EMS 09 - Abstract- The musical significance of objects

Lonce Wyse
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Along with all the new sounds welcomed into the realm of music in the twentieth century came their less well-received sources. The undeniable presence of sources is largely responsible for all the new names (e.g. sonic art) that we give to the art of sound that distinguish, yet at the same time show its affinity to music.  But is sound the only common element responsible for the affinity and continuity we sense between the old and the new arts, or are sources themselves also functioning in a way that we can identify as musical? This paper considers sound sources and related objects from several different perspectives and discusses how their very objecthood posses certain essential musical qualities.

The transgression of sources is that they do not fit in to the hermetic structures of formal relationships between sonic qualities from which traditional western music is by and large constructed.  Objects that make or influence sound come with a variety of qualities that can include size, shape, weight, momentum, and material textures. They can be alive, and some can bite. Many objects make a variety of sounds that bear little sonic relationship to each other (consider the bark and a whine of a dog, or the different sound of a metal plate that Schaffer used in Solfège de l’object sonore (1967) to illustrate this particular point). Because there is no standard collection of objects that composers use, they cannot help but call attention to themselves when their sounds first enter a piece of music. In so doing, they are often received as external to the “music proper”.

As Bernard Mache’s (1992) collection of examples illustrate, music has in fact always accommodated a certain degree of external reference. However, with the exception of “program” music, it was only in the 20th century when they take on a clearly intrinsic and structural role in the formation of whole genres of musical works. Luc Ferrari’s 1964 Hétérozygote is an early example explicitly recognizing the life of objects behind the sounds comprising the surface of the work.

Today there is broad acknowledgement about the need to theoretically integrate musical material that is too often still dichotomized as intrinsic and extrinsic (Atkinson, 2007; Windsor 1995). The notion of source bonding that Smalley (1986, 1997) developed provides us with some formal tools for analyzing ways in which sources themselves can play a musical role, although Spectromorphology is, as the name suggests, more oriented toward understanding the dynamics of sound than of sources.

To see how sound sources as objects can play a traditional musical role in electroacoustic music, we consider two key aspects of music restated here in note-free form. The first is that music involves understanding the relationship between sounds. In traditional music it is harmonic and intervallic contexts that constitute these relationships. The second is that music involves the perceptual dynamics of expectation. At least since Leonard Meyer’s 1956 book Emotion and Music, it has been generally accepted that much of the emotional experience of tonal music comes from the manipulation of expectation based largely on shared cultural experience.  Rather than detracting from the music of sounds, sources may be the key to how these two fundamental aspects of musical experience still work when tonality is no longer the medium of support.

Listening as active and engaged
At about the same time Schaffer was directing our attention away from sound sources, the ecological psychologist J.J. Gibson (1966) was developing a theory of the “direct perception” of objects unmediated by cognitive processing of surface perceptual features. With the essential ecological notions of structural and transformational invariances that reflect relevant object structure, and affordances that reflect interactive possibilities, objects are rich in musical potential because they create relationships that do not exist between disembodied sounds.

Composers often design algorithms (or “patches”) for parametrically synthesizing a class of sounds that are then used in compositions and in performance. These virtual objects also posses the musically potent qualities of objecthood by virtue of the constrained class of sounds a given model can generate, and the structural and transformational invariances that become apparent through parametric variation. They too define relationships between sounds within their range which can even be quantified based on the parameterization of the model. Thus objects, both physical and virtual, can fill the role of creating relationships between sounds where tonality no longer does.

Musical expectation is built upon shared knowledge and experience, but there is yet no established canon of electroacoustic music that large cultures of people have been on anything like the scale that we see in traditional musics. However, we are all grounded in physical environments surrounded by sounding objects that behave in consistent and rule governed ways.

One musically relevant feature of worldly objects is that they persist even when they are not sounding. This is analogous to Jean Piaget’s (1952) notion of object permanence in the visual domain that infants acquire during a sensorimotor stage of development. Source persistence is also necessary in Bregman’s theory of sequential streaming across events in time. The significance of source object persistence is not only that it groups sounds together over time, but that it allows us to discuss a role for these objects even when they are not sounding. They define potential sounds present in the musical environment, and thus influence classical types of musical listening engagement such as expectation and surprise (Huron, 2006).

Listening as an active and engaged process implicating motor systems and object representation was termed vicarious performance by Cone (1968).  In the 1990’s, neurological support for this notion was found with the identification of “mirror neurons”  that fire both when an action is performed and when the same action is observed being performed by others. This has also been observed in specifically musical contexts such as listening “passively” to sequences of notes played on a piano (Lahav, Saltzman, and Schlaug, 2007).  Recent interpretations of EEG data (Winkler, 2008) also suggest specific neurucognitive mechanisms linking sound organization and expectation with sound sources.

From compositional practices to psychology and neurophysiology, the last 60 years have seen a growing focus on the role of the source in the experience of sound. A comprehensive musical theory needs to address the role of objects from the musical perspective informed by practice and rooted in sciences of human engagement in the world through mind, brain, and body. 


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Lonce Wyse

Communications and New Media Programme
National University of Singapore