This article presents six separate but connected understandings of a digital platform of listening vocabularies and protocols produced in the context of Listening Across Disciplines II, (LxDII) a cross- and transdisciplinary research project funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, UK (AHRC), conducted by the authors from 2018 to 2022. This research project set out to investigate and promote the use of listening across arts, humanities, science, and social science disciplines. To this end it worked with different partners from various fields to observe, co-work, and analyze, and finally to connect and compare different forms of listening.
Early on it became clear that one of the main issues in establishing such a cross-disciplinary listening was the lack of a joint vocabulary and thus a means to share processes, methods, and insights. Therefore, it became a central objective to develop a resource of listening vocabularies and protocols that reveal differences as well as similarities and point to ways that connections can be established and methods shared. Subsequently, and to ensure cross-disciplinary and public use, these vocabularies and protocols were organized on an interactive digital platform, enabling browsing between methods and words, and hopefully affording shared approaches and cross-referencing.
This article represents a reflection on the background, motivation, processes, and realization of this platform. It does so deliberately from the six listening positions of the research team. In this way it reproduces the project itself, in that it allows each listener their own understanding while connecting them through a shared platform. Please visit the online version of the journal to see and hear video and audio files.
This is a jointly published article of separate positions on the ideas and processes informing an interactive digital platform of vocabularies and protocols of listening designed in the context of the project Listening Across Disciplines II (LxDII), funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, UK (AHRC).1 This project, which runs from January 2018 to November 2022, systematically investigates the potential of listening as a legitimate and reliable methodology for research across arts, humanities, engineering, science, social science, and technology disciplines. It is structured within five distinct but related phases that develop through time-restricted and systematic collaborations with our partners: Phase 1 considered the principal investigator’s and the co-investigator’s own listening methodologies in relation to sound art and music, and Alzheimer’s/dementia and lung health, respectively. In phase 2 the processes, technologies, and procedures of four disciplines that use listening as a fundamental part of their work were observed, documented, and evaluated through a period of embedded co-working. These four disciplines were strategically chosen and include the Centre for Speech Technology Research at the University of Edinburgh; Urbanidentity, Zurich; Sound Studies Lab at the University of Copenhagen; and Health Sciences at University of Southampton. In phase 3 we worked with the National Science and Media Museum in Bradford, UK, in order to test and experiment with the listening approaches encountered so far in relation to the public and curatorial context. For phase 4 we reviewed and analyzed all listening encounters in order to produce, in phase 5 (where we are now) an exit study with CASE, the Centre for Analysis of Social Exclusion at LSE, the London School of Economics. In this last phase we are working with Dr. Sandra Pauletto, who has sonified CASE’s social-exclusion data in order for us to consider how to listen to data.
Through these different phases, the project positions listening as an emerging investigative approach that is able to access new information relevant to the pressing problems of social exclusion, dementia, lung health, auscultation (medical listening), and speech recognition; and to deliver new insights into curation, music, art, urban planning, and civil engineering, where sound can reveal hidden potentialities and contribute to our understanding of culture and how we live together. It works through embedded co-working and in partnership with various universities and independent researchers, artists, and public institutions to observe, document, and analyze discipline-specific listening and to subsequently seek the cross-disciplinary benefits that such specific listening might provide.2
From the encounters and embedded co-working with these partners, as well as from the practices of the LxDII team members, we collaboratively and through interviews developed listening protocols and vocabularies that reflect on the diverse disciplinary methodologies and understandings of sound as it is used and worked with by those involved. Thus, these protocols and vocabularies are documents that make available the fundamentals of each discipline’s very specific approaches to the sonic. Recognizing the centrality of these listening protocols and vocabularies for the development of an understanding of sound’s potential as a new knowledge device/dimension, as well as for a shared approach and interdisciplinary working, we felt it was important to make them publicly available. To this end, we developed an interactive digital platform that opens the protocols and vocabularies to cross-disciplinary scrutiny and use as well as to add further examples and approaches.3
Some of these protocols might appear idiosyncratic, highly personal, subjective, and even poetic; others are extremely impersonal, in search of an objective method and approach and historically/discipline embedded. The idea to publish them, however, was not simply to be able to read how others listen. Instead, we sought a more active and interactive access, to create a tool where the vocabularies and protocols could be linked via shared terminology to each other across disciplines, revealing borders and overlaps and opening onto new possibilities. Therefore, we have made them available on an interactive digital platform in order to enable a cross-disciplinary conversation, application, and expansion of listening. This format allows users to browse vocabularies and protocols for listening in their own fields. Additionally, they can recognize cross-references and shared practices as well as learn from differences across disciplines, and hopefully feel enabled to understand others’ listening practices and feel inspired to expand their own methods.
The intention is also that, once online, more researchers will upload their own vocabularies and protocols, which would be linked in again through search terms on the platform, steadily growing a resource of sonic methodologies and encouraging a novel transdisciplinary approach from sound. In this way we intend to provide a means to continue, beyond the scope of the research project, the production and gathering of vocabularies and protocols, to ultimately grow a broad resource of listening approaches linked and networked through words and terminology. The development and design of this platform represents one of the main outcomes of this project and is motivated by the belief in a sound-based cross-disciplinarity: to advocate and enable a transversal working with sound.
Given the aim of this digital platform—to bring different perspectives and methods of listening together while retaining their professional context and particularity in the cross-disciplinary frame—we chose not to write, as is more conventional, one essay on this work together as the LxDII team. Instead, each member of the team wrote their engagement from their own perspective and particular involvement with the process and outcome of this work. These individual essays represent at once the different interests, ideas, and positions that determined the process of protocol and vocabulary writing, its gathering, and finally its publication, as well as enable a foresight into the platform’s potential use as a multifaceted tool that encourages a cross-disciplinary, personal listening development from a network of particular expertise, examples, and possibilities.
The LxDII team working on this element of the project consists of six people: Dr. Salomé Voegelin, professor of sound, artist, and writer; Dr. Anna Barney, professor of biomedical acoustic engineering; Dr. Mark Peter Wright, postdoctoral researcher, artist, and lecturer in sound; Dr. Timothy Smith, postdoctoral researcher and artist; Phoebe Stubbs, project administrator and glassblower; and Julian Weaver, artist, generalist developer, and director at Finetuned Limited.
What follows then are six separate but linked mini-essays that start from each team member’s very individual and discipline-determined approach to listening in general and the vocabulary/protocol writing in particular. They add a “face” to different approaches, highlighting the contingency of listening and revealing the authorship of lexica, which ordinarily is hidden by the anonymity of definitions and taxonomies. In this sense these six essays can be read in any order. They are not consecutive but cumulative and in conversation, aiming to open up and introduce the use of the interactive digital platform to everybody, whatever their own interest, discipline, investment, and position. This is also the reason why there is no shared conclusion. Instead, the individual essays, as bodies in conversation with the process of vocabularies and protocoling, and the interactive platform, each find their own end without concluding. Instead, they invite the reader to engage in the work and their own listening.
Vocabularies to Make Sound’s Relational Logic Thinkable: Protocols to Make It Shareable
Between May 2016 and April 2017, I was the principal investigator of an AHRC-funded network project, instructively entitled LxD, Listening Across Disciplines. This network project preceded the larger grant in whose frame this research into vocabularies and protocols and their overlaps took place, and which we are collectively describing and discussing in this contribution to Resonance. The project set out to bring together practitioners, researchers, and educators from different disciplines to probe their meeting points and what they might have to say to each other about the way they listen and hear within their respective fields. Three meetings framed the encounter. Each one brought forth a very different emphasis. But what remained consistent was the absence of shared terminology and the desire to have such shared words available, in order to be better able to communicate with each other about the heard and what everybody was listening for, how, and why. Therefore, probably the most relevant finding from these meetings was the need for a glossary of terms that might enable such a cross-disciplinary discussion and exchange.
