«From Soundscape to sound studies – and ambiances?»

with Meri Kytö + Anthony Pecqueux + Jean-Paul Thibaud + Heikki Uimonen

APERITIF: From Soundscape to Sound Studies – and Ambiances?

Transcribed by Sophie Gleeson

TM: Théa Manola (Interviewer)
– Architect, urbanist and researcher at CRESSON MK: Meri Kytö – Ethnomusicologist, researcher at University at DonPere
HU: Heiki Uimonen – Ethnomusicologist, researcher at University of Eastern Finland
AP: Anthony Pecqueux – Sociologist and researcher at CRESSON
JPT: Jean-Paul Thibaud – Sociologist and researcher at CRESSON

30 January 2019

TM: Q. What is sound studies for you, in your context — scientific and cultural? What does it mean? How did it come?

MK: I find it, in principle, very difficult to talk about disciplinary borders, because it’s easy nowadays to talk about any thematic [idea], just putting studies at the end (sound studies, media studies, cultural studies), so it is kind of a reaction to break up old disciplines and at the same time create multidisciplinary approaches.

So sound studies could be something like a reaction to a firm, very tight disciplinary thinking, but I’m also kind of concerned that this naming of thematics is also in the academic situation, there’s always a problem of canonising certain areas or approaches. For me, sound studies represents a very ‘media studies’ oriented way of talking about mediatised sound – mainly in Anglo-American contexts. That is how it represents to me, I know there is much more but somehow it often slips into that.

TM: Q. What do you mean about ‘media studies’?
It would be people talking about music who do not have a musicological background
AP: Perfectly agree

HU: I agree. What you said about disciplines – sound studies is very multidisciplinary. If you compare it to other established ways of doing research like musicology — although there are quite a bit of similarities — ethnomusicologists study music in culture, or music as culture. I always thought that is a good way of approaching environmental sounds as well. Instead of labelling them as sounds that you like and sounds that you dislike (that’s not a very fruitful way of tackling these issues), if you take the ethnomusicological perspective and think of sounds as they are, and what they mean, and why they are there, and who has selected the sounds – I think you can get some sort of fruitful combination of [an] epistemological starting point, using ethnomusicological methodology and methods.

There are pros and cons. It’s also very nice and fruitful and very rewarding to listen to you guys speak here and learn something from you and hopefully you have also learned something from us. What I’ve learned [is] somewhat difficult: we have a few projects with people from other disciplines. I think I call that sound studies — we have thought about how to use sound in acoustic design, for instance. The problem might be that when you’re trying to get your results you get nice results and everybody likes them, except the people who are editing the journals because the thing is, they don’t know what to do with this kind of thing. So, the multidisciplinarity of sound studies is in a way very good, because it opens up new horizons. On the other hand, it makes your life slightly more difficult than if you work only in your discipline. So I think that’s one of the things that I’d like to mention at this point so perhaps we can continue this discussion later?

TM: Remark. I had the question specifically about disciplines and how they work together – or not – in sound studies because it’s a real question for me. I think there is the Anglo-Saxon (the English and American world), and [there’s] the French academic world. I do not think it is the same conditions, the same way of thinking things, and I think concerning the studies in general we don’t have exactly the same facet{?} to our approach in French.

TM: Q. So, for the two French speakers, for you what is sound studies in France? If there are? And how did they come to the French context (if they came)?

JPT: I see it as 2 or 3 changes of doing research in the disciplines.

