Book Review: Toward an Anthropology of Ambient Sound

Toward an Anthropology of Ambient Sound, Edited by Christine Guillebaud. New-York/Oxon: Routledge, 2017. [239 pp., illus. ISBN: 978-1-138-80127-1].


(Each paper is referenced with the author’s name and the geographical location of its research subject)


Mostly written by scholars from French research centers, the eleven articles of the volume Toward an Anthropology of Ambient Sound, edited by Christine Guillebaud, are intended as a contribution of anthropology to the interdisciplinary studies of sound.

Interdisciplinarity is the key notion in this publication, both in terms of the disciplinary backgrounds of the authors (anthropology, ethnology, sociology, geography, ethnomusicology and acoustics), and in terms of the range of their past and present research. An interdisciplinary angle seems particularly relevant in that the diverse articles investigate socialization states and processes through the prism of sound. Long overlooked by social sciences, sound has gained scholarly consideration in the last thirty years, both as a source of disturbance in modern societies and for its central role in social agency. In that perspective, ambient sound can be considered as part of a sensory environment not simply experienced but perhaps endured by people, and also used by them as a space where they can produce meaning through sound in shifting ways. Sound environments are also where one shapes her/his listening in relation to gaining her/his own subjectivity. Thus, as this book is “primarily devoted to understanding the sensory modalities of the production of sound environment decrypting the range of local knowledge and the imaginaries they inspire in a given group or society” (Guillebaud, p. 2), listening appears as the other key notion. In the introduction, Guillebaud presents and critiques the “Four ways of listening” introduced by French composer and theorist Pierre Schaeffer in the 1960s, which was later extended by Michel Chion. Rather than this overly rigid and semantic typology, she prefers Henry Torgue's, which includes the notion of agency and links listening and understanding of sounds to the listener's social situation and ability to act in society. Listening thus becomes the moment of taking information about one’s human/non-human environment. It constitutes the individual as a subject at the same time as it informs oneself about the subjectivity of others. Each of the four parts of this volume addresses one particular aspect of the relationship between a listener and one’s sound environment as part of the social environment.

The first part, Listening into Others, explores the topic of the existence of the self through the production of one’s own sounds and the reception of the sounds of others. Listening to another is generally a way to discern their values or social identifications through their sonic production. Conversely, producing sound is also a means to exhibit one’s own self to others. Furthermore, sound, voice or music are means to engage in commercial or diplomatic relationships with people from unknown and misunderstood cultures (Anne Damon-Guillot, Ancient Ethiopia), to dominate them or to affirm one’s social self against oppressive social structures (Tripta Chandola, slums in Delhi India). Sound can also be used by individuals or social groups to create and appropriate a sound environment devoted to particular ways of communicating alongside particular social relations (Olivier Féraud, Naples, Italy).   

The next part is titled Sound Displays and Social Effects. It addresses sound strategies (solicitations and various sounds) used to capture attention and control crowds in two different types of overpopulated spaces: bus station (Guillebaud, Trichur, Kerala, India) and train stations (Pierre Manea, Tokyo, Japan). Guillebaud focuses on sonic skills and techniques (pitched sound, corporeal attitudes of the tickets collectors, uses of voice…) used to capture the attention of others in a context of intense commercial and sonic competition. Through a comparative angle across time and space, Manea analyzes the strategies for reporting the arrival, boarding and departure phases of trains in stations where train traffic is threatened by any chaotic behavior of overflowing crowds.

The third part, Sound Identity and Locality, explores how sound is attached to a place and its inhabitants through the diachronic study of four urban and peri-urban fields. By investigating the historical evolution of the classification of sound as “pleasant” or “unpleasant,” within the “acoustic communities” of Dollar (a Scottish village), Heikki Uimonen considers the particular soundscapes they lived in through time. In Cairo (Egypt), Vincent Battesti focuses on how dwellers listen to the city and identify its spaces through sound, according to their “social sound structures,” but also by the way each of them listens regarding their own social situation. Iñigo Sánchez considers sound as a means and marker for urban evolution. His article examines the effects of the urban renewal of a popular area of Lisbon on its soundscapes, and finally on its inhabitants’ living standards. Claire Guiu extends her perspective to the whole city of Barcelona (Spain), where she studies the production of sonic territories shaped by particular norms and imaginaries. She concludes that the city and its spaces are places for the expression and the confrontation of sensory ideologies.

The last part, Sound Art and Anthropology, contains two articles on an uncertain categorization of sound, between noise and music, found in two experimental artistic practices. Jean-Claude Depaule addresses sound poetry through a historical perspective. Vincent Rioux intertwines the history of a Parisian suburb with one of its footbridge. He further considers the testimony of the suburb’s inhabitants to analyze an experimental music and dance performance, intended as a tribute to a footbridge just before its demolition.

The volume ends on an afterword by Jean-Paul Thibaud, who uses this concluding space to reflect on French research on sound environments in society. Although it doesn’t contain any academic breakthroughs, the wide range of fieldworks (firmly illustrated by video and audio files available online) and methods makes it a recommended reading for anyone interested in the social effects of sound. More specifically, the diversity of methods - mobilizing participant observation, interpretation of historical texts, statistics, listening walks, field recordings (including the experimental and promising “Mics in ear” method by Battesti and Nicolas Puig) - used both in diachronic and synchronic perspectives, establishes this volume as an inspiring toolbox for future works. An “anthropology of ambient sound” remains to be accomplished, as the book’s title implies by the word “toward,” and it can be an important resource for scholars as well as for the listener to shape her/his own subjectivity.  This could be a potential answer to the question asked by Thibaud in closing the volume: “could the anthropology of ambient sound simply be another means of listening to ambiances?" (p. 231).  




Jonathan Thomas is a Ph.D. candidate at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales (CRAL). His doctoral dissertation, supervised by Prof. Esteban Buch, focuses on the cultural history of political records in France during the 1930s. He wrote three peer-reviewed articles: “Jean-Marie Le Pen et la SERP : le disque de musique au service d’une pratique politique” (Volume!, 2017), “Militer en chantant, sous l’œil de la police parisienne des années 1930 : une exploration du fonctionnement politique du chant” (Transposition, 2018), “De la musique pour le peuple : une proposition d’analyse des disques folkloriques du Chant du Monde” (Analitica, 2018).

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