Tag Archives: Michel Chion

Sound as Object

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

After World War II, audio recordings gradually replaced sheet music as the dominant means of distributing music to consumers. As a result, the musical centerpiece of the family home moved from the piano to the hi-fi system and, consequently, from active music-making to audition and record collecting. The LP (3313 rpm, long-playing, microgroove vinyl disc), introduced by Columbia Records in 1948, revolutionized the music industry. Along with changing habits of consumption, records transformed basic perceptions about music. Fleeting sounds became fixed objects.

Recordings had been around since Thomas Edison’s mechanical phonograph cylinder, patented in 1878. Within two decades, commercial recordings and distribution grew into an international industry. Popular titles at the beginning of the twentieth century sold millions of units. Gramophone records, which were easier to manufacture, ship, and store, hit the shelves around 1910, and subsequent advances in technology made audio recordings increasingly accessible. Still, sheet music—and the piano playing it depended on—remained king. The wholesale value of printed sheet music more than tripled between 1890 and 1909, when 25,000 songs were copyrighted in the U.S. Sheet music sales totaled 30 million copies in 1910. The popularity of printed music continued through the 1940s. An article in Variety on October 4, 1944 boasted “Sheet Music Bizz at 15-Year Crest.”

Sales declined precipitously as the 1940s moved into the 1950s. The days when hit songs were fueled by a combination of sheet music and, secondarily, record sales gave way to our recording-dominated era. A Variety article from November 21, 1953 captured the turning point: “Publishing Industry Alarmed by Pop Sheet Music Decline.”

The current ubiquity of recordings is the culmination of a centuries-long effort to mechanically reproduce sound—an evolution that began with musical notation and continued with programmable devices (hydro-powered organs, musical clocks, music boxes, player pianos, and the like). However, earlier inventions still required manual engagement and/or autonomous real-time devices/instruments. With recordings, sounds disembodied from their performance could be played back at any time. Music itself became the object.

Michel Chion details seven ways recording technology facilitated the objectification of music: (1) capturing ephemeral sound vibrations and converting them into a permanent medium; (2) facilitating telephony, or the retransmission of sounds at a distance from their original source; (3) enabling new ways of systematic acousmatization, or the ability to hear without seeing; (4) allowing sounds to be amplified and de-amplified through electronic manipulation, as opposed to the crescendo or decrescendo of live instruments; (5) affording phonofixation, or the fixing of sounds and reuse of fixed sounds in the recording studio; (6) paving the path toward phonogeneration, or the creation of sound “out of nothing” by way of synthesizers and computers; (7) giving engineers the ability to reshape sounds through editing, processing, and manipulation.

This last effect, in particular, contributes to Chion’s view of sounds converted into objects: “recording has been—above all from the moment that it enabled editing—the first means ever in history to treat sounds, fleeting things, as objects: that is to say, both in order to grasp them as objects of observation and in order to modify them—to act on their fixed traces.” Likewise, the listener’s control over recordings—through pausing, skipping forward, changing volume, using multiple devices, etc.—furthers the impression of music’s “thing-ness.”

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

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Goal-Directed Movement

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Music listening is an unfolding experience. Without prompting, the listener naturally follows the direction of a piece, traveling through its curves and contours in a linear progression toward completion. In both the Republic and Laws, Plato comments on the ability of this temporal movement to “charm” the inner life of the listener. Roger Scruton contends that the mind moves sympathetically with motion perceived in music, such that they are felt as physical motion. These and other observations address the goal-directed movement of music. The whole piece is not revealed at once or in an order or manner that the listener chooses. Musical developments, whether simple or complex, lead auditors from beginning to end.

In contrast to print communication, which can be read and reread at any pace the reader wishes, music imposes its own duration and agenda. In pre-recording days, this necessitated formalized repetitions and recapitulations to get certain messages across, hence the use of sonata form (exposition, development, recapitulation), the doubling schema of keyboard partitas (AA/BB), the verse/chorus form of folksongs (and later commercial songs), and so on. Michel Chion notes: “This enormous redundancy—which means if we buy a recording of Bach’s English Suites that lasts an hour, we only get thirty minutes of ‘pure’ musical information—clearly has no equivalent in the visual arts of the period.” Audio recordings afford greater freedom in terms of playback and repeated listening, but each listening remains a temporal experience.

