The Acousmatic Experience
Notes on Music and Film (2)
The Sound ‘Thing’
Some things are more ‘thingish’ than others. The dog is a more stable object than the sound of its barking. But by a change of focus, and by the way we speak, any fleeting or intangible something may become a quasi-stable object: from the dog that’s barking we may turn towards the dog’s bark.
Techniques of sound recording and reproduction stimulate thinking of sounds as objects. We don’t hear any difference between one and another replay of the same recorded sound. But what we have recorded is not the sound, but (rather like musical notation, but much more precisely) instructions for the reproduction apparatus. Different equipment will produce a slightly different sound.
Ordinarily, when we hear a sound we tend to direct our attention toward its cause or origin. Hearing a bark, we look for the dog. In the cinema, this reflex allows us to link the sounds to the image with ease, despite the thoroughly unrealistic coupling of screen and speakers. As if the bark we hear really came from the two-dimensional dog-image.
Music, though part of the sound world, can be apprehended without such anchoring in the visual world. We do not typically hear music as a series of noisy actions, scraping, blowing and hitting. Those qualities we call specifically ‘musical’ do not belong to the realm of physical cause and effect.
The cinema relies upon our ability and willingness to accept music as an immaterial something that’s just there, from nowhere. As long as the music maintains one style and instrumentation (such as the traditional Hollywood symphony orchestra), we may still have the feeling that its presence can be explained as that of a kind of abstract participant in the drama. Just like pit music in opera, it may adopt all kinds of roles and functions: that of a leading character, of a narrator, of us as spectators, of the ambience, and so on.
Such integration of music into the audiovisual world is not always aimed at – out of laziness, budget limitations or artistic conviction. Since the silent film era it has been common practice to pillage the classical repertoire for ‘background music’. Nowadays, instant access to an unlimited wealth of musical sources makes it even easier to treat these as ‘objects’, which may arbitrarily be pasted into a multimedial whole. The effect is often that the music trots alongside as an alien element.
That may be intended, simply accepted, or ignored. Stanley Kubrick seems to have ignored the issue when he advocated his preference for ‘great music’:
However good our best film composers may be, they are not a Beethoven, a Mozart or a Brahms. Why use music which is less good when there is such a multitude of great orchestral music available from the past and from our own time?
That is a rhetorical question; but it can be answered anyhow. For one thing, what defines good film music is not intrinsic musical quality alone, but above all the way it fulfils its function. It’s a commonplace of film music theory that middling music may sound ‘great’ in the right audiovisual context. In an ideal situation, collaboration between director and composer in the earliest stages will produce a shared vision that may be fully realized in the music.
Picking from the classics may result in surprising amalgamations, but hardly without an element of alienation, irony or absurdity. Few people will think that Kubrick’s choices for 2001: A Space Odyssey are ineffective, but its singing stele (Ligeti) and waltzing space station (Johann Strauss Jr.) verge on the absurd. Presumably it suits the alienation and inconsistency of that film as a whole. (The story of Ligeti‘s non-involvement in the film is worth reading, see Heimerdinger 2010).
Answering that question, part 2: ‘great music’ carries a wealth of meaning that may only marginally converge with what the director wants to show. It takes great intelligence and sensitivity to subject such music to the image in a way that is not simply abusive. (One may need a long abstinence from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde to recover from Lars von Trier’s Melancholia).
The Voice From Behind the Veil
The term ‘acousmatic’ has been invented for situations where a sound is heard without visible source. That may be a fancy name for something as ordinary as, say, hearing a dog barking around the corner; but in musical and audiovisual aesthetics it has acquired particular significance. Pierre Schaeffer, pioneer of electroacoustic music in he 1950‘s, was fascinated with the question how sounds become objects (Kane 2014: 16). When sounds are synthetic and cannot be recognized as those of a particular instrument, or when recorded sounds are used in such a way as to obscure their origins (musique concrète), the sound becomes a ‘sonic object’ (objet sonore). A bark, so to speak, without a dog. Suppressing our instinct to look for the dog involves what Schaeffer calls ‘reduced listening’ (Chion 2009: 18).
The term ‘acousmatic’ has its legendary origin with Pythagoras, arch-father of music theorists, who reputedly remained hidden behind a curtain while delivering his lectures. Presumably it should have helped his students to concentrate upon his words (acousmata). It seems unlikely anyhow that the philosopher wanted them to pay particular attention to the sound of his voice; as the ‘founding fiction’ (Kane 2014: 52) of musique concrète the legend may therefore be an odd choice.
