2023Datacide 19

The Electronic Disturbance Zone – Part 1


“The concept of music will need to disappear… It is too specialised and I believe

that our thinking is evolving away from specialisation.”

– Luc Ferrari

In the most general terms electronic music can be said to be a music without notes, a music beyond the stave which eschews traditional instrumentation. It is what we once called music devolving or evolving into sound and returning to music once again. It can be experienced as inharmonious sound. It can be experienced as indeterminate noise. It can still be experienced as ‘traumatic’ when the prevailing culture still gives precedence to the comfort of harmonies and melodies, to cleanliness, to a well-tempered emotionality more akin to sentimentality. To a degree electronic music can take us beyond figurative representation and cast a critical light on our habituated modes of perception which to a large degree have been streamlined by the needs of an ‘attention economy’.

Electronic music, produced from the materiality of sound, can be generated in the manipulation of electricity, in the powers of the microphone to record almost any and all sounds and, latterly, with the computer aided design of sound through such processes as granular synthesis. It may, then, be said, that electronic music across all its variations, is a form of ‘music’ in which a wider acousticality comes to the fore, an audible breadth that is itself both, and often at the same time, indicative of the molar and the micro, of the present and the past.

So, electronic music, has, since the late 50s, drawn our attention less to the ‘music of the spheres’, a mathematical universal harmony, as to what Pauline Oliveros has named the ‘Sonosphere’ – a ‘musical’ variant of what Marx termed the ‘general intellect’ and what Gilbert Simondon has referred to as ‘pre-individual reality’. These latter both amount to what Paulo Virno describes as ‘common presuppositions’ that precede us, that precede our entry into the social world and through which we ‘individuate’ or metamorphose2. As Virno says of language and the means of production, the Sonosphere becomes that which, in the world of sound, enables the infinitive flow of production and creativity, not just of objects but of ourselves as social subjects too. Electronic music may, then, imply the powers of transduction rather than manufacture (we produce from the already produced), it may enable us to wrest some ontological autonomy from the powers of a mainstream culture that can produce in us that alienating sensation of living an asocial sociality.


Much ‘Sonic Theory’ of the last decades has been in a rush to distance itself from the ‘cul-de-sac’ of subjectively based phenomenological interpretations of sound and listening. This is tantamount to developing on from what could be seen as one of the founding texts of sonic-theory: Pierre Schaefer’s Traité des objets musicaux in which the influence of philosophers Merleau-Ponty and Husserl is writ large. Writing back in 2011, Will Schrimshaw, seems to suggest that the phenomenological approach restricts us to an ‘affirmation of subjective interiority’ against which he sets ‘impersonal affect’. Instead of listening, or sonic experience, being seen as ‘an auto-affective affirmation’ (with its associations to narcissism) Schrimshaw draws on aspects of affect theory to posit “a larger vibrational continuum of sonic affects” that is beyond the boundaries of any one self (think the pulses and distortions of the sonosphere that could be heard on AM radio frequencies) and which, for him, points to an ‘ethics of exteriority.’ In Schrimshaw’s account affect can become as autonomous as ‘sound-itself’. This has some interesting and troubling ramifications. One is that Schrimshaw opens up a political issue in relation to listening to ‘sonic affects’ in that such a listening relativises and in some sense holds an ‘individualism’ in abeyance. The ‘sonosphere’ is something far wider than any one person or group of people. It can even include a radical decentering of the human by offering there are “unheard sounds” that are sounding without any human experiencing them (“an acoustical real need not appeal to the ear.”3) Furthermore, this use of affect theory can suggest that the whole terrain of aesthetics can be bypassed or surpassed by our opening out onto sound as a transformative ‘field of affects’ (a sonic continuum) rather than an ‘art world’ that is now more akin to a commodities market. However, and here is a troubling aspect, for many sonic theorists this runs counter to their expressed aim of elevating ‘sound studies’ to a level that is on a par with art and literary studies which as we know are not disinterested in canonising certain individuals, creating new categories of capture, as well as opening up new institutional cul-de-sacs: hence the rise to prominence, or valorisation, of ‘sonic art’. So, they seemed satisfied with “raising sound art discourse to the level of theoretical analysis of the visual arts and literature’4 and we therefore struggle to find in most pages of sonic theory any escape vector that could lead us to pursue the political implications of electronic music and the sonosphere.


