Soundscape Composition, Globality, and Implicated Critique
Inasmuch as abstract space tends toward homogeneity, towards the elimination of existing differences or particularities, a new space cannot be born (produced) unless it accentuates differences (Lefebvre 1991: 52).
The only things one deconstructs are things in which one is intimately mired. It speaks you. You speak it (Spivak 1990: 35).
A cartoon in a student newspaper a few years ago illustrates a conundrum which has become a mobilizing force in much of my recent thought and compositional work. The cartoon portrays a stereotypical “anti-globalization” protester at a demonstration, carrying a sign and chanting slogans which are critical of “globalization”, while captions indicate that his sandals were made in Germany, some of his other clothes were made in Honduras and Taiwan, and even the banana he is carrying was grown somewhere in Latin America, presumably by exploited farm workers in the employment of a US-based multinational. Though the implication of the cartoon is that this “anti-globalization” protester is naively hypocritical, it raises another question on a deeper level which evidently eludes the cartoon’s author: how does one oppose that which one cannot escape?
The more astute opponents of injurious forms of globalization — not just as an economic process, but also as a process that is social, cultural, technological, etc. — also recognize that we are all already enmeshed in, if not constituted by, that which we oppose. The process of globalization has arrived at a point where it is much bigger than any of us, determining, on a very fundamental level, many aspects of a society, economy, and culture without which even resistance to globalization becomes very difficult.
This does not mean that resistance to oppressive globalizations is a form of suicide (though many have actually committed suicide as a form of resistance), but it does mean that any movement to oppose injurious aspects of the process of globalization cannot, for the moment, proceed from a non-globalized “outside”. The project, then, is not so much to articulate an alternative to globalization, an undoing of globality, but rather, a counter-globalization — a re-imagining of the process of globalization which must inevitably proceed from an always-already globalized context.
It is this context which is both an enabling condition and critical target of my recent work. While critical of certain strains of the current globalized context, I nonetheless rely on that context to mount that critique. For example, through the use of field recordings from specific sites around the world, acquired through the globalized medium of the Internet, I aim to tie my work to a material and specific social context as a means of at least implicitly critiquing the way in which globalization often tends to erase our sense of the differences between places. On another level, through the use of particular editing and processing techniques influenced by “glitch” computer music, my recent work in digital audio often attempts to critically call attention to its own “digitality” — that is, to its own constructedness in the medium of digital audio — as well as pointing to some of the imperfections in the supposedly infallible digital audio medium. At the same time, it is, after all, digital technology which is enabling this particular critique of digital technology, and so the critique becomes implicated in its own sweep. These kinds of paradoxes suggest a deconstructive mode of critique, in which one proceeds from an ineluctable position of interiority, not to enact the liberal fantasy of “effecting change from within” while leaving the essence of the structure untouched, but to use the resources of the structure itself in an attempt to effect change at a radical and structural level. This paper details some of my strategies and some of my problematics, including the application of a deconstructive critique in my work, and, in the next section, the problematic of relating music to specific social contexts through the use of field recordings from particular places.
Context is (Almost) Everything
In the prevailing Western concert music tradition, music has been primarily valued in terms of the interrelationships of its components (melody or pitch, harmony, rhythm, timbre, etc.), rather than in terms of its relationship to its social context. Indeed, the extremely recent, and still controversial, application of social theory to musicology (see, for example, Leppert and McClary 1985), as compared to the relatively well-established integration of social theory with art criticism, indicates the persistence of the perception that music ought to be an abstract art form with no connection to its social environment. During much of the twentieth century, modernism in music amplified this tendency towards asociality, in accordance with the general tendency towards areferential formalism in modernist cultural production generally. Even electroacoustic music, which, because of its ability to use recorded sound, has perhaps more potential for social referentiality than does instrumental music, often duplicates the asocial tendency of instrumental music.
Arguably, most music is “about” something, and thus refers to a social context in some way, and there is, even within the Western concert music tradition, something called “political music”, which might be “about” something like the Spanish Civil War or consist of a musical setting of explicitly political poetry about some contemporary or historical event. But it is still comparatively rare for music to not only be “about” a particular real-world context, but to actually evoke that context through the use of sounds which are specific to it. In much of my own recent work, by contrast, the provenance of the source sounds is as important as the subject matter of the piece, and in some cases, that provenance is the subject matter of the piece. The specificity of the sounds which derive from a particular context becomes a layer of meaning in the work, which functions not only to anchor that work in a real-world context, but also serves to contest an increasingly homogenized conception of space and place in the globalized world.