What Schaeffer calls ‘reduced listening’ can also be described as aestheticizing sound, le son pour le son. It is something we do in all kinds of settings, musical and non-musical: when we admire birdsong without ornithological interest, when we try to discern the countless pitch variations in a waterfall, or follow the waves of resonance of a church bell on a quiet Sunday morning.
Inside Roger Scruton’s ‘Music Room’
Music that enters our ears takes shape in our imagination as a sequence of melodies, phrases, cadences, and so on: mentally constructed ‘objects’ that just occur, with no physical cause. What keeps us from asking about their causes is musical coherence. When we listen to a recording, the lack of visuals seems inessential. Even in the concert hall, closing your eyes may intensify the musical experience. It may seem therefore that listening to music is characteristically, or even essentially, an acousmatic experience.
This, according to Roger Scruton (1997: 3), is indeed the case: “The acousmatic experience of sound is precisely what is exploited by the art of music”. (In fact, his argument involves reduced listening rather than the acousmatic experience, Kane 2014: 137). While listening to music, “we spontaneously detach the sound from the circumstances of its production, and attend to it as it is in itself […]” (1997: 2).
He illustrates this with a thought experiment:
Imagine a room (call it the ‘music room’), in which sounds are heard; any normal person entering the room is presented with sounds which are audible only there, but which can be traced to no specific source. For instance, you may hear a disembodied voice, or the pure note of a clarinet. […] A specific sound – middle C at such and such a volume, and with such and such a timbre (these qualities identified acoustically, as part of the way the note sounds) – can be heard in the room. Yet there are, let us suppose, no physical vibrations in the room: no instrument is sounding, and nothing else happens there, besides this persistent tone.
The case seems to be conceivable, whether or not a possibility from the point of view of physics […]. (Scruton 1997: 3).
The appeal to what is ‘conceivable’ should never be trusted. There is a lot that I can somehow ‘conceive’ merely by understanding the words: snow melting fire, green ideas sleeping furiously, maybe even Donald Trump graciously admitting defeat – without believing that it makes any sense.
If I let myself be locked up in this room and hear a voice or a clarinet, I may suppose (a) that there is a hidden source; (b) that I am hallucinating; or (c) that a miracle is happening. If something convinces me that (a) is not true, which seems unlikely, I will opt for (b) rather than (c): I distrust my ears rather than the laws of nature.
Scruton does not deny that the room “cannot contain sounds without also containing sound waves” (1997: 6). But, evidently, what we hear is the sound as it appears to us, not air pressure fluctuations, nor what causes them. For Scruton, this means that sounds are ‘pure events’, a curious notion which seems to imply the paradox of events taking place without causal connections.
… the phenomenal distinctness of sounds makes it possible to imagine a situation in which a sound is separated entirely from its cause, and heard acousmatically, as a pure process. (Scruton 1997: 11-12).
We hear the bark, not the dog; therefore, we may hear a bark in absence of a dog. That is conceivable only as a voluntary act of reduced listening (I may ‘forget’ about the dog). But as the perception of an event, hearing always implies a chain or tissue of events that make up a section of, ultimately, the world.
By focusing the argument on sound, Scruton seems to confuse the object of perception with the object of cognition, music. In his view, “we are not part of the world of sound, as we are part of the visual world. […] I do not stand in the world of sound as I stand in the world of sight […]” (Scruton 1997: 13). Sound, on the contrary, is intrinsically spatial; it’s all around us; and sometimes we feel the vibrations in our stomach.
When we listen to music, we may ignore its physical causes when these are simply obvious. More typically, our attention shifts back and forth from one parameter to another: the propulsion of the rhythm, the expression of the melody, the composer’s imaginative use of the instruments, the vocalist’s breath control, and so on. But sound always defines the parameters within which it happens. And uncaused, disembodied sound makes no more sense than colour without light.
Chion, Michel. 2009. Guide to Sound Objects. Translated by John Dack and Christine North.
Ciment, Michel. n.d. “Kubrick on Barry Lyndon: An Interview with Michel Ciment.” The Kubrick Site. Accessed November 14, 2020.
Heimerdinger, Julia. 2010. “‘I Have Been Compromised. I Am Now Fighting against It.’ Ligeti vs. Kubrick and the Music for 2001: A Space Odyssey.” Journal of Film Music 3 (2): 127–43.
Kane, Brian. 2014. Sound Unseen: Acousmatic Sound in Theory and Practice. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Scruton, Roger. 1997. The Aesthetics of Music. Oxford: Clarendon Press.