The sonic theorists, who base the vast majority of their ideas on electronic music practitioners, have more than a point when they suggest that it is difficult to encapsulate sound by using the methods of art and literary theory as sound is, in many senses, defiant in the face of signification and representation. For them this may explain why electronic music and sound had fallen behind the prominence of the other arts which is, for them, itself attested to by the cultural privileging of visual and written mediums. But, rather than enjoy this ‘lower faculty’ and revel in the potential for sound to radically question language and representation, they seem to want to compensate for this. The challenge to pursue a politics of affect is sacrificed to the elevation of a sonic theory adequate to the art world and its attendant academic institutions. The linchpin here, the increased legitimation of electronic music as sonic art, is often founded, not so much in renowned ‘stand-alone’ institutions like GRM and IRCAM, but in a certain archaeology of conceptual art that got into full swing at the turn of the millennium. I myself got involved in this by linking art works with a strong if not sole sonic component by the likes of Robert Barry (carrier waves) and Michael Asher (miked-up room) to works by John Cage (4’ 33”), Alvin Lucier (I am Sitting in a Room) and Luke Ferrari (Presque Rien No.1.) The text in which this occurred was part of an extended riff on Lucy Lippard’s ‘dematerialisation of the art object’ and its conjoint, ‘institutional critique’, where sound was, perhaps idealistically, proffered as de-material, as lacking an objectal (commodifiable) status and capable of creating differential group contexts. Back then I saw electronic music as a means of surpassing ‘art’ and its institutions, adding: “the fact that the musical avant-garde remains an area that has not been zoned-off by the manifold workings of the institution allows the institution to present its own self-generated ‘avant-garde’ minus the anti-institutional and socially engaged ramifications of the avant-garde trajectory. It also leaves others some scope.”5

Twenty years later, with estranging sonic effects being included in Eastenders – a character’s impending deafness is portrayed in a fuzzy and scrambled distortion of other characters’ speech – and with an increasing genre specificity and taxonomy of electronic music, the sonic theorists with their emphasis on a (non-historical) materiality and institutional acceptance, would probably laugh out loud were they to ever read what I wrote back then. There most surely has been a ‘zoning-off’ and with works like Jakob Kierkegaard’s Membrane – recording the inner sounds and surrounding ambience of the infamous border wall between the US and Mexico – the institution has offered up its own ‘self-generated avant-garde’ voided of the semblance of even a conventional political sensitivity. With this aesthetic demarcation in mind we can offer that there is, and always has been, scope for some disturbance. That, with the rise of audio technologies, there has arisen a ‘war at the membrane’ that seeks to highlight and retaliate against mainstream culture’s “politicisation [of] the social organisation of the subject’s boundaries.” 6 Such a politicisation has been made more pressing over the years by an ‘endocolonial’ neo-liberalism that sees our powers of sensitivity, our perceptive capacities and our very consciousness as a means to generate value.


Back in the 90s, as an adjunct to raves and techno parties, there was a rise in ‘chill-out’ rooms that provided a break from the sonic overload and rhythmic paroxysms of ‘electronic dance music’. This whole 90s period from acid-house through to two-step was a period in which many people enthusiastically embraced a kind of ‘sonic abstraction’: the acid line was forecasted in the ‘bleeps’ and sine-wave distortions of the early elektronische musik that came from Cologne’s WDR Radio studio. Instead of the tight compositional methods used by the latter, techno and its many variants seemed to develop compositional techniques that relied on insertions or layerings of sound within tight and increasingly frantic rhythms. One could say that, other than bring to fruition the ‘zones of intensities’ dreamed-of by avant-garde composer Edgar Varèse, this explosion of amateur, self-taught composition (more and more aided by sampling and computer softwares) led to an undisciplined focus on the intensive qualities of sound (dirty timbre); sonic material entering into a tense meniscus at the rim of rhythm7.

It was in order to gain temporary respite or to recoup energies to dance, that the ‘chill-out’ room became something of a staple. At the Dead by Dawn parties, during which this magazine was founded, the chill out room was replaced by an ‘electronic disturbance zone’. Here, as far as I can recall, the sound on offer tapped into that strain of industrial music that preceded techno as well as reflecting the growing popularity of Japanese ‘noise’ musics. The whole idea of ambient as beatless, slower music, a music of atmospheres, gave rise to producers making tracks that disturbed the common notion of ambient by making ‘experimental techno’. Labels like Axis, Mille Plateaux, Sähkö, PCPs Countdown series, and many of the early releases on Acid Planet/Bunker, all troubled the received ideas of a techno orthodoxy. The list could go on… but in relation to electronic music, there was a shared appreciation and discovery at the EDZ of, let’s call it, ‘classical’ electronic music made by composers such as Stockhausen, Zimmerman, Ligeti, Xenakis etc. Indeed, two of the protagonists of the EDZ, Paul Nomex and Jo Burzynska, each produced records that, amongst many other things, used the sampled sound of trains. It was later discovered that one of the first compositions of musique concrète (‘music’ made from the combining of ‘found sounds’) is Etudes de Chemin de Fer by Pierre Schaeffer. Prior to this, there were a couple of short articles in the Praxis Newsletter that functioned as a kind of blueprint for the EDZ. In one ambient DJs were taken to task for playing a kind of Muzak that merely “had the effect of dulling the senses and promoting mindblock”8. In another ambient music was seen as an “enveloping denervating anaesthetic […] designed to wash over the all important nervous/motor systems rendering us passive consumers.”9 At the EDZ, then, there was a sense that the ‘mindblock’ of the already perceived could be challenged, that the sonic affectivity of sound could be transformative. At the EDZ we could have heard careening wheels and cicadas, lock grooves and cut bells, drill turntables and the ambience of bone-filled catacombs.


Unlike a chill-out room where the cumulative effect may be to fall into a ‘denervated’ state, or the dancefloor in which gestures, movements and dancing on the spot predominated, the EDZ could be said (at least in retrospect) to have provided a listening milieu, a specific reception context. Notions such as ‘listener as operator’ grew during this period as, giving creative status to listening, was seen as a politically inflected re-appropriation of music appreciation that had come, with new audio technologies, to be a diffuse context and one not solely determined by gigs, the concert hall or the academy. Rather than listening being always registered as a passive and solitary activity (a mode of aural ‘spectatorship’) it came to take on both that active and social dimension that many post-war cultural theorists had been at pains to point out. The creative division between listener and producer became blurred as did the distinction between personal memory and social memory. Adorno and Eisler referred, in a 1947 essay entitled Composing For Films, to listening as ‘acoustical perception’ 10 and in so doing inferred the creative aspect of listening shared, often in simultaneity, by many people: one need only think of the countless ‘affinity groups’ we have been involved in on the basis of sharing in ‘acoustical perception’ and, interestingly, the ease with which these groupings form and cohere over distances of time and space (a matter of individual memory in modulation with social memory). Electronic music fit perfectly here. It seemed to require a much more ‘active listening’ that, in focussing attention more closely on unrecognisable sounds, either instilled a sense of ‘autotrauma’ akin, at the extreme, to hearing voices, or predisposed us towards other auditors. An active listening that required both a desire-to-hear and a drive to suspend auditory norms.

However, at the inception of sonic theory, Pierre Schaeffer’s experiments with found sound encouraged him to delineate a ‘circuit’ of four modes of listening which eventually led him to speak mainly about ‘reduced listening’ – an ‘acousmatic’ listening that suspends any reference to the location, source and cause of a sound and urges listeners to concentrate solely on the ‘morphological attributes’ of the sound which becomes an object, an autonomous ‘sound object’, that then take the place of acoustic instruments as the material of composition. Whether such a listening is possible in anything other than the laboratory conditions of Schaeffer’s GRM (which initially captured these sound objects in lock grooved vinyl records), is by-the-by, but aside from being a pioneering effort in elevating ‘acoustical perception’ and ‘acting with the ear’, Schaeffer’s prescriptive mode of listening could give credence to John Mowitt’s complaint that “we persist in regarding the perfection of listening as essentially beyond all forms of social determination”11. So, in addition to reduced listening, with all its ramifications of aesthetic transcendence fitting to an ‘autonomous’ art, we could proffer an ‘active listening’, an alertness, which, developed in therapeutic circles, is one in which the therapist as a listening subject, as far as possible, puts the ‘self’ in abeyance to be made ready to accept the affect of the other, not necessarily their meaning-making. Affect in such a setting is ‘impersonal’ but not without inter- and trans-subjective congruence. Listening to electronic music is perhaps similar to this, and, to honour the efforts of Pierre Schaeffer, I shall cite him again: “Nothing is more natural than obeying the dictates of habit. [Rather,] it is a question of an anti-natural effort to perceive what previously determined my consciousness without my knowing it.”12

