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Listening as Strategy for Research: Extending Sonic Thinking in Documentary

DOI: | Issue 9 | Oct 2022

Francisco Mazza (Staffordshire University)


The emerging academic field of practice-based research, developed from an interrelation between artistic practice and academic research, has many historical precedents. Although many academic communities have welcomed the field in recent years, its effectiveness, especially its research methodologies, are often questioned and require justification (Boehm, 2008). The methods required to engage with the ambiguities of tacit and sensory dimensions of artistic practice are not always measurable or reliable and hence diverge from the rigidity and objectivity of the sciences and social sciences tradition. Thus, the ability to think about the world in other realms beyond the visual-logo-centric conventions of research will often generate conflict for new practitioners in practice-based PhD programmes when encountered with research norms as favoured by traditional quantitative and qualitative systems (Brabazon, Lyndall-Knight, and Hills, 2020). However, the interdisciplinary nature of research and the arts, when combined with the ambiguity of non-semantic expression, offer an opportunity to reframe existing knowledge frameworks within academia. This paper will consider how explorations of the sonic as a methodological tool can provide new forms of knowledge contribution, as sound appeals to the cognitive and the rational, as well as the creative. In this way, it holds space for the possibility of expanded connections, imagination and speculation (Bull and Cobussen, 2020). What kind of knowledge might sound provide to broaden and diversify the visual-logocentric methodologies that currently predominate scholarly inquiries and values? Reflecting on both the possibilities and challenges of using sonic methodologies in my PhD practice-based research, as well as a brief study of the film Zawawa: the sound of sugar cane in the wind, this paper will explore the creative potential of articulating sonic methodologies from the perspective of documentary filmmaking.


The human capacity to perceive the world and its realities relies on the materiality of things such as objects, spaces, and solids to be sensed in relation to less stable and intangible things such as time, feelings, air, thoughts, smells and sounds, as David Toop (2021) reminds us. Our ability to orient ourselves within the visual world in a stable and reliable manner relies on this, demonstrating that the material and tangible objects we can touch, hold within them suppressed oral culture and, consequently, elevate the eye above the ear as the preferred sensory organ (Berendt et al., 1988).

David Toop, in his article Resonance, Difference, Dismemberment, asks us to

Imagine then a reverse world in which reality is imagined or designed as a vaporous flux of vibration and resonance, in which words dissolve into shimmering echoes, physicality becomes diffuse, almost lost in a dream state of aurality (2016: 166).

This essay was written in response to Victor Segalen’s book In a Sound World, first published in 1907 with the original title Dans un Monde Sonore, and translated into English in 2021 by Marie Roux and R.W.M. Hunt. It’s possibly the first novel, written over a century ago, with explicit relevance to the histories of sound studies and ways of writing about sensory experience. Yet, the book has often been overlooked and not recognised for its seminal influence (Toop, 2021: 166). Dans un Monde Sonore, which places sound experience at the centre of its unusual plot, may inspire reflections on how Western culture has given prominence to visual-logocentric ways of knowing. These modes of understanding the world have culminated in a succession of reductive and limiting taxonomies which are consistently corroborated by research methodologies and academic traditions.

However, the recent turn to creative practice is one of the "most exciting and revolutionary developments to occur in the university” (Smith and Dean, 2014: 01) and is only gaining in popularity. Over the last three decades, opportunities for artists and creative practitioners to pursue higher research degrees, bringing the benefits of research to their practice and discipline and providing knowledge from the arts, have significantly increased. This has encouraged institutions to reconsider research traditions, what constitutes knowledge, and how it is validated and disseminated. Nonetheless, while artist-researchers have been able to borrow certain research strategies and methods from the qualitative tradition, the knowledge contributions required by PhD practice-based research programmes must still fulfil academic clarity and communicability standards, which have a direct lineage in scientific traditions. As a result, methodologies that employ visual frameworks and language must develop their tools of investigation and interpretation in order to impart the basic elements of research methods – accountability, transparency, and repeatability – requirements which have been exacerbated in recent years (Brabazon, Lyndall-Knight, and Hills, 2020). In this respect, it is still necessary to develop, improve and legitimise a feasible and distinctive research strategy employing methods that draw on long-standing and recognised theories and practices of the creative disciplines (Haseman and Mafe, 2014; Candy, Edmonds and Vear 2021).