An example of this approach is a piece called Karosta, which forms part of a longer work called Machine Languages (Thomson 2005). Karosta is based on recordings made by Derek Holzer in the Latvian village named in the title (See Holzer and Kolster 2003 for the original recordings). Most of the specific sounds used in the piece — the sound of ice from the Baltic Sea being manipulated and two recordings from an Eastern Orthodox mass — are used in at some point in the piece in a more or less unprocessed form, in order to evoke connections with the sounds’ original context. When the sounds are processed, this is done in a way which enhances essential aspects of those specific sounds rather than imposing new characteristics upon them or “mangling” them into something totally different, as in some forms of sound processing commonly used in electroacoustic music. For example, auto-convolution (convolving a sound with a copy of itself) enhances prominent frequencies within the sound and stretches the sound in time so that those amplified frequencies can be heard more clearly. For example, the piece begins with one of the Mass recordings, processed only with some mild, “cosmetic” equalization. Through a slow cross-fade, this intoned voice gradually morphs into an auto-convolved version of itself, in which the distinctness of the voice is merged into one long drone. This long drone is then mixed with pitch-shifted versions of itself, all of which are clearly derived from the original voice. Thus, the processed sounds used in the piece have clear perceptual links to the original, “untransformed” sounds, and thus to the original context from which those sounds derive.
Istanbul, also from Machine Languages, also cultivates an intentional connection to a real-world context. In this case, that context is the city soundscape of Istanbul in Turkey, as recorded by Turkish composer Erdem Helvacioglu. Though the piece opens with a drone which might be mistaken for a stringed instrument, it is actually a resonated version of the Muslim morning call to prayer, produced by means of a Karplus-Strong resonator. The original recording is gradually faded in, so as to be briefly “accompanied” by the resonated version of itself, before this “accompaniment” fades away slightly, to subtly “drop” the listener into the original context of an Istanbul morning. Later in the piece, a recording of music in a public square is gradually mixed with an auto-convolved version of itself, which in turn becomes a kind of musical accompaniment for the next section. Here, crickets sounds are gradually mixed with pitch-shifted versions of themselves, going gradually lower and lower and evoking the gradual slip into a dream state, before the opening call to prayer is heard again, gradually “waking” the listener.
Karosta and Istanbul thus maintain an emphasis on contextualizing the source sounds used on the piece, as well as on the use of “transparent” processing techniques, such as auto-convolution and the use of Karplus-Strong resonators, both of which can be used to emphasize already-existing aspects of the original sounds, rather than transforming them into something different. These emphases obviously owe a great deal to soundscape composition, which also insists on establishing a clear real-world context and specific associations for the listener through the use of easily recognizable source sounds which maintain their recognizability even when transformed (Truax 2002; see especially §2: ‘Macro Compositional Approaches’ for a definition of soundscape composition). However, there are also differences in emphasis between Karosta and Istanbul on the one hand, and conventional soundscape composition on the other. For example, whereas much soundscape composition organizes sounds semantically according to their meanings and/or associations, Karosta is organized more according to formal and physical characteristics of the sound materials (rhythm, spectrum, density, etc.), using a formal logic which is perhaps more conventionally “musical”, whereas soundscape composition could often perhaps be characterized as more narrative or even theatrical in its treatment of form. Thus, although Karosta shares soundscape composition’s more or less explicit connection to actually existing social spaces, the way in which that connection manifests tends to be somewhat different. Further, certain processing techniques are used in both Karosta and Istanbul which are designed specifically to disrupt the transparency of the digital audio medium through which the piece is presented. These techniques include the use of digital errors — clicks, glitches, digital distortion, etc. — as a means of calling attention to the constructedness of the piece as a work which exists within the medium of digital audio. This interest in subverting the transparency of the digital audio medium is uncharacteristic of soundscape composition and owes its influence more to a genre known as “glitch” (Cascone 2000), and its incorporation into my recent work marks a particular approach to technology and a critical awareness of its social context, as described in the next section.
