In flux

In the past week or so, I presented my PhD proposal to the other members of the Sound & Senses Research Group and wrote two articles about sound art and sonic warfare, respectively. The resulting discussions, feedback and introspection has made me reconsider my approach to the PhD proposal.

My initial interest in sound art – beside the immediate aesthetic experience – was based on the idea that sound (and art in general) could be made for non-human beings. Be they computers, animals or inanimate objects – the idea that sound is received by much more than just ears seems to me inherently obvious, yet generally under-theorised or downright ignored by many sound students.

What also interests me is the correlation between sound and intelligence. Just like an object’s reception of sound is often judged by anthropocentric standards of reciprocation and ability to distill meaning from a sound, so is intelligence judged in relation to human intelligence. In a colonial act of uniformity, computers and parrots are required to think like humans to be considered intelligent.

Trying to arrive at these ideas through the affect theory of Brian Massumi and Will Schrimshaw seemed logical at first, but anthropocentrism lurks in the shadows. Instead, my eyes have been opened to Object-Orientated Ontology. Perhaps this focus on objects and their relations can bridge the gap between Massumi’s affect theory, sound art and Steve Goodman‘s vibrational ontology. In a sense, I think this is what Schrimshaw attempted to do in his article “Non-cochlear Sound: On Affect and Exteriority.” However, he never addresses OOO directly.

It’s truly odd. Half a year ago now, I went into this with a curiosity about whether Actor-Network Theory might be what I was looking for in order to describe these anthro-decentric ideas I had. I remember diving into the Wikipedia article to get a taste of what this was all about, and ended up stuck in Latour feeling let down and dissatisfied. If I had only taken a left turn, followed some stray hyperlink or plunged deeper I might have found Morton, Harman, Bogost and Bryant much sooner.

All the more exciting to be academically starting anew. However it does not feel like starting over – it feels like reading up on ideas that – when formalised – were always self-evident.

Sound & Sensory Studies

The second meeting of the Colloquium for Sound & Sensory Studies kicks off on Thursday. This time, I will be presenting my PhD-research project proposal, while Stina Hasse and Rasmus Holmboe will lead a discussion and communal reading of “Veils,” the first chapter in Michel Serres’ The Five Senses. For my own presentation, I have asked the participants to read Will Schrimshaw’s “Non-cochlear Sound: On Affect and Exteriority.”

I think that the two themes of the colloquium will complement one another well, and definitely spark much discussion about the nature of sound. The critiques of the brilliant people at the Sound & Senses research group will surely give me a lot to re-consider.

Read more about the Sound & Senses research group here: http://kunstogkulturvidenskab.ku.dk/Forskning/projekternetvaerk/soundsenses/

The Spectrum of Artistic Possibility

»Gradients (i.e., a spectrum) of light have long been rendered accessible through comparison of musical pitch with color; such ideas survive today in various understandings of sound color, synesthesia, and how color and sound might physically or metaphorically correlate through frequency. One hundred and thirty years ago, an editorial appeal was made by the respected electrical engineering journal The Electrical World (1883), citing Sir Isaac Newton’s comparison of “the seven colors of the prismatic spectrum to the average tones of the diatonic scale” as one “correlation of forces” that could extend to an exploration between “light and electricity.” The telegraph and telephone had primed the possibility for “telephotoscopy—the vision of objects at a distance,” and perhaps the transmission of other senses, smell and touch, the editorial speculated, since electricity and nerves share a common energetic sensibility.«

(Kahn, Douglas 2013. Earth Sound Earth Signal: Energies and Earth Magnitude in the Arts, Oakland: University of California Press, p. 11)

Electromagnetic Spectrum (1932)

»Unlike the eye, the ear is not a dedicated electromagnetic apparatus. Although the inner ear eventually excites electrochemical impulses in nerves to the brain, its initial sensitivity is to the vibratory movements of acoustical energy. As elephants and dogs let us know, the human ear only gets excited by a certain range of the sound spectrum; flanked on either side are infrasonic and ultrasonic events. With enough energy, sounds beyond the normal human audible range can be felt or their effects heard—earthquakes come to mind—but most all simply escape notice.« (ibid. p. 13)

»Electromagnetism in the arts began to make its presence audible in the 1920s and 1930s with two classes of modern devices, the wireless (radio) and electronic music instruments, but attunements toward natural environments beyond the social traffic in communication or the local instrumentalism of the device were rare. Not until the 1960s, after the air had been primed with decades of radio broadcasting, with threatening atmospheres of gamma, broadcast television, global telemetry of satellites, and with the mobility of transistor radios, did electromagnetism begin to be conceived as nature, as artistic raw material in an environment of signals.« (ibid. p. 122)

»Alvin Lucier began to explore electromagnetism as artistic raw material, first as brainwaves and immediately thereafter as natural radio. He was not alone in feeling that electromagnetism per se was viable material for the arts. Experimental music, given its proximity to electronics and the palpable energetic transfer between sound and signal, was conducive to material being immaterial. This idea could also be found in the visual art of James Turrell, where light was understood electromagnetically, and in the conceptual art of Robert Barry, who observed that visual art occupied but a tiny patch (visible light) of the electromagnetic spectrum and that the rest of the spectrum was open to artistic possibility.« (ibid. p. 5)

Modulations

Last night I watched Modulations: Cinema for the Ear by Lara Lee. The documentary tracks the evolution of electronica in the 20th century starting from Russolo, Stockhausen and Kraftwerk. The film shows what electronic music was like in 1998, and what it might become.