However, the aim to compile such a vocabulary soon collided with the desire not to stultify listening and hearing in a lexical definition. In other words, not to turn the heard into a visual object and not to deprive the sonic of its fluidity, ephemerality, and even unreliability, upon which, after all, its particularity and its knowledge gain relies. And so, while there was a desire to develop shared words, to improve a cross-disciplinary understanding and use of the sonic, there was also a caution against what words do or do not permit the doing of, once written down and lexically defined.
The production of a shared vocabulary, which in its lexicality by default emphasizes the substantial, the metric and measurable, the referential and therefore quasi-visual aspect of the sonic, would mean reducing sound’s potential to see and hear the world differently: to see and hear the invisible and intangible possibilities of the world that hold its relationality and reveal the in-between. Therefore, a vocabulary potentially disables the very view onto the ephemeral and thus the unreliable, which, as we had noted in the network discussions, held such great potential to add new knowledge and novel knowledge methodologies to the way we currently examine the world.
And so, at the end of that network project and the beginning of this one, LxDII, Listening Across Disciplines II—also funded by the AHRC and lasting from January 2018 to November 2022—we wanted to pursue the conundrum of the glossary, its promise and pitfalls, to find a solution that enables a cross-disciplinary understanding and use without shutting down meaning in the constraints of definition. LxDII brought together partners from speech synthesis, auscultation, urban planning, museology, and social exclusion research. We undertook embedded co-working with students and staff at partner universities, with independent researchers and at public institutions, to examine, debate, and expand how we could listen in each discipline, to find new knowledge and new knowledge pathways, and to determine how, through this listening, disciplines could meet each other and find novel ways to share methods and questions.
We worked with our partners, through workshops and in discussions, collecting terms and terminology, and soon realized that it was in the description of their listening—in what we came to call protocols, the organization, preparation, and method of their listening—that the words attained their subject-specific meaning and use. And that therefore it was in the tension between the individual word and its place in the organization and method of listening that meaning became narrative and thus transferable and shareable. From here it became apparent that it was not the vocabularies, the individual words and terms themselves, that were most important to ensure communication, but the narrative descriptions of the listening process, created with these words and determining a discipline-specific instruction or explanation. These narratives used and contextualized terminology but at the same time gave the individual terms the freedom to be re-deployed in other settings. On this insight we conducted interviews with our partners to deliberately and carefully appreciate their listening protocols, and we set about writing them down in a shareable format. In this way we found our vocabularies not through isolated definition, but through the narrative of the protocol and in conversation across disciplines, moving not from individual words into application but from practice into words that could therefore hold the narrative context that makes them understandable and thinkable in another context.
While there remains an ambiguity and also a contradiction in the desire for a glossary description of words to ensure a cross-disciplinary exchange about how we listen, and the desire to glean from sound’s fluidity and formlessness a different knowledge and a different knowledge path, I believe that the juxtaposition of vocabulary and protocol is a way to show this contradiction. It is also a way to let us work with it: to work from definitions into a contextual understanding that appreciates the contingency of words, which in this digitally enabled mobility becomes visible, and which lets them move from discipline to discipline, remaining the same word but opening up to mean the invisible in plural ways.
My hope is that the combination of vocabularies and protocols, juxtaposed with other such pairings and linked by shared words in their plural articulation, might be able to simulate the tacit connections of shared research that we sought when working with the different partners in their environments, so that the words cease to be definitions, but become a point of connection, a skin, and touch, that a shared practice makes sensible and therefore thinkable. On the one hand, the plural combinations that can be achieved in the interaction of vocabularies and protocols on this online platform force language to reveal its own dependence on practice and context. On the other hand, the meeting between disciplines in the frame of an interactively programmed vocabulary and protocol can show us a path to interdisciplinarity and co-working. And that is where bodies come into it, as human and more-than-human bodies that through their vocabularies and protocols become apparent as agents of research, but who are also subject and confined to structures of reference and definition, to what can be known and communicated: “We are confined to ways of describing, whatever is described.”4 But, despite and because of that confinement, we can finally and hopefully bring about a thinking together and a moving together against the confinement of disciplinary reference.
In that sense, the protocols and vocabularies that we present, in a prototype form, on this interactive digital platform perform the interaction that we hoped: to learn to transpose and translate, to constantly question the limits of one’s own disciplinary conventions from the unreliability of the heard, in order to come to hear and see more—in order to be open to move in different contexts and to attain a fluency akin to a “bilingualism,” or even a “plurilingualism” and curiosity for how else words and things, and sounds and bodies, can mean.
It is just a beginning. As yet only a small number of words and protocols are accessible and connected on this online platform. The intention is that in time the number of interacting words and protocols, performing the interdisciplinary potential of their respective and specific research and work, will grow, and ever more complex and unexpected interactions and overlaps will invite a cross- and interdisciplinary thinking and doing from sound. Thus the digital platform aims to enable and invite thinking about a shared arts, humanities, social science, and science narrative that is fluid and unreliable but promising of new insights and collaborations: to perform a transversal sound research and practice relevant to and agitating in all fields, enabling a joint thinking without giving up on a specific word and definition, and without abandoning protocoled methods, but by instead coming to appreciate the fluidity and transferability of their specific words and thus of their specific protocols, understanding their potential to perform a cross-disciplinary access to various narratives, to enable the imagination of a plural knowledge as a knowledge entangled with every knowledge.
Thinking through my own listening and how I protocoled it for this project, this notion of sharing tacit and contingent knowledge without bodies in actual co-presence, as was the case during the embedded research, seems most important to understand and to continue this work.
Describing in detail my concerns and considerations when setting off to listen and record, I pretend the presence of another listener who accompanies me, whom I tell how I go about it. Thus, I seek a co-presence to do listening as a being with, as a listening with. I imagine speaking these instructions to this other person. In their absence, or in my absence, the words come in lieu of proximity and try to bridge the gap so you can see and sense and ultimately come to hear what I aim to listen to and record. There is then a sense of accompaniment, of taking you into the woods with me, to listen.
This protocol, as well as the others on the platform, was written before the pandemic made the notion of co-presence difficult or even impossible. All the protocols and vocabularies were gathered with people face to face, in conversation, sharing the same space. Then they served quite straightforwardly as instructions of what you could do and what we could do together to hear what I aim, or what you aim, to listen for. There was then no urgency or particularity in this idea of sharing listening protocols and words, as sharing and being in the same space together seemed a self-evident and normal condition: We could have gone listening together. Now, post-COVID, the distance between my protocol and your listening has become more pronounced. Because now, in our new distant sensibility of the real, the vocabulary and protocols address the issue of how to share, how to apprentice somebody to the way you do things, when you cannot be in the same space together; when you cannot touch, and show and tell, to somebody’s face, into somebody’s ears and hands to bring them physically to how listening can be done and for them to do so in turn.
COVID is not a central issue of this essay, but it emphasizes the task of these protocols and vocabularies: to carry a certain embodiment in their lexical definition that is able to expand words from a singular body into a plural body and a plural practice of listening. In that expansion the words present an embodied narrative of a contingent event rather than an abstract and anonymous taxonomy, and they enable a cross-disciplinary use and imagination: listening together across physical and disciplinary spaces. Thus, the protocols aim at least to make thinkable the transposition of the listening modes and sensibilities of an urban planner into the body of someone working with speech synthesis, or to augment the listening of a social researcher with the narrative and body of auscultation. While this might seem very abstract and fictional, a matter of speculation, it is the practical working with this digital platform as a sincere attempt at expanding one’s practice through the conversation with that of others that such permutations might truly happen, and that listening can open a hybrid space where disciplines meet in the shared but also remote practice of sound on a body that performs word’s plural narratives.
This is one of the reasons the authorship, even if indicated as anonymous, is important to these vocabularies and protocols. A conventional dictionary does not indicate whose definition I read. It is assumed as culturally normative and situated. The author’s authority is an assumed collective. By contrast, these vocabularies and protocols form a performed collectivity. They do not provide a lexicon to look up and know, but instead generate narratives, positions, and positionings that are specific, but that in their specificity as narrative become re-performable and thus shareable. In this way we can find ambiguities and plural meanings between words that sound and look the same but that in their contingency lead us to hear something else. They give science a narrative and possible truth rather than an absolute truth. This possibility should not be understood as trivial or undermining of scientific rigor. Instead, it serves to accept plurality as a rigorous and truthful scientific approach that understands that a singular reading is not found in the material, the body and world, as subjects and objects of science, but only in its frame of reference.
If I ask you about the world, you can offer to tell me how it is under one or more frames of reference; but if I insist that you tell me how it is apart from all frames, what can you say? We are confined to describing whatever is described. Our universe so to speak consists of these ways rather than of a world or of worlds.6
And since “frames of reference seem to belong less to what is described than to systems of description”:7 Using the lexicon as a frame of reference, and broadening it through cross-disciplinarily interconnected protocols into embodied narratives, this platform does not define but makes thinkable (as in possible) the body in science, not from its measure but from its unreliability and incompleteness. This in turn makes plurality and thus interdisciplinarity as a conversation between incomplete disciplines possible. The listening narrative shows a vulnerability and bodily contingency that we might want to deny to pretend repeatability and consensus, but it is there nevertheless, hidden only by frames of reference. And it is through the presence of such a body that we can come to share, when the absolute of reference allows no such proximity and exchange. It is not the certainty of each discipline that allows transversality, but the disciplines’ ephemeral in-between, which grants access to their interdependencies and lends a (thinking) device for an entangled working, from the relational logic of sound.
In conclusion, I understand this digital platform of entangled vocabularies and protocols as a resource for a transversal working across disciplines and into disciplines: to use the embodied and ambiguous narratives of science rather than their measurement and standards to enable an interdisciplinarity that can ultimately enable a working with disciplines to respond to the entangled and complexly interdependent challenges of the current world.
Reproducing the Process of Listening to Counteract Its Subjectivity
I am a professor of biomedical acoustic engineering working across the boundaries of technological and clinical practice. With no medical training yet working closely with clinical practitioners from different medical and allied health professions, I am acutely aware of the challenges presented by different interpretations of shared vocabulary when communicating complex ideas. Explaining to each other the meaning of specialist or private language used in a given context is further confounded by the adoption within disciplines of commonplace words repurposed to specialist meanings. For example, clinicians talk about “insults” when they mean the cause of physical injury to the body; an engineer talking about “information” typically means storage and transfer of digital information, not wider general knowledge. This communication gap means that developing careful consensus about the definition of terms becomes especially important if we are to have a shared purpose among researchers in different fields. The difficulties of cross-disciplinary communication are even greater when one is trying to use a vocabulary, which may not have a shared meaning, to convey a process that is to some extent internal, such as what one hears within sound. In such a process we may move from a lack of mutual definition to a complete lack of descriptive or analytical vocabulary, and we can only hope for a shared experience or understanding through a shared process. This is one of the key drivers of my interest in the online platform for vocabularies and protocols.
In science and engineering, a key concept is reproducibility of results: the ability of another research team to produce the same result using the same method.8 This is desirable due to the hierarchical nature of the disciplines, where new concepts and theories are built on the assumption that existing concepts and theories are valid. Reproducing the results of others guards against adoption of theories and concepts founded on artifacts arising from the measurement technique, individual researcher, or location, thereby ensuring results can be generalized. More recently, reproducibility has been enhanced by the move to “open data,” where scientific data are made freely available alongside the more traditional journal article, opening the possibility of replicating an experiment or statistical analysis to anyone.9 Open data initiatives are strongly supported by many government funding agencies and promote international equity of access to scientific data. More recently still there has been a move to “open algorithms.” This is especially related to the recognition that machine learning algorithms can show inherent bias as a result of the data selected to train them.10 It is therefore critical that researchers in science and engineering are meticulous not only in their documentation of outcomes but also in their recording of methodological process and analysis.
In communications engineering, protocols are the rules governing interaction between electronic devices and are constituted by syntax (format and order of actions), semantics (interpretation and action arising therefrom), and timing (when to take each action). In the practice of medicine and healthcare, a protocol is an agreement to a set of procedures and the order in which they must be taken with the aim of ensuring consistent patient care. Clinical trial protocols are formal documents to describe the rationale, methodology, research questions, and ethical considerations of the trial.11 In each case a protocol is the specification of the steps to be taken to reach an outcome, though at a higher level of abstraction than might be described as process or method.12 A protocol could be thought of as setting the hierarchy or precedence for a set of procedures. They may include conditionality, directing to different sets of procedures under different conditions, but they always provide an overarching and mandatory framework that helps to reinforce reproducibility of approach.
As a researcher on the interface of technology and healthcare delivery I think of protocols as one of the tools of my trade for ensuring reproducibility of my work and especially for documenting and sharing not only the results but also the process of discovery and the scientific method. It is a term that resonates with clinicians as well as engineers and technologists, offering a foundation for collaboration and mutual exploration of concept and method across traditional disciplinary boundaries.
Biomedical acoustic engineering involves analysis of sounds recorded from the body to automate support for diagnosis and disease progression monitoring or to record outcome measures for assessing treatment efficacy. The recent introduction of the digital stethoscope, allowing clinical acoustic data to be recorded, affords the possibility of automatically analyzing body sounds during or following a medical consultation and comparing acoustic information stored on different occasions. Mobile technology also opens the field to remote monitoring of health status. Listening to audio recordings of body sound can supplement more traditional quantitative analysis and visual data presentation. However, auditory analysis is open to accusations of being subjective, less scientific, and less reproducible. Systematic paradigms for listening are therefore needed to ensure that insights obtained through auditory analysis are scientifically robust.
The concept of a protocol transfers well from its definitions in healthcare and engineering to encompass systematic listening to sounds recorded from the body. It helps to standardize the approach and interrogate a predefined menu of research questions. A listening protocol provides a “grammatical” framework to listening practice that may be considered analogous to the accepted visual grammar of graphical data representation. A protocol offers a way to achieve consensus about how to hear and where to focus attention, which supports the goal of reproducibility. It is, however, not mere prescription but can be defined broadly enough to support conditionality and exploration. It can define approach and emphasis without dictating outcome.
When considering how to transfer listening practice between disciplines, the listening protocol, already an extension of a concept used widely outside engineering, seemed to me an accessible and flexible way to document and communicate an auditory approach. Its nonprescriptive scaffold allows practitioners to choose the level of detail at which they define their listening methodology and can be abstracted further or made more detailed by users from disciplines less familiar with systematic listening as they adopt them to start documenting their own, perhaps as yet implicit, auditory practice.
My hope for our online platform for sharing vocabulary and protocol is that it will inspire a wider audience to take this flexible and fluid approach to documenting practice and enable others to make it a useful tool of their own. If it can make the role of context when decoding meaning across disciplinary boundaries explicit, then it can enhance communication across those divides and lead to progress in the overlap between traditionally separate areas of expertise. It is these marginal and sometimes overlapping areas of practice from which I believe many of the more exciting collaborative advances in knowledge, understanding, and development are generated.
Reflections from the Field
Mark Peter Wright
As a postdoctoral researcher on the LxDII project, the following writing reflects on my work to develop listening protocols with project partners, online and offline. As an artist- researcher, I am intrigued by the generative constraint of a protocol: how they can offer transparency around process and methods and how they might be taken up by others. I am also wary of the protocol as an ossification of practice and research. Throughout the project, I have come to understand listening protocols as flint for conversation and meeting, rather than the production of a recipe list for sonic research. The following quote by sound art collective Ultra-red is worth amplifying here: “A protocol is not a formula. Neither is it the procedure itself. Rather, it is a record and a catalyst for collective reflection, analysis, and action to come.”13
Much of the research conducted in the project involved embedded fieldwork, data gathering, and working with researchers and practitioners to explore how they listen, what they might be listening for, and the methods and tools that may facilitate such practices. One might call this a sonic ethnography of research. This framing engages with anthropologist Clifford Geertz’s term that he developed for ethnographic research called “thick descriptions.”14 A “thick” description is more than a traditional observation or report of neat facts. Instead, thick descriptions acknowledge the situated perspectives, identities, and agencies of those involved, including us, as coauthors: We are entangled in the production of knowledge. Fieldwork is therefore understood as a mosaic of observations, interpretations, participations, and practices of listening across a broad spectrum of disciplines.