Such ‘determination of consciousness’ takes on a political import (‘war at the membrane’) when, in the era of the new audio technologies, the sensual and porous boundaries of the subject become a site of antagonism, a site of conflict in which habitual modes of perception (constantly propagated by the civil servants of mainstream culture) become recognized as the throughputs of conformity. Electronic music can be effective in breaking these dictates of habits. It can position us at the limits of our perceptive capacities. It can have an autotraumatic effect if we willingly embrace its estranging qualities. Oftentimes we can consider, while listening, that, to the ears of another, the ‘music’ that we are listening to could summon forth ideas of sonic torture. This seems to make more clear to us that electronic music can assist us in making the ‘anti-natural’ (re: autotraumatic) effort that Schaeffer urges. Amidst more general listening publics (not just the ears of sonic theorists and enthusiasts) there is still something disquieting about electronic music that profiles our being overdetermined through being sensually habituated. Or as Ola Stockfelt puts it: through our interpellation by ‘genre-normative modes of listening.’13 So, one could come to speak, after Deleuze and Guattari, of this active listening as ‘desiring-perception’ and, with the extended ramifications of this it becomes possible to offer music and sound as modes of ‘deterritorialising’ (disinhibiting and dehabituating) the subject that we have been productively determined to be. In responding to sonic affects, in being affected by sound as sensuality and sound as social memory, by the ‘individuating’ aspects of sound and its spur to form transindividual collectivities, as well as by its nonathropomorphic realities, disbarred becomings open out on the horizon.


Notions such as the ‘general intellect’ and ‘pre-individual reality’ are strongly related to history. In our case, histories of the musical means of production, sound exploration and the impact these have upon how we listen (to the point that it is possible to speak of an historically formed auricular drive?) Indeed, as Marx suggested, the senses are not fixed and fast innate entities but are themselves a socio-historical ‘product’. So, in the years since the undisputed popularity of techno it can be noted that there was a wholesale recirculation of electronic music made possible, in part, by techno’s opening up of active listening and desiring perception. From the late 90s we saw the reissuing, and to some degree, canonisation, of an electronic music that profiled this history with a gamut of archive releases. Labels like Metamkine, Lovely Music, Alga Marghen and Sub Rosa began a kind of archaeological exploration of the nether worlds of electronic and avant-garde musics that, in large part, contributed to electronic music coming into its own in relation to the hegemony of instrumental classical music.

This ‘past-imperfect’ of the archive, involving the reappreciation of the work of the past as well as a kind of history of the differing modes of listening each of these encouraged, could be said to have occurred at the same time as music technologies, softwares, home studios and file sharing experienced an exponential growth. In something akin to Jacques Attali’s hope for a widespread non-specialised composition – “a music produced by each individual for himself, for pleasure outside meaning, usage and exchange” 14 – electronic music, its practice in the now and its opening up to the past, came to be another ‘common presupposition’. Like near-everything that results from social production (except madness), the Electronic Archive became a factor in the ‘general intellect’. As Virno puts it: “The sharing of the ‘general intellect’ becomes the actual foundation of all praxis.”15 What this amounts to is that an awareness of the past, comes, via the notion of the archive, to become a kind of diffuse institution that can by-pass the conservatoires, radio studios and specialist academies that were the mainstays of electronic music. Such a ‘living culture’, audible in the sharpness of the sounds of the past as well as in the shared open access and social jouissance of current practices, comes to form an alternate means of self-education unrestricted by conservative study programmes.

The re-appropriation of the means of production (which includes the sonic archive as material to ‘transduce’), threatens those that seek to partition-off and colonise the ‘general intellect’ in the name of personal property and originality. Attali recalls Pierre Boulez’s objection to such an outgrowth of self-institutional organising: “everybody arouses everybody else – public onanism.’ 16 Contrast this to Luc Ferrari, a one-time member of the GRM who left to form a sequence of studios: “There are more and more people who want to work with simple electroacoustic or audio-visual means, knowing that these means are accessible. And those, rather than going to institutions which are closed to them, because they are institutions, will rather be directed towards means. Or, they will try to get to know people who have limited equipment, and try to work in a group with those; or else they will try themselves to constitute this limited apparatus, in common with others.”17 The goal here is not aesthetic purity, the sound object as an ideal object, but the opening up, the constitution of a ‘field of affects’ as, for instance reception contexts like the EDZ, through which we can individuate ourselves (metamorphose) through intensified sonic material (‘impersonal affect’) and the relational sharing of our ‘pre-individual’ realities as these are summoned by a history that is wider than ourselves. As Attali suggests it is this way that ‘different social relations arise’.