This article engages in this apparent contradiction, reflecting on what new knowledge contributions we might be able to make by generating tools from less stable or intangible realms of sound and listening. Drawing on the current stage of my PhD practice-based research, which investigates the sonic landscape of documentary form, as well as a study of the film Zawawa: the sound of sugar cane in the wind, I will explore how the sonic might be a methodological tool and how it might contribute to current debates around what we know and how we know it. I will suggest the use of a range of practices, such as field recording, sound design, and documentary filmmaking, to translate listening experiences into a creative toolkit for field research. I will demonstrate how listening may be employed as a creative research method for testing techniques, concepts, and ideas, as well as integrating theories into practice through reflexivity. From the perspective of my research, which aims to investigate ways to extend 'sonic thinking' (Herzogenrath, 2018) from documentary’s conception (site, environment, sound) to the editorial stage (post-production), I argue that the fluid, ephemeral, and enigmatic quality of sound may provide complementary forms of knowledge beyond the dominance of a visual-logocentric paradigm in practice-based research.

To be clear, this article does not advocate for an elevation of sound studies and practice above the visual, textual, or any other sensory account. It attempts to expand the idea that sound might offer a complementary and distinct way of understanding, in terms of being and knowing (Feld and Brenneis, 2004, Sterne, 2012; Voegelin, 2021). Thus, it invites us into the realm of the multisensory; expanding and complementing the ways we see, understand and organise ourselves in the world.

PhD Art/Practice-Based Research

The term ‘practice-based research’ has become popular in creative arts research, however, it is still difficult to define, as the idea of 'practice' can encompass numerous different activities across a variety of disciplines. As a result, practice-based research is referred to in a variety of ways in literature, and there are differences in uses among fields. Terms such as ‘arts-based research’, ‘practice-based research’, ‘practice-led research’, ‘studio-based research’ and others are used more or less synonymously, and “this is problematic because there are no clear guidelines for what these terms stand” (Niedderer and Roworth-Stokes 2007: 02). As an attempt to justify the use of practice in research by categorising it, the terminologies are not clearly established and have multiple applications and interpretations (Ibid: 16).

Linda Candy and Ernest Edmonds have attempted to simplify this debate by distinguishing between conceptual and applied definitions of the terms ‘practice-based research’ and ‘practice-led research’, which are primarily employed in creative practice as part of PhD research programmes. From their perspective, practice-led research focuses on the nature of the creative practice that leads to a new understanding of it. In this regard, practice is an integral part of its methods. However, its results may be described in text form without the inclusion of a creative outcome. On the other hand, practice-based research requires a creative artefact or outcome as the basis of its knowledge contribution. This term is applied to investigations seeking to produce new knowledge through practice and to produce creative outcomes. In this sense, practice-based research might be defined as:

“A principled approach to research by means of practice in which the research and the practice operate as interdependent and complementary process leading to new and original forms of knowledge” (Candy, Edmonds and Vear, 2021: 02).

The distinction can be summed up as follows:

• If the research leads primarily to new knowledge about practice, and does not necessarily have a creative outcome, it is practice-led.

• If a creative artefact is the basis of the contribution to knowledge, the research is practice-based.

Yet, when an artist adopts a rigorous research method as a strategy for their practice, what distinguishes their approach from PhD practice-based researchers? As a necessary component of practice-based PhD programmes, the research outcome must be disseminated within a broader community through a structured process defined in university examination regulation, making an original contribution to knowledge of the field by addressing questions that are pertinent in the research context (Borgdorff, 2012; Candy and Edmonds, 2018). In a practice-based research PhD, claims of originality are demonstrated through creative output, which could take the form of performance, music and sound, digital media, games, filmmaking, poetry, photography, and other creative practices. They must be “accompanied by a critical discussion of the significance and context of the claims, and a full understanding can be achieved through the cohesive presentation of the creative artefact and the critical exegesis” (Skains, 2018: 86). However, critical exegesis comes with its own historical, cultural and disciplinary boundaries and expectations. The rationale and methods that relate to how and what we understand as knowledge contributions are founded on historical and geographical understandings of the world. The position of an exegesis requires the world to be viewed and written about using supposedly objective, truthful and reliable methods of inquiry, and thus restricts our ability to think about the world as other or of ourselves in other realms (Barad, 2003; Feld, 2015; Minh-ha, 1991; Voegelin, 2021).

In practice-based research, however, the engagement of the practitioner-researcher is central to the development of a specific methodology to the investigation. This is generally informed by the primary field of practice and the integration of a range of existing methods into the research process (Candy, Edmonds and Vear 2021). As a result, the intertwined processes of artistic practice and research allows the practitioner-researcher to think things differently by asking new questions, or asking those that are outside of academic tradition, and developing creative tools, methods, and processes in response. This may have benefits not only in creative spheres but also providing creative responses for today’s global challenges, such as pandemics, ecological disasters, social injustices, wars and so on.

