Home » Projects » Biography of a Sonic Archive

Biography of a Sonic Archive

Historians and anthropologists regularly use sound recordings as evidence in their work. Recorded interviews, rituals, music and ambient sound all form part of a toolkit with which they assemble arguments, write ethnographies, or explore layers of history and memory. More recently, museums have begun to use sound in their exhibits, invoking events and cultures with recorded voices or stories. Often, recordings seem to be transparent transmissions from an elusive past. Instead, this project seeks to interrogate the recording itself as an early 20th century artefact crucial to the production of knowledge. Taking up anthropologist Steven Feld’s observations that sound recording is a “technology of creative and analytic mediation, which requires craft and editing and articulation just like writing”, I argue that the sound recording ought to be understood as a technology that generates rather than reflects knowledge. As such it merits the kind of attention to context, materiality, and narrative that scholars have long devoted to written texts and visual sources such as photographs or film.

I will approach this problem through the work of Laura Boulton, beginning with her work in the Caribbean, the region with which I am most familiar and where I have been doing research for almost fifteen years. Laura Boulton made some of the earliest recordings of songs and stories, beginning in the 1920s. Although she was not trained as an anthropologist or historian (she began her career, in fact, recording bird songs for her ornithologist husband), she traveled to Africa, Asia, the Americas and Europe and made hundreds of recordings. In the Caribbean region, she worked in the Bahamas, Cuba, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Jamaica and Guadeloupe. In addition to collecting sounds she also collected musical instruments throughout her journeys. She wrote an autobiography, lectured extensively and produced several commercial LP’s of her recordings. Collector, sound technician, filmaker and observer, she enjoyed a long and prodigious career outside the confines of the academy and its disciplines. Yet the ethnographic sound recording she pioneered came to enjoy a privileged position in the production of knowledge about culture and difference, as well as becoming one of the more marketable commodities of the twentieth century. I am interested in Boulton precisely because she worked at the boundaries of and between the discipline of anthropology, the music industry, and tourism. She left an extensive (unpublished) written and sonic archive, but has received remarkable little scholarly attention. I propose to use this Hampton Fund to initiate a project that uses the peripatetic career of Laura Boulton as a point of departure through which to ask after the conditions that produced the sound recording as a document of racial or cultural difference.

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