Written for Journal of Electroacoustic Music - Sonic Arts Network (Winter 1998).
There is a property of environmental sounds that
could be called associative, or perhaps imagistic. Others have named it
cinematic or anecdotal. i This property could one day occupy a central place in the acousmatic
discourse. However, in order for this to come about, the current discourse
would have to pause from its focus on musical transformations and interpolations
of found sound and begin investigating the social baggage latent in found
sound. This baggage can be recovered by reflecting upon the cultural and
physical origins of any source sound. In the case of sounds extracted
from everyday social experience, these reflections may prove to yield
insight into a sonic phenomena whose semantic complexity stretches beyond
the realm of music. ii The associative properties of environmental sounds are often
ambiguous and difficult to pinpoint, even when their original identities
are left in tact. The ambiguity is attributed to the fact that the number
of associations from a given sound or sound world may equal the number
of people listening. There is no way of saying exactly what the sound
of a small burning fire will evoke for a listener. The context of the
work in which it is heard may suggest or point to certain meanings, but
there are never any guarantees that every listener will perceive these
same meanings and not, for instance, other meanings entirely beyond the
scope of the composer's original intentions. Some may challenge this presumption
altogether by saying that sounds evoke no images or visualizations whatsoever.
I can not deny that some people may feel this way, but I believe from
the feedback garnered from my compositions that there are many people
who do recognize these imagistic properties and it is from their example
that I wish to carry forward this discussion.
What we safely know about sound associations is that they connect environmental
sounds back to their origins in social experience. A concert listener
might comment that a stream of memories and images washed over him/her
while listening to a work comprising only environmental sounds. iii However, to generalize the likelihood for certain memories and
images to be evoked from a specific environmental sound is, at the present
moment, an enormous task due to the wide variations from person to person.
More importantly, there is the issue that listeners will not approach
the crackling fire as an object capable of evoking associative impressions.
The mood or atmosphere roused by the warmth and stillness of the crackling
fire will either not be perceived as such, or else, the feeling will not
register consciously enough for responses to be adequately articulated
Therefore, listeners may experience a stream of images flowing through
a cinematic sound canvas, but not possess the vocabulary to describe these
images. Their inability to articulate their impressions might be the result
of an untrained ear - an ear which is superseded by visual attention,
and whose higher development has been restricted to the arts of speech
and music. The conditioning in western culture to 'look at' rather than
'listen to' one's surroundings validates the indifference towards perceiving
sound as a rich cultural text readily available for analysis and critical
There are other realms in which indifference is at play. The chief designers
of social environments in the west have a habit of ignoring sound altogether
in order to reach the more elaborate and refined structural goals that
cater to visual aesthetics. General attitudes to listening in the environment
would change significantly the day architects, engineers and city planners
begin to include the activities of composition and orchestration in their
job resume. By understanding these activities from the inside they would
finally realize the impact their work has on people socially and psychologically.
iv In actual effect they would begin to hear their creations the same
way they see them before the first day of construction. Such sensitivity
and understanding would yield a much more tasteful approach to the acoustic
design of contemporary architecture. iv Theorists
in disciplines connected however loosely to environmental sounds have
also been persuaded by the domination of the visual senses (or by musical
prejudice itself) to completely ignore the study of environmental sound
from a sociological or psychological point of view. The enraptured attention
awarded to visual experience by many westerners makes such study seem
completely trivial. After all, seeing is believing; what more is there
Within the discourse of Sound Art, the issue of sound associations has
been touched upon here and there, but it has never been dealt with in
a detailed and focused manner. Douglas Kahn, in fact, would go a step
further and argue that there is absolutely no historical tradition of
audio art whatsoever. By audio art he means an art practice that works
primarily from the notion that sound can act as a vehicle for social discourse.
The absence of an audio art practice can not be perceived as a coincidence
when considering that all of the twentieth century's "most noted
radical attacks upon music... ultimately returned" to musical principles.
v This is illustrated by Kahn in the following:
Russolo's `art of noises' was recuperated immediately into the goal of
`a great renovation of music'; Edgar Varese's `liberation of sound' was
a motto of retreat when compared to Russolo's position; and at the core
of John Cage's emancipatory project was a will to impose musical precepts
upon all sounds. vi
In effect, what existed outside of the normal sphere of the musical source
sound was brought back into the musical fold by the early avant garde
to rejuvenate musical practice. These acts of rejuvenation only lifted
musical discourse as opposed to having ever launched a school of audio
practitioners interested in using sound strictly as a means for social
discourse. The musical avant garde continually tailored new sounds to
fit new notions of musicality, and in doing so, invariably stripped these
new sounds of their associative qualities. vii It would seem that the extra-musical associative complexity of
environmental sounds would have to be addressed by disciplines outside
of music. In order to remain in the sphere of artistic thinking, this
would necessitate a new branch of artistic discourse, which Kahn proposes
under his heading `Audio Art'.
