EH Out Loud

The podcast where we investigate how technology mediates what it means to be human.



Season 2, Episode 1, Part 2: Sound Cluster Symposium



Laura Kunreuther: Hello and welcome to Experimental Humanities Out Loud, the podcast where we investigate how technology mediates what it means to be human. I’m Laura Kunreuther, an anthropology professor here at Bard College, and I’ll be taking you through this series of episodes about the Experimental Humanities sound cluster. This episode of EH Out Loud takes us through some of the sound clusters’ memories of the “Sound in Theory, Sound in Practice” Symposium that we held in the spring of 2016. So the podcast comes out of two different recorded meetings with core members of the sound cluster which includes me, Laura Kunreuther in anthropology, Danielle Riou, in Human Rights Program and who also runs Human Rights Radio, Julianne Swartz, in studio arts, Matthew Deady in physics, Olga Touloumi in art history, Alex Benson in literature, and Maria Sonevytsky who was in music at Bard and has since left us, sadly, and now teaches at Berkley. Maria joined us on a Skype call for one of the conversations. In addition, you will hear some segments from the symposium itself. So let’s begin.


Laura Kunreuther: In my memory, how the symposium happened was supposed to be a very small event, as I recall.


Olga Touloumi: No—


Laura Kunreuther: In the beginning, no?


Olga Touloumi: I was always thinking of it as something very big. [laughs]


Laura Kunreuther: Oh really? [laughs]


[Everyone laughs]


Maria Sonevystky: Well I remember some of the initial discussions around the symposium being that because our group was so interdisciplinary, and because we had both practitioners and scholars, that it would be nice to have that reflected somehow in the symposium—


Laura Kunreuther: Yeah.


Maria Sonevystky: —right?


Laura Kunreuther: Yep.


Maria Sonevystky: Which created the idea both of doing the panels as a kind of hybrid, you know, performance-slash-scholarship thing and offering the installations, and, I mean, the thing that Julianne ended up supervising. But also, Olga, the class that we were teaching right? We had that installation-


Olga Touloumi: Oh my god—


Maria Sonevystky: Geographies of sound installation. [laughs]


Laura Kunreuther: Right, yeah.


Alex Benson: Yeah, I was just looking back at the panel, at the schedule, which, I was kind of amazed that it was only a day and a half—




Alex Benson: —that symposium. Because it seemed like there was so much in it, I don’t know if it’s helpful to talk through, but like the structure of the day.


Laura Kunreuther: Yeah I think it is, yeah.


Alex Benson: But, this is just informational, but we had the—we had one day of keynotes with Emily Thompson and Jonathan Stern. And then the next day was structured around three panels of—on aurality, transmission, and resonance.  And between those were what were called interludes: sound blocks, and physics demonstrations, and art—


Laura Kunreuther: Oral history—


Alex Benson: Oral history workshop. We also drafted pieces on, kind of prompts on those topics of aurality, transmission, and resonance. And so just drafting those, came out of a year and a half of reading and talking.


Julianne Swartz: We had very interesting discussion determining what the terms of those  three categories would be.


Alex Benson: Like the way we structured the day was kind of around—and this all got complicated in the content of all panels—but um, around increasing distance, was one way of thinking about it, increasing distance from a sonorous source. Right? From the ear to the means of transmission, to resonances, later historically, or in other spaces.


[singing from conference begins]


Maria Sonevystky: I think the interludes made it really distinct, as an academic conference, that we made a very conscious decision to have it be experiential, also.


[singing continues]


 Carl Linich: [singing] Let’s do just that phrase.  C [sings]


Carl Linich: That’s interesting, that’s a ninth. [sings] Hum….


Singer answers: Hum…


Carl Linich: Right there, alright—no, no. Let’s go back to the first phrase.




Alex Benson: I chaired the aurality panel, and I remember that it was—the day was just getting started, the whole set-up was being broadcast live, and also archived on the radio by the community radio station WGXC. Um, so everything was going into a panel but, I didn’t know that yet, so I wasn’t talking into a mic for the first couple minutes. So it was, kind of reflecting on it afterwards, right like, that should have been part of the transmission panel. [laughs]


[everybody laughs]


Alex Benson: Um,the fact that I was getting started and—so, I started the day with that kind of awkward experience of being unsure where my voice was traveling.


Alex Benson [symposium sound]: Good morning everybody. Welcome to the second day of our sound symposium, very excited to get the day started after the Georgian polyphony choir with our first panel of the today—today, this panel is focused on the concept of aurality. And throughout the day we’ll also have panel roundtables later on the themes of transmission and resonance. It’s my great pleasure to just say a few words about the topic, to throw out some questions, and then, introduce our four speakers today. They’ll each speak for about ten minutes and then we’ll throw it open to a discussion with everyone in the room. I teach in American literature here. Literary studies occupies something of a fringe or a marginal position in sound studies or even an oppositional position. Not, I think, oppositional in a polemical sense, but oppositional in being in a definitional sense. We focus on texts. My students this semester in the Sound and Literature class, have been helping me think through the way that that can break down, the way that reading and listening can be thought of in relationship to each other.