  1. Trying to find other ways to do science, in the classical scientific disciplines – e.g. psychology, sociology, economics, etc. We have a long tradition in these disciplines. Now, coming from the anglosaxon world, there is this idea that we can develop new ways to do research and to develop science, escaping the strict delimitation between disciplines – that is the case of cultural studies, gender studies, sound studies, sensory studies, etc. There is a crossing between some very classical scientific disciplines, with disciplines like gender studies, sound studies.
 All these new themes, like gender, didn’t exist 10-13 years ago. So, there is a new way to develop research and science now. Sound studies is one of the ways to get into it.
  2. There is a real interest now in the last 20 years in terms of approaches that are very sensitive to the sensory. The idea that in social sciences after having go through very specific and strong paradigm like functionalism, structuralism, marxism, we have other ways to develop new paradigms. One of the ways to do it is to put emphasis on the notion of the idea of experience. As soon as you bring in the idea of experience, you bring also what is constitutive of what an experience is – it brings the sensory and the sound in, in order to develop new paradigms that are escaping the most classical ones.
  3. When we say sound studies – does it include also, or is it different from, auditory culture, acoustic ecology? We see all the different approaches related to sound, but from very various ways. So is sound studies a way to integrate all of them? Or is it just a way to say that’s one approach that is distinct to other approaches. If that is so, then what makes it distinct?

MK: There’s also a problem of translation, for example – when we move from one academic area to another. I am also an adjunct professor, but my field of studies is… if I had to translate it to English… “cultural sonicology” – which does not exist. So, I thought that it would be more self explanatory if I just sound studies, even though it could well be auditory cultures or something else – but those names don’t make sense either. It is a problem.

AP: When you talk about these different studies – I think we need to differentiate them, between those who are talking about a theme, and those who are talking about an epistemology, or a problematic / programmatic{?}. I think gender studies is an epistemology. When you talk about gender you talk about a new epistemology. When you talk about sound studies I think you talk about a theme, and you have to build a new epistemology (some do that now). But I think there are not so many, not enough.

JPT: I agree with you for now, because maybe gender studies is much more advanced in their research, and in the way they have developed than sound studies. So in terms of epistemology of gender studies, for example, which is a specific way to look at research and to develop some tools for what is good research or not, I agree with you that it is much more grounded and much more developed in this field than sound studies. But for me, it’s because sound studies is just beginning, we are just starting. For me sound studies is just a way to study social senses or to do research in social sciences, [where] we have to reintroduce the idea of experience. But for now I don’t think we really understand all the consequences of this step. What does it mean to come back to the idea of experience, what does it mean to rely on sound in order to study the experience? I think that is just the beginning.

HU: It’s also a matter of, of course, of definition. I remember when European sound studies association was founded a few years back, there was a talk, unofficial discussion over drinks, where they asked ‘what is wrong with the term soundscape studies’? And the answer was pretty good, I still remember it. I think it was Michael Bull, who said soundscape studies is not self-standing – it doesn’t explain itself. So when you hear the term soundscape studies, usually people ask ‘okay, what is that?’. And that is one of the reasons the concept of ‘sound studies’ was introduced. I don’t know how well we have managed to build this because now if someone says they are doing ‘sound studies’ my first question would be – “could you be a bit more specific?” – what kind of sound studies? Musicology? Are you studying shopping mall soundscapes? Are you studying noise? What are you doing?

In that sense it reminds me – one of my colleagues made a short questionnaire for Finnish music scholars, and he asked ‘what do we think of the differences between ethnomusicology and popular music studies?’ And Heiki answered that by saying ‘okay, if you want to be an ethnomusicologist you have to have a degree for that, but if you want to call yourself a popular music scholar you can just say that you are’.

Are we in the same situation with soundscape studies and sound studies now? If you say that you’re a soundscape scholar you have to, in one way or another, know the background of soundscape studies and it goes way back to Canada and 1977. You have to be more or less connect to that type of study. Now if you want to do sound studies, you can do whatever you like. So in that sense it’s quite an open field at the moment.

TM: Question/remark. Your last comment made me think – what about ‘hapsizes’{?} more than socio and human standards, and what about what I call ‘design art’ or ‘arts’. Non-traditional academic ways to talk and work on and with sound. Does it open sound studies to those people and those approaches, or no?

