A morning walk along the coastline of island of Giudecca transforms to an exercise in listening. The overall soundscape consists of dripping of a fountain, rumbling of vaporettos passing by and chiming of church bells over the canal from the shore of Dorsoduro. The layered frontal sounds are easily detected from near, mid and far fields.
Moving away from a reflecting wall to the nearby bridge reveals another sonic experience. The sonic environment opens up to the total of 360 degrees. The frontal sounds are still there, but now they are accompanied by the flapping of the waves of the canal and igniting motorboats right behind the listener.
These two encounters resonate with the theories and methodologies applied in sound studies. In a recent anthology edited by Christina Guillebaud it is discussed, how the notion of soundscape has been conceptualised and how it relates to the one of ambiance. The former has been understood to relate to visual analogy, two-dimensionality, maps and frontal perception. The concept of ambiance is characterised by such terms as multimodality, three-dimensionality and immersion. The list here is by no means an exhaustive but a suggestive one. More profound analysis would require further questioning and contextualisation to history of the two disciplines mentioned.
Characterising the concepts of soundscape and ambiance leads us to think of hearing as a special sense compared to other senses. It helps us to further ponder not only the sensory environment, but also how we are relating to the world by listening to it aesthetically, politically and scientifically.
However, in underlining these specific skills and approaches we should avoid the pitfalls what Jonathan Sterne calls audiovisual litany, referring to generalisations on differences between audible and visual worlds. Perhaps even more important is that we should be more aware of not replacing audiovisual litany with multimodal litany. In doing so we would be sweeping the special requirements of act of listening and documenting the soundscapes under the rug.
Guillebaud, Christina (ed.) 2017. Toward an Anthropology of Ambient Sound.
Sterne, Jonathan. 2003. The Audible Past. Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction.