Semiconductor (Ruth Jarman and Joe Gerhardt) will be presenting a sound art piece using aggregated seismic data from around the world at Cafe Oto in London, Thursday 15 November (A new venue to me, but after a look at their website I’m intending to be a habitué). Also on are computer music artist Valentina Vuksic and Graham Harman, who’ll be presenting a short piece on the philosophy of sound. Looks like a great event so I’m semi-certain to be there.
My own non-Object Oriented take on sound can be found here Sonic Art and the Nature of Sonic Events
Milan Kundera perfectly encapsulates what is great about Xenakis:
Even being a “prophet of unfeelingness,” Joyce was able to remain a novelist; Xenakis, on the other hand, had to leave music. His innovation was different in nature from that of Debussy or of Schoenberg. Those two never lost their ties to the history of music, they could always “go back” (and they often did). For Xenakis, the bridges had been burned. Olivier Mesian said as much: Xenakis’s music is “not radically new but radically other.” Xenakis does not stand against some earlier phase of music; he turns away from all European music, from the whole of its legacy. He locates his starting point somewhere else: not in the artificial sound of note separated from nature in order to express human subjectivity, but in the noise of the world, in a “mass of sound” that does not rise from inside the heart but instead comes to us from the outside, like the fall of the rain, the racket of a factory, or the shouts of a mob.
His experiments on sounds and noises that lie beyond notes and scales – can they become the basis of a new period in music history? Will his music live for long in music lovers’ memory? Not very likely. What will remain is the act of enormous rejection: for the first time someone dared to tell European music that it can all be abandoned. Forgotten. (Is it only chance that in his youth, Xenakis saw human nature as no other composer ever did? Living through the massacres of a civil war, being sentenced to death, having his handsome face forever scared by a wound…) And I think of the necessity, of the deep meaning of this necessity, that led Xenakis to side with the objective sound of the world against the sound of a soul’s subjectivity.
In Splice, Freeze, Stretch and Mutate: Digital rhythm as harbinger of the event Eleni Ikoniadou asks if the manipulation of microsound in granular synthesis reveals a “rhythmic time” below the level of our awareness of temporal succession. More microsound here!
Here’s intriguing extract from a film about Gæoudjiparl van den Dobbelsteen, originator of Radical Computer Music. RCM is not merely made with computers but designed for computers; or, more specifically, for prospective artificial intelligences/life forms that do not currently exist.
I need to research this further. RCM could an exemplary aesthetic vector for the posthuman, an elaborate metafictional joke, or both.
In ‘God and the Puppet’ Jean-François Lyotard claims with some plausibility that the musical identity of a sound or phrase is ‘allusive’ and subject to the free play of imagination, whereas judgements about the acoustic properties of sound (e.g. pitch, spectral composition in the frequency domain, envelope, etc.) are entirely matters of determinate judgement:
One does not “give” the theme of a symphonic movement as one “gives” the “A” at the beginning of the concert to tune the instruments. The first repetition, which is cognitive, induces a metaphysics of ideas, and the second, which is aesthetic, an ontology of being as non-being (Lyotard 1993, 154-5).
Thus whether a musical event counts as a repetition of a given type (e.g. motif or phrase) depends partially upon its structural relationships to prior and subsequent events, but also on the imagination of the subject who freely synthesizes these elements.
A metaphysics of non-being is entailed here, it appears, because facts about token sound sequences (e.g. that a phrase consists of particular pitch values, note durations, inter-note durations, etc.) underdetermine their musical type. The listening subject constructs these types, then assigns them to token sequences, rather then finding them in the musical material.
While this contrast might seem unexceptionable, one can object that Lyotard’s dualistic analysis of musical material fails to account for cases where there is audible slippage from the ‘aesthetic’ to ‘acoustic’ levels.
The complex percussion patterns of Xenakis’ Pléïades, for example, involve constant incremental transformations of preceding rhythmic cells. One hears a kind of repetition in the music – that is to say, one hears the transformation of the preceding element – but no variation or motif in the traditional sense; every successive pattern differs and diverges from the preceding pattern in ways that are audible but not readily assignable to discrete types.
Moreover, at certain points the rhythmic content becomes so densely packed as to effect a timbral transformation from discrete sonic events to clouds of such events perceptually fused within a single enveloping sound.
These moments call to mind Xenakis pioneering work on granular synthesis in Concrete PH. Here sonic entities result from condensations of ‘grains’ – very short sound elements whose onset, spacing, and envelopes are subjected to various global parameters.
In the first instance, then, the the sound may lack a formal structure of the kind that would give the formalizing imagination scope for constructing defined musical types. In the second, formal musical variation consists in the adjustment of acoustic properties, such as envelope and grain density, which on this analysis are matters of purely determinate judgement. So as an ontology of the musical work of art Lyotard’s two repetitions analysis is of questionable validity.
