[urban interfaces] research group at Utrecht University

[urban interfaces] Blogs

Guest blogpost: Joosje Holstein – Listening To Sound Resound Into Meaning

For our [urban interfaces] seminar series on the theme Creative Urban Methods (year 2022-2023), we invited participants to write blogposts. The best and most interesting ones we publish on our website.

Below is the blogpost for seminar session #3, written by Joosje Holstein:

My name is Joosje Holstein, I study Comparative Literary Studies, and I am fascinated by the idea of ‘reading the city’, in the broadest sense. What stories do the trees tell us, isolated green beings in between concrete and brick? How can we academically interpret urban spatial experience? What is the effect of mapping out visually the urban spaces inside a book? How can we intervene creatively in the city and why would we? The city is like a red thread through my academic path up until now: the first course I ever took was called “Cities and Cultures”, and in the meantime I have written about e.g. urban soundscapes and the mnemonic layers of cities. For my final RMA thesis I am planning to write about the city of Rome, and show by using actor-network-theory how some novels resonate with each other in the way they represent certain (postcolonial, posthuman) urban elements in order to deconstruct the myth of Rome as the Eternal City. My methodology will probably include deep listening!

Listening To Sound Resound Into Meaning

by Joosje Holstein


Nahuel asks us to close our eyes and listen deeply. We are standing in a circle in a seemingly silent small library in one of Utrecht University’s buildings in the center of the city. It has patio doors opening to the garden under the shade of elm trees. We do not look, however, at the library, the shade, or the trees; instead, this interactive seminar is about sound, and it is guided by artist Nahuel Cano. This focus on sound is new for him, he admits, but he has listened very deeply very much lately, and in particular to rivers. He has opened his ears to human and more-than-human sounds in and around the water, and also to the absence of sound: silence. He grabs all these elements and molds them together into one piece. It has transformed him from an actor into a composer. His biggest inspiration for this practice of deep listening, Pauline Oliveros, calls it “learning to expand the perception of sounds to include the whole space/time continuum of sound – encountering the vastness and complexities as much as possible” (xxiii).

When I close my eyes and listen, I try to move from very close by towards very far away. I hear my own breath, a shoe moving on the carpet, the electronic hum of the refrigerator, the wind in the leaves of the tree through the open door, people’s laugh swelling then dying, a car, the bells of the Dom, a rattling bike tire. But it is impossible to move linearly through time and space, placing these sounds in subsequential order behind one another. They come to me in a multidirectional, chaotic manner, and they are all simultaneously present and interwoven. And like this, sound is always present, as an invisible but unignorable blanket on top of the city.


When Jane Bennett writes about the vibrancy of matter, she only mentions sound implicitly. She writes about how everything is always moving, forming entangled assemblages. She writes: “Assemblages are ad hoc groupings of diverse elements, of vibrant materials of all sorts. Assemblages are living, throbbing confederations that are able to function despite the persistent presence of energies that confound them from within” (23-24). Although it is perhaps less matter-like, isn’t sound, then, the ultimate of vibrant assemblages? Vibrant and entangled by essence, it also tends to cluster in unexpected contradictory ways, like the hum of the fridge and the bells of the Dom that despite their utterly varying timbres happen to vibrate in the same tonality.

Perhaps the fact that I perceive this detail says more about me than it does about the nature of this sonic assemblage I am hearing. R. Murray Schafer, a fundamental soundscape scholar, writes that before a soundscape comes into being, it is already a priori perceived, and therefore highly subjective. Noises, those “sounds we have learned to ignore” (Schafer 95), those “splinter[s] in your ear” that don’t belong (Mansell 154) melt together with other urban sonic elements and form a landscape that only I can ‘see’. But more than highly individual, a soundscape is also culturally constructed; Emily Thompson argues it is “both a physical environment and a cultural construction of [the] world that incorporates (…) ‘a listener’s relationship to their environment, and the social circumstances that dictate who gets to hear what’” (qtd. in Groth 138). Likewise, Salomé Voegelin says we are always engaged in the soundscape, we are part of it, because “the senses employed are always already ideologically and aesthetically determined, bringing their own influence to perception” (3). So here I am, culturally conditioned but individual me, making music out of the fridge and the Dom.