However, the messiness and dynamism of the inquiry process, which is generally an important component of any creative process, will often result in counterproductive conflict for new practitioners in practice-based PhD programmes. Many will struggle to understand the regulations and procedures imposed by different universities when confronted with conventional research norms as favoured by traditional quantitative and qualitative structures (Brabazon, Lyndall-Knight, and Hills, 2020). Several scholars have observed that creative and arts-based research methods challenge dominant ideas about what constitutes research, knowledge, and impact, which might make it difficult for academics to employ these methods to obtain funding and support, and to publish their arts-based data (see, e.g., Borgdorff, 2012; Haseman and Mafe, 2014; Niedderer and Roworth-Stokes, 2007).

In other words, these contributions to knowledge must fulfil academic clarity and communicability standards, which require methods for investigations and interpretations to confer reliability, repeatability and consensus (Brabazon, Lyndall-Knight, and Hills, 2020). This might pose even more of a challenge for artists working with sonic practices which place emphasis on listening and the use of sound as research tool or methodology; who must trust their own perceived immaterial foundations in order to meet the requirements of academic traditions (Voegelin, 2021). Since practices and studies that realise themselves through sonic methods can often produce knowledge in non-verbal and non-visual forms, any definition of knowledge needs to include these more ephemeral forms of understanding. It must also consider the fact that knowledge can often be unstable, ambiguous, and multimodal, that it might be emotionally or affectively oriented, and that it cannot always be represented with the accuracy of a research traditions (Smith and Dean, 2014; Candy, Edmonds and Vear, 2021).

Many Resonances: Research Methods in Sound

The recent turn towards sound in art, theory, cultural studies, architecture, philosophy and anthropology, as well as across disciplines in technology and science, has proven that sonic methods of investigation and interpretation refer themselves to an embodied system of meaning (Gershon, 2011). In this, the indivisible sphere of a sonic sensibility requires the need for a “transdisciplinary approach that cuts across established methods and conventions of many disciplines” (Braidotti, 2011a: 7 in Voegelin, 2021). This touches on the cornerstones of human learning cognition, confirming that language is insufficient and inexact, and visual culture is often limited by its selective frame (Brown, 2021). Artists who apply methodical sonic tools such as field recording, soundwalks, improvisation exercises, sound design or musical performance to connect theoretical discourse with practical experience, deploy these methods to gain knowledge about social, political and environmental aspects of our world (Bull and Cobussen, 2020).

The Bloomsbury Handbook of Sonic Methodologies provides a series of articles exploring how knowledge can be gained from a methodology that has a direct material engagement with sound. These methods, vocabularies and theoretical tools that draw on sonic initiatives and experiences, for instance, have developed from at least two parallel tracks, split by methodological and ideological distinctions. Those who pursue intellectual assimilation of the unseen into the seen, in which sound is supported by traditional (visual) frames, and those who attempt to grasp the ephemeral qualities of sound reveal an unseen world (Cobussen, 2020 and Voegelin, 2020). As a result, many disciplines provide multiple perspectives on how new knowledge, experiences, and unfamiliar worlds can be revealed by listening, recording, processing and mediating sounds both in and out of auditory environments.

These sonic methods produce less tangible knowledge than more traditional forms of social inquiry, which rely on 'concrete' or visual data that can be tested for objectivity, reliability, and validity. However, it is precisely the diffuse, unstable, and indivisible qualities of sound (Augoyard and Torgue, 2006) that contribute to its uniqueness; its absorption is based on a temporal perception, a transitory instant of comprehension which accumulates to generate a deeper grasp of the entire form (LaBelle, 2015) and offers significant potential for the reintegration of multisensory experiences in knowledge production (Bull and Back, 2016; Pink, 2015). The indivisible sphere of sonic sensibilities offers the opportunity to access a world of intervals; spaces in between things (Minh-Ha, 2013). Therefore, auditory methods can transmit timbral information and frequencies to disseminate knowledge about places, environments, and surroundings. The immaterial, invisible and sometimes inaudible slices of this world also offer an alternative perspective, a “sonic possible view into the world” (Voegelin, 2014), within its indivisible atmospheres and emotional resonances.

Critically, the integration of sonic methods and components into practice-based research demands the development of a theoretical framework, not to mute the sonorous’ ephemeral and affective capacities (English, 2017), but rather to be effectively extended into research in order to be assessed and analysed.

Listening as Strategy

It might be taken as a given that hearing is more passive than listening, with sound pressure patterns influencing hearing but cultural experience and history affecting listening (Chion, 2012; Oliveros, 2015; Schulze, 2020). The contemporary emphasis on perception and embodiment in the current discourse around listening resonates not only with some of the possibilities of field recording as a method of recording and re-presenting experience, but also in connecting recordist, listener, and environment(s) in the "hear and now" of sound (Grimshaw and Garner 2015: 4). Accordingly, the recent proliferation of theories and practices of listening is emphasised as a transdisciplinary subject that moves across the humanities, and society, and contributes to fostering interpersonal and community relations.