MK: I agree that sound studies does not have an epistemological field or point of listening. We are having kind of a multi-disciplinary experiment now. [At my uni] we organised the network of sound research because we needed to gather up resources for our university because there was a change in structure. So we wanted to call everyone who works with sound together in this network. But we ended up with medical students doing medical studies of the auditory organs, vocal-ologists who study voice production, speech communication people, acousticians, etc. When talking about interdisciplinary approaches its easy for a musicologist to do work with a sociologist. But when you think of mouth and ear specialists working with a soundscape researcher, it gets difficult because the paradigm is so different. So in a way, I think we are now starting to see the first steps in what it is really like to do sound studies in an actual, multidisciplinary field. So far, it proves quite difficult.

HU: As far as I’m concerned, it was a smart move and a very good move to do in their new, liberal Finnish university at the moment, so you just have to do whatever you can to survive. So in that sense when we think about how we define sound studies it is not just a scholarly discussion, there are many more things involved.

Audience comment (Cláudia): From my experience, I always found it very difficult to situate myself – being an architect, working with sound. Well, it’s already something that is not easy to communicate – mostly in the academic world, of course. I am from Portugal – now it exists [there] but at the time that I finished my studies of Architecture in 2001 they told me that I was totally lost and I was talking about sensory experiences at that time.

And then I did my phd recently in London, in the department of sound practice research. Actually I started in Cultural Studies, but I wanted to do practice based research. I finished naming it ‘aural architecture’ because I couldn’t find another way of saying it because its not about acoustics, it’s not about only sound, it’s about the experience.

So I studied cultural studies and I struggled a lot because I could not find any kind of way of addressing methodologies from that field. So, although they were very very much into this kind of research, it was very difficult to find support of examples I would say, and in architecture it wouldn’t be interesting, so I went to sound studies. And there was much more freedom to engage into the experience – freedom to practice, and then from practice trying to find this kind of paradigm of experience. What I was trying to address was – from the experience we can find some methods. So, now I go back to Portugal and try to find a place that would understand this and – well – it’s a challenge, and it’s why I come here to get more into this. It’s really good to be sharing with life, because it’s very different [to] reading — although it’s very important and it informed a lot of my research, being actually practicing and exchanging with people changes a lot, so I think it’s very helpful. So still, I don’t know how to call it – sound studies, or aural architecture? I would like also to have an opinion about these terms in relation to architecture – sound and architecture, sound in space.

TM: I am impressed, because I get the problem – to be aware and be in different places and times. I ask [about] design arts, because I think for those of you that have more of a disciplinary background in sociology or ethnomusicology, these disciplines recognise not the same exact [different] positions about those kind of systems. But for those disciplines that don’t have a background like that, perhaps it is an answer – especially in countries or academic contexts where it is not developed. I think in Greece also it works out of sound studies, because it’s a way for people to enter something that before it was impossible for them to enter.

HU: They have sound anthropology I think
TM: Yeah, there is anthropology, there is philosophy, there is sociology of course, but—
HU: I mean sound anthropology
TM: Yeah

Remark (speaker unknown): Just maybe – I am no expert – but thinking on how it could emerge, and why… anthropology and sound studies are fields coming from Germany where we had a lot of marketisation of research. I think [they had] the classical disciplines, [but] sociology is not interesting, geography is not interesting, [and they wanted] to find a little bit more appealing fields of research. I think they created quite a lot of… they just called it, at the beginning, ‘new areas of study’ or ‘new areas of teaching’ because they wanted to attract more scholars and more money etc. And sometimes the consequence was to create really new fields of research. I think for some German fields, it’s quite a good explanation of the emergence of new fields that never existed before because it can serve better than the classical disciplines that are a little bit dry and not so sexy. Maybe its not right for the French, because all of this mixed research is quite strange.