Kahn's `Audio art' has historically remained only a latent possibility,
because whenever the impetus existed the technology was not around, or
conversely, when the technology finally took shape the impetus was thwarted
by musical prejudice. viii The documentary film pioneer Dziga Vertov came to film only because
the technology did not exist in Russia during the twenties to adequately
record sound. Thus, Vertov's `Keno Eye' was born out of a frustrated Keno
Ear. Vertov writes,
returning from a train station, there lingered in my ears the signs and
rumble of the departing train... someone's swearing... a kiss... someone's
exclamation... laughter, a whistle, voices, the ringing of the station's
bell, the puffing of the locomotive... whispers, cries, farewells... And
thoughts while walking: I must get a piece of equipment that won't describe,
but will record, photograph these sounds. Otherwise, it's impossible to
organize, edit them. They rush past, like time. But the movie camera perhaps?
Record the visible... Organize not the audible, but the visual world.
Perhaps that's the way out? ix
Vertov's way out was a fatal blow to the founding of a documentary or
anecdotal school of sound production. Equally as decisive was a subtle
shift in artistic direction taken by Pierre Schaeffer when he completed
his earliest musique concrete experiments, approximately twenty years
after Vertov became a filmmaker.
Kahn notes that Schaeffer's first musique concrete work Etude aux chemins
de fer, which was constructed from
train sounds, posed what Schaeffer called "problems of association."
Schaeffer concluded that these problems would disappear if his experiments
surfaced inside "the sonics of music;" where sounds ostensibly
could only be "associated with themselves." x This implies that the sound of that train would work more effectively
if subsumed into the language of music. The outcome of this decision was
obviously not good for initiating a social discourse around environmental
sound. The social imagery latent in the train sound, or in all other environmental
source sounds at the disposal of Schaeffer and his followers, remained
unexamined and unacknowledged, and as a result, the birth of audio art
was once again postponed.
Sadly, the path selected by Schaeffer continues to dominate the thinking
of more recent acousmatic composers who have directly or indirectly followed
in his footsteps. Acousmatic music, or the musique concrete of today,
continues to edge against these associative properties of environmental
sound. However, the vast gulf between musical invention and external social
complexity continues to hold water, and it does so irrespective of the
presence or absence of environmental sounds. Nonetheless, there is some
present activity which goes against the grain and pursues an interest
in environmental sound associations. The challenge that awaits the composers
(and also the theorists) who move into this terrain, is the development
of a vocabulary and a perceptual knowledge base for determining specific
meanings from environmental sounds rich in potential associations.
2. Time for a Story
A listener wanders in uninvited, and strictly by chance, to a concert
of acousmatic music. This listener does not know the meaning of the word
acousmatic; nor the field of acousmatic music; and nor the story about
Almost immediately upon arrival, the lights creep down to pitch black
and remain that way for the duration of the performance. Electrified soundscapes
derived from sources almost banal in their everyday domestic familiarity
are beckoned by this inexplicable darkness. With these soundscapes, intense
shafts of imaginary light poke out from the black. They imprint pictorial
images on the mind, although the content of this imagery is vague, hazy,
fragmentary, and difficult to detail. The listener reflects, "These
sounds are most familiar, but the worlds I enter can not be described."
Unaccountable sparks of excitement accumulate in the listener for the
next ninety minutes before the lights creep up again to signal the end
of the performance. The listener's imagination is racing, but at the same
time, is fighting to find words to identify the experience. Places, atmospheres,
landscapes, people, and dramatic predicaments fly in and out of the mind
- lingering well beyond the applause and the quiet shuffles to the doorway.
"This may not be music at all," thinks the listener. "Instead
it may be a drama without speech, a film without projections, or a painting
transformed into raw physical energy." The listener opens a door
leading the way out while considering that maybe the word music is incomplete
and even potentially misleading. Perhaps the listener has just opened
the door towards a brand new reality. A time and place where sound could
serve a 'Theatre of the Imagination' complete with impressionistic traces
of everyday reality. "Ah," mutters the listener, "if only
these fragmentary impressions could yield something more tangible."
Once again, the unconscious teases one with possibilities that are difficult
to get a grip on.
A composer is about to embark on a piece which contrasts notions of cold
detachment versus warm intimacy. Many sounds or sound environments could
represent either one of these notions. However, this is where matters
get complicated. All or most of these sounds are going to have other sets
of meanings inherited from other contexts or situations. How does the
composer use these sounds and keep the listener focused on the subject
of the work?
Should the composer take Trevor Wishart's advice, and limit the selection
of sounds only to those sounds that the intended listener will equate
with a specific meaning or association? xi Or should the composer follow Barry Truax's example of isolating
one of the associated sounds and slow this sound down to reveal emotional
and imagistic layers that were not evident beforehand? xii There is also the issue of ordering events in time. Wishart
says transform a limited palette of highly identifiable sound images in
such a way that fashions a dialogue and interaction amongst the elements.