If I have been using the term ‘electronic music’ in all its open-endedness it is almost to go back in time and situate the sonic intensities that arose there in all their disturbing qualities; a place before genre differentiation which, exciting at the outset as a chaotic proliferation, becomes, in capitalist cultures, a means of denying heterogeneity, establishing hierarchical arrangements and of streamlining perception (all factors at stake in the ‘war of the membrane.’) Early compilations of electronic music, such as those issued on the Turnabout label from 1965, featured a full range of practitioners who were working across found sound and processed electronics, manipulations of the voice and timbral investigations of acoustic instruments (including Ilhan Mimaroglu’s use of an elastic band in his Bowery Bum). So, I am using the term electronic music to enable me to go back to a place in the history of my perception when these sounds affected me, and affected me intensely perhaps because I had no ‘general intellect’ to refer to. I lacked knowledge of how these sounds were produced, I lacked knowledge of the tradition they were part of, but perhaps most importantly I was still in thrall to genre normativity. The lack of ‘common presuppositions’, a shared appreciation, increased the traumatic qualities of electronic music. Other than the Dr Who theme, among the first of these disturbing and estranging experiences, that induced fear in broad daylight, was the tonally-wavering backwards clarinet (backed by a seemingly unrelated sax drone and twittering birds) on Cabaret Voltaire’s Partially Submerged.

But, perhaps as testament to the way that estrangement, as provocative affect, is seductive, this lack of knowledge did not make me close my ears. Instead one could say that the ‘sound-affect-intensity’ was not so much ‘sound itself’, akin to a ‘reduced listening’ (an object of knowledge), but an experiencing of mutant and mutating sound beyond representational categories and, crucially, as making up an enigmatic and fascinating “remainder that persisted beyond perception.”18 And so, such a ‘remainder’ could well be described as something other than conscious knowledge or the habitually perceived which, in turn, would suggest that these ‘lacks’ I experienced could be appreciated for what they were: a sense of liminality, of being-between the known and the unknown, between music and noise, between desire and anxiety. Such an un-definedness is one way that affect has been described (“… thresholds and tensions, blends and blurs…” 19) and, as a ‘state’ that neither belongs-to nor defines any single person, this affect, wider than myself, outlining, beyond the ideology of individualism, the limits of myself as a subject, can be said to form a pre-individual reality: actively sharing these ‘states’ is a mode that enables us to individuate (or metamorphose). So, when Schrimshaw aims, through sonic materialism, to ‘think affect beyond auto-affirmation’ he is not giving credence to those processes of individuation that form the psyche as social (a process of successive individuations in relation to pre-individual realities conduced at the moebius strip of the sensual membrane. In the case of the scary clarinet it could be said that I, however unconsciously, individuated by means of a sonic intensity and went on to seek further individuations (further sharing of ‘states’) by means of groups and collective contexts be they affinity groups or an immersion in the sonic continuum of the Sonosphere. Felix Guattari can perhaps assist me here: “These [sonic] blocks of mutating percepts and affects [estranging sounds], half object half subject [liminality of affect], already there in sensation [sensuality of listening] and outside themselves [extra-individual] in fields of the possible [field of affects.] ”20 I think that Guattari, here, in plainer language, is talking about how we can individuate ourselves via the opacity of ‘unknown entities’.


If we look at another mode of intersection, other than techno, between electronic music and popular culture, then we would do well to consider ambient music as it was termed in the mid to late 70s. Popularised by a series of albums by Brian Eno which, at times, drew on a use of environment recordings, this ambient music could also be said to diverge from a use of notes and lyrics in its propensity to create musical atmospheres akin, at times, to film soundtracks. An album like Eno’s Apollo uses synths and instrumentation to simulate an outer space ambience of zero gravity and a kind of weightlessness of sounds falling in the deep background. However, as this potted description suggests, much ambient – despite having its precursors in rawer ‘Krautrock’ outfits like Cluster (Moebius and Roedelius), early Tangerine Dream and Conrad Schnitlzer’s maverick electronica – was melodic and, as DJ Ambidextrous pointed out, ‘denervating’. That the soothing musicality of ambient came back into vogue in the 90s as ‘ambient techno’ and the chill out room is no surprise given the contemporaneous outbreak of musics divergent from the rock paradigm at this time. We could add, furthermore, that, especially with those more industrial driven post-punk outfits (Dome, Zoviet*France, Hafler Trio etc.) ambient too, prepared our receptivity to electronic music and in particular to that area of electronic music termed ‘environment recordings’, or, more academically pleasing to some, ‘soundscape composition’.

