Timbre, Repetition and the Thickness of Sound


Here is a so-far unpublished musing on Jean-Francois Lyotard’s writings on music in The Inhuman. At some point, no doubt, I will be revising it in the light of my published work on computer music and the analytic metaphysics of sound (See  Roden 2010). In the meantime, I’m interested in hearing from anyone who thinks that Lyotard gets something right about avant garde music.

In his essay ‘God and the Puppet’ Lyotard describes musical repetition in terms that are Derridean in all salient respects: the musical identity of a phrase, chord or rhythmic cell in a composition is ‘not determined’ as a Platonic essence ‘once and for all’ but is continously ‘modified’ through the iteration of further musical events (the traditional methods of variation and transposition being but special cases of such iterative processes). This account is then supplemented with what Lyotard refers to as ‘an observation of a different order’: namely, that each performance of a musical structure has a timbral ‘singularity’ which distinguishes it from other exemplifications of the same structure. Of this he writes

“And one is thus tempted to think that it escapes all repetition, not only that involved in contituting the sound’s identity, but that of the formal variation demanded by music. Even what is aptly called the ‘rehersal’  [repetition] of a work by a performer… cannot manage to   control the timbre or the nuance which will take place, singularly, on the night of the concert. With the nuance it seems that the ear is given over to something incomparable (and therefore unrepeatable) in what is called the performance, ie. to the here and now of the sound, in their singularity, in their one-offness, in the aspect by which they are, by virtue of their position, not subject to spatio-temporal transfer.” (Lyotard 1993, 155)

This passage is resonant of those in Discours, Figur where Lyotard talks of the thickness of perceptual space which is irreducible to the flat, digitalized space of langue; also, his description of the painting as a pure event preceding the various discourses that inscribe it in history in ‘Newman: The Instant’. It is Lyotard singing in the key of phenomenology in so far as the timbral singularity is certainly a phenomenon, something that appears. Yet – as Lyotard seems to acknowledge in parts of The Inhuman – it is already a phenomemology in crisis (phenomenology minor). Lyotard, ventriloquizing Kant and Leibnitz, equates consciousness with the capacities of memory and conceptualisation; a ‘poor monad’ unable to link a current presentation to past and future presentations could hardly be said to be conscious. Yet while human experiencers certainly have that capacity, they are also afflicted by ‘material’ that is absolutely singular, resistant to generalization, unrepeatable and hence of a heterogeneous order to the synthesizing activity of consciousness.

The first thing we need to consider is Lyotard’s use of ‘timbre’ to refer to what is ‘incomparable and unrepeatable’ about the auditory event. In another essay in the Inhuman Lyotard distinguishes timbre from those musical variables such as pitch and dynamics which correlate more or less directly with physical parameters like frequency and amplitude:

“Nuance and timbre are scarcely perceptible differences between sounds … which are otherwise identical in terms of their physical parameters. Nuance and timbre are what differ and defer, what makes the difference between the note on the piano and the same note on the flute, and thus what also defer the identification of that note.”(Lyotard 1993, 141)

There are a number of problems with this formulation. Firstly, while timbre may not be related to any single acoustic parameter it is (as anyone who has ever programmed a synthesizer will tell you) related to the spectral composition of the sound together with its temporal profile or ‘envelope’. More importantly perhaps, it is simply not true that timbres are incomparable or unrepeatable. As the electro-acoustic composer Dennis Smalley demonstrates in his essay ‘Spectro-Morphology and Structuring Processes’ the development of technologies for the (digital or analog) storage of sound has incited the development of taxonomies of timbral values in which timbral variation, development and repetition can be schematized in manners at least analogous to schemes of melodic and harmonic development. Now, it is important to distinguish the varieties of formal descriptions that might be applied to a series of auditory events and the events themselves and it could be objected that such events are always incomparably richer in content than their formal models. However, I am not sure that Lyotard could respond in this way. This is because the distinction at issue is not between two types of content (say, conceptual and non-conceptual content) but between content and something other which Lyotard occasionally refers under the rubric of ‘matter’.

Despite its allusion to Kantian rational psychology, Lyotard’s employment of the term does not appear to involve the postulation of some unformed ‘stuff’ that must be subsequently ordered by the cognitive faculties but to that which opens up consciousness to the es gibt (‘there is/it gives’) of being(s) as such. What gives experience the capacity to open onto a world (an auditory world, for example) is a certain epaisseur (thickness) which can never be transferred even to experiences which approach qualitative identity. The passages that discuss matter in the Inhuman imply also a rejection of any transcendental structure which might account for the ‘it gives’; it is, above all perhaps, a gift, an intrusion ‘within’ the synthesizing activity of consciousness that necessarily escapes synthesis (whether of repetition or conceptualization).

In ‘Obedience’, the companion essay to ‘God and the Puppet’, Lyotard suggests that we understand avant-garde musical practice in the twentieth century as the gradual ‘liberation’ of musical material, resulting paradoxically from our increased technical and scientific mastery of it. Wheras in previous centuries audition had been constrained by ‘the timbres imposed by classical, baroque and modern instruments; the durations and rhythms measured bu the time signatures and counterpoint; pitches defined by modes and scales’ (Lyotard 1993, p. 168) – everything indeed which could be assigned to the formal and iterative aspect of music – a range of artistic, scientific and technological developments has made this traditional paraphanalia seem increasingly irrelevant to auditory reality. The work of the avant-garde is, paradoxically, to exploit the vastly developed possibilities for the manipulation of acoustic parameters in order to render the ear more ‘obedient’ to aural matter, to sound in its singularity and, yes, inhumanity. The question asked by such exemplary avant-gardists as Cage and Varese, according to Lyotard, is not ‘how can we use sound?’ so much as ‘how can sound use us ?’

