OUT OF TONE
'The first and principal difference between various sounds experienced by our ear, is that between noises and musical sounds.'
The gesture with which John Cage in 4’ 33’’silenced music and let the sounds of the environment speak, can be regarded as a symbol for a tendency that surfaces time and again, and with increasing stubbornness, from the beginning of the twentieth century onward.
In 1913, with the publication of 'L'arte dei rumori', Russolo announces the production of a whole array of sounds with new instruments that would surpass the rather limited repertoire of the traditional orchestra. Russolo was thinking of instruments driven by an electric motor. Variations in speed would lead to variations in pitch. New impulses came from the development of techniques of sound-recording. Although it was already possible to record sound in Russolo's times, and although with traditional vinyl it was already possible to manipulate sound (loops, cutting off the attack), it was only the introduction of the tape that made it possible to produce all kinds of sounds in a more economic way than building futuristic instruments. Already in 1948, Pierre Schaeffer was dreaming of a kind of sound bank that could be used in the same way as an orchestra (Phonogène, Morphophone). But it is only the electronics that enabled the production of the most diverse sounds without resort to existing materials. Figures like John Cage, Mauricio Kagel, Györgi Ligeti and Luigi Nono also tried to get 'non-musical' sounds out of traditional instruments. And, in the wake of Cages 4' 33'', still others are interested in existing sounds found in the given acoustic environment 'see: Bill Fontana*).
It is as if a countermovement is unleashed against the millennia old endeavour to develop an ever broader array of ever more refined musical instruments to produce tones that cannot be found in nature - as if music, after having conquered step by step the realm of artificial tones, suddenly felt deceived in such artificial Elysium and let itself glide back in the realm of nature from which it had detached itself with so much effort.
Let us examine what are the consequences of the 'revolt against the tones'...
THE FOUND SOUNDSCAPE
'The soughing, howling, and whistling of the wind, the splashing of the water, the rolling of carriages, are examples of noises…. '
Let us first have a look at the extra-musical world to which we have been referred by John Cage, and in which man from way back has been submerged.
It consists, in the first place, of the countless natural soundscapes: the rustling of leaves, the dripping of the rain, the murmuring of the brook, the sound of the surf, the drone of waterfalls, the rumble of volcano's, the howling of the storm wind, the roaring of the thunder. Next, there are the somewhat more 'musical' sounds produced by animals: the chirping of crickets, the quacking of frogs, the howling of wolves, the bleating of sheep, the shrieking of seagulls in the port and the singing of birds in the wood. But, from way back, these sounds are overpowered with the sounds produced by man. In an idyllic past: the cries of the hawkers in the market, Bühlers sounds in the workplaces - from the hammering of the blacksmith to the threshing with the flail - the hooves of horses and the barking of dogs, the mooing of cows in the stable, and the ringing of the bells over the city or the drum roll and the clash of arms on the battlefield. But, from the industrial revolution onward, we are surrounded with the more violent successors of these idyllic sounds: the sometimes infernal sounds in factory halls, the drone of the cars in the cities, the ringing of tram bells, the howling of airplanes and the thundering of trains. But foremost new soundscapes are emerging: in the interiors, after the ticking of the clocks and the ringing of the alarm bells, now the humming of refrigerators, vacuum cleaners and washing machines, the ringing of bells and telephones; but especially outdoors where entirely new kinds of soundscapes resound: the fascinating soundscapes in station halls and airports, the applause of the public in a concert hall or the chanting of football fans in a football stadium, train whistles, mist horns,not to mention Marinetti's sounds of the battlefield: the whistling of bullets, the rattle of machine guns, the boom of guns, the wailing of sirens, the drone of bombers and the droning of tanks.
