Karin Bijsterveld Karin Bijsterveld

The hunt for sound

In Culture
Written by  Femke Kools Wednesday, 21 December 2005 00:00

Maastricht contribution to Battle of the Universities

It is distinctly quiet in the corridor outside her office. From time to time the windows tremble in their grooves, when two floors down someone uses the main entrance. Otherwise you only hear the voice of Prof. Dr. Karin Bijsterveld, who is making a phone call, while her door is ajar. Bijsterveld, sound historian at Universiteit Maastricht, studies sound related to the technological development of sound equipment. Her article ‘What Do I Do with My Tape Recorder…?: sound hunting and the sounds of everyday Dutch life in the 1950s and 1960s’ is the basis for participation of the ‘Bijsterveld Team’ in the Battle of the Universities, where they represent Universiteit Maastricht.

In the Battle of the Universities, thirteen universities fight each other. They draw up a proposal of how they would present their scientific research to a big audience. The winner gets 100.000 euro to realize the proposal. The ‘Bijsterveld Team’ was already setting up a public project that shows among others how the history of technology is interwoven with cultural practices. The project wants to shed a new light on the history of day-to-day life and the material culture of the fifties and sixties, among others with two exhibitions in Sittard and Amsterdam. The entry of the project led to a place in the final. “That is an extra motivation for all participants in the project. It gave us more good ideas. But we will realize it in any case, with our without the prize of the Battle of the Universities.” Karin Bijsterveld about her fascination for sound and technology, leaf blowers and red ears from excitement.

In her first year at the Music Academy she found out she would never excel at playing the flute. “Quite painful, actually, because I had just been given a new instrument and I had to tell my parents I was going to quit. ‘What will you do instead?’ asked my mother on the telephone. I really hadn’t thought about that yet. ‘History’, I said on an impulse. And so it happened.” After her doctorate she was appointed as a university lecturer in the department of Social Science and Technology of Wiebe Bijker, who would have preferred her research to focus on the television. ‘But I was not very keen on television, so I had to think of a good alternative that would convince him. I was thinking hard, but was continuously disturbed by sound from outside: airplanes, lawn mowers, I was worn out by the noise. And then I realized that my research had to be about sound.” By now, sound and technology have been her field of study for nine years, and it is officially called ‘auditory culture’. It will keep her going until retirement, she says.

Sound hunters

Her study of sound hunters is the basis for the entry in the Battle of the Universities. Sound hunters were the pioneers of the tape recorder use. In the fifties they would go off to record everyday sounds, which they subsequently exchanged with great admiration. “What really struck me was their fascination for sounds that were produced by machines and economic activity. Piles that were driven into the ground, factory sounds; those sounds were welcomed with great enthusiasm and they were very often recorded. They represented the industrialization that was enormously important in those days. It was a sign of reconstruction.” Towards the end of the sixties that positive feeling turned around. People spoke of noise nuisance that was even regarded as environmental pollution. Also the popularity of the tape recorder decreased at the end of the sixties for several reasons which Bijsterveld describes in the abovementioned article.

The traditional history of technology describes particularly the development of the equipment. The user context of that technology, however, is what fascinates the sound historian. ‘A sound in itself does not provide all the information. But once you see what a sound means to people, you realize its importance. The way that sound changed the world view of people. For example, when the radio was introduced, people found it incredibly confusing that they could suddenly listen to three church services at the same time. Isn’t that fantastic? Or take the mill. These days it symbolizes calm and a rural atmosphere. But in the sixteenth and seventeenth century it was considered an enormous noise maker that was only allowed to turn at certain times.”

‘Which culture transformation has technology brought about in society?’ That is the central question for Karin Bijsterveld. New technologies never change the world at one go, is her experience. “You can put high hopes of new technologies into perspective by placing the technology in the context of the cultural practices of a population. The tape recorder, for example, was ultimately mostly used to collect music, a use that had been hugely underestimated by its manufacturer Philips.”

Noise nuisance

Presently she is working on a book about the history of noise as a consequence of the introduction of certain technologies. “When the gramophone made its appearance in Dutch society, this also introduced the concept of ‘noise nuisance’. Conservatives and liberals felt that those gramophones should be prohibited when they caused nuisance. But the socialists and communists pointed at the classical instruments of that elite group and indicated that they had been forced to listen to those for centuries already. That turned into a fierce debate with the main issue: ‘who controls sound?’ I read that kind of historic sources with red ears from excitement.”
The sound that her own ears like least is that of a leaf blower, maybe also because she doesn’t recognize the necessity of that device. “Personally I prefer to listen to a symphony orchestra, or a choir. I have always continued to make music.”

The other members of the Bijsterveld Team are:
dr. Ruth Benschop (UM), Prof. Dr. José van Dijck (UvA), Prof. Dr. Gerard Rooijakkers (Meertens Institute & UvA), Annelies Jacobs (UM student), Caroline van Kimmenade (UM student), Julie van Oost (UM student), Jan Smeets (UM student) and Victor-Jan Vos (UvA student). For more information about the Battle of the Universities, visit: www.academischejaarprijs.nl
Prof. dr. Karin Bijsterveld is extraordinary professor of Science, Technology and Modern Culture at the Faculty of Arts and Culture of Universiteit Maastricht.
The article ‘What Do I Do with My Tape Recorder…?: sound hunting and the sounds of everyday Dutch life in the 1950s and 1960s’ was published in the Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television. It is part of the NWO financed project ‘Sound Technologies and Cultural Practice’ that studies the relation between the advent of new sound technologies and changes in the production and consumption of popular and modern classical music.

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