During our partner fieldwork with the Bradford Museum of Science and Media, we had to shift online due to COVID. Of course, much would have been different if physical visits had been possible, but this reflection focuses on what we did and how, despite or maybe because of the very specific circumstances. The momentum behind the reflections on this fieldwork (online) that follows here is filtered through our protocol work.
Arriving out of phases 1 and 2, focus zoomed into the development of a listening protocol. From the previous phases we had gathered a set of protocols that varied in their aims, form, and possible application. Not every discipline has protocols; not every researcher wants to write them down. From the initial phases it was improbable that we would be able to create one homogenous protocol to test with our Bradford partner.
The initial idea at the application stage had been to bring the protocols observed and recorded in the first two phases to new partners, in the third phase, in order for them to try the transferability and adaptability of listening protocols between disciplines. However, instead of bringing a “one size fits all” protocol to Bradford we developed and synthesized two working protocols with the curators and practitioners of the museum itself, using the ones we had encountered in the first two phases as inspiration but not as definite instructions. This work was done in close reference to the protocols we had gathered in phases 1 and 2. And the new protocols were generated from sustained conversation with the partner in phase 3 and focused on two primary lines of inquiry.
1. Listening and Museum Curation
Museum curation is still very much led by the visual. Thankfully, our partner Annie Jamieson, curator of sound technologies at the National Science and Media Museum, Bradford, UK, is passionate about developing a place for “the sonic” in the institution and to establish it as a legitimate sensory experience. Working with Annie, rather than setting up a sound/visual dichotomy, we were interested in how a listening sensibility might be fostered from the bottom up of an organization, and what type of entrainment/pedagogy might be needed for curators themselves to embrace listening as a valid curatorial practice and audience experience. We discussed the potential of bringing practical listening methods (e.g., deep listening) to the museum context. We also developed ideas around soundwalking in the museum, what this might afford for publics and architecture and for curators and conservators, too. How would curatorial practice change if employees were to undertake creative listening training? Would their practice alter, and how might the collection and reception of artworks permit multimodal encounters as opposed to single-sensed objects?
These questions were motivated by the context of COVID, through which the sonic seems an ever more pressing material that can offer an intimate yet distant form of touch. Furthermore, within the traditions of museum cabinets and lines that deny access, the transboundary nature of sound and listening has the potential to affect and effect.
2. Sounding Objects
The Science and Media Museum in Bradford is particular in relation to listening in that it holds many objects relating to sound (radio, instruments). However, it does not collect items that actually make sound (digital media, files). This poses a generative problem: How to listen to “mute” objects? Or, and perhaps more accurately, how to interpret and code the imaginary and mechanical sounds of objects, not necessarily their transmittable content? In relation to these questions curator Toni Booth provided unique insight into how she engages with the sounds of objects through the lens of conservation. Toni gave the example of a hand-cranked cine camera, describing how she listens to its sonic signatures (see protocol below). Toni notes the sounds the object may produce, and by listening to and recognizing them, she is able to assess the condition of the items.15
Is the camera able to run at different speeds (frames per second) and so have multiple uses?
How complicated is the mechanism?
What kind of mechanism does it have?
Is it a similar mechanism to other pieces of equipment?
How does the film travel through the mechanism?
How smoothly or not does it run? Does this give an indication of how well the camera worked in its working life?
Does it sound damaged?
Does it sound “solid” or “flimsy,” as an indicator of robustness?
The connection to our work with auscultation as carried out in phase 2 is undeniable.16 Listening to the bodies of people—or in this case, technical artifacts/things—had crossovers that converged around sonic entrainment and vocabularies of listening.17
In the context of listening as a conservational method, practice operates the backstage of museum operations. In the public realm of the exhibition floor at the Science and Media Museum, however, visitors can, whenever possible, operate objects to give a sense of their functional/mechanical sounds. Toni stated: “Often the unexpected noise coming from a piece of equipment not only engages visitors with the object, but gives genuine delight, which can be seen in their reactions.”18
From here, we enquired as to what other ways are available in terms of listening with objects and people. Artistically, we explored artifact diagnosis with the public sphere in mind, and the protocol (score) as a platform to imaginatively place the ear inside a mechanical object. The protocol for the museum/curation in this sense is built from the conservational listening practice (human and nonhuman health) and becomes extrapolated into an imaginary invitation for anyone to use (public, nonexpert).
Developing Listening Protocols
Reflecting on the online field work with the curatorial team from the Science and Media Museum in Bradford, we decided to synthesize two protocols from these distinct areas (curation and objects), all the while in conversation with learnings from phases 1 and 2. Our work with auscultation became a key bridge, conceptually and practically. The Sonic Cultures International Conference staged by the Science and Media Museum in December 2020 provided a serendipitous platform to test and share this work done at the museum. Still online, we prepared a film-essay that would thematically and methodologically perform this bridge between listening to the museum and listening to the body. And so, through this film-essay we reflected on the stethoscope and its use within respiratory health—how it could offer a museological sonic imagination through enhanced multimodal engagement and curatorial strategies.
The two listening protocols we developed were as follows.
Listening Protocol: For Curating the In-between of the Display
Stand in the middle of a curated museum display.
Listen to the space, with and without visitors.
Start to understand the sounds in relation to the current display.
Do not look at the visitors or the artifacts, but at their in-between, where there is nothing.
Reflect on the nature of this invisible/absent aspect of the display: how it is heard, how it is moved through, how it is sounded.
Do this by considering the speed and frequency of visitors passing, their agitation of visitors, their noise—as well as how the sounds of the artifacts come together in those in-between places.
Reflect on the exhibition from these agitated gaps, from what happens at this invisible in-between and how this is constructed by what is there, by the sound of the room, the artifacts, the visitors, the architecture, the furnishing.
Bring this focus to every new installation; allow it to be a criterion for placing and replacing objects.
Listening Protocol: Hearing the Material Health of Media Objects
Imagine you are inside the media object, caught among its wires and cogs.
What do you hear?
How does it sound?
Notice rhythms and patterns, sounds that stick or skip.
Breathe into this tiny place.
Dwell among its workings.
Are there healthy clunks in here?
Are there scrapes and clacks of an object in need of care?
Describe the sounds you have heard.
Discuss how your listening changed.
The two protocols synthesized learnings from phase 1 and phase 2 with specific reference toward our work with auscultation. They were infused by our partner conversations in Bradford around curation and object-based participation. They are interdisciplinary protocols of listening. The protocol itself, as a form, remains a creative platform for experimentation; not a place to ossify knowledge or procedure, but a space for contact and debate. It has a pedagogical function in that sense. It might also be said to carry a social responsibility in that it demands a critical position of a given discipline, to face itself and confront its limits.
Protocoling and Glassblowing
For the last two years I have worked as a part-time administrator for Listening Across Disciplines II. I am also a glassblower, writer, and editor who over the last two years has moved more toward glassmaking—so though this section is written in the context of my work as an administrator on this research project, it focuses more on my work as a glassblower. I manage a glassblowing studio where we create tableware and lighting, train professional glassmakers, and also run a school where beginner glassmaking classes are taught.19 My role in the work on protocols for LxDII has involved both creating a protocol for listening when glassblowing, which I reflect on here, and working closely with the LxDII team in the development of the digital platform for listening protocols and vocabularies.