The two repetitions analysis fails because the repetition and patterning which invite aesthetic interest in Pleiadesand Concrete PH are as objective as any other audible property. These are not overlaid by a subjective act of ‘synthesis’ but are objective ‘syntheses’ in their own right. Xenakis’ works can thus be considered as explorations of an objective aesthetic realm that pre-exists the experiencing subject.
Lyotard, Jean-Francois (1993), The Inhuman, Geoffrey Bennington and Rachel Bowlby (trans.), (Cambridge: Polity)
Some metaphysical truth claims seem undetermined by all the naturalistic considerations we can adduce in their favour. Does this imply that the ultimate metaphysical facts are fixed pragmatically by our choice of conceptual scheme or ideology? Or are cases of underdetermination symptomatic of a deeper problem with the idioms and methodologies used in naturalistic metaphysics.
Here’s an example of underdetermination taken from the end of my article Sonic Art and the Nature of Sonic Events. SANS argues for a located event theory of sound (LET) but suggests, in closing, that our choice between two versions of LET is a) empirically significant (since it entails commitment to different claims about where and when sounds occur) but b) metaphysically unmotivated. According to Casey O’Callaghan ‘relational event view’ sounds are periodic disturbance of a medium. Thus sound events are caused by vibration events. However, according to Roberto Casati and Jerome Dokic’s account, sounds are vibration events.
While Casati and Dokic’s view implies that there is a sound located in a vibrating tuning fork contained in an evacuated jar; O’Callaghan’s implies that there is none. Either can cite support from folk intuitions. Thus most folk would probably judge that there is no sound in the evacuated jar. However, were the air in a jar containing a vibrating tuning fork to be regularly evacuated and replenished they might well perceive this as an alteration in the conditions of audition of a continuous sound, rather than the alternating presence and absence of successive sounds (perhaps this is one for experimental philosophy fans).
Thus the two theories trade truth values between particular judgements, while doing seemingly equal justice to the conceptual framework within which sounds are identified, located and sorted.
Similarly, while there are decent phenomenological, acoustic and psychological grounds for supporting event theories – as opposed to proximal theories (which identify sounds with sensory affects) or medial theories (which identify them with the waves which generate these affects for humans within the 12 and 20,000 hz range), it would be self-deceiving to claim that this bundle of folk intuitions and empirical assumptions amount to anything conclusive. While we might insist that one of these accounts must be the true one regardless of underdetermination, it is hard to see why we should embrace bi-valence here unless there is also conclusive evidence that weighs in favour of one or the other account.
Does this imply that there is simply no fact to the matter here and does this slack extend to other similar cases underdetermination (e.g in debates around personal identity or vagueness)?
However, accepting alethic as opposed to epistemic underdetermination just inserts a supplementary metaphysical claim alongside the other candidates: namely, that it is a fact that there is no fact to the matter about when and where sounds are. So embracing relativism or ‘undecidability’ offers no way out here. It seems, then, that if there are different ways of parsing the ontological pie here, it is because there is a sonic reality that transcends the above mentioned idioms. They are not wholly wrong, clearly, but they all somehow fail to capture the ‘being’ of sound.
Which raises the question? Well, if sound can be validly described as an located event, a sensory affect, or wave motion, but is really none of the above, what is it? And how can we arrive at an adequate metaphysics of sound?
The short answer, I think, is that an adequate metaphysics needs to do more than reconcile these claims but show how they adequately express an underlying auditory reality. Thus, as Casati and Dokic show, it is already possible to accommodate some of the intuitions associated with the medial theory within the LET by allowing that sound waves are the means by which our senses acquire information about sound events. This isn’t a metaphysical concession as it stands since sounds are still parsed as located events rather than as the transmission of acoustic energy within a medium, and the ontological relativity remains.
A better metaphysical account would need to go some way to reconciling LET with medial accounts insofar as they each capture something of the underlying metaphysics of sound which each either obscure or over-simplify. Both medial theories and LET identify sounds with events or processes but locate these differently in the total spatial and temporal ordering of events.The ontological difference, here, remains factual rather than formal. Otherwise put, this may be a problem specific to the event-being of sound. It is, perhaps, because sounds are events that they smear across locative boundaries. I have argued in SANS that this problem arises also when we come to demarcate containing systems in which located events are located. Should we locate count the computer within a digital-audio system as part of the resonator ( it is causally necessary for the alternating current that produces sound in the speaker) or count only the minimal supervenience base for the sound under any possible set of physical laws (e.g. universes where the same effect could occur as a result of ritual magic)? Although a spatially smeared-event of this kind is still an event, it is one that already defies adequate representation. This looks as if I am positing a kind of noumenal event behind the conceptually articulated auditory phenomenon, and perhaps that is the most honest position to adopt here. Sound is clearly not ‘unrepresentable’ or unknowable in the way that the Kantian noumenon is usually construed; but , equally, it seems to elude the conceptual partitions employed by analytic metaphysicians of sound.