Cameron Pollack / Sun Senior Photographer

Prof. Trevor Pinch, science and technology studies, describes how technology revolutionized sound studies at a panel in Klarman Hall Monday.

March 1, 2016

Professors Explore Role of Sound Studies in Humanities

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Faculty from various areas of the humanities discussed the interplay of sound with technology, cultural identity and music in a talk on sound studies Monday.

Prof. Trevor Pinch, science and technology studies, who had recently finished editing the Oxford Book of Sound Studies with a colleague, spoke about the technological aspect of sound studies.

“Sound studies can be defined as an emerging interdisciplinary area that studies the material production of music, sound, noise and silence and how these have changed throughout history and within different societies,” Pinch said.

Sound studies is a new field because the ability to record sounds is a relatively new development, according to Pinch.

“In 1877, with Edison’s phonograph, you could copy sound and its material form for the first time,” Pinch said. “Therefore, the language and the technology for understanding sound is still not stabilized.”

In contrast, Prof. Kim Haines-Eitzen, near eastern studies, said her work focuses on understanding the intersection between sounds, places and identities. Additionally, her interdisciplinary interests led her to develop a course called “Sound, Silence and the Sacred,” in which students created a map of sounds on Cornell’s campus.

Haines-Eitzen said she has also been working on a project that integrates sound in the desert with a study of ancient history.

“I am using field recording as an insightful way of understanding the fourth to seventh century ancient text from the I work with,” Haines-Eitzen said. “Sound is an added layer of complexity to history.”

Prof. Benjamin Piekut, music, discussed how the intersection between music and sound studies has brought new ideas to both departments.

“Sound studies is an interdisciplinary area that has started outside the music department,” Piekut said. “But I would say in the last ten or so years, we have imported a lot of the concerns from sound studies into music studies.”

Using John Cage and David Tudor — composers of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company — as examples, Piekut explained that one of these concerns is the concept of authorship.

“John Cage sought to diminish the compositional roles by letting sounds be themselves,” Piekut said. “However, authorship is an important aspect in the aesthetics of music. Understanding sound in this way, there’s no authorship.”

The discussion was the second panel in the University’s Big Ideas in the Humanities series, which is part of a celebration commemorating the opening of Klarman Hall.