Carlyle and Lane’s (2021) edited collection Sound Arts Now explores contemporary artistic practices and theories by bringing together interviews with practitioners from various disciplines, backgrounds and nationalities. As they reflect, the emphasis on listening and sound as a research tool or method emerges from the interviews more forcefully than it did twenty years prior. Thus, in the context of artistic practice and research, “listening is presented as medium or modality, a genre or a discipline in itself; on the other hand, maybe it is the exact opposite, …becoming a reflexive part and parcel of what a critical practitioner does” (Ibid: 223). Considering this, while reflecting on my experience as part of The Listening Academy (see:, established in 2021 as an independent research academy focusing on listening as a philosophical, artistic, social and somatic issue, I would argue that listening prompts critical and creative curiosity. According to the various activities and critical discussions that we have undertaken as a group, “listening is more than the hearing of audible signals; rather, listening supports a range of relevant processes and projects, including emotional growth, social recognition, attunement across human and more-than-human worlds, co-learning, and decolonial, eco-feminist initiatives” (The Listening Academy, 2021). In this regard, the current questions driving the 2022 edition are: How might we think further about listening as a critical, discursive field or modality? What forms of emergent practices can be developed and deployed by way of listening, which may impact current social and planetary challenges?

In fact, discussions about listening have historical precedents. The anthropologist, filmmaker, musician, and sound artist, Steven Feld has shifted anthropology perspectives towards listening and recording to delve into what he called ‘anthropology in sound’ (Feld 1996), firmly influencing the direction of today’s sound studies and sound culture studies (Boudreault-Fournier, 2021). Feld suggests that “an ethnography should include what it is that people hear every day” (Feld and Brenneis 2004: 462). Although he was initially inspired by the concept of soundscape developed by Schafer, which gives importance to the treatment of sound, he dissociated himself from this in favour of pursuing a more relational and contextual participatory motivation. In doing so, he rejected Schafer's aesthetic design in favour of an experiential collaboration between a place and its inhabitants (Wright, 2017). Feld expanded the framework of the ‘anthropology of sound’ to ‘acoustemology’ (Feld, 1996), a term coined from acoustics and epistemology, to refer to sound as a way of knowing. This anthropology of sound, which is understood and examined as sensory anthropology (Howes, 2005, Howes and Classen, 2013, Pink, 2015), represents the current effort to explore and integrate "sounding-as and sounding-through-knowing" (Schulze, 2020).

The essence and relationality implicit in acoustemology drive me to examine its theoretical and methodological applications in the context of documentary filmmaking. It would be a mistake to extend sonic thinking and research sensibilities to post-production in the documentary making without addressing listening. Hence, if sound can be a ‘potent trigger for research’ (Cusack, 2016), it is intriguing that listening beyond linguistic meaning remains overlooked in documentary filmmaking and, more broadly, in academic practice-based research.

Sonic Thinking Through Documentary Filmmaking

My practice-based research PhD, of which currently I am in my second year, seeks to investigate the ways by which sound might be channelled, received, and rearticulated in contemporary documentary film. The project titled ‘Amplifying Ambience: sound and place in unconventional documentary filmmaking’ aims to reveal new ways of thinking about the aesthetic and political potential of sound in contemporary nonfiction filmmaking by exploring sonic landscapes beyond conventional studies of audio-visual relationships. This draws on extensive reflections of how sonic methodologies, such as listening practices, field recording, and mixing, might be articulated on-screen by extending "sonic thinking" (Herzogenrath, 2018) from concept to the editorial process (from site-environment to post-production). It will contribute to the emerging discourse in sonic research concerning the evolving relationship between site-environment sound, the mediation approach from a practice-based perspective, and how narrative and sense of place are reconstructed in non-fiction films through the idea of amplifying ‘ambience.’

The documentary has long been a practice for framing and disseminating knowledge about the subject matter. It has historically emphasised the visual representation of events and situations transmitted through its ‘voice’, which has a perceived responsibility to authenticity at its crux. This has become a well-known territory of controversy. For Bill Nichols, ‘voice’ in documentary refers to the ways in which a documentary film speaks to an audience through the body of the film: editing, subtle and strange juxtaposition, music, lighting, composition, silence, as well as speech and images; all these structured mediations are considered strategies to externalise evidence. Thus, he argues that without evidence, the concept of documentary, or any story about the world, cannot be sustained. “It means facts and events exist, but their conversion into evidence depends on the analytical powers of the interpreter, be they historian or filmmaker (Nichols, 2013: 34).”