Audience/CWS paricipant comment: For me it is not the same thing. After finishing my 6 years of study in Architecture, then I came to France to get my research Masters degree, and then I have a question – can we say really that sciences like architecture (if we can call it science) is it really teachable? Are the way of processing nowadays exactly producing sounds and ambiance and all non-touchable things? Because always architecture nowadays is about walls, floors, etc. We forget that the most essential part is what we are offering for inside these buildings — the capacity for habitating. When I go back to Tunisia, I started to teach, and I tried to explore different things with my students. Starting to make workshops, participatory architecture, getting involved with young children and old people and act on real problems to get rid of the theoretical approach of architecture. It’s a new way for the students to see things, not just about drawing lines that will be walls – we have to think about every point that we will put on the place, which will produce certain ambiances, atmospheres. I came here with the same question – is it really teachable or not? I’m not sure if there is a winning formula that you have to go through. There is other ways to see architecture and to leave the project from those sketching parts right to construction and living in the building, and trying to think of a way to re- adapt it. This is why I am here – to help my PhD – it will be a joint directed thesis between Tunisia and CRESSON and I’m always trying to carry on these questions of how can we come to an ancient building and try to re-adapt the use and ambiance to let new populations…

Remark (speaker unknown): To answer your question very quickly, those sounds – Jean-Paul talked about it this morning – those sounds can help us to be modest in designing.

TM: Q. What is the relation, if there is one, between ambiance research and sound studies? If there is one, if we have to ask the question. You can tell me if the question has no meaning, no sense. You have to explain why, though! I’m questioning myself, do we do sound studies in a way, for some people? Perhaps not for us but from the outside do we do sound studies in CRESSON? And who between us does sound studies, if there is someone? Because I am feeling there are more and more phrases/ concepts words like that around the world, and we have to be positioned in a way around them or with them.

AP: I think it depends who you are talking to – if you want to say you are doing sound studies, you can say it in the Anglo-Saxon world and you would be wealthy. If you talk about ambiance in some countries they will just say ‘we don’t know what you are talking about!’. I think it’s very complex.

TM: Do we have to ask ourselves this question? To call ourselves something is one thing, but to consider that we are part of this thing, or that we are positioned in a way around of with this thing, is another thing. It’s not how we call ourselves, it’s: is what we do sound studies? Or is what you do sound studies?

MK: I can’t answer from any other perspective than my own. so I would as a Finnish person who deals with mainly Soundscape Studies, that the methodology developed at CRESSON has been very very important for Finnish soundscape researchers, for example. All the working methods, representation models, all the sonic effects vocabulary – they have been very very important for the Finnish community of people who study sonic environments or soundscapes. In that way I would say that it is very relevant. But, I’m not sure if that was what you asked us.

HU: If by any chance you or your colleagues are thinking of doing multidisciplinary research, I would very strongly encourage you to at least consider using the term ‘ambiance’ because it opens up new perspectives. We have a project at the University of Arts where we were combining sound studies, or ‘soundscape studies’ and ‘acoustic communication’, which more or less is the same thing, developed in Canada. And then there were people who were scholars or architecture and food research. So what we were actually doing, was were studying the ambiances of different lunch places and restaurants and how you could change the atmosphere or ambiance. So you couldn’t file all of these approaches under sound studies, so you have to move towards ambiance. And seemingly my colleagues didn’t disagree, because it was the obvious way to do it. So if you want to do multidisciplinary research again, I strongly recommend, at least to see what’s behind this term and in order to find out what’s behind the concept ambiance.

JPT: To answer your question, I think that for me the idea of sound studies is very much related to cultural studies. That is the representation I have, that they are very closely linked between each other.

So from this point of view, there is two different things which is:

  1. The question of labelling – how do you label yourself as a… Sound researcher? Sound studies researcher? Ambiance researcher? Sociologist? Musicologist? And what is the effect and consequences of labelling yourself in the academic or research world? Of course it gives you a specific place in the whole landscape of research.
  2. At the same time, there’s a similar question which is, the fact that how you label yourself a certain way, defines your whole research territory. I think that this research territory in social sciences is moving very much, a lot and and very quickly.