 
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Although Modulations does a decent job of showing musicians from both the US, Europe and Japan, the representation of female artists leaves a lot to be desired. Where are the awesome ladies of The Radiophonic Workshop? What about Wendy Carlos, Éliane Radigue, Electric Indigo, Lady D or DJ Colette (all of the Chicago female DJ-collective SuperJane for that matter)?

What we do get, are some brilliant interviews with the likes of Terre Thaemlitz, Kodwo Eshun, David Toop, Giorgio Moroder, Simon Reynolds, dxt, Oval, Tetsu Inoue, Genesis P-Orridge, Pierre Henry and Juan Atkins…

Vibrational Affect

This is the second in a series of posts concerning the theories of what Jonathan Sterne would call ‘sound students.’ This is my humble attempt to grasp the (no-longer-so-)budding field of sound studies and develop a theory of sonic affect.

A few weeks ago, Steve Goodman visited Copenhagen to talk about Sonic Warfare and his work as Kode9. His talk was largely based around the militarisation of sound – whether through LRADs, sonic booms over the Gaza Strip or the ‘ghost army‘ deployed by the US during WWII. Reading Sonic Warfare has showed me how an investigation that on the surface seems to deal with examples of sound as weaponry can move much further than that. Goodman tackles Deleuzo-Guattarian politics, Massumi’s theory of affect, Kodwo Eshun’s afrofuturism, Whitehead’s speculative materialism and more.

Sonic diagram

Steve Goodman

Augoyard & Torgue argue that the sonic effect is an open concept that constitutes a new paradigm of analysis. The ‘effect’ lies between cause and event. It is not an object in itself – sound does not physically change in the Doppler effect, as when an ambulance drives past. The only change happens in the relation between the observer and the emitting object. Thus, the object and subject emerge out of this relation – this ecology of vibrational effects. The sonic effect is what lies between physical sound and the subject’s ‘internal soundscape.’ However, instead of an ontology of vibrational effects, we should approach the (sonic) world through an ontology of vibrational affects that account for our mediatised, environmental and machinic coexistence. It is here that Augoyard & Torgue’s research is helpful to Goodman’s project, in that it positions the body and a transducer of vibration rather than a detached subject.

In the same sense, affect theory replaces the fluid nature of meaning for a more materialist approach. Steve Goodman writes; “If affect describes the ability of one entity to change another from a distance, then the mode of affection will be understood as vibrational.” (Goodman 2010: 83) This concept of change based on sonic vibrations presents novel modes of analysis of sonic arts that move away from the multiplicity of meanings deduced by methods lifted from the visual and textual arts. This vibrational force – or affective tone – then becomes a way to modulate not only mood, but materials and the socio-aesthetic realm.

To develop his ontology of vibrational force, Goodman refers to Whitehead’s speculative materialism as a way to describe how all things flow and no objects ever exist in themselves; objects are simply amalgamations of qualities (red, hard, sweet, crunchy). Therefore, according to Graham Harman, objects are useless fictions. This flow and malleability of objects is central to how Simondon and Whitehead both see living things and complex systems as striving for change. And perhaps this is what creativity is – change and novelty.

Sonic Materialism

This is the first in a series of posts concerning the theories of what Jonathan Sterne would call ‘sound students.’ This is my humble attempt to grasp the (no-longer-so-)budding field of sound studies and develop a theory of sonic affect.

The exposé for my PhD is slowly coming together. Having re-read Christoph Cox’s Beyond Representation and Signification: Toward a Sonic Materialism this spring, I was inspired by his call for a new theory of the sonic. Since then, I’ve done my best to read myself into the field of sonic materialism, ecology of vibrational force, sonic affect and speculative realism. Many (if not all) of these overlap, and so it’s been a case of trying to figure out who agrees on which aspects, and how they differ.

Christoph Cox

In spite of sound art’s recent increase in prominence, Cox writes that little has been done to generate rich and compelling literature on the already under-theorised subject. Much academic writing has taken its outset in art history’s visual paradigms and musicology’s penchant for the textual, leaving out completely the nature of the sonic.
He calls for a theoretical framework that rejects essentialism’s position that the world consists of “[…] fixed conceptual or material essences to which images and signs would refer.” (Cox 2011, p. 146) Opposite essentialism’s fixity, Cox neither accepts cultural theory’s fluid relationship with meaning, which “[…] aims to account for and foster the contingency of meaning, the multiplicity of interpretation, and the possibility of change.” (Cox 2011, p. 146) However theoretically rich cultural studies may be; suggesting, as Jacques Derrida does, “there is nothing outside of the text” (Derrida, 1976) is a dangerous move according to Cox.