This he believes is the root of articulating myth in music and other time
based arts, as though symbolic meaning is latent in the actions drawn
from a synthetic transformation of two or more elements. xiii Truax, on the other hand, allows for temporal transpositions
on the natural morphology of the sound to guide the listener through a
process of examining the sound's latent symbolic imagery at a microscopic
Whether following Wishart or Truax, the composer is relying on various
musical processes which are predicated on the technical facility and artistic
necessity to transform a sound into a morphological form other than its
original state. Truax allows the listener to hear the cries of seagulls,
but he then stretches the seagulls in time to reveal what he calls the
inner song of a sound derived from the external world. By structuring
the gradations of the time stretches in a progressive fashion, and by
framing them with the right descriptive title and program note, he invites
the listener to journey into this sound and discover rich associative
imagery that could not otherwise be discovered. xiv However, when the journey is complete, will the message or imagery
of the piece still come across? Well with sound there seems to be no guarantees.
Some will get it, while others may in fact perceive a whole set of other
images and issues completely outside of the intentions of the composer.
But - and this is a big but if there is a future for imagery in acousmatic
music - the possibility exists for a listener to engage in the piece on
some level other than the highly emotive and utterly wordless level commonly
associated with musical listening experiences.
However, what if the composer elects to employ environmental sounds with
only the slightest degree of manipulation and without any hint of morphological
transformation whatsoever? Or more contentiously, what if the composer
wants to erase all ties to musical precepts and journey entirely in the
domain of audio imagery? How far must he or she stray from music? Where
can the composer turn to for possible models and points of departure?
Will listeners and composers of acousmatic music ever be able to call
a spade a spade - or is the sphere of aural imagery far too ambiguous
and rich for such straightforward black and white meanings? Are such decisive
conclusions even desirable in a field attractive for its semantic ambiguity?
Finally, is the ambiguity of environmental sounds inherent in society's
simplistic knowledge about them, or in the multi-layered meanings that
exist beneath their outer surface?
It is premature to answer many of these questions until the auditory system
is elevated to some level that is compareable to visual perception. The
area in which this elevation needs to take place lies in the ability for
listeners to interpret meanings in the sounds they hear in common everyday
life. The inability to do so cuts off access to vital information that
is equally as revealing as the personal histories suppressed by forgotten
Art can often facilitate heightened perception and awareness. Perhaps
the first step to a heightened or expanded aural perception will necessitate
developing works which ask listeners to dig for meanings in the materials
presented. xv Compositional strategies will then need to be revised in order
to facilitate this new level of aural engagement. However, this revision
can not take place until composers learn to listen differently, and begin
rummaging more carefully through the vestiges of social experience buried
in the undergrowth of the everyday contemporary soundscape.
i. I have used the terms associative
and imagistic in the past when referring to pictorial impressions evoked
in the mind of a listener by environmental sounds (see other articles
and program notes on this site). Similarly, the term cinematic is used
fairly widely to suggest that acousmatic music immerses the listener in
a pool of film-like imagery. The term anecdotal has the deepest roots
historically, as it was adopted by Luc Ferrari in reference to his Presque
Rein cycle of works.
ii. Copeland, Darren (1994).
Cruising For A Fixing - in this Art of Fixed Sounds.
Musicworks (61). Return
iii. In fact, this can happen
with classical and popular music has much as it can with environmental
sounds. With the insertion of well-known music into public and domestic
environments being so common place, it is hardly surprising that a Chopin
Nocturne or a Bowie pop tune can be connected directly in a physical sense
to a specific personal memory. Return
iv. For more discussion on this
topic, consult the various books and pamphlets published by the World Soundscape Project in the 1970's.
In particular, R. Murray Schafer's Tuning of the World
(Arcana Editions). Return
v. Kahn, Douglas (1987). The
Tradition of Audio Art; EAR Magazine, Feb/Mar 1987. Return
vi. Kahn, Douglas (1992). Introduction:
Histories of Sound Once Removed; in
D. Kahn & G. Whitehead, ed. Wireless
Imagination: Sound, Radio, and the Avant Garde, 1-30. Cambridge,
Mass: MIT Press. Return
vii. Ibid. Return
viii. Ibid. Return
ix. Ibid. Return
x. Kahn: The Tradition of
Audio Art. Return
xi. Wishart, Trevor. Notes to
CD Recording of Red Bird: a political prisoner's dream.
Orpheus The Pantomine, 1992. Return
Barry. Notes to CD Recording of Pacific Rim. Cambridge
Street Records, 1991. CSR-CD 9101. Return
xiii. Wishart. Return
xiv. Truax. Return
In the liner notes to the CD Articles Ind»finis,
composer Jonty Harrison addresses the
importance for listeners to adopt a new mode of 'expanded' listening.
Whereby, the social connotations latent in the sound palette of an acousmatic
work are identified and considered. (Harrison, Jonty. Articles Ind»finis.
empreintes DIGITALes, 1996. IMED 9627.) Return
1997, Darren Copeland