The term protocol seemed to me, when I first encountered it in the context of LxDII, to describe something fixed and repeatable, a way for someone else to carry out a repeatable action. In contrast, when glassblowing, the maker and material are in a constant state of change. Glass goes from liquid to solid to liquid, over and over again. It is viscous and fragile at alternating moments, requires speed and slowness at the same time in different parts of the body, and to interact with it means learning to meet its current materiality and adapt, second by second, to its changing state. The noise in the studio is also constant and constantly changing. Because of this ever-changing material, movement, and environment, I initially felt that creating a listening protocol would be difficult, if not impossible. It rarely feels as though the process of blowing glass is fixed or completely repeatable.
In the glass studio there are, however, quite rigid protocols for certain activities: lighting up reheating furnaces safely, setting up the studio for a day’s work, working with cold glass grinding and polishing equipment. Almost all of these are to do with personal and workplace safety. Many of them involve very specific listening tasks and competencies that need to be instructed and passed on. Therefore, when setting out to create my listening protocol, I naturally gravitated toward the teaching of glassblowing, rather than solely my own studio experience. In teaching, these sensorial competencies need to be translatable to another’s experience, so exploring what a protocol could offer me as a teacher was an interesting challenge.
Part of my protocol explored the cold working studio, which is where glass is cut, ground, and polished, a perhaps more natural place for a glassmaking “protocol” because there are more dangerous pieces of equipment there and the protocols that do exist for glassmaking are mostly related to safety. In the cold studio, we use large quickly rotating lathes, diamond saw blades, huge flat steel grinding discs—all rotating fast and requiring you to learn to hold fragile glass to them in just the right way so as not to shatter the glass or otherwise injure your body in the machine. While the extreme heat in the hot studio inspires an automatic caution from a visceral, physical fear, the necessary caution in the cold studio must be learned, so using the format of a protocol provided a means to reflect on how I teach in this dangerous environment.
I can’t use a machine with a student, as doing so would be dangerous. But I can show the student how to use the machine and at the same time teach a student how to hear when a machine is being used incorrectly. A subtle change in pitch or type of sound will indicate if there’s too much pressure or too little, or whether the glass isn’t fully resting on its base. In the studio, we don’t have a clearly articulated language for such sounds, so we rely heavily on a tacit understanding and on onomatopoeia and the way these words tie an action to a sound.
Marking difference in sound with a word seems to act as a memory device for a student, noting a material-sound-action-experience enough to help contribute to the development of a muscle memory. For example, at the glass flat grinding bed, when a “ringing” becomes a “screech,” it means release the pressure. To a practiced ear the sound differences are quite extreme. The act of creating a protocol, and more specifically the way the task forces me to consider the listening vocabularies I use when teaching the craft to others, allows me to consider how I use these words in the studio, what they can do, and how they create awareness of safe machine usage. It’s easy to think of machine usage as a mechanical thing, and yet it is also corporeal: It’s about how you move your body and the material in your hands against the machine. The sound word can be a marker in what is otherwise a gradient of sound change, a way to hear what feels safe from unsafe.
Listening is inextricably part of almost every aspect of the craft and the studio environment as a whole. However, I noticed on attempting to protocol this listening that only the direct safety elements are regularly part of glassmaking’s set protocols; for example, turning a machine on and hearing that it runs correctly: lathes should whisper, using a rough grit on a large wheel shouldn’t sound high pitched, a kiln idling at the correct temperature will intermittently click. Yet, when teaching glassblowing, sonic language is often used to translate something more generally experiential and tacit. The frequency with which I rely on sonic words in other parts of the glass studio, notably the hot studio, surprised me when tasked with protocoling them, when forced to use written language to convey this knowledge to someone not familiar with the material.
In the hot glass studio we use sound to orient ourselves in space, relative to equipment and others in the studio. Our visual concentration has to be on the 1,000-degrees Celsius molten material at the end of the blowpipe in our hands. And yet, awareness of the surrounding space must also be cultivated. Thinking about a listening protocol changed my sense of how reliant we are on sound in the studio. I frequently tell students to listen for people around them but wasn’t particularly aware that listening was the sense used for this people-focused awareness. It made me wonder how much quicker a student might become oriented to the studio space and the multiple, complex pieces of equipment if a period of focus was given to listening to them at the start of a class. Such an exercise might cultivate facility with the competing awarenesses required in a dangerous space.
Beyond awareness of peripheral activity, we also use sound and listening to convey the state change of glass itself. I quite often tell students that the scraping or clattering sound their tools are making on the glass means it is too cold and must be reheated. Some students easily intuit the temperature of the glass from how much it moves, but for others, different clues are required. Here, listening is part of developing the relationship with glass that allows for the body to quickly adapt to its changing state. Learning to work with a material like this—corporeally, rhythmically, dexterously—involves reaching a facility with glass when you can bypass active thought: Sound, movement, heat all tell the muscles things they know and can react to before the brain gets there. The vocabularies we use for listening are an essential means to transmit what is ultimately an embodied craft: Glassmaking requires a balancing of close and peripheral awareness, sensitivity to motion in myriad ways, and a complex understanding of a material that must be simultaneously seen, felt, and heard.
As the administrator for LxDII, I worked closely with the team in phase 4 to bring together and analyze the protocols from the project partners from very different disciplines to my own. With vastly different approaches to listening and how it is used within such varying practices, I was surprised by the flexibility of the term protocol to hold and articulate this diversity. The joy of seeing the digital platform come together has been the way in which it evenly holds these different approaches in dialogue, subtly linking ideas, terminologies, and methods via keywords and tags, without hierarchy or heavy hand. Craft processes like glassblowing, perhaps because of their location largely outside of the academy and the specialist and therefore insular nature of the communities engaged in them, don’t often have to articulate the kinds of knowledge they possess to others. But bringing attention to listening via protocoling has deepened my understanding of it as a tool in the glassblowing studio. Seeing the potential of the digital platform to hold and value the kind of listening the craft requires alongside other disciplines, it’s possible to imagine how this sharing of listening methods and language might benefit glassmakers and craftspeople generally, and how the competencies in glassblowing might be of interest to others from completely unrelated fields.
Reversing the Glossary
I am director of Finetuned Limited, a company focusing on interdisciplinary research and curated projects that also provides consultative and technical services to artists, galleries, universities, and more. Finetuned is a co-applicant on the Listening Across Disciplines project and worked closely with the research team to help formulate routes into manifesting the protocols within the contexts of the glossary, and we subsequently produced the design and construction of the protocol platform. In this part of the paper, I briefly chart the development of the glossary from its initial identification during the network grant meetings to its eventual incorporation as vocabulary within the protocol platform.
Our intention to create a cross-disciplinary glossary began with divergence. During the first LxD network event in June 2016, points of divergence arose, perhaps unsurprisingly, where presenters used all kinds of terms that were understood differently by attendees from other disciplines.20 The ensuing discussion on terminology caused me to suggest that a co-created digital glossary could be useful in forestalling situations where discussions could be disadvantaged or derailed by differences in disciplinary terminologies.
At the second network event in September 2016,21 Dr. Rupert Cox, a visual anthropologist at the University of Manchester, used the term transduction in a specifically anthropological sense.22 Dr. Daniel Rowan, a lecturer in audiology at the Institute of Sound and Vibration Research, University of Southampton, raised the issue that Helmreich’s definition was given as “any change in sound is transduction whereas in this [his] brain, transduction is when you’re changing the…physical type of energy,”23 and much of the subsequent discussion centered on differences in definition for this and other key words including sound and objectivity.
Helmreich’s entry on transduction, somewhat fittingly for our purposes, appears in Keywords in Sound, an interdisciplinary primer whose description states that it “presents a definitive resource for sound studies” but whose editors highlight, in the introduction, their intention that the included keywords would link to each other “in ways that disrupt linear histories of enquiry.”24 The conundrum of the glossary, as noted by Salomé earlier, appears here in the tension between the situating of the publication as canonical and its editors’ intention as exactly not that.
