Report from the First International Conference of the European Sound Studies Association

October 18, 2013
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ESSAIs sound studies a “field” yet? Does it matter? According to Morten Michelsen, a musicologist at the University of Copenhagen, the answer to both questions is an emphatic “yes.” In his welcoming remarks at the First International Conference of the European Sound Studies Association (ESSA), held at Humboldt University in Berlin on October 4-6, 2013, Michelsen noted that there are at least seven sound studies readers in print, three peer-reviewed journals (Journal of Sonic Studies, Interference, and Sound Effects, and a blog, Sounding Out!. (Another journal is in the offing.) This conference alone boasted 60 presenters from at least 16 countries, and more than 200 registered participants.

Convened around the theme of “functional sound,” the conference was subdividied into six thematic “streams”: methodologies of sound in the humanities; cultural politics and sonic experience; sonic artistic practices and research; sound design practice; soundscapes of the urban future; and pop and sound. Participants included a range of sound artists, sound designers, and scholars, mainly from the fields of music, media, and communications. (It is likely there would have been a greater mix of scholars if the Society for Social Studies of Science [4S] had not been holding its annual conference the following weekend in San Diego.) The conference also featured two keynotes, one sound art installation, and one evening of performances.

If sound studies is a field, it is one in which American scholars have an outsized influence. Michelsen anchored his remarks in a line from Jonathan Sterne—“To think sonically is to think conjuncturally about sound and culture”—an American who teaches at McGill University in Montreal. And two of the three scheduled keynotes were by Americans who now have positions outside the U.S.: Douglas Kahn at the University of New South Wales in Australia and Jason Stanyek at Oxford University. (A third keynote, by the German historian Thomas Macho, was canceled.) But the conference demonstrated that critical thinking about sound rests on an increasingly widespread base, geographically speaking; the conference was rich in scholars from across Europe, especially young scholars, and many of the attendees were graduate students who will be shaping the field in years to come.

In general, the conference program celebrated the diversity of work being done in sound studies, and the theme of “functional sound” allowed for the exploration of an impressive range of subjects, from the carceral soundscape of prisons to debates over jingles played on the Lausanne subway cars. With so many presentations, it is difficult to generalize about themes, but it was striking how thoroughly and effectively the talks demonstrated that sound matters. Either explicitly or implicitly, most of the talks had a clear political valence, engaging with subjects that had real material stakes, whether they were global warming (Douglas Kahn’s keynote), torture (Dominik Irtenkauf on extreme metal music used in military interrogations), municipal noise abatement laws (Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman on sonic racial profiling in mid-twentieth-century New York), or copyright law and the sonic patrimony of an entire country (Erik Granly Jensen on Denmark’s national radio archive). In some of the presentations the politics were more oblique (e.g., Jason Stanyek’s keynote on noise-canceling headphones), but taken as a whole, the conference resonated with contests over sound that had substantial consequences in the social and natural world.

Although, overall, the quality of the presentations was uneven, the field is young and is evidently populated by a growing number of creative listeners and imaginative critical thinkers.


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