The point here, according to Nichols, is that evidence is constructed by questioning facts and events, generating argumentative discourse to answer questions. In answer to the questions, the documentary’s voice provides evidence through the persuasive rhetorical position of the filmmaker, firmly supported by visual representation. However, documentary films promote and validate their subject matter and certain voices, but it also chooses what to exclude when structuring their material. (Munro, 2019: 5). The emphasis on speaking through the documentary, which requires a hearing to focus on linguistic meaning, is often supported by historical concepts of visual representation. In a certain way, the documentary’s gaze has been historically organised in film and ethnography studies from the cultural perspective of the Global North.

Sound, and its diffusive capacity, has the potential to disorient dominant gazes and voices in a “generative process of listening, which, at the same time, offers other perspectives around and beyond that of visual representation. “Sound enters, bends, curves, envelopes, obfuscates, consumes, stimulates and generally evades easy holistic comprehension” (English, 2017: 128). By placing ourselves in the world, we can hear all the sounds around us simultaneously. Different information is constantly being communicated at the same time. This diffuse way of perceiving the world can offer the opportunity to critique a culturally oriented gaze, and its colonial histories, which have consistently been supported by the supposed objectivity of knowledge transmission in the documentary. Leaving this objective certainty behind moves us into an arena of radical uncertainty which remains open to all contingency of historical interpretation.

In this framework, by concentrating on the acoustic environment and how listening can be mediated in practice-based research, this research aims not only to reassess the hierarchical relationship between sound and vision but also to propose possible alternative auditory spaces for resonances that attune us to somewhere beyond “the spoken auditory norms that mediate the production and reception of documentary voices” (Rangan, 2017: 10).

The research questions I am currently addressing are as follows:

How is the agency of the acoustic environment mediated in contemporary documentary filmmaking?

To what extent can sonic methods and approaches, such as listening practices, field recordings and soundscapes, offer critical and creative insights into the relationship between sound and place (acoustic territory) that mainstream narratives and traditional ethnographic documentaries cannot?

Research Stages and Method

In order to address these questions, the research has been designed around three proposed stages, as demonstrated below:

Stage 1 - Contextual Review: literature review and interviews with documentary filmmakers and sound artists working with non-fiction media.

Stage 2 - Toolkit of Field Research - (in)Audition: testing methods, ideas, techniques, and integrating theory into the practice with reflexivity.

Stage 3 - Research Outcome: a short documentary film and written thesis to evaluate the research questions.

Stage 1’s interviews aim to examine the methods and ethics of field recording in documentary by looking at how non-fiction artists incorporate diverse strategies of sound recording and sound design into their practice. This was undertaken concurrently with the contextual review in order to gain insight into research directions and possibilities.

For the second stage, which I am currently undertaking, I have designed a series of creative toolkits called (in)Audition, that combines sonic methodologies with documentary filmmaking, resulting in sonic compositions and an audio-visual installation. These creative experiments will impact how the documentary film, which is the research outcome as part of Stage 3, will be produced, exploring the research questions through artistic practice.

Each project, which is part of the research toolkit and the documentary film proposed, will account for the emergence of complexity during the research process, shifting the theoretical frame according to the specificities of each project. Therefore, throughout my practice, I try to be as aware as possible of what these creative projects are trying to tell me. In this regard, I am always searching for responsive, responsible, and sensitive methods to the unique characteristics of each project, which I dynamically de-frame and reframe as required.

Figure 1: Creative Toolkit Research Method. Image Credit: Francisco Mazza (2022)

The documentary, proposed as the research outcome, will investigate possibilities where sound plays a primary role in the methodological process of filmmaking by focusing on the local acoustic territory: socially, culturally, and ecologically. It will attempt to decode both the audible and inaudible resonances of Peckham, a neighbourhood in Southeast London, and the place where I currently live. Listening to the acoustic territory and its vibrations, frequencies, cultural references and the sonorous world of everyday life on Peckham’s Rye Lane, the film will meditate on issues around gentrification and how the community has created what I call “acoustic resistance”.

Using a hybrid combination of immersive camera movement and static shooting with long takes, found footage materials, and visual abstraction, the film will attempt to push the visible limits through the manipulation of the soundtrack, and by utilising ‘acoustic territory’ (LaBelle, 2010) as a method of research. Furthermore, the focus on sound critiques the notion that the city space can be read-only discursively or visually, returning instead to an affective and embodied felt notion of community.

Figure 2: Still from Peckham Rye Lane. Image credit: Raquel Diniz (2022).

(In)Audition: A Journey Through Peckham’s Sonic Culture

Sonic Piece (In)Audition 1


Above is a sample of a sound piece produced as part of Stage 2’s toolkit of field research. In this piece, I attempted to inform possible sensory narrative strategies by extending auditory sensibility from the documentary's conception to the editorial process. In this regard, the piece explores the concept of sound mapping as a counter-narrative to the visual-linguistic evidence that traditionally operates in documentary films.

