Space & Place

the walker’s lived experience is traversed by a “second existence,” the result of books, in such a way that the different types of experience merge and fade into one another. The lived experience is not in any way opposed to the lettered experience; each is informed and transformed by the other.

Sylviane Agacinski, Time Passing: Modernity and Nostalgia (2003), 56-7.

A lot of the work I do as a researcher and teacher connects to place and space. It was my interest in place that led me to study Comparative American Studies as an undergraduate; the books, films and music that I’d grown to love were those that provided me with spaces to imagine and which seemed to prvide an experience of place without physical travel. Although I didn’t get to study music on my degree, I was able to explore literature, history and film from North and South America and the Caribbean. I also travelled to Chile and around several parts of South America and the Caribbean, which allowed me to match my ‘lettered’ and ‘imaged’ experiences with actual physical geographies.

When I got the opportunity to study for a Master’s degree with the Open University, I was able to connect my academic study to my obsession with popular music and I found myself drawn again to space and place. My dissertation, on US country music and hip-hop, focussed on the representation of authenticity through place among other markers such as race. I continued this interest in my doctoral work, looking at intercsetions of place, memory, nostalgia and loss in various musics from Europe and the Americas.

During my PhD, I became very influenced by Georges Perec’s text Species of Spaces. I started to think about how we might connect the internal spaces of music (the space between the notes), the external spaces in which we experience sound, and the ‘spaces’ of perception that process the experience. What is the sonic equivalent of starting, as Perec does, with the space of the page and zooming out to the room, town, world, universe in which that page is being written? In the first book that devloped out of my thesis (Fado and the Place of Longing), I tried to pursue this idea and I have returned to it at various points since then.

Species of Sonic Spaces

In 2017, I got another chance to explore the relationship between Perec’s exploration of space and place in a themed issue of the journal Literary Geographies convened by Rachel Carroll (‘Species of Spaces: Transdisciplinary Approaches to the Work of Georges Perec’). I called my article ‘Species of Sonic Spaces’ as a response to what I called Perec’s ‘visualist logic’ in Species of Spaces (1974). Surprised in some ways that the book does not address sound as a way of understanding our environment, I decided to try and ‘auralise’ it by considering related chunks of the sonic environment.

As a way of setting my experiment up, I reflect on existing attempts to think of sonic spaces and on the differences between describing sonic, visual and other felt spaces. Perec’s analysis of domestic spaces can be usefully placed alongside Gaston Bachelard’s work on ‘the poetics of space’; his descriptions of urban rhythms can be compared to those of Henri Lefebvre; his attention to interiority can be considered in light of Peter Sloterdijk’s ‘microspherology’; and his division of space into species find a potentially productive aural analogue in Brandon LaBelle’s account of ‘acoustic territories’.

Noticing that Perec was very attentive to the sonic world in some of his other work, I discuss the role of sound in A Man Asleep (1967), An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris (2010) and Life a User’s Manual (1978), arguing that these works extend, develop, anticipate or reverberate with Species of Spaces in ways that are useful for providing it with a speculative auralisation.

Singing Places

‘Singing Places’ was a one-day symposium held at the University of Sussex on 22 November 2013, organised by Sally Jane Norman and I. From a popular music perspective, we were interested in songs about, or strongly connected to, specific places (and vice versa), while from a sound studies perspective, we were thinking about the resonant qualities of particular places, how places can be made to ‘sing’. A combination of popular music, ethnomusicology, folklore/song studies and sound studies would, we hoped, allow for some interesting discussions. This symposium, which drew together theorists and practitioners, aimed to identify key research questions associated with the theme of ‘Singing Places’, with a view to launching a longer-term programme of academic and artistic events.

Speakers: Margaretta Jolly, Amy Cunningham, Eugene McCloskey, Richard Follett, Jean Martin, Matthew Hodson, Danny Bright, Michael Bull, Sally Jane Norman, Richard Elliott.