Thursday 18 December 2014

Music, Knowledge and the Sociology of Sound

Martyn Hudson, Newcastle University

As a ‘lover of music’ or what Antoine Hennion calls an ‘amateur’ I am constantly aware of the multiple meanings of the music I love. Vinyl favourites on the deck at the moment include the first This Mortal Coil EP, Luciano Berio’s Visage for voice and magnetic tape, the first Einsturzende Neubaten compilation, Beat the Retreat from Test Dept, Michael Tippett’s third symphony, and The Loving Kind from Girls Aloud. I am a huge fan of musical artists like Richard Skelton, with a substantial academic piece on his work coming out early next year, and I have recently completed a study of the musical sociology of Luciano Berio. I have a book forthcoming from Ashgate on the memory and sonority of slave ships and have recently completed an academic piece on ideas about ‘listening’ in the work of Jean Luc Nancy. I’ve also written elsewhere of my firm intention to conduct a choral version of Trumpton Riots by Half Man Half Biscuit. I love the Cardiacs and the Blue Nile. This is to give you some sense of me as a ‘listener’. But what exactly is this stuff I am listening to?

Funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council I was part of the Northumbrian Exchanges project at Newcastle University and we hope this project will continue in new ways. With my collaborators Julie Crawshaw and Frances Rowe we examined multiple circulations of Knowledge Exchange around the arts in rural Northumberland. My strand was to develop ethnographies and interviews with composers and musicians, to look at a variety of commissions and to think seriously about what sound and music meant in that landscape – a landscape made even more beautiful by the wonderful music of Kathryn Tickell who was a co-investigator on the project. From supporting the development of Ceilidh bands in rural communities, to supporting music in schools and at festivals, and working through the implications of working within different musical traditions in the landscape I think the project was a success. Most resonant for me were the three commissions by the sound artist Tim Shaw, the classical composer Matthew Rowan, and the traditional musician Shona Mooney. It was also linked to the superb Landscape Quartet project of Bennett Hogg and his collaborators and to the workshops, both practical and theoretical, of Jamie Savan. The project was led by Professor Eric Cross, a well-known conductor and the Dean of Cultural Affairs at Newcastle as part of the new Newcastle Institute for Creative Arts Practice.

I am a sociologist so to understand knowledge exchange in rural Northumberland my first task was to try and ‘do a sociology of music’. The paper, now published in Sociological Research Online, is my attempt to think through the question of whether a sociology of music is at all possible. It seemed to me that the sociologists thought yes, and the musicians thought it was a much more problematic enterprise. The attempt to track the traces of social relations in music has been a staple of the sociology of music. It has been corrected over recent years by the hugely valuable work of Tia DeNora and her collaborators in their attempt to understand the social powers and effects of music or in the work of Hennion and his research into mediation and the socialities around music. For me, addressing the artefacts and the processes of music as I did, the more I listened the less I understood. Certainly I was able to examine some aspects of social meaning in music of course: society is represented through music. But to see music as a semiotic system that one can somehow ‘listen through’ to hear social relations expressed not only didn’t address the reality of music but somehow evaded it. So this article is a problem piece where you can listen to my thoughts on this develop essentially in support of what George Steiner calls the ‘radical untranslatability’ of music or at least that attempts at translation are extremely problematic.

I wanted to think about this question of translation by thinking about sound art although I am conscious that I was limited in scope in thinking about this and rely on the definitions provided by Alan Licht. There is a lot more work to develop from this and more recently I have been working with the sound artist Tim Shaw to think in more depth about the artefactuality and materiality of sound art. I also have to say that it was conversations with Bennett Hogg, composer and cultural theorist, that excited me about the potential to do a ‘sociology of sound’. My reading of Jean Luc Nancy also made me question the whole idea of social representation and sound by refocusing my attention to the sounds themselves as sonorities rather than what they ‘meant’ or displayed. The practice of sound art still holds my attention, particularly how it is structured in space, but also because the attention to listening and sound can raise questions of ‘alternative modernities’ and different ways of thinking about the world and the sociological tradition within which we situate our sociological practice. Further, it raises really significant questions about knowledge, data, evidence, sociological objects, method and attendance to small, often quite microscopic, processes.

Part of my ongoing concerns lie in the continuing relation between arts and social-scientific practice. I think we need to think urgently about questions of co-production and co-curation, of working within arts communities and agencies, understanding the ‘work’ of art as Julie Crawshaw often puts it to me. It also means understanding the landscapes within which those practices are situated and the kinds of sociology and philosophy that can help us understand the multiple circulations of knowledge out there in communities. It is about what we might call ‘omni-disciplinarity’ whilst still keeping a sense of our discipline as sociologists. It also means questioning the ongoing relationship between the ‘analogue’ and ‘digital’ worlds and how we curate ‘collections’ of sound and music in archives and out there in the world. Recently a friend and I spent a whole morning ‘curating’ our top 5 songs to display through facebook. It was agony. My friend Paul said that he felt he was letting down and abandoning all those songs that were being left off the list. We know that this stuff is full of social meaning but let’s not translate, let’s just listen and see what happens.