Sound Signatures: Spaces, Objects, and Embodied Practices

Location and Date: The Sound Studies Winter and Summer School is scheduled to take place on January 13-17, 2014 at the University of Amsterdam (NICA) and on August 18-22, 2014, at NYU and the Max-Planck-Institute for the History of Science.

Concept and Organization: Myles Jackson (Professor of the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology, Polytechnic Institute, NYU), Mara Mills (Assistant Professor of Media, Culture, and Communication, Steinhardt School, NYU), Carolyn Birdsall (Assistant Professor of Media Studies, UvA) and Viktoria Tkaczyk (Assistant Professor of Arts and New Media, UvA)

Funded by: New York University, Netherlands Institute for Cultural Analysis, Volkswagen Foundation, Max Planck Institute for the History of Science

Deadline for proposals for winter school 1 October 2013.


The two schools will focus on the notion of “sound signatures” as a way to reconsider sound as a phenomenon that is highly bound to specific media, material cultures, and related discursive systems. It invites graduate students from different disciplines to investigate the connection of sound to particular contexts and fields of action: social, scientific and artistic practices, embodied skills, objects, technologies and media, architectural and environmental designs.

In the early years of sound studies, the terms “acousmatic music” and “schizophonia” (Schaeffer 1966, Schafer 1977) were coined to describe a split between original contexts of sound and their loss of spatial-temporal referents during reproduction. By contrast, recent studies have made significant efforts to ground “soundscapes,” “acoustemologies” and “techoustemologies” in specific historical periods and localities (Thompson 2004, Feld 1996, Porcello 2005). Taking these studies as a starting point, the two schools seek to further investigate how sound – both past and present – have influenced certain environments and discourses, and how these processes have left their marks on the cultural heritage of sound.

The winter school will be held at the University of Amsterdam in January 2014. It will focus in particular on sound-based strategies for the configuration of spaces, objects and embodied practices. The summer school will be held in August 2014 at NYU’s center in Berlin. The main focus here will be on the sonic dimensions to knowledge production.

Part I: sound signatures: Spaces, Objects and Embodied Practices

(University of Amsterdam / NICA, January 13-17, 2014)

The historical emergence of phonography and wireless radio are often conceived as allowing for sounds to be detached from their source. Importantly, however, such mediated sounds retain certain spatial characteristics of their performance (“spatial signatures”), whether determined by the room acoustics of concert halls, purpose-built studios or outdoor environments. In early radio broadcasting, for instance, poor sound transmission led to concerns about microphone and speaker quality, resonance and absorption levels, and forms of atmospheric interference. Listeners’ calls for a more faithful acoustic reproduction coincided with professional debates about whether to foreground the sounds considered most important to the recording, such as voice or musical sound, or to capture the full range of available sounds.

Against this background, the winter school will facilitate discussions about the interrelation of audio technologies, spaces, (material) objects and embodied practices. These interrelations allow for a consideration of how sound configures everyday media consumption and subcultures, artistic and scientific communities, or political and social communication. Questions concerning both individual and collective practices with sound will be addressed:

  • To what extent are embodied (listening) practices, auditory memories and sonic community expressions afforded by particular sound technologies?
  • How is sound stored and archived with different technological media, material cultures and bodily techniques, and what is the specific contribution of each to a sonic cultural heritage?
  • What impact do the politics and economics of technical design have on the spaces and environments in which sound cultures are embedded?
  • In what ways is the cultural politics of sound bound up with the formation of identities? How can sonic effects and qualities – like silence, immersion, echo, rhythm or atmosphere – further reveal the role of sound in community formation?
  • How do audio techniques circulate between different (local) fields and broader sound cultures?

We welcome contributions that respond to such questions from the perspectives from Cultural Studies, Media Studies, Literary Studies, Musicology, Art History, Theatre and Performance Studies, the History and Philosophy of Science, Science and Technology Studies, Archival Studies, Audio engineering, Architectural acoustics and Urban Studies.

Applications for the Winter School – NICA at University of Amsterdam

The Winter School will take place from Monday 13 to Friday 17 January 2014, with lunches provided on all days, and possible funding for accommodation if you live far away. For Research Master and PhD students who would like to enroll, please send an email with a short c.v. (150 words) and motivation (up to 1 A4) to before 1 October 2013. Please note that there will be a session devoted to student presentations of their work during the winter school. The maximum number of participants is 20. Enrollment is free of charge.

6 ECTS credits are available for Dutch participants on the basis of active participation in the Winter School, and you will be asked for a short reflection upon your presentation and the feedback you have received (1000 words).


Part II: sound signatures: Epistemologies and the Order of Sound

(NYU Center / MPIWG Berlin, August 18-22, 2014)

When the natural philosopher Robert Hooke failed in the late seventeenth century to explain the flight of birds and insects after years of research, he conceived a remarkable, if unsuccessful experiment: he imitated the sounds of flight using a spectacular machine, in order to understand by means of sound the complex rhythm of movement that escaped visual observation. In short, sound was considered to provide critical information to the study of nature where the visual and optical devices (telescope, microscope etc.) seemed to be far less helpful. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, sound was used more effectively to determine critical physical constants, like the speed of sound through gases (including air), liquids, and solids. Indeed, sound became an assay to test the physical purity of a number of metals. Sound vibrations served to verify physical laws, such as Laplace’s law, or the relationship between the change in density to the change in pressure of a sound wave. Physicists like Wilhelm Eduard Weber and Hermann von Helmholtz also used musical instruments, such as the organ reed pipe and the piano as scientific instruments. What emerges diachronically between these developments is the trace of a strategy that shall be considered more precisely within the frame of the summer school – namely the production of sound and the introduction of auditory apparatus, instruments and machines as alternate means of investigation.

The summer school is dedicated, on the one hand, to these strategies of auditory-medial knowledge production, which foster the generation of new modes of listening and leave their signature in the production and representation of knowledge by virtue of their specific mediality. On the other hand, the summer school will focus on the history of the order of sound: participants are invited to examine historical modes of sound identification and analysis, transduction and classification, the emergence of sound archives, and digital modes of audio tagging. We shall investigate how sound shaped scientific theories and ways of categorization.

A principle interest of the summer school lays in the role that mechanical, electroacoustic and digital media play in the history of knowledge and science:

  • Where do auditory media circulate between cultural or artistic praxis, neighboring scientific contexts and daily life?
  • To what extent do these media require and create their own techniques and strategies, new scientific disciplines, art forms or professions?
  • How are auditory media inventions related to local knowledge and site-specific material cultures, and how did they generate new modes of listening, investigation, archiving and imagination?
  • Can contemporary sonification and audification be related to preliminary forms of aural experimentation, imitations or simulation in the sciences?

We welcome contributions that respond to such questions from the perspectives of the History and Philosophy of Science, Science and Technology Studies, Cultural Studies, Archival Studies, Musicology, Media Studies, Art History, Theatre and Performance Studies, Literary Studies, Audio engineering, Architectural acoustics and Urban Studies.



The program will include morning workshops (for up to 20 graduate students) on the above themes, taught by the organizers (Birdsall, Jackson, Mills and Tkaczyk) and invited scholars. Additional sessions will feature keynote lectures (keynotes winter school: Jonathan Sterne (McGill University, Montreal), Lisa Gitelman (New York University), keynotes summer school: Emily Thompson (Princeton University), Karin Bijsterveld (University of Maastricht). Concerts and performances will be scheduled in the evenings. The week will include the presentation of student project proposals (one morning session) and an artistic workshop.