In the Listening Across Disciplines II research proposal, we put forth a plan to create a traditional glossary structure that would gradually be filled with entries from the partners involved in the fieldwork. This glossary was initially to be built into the LxD website, and as such would take advantage of the mechanics of the web: hyperlinks, popovers, etc.
In the background, additions to the glossary would generate a re-parsing of existing site content and new links would be created. Conversely, new content would be checked for existing keywords and any matches automatically linked to glossary entries. The glossary section was to use tiered metadata to differentiate between duplicate headwords, enabling multiple entries per headword while maintaining the knowledge domain associated with the definition.
The completion of the first round of listening protocols made it clear that we needed to think about the protocols’ content outside of the glossary structure; in some cases, multiple authors from the same domain used the same protocol but with slightly different vocabularies, or with different vocabulary definitions. On occasion the differences might just be different word usage but even in so few protocols, there were enough edge cases to demonstrate that a glossary structure would fail to be able to express these kinds of nuances. With a view to scaling up protocol entries over time, it was obvious we needed to create something else.
Nonetheless, we still needed to mine the protocols for metadata. Metadata structures were discussed and decided upon, and metadata was subsequently generated for each protocol. We performed some cursory data analysis25 across the collection to gain initial insights into what the protocols co-constituted, what interactions and cross-references existed, and what could be gleaned from viewing protocols from different data-visualization perspectives.
It became clear, due to the insufficient size of the corpus, that much of the metadata needed to be extracted by the research team, and in many cases, metadata was extrapolated from protocol content. These extrapolations, by not originating from the participants themselves, constituted a supervening context that, while scrupulously enacted, would necessarily add adventitious attributes to each protocol.
After we processed these issues, and the research team returned to the participants to source metadata, I began to formulate a conceptual design in which the metadata could be accorded the same status as the protocol. Doing away with the aside in favor of the beside would render the need for external references, and unsuitable structures, unnecessary.26 The design took the form of a dyadic layout in which protocols and expanded content have equality (equal status, equal real estate, equal point size). The model of the dyad, here referring to Pythagorean thought rather than Saussurean semiotics, actualizes the principle of twoness (or otherness), and which, in a philosophical system consisting only of the one and the many, presents the many.27 In the protocol platform, the protocol and its extended content (vocabulary, keywords, etc.) is always shown two-up, and those exploring the protocols are able to do so with everything to hand.
This doing away with the glossary is a reversal in the sense that the glossary, as a place for glosses (cf. glossarium), was created explicitly to move glosses outside of the text. Whereas in the early modern period glosses were written between and around the page text, the Corpus, Épinal, Erfurt glossaries (c. 700), and the Leiden Glossary (c. 800) compiled collections of glosses (glossae collectae) into single manuscripts.
The externalizing of glosses was a radicalization that created a supervening dimension in which the glossary was able to become a definitive resource, one that coordinates all relevant texts from its own space, according to the agenda(s) of its compilers.
Protocol Platform Prototype
In the platform prototype, two switches—vocabulary and keywords—allow users to graphically gloss the respective headwords. Literal glossing is inappropriate for a number of reasons, including legibility and accessibility, and graphic glossing provides quick routes into finding terms and usage frequencies. An additional introspect switch, taking introspect in the sense of keep looking into, fades all text except headwords in a kind of visual self-glossing that replaces the application of external filtering criteria to the protocol in view.
In support of this absence of external controls, switch settings are localized to each protocol. As the user navigates between protocols, by means of shared vocabulary or keyword links, switch settings are maintained per protocol. Users are able to compare similarities and differences between protocols, vocabularies, and keywords, and the lattice is particular to each user.
The foregrounding of comparability seems to me to reinforce the view posited earlier of protocols as demonstrations of how listening is, rather than how it should be, conducted. As such, users may adopt some part of a protocol in order to apply it provisionally in some context, then navigate through to another and see how that might alter their provisional application. So, alongside an inductive reasoning that requires reproducibility in order to be useful to others, there is scope for abductive reasoning. Abduction here is understood as the provisional selecting of a protocol to explore a particular empirical case or data set over any other candidate protocols.28 But freed of the normative next step (i.e., pursuit of the provisional protocol through further investigation), the platform affords opportunities for users to amend, adjust, or replace protocols and parts thereof—and/or data—as wildly as they see fit.
At the time of this writing, all protocols are text-based. There is scope to add other kinds of media protocols and if, or when, that occurs, the platform may move further away from the source structures it currently incorporates. As such, the platform could be considered more like a list of protocol items. The mechanics of the list seems appropriate to the platform; a list is always open and thus can always be added to.
Diffractive Listening as a Protocol
I need to declare from the outset that I am somewhat of an interloper among my fellow contributors to this journal article. I joined Listening Across Disciplines II as a postdoctoral researcher in the final phase of the research project, although as an artist-researcher I have been a member of CRiSAP since 2017 and I did participate in some of the early protocol workshops, so I was already aware of how the project had been progressing.
I came on board LxDII at a stage when the team’s work on listening protocols and vocabularies had already taken shape, the fieldwork to generate the protocols and gather the vocabularies had been done, and the digital platform representing both was underway. From my vantage point as a semi-outsider, I was struck by how this work resonated with my own research. During my doctoral work I developed a theory of “diffractive listening” as a way to think about my listening practice in spatiotemporal terms—to give it a shape, but also to consider it in relation to time (past, present, and future, as well as the durational aspect of listening).29 I call it a theory, but I think of it more like a methodological filter, through which everything passes. When broken down into its component parts, and in this context, it could be considered as a listening protocol, with its own set of interdependent vocabularies.
Without delving too deeply into scientific terminology, diffraction is one of a number of behavioral properties of wave phenomena (along with reflection and refraction). All waves, regardless of their spectral classification (whether they be light, sound, or water, to name just a few) carry with them the potential to be reflected, refracted, or diffracted when they encounter a medium. In their simplest terms: Reflection acts like a mirror in the context of light or image, and like an echo when thinking about sound; refraction refers to a change in direction of a wave, such as a ray of light through a prism; and when diffraction occurs, the wave bends around the medium that it encounters and continues in many different directions.
Donna Haraway primarily uses the term diffraction as an alternative to the metaphor of reflection, which informs the kind of reflexivity often relied upon in the cross-disciplinary field of feminist standpoint theory. She argues that “reflexivity, like reflection, only displaces the same elsewhere,”30 whereas diffraction patterns “record the history of interaction, interference, reinforcement, difference […], diffraction can be a metaphor for another kind of critical consciousness […] one committed to making a difference.”31
Haraway’s theories have influenced Karen Barad, who is equally critical of the kind of reflexive methodology that has proved useful to many academic disciplines, including the physical and social sciences. Barad argues that reflexivity has failed in the field of science studies because it is rooted in representationalism and still “takes for granted the idea that representations reflect (social or natural) reality.”32 As an alternative to reflexivity, Barad (following Haraway) proposes her diffractive methodology, which develops a (reworked Butlerian) theory of performativity as an alternative to representationalism. Essentially her aim is to deconstruct binary thinking, not just to make porous the boundaries between binary opposites, but to reveal the ways in which they are entangled. In this way differences are acknowledged, but without absolute separation.
Crucially, Barad uses an “agential realist elaboration of performativity” to argue that all matter enacts agency, all matter and phenomena are co-constituted through a process of “intra-action.”33 She clarifies this term as something that “signifies the mutual constitution of relata within phenomena (in contrast to ‘interaction,’ which assumes the prior existence of distinct entities). In particular, the different agencies remain entangled.”34 I found this particularly useful when thinking about the entangled nature of the protocol-vocabulary relationships born of the LxDII research—as they too are not considered as separate research strands, but rather co-constituted, with protocols helping to locate vocabularies and vice versa. In this way, they emulate diffraction patterns, reaching out in multiple directions and making meaningful connections.