The most salient feature of these soundscapes is the random distribution of the sources of sound over space: think of the countless thunderstrokes on our right, on our left, before us and behind us when we find ourselves in the middle of a storm. While the visual world is rather a kind of scene whereupon we look perspectivally from within the confinement of our body, the sounds of the audible world surround us: we can also hear the sound behind us, and that goes also for the pattering of the rain on the roof, the song of the birds in the wood, the chirping of the crickets in the plains. Furthermore, the objects in aural space are no opaque bodies that hide one another from view: phrased in visual terms, aural space is 'transparent'. Therein resides precisely the magic of the song of the birds in the woods: while our eye stumbles everywhere upon the impenetrable foliage of the forest, sounds come to us from the remotest distance, not hindered by more nearby sounds . And when the bells ring over the city, it is as if an immense space is unfolding behind the facades that enclose us from all sides. Another important difference is that aural space - except for the sound of the surf or the drone of the highway - is discontinuous by nature: it consists ofpoints lighting up from nothingness - silence - like stars from the darkness of the cosmic night, or like luminous fish from the deep sea. In our natural visual world, the objects do not loom up from the dark: rather are they embedded in a continuous visual fabric where behind each object another can be seen. But aural space is foremost discontinuous in the temporal sense, emergent: the natural state of the world is silence, and sound is only an accident of that essence. That is why we do not have 'ear-lids' with which we can withdraw from the aural world as we withdraw form the visual world with our eyelids. Only when some sound becomes audible does aural space emerge, a new world that as it were opens up the visual world, that confines us within the limits of our own visual appearance, reduces us to a minuscule object in the middle of an ocean of other visual objects whose appearance only eclipses ours. Things do not gaze at us, as Merleau Ponty and Lacan will have it, but rather eclipse our appearance. Only the thing or the being that makes itself heard, seems to call upon us, or to address us: the indifferent visual world around us suddenly seems to become inhabited and animated. Just imagine the stars above us not only to twinkle, but also to softly tinkle like little bells: would that icy darkness from those fathomless depths around us not have become more hospitable? In any case, the unfolding of aural space explains why we feel our soul expand when the birds begin to sing around us in the forest - as is so masterly set to music in Wagner's 'Waldweben' (Siegfried). Or why we suddenly feel welcome when we hear the echo of our voice resound in the mountains. Such redoubling of our voice is only the faint echo of the contagious multiplication that is so congenial to the world of sound: a bird never sings alone, and that goes also for the crickets and frogs, for sheep and wolves, the cuckoo and the lion. That is why the audible world is in the first place a world inhabited by countless similar souls and not - the phrasing is appropriate - the speechless presence of indifferent appearances that only eclipse ours.
THE DESIGNED SOUNDSCAPE
Tönend bewegte Formen sind einzig und allein Inhalt und Gegenstand der Musik
Hanslick, Eduard, "Vorn Musikalisch-Schönen"
Back to earth. The found soundscape is only the unintended offspring of the working - or the raging - of the forces of nature, the thriving of animals and the doings of man: it is not deliberaty designed to be listened at. That is why we either experience it as a disturbing factor or as a familiar background. Of a totally different nature are the soundscapes that are deliberately designed with the explicit intention to silence such disturbing or reassuring backgrounds - or at least to overporwer them: think of the gongs in eastern temples, of the ringing of bells, of the drum roll and the flourish of trumpets that invites us to lay down our work and to stop our conversation - or of the call of the muezzin that prompts the entire community to bow in prayer, not otherwise than the bell in Millet's countryside that rings the Angelus three times a day. In so far as these soundscapes silence the world, they are 4' 33'' on its head: Cage rather wanted the found soundscape to catch our attention.
|cage upside down|
Precisely because those gongs and bells and trumpets make an overall animated aural space emerge amidst the inhospitable visual world, people more than welcome their resounding: not otherwise than the crowing of the cock, the ringing of the bells is echoed from other neighbourhoods of the city or from other villages in the country, and also the trumpets of the apocalypse are distributed over the four quarters of the compass - which is stylised in the disposition of the musicians and the singers in the four arms of the basilica of Saint Marc in Venice. Thus, a kind of aural architecture is realised: the aural counterpart of the avenues where the community walks in procession, or of the squares and buildings where the community gathers in the visual world. In sharp contrast with visual architecture, that, just like the visible world, is always present, such aural architecture tends to be merely emergent - an epiphany. The question may be asked why this form or aural architecture or spatiotemporal design - which, judging from the examples is already fairly old - seems to have remained stuck in an rather archaic technological past. To be sure, the mist horns, sirens and train whistles of the industrial age resound louder than the gongs, bells, horns and trumpets from the previous age. And that opens new possibilities: the louder the sources of sound - the acoustic beacons - the wider the horizon of aural space and the larger the scope of a possible aural architecture. But these possibilities have only been worked out for practical purposes: think of the mist horns in ports and sirens over the city and industrial plants. For the time being, we can only dream of an aural architecture where aural beacons would surround us from all sides like the columns in the Alhambra - or of urbanistic projects that would be the aural counterpart of the planning of Paris along the axis from the Louvre to the Arc the Triomphe and further** - on occasion of festivities, only outdated fanfares are still parading over the Champs Elysées.One can imagine the effect of the advent of a computer directed aural space conjured up by powerful high-tec sources of sound extending far outside the urban agglomeration!