Technology and Implicated Critique
Above I described how my recent work incorporates aspects of soundscape composition to trace out an explicit relation to specific real-world “extra-musical” contexts. Another aspect to the sociality of my recent practice is the emphasis I tend to put on foregrounding the material technological base of my work and the embeddedness of that base in broader social currents. For me, this foregrounding tends to take the form of an incorporation of usually unwanted artifacts of the digital audio medium — glitches, noises and other digital detritus — that call attention to the imperfection and materiality of digital audio. Unlike much other electroacoustic music, in which technology tends to be treated as an unproblematic medium for sonic exploration, my recent work attempts to problematize its own medium by deliberately incorporating usually unwanted noises and glitches into the finished work. This self-reflexive gesture bears resemblance to structural film, a genre of film that attempted to foreground its own “filmicity” and materiality in an attempt to critique the material context within which the work existed. More recently, this structural approach has appeared in a type of digital music known as “glitch”. In glitch, it is the errors, the noises, the crackles, the skips of the CD that form the centre, rather than the margin of the audio pieces; errors that are specific to the digital audio medium tend to become the basic material for the works. At its best, this approach entails at least an implicit critique of digital technology and its embeddedness within broader social and political relations, as Brady Cranfield argues in relation to Oval, an artist who works with samples from skipping CDs:
For most listeners, a skipping CD is typically considered frustrating and broken. This is not without larger consequences, as well: the music industry depends on the infallibility and control of digital technology, the current primary technical system for the creation and delivery of music as a commodity. As Oval’s work helps make apparent, however, digital systems invariably produce new noises, like skipping CDs or audible glitches in badly downloaded MP3 files. And by making the consequences of digital technology obvious, Oval’s work also draws attention to its own constructed form, ideally returning the listener to a human level of engagement, albeit amidst the ruins of digitized sound — a social truth hidden in the most complicated and beleaguered technology (Cranfield, 2002).
Others, however, are not so convinced of the critical potential of such self-reflexive critique. Ian Andrews sees in glitch the potential for a dangerous return to modernist purism:
I don’t think that the aspect of the glitch as critique in the form of self-reflexivity is enough to save it from pure art. This is why I brought up the comparison with structural-materialist film. Those filmmakers sought a political cinema practice concerned with the materiality of the filmic substrate, but ultimately ended up reproducing the same essentialist problematics as [American post-war art critic Clement] Greenberg and high modernist painting (Andrews 2002).
Another way of phrasing Andrews’ critique is that sometimes self-referentiality tends towards asociality, because a work can end up referring to nothing but itself, even if a broader social critique is initially intended. This is the motivation for my desire to integrate elements of soundscape composition with elements of glitch: not just a hybrid style, or even a totalizing synthesis of the two streams, but a balance of self-conscious technological critique on the one hand and social contextuality on the other; a rescuing of self-reflexivity from self-absorption. If glitch tends towards formalist abstraction, soundscape composition, for its part, often tends to treat its own technological base as unproblematically straightforward vehicle within which to investigate the inner complexity of sound. My intention is, by incorporating elements of both styles, that the two tendencies will counter-balance each other, to create a genre of work that refers to the sociality of its own technological medium, as well as anchoring that critique in something other than the non-place of a purely digital soundscape.
But the technological critique enabled by the incorporation of a critical glitch sensibility is not unproblematic in itself. After all, this is a case of digital technology critiquing digital technology, a critique which implicates itself in its own sweep. This is perhaps indicative of a broader problematic, since not only is digital technology an enabling condition of my own work, but it is also the technological base of many aspects of globalization, a term which denotes everything from neoliberalism (the so-called “liberalization” of global trade relations) on an economic level (Castells 2000), to homogenization (or more accurately, Westernization) on a cultural level (Hall 1996). Further, not only is the technological base of my own work — that is, digital technology — is also constitutive of certain globalizations, but some aspects of these digitized globalizations are also necessary preconditions for my work; for example, most of the soundscape recordings I have used have been procured either directly from the Internet or by email contact with recordists around the world, so that in both cases, the globalization (and digitalization) of communications technology has been an essential prerequisite for my work in its current form. At the same time, however, my work is also at least implicitly critical of certain aspects of globalization; much of the reason for my insistence on the specificity of my source sounds is a critical response to globalization’s tendency to erase the specificity of place. But if the technological base of my own work is radically dependent on that which it critiques, that makes my critique both more implicated and more urgent, or rather, more urgent because more implicated: if I am reliant on the structures I critique, then it is all the more necessary to be critically aware of that reliance. Thus, the self-reflexive technological critique embodied by elements of glitch can, by highlighting my work’s technological base, call attention to the ways in which my work is implicated in the very structures it seeks to critically address.