The relationship between this historical narrative and Lyotard’s distinction between musical matter and musical form should be apparent. The hold of traditional musical forms upon auditory reality is precarious because timbre – the raw, unconceptualizable matter of sound – is ultimately resistant to repetition or formalisation. This schema – if it is rigidly adhered to – leads to a problem of the incarnation of musical texts analogous to that raised by Derridean iterability. If timbral events really are singular and unformalizable how can we explain their coherence within larger wholes ? Moreover, what makes one sequence of sound events more ‘obedient’ to the timbral event than another ? Lyotard cites a passage from the writings of the composer, Varese, at this point, which suggests that in his work form is no longer an arbitrary or subjective imposition but is a result of objective tendencies in the material:

“[The] timbres taken one by one, as well as their combination are the necessary ingredients of the sound-mix – they colour and differentiate the various planes and volumes – and far from being the fruit of chance,, they are one with form. I do not use sounds of the basis of subjective impressions as the impressionists did when they chose their colours. In my musical works, the sounds are an intrinsic part of the structure.” (Lyotard 1993, 172)

Lyotard glosses Varese as follows:

“This autostructuration of colours (Varese happily uses the  metaphor of ‘crystallization’) implies notably a liberation from the great musical forms accredited by the tradition, and especially the sonata form. Contemporary music undoes the melodic plot in which the sound matter is subordinated to a sentimental narration, an odyssey. The dialectic of epic which encloses the time of the work in a beginning, a development and an end – with its harmonic counterpart, resolution – stops  organizing musical temporality. What is presented in contemporary music is a temporality of sound-events, accepting anachrony or parachrony, rather than a diachrony.” (Lyotard 1993,  p.173)

The rhetoric of objectivity, of fidelity to the intrinsic character of the medium is one of the characteristic gestures of high modernism. However, it is far clear that Varese’s deployment of timbral events in a work such as Poeme Electronique could really be accounted for in terms of the self-organizing character of the sonic entities of which it is composed. The Electronic Poem utilizes formal patterns of repetition and variation, tension and resolution which emerge from the compositional decision to deploy prototypical sounds in particular combinations.

However rudimentary such a form of variation might be it would be impossible if timbres really were ‘incomparable’, that is if the quality of timbre, like melody, rhythm and harmony was not a result of the structural properties of the auditory event. Lyotard’s difficulties seem to arise as soon as matter is removed from the purely speculative zone of the aporetic and given a ‘concrete’ realisation. If timbre seems to us more ‘palpable’ (and hence less transferrable) than other musical parameters this is perhaps due the late emergence of a canonical treatment of timbral organisation comparable to traditional diatonic harmony. This historically (and technologically) conditioned fact is also part of the ‘phenomenology of timbre’. We can illustrate this by comparing the relative ease with which a western audience can discern patterns of harmonic transition or resolution with the formidable difficulties involved in discerning timbral progression and organization, a situation beautifully exemplified in a passage cited from the musicologist, W. Woira’s Les Quatres Ages de la Musique in Nattiez’s semiological study, Music and Discourse

“Music is a play of tones, that is, of fixed, clearly defined quantities. Other sounds, glissandos, cries, noises, may occur as inserts; if they are numerous it is partly musical; if they predominate, it is no longer music in the proper sense of the word” (cNattiez 1990, p.47)

Indeed for most listeners the highest level of (nonharmonic/arhythmic) timbral organisation is a relatively discreet and continuous sound ‘packet’: a fact reflected in the memory architecture of most synthezisers and samplers which have been designed with commercial applications in mind. If this is a consequence of a complex set of historical factors (which would, of course, include the cultural preponderance of tonal harmony and the relatively recent development of technologies which can manipulate timbral variables with any facility) then it is hardly illuminating to attribute the ‘singularity’ of timbre – understood as a resistance to formal organisation –  to its phenomenology.

If aharmonic, arhythmic timbre, noise if you will, is only contingently intractable, then the motifs of matter and passivity which Lyotard employs to account for it must be open to question. As Nattiez emphasizes, the boundary between music and noise is determined at the ‘poietic level’ of compositional strategy and the ‘esthetic level’ of perceptual strategies. Are we then to understand the singularity of the latter in relation to an audience’s lack of certain requisite skills ? We can, up to a point, just as we can account for the intractability of Coltrane’s ‘Giant Steps’ solo for those who have not ‘internalized’ certain harmonic, formal and rhythmic practices either as listeners or performers. However, in accounting for the conditional singularity of noise we need to go beyond the synthesis model which makes difference a consequence of the activity of the subject lest we succumb to the illusion of a natural state of audition, the pre-Columbian ear whose subsequent ‘servitude’ to abstract musical structures is entirely mysterious.

Lyotard, Jean-Francois (1993), The Inhuman, Geoffrey Bennington and Rachel Bowlby (trans.), (Cambridge: Polity)

Nattiez, Jean-Jacques (1990), Music and Discourse: Toward a Semiology of Music, Carolyn Abbate (trans.), (Princeton: Princeton University Press).

Roden, David( 2009 )‘Sonic Art and the Nature of Sonic Events’, in Bullot, N.J. & Egré, P. (eds.) Objects and Sound Perception special issue, Review of Philosophy and Psychology 1(1) (Note: ROPP is a new Springer journal devoted to the philosophy of psychology and cognitive science).

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