Maria Sonevystky: It wasn’t attempting to do like a thin definition of sound studies, but rather a really expansive one that even goes beyond often how it’s articulated as a cross-disciplinary space. And I really can see now why that was so kind of special. And it’s one of the things I’m really proudest of, is that we held the space for people who were coming from such—coming to sound from such different locations: as artists, as scholars, as acousticians, as radio engineers.


Olga Touloumi: Not only the interdisciplinary nature of this, but the multi-modality of producing knowledge. Like we had an exhibition, performances, keynotes, like panel conversations—


[drone begins]


Danielle Riou: Hi everyone, my name is Danielle Riou. I am the Associate Director of the Human Rights Project here at Bard, and a member of the Experimental Humanities sound cluster. I’m really excited to be able to introduce our theme today, which is transmission. And to introduce all of the four presenters today, and to moderate the discussion that follows, which I think will be brief because of time, but rich in content, hopefully. So, like I said [laughs] that’s up to you Olga [everyone laughs]. Transmission highlights the way that sound is conveyed through a variety of different media. To consider transmission we need to address the nature of the medium, or format, it’s commutative limitations and potentials, and the social protocols for its use, as well as how sound travels through it. Transmission, literally meaning to send across, often carries with it, a strong spatial connotation. Communications, satellites, undersea cables, switch-boards tie together humans, and non-humans, excuse me, and global technosocial networks, though of varying speed, cost, and saturation, depending on where you live in the world. A web of transnational and bilateral agreements, and national regulatory frameworks, condition how and where these networks operate. What architect and theorist Keller Easterling terms “extra state craft” in her 2014 book of the same title. The systems of decision making and authority that govern the ways that infrastructure evolves and becomes integrated into and along with societies. At the same time, this technological understanding of transmission is often projected onto communication at large, reducing the multiple modes of transmission into a generalized notion of a neutral process. In other words, we often think of transmission as a simple or direct process by which something is carried from one point to another. The speakers in this panel will present ideas to complicate this notion of neutrality and will highlight the ways in which transmission can suggest a number of meanings and processes at once.


[buzzing noise in several frequencies]


Maria Sonevystky: I think I took the first stab at resonance, trying to think about how to squish it together into a paragraph that seemed specific and coherent, but also—also like satisfied our physicist, right? That didn’t only talk about—


Danielle Riou: [laughs]


Maria Sonevystky: —resonance in the strictly like metaphorical sense. And I remember just triangulating that was really tricky and then the revisions were, you know, so helpful and sort of, fixing it so that it satisfied all the different needs.


Matthew Deady:  And if I can speak in my defense here a little bit—




Matthew Deady: When I started saying, well, this is what resonance really is, it was not to be the, you know, objectivist scientist putting a clamp down on other people; what I was trying to say was, you know, if you act from a physicist’s point of view, the two aspects of resonance are that first of all, the system has a natural frequency that it wants to oscillate at, and the other thing is that you, you put in energy of some kind, and because of a match between what’s being given in and what already is there, you get a large response. And this is all physics talk, but clearly all those phrases carry over—


Laura Kunreuther: Yes.


Matthew Deady: —to the different ways people use the word resonance. The idea that it isn’t just about the space, it isn’t just about the source, it’s about the fact that these two somehow have a match to each other that gives you this large response.


[buzzing noise in several frequencies]


Laura Kunreuther: Resonance sketches relationships. It produces a network that tethers vibrating objects to listeners in a web of signification that has both material, physical, acoustic and affective aesthetic ideological dimensions. Further, in its vernacular use, it is suggestive of sound’s power to allude, to evoke, to index feeling. Metaphorically, we say something resonates with us, as an assertion of our subjectivity.  It is a method of assimilating the operations of memory and sentiments to the self. Thus, resonance may recast sound by launching it well past its origin into new contexts. In doing so, it troubles assumptions about the ephemerality of sound through its emergent and contingent nature, that’s where I was—


[audience member coughs]


Laura Kunreuther: —getting my point in there. Testimonies resonate with judges and jurors just as songs resonate with audiences past the moment of delivery. Resonant voices are valued for their expressivity and authoritativeness; they may be held in suspicion as instruments of ideological sway or rhetorical coercion. A resonant utterance may reverberate long after it has dissipated acoustically. It may generate unexpected, empathetic resonance, or in some instances pain in those who hear it. Rather than fixing sound into a form a resonant sound moves with, through, or past those who hear it. As Veit Erlmann has pointed out, resonance is eminently suited to dissolve the binary of the materiality of things, and the immateriality of signs that has been at the center of western thought for much of the modern era. This panel seeks to explore the tensions produced by resonance in its multiple roles as an acoustic, effective, and ideological phenomenon.