For example, there was the question this morning of how would you distinguish atmosphere and ambiance? And of course another question is what is the research between ‘paysage’, ‘ambiance’, ‘atmosphere’? 3 terms, closely interrelated but very different at the same time. There is a kind of – I wouldn’t say conflict or fight – but a kind of a way that people try to define and develop their own territory around certain notions. In France we can just observe that the idea of paysage is changing very much from the beginning. Now, when people would say ‘paysage’ I can say I know this very well, we can talk about paysage ___ [french word], paysage ___ [french word], paysage ___ [french word].

So, all kind of senses can be involved in paysage. So a lot of people working on paysage, landscape, are having this argument that we have to open the field of paysage. It’s not only the visual but also the sound, and the activity of people, and body, and movement. When you take this into consideration you observe that this notion of paysage in France is getting closer and closer to ‘Ambiance’. So what is the limit and the point between paysage and ambiance, if we define paysage as multi-sensorial, embodied experience integrating the activity etc? We see that there are moving frontiers in-between the worlds, and the way to label each other.

I think there [is] this whole kind of discussion and clarification needed, in order to say – ‘when we talk about landscape, ambiance, atmosphere, environment, climate – OK is it possible to clarify?’ It is very difficult because also the language itself, in English and French and German, is not overlapping. So we have 2 difficulties:

  1. The language itself – what language are we talking in?
  2. Are we talking about paysage, ambiance, atmosphere, environment?

There is a need now for clarification of all of these things. We are at the point, I think, where these [concepts] have been developed from various ways and various entries, and most of people are trying to have a very similar orientation at the end. Which is, how do we deal with the idea of experience? How the body is involved in experience? What is the role of the sense in the way we define and we work on experience?

It’s the question that everybody asks, with different points of entry.

MK: In a way we could see the situation, in that we have a plethora of vocabulary now, and when two people talk with the same word they mean different things, and that’s a problem. But in a way this is a very normal crisis in research, so we don’t have a clear communication. So I would like to think it from the other way around, maybe thinking a little about conceptualising. Maybe it’s not a problem, maybe it’s an asset. Maybe we can take a concept and then try to work with it – not just take concepts as ‘okay I have this definition and okay I will use it’, but just take it and think ‘okay what could I do with this concept’ and then have a —

JPT: Perfect – that’s a real pragmatist way to look at this!


HU: If it works it’s good

MK: but that’s also a way of giving something new to the reading community – that you kind of present one view of the concept, and then maybe some case studies, and the you have participated in this in a fruitful way.

AP: Two things about labelling and moving frontiers – Jean-Paul you say that for you sound studies is related to cultural studies. But I think at the very beginning it was related to science studies, and not at all to cultural studies. And that’s interesting to understand. One of the first to talk about sound studies was Trevor Finch, and his science studies. I don’t think today, nowadays, many science studies call themselves sound studies. Another thing, with the question – if I understand it – can I say I make sound studies? I think there is no such thing like ‘a sound studies’. What is a sound studies?

TM: But as we said, Mari is talking a concept that you can work with. Sound studies, as you clearly[said] -the four of you said – is not a concept. So, it’s not the same question about sound studies, or ambiance, or environment, or climate.

MK: Maybe we should rejoice that there is nobody to to say what sound studies is, but we are free.

AP: We talked a lot about interdisciplinarity, multidisciplinarity. I think it’s important to say too that it’s very interesting, it’s wonderful, I love it! But when you want to get a job, you have to forget! You make one discipline and you are the best in your discipline, and that’s all! It’s something quite important, I think. – Unfortunately!

HU: One more thing about concepts, there was somebody who said ‘nothing is as practical as a good theory’. And I think you could apply that as concepts as well. If it works, then it’s good, like Meri said. So just keep practicing!

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