Barad argues that her diffractive methodology allows for connections to be made across disciplines, creating a dialogue between different knowledge-making practices (essentially a reading of theories from different fields through each other, rather than against each other) in order to “engage aspects of each in dynamic relationality to the other, being attentive to the iterative production of boundaries, the material-discursive nature of boundary-drawing practices, the constitutive exclusions that are enacted, and questions of accountability and responsibility for the reconfigurings of which we are a part.”35 The work done by my colleagues on the LxDII project achieved this in practical terms by bringing together academics and practitioners from multiple fields and disciplines to understand each other’s perspectives. Through collaboration and discussion, they revealed the material-discursive nature of certain words and phrases used in their respective disciplines.
Barad’s work, however, is situated primarily in the sciences and although she does discuss briefly how sound and water waves can be diffracted, she uses diffraction mainly as an optical metaphor. What I find curious is the fact that Haraway and Barad both critique the use of an optical metaphor such as reflection, then replace it with another optical metaphor. It is the ocularcentrism of such approaches that I find problematic, because by privileging the visual, they ignore listening as a critical practice of engagement.
Annie Goh offers a possible solution to this quandary by connecting the work of Haraway and Barad to sound studies, specifically the burgeoning field of archaeoacoustics, which Goh argues has relied upon “damaging dualisms” such as the “subject-object binary,” which in turn “supports the relation between the masculinist subject/mind/culture and the feminized object/matter/nature.”36 Goh proposes a method of “sounding situated knowledges” by thinking through the phenomena of the echo, as she elaborates:
The echo is an apt feminist figuration for the diffractive methodology in sound. Although echoes in acoustics are often commonly defined as reflected sound, echoes as sonic experiences on a physical-material level […] are constituted by both reflection and diffraction, as well as refraction. […] Therefore, diffraction in sounding situated knowledges functions alongside reflection to suggest the validity of both metaphors in feminist epistemologies.37
Goh’s sonic intervention—via the echo, which in turn takes us to listening—is a welcome push back on Haraway and Barad’s critique of reflexive methodologies and allows for a more nuanced understanding of a diffractive methodology. For me, it also offers a way for the voices of those for whom notions of subjectivity and representation are still important, to be heard in all their complexity. Just as the work on listening protocols and vocabularies has strived to share knowledge and understanding across disciplines, thinking diffractively about my listening practice means amplifying the voices of marginalized communities who often struggle to be heard.
The theoretical framework for my theory of diffractive listening is almost complete. I just need one more element, and it relates to a more compassionate and ethical understanding of listening and a discussion of temporality. Lisbeth Lipari argues that at times, “we can hear but fail to listen […], hearing without listening is response without responsibility; it is a form of pseudodialogue without ethics.”38 It is with this in mind that Lipari develops her concept of interlistening:
In dialogue, interlistenings reverberate with connections to everything heard, thought, said, and read in the past, present, and future lives of each interlistener. […] Interlistening thus brings a multiple emphasis on the inter- of interaction, interdependency, interrelation, intersubjectivity, as well as an acknowledgement of the attunement, attentiveness, and alterity always already nested in our process of communication.39
Interlistening becomes even more relevant when Lipari dissects her term into three well-defined but inseparable parts. Interlistening is understood as “polymodal (occurring across multiple sensory modalities […]), polyphonic (occurring through the voices of different characters […]), and polychronic (occurring in a confused multiplicity of temporal modalities […]).”40 When these three parts are considered together, they allow for a consideration of the multiple temporalities that unfold (and are enfolded) through a practice of listening—whether that be in the context of a soundwalk, or an analysis of audiovisual artworks, or myriad other applications—and it gestures toward the possibility of listening through time and space. This, in turn, allows me to better articulate my theory of diffractive listening as a set of protocols and vocabularies. The following list encapsulates how I think about diffractive listening in practice. I believe it could be applied to a multitude of situations and experiences, including (but by no means limited to) a live concert, a gallery installation (of sound and/or moving-image), a walk in both urban and natural environments, a political protest, or anything else that invites a listening opportunity.
Protocols and Vocabularies for Diffractive Listening
Begin by bringing a sense of compassion to the experience. Be attentive to the sound of your own body and the bodies around you. Breathe.
Engage your other (nonvisual) senses. What do you feel, smell, or taste? Do your other senses corroborate or contradict what you hear?
Consider the multiplicity and relationality of the various and ever-evolving subjective positions and situated knowledges that an individual brings to a listening experience.
Acknowledge that everyone brings with them their own personal histories, imbued with their own sense memories and a sense of a wider cultural memory.
Extend your listening attention outward in all directions, like a wave rippling across water. Try to focus on what it comes into contact with.
Listen for echoes. Are they occurring in the here and now, or perhaps in another time and place?
Diffractive listening might be described as listening through time for the voices of ghosts, and not just the ghosts of people who exist or once existed, but also the ghosts of other possibilities—timelines that never eventuated but still resonate on another plane of existence. Diffraction is an ideal metaphor for thinking about parallel universes.
I would now like to briefly discuss how an experience of group practice has informed what in hindsight could be called a protocol of diffractive listening. In 2019 I had the opportunity to devise what might be considered as a more traditional soundwalk, which offered firsthand experience of the learning opportunities available when the listening attention of a group is attuned in a certain way. The walk was structured around a route that would encompass three very different sonic environments within a range-limited urban locale in central London. A group of fifteen of us began our walk in Bunhill Fields, the burial place of Catherine and William Blake, Daniel Defoe, and other historical figures. I chose this location as a potentially good place for the group to stay still for a while, to listen to our own bodies and the bodies of those who are buried there. What I did not anticipate was that our listening experience would be disrupted by the constant sound of building construction from multiple sites around the cemetery, which resulted in some surprising reflections on the temporal and spectral aspects of the location.
During our post-walk discussion some common thoughts emerged in relation to this embodied listening experience, which was made even more visceral by the penetrating vibrations of the machinery. Many in the group remarked that the sound of construction—of the ground being torn up and moved—made them think not only about their own bodies and the bodies (and ghosts) of those who are buried there, but it also invited a connection to the city itself and the way that London has been in a constant state of construction, destruction, and reconstruction over the last 2,000 years. Our next location was the Barbican Highwalk, which offered an architectural landscape full of sonic delights. The iconic brutalist building not only offered a visual spectacle that also engaged the sense of touch via its differently textured concrete, but the architecture regulated the listening experience in surprising ways. In various parts of the Highwalk the sound of traffic ranged from clearly audible, to amplified, to silenced. Other parts presented us with calming sounds of water from the fountains or melodic sounds from the Guildhall School of Music. The concrete surfaces also provided perfect examples of the way echoes and reverberations are experienced on a material-physical level and how, as Annie Goh suggests, they might be considered diffractively, not just as reflected or refracted sound.
Our third location took us through Whitecross Street Market during a busy weekday lunchtime when many local workers and residents were deciding what to eat from the plethora of food stalls. This offered myriad opportunities to listen to voices—eavesdropping on snippets of conversations that inspired many in the group to speculate about their possible backstories. This inspired an interesting post-walk discussion about the assumptions and inherent biases we bring to such a listening practice and the ways in which we might challenge them.
Looking back on the experience of designing and staging this soundwalk, I can appreciate how the practical implementation of a diffractive listening practice and the subsequent group discussions are very much aligned with the work on protocols and vocabularies achieved through LxDII. The co-generative nature of the protocols and vocabularies encourages a flexible approach to thinking about different listening practices. The wider team’s experience of embedded co-working gestures toward the notion of a collective subjectivity, one that embraces the multiplicity of perspectives and works together to include and amplify voices that otherwise may not be heard.
I hope that by discussing my own research in this context, readers can appreciate the ways in which the digital tool developed by the LxDII team can help to articulate their own listening practice.
