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Sound Instruments and Sonic Cultures Conference

This interdisciplinary conference explored the relationships between sound instruments and sonic cultures.


Modernity has witnessed an accelerating proliferation of sound instruments—devices that allow humans to purposefully produce, capture, observe, manipulate, broadcast or otherwise interact with sound. Examples are numerous: sound instruments include all musical instruments, acoustic and electronic, as well as scientific, medical, and military instruments that operate sonically, from the tuning forks and resonators of 19th-century acousticians, to Geiger-Müller counters, Fessenden oscillators (sonar), and ultrasound scanners. Sound recording, playback, and listening devices are sound instruments—record, CD, and MP3 players, tape recorders, loudspeakers, headphones, etc.—as are studio and live sound technologies like mixing desks, compressors, reverb units, computers and software devices such as Autotune, and guitar effects pedals. Radio and television sets are sound instruments, as are terrestrial and mobile telephones, as are hearing aids. The list goes on.

The development of sound instruments has been paralleled by the development of sonic cultures—cultures of listening, cultures of creative production and consumption, cultures of scientific and medical practice, cultures of scholarship and heritage, cultures of designing, building, and testing sound instruments. Sonic cultures (to expand upon the perspective offered by musicologist Mark Katz in his book Capturing Sound) can develop in response to, or through the use and/or creation of, sound instruments. A sonic culture exists wherever a social group orients its activities around a particular set of practices that has to do with sound, listening/hearing (or non-hearing), and/or the use or creation of sound instruments. Examples are too numerous to list comprehensively, but Karin Bijsterveld has highlighted sonic cultures among scientists, engineers, and medical practitioners in her book Sonic Skills, and Trevor Pinch and Frank Trocco documented sonic cultures of instrument making and use in their book Analog Days: The Invention and Impact of the Moog Synthesizer.

As part of the National Science and Media Museum’s recent incorporation of sound technologies as a key area of collecting and research, the purpose of this interdisciplinary conference is to critically explore relationships between sound instruments and sonic cultures.

Conference programme

Download a printable copy of this programme (DOCX)

Monday 14 December

10.00–10.30 Informal networking opportunity

10.30–12.00 Conference welcome and Electronic Soundscapes Panel, chaired by David Clayton

  • ‘All Those Sounds Lying Dead’: The Haunting Strangeness of Sound Technology in John van Druten’s Flowers of the Forest—Marta Donati
  • ‘Wireless for the Blind’ and ‘Television for the Deaf’: Disability, d/Deafness, Technology and Sound—Rachel Garratt
  • Field Recording, Technology, and Creative Listening—Jean-Baptiste Masson
  • Electronic Musical Instruments as Interactive Exhibits in Museums: Three Case Study Objects—Edward Wilson-Stephens

12.00–14.00 Lunch

14.00–15.30 Sonic Methodologies, chaired by James Mooney

  • (Re)creating Sonic Pasts and Cultures: Mechanical Recording Technologies as a Tool in Understanding Early Sound Recording—Inja Stanović
  • How to Talk about Sound: Semantic Dimensions of Abstract Timbres—Ben Hayes and Charalampos Saitis
  • Music and Deaf Culture in the Digital Age—Octavia Rioual
  • Divergent Sonic Cultures: Investigating the Vocalisations of Large Whales and Birds—Ann Warde

15.30–16.00 Coffee break

16.00–17.30 Instrument Makers, chaired by Edward Wilson-Stephens

  • The Mysterious Kymographer—Daniel Walden
  • Sounding the Circuit: Reconstructing the Terpsiton—Christina Dörfling
  • The Tavil as a Modern Instrument—Thamarai Selvan
  • Electronic and Sonic Cultures of Techno, House, and Hip-Hop: From Technological Determinism to Musicians’ Creative Practices—Samuel Lamontagne

17.30–18.00 Coffee break

18.00–18.30 Performance: ‘Untitled VII’ by Marianthi Papalexandri-Alexandri and Pe Lang

Tuesday 15 December

08.30–09.00 Informal networking opportunity

09.00–10.30 Sonic Futures: A Digital Engagement Project at the National Science and Media Museum—James Mansell, Alexander De Little, Annie Jamieson, Aleksander Kolkowski (Respondent)