The piece was recorded in Peckham town centre - the exact location where the documentary will be filmed - as a creative translation of my listening experiences of the place. This can be perceived as an experimental tool outside of traditional composition or representation of any sound environment. Rather, it aspires to reflect upon what it means to listen critically to our environment using different sound technologies, and how the world's sonic experiences may be encountered at the intersection and borders of the audible and inaudible, of documentary and art. In this geography of Peckham, we hear music and textures, rhythms and vibrations, movements and stillness that produces the ‘invisible slices of the actual world’ (Voegelin, 2019: 77). Recording and composing with these audible fragments, which are not reducible to their dimensions, classifications, or role in debates over noise pollution, led to a distinct idea of an intangible geography. Rather, they produce a space where the poetics and politics of the acoustic territory can be amplified, reframed, and mediated as fragments of this world with its shifting dynamics. These sound worlds, however, are not parallel worlds, fictional fabrications, or illusions, but rather “variants of our actual reality” (Voegelin, 2019). They are the visible and invisible territories of Peckham, immaterial things, and unseen activities. Thus, when listening is articulated as a strategy for documentary filmmaking production, this ‘geography of sound’ practice may provide the legitimacy of a sonic world and “make it count as knowledge and power of the real” (Voegelin, 2019: 78). The potential to embrace sound not only to provide channels of identity, representation, and actuality, but instead to include an expanded possibility of reality overlooked by our visual-logocentric Western paradigm.

This composition is a fusion of real and cinematic time; a sound journey employing excerpts from lengthy recorded takes (a single shot in motion) as an aesthetic of fragments, using a range of microphones (binaural, geophone, electromagnetic, directional, and stereo) and sound design techniques. Thus, digital technologies are critical tools for field recording; capturing, editing, and amplifying sounds from environments, not only to create immersive multisensory experiences but also to materialise sounds that are not audible by the human ear. If reality is perceived and circumscribed by what we can see, hear, feel, taste and smell, we (as humans) have a limited capacity to perceive reality (Toop, 2022). From the auditory perspective, the world is flooded with waves and vibrations that are inaudible to human hearing capacity ranging from 20hz to 20khz. Technologies such as geophones, electromagnetic and contact microphones enable us to reveal infrasound, vibrations and resonances, accessing previously unseen and inaudible places, expanding our possibilities for being, understanding, and positioning ourselves in the world.

In this context, the sonic piece seeks to generate sonic effects from the ‘hyper-real’ (Field, 2000) experience afforded by a binaural microphone to an immersion in a cacophony of electromagnetic frequencies that are generally inaudible to us. It directs listeners' attention to the surrounding environment and frustrates their attempts to geolocate the auditory voyage logically. This contributes to the work of achieving 'delocalisation' through the diffuse capacity of sound (Augoyard and Torgue 2006), in which recording and sound design techniques occupy the peripheries of visual ability and position the listener in an extended sonic environment.

This creative acoustic inquiry creates an initial strategic opportunity to develop the filming and editing process, which entails a continuous dialogue between the different professions engaged in this documentary production (sound artist, cinematographer and film editor). The piece (In)Audition 1, and the footage material recorded in reaction to the piece, were submitted to the film’s editor, who responded by using the sound composition as a creative trigger for the narrative. This dialogical editing method provides a less hierarchical process for documentary filmmaking through the cyclical process of experimentation and reflexivity. Notions of documentary and art are fused through aesthetics and the social-political spheres of the sonic landscape. The discussions, reflections, and evaluation of this ‘dialogic editing through sound’ will be investigated in the research project as an intrinsic component of the thesis, developing the notion of listening as a strategy for research by extending sonic thinking through documentary production.

However, we must exercise caution while investigating listening discourses and practices from contemporary sound studies in the context of film sound studies. One may argue that they are entirely separate disciplines, since listening in the context of film studies necessitates the consideration of audiovisuality. For example, we cannot separate the visual and audio elements when witnessing a moving-image piece (Chion, 2012). In reality, what I suggest is a holistic and non-binary approach in which listening as a research strategy might be embedded in the whole process of documentary filmmaking, progressing from an embodied sense of place to audiovisual articulations. As a result, concepts of audiovisuality will be addressed in my research in accordance with the methodological sequencing outlined for the project.

Figure 3: Sonic Methods applied to Documentary Filmmaking. Image Credit: Francisco Mazza (2022).

A Brief Study of Zawawa: the sound of sugar cane in the wind

What does it mean to learn from other people's listening experiences, and to use these to direct sound recording, filming, and research processes?

Hearing histories, soundtracking US military film footage and researching aural testimonies were methods applied by anthropologist Rupert Cox, acoustic scientist Kozo Hiramatsu, and sound artist, Angus Carlyle, on their ten-year collaborative project, Zawawa. Their long-term research is concerned with the long-standing problems of ill health, environmental damage and social suffering caused by exposure to the noise pollution of US military jets on the island of Okinawa. The Pacific Island, which was devastated by the last battle of World War II, was subsequently occupied by the United States for 27 years leading to a considerable presence of military personnel, infrastructure and overflying aircraft, which persists today.