Such aural architecture would have to develop according to totally different principles than visual architecture. Visual space is always constructed along axes radiating from a centre: the opaque visual objects that surround us ask for an orienting open view on wide horizons: preferably an axis in front of us, and one to the left and to the right (binocular orientation). Since sounds surround us from all sides, the basic pattern of aural space is not so much the cross (or the cube), as rather a pattern of concentric circles that surround us like transparent curtains in many layers. In principle, the construction of aural space could be also extended to the vertical dimension. But, although we can conceive of sound sources in the heights - think of Stockhausen's helicopters or the drone of bomber planes, not to mention bursts of thunder - the countermove to the depth is far more difficult to realise, except on the rather modest scale of - again Stockhausen's - spherical concert hall.
Of course, also counterparts to geometrical design like the aleatoric bursts of thunder could be conceived in natural sites like lakes, deserts, deltas and mountains. On the podiums of our concert halls, a kind of scale-model of such projects could be heard in 1962: Györgi Ligeti's grandiose ‘Poème symphonique’ for 100 metronomes - although it is significant that also this creation resorts to the rather archaic metronome. If we would leave the metronomes on the scene, and proceed to distributing more powerful equivalents around the listeners in the real space outside, we would get the prototype of a real 'tönend bewegte Architektur' - to paraphrase Eduard Hanslick: a genuine aural architecture unfolding in time - really, and not just through the movements of the contemplator, as will always be the case in visual architecture.
The reduction in scale should remind us of the fact that there is also something like small scale aural objects (aural 'sculptures'). Here also, we have to content ourselves with examples from our aristocratic past: think of the splashing of fountains in ornamental gardens, the whistling of real or pneumatic song birds (Villa d'Este), the bells on horses and carriages, and what have you. Only Murray Shäfer, in his book 'The Soundscape', proposes to design a park with different kinds of floors, so that, when it rains, we could walk about amid ever changing sounds - as in a kind of ''tönend bewegter' Carl André, a combination of visual and aural design.
THE MIMETIC SOUNDSCAPE
Of a totally different kind is the soundscape where the sounds aredeliberately produced by man, just like those of aural architecture, but not in view of transforming the real word according to our wishes, as rather in view of creating an imaginary world that puts the real world aside: the mimetic soundscape.
From way back, man imitates the sounds of animals. Especially in the theatre, specialised instruments are developed: metal plates to imitate thunder, or discs revolving against cloth to conjure up the wind. In this tradition, Russolo designed instruments to evoke industrial noises. But it is only the advent of sound recording - aural photography or 'sonography' - that opened the doors to an unlimited expansion. Initially, it was used to reproduce music itself. But soon after the invention of the tape recorder, Pierre Schaeffer made a montage of noises recorded in the Paris railway depot: 'Etude aux chemins de fer' (1949). Usingmeanwhile further developed techniques, Bill Fontana had the noises from Europe's busiest train station in Cologne resound in the ruins of the former 'Anhalter Bahnhof' in Berlin.
We are dealing here with imitation - mimesis - in the literal sense of the word. Just like a two-dimensional visual image conjures up the tactile dimension of a three-dimensional object, the auditory appearance of an object conjures up the concomitant visual of that object: the call of the owl conjures up its visual presence, the voice in the radio the face of the speaker, the recording of the bells of Rome the image of Saint Peter's square, the chirping of the crickets the Provence - and the noises of Bill Fontana's train station the concomitant platforms and passengers under a huge iron and glass vault in Berlin.