10.30–11.00 Coffee break

11.00–12.10 The Sound Archive: Institutions and Memory, chaired by Tim Boon

  • Sound Instruments and the Archival Impulse: Recording and Archival Technologies in European Radio, 1930–45—Carolyn Birdsall
  • Listening Instruments and Methods: Auscultating Museological Bodies and Spaces—Salomé Voegelin, Mark Wright
  • Stroh Violin and Auxetophones—Aleksander Kolkowski

12.10–14.00 Lunch

14.00–15.00 Technological Mediations of the Voice-Body—Anna Thomas, Jacob Kingsbury Downs, Jacob Mallinson Bird; introduction TBC

15.00–15.30 Coffee break

15.30–16.40 Sound Embodiment, chair TBC

  • Art of Noise, Sculpting Music: The Sound Sculptures of Derek Shiel—Brian Inglis
  • Tactile Speech and Biosensor Performance as a Case of Voice-Skin—Zeynep Bulut
  • The Psychotechnics of Musical Listening—Joshua Navon

16.40–17.10 Coffee break

17.10–18.20 Silence, Noise, Dynamics, chaired by Trevor Pinch

  • Pauses for Thought: The Political Ecology of Recorded Silence in Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad—Michael Hedges
  • Symphonies of Colour and Sound: Performative Enactments of Deafness—Jaipreet Virdi
  • Opera, Musical Theatre, Amplification, Microphones, Dramatic Narrative—Gabriella Roderer

18.20–19.00 Social session

Wednesday 16 December

08.30–09.00 Informal networking opportunity

09.00–10.30 ‘Need We Say More’: Contemporary Responses to the Fairlight CMI—Manuella Blackburn, Rob Puricelli, Stefania Zardini Lacedelli; introduction by Paul Harkins

10.30–11.00 Coffee break

11.00–12.30 The Matter of Sound, chaired by Annie Jamieson

  • Sound as Material: The Design and Performance of Historical Theatre Sound Effects—Fiona Keenan
  • Reel-to-Unreel: Early Tape Use at the Groupe de Recherche de Musique Concrète and the Groupe de Recherches Musicales, 1951–63—Joseph Kay
  • The Sound of Philadelphia and the EMT-140—Toby Seay
  • ‘A Cacophony of Bells, Screams, and Whistles’: ‘Endless Loop’ Tape Machines and the Sound Culture of Top 40 Radio—Alexander Russo

12.30–14.00 Lunch

14.00–15.30 History and Material Culture of Electronic Music, chaired by Edward Wilson-Stephens

  • ‘An infinity of timbres’: Sound Synthesis and the Origins of Electronic Instruments—Cathy Lucas
  • Real Drums at Your Fingertips: A Close Reading of the LM-1 Drum Computer Interface—Greg J. Smith
  • Engaging With Electronic Music Technology in Finland in the 1960s and 1970s—Mikko Ojanen
  • The Ceno-Orchestra and the Origins of Phonographic Listening—Reuben de Lautour

15.30–16.00 Coffee break

16.00–17.10 Sounding the Nation: Sound, Identity and Power 1, chaired by Rachel Garratt

  • Sound Instruments and the Politics of Listening—Hugo Boothby
  • Musical Instruments as Military Instruments: The Sonic Culture of the US Military in World War II—David Suisman
  • The ‘Oriental Riff’ Mystique: Electrifying Tapping Sounds, Mediating Sonic Popular Cultures—Runchao Liu

17.10–17.30 Coffee break

17.30–18.40 Sounding the Nation: Sound, Identity and Power 2, chaired by Marta Donati

  • Laura Redden and Herman Melville: American Civil War Poetry as Recording Technology—Jamie Fenton
  • Composing Cyberpunk: Sampling Asian Identity in Acoustic and Non-Acoustic Creative Music Processes—James Rushworth
  • Collecting Voices as a Cultural Technique: How Listening Cultures Instrumentalised Phonography in the Early Italian National Sound Archive (1928–32)—Simone Dotto

18.40–19.30 Social session

Thursday 17 December

10.00–10.30 Informal networking opportunity

10.30–12.00 Using Sonic Material to Deepen Literary and Art Historical Research, chaired by Deborah Kapchan; introduction by Emilie Morin

  • The Surround Sound of Ling Shu Hua’s Friendship Scroll: Using Sonic Material to Deepen Literary and Art Historical Research—Heidi Stalla, Diana Chester, Madi Lommen