It is on this quickly established sub-category of electronic music that I would first like to concentrate in that it, like any other starting point (Drone, Aural Collage, Live Improvisation, Studio Works, Computer Composition… ), will not only reintroduce us to the trans-categorical possibilities of ‘electronic music’, the heterogeneities to be found in the Sonosphere, but it also has the additional pull in the fact that musicians associated with ‘free improvisation’ have, surprisingly for some, turned to such a use of ‘found sound’ to the extent that they have on some occasions foregone the use of instrumentation (i.e. ‘guitarist’ Taku Unami’s Malignitat II).

At the outset, here, by popular decree, is Luc Ferrari’s Presque Rien, in which the subtly edited and eventually cross-faded sounds of a Croatian fishing village are presented as ‘music.’ The very idea of sounding the Sonosphere, being emplaced in a sonic continuum, that Luc Ferrari steps into, moves us away from Schaeffer and his ‘sound object’ (which as Brian Kane notes “reintroduces the ideality of the note”21) and towards that mode of listening that, if Brian Kane’s exhaustive exploration of Schaeffer’s sonic theory is anything to go by, tends to get neglected: Ouïr – attention to a less than intentional constant background sound, sometimes dubbed ‘anecdotal’. This was Schaeffer’s bête-noire (he even referred to it as ‘anti-musical’), but it was precisely this anecdotal sound that was taken up by Luc Ferrari in an almost accidental defiance of a canonical musique concrète that, if we read between the lines of its theoretical output, sought to more or less de-socialise sound.

Speaking of his work in Hörspiel (Radio Art) Ferrari instead offered, as the concept behind Presque Rien and his aural collage pieces, that it attested to “the presence of the composer as a non-critical and openly subjective observer of the fabric of everyday life.”22 At Ferrari’s gentle insistence, we move away from the idealised sound object to the environment recording, from the inventoried (already individuated) to the processual and unfinished (individuation). Ferrari is almost explicit in situating himself in a nether-zone, in the unintended sound worlds, the unmusical ‘field of affects’ of a Croatian fishing village. He offered in retrospect that: “I realized that I was able to maintain a subjective objectivity. It was ‘me’ without being ‘me’, a kind of active detachment.”23 This is a far cry from Schrimshaw’s anxieties about ‘auto-affective affirmation’ in that Ferrari doesn’t impose a discursive choice between ‘music’ as subjective (phenomenological) or objective (impersonal affects), but presents the ‘common presupposition’ of social sound as including possibilities for our attention to access all the many different levels of listening: from reduced listening to Ouïr, from distracted listening to active listening. Ferrari’s Presque Rien does not address us as discursive listeners seeking an understanding, but rather he persists in the ambivalence of the liminal, the ontologics of the sensual, that are themselves propulsive of individuation.


In a late 90s survey of electronic music Andra McCartney consulted textbooks and articles on electronic music and discovered that ‘soundscape composition’ was more or less deemed the poor cousin of electronic music proper: “The organisation of many electroacoustic music textbooks appears to encourage a division in the field between tape music from recorded natural sources, often called musique concrète, and music from electronic sources.”24 She hints at a teleology of development both in technology and compositional aesthetics that creates the impression “that work with recorded sounds is a predecessor or subsidiary of electronic music, and is less advanced.” This may be a decades long hangover emanating from the briefly-lived polemics between Schaeffer’s GRM project and the pure sine tone Elektroniche Music of Cologne’s WDR studio. A polemic that whilst spawning the compromise term ‘electroacoustic’ also led, academically at least, to an increase in taxonomies and categorical narrowing that can itself encourage ‘genre-normativity.’ However, whilst there may have been less room for ‘soundscape composition’ in the halls of the canon this cannot be said of the last ten years. So, it is intriguing to learn, when exploring the political ramifications of electronic music as well as affect, that Andra McCartney believed that ‘soundscape composition’ was potentially subversive in relation to ‘electroacoustic norms.’

One factor in this is that a use of ‘pre-composed’ found sound (an already extant ‘social score’ as Mattin suggests) could imply the end of both the composer as organiser and as the fabricator of new sounds. Luc Ferrari would have concurred: “I myself wish that people who listen to my ‘anecdotal’ works will not be paralysed with respect and adoration, but should rather say to themselves: I too can do this.”25 Again we are back with the ‘compose yourself’ polemic of Jacques Attali, but there are other factors that led to this demotion of ‘soundscape composition’ at the time that Andra McCartney was writing: its being lambasted as ‘mimetic’, as a form of electronic music that has little composerly intent or aesthetic will behind it, a kind of ‘automatic composition’ which in being larger than any self (be that self a composer or listener) had the unnerving power to undermine the specialised institutions of ‘classical music’. With the accent placed on transduction rather than production we have an undermining of ‘promethean’ creation (genius) and a bringing to the fore of an hard to market selflessness.

