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.
Here is a so-far unpublished musing on Jean-Francois Lyotard’s writings on music in The Inhuman. At some point, no doubt, I will be revising it in the light of my published work on computer music and the analytic metaphysics of sound (See Roden 2010). In the meantime, I’m interested in hearing from anyone who thinks that Lyotard gets something right about avant garde music.
In his essay ‘God and the Puppet’ Lyotard describes musical repetition in terms that are Derridean in all salient respects: the musical identity of a phrase, chord or rhythmic cell in a composition is ‘not determined’ as a Platonic essence ‘once and for all’ but is continously ‘modified’ through the iteration of further musical events (the traditional methods of variation and transposition being but special cases of such iterative processes). This account is then supplemented with what Lyotard refers to as ‘an observation of a different order': namely, that each performance of a musical structure has a timbral ‘singularity’ which distinguishes it from other exemplifications of the same structure. Of this he writes
“And one is thus tempted to think that it escapes all repetition, not only that involved in contituting the sound’s identity, but that of the formal variation demanded by music. Even what is aptly called the ‘rehersal’ [repetition] of a work by a performer… cannot manage to control the timbre or the nuance which will take place, singularly, on the night of the concert. With the nuance it seems that the ear is given over to something incomparable (and therefore unrepeatable) in what is called the performance, ie. to the here and now of the sound, in their singularity, in their one-offness, in the aspect by which they are, by virtue of their position, not subject to spatio-temporal transfer.” (Lyotard 1993, 155)
This passage is resonant of those in Discours, Figur where Lyotard talks of the thickness of perceptual space which is irreducible to the flat, digitalized space of langue; also, his description of the painting as a pure event preceding the various discourses that inscribe it in history in ‘Newman: The Instant’. It is Lyotard singing in the key of phenomenology in so far as the timbral singularity is certainly a phenomenon, something that appears. Yet – as Lyotard seems to acknowledge in parts of The Inhuman – it is already a phenomemology in crisis (phenomenology minor). Lyotard, ventriloquizing Kant and Leibnitz, equates consciousness with the capacities of memory and conceptualisation; a ‘poor monad’ unable to link a current presentation to past and future presentations could hardly be said to be conscious. Yet while human experiencers certainly have that capacity, they are also afflicted by ‘material’ that is absolutely singular, resistant to generalization, unrepeatable and hence of a heterogeneous order to the synthesizing activity of consciousness.
The first thing we need to consider is Lyotard’s use of ‘timbre’ to refer to what is ‘incomparable and unrepeatable’ about the auditory event. In another essay in the Inhuman Lyotard distinguishes timbre from those musical variables such as pitch and dynamics which correlate more or less directly with physical parameters like frequency and amplitude:
“Nuance and timbre are scarcely perceptible differences between sounds … which are otherwise identical in terms of their physical parameters. Nuance and timbre are what differ and defer, what makes the difference between the note on the piano and the same note on the flute, and thus what also defer the identification of that note.”(Lyotard 1993, 141)
There are a number of problems with this formulation. Firstly, while timbre may not be related to any single acoustic parameter it is (as anyone who has ever programmed a synthesizer will tell you) related to the spectral composition of the sound together with its temporal profile or ‘envelope’. More importantly perhaps, it is simply not true that timbres are incomparable or unrepeatable. As the electro-acoustic composer Dennis Smalley demonstrates in his essay ‘Spectro-Morphology and Structuring Processes’ the development of technologies for the (digital or analog) storage of sound has incited the development of taxonomies of timbral values in which timbral variation, development and repetition can be schematized in manners at least analogous to schemes of melodic and harmonic development. Now, it is important to distinguish the varieties of formal descriptions that might be applied to a series of auditory events and the events themselves and it could be objected that such events are always incomparably richer in content than their formal models. However, I am not sure that Lyotard could respond in this way. This is because the distinction at issue is not between two types of content (say, conceptual and non-conceptual content) but between content and something other which Lyotard occasionally refers under the rubric of ‘matter’.
Despite its allusion to Kantian rational psychology, Lyotard’s employment of the term does not appear to involve the postulation of some unformed ‘stuff’ that must be subsequently ordered by the cognitive faculties but to that which opens up consciousness to the es gibt (‘there is/it gives’) of being(s) as such. What gives experience the capacity to open onto a world (an auditory world, for example) is a certain epaisseur (thickness) which can never be transferred even to experiences which approach qualitative identity. The passages that discuss matter in the Inhuman imply also a rejection of any transcendental structure which might account for the ‘it gives'; it is, above all perhaps, a gift, an intrusion ‘within’ the synthesizing activity of consciousness that necessarily escapes synthesis (whether of repetition or conceptualization).
In ‘Obedience’, the companion essay to ‘God and the Puppet’, Lyotard suggests that we understand avant-garde musical practice in the twentieth century as the gradual ‘liberation’ of musical material, resulting paradoxically from our increased technical and scientific mastery of it. Wheras in previous centuries audition had been constrained by ‘the timbres imposed by classical, baroque and modern instruments; the durations and rhythms measured bu the time signatures and counterpoint; pitches defined by modes and scales’ (Lyotard 1993, p. 168) – everything indeed which could be assigned to the formal and iterative aspect of music – a range of artistic, scientific and technological developments has made this traditional paraphanalia seem increasingly irrelevant to auditory reality. The work of the avant-garde is, paradoxically, to exploit the vastly developed possibilities for the manipulation of acoustic parameters in order to render the ear more ‘obedient’ to aural matter, to sound in its singularity and, yes, inhumanity. The question asked by such exemplary avant-gardists as Cage and Varese, according to Lyotard, is not ‘how can we use sound?’ so much as ‘how can sound use us ?’