Juxtaposing perspectives from ethnography, sound arts and filmmaking, the team’s research has developed in several different dimensions. This has also resulted in the film Zawawa: the sound of sugar cane in the wind, a 50-minute experimental film, blurring the boundaries between art and documentary. The film clearly centres on aesthetics and the politics of listening. Opposed to conventional journalistic use of interviews or featuring subjects of war to merely expose trauma on-screen ex post facto, in Zawawa there is no use of voice-over, dialogue or normative film sound effects and music. Instead, oral testimonies are solidified as text and bear witness to the history of the US occupation of the island. Furthermore, it experimentally combines sonic and visual elements beyond cinematic audio-visual “synchesis’s normative” (Chion, 1994), mixing images and sounds of natural elements, military machinery, and ritual practices to convey the experience of many Okinawan lives in this conflicted territory.

Zawawa: the sound of sugar cane in the wind does not intend to objectively recreate or represent aspects of Okinawans’ collective trauma, but instead investigates the relationship between sound, place and memory suspended between the American wars of the past, present and future. It also explores how scientific analyses have historically ignored these subjective aspects. As Rupert Cox indicates:

“[t]his is because military sound cannot be contained by the borders of the military bases and flight paths it originates from but like all sound moves and settles in the bodies of listeners as the sense of a place over time” (Cox, 2019: Visual Research Network).

This interplay of traumatic memories with configurations of the landscape during the conflict may persist as a reverberation that affects the place and its inhabitants even when sounds are not physically present. In other words, the role of sound in the peritraumatic (what happens during the traumatic experience) is intertwined with its spatial circumstances through “a violence of low frequencies that migrates beyond the outbounds and instantaneity of a sonic event while contaminating the proximate environment” (Safa, 2022: 03).

Figure 4: Excerpt from the film Zawawa (2017). Directed by Rupert Cox and Angus Carlyle. Japan / UK. Image Credit: Rupert Cox and Angus Carlyle (2017).

In this film, collective memories reverberate through oral testimonies into a vibratory landscape, and can only be potentially sensed through aspects of ethnography and art. Amplifying sonic textures as testimonial material via an embodied engagement with the landscape and the aesthetic possibilities of non-fiction film, offers a tactile component for accessing shared memories. In other words, the emphasis of the sensorial aspects of ethnography, as Scott MacDonald puts it, “can offer its audience a sensory experience that reflects on the actual experience of others (including the filmmakers themselves) as occurred in a special place during a specific time” (American 315, in Unger, 2017: 07).

Of course, various techniques and creative strategies are involved in establishing and evoking the presence of a place in media by recording or manipulating sound to create a somewhat believable world (Chattopadhyay, 2017: 02). Or when the environmental sounds in documentary films are treated creatively to such an extent that they dissolve into musical timbres and structures yet retain a solid connection to their home image (Rogers, 2020). However, in Zawawa, listening was adopted as a holistic and primary methodological approach, functioning as a research catalyst from the project’s conception to creative decisions on the film production. Hiramatsu, Cox and Carlyle’s fieldwork was devoted to learning from the islanders’ listening experiences and using these to direct their sound recording, filming, subsequent interviews and artistic mediation. They were interested in how sound resides in place not only as vibratory movements of air but also through memory, resonance, and reverberation. Zawawa is an Okinawan word meaning the sound of sugar cane rustling in the wind. This film is about the capacities of sound, heard by inhabitants of the island of Okinawa as a felt memory of the Pacific war and its post-war aftermath.

Angus Carlyle (2021) devised a methodology of ‘civic listening’ as a way to connect heard histories; through places that evoke the sounds of remembered pasts, archives that can be listened to for oral testimonies, or the reverberations of a present historical moment. According to him, critical and conceptual aspects of this method came from the idea of ‘rough listening’ - a way to divert from the norms of ‘high-resolution sound’ inspired by cinematic and musical contexts. This runs in parallel to Hito Steyerl’s (2009) concept of the ‘poor image’, which is in direct contrast with the “brilliant and impressive, more mimetic and magic, scarier and more seductive” of high resolution. Carlyle sidesteps the ‘brilliant and impressive’ aspects of sound design, working with rougher, poorer textures and at smaller scales that reveal media rather than vanishing them. This shifts virtuosity in solidarity with the aural diversities that echo our “vibratory individualities” (Carlyle, 2021). In this form of aural portrait, listening requires affective and open attention to the specificities of individual memories, where language is unable to communicate the ignored and unheard, exposing the impossibility of accessing pain, damage and trauma via linguistic means alone.