An early proponent and proselytizer for environment recording was R. Murray Schafer, who along with Hildegard Westerkamp and Barry Truax formed the World Soundscape Project. Schafer spoke of “macrocosmic musical composition” and declared: “Behold the new orchestra – the sonic universe”. This led him away from the theory of ‘sound objects’, referring to them as “completely self-contained acoustic events.”26 Instead, with a nod to John Cage’s ‘non subjective music’ he posed a question that however insightful back then may well figure now as a bid for the legitimation of soundscape composition: “Is the soundscape of the world an indeterminate composition over which we have no control or are we its composers and performers?” Schafer’s vocabulary shows how he holds onto a notion of classical music whilst at the same time promoting a ‘sonic ecology’ and a notion of listening as “clairaudience”. He sought to limit estranging ‘sonic detritus’ (noise) and to promote “exceptional powers of hearing” with an end goal of improving the acoustic design of our environments. Whilst the World Soundscape Project sought to lessen the privileging of ‘art music’ and accentuated the socio-political implications of sound and listening, its thrust towards sonic cleansing seems to implicate its practitioners as moral arbiters charged with eradicating intense sonic affects and thereby reintroducing equilibrated modes of perception.

If we take Schafer’s World Soundscape Project as a starting point 27, then we can observe that their use of environmental sound for compositional purposes was often brought forth with an explicit relation to its source, setting and context: a sensitivity to the pre-extant ‘score’ of the environment. This led to a tradition of composers often dryly entitling their pieces with the location and the source of their sounds: Bill Fontana’s Landscape Sculpture with Fog Horn, Annea Lockwood’s Sound Map of the Hudson River and countless others up to Jakob Kierkegard’s Four Rooms and Toshiya Tsunoda’s Recorded Landscape Pier. In Fontana’s piece the sound of shoreline waves and passing cars is punctuated by the drooping pitch of foghorns. The latter have the effect of some bleak automatic sentinels sounding out soothingly but yet disquietingly. Lockwood’s piece is like a slice of sonic psychogeography and is perhaps illustrative of that branch of naturalistic sonic compositions that, in the UK at least, came to be both pioneered and epitomised by Chris Watson, but which have their roots in natural history programmes and the use of diegetic sound in cinema soundtracks. The Kierkegard piece, on the other hand, uses the same technique as Alvin Lucier’s I am Sitting In A Room (sounding out the sonic resonances of a closed space by recording the space and playing it back multiple times into the same room), but with the added pull that the four rooms he is sounding are places (cinema etc.) in the now abandoned Chernobyl district. Tsunoda’s piece, by far the most unsettling, sees him visit a fishing village to record low frequency underwater vibrations which he eventually sourced to unruly currents from an uneven seabed being conducted by the dense molecules of water and hitting the pier supports. All these pieces reflect developments in audio technology which lead to an expansion of acoustical perception that enables us to record and listen to places, spaces and the inner life of sonic materials that we could not formerly have auditory access to: the once inaudible meets, for some, the ever unbearable.

This brief sample of works, mainly gleaned from my readings in early works of sonic theory, could very easily be extended into the sounds emitted by glaciers, by babies in the womb, by the trembling tensions inherent in amplified objects, by brain waves, by bio-acoustical matter, by rainforests and other exotic locations and, in the case of Ultra Red and their Public Record project, by the sounds of global-local social protest (c.f. Elliot Perkins’s Eurodac Express). With the exception of Ultra Red, one of whose aims was to “radicalise the conventions of electronic music and sound art,”28 many sonic theorists embrace the above soundscape compositions in their attempts to think a ‘sonic materialism’. Here, as Brian Kane, might argue, the source of the sound becomes over determined (in an analogous manner to a ‘sound object’), in that its very materiality, however previously imperceptible, becomes suggestive of a naturalistic realism. So, when Christophe Cox, in his exploration of ‘sonic materialism’, cites Kittler as describing “the perceptible plenitude of matter that … resists the symbolic and the imaginary orders”29 there can be no objection to the sounding of this plenitude but, in naming and locating their tracks, in obviously referencing the symbolic and imaginary orders, are the composers cited as ‘sonic materialists’ dealing precisely in representation and signification? Are they adopting an ‘objective’ documentarist approach, a kind of sonography with its attempted fidelity to the real, which could tip over into their compositions becoming heard as what Francisco Lopez referred to as ‘relaxation commodities’30, or worse, appropriating soundscapes as desociate aesthetic representations that bring no audible trace of the relationality that goes on there.