Making music is like making meaning out of sound. Taking a step back, however, I wonder: is it even possible to detach sound from meaning in the first place? The difficulty of this becomes clear to me when I walk around the Dom, eyes on the pavement, ears wide-open, and I try to listen to human speech without immediately attaching it to the meaning of the words said. I travel into another realm, another scope of listening, in which I gain insight into additional forms of meaning making that are hidden in speech, behind the content of the words. The rhythm of speech is beautiful, I realize, and so is the intonation. Listening to language like this turns it into music without words. It still conveys meaning, though. And this way of listening is also like suspending linguistic meaning rather than being able to flee it forever. Suspension of all we had known before this moment (Voegelin 3). Eventually, the words run after me, overtake me, always. A group of teenagers is sitting at Domplein, one of them is telling the rest of the group something with a sharp pitched voice, and the rest laughs back, as if on command, almost hysterically. And this ritual repeats over and over again. It is like a musical call-and-response. I try not to listen to what they say. But curiosity kills the cat.

And so I see we always move from listening towards interpreting at some point, sooner or later. We make something out of what we hear. It is, of course, what Nahuel Cano does in his artistic projects. And it is what my friend Loes Bisschop, who enjoys making music and making soundscapes (and is also very good at it), did for me after I sent her my recordings of my walk around the Dom:
https://soundcloud.com/juliasole/rodedraad-joosje-v1/…. It is what everybody already does when we just listen.


So I decided to walk away with this method of deep listening after I heard it, and to make something out of it. This is just a freshly painted thought I will be sketching here. In my field, literature, sound inside literary text has been studied extensively, in a variety of ways. But I have noticed that sound lately has been used in a less concrete, more metaphorical way as well, to make sense of literature. Already for some time, literary scholars have talked about e.g. ‘unheard voices’ in literature, or ‘silences’ in the archive – just as Nahuel Cano has also listened metaphorically to the silences around rivers. Similar metaphorical approaches to sound have recently been increasingly welcomed inside the literary sound studies discourse. For example, Gerlov van Engelenhoven wrote an article in a sound themed issue of literary journal Frame, in which he used the concept of ‘silence’ as a metaphorical tool for postcolonial literary critique. I think sound, beyond its undeniable actual presence in the world, has a strong potential metaphorical power for (literary) critique. In its noisy, fleeting, volatile, everchanging, omnipresent nature, it can make some very established, stuck images that need challenging, vibrate, tremble at their foundations.

For my thesis, I am planning to develop a theory of ‘resonance’. It will depart from the concept of intertextuality, looking at how literatures resonate with each other in how they treat certain themes – but it will travel beyond it. I will focus on some literatures set in the city of Rome, that all resonate in how they deconstruct the ‘image’ of the Eternal City. Methodologically speaking, I will ‘deep listen’ to these literatures and the spaces, humans and more-than-humans inside them, to the unheard voices they amplify and the silences they leave. As mentioned before, my approach will be mostly metaphorical, but I will certainly listen to the echos and overtones of the actual sounds of the city and of the literatures’ language: sound, the vibrant assemblage, the so often forgotten layer.


Bennett, Jane. Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. Duke University Press, 2010.

Bisschop, Loes. “Rodedraad Joosje V1.” Soundcloud, uploaded by Julia Sole, 19 June 2023, https://soundcloud.com/juliasole/rodedraad-joosje-v1/s-ebbJ8w5atXq?…..

Engelenhoven, Gerlov van. “Powerful Silence as a Decolonizing Writing Strategy in Maria Dermoût’s De juwelen haarkam.” Frame, vol. 35, no. 2, Dec 2022, pp. 39-56.

Groth, Helen. “Literary Soundscapes.” Sound and literature, edited by Anna Snaith, Cambridge University Press, 2020, pp. 135-153.

Mansell , James G. “Noise.” Sound and literature, edited by Anna Snaith, Cambridge University Press, 2020, pp. 154-169.

Oliveros, Pauline. Deep Listening: A Composer’s Sound Practice. iUniverse, 2005.

Schafer, R. Murray. “The Soundscape.” Sound Studies Reader, edited by Jonathan Sternel, Taylor & Francis Group, 2012, pp. 95-103.

Voegelin, Salomé. “Listening.” Listening to Noise and Silence: Towards a Philosophy of Sound, Bloomsbury Academic & Professional, 2010, pp. 1-40.