Solidifying Sound

I like when conversations and reading material coincidentally collide–and when I get to share those coincidences in hyperlinky ways. To wit:

Early this morning, my buddy Steven tweeted this:

Steven's tweet

A couple others jumped in. Harley Ferris pointed out:

Harley's tweet

And the inestimable DocMara directed us to this video, by my kind-of-hero Vi Hart:

I responded with a vague recommendation that everyone read David Burrows’s Sound, Speech, and Music. I had this kind of thing in mind:

Seeing is like touching, hearing like being touched; except that the touch of sound does not stop at the skin. It seems to reach inside and to attenuate, along with the distinction in Field 1 between here and there, the biologically still more basic one between within and without. In this way sound can ease some of the tension that goes with the duality of the organic condition. (21)

So there’s all that: essentially, some sound-loving rhetoricians trying to figure out what the heck sound does, and how that relates to the solid world our bodies inhabit. Weird, when you start thinking about it, right? In some ways, this is heart of the CCCC panel that I’ll present on this March along with Kati Fargo and Steph Ceraso: the physical nature of sound as something our bodies experience, not just as an idea we theorize about.

Even weirder: two (perhaps competing) things I read later in the day that hint at the topic of sound solidified–if perhaps only tangentially. Both are from interviews in Vivian Perlis and Libby Van Cleve’s Composers’ Voices from Ives to Ellington, part of the Oral History of American Music endeavor.

First, composer Leo Ornstein made an intriguing claim that I’m still trying to wrap my head around:

And besides–now I’m saying something very, very important–one has to be particularly careful of one’s own style because it’s so easy to simply operate almost unconsciously within the style, forgetting altogether about the substance, substituting style for substance. . . . The trouble is it takes the most astute kind of person to be able to distinguish when the artist is operating on his style or when he is operating within substance. And an audience can easily flounder. (91)

Within the context, he’s criticizing composers who are “much more interested in experiment than they are in music,” saying that those are the ones interested in “style,” in composing as a solely intellectual activity as opposed to something that’s supposed to move an audience. Instead, he’d rather hear composers who are interested in “substance,” in having some sort of musical meaning that can be communicated to an audience. (At least that’s what I think he means; that last line about audiences who “flounder” makes me second-guess myself.)

Interesting metaphor though, right? Substance. I picture “style” music as like lasers and lights flashing through the air, unable to be grasped and moving so fast that you can’t make out what they’re doing there, how it all coheres. But I picture “substance” music as food-like, able to be chewed and swallowed and cooked again later to better understand the ingredients.

Second, I read these lines from experimental composer Edgard Varèse:

My aim has always been the liberation of sound; to throw open the whole world of sound to music. . . . When I was twenty I came across a definition of music that seemed suddenly to throw light on my groping toward the music I sensed could exist: “the corporealization of the intelligence that is in sounds.” [Quote from Josef Hoene Wronski] It was new and exciting and to me, the first perfectly intelligible conception of music. It was probably what first started me thinking of music as spatial–as moving bodies of sound in space, a conception I gradually developed and made my own. (102-03)

Here again was the idea of sound as having substance, though in a very different way than Ornstein meant. Instead, Varèse is frustrated with the rules of music that Western concert music has followed for so long, and he sees an answer to that in reconceiving the basic metaphors we use to discuss musical form at all. Instead of music being recursive, or structured like an oration (in the Baroque period), or grown organically (in the Romantic period), music to Varèse is a physical thing hurtling through the air at you, like a pillar of cloud, or of fire.

Not that I have to, but I reconcile these kind of views (really, a very old debate) the way Andy Hamilton, a philosopher, does in Aesthetics and Music: he’s comfortable saying, essentially, there’s sound-based art over here, and there’s music over there, and they’re both awesome, but it’s okay for them to be different. Music, to Hamilton, has to deal with “tonal organization” created with some degree of will: “…with limited exceptions, tones not produced by human intentional action do not count as music” (49). Our pal Varèse would see that as limiting.

Side note: after reading about Varèse, I decided to listen to whatever came up of his on Spotify (a program I’ve written about before, and which I can give you an invitation to if you need it) while writing this post, beginning with “Arcana.” I expected heavy-handed, grating, noise-music–but at least in that track, what I got was something that sounded an awful lot like the score to the original Star Trek (this kind of stuff). Bizarre. Much nicer is the piano music of Ornstein I’ve got going now instead.

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “Solidifying Sound

  1. Thanks for this, Kyle and all…I’m enjoying the exchange of ideas very much, as usual, and am anxious to see what you’re all planning for C&W in NC!

    I should have been more upfront in my question, perhaps. I’m trying to reconcile sound as a Latourian (in his Actor Network Theory) actant. His idea of an actant, however, usually revolves around an Aristotelian notion of concreteness, or material. So if we are to frame the sonic using Latour’s ideas (which I am doing presently), sound must surely be an actant, right? Well, maybe not, at least according to its (non)material status.

    As I see/read/hear, sound is a physical phenomenon. It can be observed, measured, felt, even visualized. But sound–again, from my limited understanding–is a phenomenon of displacement rather than a material. Only its affects can be seen, in other words, as it interacts with materials.

    So, this is why I’m poking around with this “is sound material?” business. I need to know if it “qualifies” as an actant in a framework I find incredibly useful and applicable to studying sound. In other words, I’m trying to pick a bit of a fight with ANT, or rather extend it for use in sonic rhetoric/composition studies.

  2. Steven, Deluze would actually back you off of the “material is a distinct object” model you are using. I’m finishing Alex Reid’s book, The Two Virtuals, and he has a chapter walking the reader though this distinction. He calls it “Topological Space.” Sound is a perfect example of this. Diplacement IS material (we would never say that the carbon molecules, etc. that make up our bodies is definitively us, since we constantly lose and gain them–it’s the structure of our encounters with displaced material that makes us material). If you back off of the Cartesian “X marks the spot” thinking, and see actants as themselves made up of these colliding intensities, it might help you see sound in its materiality.

  3. kstedman

    Good clarification–though I admit I know very little about ANT or Deleuze.

    In fact, it’s funny you mention Alex Reid, Doc, because I’ve been thinking about how little I understand/sympathize with object-oriented rhetoric, how I need to get better acquainted with it. That’s because I’ve been thinking through the composition process, and how I tend to think of communication as “rhetorical” only when there’s some amount of willfulness or purposefulness behind it–and OOR seems to challenge my gut feeling here. But I’m wandering….

    Thanks for continuing the conversations!

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