Matthew Deady: I picked up on the, the lead from my colleague Burt Brody who taught a course called Light and Color, which was actually a required part of the photography major. So students had to take the course in the physics of light as part of their major in physics and I thought, well, the art that I know the best is music, so, why don’t I develop a course on sound and on music. But in this, I am entirely self taught. I never took a course on acoustics, I actually am a experimental nuclear physicist by trade—




Matthew Deady: —I work at atom smashers, you know, but physicists have the arrogance to think they can figure out anything. And I teach this acoustics course at least once a year. I’ve expanded it to take in 40 or 45 students. Students come in thinking, oh I’m interested in music, I’m interested in sound, they don’t know that I’m sneakily teaching them physics all along the way. So, the question I’d like to engage in is: why do things make the sounds they do? And I’m going to make that question more specific, but I’m going to get at it at first by talking about things that we know pretty well. So for instance, when I blow on this tube, [blows on tube twice in short succession; the tube produces the pitch of C that is equivalent to middle C, then blows on tube again twice in short succession, but covers one end; the tube produces the pitch of C one octave higher] I get an octave higher [puts tube down, picks up two metal pipes]. When I take these two metal pipes and if I hit this one [hits metal pipe twice, first pitch sounds as A above middle C, and second pitch sounds almost an octave above the first A] I’ve got something that’s almost an octave, very close. Okay, so that— [fades out]


 Julianne Swartz: That semester, Bob Bielecki and I had– were teaching Sound as a Sculptural Medium, yes, that was the first time we had taught it. And we decided that a big part of the class would be geared towards making installations, site-specific installations in the Blum/Avery complex for this, for this event. And the students, you know, knowing they’d have this public venue, really excelled and made incredible work for the presentation. And we installed it in all the winding hallways and cubbies in the, in that, in those two buildings. And so that’s why we needed this green line to direct people through the, through the exhibits.


Maria Sonevystky: I remember like the, the line of tape. So we had two students who were in the Geographies of Sound class, who made a map for us, do you remember Olga, that we had, I think you really worked with them on this, that made a map of the whole space for people to arrive, but also they ended up putting this like, path of green tape throughout the music department and film—




Maria Sonevystky: –and the conservatory. That was supposed to be the path that people could follow, you know, around the exhibition space. And I just remember that that was there for weeks afterwards and it was just this wonderful memory of how like, how much stimulation, sonic stimulation in particular had been in that space, you know, for our symposium. It was really fun to sort of live with the memory of the path for a little while. And then, one day, it ended up as a huge ball of tape on my desk.




Olga Touloumi: That’s right.


Laura Kunreuther: That’s great.


[noise in many different frequencies]


Alex Benson: Maria, were you the one who reached out to Pauline Oliveros??


Maria Sonevystky: Yeah, I did, yeah. [laughs]


Laura Kunreuther: That’s, that was another amazing part.


Maria Sonevystky: That was part of it too, yeah. It was—I had been, I had been eager for a reason to reach out to Pauline Oliveros ever since arriving in the Hudson Valley. And this felt like a perfect opportunity. So we were able to get  Pauline to come and lead a deep listening workshop, which was pretty amazing. We had a lot of people there for it, singing and the flow—


Danielle Riou: The slow—


Maria Sonevystky: Remember when we did the slow song.


Laura Kunreuther: That was an amazing.


Julianne Swartz: That was an incredible sort of cohesion of the day.


Laura Kunreuther: Yeah.


Julianne Swartz: Yeah, that was incredible experience.


Laura Kunreuther: Yeah, and it was a kind of almost elation, is what I felt.


Julianne Swartz: Oh yeah, definitely euphoric.


Laura Kunreuther: Yeah.


Julianne Swartz: And very moving. I was crying.


Laura Kunreuther: Yeah, it was incredible.


Julianne Swartz: Just the mix of people there that you know, our faculty, our students, our staff, the visitors, all you know, singing together essentially in this—


Matthew Deady: I think everyone, everyone’s sensitivity was heightened by that stage to go as far as away as you could from treating sound as background. Instead, make it foreground in your consciousness in a way that we don’t—


Julianne Swartz:: Right.


Matthew Deady: —always.


Julianne Swartz: : Right.


Laura Kunreuther: Yeah.


Matthew Deady: And she was perfect for saying, okay, when, when you adopt that mindset, then all these things become, you know, a transcendental experience.


Laura Kunreuther: I mean, that’s something that she’s gifted us. And I think it was one of her last things.


Julianne Swartz:: I think so, yeah.


Laura Kunreuther: You know, and that was, that was something also incredibly special.


Laura Kunreuther: EH Out Loud is produced at Bard’s Center for Experimental Humanities by Krista [Caballero], Corinna Cape, and Bird Cohen. With Season 2 produced in collaboration with me, Laura Kunreuther, Danielle Riou, and others in the EH sound cluster. Sound editing and music by, again me, Laura Kunreuther, Danielle Riou, and Bird Cohen. Transcription by [Anna] Hallett Gutierrez and Ariel West. Special thanks in this episode to Lesley Flanigan, whose beautiful music we heard at the sound symposium, and Carl Linich who led us in Georgian polyphony at the sound symposium. As well as the Experimental Humanities Media Corps. Visit us at to learn more about the EH sound cluster as well as other projects at the center. Thanks and have a good day.