Sound Objects: Speculative Perspectives

The terminology that listeners, composers, performers, and scholars use to describe music and sound affects their functions and ontologies. Terminology alone can transform music and sound from experiences to things, from encounters to commodities, from interaction to domination. In other words, terminology influences the qualities and forms of our attitudes and responses toward music. My dissertation is concerned with one instance of influential terminology: the term “sound object,” a cornerstone of electronic-music discourse. Conceptualizing “sound objects” as the atomistic “elements” of music implies that music possesses a tactile, embodied way of being. Sound objects therefore elicit inquiries from several perspectives. I consider sound objects from nominalistic, ontological, epistemological, music-analytical, and historical points of view, all of which differ considerably from one another.
The “sound object” first appeared in the 1950s as Pierre Schaeffer’s conceptualization of music’s “raw element,” which he believed listeners could learn to hear. Post-Schaeffer, the sound object acquired several definitions and exists today in a variety of contexts. A sound object may be a sampled or recontextualized sound, as the author Chris Cutler describes. Alternately, as in the electronic music of Curtis Roads, a sound object is simply a sonic unit, comprising anything from a noise to a melodic segment. The sound object is also a musical genre for ringtone composers such as Antoine Schmitt. Elsewhere, it is a sonic evocation of physical gesture, as in Rolf Inge Godøy’s research on motor-mimetic music cognition.

My objectives are to assess the term “sound object’s” potential as an increasingly prevalent aesthetic category, and to theorize and critique the sound object as a materialistic manner of description too often taken at face value. To be sure, the “sound-as-thing” may serve as a basic analytical category that may foreground the importance of subjective listening to analysis. But the tactility implied by the word “object” may misrepresent sonic and musical experiences as tangible and stable, despite their actual temporality. That said, the word “object” may elicit reflections on music’s relationships to embodiment, and critique habitual assumptions concerning musical experience and music’s ability to communicate truth.

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