This combination of sonic methods of investigation such as listening, field recording, and sound design combined with creative writing (autoethnography) and filmmaking, enables creative translations from embodied inquiries of fieldwork to artistic possibilities. Doing and thinking, experimenting and theorising are dynamic practices that play a constitutive role in our relation to the world through the sonic. As a result, sonic methodologies act as a complementary and diffusive way of knowing, expanding visual frameworks into a place where linguistic meaning is unreachable, which Unger (2017) refers to as 'experiential knowledge,' or knowledge based on affective experience.

Figure 5: Carlyle, A. (2021). Listening Diary from Zawawa presented at "Listening as an art"

Epas’ online event.

Aural Reflexivity

Nicole Brown (2021) argues that knowledge is constantly relational, contextual, and multidimensional - never fixed - and should encompass multiple forms of communication. In this context, she reminds us that language is only one form amidst many others, including bodily expression, listening, and visual languages, although it is extensively used as a primary mode of communication and learning in several aspects of educational settings. Therefore, in response to education’s logocentric traditions, she proposes a process which involves the combination of participatory research, artistic practice and embodied approaches from autoethnography to art making, as three essential strands for practice-based research. Through this, an intertwined process of ‘doing-thinking-being’ is established as a holistic approach in which data is continuously translated from one strand to another. Thinking critically about society and writing about oneself in order to 'make sense' within a specific practice requires strategic translation into a creative artefact in order to aid in the development of new knowledge within practice-based research (Brown, 2021).

Thus, this process, and translations across ‘doing-being-thinking’ in which methods are associated with embodied inquiry, artistic practice and reflexivity, might be useful in the context of my research. Adopting critical listening practices as part of my research method will require strategies of translation; from ‘experience’ into 'data' in order to be analysed, evaluated and articulated into creative work. However, listening, like memory, is ephemeral, relational, and immeasurable, and no sooner than it is heard, it is gone. The method that I have developed for my own practice-based research has incorporated aspects of autoethnography, field recording and filmmaking as a way to materialise listening and make it suitable for analyses, study and creative use. As Cathy Lane illuminates:

“[r]ecordings both make and are memories – ghostly traces of the past remaining in time and space. These traces of the past echo and reverberate through language, place-names, family stories, song and the sounds of the natural world to form a sonic background to the present” (2015: online).

Thus, autoethnography combined with field recording remains a promising technique for analysing personal experience in order to derive understanding about broader cultural experiences (Ellis, Adams, and Bochner 2011) and their mediation through documentary filmmaking.

I documented and logged my experiences as field notes, creative field recording, sound composition and audio-visual experimentation as part of the creative toolkits. Together, these methods of documentation constitute a ‘creative analytical processes (CAP) ethnography’ (Richardson and Pierre 2008 in Skains 2018: 88), which can be reassessed at any moment in the future. This will permit critical reflection and analyses on patterns, correlations, discoveries, study and creative use. I expect that the resulting creative output and critical exegesis will be inextricably linked, informing one another in a knowledge exchange through a looping process of practice and research, only possible through “a creative reflective practice” (Candy, 2020).


The methodologies and outcomes originated from the entangled process of creative practice and research are often called into question and require justification. The current discussion around practice-based research aims to clear the way for increased recognition of new methodologies in the future of interdisciplinary research. It also questions whose knowledge counts, and how we can explore forms of communication beyond traditional research consensus.

In this context, this article reflects on my PhD practice-based research into how the relational capacity of sound and listening can contribute to broadening and diversifying the visual-logocentric methodologies that currently predominate scholarly inquiries and values and questioning what kind of knowledge it might provide. I have examined how sonic methods can be used in research, and developed a creative toolkit of field research reflecting on the challenges encountered and the possibilities of adopting listening as a strategy for documentary filmmaking. Expanding sonic thinking and sensibilities through documentary filmmaking demands tuning and reorienting our attention to the sensory and perceptual responses and insights of the many dimensions of the world and ourselves. These suggest that in contrast to opposing approaches that rely on either text or the visual, where often one excludes the other, an emphasis on sound offers the capacity to merge reflection, auto-ethnography, and more standard methods of analysis. Finally, current emphasis on listening and the emergence of sound as a research tool or method offer novel ways to engage with practice-based research resulting in a phenomenological and exegetical research process that can embrace and pluralise ways of knowing across disciplines. In doing so, this article contributes to the academic discussion about creative and arts-based research methods.


Special thanks are extended to my supervisors, Dr Agata Lulkowska, Dr Sharon Coleclough and Dr Marc Estibeiro, for their phenomenal support during my research process.

This research is funded by the GTA-PhD Scholarship in Film “Practice-Based Research” - School of Digital, Technologies and Arts at Staffordshire University.


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