Not only the sounds of objects and beings can be imitated, but also their distribution or movements in space. In theory, scores of loudspeaker would have to be placed all around the audience over a given surface. More economic, however, is the combination of the use of the 'aural perspective' (loud = nearby, soft = distant) with a disposition of loudspeakers in a circle around the public - the aural counterpart of the two-dimensional visual image. The number of loudspeakers can be further reduced in that a sound rendered from two loudspeakers simultaneously is heard as coming from in between. The technique is further developed in the so called 'surround sound' in the cinema, where it is mostly used in combination with a real - three-dimensional - rendering of movement: the spacecraft is first moving in real space from the backside to the front, where the movement is taken over by 'aural perspective'. Also the rendering of height and depth is possible in principle, but turns out to be rather complicated, especially in the dimension of depth, just like with aural architecture. The fact that it suffices to render the aural appearance to conjure up the concomitant visual appearance only widens the possibilities of conjuring up imaginary beings (completed mimesis) - just think of the Aborigines who conjured up their ghosts with 'bull-roarers' (oval pieces of wood turned around on a cord) to intimidate their initiates. Here also, it is tape recording that turns the light on green. In the beginning, it was used for pure documentary purposes, as in the 'World Soundscape Project' of R. Murray Schafer in the early seventies.But already in the early fifties composers began to manipulate the tape(slowed down or speeded up, loops, cutting), to filter the sounds, to manipulate the recording (contact microphones) and, more recently, the many kind of digital manipulation. The increase of technical possibilities goes hand in hand with the increase of imaginary events in imaginary worlds: it suffices to listen to many a passage from the tape of Stockhausen's 'Kontakte' (1960), realised with the then still primitive techniques. In its turn, the progress in the electronic studios stimulated the search for new sounds produced with traditional instruments (Lechenmann). In many a case, they come to produce sounds that are experienced as the aural appearance of real or imaginary things or beings. Thus, in Ligeti's 'Aventures' (1962), the soprano proceeds to laughing, groaning, hissing, and, in his Sequenza V, Berio has the trombone produce all kinds of anthropomorphic sounds.
.. the tones of all musical instruments are examples of musical sounds.
Although many people would not object to call soundscapes 'music', it is less evident to label Bach's or Beethoven's music as 'soundscapes'. For good reasons: although music conjures up an imaginary world, just like the mimetic soundscape,it does not rely on aural appearances.Inhis Lied 'The Crow', Schubert does not render the croaking of the crow: he rather gives impulses for her (silent!) flight. While ordinary aural mimesis conjures up a world through rendering aural appearances, music conjures up a world through providing impulses for movement. That explains why music, as opposed to ordinary aural mimesis, preferably evokes silent events or beings. For, not only the wing beat of Shubert's crow, also the swimming of trouts is completely silent, and that holds especially for the inner stirrings of which music is more fond. That explains also why it catches the ear when suddenly, amidst the silent world evoked by music, the call of the cuckoo resounds, not to mention the clap of thunder, as in Beethoven's Pastorale. The particular thing about music is that those impulses for movement are not only rhythms, but tones in the first place, tones that are part of a tonal system that is borrowed from the melody of speech, so that movements are structured in time like sentences, and endowed with expressive modalities, just like the words of language (see 'Music and mimesis').
It is precisely because music is not ordinary aural mimesis, that it preferably uses sounds that do not remind of something: the sounds from musical instruments with a timbre of their own and producing pure sounds with a fixed pitch: you would not hear such a thing in nature.
It will be apparent now that ordinary aural mimesis and aural architecture are of a totally different nature than music. Let us give an overview:
Let us clear up some
possible misunderstandings. We began this essay
with pointing to the fact that the development of music in the past
century has been governed by the urge to get rid of traditional
musical sound and to let ordinary noises come to the foreground.
Meanwhile, we know that such strive has inaugurated the development of
the new territory of aural mimesis and aural
design (of objects or space).