The freedom gained by relying on the contingency of meaning comes at the price of an ontological insularity that comes with textual or discursive theories. These theories “[…] implicitly support a separation between culture […] and nature […].” (Cox 2011, p. 147) In contemporary cultural studies, culture is the realm of meaning and significance whereas nature is inert and at the very most a socially constructed space. This anthropocentrism privileges human experience over the rest of nature – forgetting that human beings are themselves a part of it.

If “[…] the limits of discourse are the limits of meaning and being […]” (Seth Kim-Cohen in: Cox 2011, p. 148) then how do we write meaningfully about the sonic arts? Sound art frequently explores the very material texture or temporal flow of sound. How it is transmitted, and how these materials change the sound itself. Sound art and music is not more abstract than visual art, “[…] but rather more concrete, and that [it] require not a formalist analysis but a materialist one.” (Cox 2011, 149)

Sound and Interaction Reading Circle

Stina Hasse and I have organised a reading circle at the University of Copenhagen for students and researchers.

Through four meetings, the reading circle will dive into recent and historical texts within sound studies, interaction and sound art. With a flat hierarchical structure outside of the ordinary classroom setting, the participants will discuss readings and relevant artworks. We will experiment with the format of the reading circle through various tactics, such as cooperative writing and reading.

Sound and Interaction (poster)

Endings.

For some reason, this reminds me of a French film I saw as a teenager. I haven’t seen the film again, and I have no idea what it’s called.
In the last scene of the film, the two lead characters – the man and the woman – are sitting in a café. They’ve been through so much together. And now they’ve gotten each other in the end.

It looks like a happy ending.
The woman gets up. She’s going out to powder her nose. Or whatever it is that women in French films do in the bathroom. The man is left sitting alone at the table. He takes her napkin. He writes something on it and then he pushes it back to her side, and then he gets up and leaves. The woman returns from the bathroom. Through the window the camera catches the man who disappears around a corner, behind a shoulder. She looks at the napkin. Picks it up. And everyone can read what it says in her face.

This is where the film ends. A real film ending. But nothing ends like this in real life. It’s impossible.

In real life, she wants to know where he lives.

In real life, she wants his mobile phone number. She wants to call and say; “where are you?!” … “there’s something we need to talk about here.”

In real life, they will meet next weekend at a party with some mutual friends, and it will be awkward.

In real life, the story continues.

In real life, you never get the end to stories like these, because the train arrives and you need to get on it and because those kind of stories never end.

This is freely translated from an excellent episode on endings of the Danish podcast Third Ear. The episode was the last in Third Ear’s first season.

Field of Reeds.

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What’s so subtle about this album is how this nostalgia of the broken is not only conveyed through Jack’s whispered psychosis-like poetics. The broken is inherent in the music. Syncopation regressing into a lack of any discernible rhythm, words, instrumentation. Everything is in a state of unrest. It is collapsing, and that is why I understand. This is not a melodramatic musing on my part. I understand because I understand that things collapse. It’s nothing new. Freud, Schoenberg or Hofmannsthal could have told you in Vienna, more than a century ago. Mental, musical, verbal.

Albums like this do not come about every year. Well-crafted, ethereal, enigmatic.

Graham Sutton has made sure that everything is kept at a mumble. As with so many of his own accomplishments, we’re not allowed to hear what’s really there. There is something there.
Although Field of Reeds is mixed wonderfully low, it is not laden with silence. The textures are thick and the keys and occasional bass are thick and expansive. Even the vocals are murmured with a consistency that spreads itself across the spectrum. My current favourite is the second stand out track, Organ Eternal. The Glassian tubular organ and deep strings wraps around the track and suffocates my ears.
Yesterday, I biked home in the dark and as Organ Eternal came on, and the screams of children (or falcons?) came from outside of my headphones. Sutton knows this. He takes no one by the hand, but pushes you in, head first.

In between the Islands // where we used to swim //
Not the suspect // not the victim // I am the reason //
The things you leave behind // with an end // with a beginning //

I cannot help but read this as yet another Suburbs, another Wee Small Hours of the Morning, another Blemish…

Like Blemish, Field of Reeds is a play on sparsity. How little can be crammed into a song before it collapses out of pop music favour? For whatever reason, I want Field of Reeds to be an experiment in silence, but it isn’t.

Jack pushes his songs to the point of rupture, but only to demonstrate where the borders of convention exist. This is not avant-garde – if such a term is still appropriate – but an outstretched hand to guide you through what popular music can be.

 

 

Fields of them