EMS 09 – Narrative, Rhetoric and the Personal: Storytelling in Acousmatic Music

I Autor: John Young
Idioma: Inglés
Fecha de Publicación: 25/06/2009
Actividad en donde fue presentado: EMS 09. Herencia y futuro



This paper sets out ideas for the differentiation of formal designs that can be found in acousmatic ‘storytelling’.  Barthes (1977: 79) regarded narrative as an ‘international, transhistorical, transcultural’ phenomenon, ‘simply there, like life itself.’  Its potential in acousmatic music to carry meaning through narrative in original ways is the catalyst for this paper.

The capacity for acousmatic electroacoustic music to incorporate the recognition of sound sources as a structural element has been widely acknowledged (Wishart, 1996; Truax 2001).  The potential to project and mix sounds from environmental and everyday contexts in the purely aural ‘acousmatic’ space leads naturally to the evocation of narrative. Techniques of sound transformation and manipulation used in electroacoustic music, along with the tendency of acousmatic listening to invite highly imaginative responses from its audience, provide a very fertile ground for exploration of the relationship between precise narratives, highly personal content and the more open rhetorical framework of musical discourse.  The latter—incorporating repetition, variation and transformation of the evolution of gestural and harmonic figures over time—can be woven into the construction of narrative which might also incorporate spoken language and realistic auditory scenes.  Consequentially, the acousmatic genre has been successfully used in ‘telling stories’ in ways that extend beyond simple sequences of events, inviting the kind of multi-levelled interpretation often encouraged in musical forms.

A conventional view of acousmatic music tends to reduce the function of the sound recording medium to that of a ‘support’ mechanism—making sound available for transformation processes that therefore need not be executed in real time.  But sound recordings can also be regarded as documents that project traces of experience.  Adapted from the work of Walter Benjamin (2002) the idea of the experiential aura is used here to show the way acousmatic music is able to present soundscapes that range from the meaningfully fictional to the documentary.  This has the added significance of making recording itself an essential feature of the genre by virtue of the way it dislocates, but does not disassociate, sound from its ‘here and now’.  In addition, a parallel is drawn between our capacity for memory and the capacity for recording media to reflect aspects of our experience directly back to us.  Extending from the work of Casey (2000) a distinction is made between, on one hand, the idea of sound recording as a means of simply projecting an image of realism and, on the other hand, recording as a vehicle for capturing or representing different forms of the process of remembering, such as the re-engagement with experience through reminiscing.  The perspectives developed from Benjamin and Casey intersect in the way time is presented in acousmatic storytelling.  For example, a focus on personal experience can deal with ‘literal’ time, such as in the shape of a gradual unfolding of a specific memory, or in the free-ranging temporally disembodied memory-associations of the imagination.

In using these ideas to characterise forms in acousmatic music, a parallel is drawn with the linguistic features of syntagmatic and paradigmatic relationships.  These are used as perspectives on the evocation of narrative, whereby meaningful fictions can be constructed through an understanding of the components of a referential syntax.  In the case of acousmatic music this is through the hybridisation of literary, musical and ‘soundscape’ models of representation. For instance where the directness of verbal content may be used alongside associative and connotative use of environmental or cultural sounds. Examples given in the paper demonstrate that the illustrative capacity of sound is able to function at literal and symbolic levels—animating imagery around a narrative, or steering apparent temporal and emotional contexts around it.

In summary, it is shown that there are different formal mechanisms inherent in the way materials are shaped, ordered and developed in works that deal with acousmatic storytelling.  Analytical examples include the following acousmatic works: Francis Dhomont’s Fôret profonde, John Cousins’s Doreen, Jonty Harrison’s Hot Air, Luc Ferrari’s Presque rien no. 2 and Rachel Mcinturff’s By Heart.

Barthes, Roland. (1977) Image Music Text.  London: Fontana.
Benjamin, Walter. (2002) ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reprodicibility’, In Benjamin, W. Selected Writings, Volume 3: 1935-1938.  Cambridge, MA / London: Belknapp Press.
Casey, Edward S. (2000) Remembering: A Phenomenological Study. Bloomington:Indiana University Press.
Truax, Barry. (2001) Acoustic Communication. Westport, CT: Ablex.
Wishart, Trevor, ed. S. Emmerson.  (1996) On Sonic Art. Amsterdam: Harwood.

John Young

De Montfort University