The becoming-sound of music

Spotlights 29.11.2022

The duality written/non-written is not without affinities with the axiomatic/intuitionist couple, a terminology borrowed from the history of mathematics, and in particular during the period when the latter sought to "found" their discipline[1]. In this text, we will talk about musical research, from Debussy to the present day, which could also be understood as a "crisis of foundations", a crisis during which we witness the emergence of sound as a foundation.

In his beautiful article on musical listening, "Obedience", the philosopher Jean-François Lyotard sketched a parallel between the crisis of foundations that mathematics and contemporary music went through[2]. Indeed, there is nothing to prevent us from thinking of the collapse of the tonal edifice, the proliferation of new sound materials, the plethora of compositional systems, and even the overcoming of the Italian stage, the opening up to sound installations, or the ecological critique of music - a set of mutations that cover more than a century, from Debussy to the present day - as a crisis of musical foundations. This crisis questions the organization of music on the model of language, according to two levels: the minimal unit (the musical note) and the level of grammar (the combinatory of notes). A first state resulting from this crisis has been called "atonality"; but, as Schoenberg, one of the first actors in this crisis of foundations, thought, the term has little meaning, if not a negative one [3]. Finally, it is the very basis of music that has imposed itself as a foundation, namely sound itself. To quote Lyotard again, during this crisis of the foundations, " everything happened as if the task of the composers was to proceed to an anamnesis of what was given under the name of music. [In painting, after the exploration of the constraints on the chromatic organization of surfaces, only the color remains [...] Similarly in music, the analysis of the regulations of the pitch finally leaves only the material, the enigmatic presence of the vibrate, as sound.

To continue the parallel with the history of mathematics, several paths lead to the emergence of sound. We could group them into two paths and use the vocabulary of epistemology, by opposing the axiomatic path to the intuitionist path. The work done by Webern in the first movement of the Symphony op. 21 (1928) would be axiomatic. This piece has a very refined serial construction - acting as a "chromosomal material"[5] - which gives the music analyst a lot of work to do! But today's ear, accustomed to music-as-sound, immediately apprehends it - because of the fixity of the notes in the register and the canonical writing that leads to the repetition of echoing notes despite the serial principle - as a succession of composed resonances. 

In the post-1945 period, emblematic of this way would be Xenakis. Using sometimes the graph paper to draw sound forms and sometimes the calculation of probabilities to calculate the values of the notes composing his sound masses, Xenakis gives us, from Metastaseis (1953-54), works linking composed sonorities, that is to say sections that are not conceived according to the logic of the development of cells, but on the model of the sound.
With the spectral composers, the music thought as composed-sound is theorized, the musical work being presented as a transposition of the micro-time (spectrum) towards the macro-time (instrumental composition). This is why, from the end of the 1970s, Grisey, who is particularly interested in the transitory and energetic aspect of sound, dreams of an "ecology of sound, as a new science put at the disposal of musicians[6]...". Closer to us, and to mention also the electronic music, we could quote Agostino Di Scipio who, radicalizing the paradigm of the granular synthesis, gives us, with pieces such as Paris. La robotique des Lumières (2003, third of the four pieces forming the Historical landscapes), some kind of composed sound dust, offering models of "weak", deconstructed sounds - counter-models of the sound weapons that proliferate in our more and more authoritarian societies.

The intuitionist path could be masterfully illustrated by Cage, who liked to say: " I have never listened to any sound without liking it: the only problem with sounds is music . After having explored noise following Varèse, Cage turned to a music where each sound is a monad in itself, the essential being no longer the act of composing, but the listening, that is to say the awareness of the sound: it is a question of " letting the sounds be themselves. To be themselves in order to open the consciousness of the people who produce them or who listen to them with other potentialities than those they had envisaged before" [8]. 