The theoretical resource which I find most useful in understanding and conceptualizing the paradoxical position of is that of deconstruction. Derrida describes the enterprise of deconstruction as follows:
The movements of deconstruction do not destroy structures from the outside. They are not possible and effective, nor can they take accurate aim, except by inhabiting those structures. Inhabiting them in a certain way, because one always inhabits, and all the more so when one does not suspect it. Operating necessarily from the inside, borrowing all the strategic resources of subversion from the old structure, borrowing them structurally, that is to say without being able to isolate their elements and atoms, the enterprise of deconstruction always in a certain way falls prey to its own work (Derrida 1997: 24).
For me, the deconstructive element comes into my work on a number of levels. On one level, much of my recent work embodies a critique of digital technology in the form of a critical glitch sensibility, while still nonetheless using digital technology as a means of mounting that critique. Though my work attempts to critique the cultural homogenization which certain globalizations tend to produce, this critique is reliant on the acquisition of soundscape recordings from around the world, something which is quite difficult without access to a globalized communications networks. Similarly, much of my work over the last several years has also been distributed for free online. For me, this kind of free Internet distribution has as its goal an attempt to more or less bypass the commodity form by which music today is usually distributed, but this attempted subversion of a capitalist model of music consumption is enabled by precisely the same Internet which has, since its popularization in the mid-nineties, also drastically proliferated the sites of consumerism and commodification. If the recent development of the Internet has been largely driven by high-tech corporations who package the Internet as a global shopping mall, I have those corporations to thank for developing a relatively accessible network which I have been able to use for an alternative, non-commercial model of distribution.
These paradoxes are increasingly typical in a highly complex and globalized world, in which it can often be difficult to stand completely apart from things one wishes to critique, but this state of affairs need not signal the death of critique as such. Rather, forms of critique such as deconstruction which are immanent to their own object and implicated in their own sweep can nonetheless advocate for transformations within those systems. In this paper, I have shown how my recent compositional work has embodied a mode of implicated critique in order to call into question certain tendencies in globalization, digital technology, and cultural distribution.
Cascone, Kim. ‘The Aesthetics of Failure: Post-Digital Tendencies in Contemporary Computer Music’, in Computer Music Journal 24(4), pp. 12–18, 2000.
Castells, Manuel. The Rise of the Network Society. Second edition. Volume 1 of The Information Age. Oxford and Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 2000.
Cranfield, Brady. ‘Producing Noise: Oval and the Politics of Digital Audio’, in Parachute 107, pp. 42–51, 2002.
Derrida, Jacques. Of Grammatology. Corrected Edition. Translated by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997.
Hall, Stuart. ‘Identity in Question’, in Modernity: An Introduction to Modern Societies, Stuart Hall et al., (eds.). Oxford; Blackwell Publishers, 1996, pp. 596–633.
Holzer, Derek and Sara Kolster. Karosta Project: Dispatches from the Zone. 2003. <http://karosta.edworks.net>.
Lefebvre, Henri. The Production of Space. Oxford, UK and Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA: Blackwell Publishers, 1991.
Leppert, Richard and Susan McClary, eds. Music and Society; The Politics of Composition, Performance, and Reception. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987.
Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. The Post-Colonial Critic: Interviews, Strategies, Dialogues. Sarah Harasym (ed.). New York: Routledge, 1990.
Thomson, Phil. Machine Languages. MFA Graduating Project, 2005. Simon Fraser University. Downloadable from <http://philthomson.ca>.
Truax, Barry. ‘Genres and Techniques of Soundscape Composition as Developed at Simon Fraser University’, in Organised Sound 7(1), pp. 5–14, 2002.
Other Articles by the Author
‘Atoms and Errors: Towards a History and Aesthetics of Microsound’, in Organised Sound 9(2).
Further articles are available on the author’s website.