The situation is not sidestepped with printed notation. Although a score can be read and studied, similar to a book or article, the notes on a page are essentially illusory. The paper is not the music. Jean-Paul Sartre argued in L’Imaginaire, a treatise on imagination and the nature of human consciousness, that music is never located in the silent symbols of a musical score, however detailed. Using Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony as an example, Sartre explains that the inability of written notes to capture music is rooted in the nature of sound itself. Unlike something that is empirically real—defined by Sartre as having a past, present, and future—music evaporates as soon as it is heard. Each performance is basically a new creation, and, we might add, each exposure to a recording is a new experience, due to changes in the listener and her surroundings from one hearing to the next.

Time, not paper, is the fundamental surface upon which music is made. Music involves a linear succession of impulses converging toward an end. Whereas a painting or sculpture conveys completeness in space, music’s totality is gradually divulged, sweeping up the listener—and the listener’s inner life—in the process.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

Ignoring Noise

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

As a rule, musical sounds are more clearly distinguished from non-musical sounds (the sounds of “reality”) than visual arts are distinguished from the shapes and colors of the visible world. What makes a photograph, abstract painting, or found object distinct from non-art is more difficult to pinpoint than what makes music sound like music. Satirist Ambrose Bierce addressed this in The Devil’s Dictionary, which defines painting as “The art of protecting flat surfaces from the weather and exposing them to the critic.” The viewing venue, in other words, plays a central role in the creation and perception of visual arts. (Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain, a porcelain urinal signed “R. Mutt,” is an extreme example.) Contrastingly, music is invisible, and thus cannot be confused with visible forms; it has no direct analog in the physical world.

Music is a culturally defined sonic phenomenon that, while impossible to define universally, is immediately recognized when heard in its cultural setting. Historically in the West, this has included a division between “pure” tones and “disordered” or “unwanted” sounds, generally called “noise.” Physics seems to support this bifurcation. While the various sound waves produced by music can be isolated into individual frequencies, with some being more dominant than others, noise contains jumbled frequencies of sound without a dominant frequency. However, ambiguity lurks beneath this observation. Despite Western music’s self-perception of “noiselessness,” such sounds do exist within the organized matrix of frequencies.

Performers, scholars, and aficionados have long understood Western music (esp. concert music) as purified of noise. This assumption surfaces in descriptions of non-European musics. As Dena J. Epstein chronicles in her book, The Folk Banjo: A Documentary History, European travelers and missionaries regularly described the timbres of African vocals and instruments as “crude,” “wild,” “peculiar,” strange,” “weird,” or “noise.” Contemporary ethnomusicologists credit “ethnic” musics for retaining noisy elements, and eschewing—or never developing—the Western affinity for “pure” tones. The African mbira, or thumb piano, is a favorite example. Bottle caps and snail shells are attached to the soundboard and resonator, creating a buzz that muddies the otherwise focused timbre of the plucked idiophone. Efforts to reintroduce “noisiness” into Western music, notably with fuzz and overdrive guitar distortion, is sometimes heard as an aspirational return to naturalistic sound, albeit through electronic means.

All of this overlooks the presence of noise in even the most cleaned-up Western musical forms. The scraping of the bow against a violin string; the clacking of the keys on a clarinet; the sliding on the fingerboard of an acoustic guitar. According to filmmaker and composer Michel Chion, author of Sound: An Acoulogical Treatise, the Western listener tends to “scotomize,” or mentally delete, these sounds. Moreover, studio recordings tend to minimize or mute out such idiosyncrasies. “On the other hand,” writes Chion, “recordings of so-called traditional musics are often made by and for people who find something charming about such noises, and such documentations strive to preserve them and even to emphasize them in the recording process.”

Chion’s compositional medium, musique concrète, places all sorts of sounds into a musically organized framework. Compositions consist of multifarious field recordings, which are modified by altering pitch and intensity, extending or cutting off, adding echo effects, playing backwards, and so on. [Listen to Chion’s Requiem]. The finished piece is an artistic unity that challenges standard ideas about music. It can also train us to hear assembled noises as musical, and to listen for noise elements in conventional music.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.