But one could also think of Scelsi, a very intuitive composer whose scores are transcriptions of improvisations. A pioneer of sound immersion, Scelsi liked to say that " sound is spherical, but when we listen to it, it seems to have only two dimensions: height and duration - the third, depth, we know exists, but in a certain sense, it escapes us. At the same time, with albums such as A Love Supreme (1964) or Meditation (1965), Coltrane and his musicians developed a music that was also immersive, almost liquid, diluting the traditional characteristics of jazz in the sound. And there is nothing to prevent us from mentioning the "meditative" Stockhausen ofAus den sieben Tagen (1968), which gives texts as a score: " Play a sound until you hear each of its vibrations ", we read in Fais voile vers le soleil [10]. In more recent music, it is through his listening to nature that John Luther Adams, with Become Ocean (2013), Become River (2013) or Become Desert (2018) - a "becoming"(become) not unlike the Deleuze and Guattari of Mille plateaux -, plunges us into the music of sound.

The axiomatic/intuitionistic pairing is not without evoking the duality of written/unwritten music. The examples chosen to illustrate the axiomatic way refer to very constructed and, a fortiori, totally written musical works. As for the examples of the intuitionist path, if one (Adams) is written music, another (Coltrane) is improvised and unwritten music, a third (Scelsi) improvised and then transcribed music, and the last (Cage) so-called "indeterminate" scores, where the performers have great latitude. Bringing together axiomatism and intuitionism, the becoming-sound of music also overhangs the opposition written / unwritten. It does not abolish it, but it envisages it in the form of complementarity. It is certain that the emergence of sound was made possible by the invention of the recording, which is a form of writing of sound. In a sense, one could say that the score produced the concept of the work, while the recording invented the sound. However, the recording tends to reify the sound, to pose it as an object. This is why, just as the concept of work is constantly questioned (notably by non-written music), other conceptions of sound than those of the object pass by more intuitive approaches calling upon the non-written.

Makis Solomos

[1] At the beginning of the 20th century, several schools of mathematicians tried to unify the different branches of mathematics and to establish them on rigorous bases.
[2] Cf. Jean-François Lyotard, "L'obédience", InHarmoniques n°1, 1986. Reprinted in Jean-François Lyotard, L'inhumain; causeries sur le temps, Paris, Klincksieck, 2014.
[3] "Let me mention here that I consider the expression 'atonal' as meaningless [...A piece of music is always necessarily tonal, because there is always a kinship between one sound and another sound, and consequently two sounds, placed one next to the other or one above the other, are in a condition of perceptible association", wrote Arnold Schönberg(Le style et l'idée, écrits réunis par Léonard Stein, translation Christiane de Lisle, Paris, Buchet/Chastel, 1977, p. 219-220), for whom the term "atonal" is not an expression, but rather an expression of the "atonal". 219-220), for whom "sound" means "musical note".
[4] Jean-François Lyotard, op. cit. p. 108 and 110-111.
[5] The expression is from Henri-Louis Matter, Webern, Lausanne, L'Âge d'homme, 1981, p. 78.
[6] Gérard Grisey, " Devenir du son " (1978 and 1986), in Gérard Grisey, Écrits ou l'invention de la musique spectrale, edition established by Guy Lelong with the collaboration of Anne-Marie Réby, Paris, editions MF, 2008, p. 28. 28.
[7] John Cage, I have never listened to any sound without loving it: the only problem with sounds is music, translation Daniel Charles, s.l., La main courante, 1994, p. 21.
[8] John Cage, interview with Bill Womack (1979), in Richard Kostelanetz, Conversations with John Cage, translation Marc Dauchy, Paris, Éditions des Syrtes, 2000, p. 77.
[9] Giacinto Scelsi, "Son et musique" (improvised conversations between Scelsi and friends during 1953 and 1954), Les anges sont ailleurs..., Arles, Actes Sud, 2006, p. 126-127.
[10] Karlheinz Stockhausen, Aus den sieben Tagen : "Fais voile vers le soleil", Vienna, Universal Edition, 1968.

Photo painting by Kazuya Sakai - Aus Den Sieben Tagen, 1976