Posted in Composition, Presentation

›Background Noise‹. Field Recordings and Ethnography

Background Noise

›[The] visualist bias has dramatically influenced the way in which anthropology itself has evolved. Thus, one emergent and potentially very important aid to the refocusing of the discipline lies in attending to kinds of knowledge that have proved resistant to being coded in graphic or visual ways.‹ (Michael Herzfeld on the future of anthropology; Herzfeld 2002, 245)

noiseToday, there is an increasing concern for the senses in the humanities. Some even venture to proclaim a ›sensory turn‹. In cultural anthropology, a greater awareness for sensory phenomena and embodied subjectivities, for materiality and atmospheres is reflected in approaches such as an ›anthropology of the senses‹ (Howes 1991) or a ›sensory ethnography‹ (Pink 2009). However, in today’s academic practice many scholars still appear to be utterly reluctant to go beyond text, images, or diagrams as a means of communicating knowledge–even when presenting research on the human sensoriality.

Now Cultures of Auditory Knowledge–Knowledge of Auditory Praxis, an interdisciplinary conference held at the University of Music and Performing Arts Graz and the Karl Franzens University of Graz in June 2014, offered just the right setting to address and, indeed, transgress these representational conventions within an academic context. With a paper on Soundscapes and Ethnography. Field Recordings within Urban Studies I did not try to construct another theory on sound in the city. Rather, I aimed to allow for some first-hand experiences, or at least to provide some ›sensory material‹ by presenting a composed sequence of recordings from the field.

Listening to this sound sample is an experiment you can partake of: Can these recordings actually convey a ›sense of place‹ (Feld/Basso 2009)? Do they reveal something about the people living here, about the atmosphere and mood of this particular ›sonic lifeworld‹?

noiseNaturally, a field recording retains but the smallest detail of the entire urban soundscape. However, it does contain a complex body of data: comparable to a core sample, a field recording keeps record of a situative layering of sound fields in a given place and time. Of course, it will need more than a single recording to give evidence of the ›sonic lifeworld‹ of an entire city, of a whole city quarter, or even a street.

For now, I will not reveal too much about the origin of these recordings. Rather, I want the composed sequence to speak for itself. Suffice it to say that all recordings have been made between March 2011 to May 2014 in the district of Berlin-Wedding.

Please listen closely to the following sound sample of 10 minutes duration:


What you heard in this sequence is but a small fraction of the recordings I made in the last few years in Berlin-Wedding. As you listened to this composed sequence, you were hopefully able to–as ethnomusicologist Steven Feld once put it–›grasp something at a sensuous level that is considerably more abstract and difficult to convey in a written ethnography‹ (Feld/Brenneis 2004, 465).

To me, this documentary composition is far more than an eclectic collection of ›sound signatures‹ or ›sound indices‹ accumulated in–or ›typical‹ for–this particular city quarter. It is an attempt to convey a certain ›sense of place‹ by imparting a mood. As such, the piece offers a very personal and subjective perspective. But is it as well ›ethnographic‹?

›Both disciplines engage in embodied open-air-research rather than arm-chair-research, focusing on fieldwork primarily through sensuous experience. […] Both are interdisciplinary contextual enquiries which take a greater holistic approach to the environment and its people. Both are tied up with translating their findings into condensed, itinerant forms.‹ (John L. Drever on ethnography and soundscape studies; Drever 2002, 24)

There are some strategies of ethnographic authentication–even for a soundscape composition–such as feedback meetings or collaborative strategies in the field (see Feld 1987). However, I will not entangle myself in the intricacies of ›representativeness‹ or ›authenticity‹ here, I will neither ›explain‹ nor further contextualize these recordings. For now, my argument is different.

Above all, I intended to give access to the many detailed material as well as habitual characteristics of field recordings. When listening to these recordings, you have certainly tried to ›make sense‹ of what you have heard. You have probably noticed yourself searching for some clues, for categories, attributions, or images, that would fit this progressional ›sonic scenery‹. In doing so, you were accessing your own tacit knowledge, you were relying on your own experiential knowledge of sound. Certainly, we do not yet fully understand how this works. But still, I am convinced that field recordings do offer another mode of sharing (ethnographic) experience and knowledge.

Therefore, we should further explore the potentials of different modes of representation. Sensory studies and sound studies in particular must avoid descending into academic debate all too quickly.

›All interpretation of meaning, like all scientific observation, strives for clarity and verifiable accuracy of insight and comprehension. The basis for certainty in understanding can be either rational, which can be further subdivided into logical and mathematical, or it can be of an emotionally empathic or artistically appreciative quality. […] Empathic or appreciative accuracy is attained when, through sympathetic participation, we can adequately grasp the emotional context in which the action took place.‹ (Max Weber on the methodological foundations of sociology; Weber 1920)


Drever, John Levack (2002): Soundscape composition. The convergence of ethnography and acousmatic music. In: Organised Sound 7 (1), 21–27.
Feld, Steven (1987): Dialogic editing. Interpreting how Kaluli read ‘Sound and Sentiment’. In: Cultural Anthropology 2 (2), 190–210.
Feld, Steven/Basso, Keith (eds.) (2009): Senses of Place. Santa Fe: School of American Research Press.

Feld, Steven/Brenneis, Donald (2004): Doing anthropology in sound. Interview. In: American Ethnologist 31 (4), 461–474.
Herzfeld, Michael (2002): Anthropology. Theoretical Practice in Culture and Society. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell.
Howes, David (ed.) (1991): The Varieties of Sensory Experience. A Sourcebook in the Anthropology of the Senses. Toronto: Univ. of Toronto Press.
Pink, Sarah (2009): Doing Sensory Ethnography. London, Thousand Oaks, New Delhi: Sage.
Weber, Max (1920): The methodological foundations of sociology. Transcribed, proofed and corrected by Andy Blunden. See Previously published in: Weber, Max (1994): Sociological Writings. Ed. by Wolf Heydebrand. New York: Continuum.



Cultural anthropologist studying the sonic environment

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