We do not mean to write a conventional conclusion to this compilation of essays about vocabularies and protocols of listening, worked out through embedded and collaborative research and written based on interviews and personal reflections, applied in practice and made available on the digital platform.41 Instead, this remains very much a beginning. It generates an opening toward a cross-disciplinary working together from sound, staged through vocabularies and protocols in conversation and reflected on through the collection of different views and ideas on the processes and possibilities of the digital platform that interactively enables their connection: on how it came to be conceptually, in practice, technologically, and in terms of structure; what it enables in a present form; and what it might achieve for transdisciplinary and collaborative working across disciplines, in future incarnations and developments. These reflections are deliberately presented not in one voice or from an abstract position, but from the plurality of people who worked on this part of the research separately, and taking into account their own personal and professional use of such a platform. This we believe shows the different interests and approaches toward vocabularies and protocols of listening and ultimately toward the digital platform gathering them, and therefore we show how the platform can be used and engaged with by a plural readership who as plural listeners find their own way through the proposed instructions and connections. We hope this compilation of essays and the digital platform together deliver a collective and interactive way to access words and instructions that make connections through digital means and invite listening in a variety of contexts.
We conclude with our hopes and intentions, of which you as readers might play a part. We intend for people to access the platform and hope they find it useful, and that they will be inspired to interact and try different disciplinary listening approaches in a cross-discipline and undisciplined way. We also hope that some readers will add their own protocols and vocabularies. That they will observe themselves listening and write things down, reflect on the words used, the instructions composed…and that others will read those additions and do the same, ad infinitum, until we have all worked through new listening possibilities and are all competent and versatile listeners, equipped with many different approaches and words, able to hear between disciplinary boundaries and willing to trouble them.
More information about all our partners can be found here: https://www.listeningacrossdisciplines.net/partners/.
The prototype protocol-vocabulary digital platform can be found here: https://www.listeningacrossdisciplines.net/protocols/platform-for-listening-protocols-and-vocabularies.
Nelson Goodman, Ways of Worldmaking (Liverpool, UK: Harvester Press, 1978), 2.
This is an excerpt of my “Protocol for Listening in order to record Plants,” written in the context of “And it Tastes Like Hair,” a sound text installation produced collaboratively with Lisa Hall for Translating Ambience, Yarra Sculpture Gallery, Melbourne, 2019. Available at http://www.lisa—hall.co.uk/and-it-tastes-like-hair.html. The three recordings (figures 1, 2, and 3) are examples of the audio produced through this protocol and what a visitor would have heard on the hanging headphones.
Goodman, Ways of Worldmaking, 3.
Goodman, Ways of Worldmaking, 2.
Evanthia Kaimaklioti Samota and Robert P. Davey, “Knowledge and Attitudes Among Life Scientists Toward Reproducibility Within Journal Articles: A Research Survey,” Frontiers in Research Metrics and Analytics 6 (June 2021).
Jean-Claude Burgelman, Corina Pascu, Katarzyna Szkuta, Rene Von Schomberg, Athanasios Karalopoulos, Konstantinos Repanas, and Michel Schouppe, “Open Science, Open Data, and Open Scholarship: European Policies to Make Science Fit for the Twenty-First Century,” Frontiers in Big Data 2 (December 2019).
Solon Barocas and Andrew D. Selbst, “Big Data’s Disparate Impact), 104 California Law Review 671 (2016).
Andrea Cipriani and Corrado Barbui, “What Is a Clinical Trial Protocol?”, Epidemiologia e psichiatria sociale 19, no. 2 (April-June 2010): 116–17.
Distinction between protocol and process: https://www.proceduresonline.com/swcpp/files/difference_between_pol_strat_proc_prot.pdf.
Ultra-red, Five Protocols for Organized Listening (Berlin: Koenig, 2013), 4.
Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays (New York: Basic Books, 1973), 3.
Toni Booth, email message to author, August 13, 2020.
During phase 2 we did extensive fieldwork in health science and physiotherapy at the University of Southampton. In this episode of our podcast series, Dr. Debbie Thackray talks about how lung and respiratory health is explored via the listening practice known as auscultation, and how such medical listening is taught through technology and methods of simulation: https://www.mixcloud.com/Resonance/listening-across-disciplines-21-october-2020–3-auscultation/. We also reflected on the practice and teaching of auscultation in this peer-reviewed audio paper for Seismograf Journal (Sounds of Science Edition): https://seismograf.org/node/19473.
“Clunk is particularly relevant to intermittent camera mechanisms; it sonically illustrates the method of movement of the film through the gate, and the volume of this sound can indicate the smoothness (or otherwise) of this mechanism. A nice even whirr of a camera or a projector can indicate a precise piece of engineering of a quality item and so indicate that the user or viewer experience may have been better. On the flipside of this, a scrape can indicate an uneven or out-of-kilter mechanism. Clack is a word I use in relation to flick books and viewers such as kinoras or mutoscopes, as the pieces of card holding the images move past a piece of metal to give the illusion of movement. It not only indicates how well the object is working, but also the consistency (or otherwise) and speed of the hand operation. The number of clacks before the final clunk also gives an indication of the number of images and so the length of the animated piece.” Toni Booth, email message to author, August 13, 2020.
Toni Booth, email message to author, August 13, 2020.
For a demonstration of glassblowing techniques and other processes discussed in this article, see: https://vimeo.com/628830994.
Details of the first network event can be found here: https://www.listeningacrossdisciplines.net/archives/2016/events/listening-to-the-environment/.
Details of the second network event can be found here: https://www.listeningacrossdisciplines.net/archives/2016/events/listening-to-bodies-and-materialities/.
Stefan Helmreich, “Transduction,” in Keywords in Sound, ed. David Novak and Matt Sakakeeny (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2015), 222–31.
Listening Across Disciplines network event, September 15, 2016: https://www.mixcloud.com/Resonance/listeningacrossdisciplines_broadcast11_rupertcox, 33:00.
Novak and Sakakeeny, Keywords in Sound, 3.
Scattertext: an open-source tool by Jason Kessler for finding distinguishing terms in corpora and displaying them in an interactive HTML scatter plot. See https://github.com/JasonKessler/scattertext.
Despite being able to state this conceptually and in design terms, we are still required to use the HTML aside element for correct semantic markup of the content. Future iterations of the platform may implement web components to accurately reflect the conceptual structure.
For an in-depth exploration of the Pythagorean dyad, see Charles H. Kahn, Pythagoras and the Pythagoreans: A Brief History, Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 2001), 69–96.
Here I am paraphrasing Brianna L. Kennedy and Robert Thornberg’s definition of abduction in The SAGE Handbook of Qualitative Data Collection, ed. Uwe Flick (London: Sage Publications, 2018), 52.
Timothy Smith, A Queering of Memory, Temporality, Subjectivity: Subversive Methods in Audiovisual Practice (PhD diss., University of the Arts London, 2019). Available at: https://ualresearchonline.arts.ac.uk/id/eprint/15618/.
Donna J. Haraway, Modest_Witness@Second_Millennium. FemaleMan©_Meets_OncoMouseTM: Feminism and Technoscience (New York: Routledge, 1997), 16.
Haraway, Modest_Witness@Second_Millennium, 273.
Karen Barad, Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007), 87.
Barad, Meeting the Universe Halfway, 136.
Barad, Meeting the Universe Halfway, 429, n. 14, emphasis in original.
Barad, Meeting the Universe Halfway, 93, emphasis in original.
Annie Goh, “Sounding Situated Knowledges: Echo in Archaeoacoustics,” Parallax 23, no. 3 (July 2017): 288.
Goh, “Sounding Situated Knowledges,” 296.
Lisbeth Lipari, Listening, Thinking, Being: Toward an Ethics of Attunement (University Park, PA: Penn State University Press, 2014), 196, emphasis in original.
Lipari, Listening, Thinking, Being, 158–59, emphasis in original.
Lipari, Listening, Thinking, Being, 160.