personal journeys – play in constituting individual memories? My ‘sound banks’ (including noises and silence) and ‘city frames’ (disturbed by the soundscapes), which were recorded near the celebrated water ways, attempt to produce ruptures within existing structures of popular audio-visual representations.