The relationship between this historical narrative and Lyotard’s distinction between musical matter and musical form should be apparent. The hold of traditional musical forms upon auditory reality is precarious because timbre – the raw, unconceptualizable matter of sound – is ultimately resistant to repetition or formalisation. This schema – if it is rigidly adhered to – leads to a problem of the incarnation of musical texts analogous to that raised by Derridean iterability. If timbral events really are singular and unformalizable how can we explain their coherence within larger wholes ? Moreover, what makes one sequence of sound events more ‘obedient’ to the timbral event than another ? Lyotard cites a passage from the writings of the composer, Varese, at this point, which suggests that in his work form is no longer an arbitrary or subjective imposition but is a result of objective tendencies in the material:
“[The] timbres taken one by one, as well as their combination are the necessary ingredients of the sound-mix – they colour and differentiate the various planes and volumes – and far from being the fruit of chance,, they are one with form. I do not use sounds of the basis of subjective impressions as the impressionists did when they chose their colours. In my musical works, the sounds are an intrinsic part of the structure.” (Lyotard 1993, 172)
Lyotard glosses Varese as follows:
“This autostructuration of colours (Varese happily uses the metaphor of ‘crystallization’) implies notably a liberation from the great musical forms accredited by the tradition, and especially the sonata form. Contemporary music undoes the melodic plot in which the sound matter is subordinated to a sentimental narration, an odyssey. The dialectic of epic which encloses the time of the work in a beginning, a development and an end – with its harmonic counterpart, resolution – stops organizing musical temporality. What is presented in contemporary music is a temporality of sound-events, accepting anachrony or parachrony, rather than a diachrony.” (Lyotard 1993, p.173)
The rhetoric of objectivity, of fidelity to the intrinsic character of the medium is one of the characteristic gestures of high modernism. However, it is far clear that Varese’s deployment of timbral events in a work such as Poeme Electronique could really be accounted for in terms of the self-organizing character of the sonic entities of which it is composed. The Electronic Poem utilizes formal patterns of repetition and variation, tension and resolution which emerge from the compositional decision to deploy prototypical sounds in particular combinations.
However rudimentary such a form of variation might be it would be impossible if timbres really were ‘incomparable’, that is if the quality of timbre, like melody, rhythm and harmony was not a result of the structural properties of the auditory event. Lyotard’s difficulties seem to arise as soon as matter is removed from the purely speculative zone of the aporetic and given a ‘concrete’ realisation. If timbre seems to us more ‘palpable’ (and hence less transferrable) than other musical parameters this is perhaps due the late emergence of a canonical treatment of timbral organisation comparable to traditional diatonic harmony. This historically (and technologically) conditioned fact is also part of the ‘phenomenology of timbre’. We can illustrate this by comparing the relative ease with which a western audience can discern patterns of harmonic transition or resolution with the formidable difficulties involved in discerning timbral progression and organization, a situation beautifully exemplified in a passage cited from the musicologist, W. Woira’s Les Quatres Ages de la Musique in Nattiez’s semiological study, Music and Discourse
“Music is a play of tones, that is, of fixed, clearly defined quantities. Other sounds, glissandos, cries, noises, may occur as inserts; if they are numerous it is partly musical; if they predominate, it is no longer music in the proper sense of the word” (cNattiez 1990, p.47)
Indeed for most listeners the highest level of (nonharmonic/arhythmic) timbral organisation is a relatively discreet and continuous sound ‘packet': a fact reflected in the memory architecture of most synthezisers and samplers which have been designed with commercial applications in mind. If this is a consequence of a complex set of historical factors (which would, of course, include the cultural preponderance of tonal harmony and the relatively recent development of technologies which can manipulate timbral variables with any facility) then it is hardly illuminating to attribute the ‘singularity’ of timbre – understood as a resistance to formal organisation – to its phenomenology.
If aharmonic, arhythmic timbre, noise if you will, is only contingently intractable, then the motifs of matter and passivity which Lyotard employs to account for it must be open to question. As Nattiez emphasizes, the boundary between music and noise is determined at the ‘poietic level’ of compositional strategy and the ‘esthetic level’ of perceptual strategies. Are we then to understand the singularity of the latter in relation to an audience’s lack of certain requisite skills ? We can, up to a point, just as we can account for the intractability of Coltrane’s ‘Giant Steps’ solo for those who have not ‘internalized’ certain harmonic, formal and rhythmic practices either as listeners or performers. However, in accounting for the conditional singularity of noise we need to go beyond the synthesis model which makes difference a consequence of the activity of the subject lest we succumb to the illusion of a natural state of audition, the pre-Columbian ear whose subsequent ‘servitude’ to abstract musical structures is entirely mysterious.
Lyotard, Jean-Francois (1993), The Inhuman, Geoffrey Bennington and Rachel Bowlby (trans.), (Cambridge: Polity)
Nattiez, Jean-Jacques (1990), Music and Discourse: Toward a Semiology of Music, Carolyn Abbate (trans.), (Princeton: Princeton University Press).
Roden, David( 2009 )‘Sonic Art and the Nature of Sonic Events’, in Bullot, N.J. & Egré, P. (eds.) Objects and Sound Perception special issue, Review of Philosophy and Psychology 1(1) (Note: ROPP is a new Springer journal devoted to the philosophy of psychology and cognitive science).