12.00–14.00 Lunch

14.00–15.30 Music, Science and Instruments in France from the 1789 Revolution to the First World War, chaired by Graeme Gooday

  • Musical Mechanisation and the Revolutionary Industrial Agenda: The Advisory Board for Arts and Trades, 1791–1807—Rebecca Dowd Geoffroy-Schwinden
  • ‘Monstrous Sirens’: Music, Science, Religion, and Technology in Nineteenth-Century France—Fanny Gribenski
  • Politicising Sonic Vibrations: Music, Sound, Medicine, and Power in France’s Long Nineteenth Century—Jillian Rogers
  • The Pathological Voice in the Third Republic—Sarah Fuchs

15.30–16.00 Coffee break

16.00–17.10 Curatorial Responses to Sound Instruments, chaired by Edward Wilson-Stephens

  • Cybraphon: A Foray Into Museum Collecting of Social Media—Alison Taubman
  • Sound Playability and Sonic Mediation: Inside the ‘Studio-Son’ Sessions for Children by the Philharmonie de Paris—Frédéric Trottier
  • The Electronic Sackbut project: How (and Why) We Are Making the World’s First Synthesizer Playable Again—Tom Everrett

17.10–18.00 Coffee break

18.00–19.00 Keynote: Trevor Pinch: In the Moog: Psychedelic Tingles and Timbres

Friday 18 December

10.00–10.30 Informal networking opportunity

10.30–11.40 Community and the Co-Creation of Sound, Music and Art, chaired by Marta Donati

  • ‘Do not imagine that because I am silent I am not present’: Sonic Communities in Samuel Beckett and Denis Johnston—Rhiannon Moss
  • Intersections in Musical Instrument Design and Maker Culture: Situating Contemporary Music Hacks and DIY Instrument Practices in the Age of the Makerspace—Jon Pigott, Aidan Taylor
  • Transforming Sonic Culture: Reformation of Traditional Chinese Musical Instruments in the Twentieth and Twenty-First Century—Joseph Wong

11.40–14.00 Lunch, including ‘Future Research Directions’ lunchtime discussion (12.30–13.30)

14.00–15.10 The Sound of Modernity, chaired by Jean-Baptiste Masson

  • 2020 Vision: Sound Instruments and Virtual Reality—David Cotter, Ella Nixon
  • Symphonie Pour un Homme Seul and the Sound of Abstraction—Samuel Ridout
  • The Test-Disc Cultures of the Audio Compact Disc Format—Eamonn Bell
  • The History of Composing Automata—Nikita Braguinski

15.10–16.00 Coffee break

16.00–17.10 Cultures of Sonic Resistance, chaired by Mara Mills

  • Gender, Race and Power in the Interfaces of Analog Modular Synthesizer—Asha Tamirisa
  • Hobbyist Radio Making in Early Twentieth-Century China—Paulina Hartono
  • ‘Yo Yon Mon Brooklyn!’ The Brooklyn Pirate Radio Sound Map—David Goren

17.10–18.00 Coffee break

18.00–19.00 Keynote: Mara Mills: ‘Everything is a filter’? A Cultural History of the Electrical Filter

Abstracts and biographies

Monday 14 December

Tuesday 15 December

Wednesday 16 December

Thursday 17 December

Friday 18 December

How to register and access content

The conference is free to attend for all. Events will take place on Crowdcast and recordings will be available to view until 14 January 2021.

Crowdcast registration instructions

If you’re using Crowdcast for the first time:

  1. Go to the Sound Instruments and Sonic Cultures Crowdcast page
  2. Click on a session in ‘Upcoming Events’ or ‘Past Events’
  3. Click ‘Save my spot!’ or ‘Watch replay’
  4. Enter an email address and request a link
  5. Check your emails for a confirmation message from Crowdcast and follow the link to complete registration

If you’ve used Crowdcast before and already have an account:

  1. Go to the Sound Instruments and Sonic Cultures Crowdcast page
  2. Click on a session in ‘Upcoming Events’ or ‘Past Events’
  3. Click ‘Save my spot!’ or ‘Watch replay’
  4. If you’re not already signed in, you’ll be prompted to enter your email address and password

Further information

In addition to the below sponsors, we are grateful for the support we have received from the Cheney Fellowship programme at the University of Leeds and the Leeds Arts and Humanities Research Institute (LAHRI).