It may not be so, it could be a matter of polemical overload, but the sonic theorists, in their rush to avoid the principum individuationis and embrace an impersonal materiality (a rediscovery of a nature ‘exterior’ to us?) seem to be using aspects of these works to counter ‘subjective interiority’ (a ‘site’ in which such troubling sonic events as ‘hearing voices’ take place as well as the consciousness-forming ‘inner dialogue’ that we all experience). Furthermore, such a move forecloses the possibilities for the ‘auto-affection’ of listening to be related to politically as a process of individuation and ontological metamorphosis in face of the neo-liberal production of a subjectivity that, amongst other things, delimits the real as well as the imaginal realm and the symbolic. In so doing are the sonic theorists denying the intensity of ‘sonic affects’ to retaliate against habituated perception? Are they not denying the metabolistic effects of the auricular membrane as neither a fully interior nor a fully exterior sensual organ? Are they neglecting the liminal spaces of relationality that are the crucial zones of any ‘war at the membrane’ as it seeks to reforge social relations?


In his discussion of the influence of Husserl upon Schaeffer’s notion of the ‘sound object’, Brian Kane makes reference to the notion of an ‘entity’ as distinct from an object: “An entity refers to an externally existent thing. An object comes into being when it is cognized, when it is something capable of being apprehended by a subject.”31 One begins to wonder, then, about those ‘soundscape compositions’ that are neither named nor located, that could be said to be resisting ‘the symbolic and the imaginary orders.’ This leads to speculation that some works of electronic music, if not completely unknowable, at least undermine the faith we seem to have in rational knowing (and by extension our habituated perceptions.) Is it possible that such ‘sound entities’, as impersonal affect, or the sonic flux of the sonosphere, can be apprehended neither as objects of study, nor as sonic verité, nor as, in the case of the World Soundscape Project, noise-phobic attempts to “balance a soundscape and promote a functionality”32, but as dreamlike modes of knowing that are themselves modes of individuation? Such speculation may be anathema to the sonic theorists, but I’m of the opinion that this is implied when Ferrari spoke of ‘subjective objectivity’ in relation to Presque Rien. How many times do we experience ourselves in dreams as exhibiting simultaneous states and how many times do we say afterwards “it was me… but it wasn’t me?” Like the dream existing as a non-objectal experience, in which our conscious self is in abeyance, it is as if a ‘sound entity’ could occupy a liminal place between Schaeffer’s ‘acousmatic’ (a sound we hear divorced from its source and cause) and Schafer’s ‘soundscape’ (environmental specificity). Speculation about ‘sound entities’, then, could encourage a ‘therapeutic’ form of non-evaluative listening that builds upon the non-finality and continuous reactivity of different levels of perception (especially as these are shared) that defy both any notion of a pure listening as well as any notion of a subject finally cognizing an object. In this way the notion of a ‘sound entity’ could bring to light what Tim Hodgkinson describes, in his appraisal of the political impact of sound and music, as a “generative ontology.”33

One such example for me of a ‘sound entity’ are the pieces collected together on Walter Marchetti’s Antibarbarus. Here is a sequence of 4 tracks all with a length of approximately seventeen minutes following one after another. All four tracks have ‘coma’ in the title and roughly translate as: The Coma Reigns, Liquid Coma, Vigilant Coma and Exit from Coma. There is no other contextual or technical information on the CD. Having elsewhere, on other releases, seen pictures of Walter Marchetti carrying a tape recorder over his shoulder I presumed that these four pieces were ‘environment recordings’ and indeed that is what they are, but they are all more or less sonically unidentifiable: the sonic source and the cause are severed from what we hear. Each time-limited recording has a lo-fi intermezzo quality, each cuts-off suddenly without fade and thereby without any sense of a willed ‘ending.’ In the words of Barry Truax the tracks may be said to be more evocative of ‘de-composition’ than to a ‘soundscape composition’ as they seem to be made up of “low information, highly redundant and basically uninteresting sounds which do not encourage a sensitive listening.” Moreover, and again drawing on Truax, Marchetti’s quartet of almost claustrophobic recordings, could be said to exhibit a steady level of sound which summons forth Ouïr as a mode of listening. Unlike soundscape compositions with their often expansive aural depth-of field, Marchetti’s pieces reduce a sense of space and come across like direct assaults on both the notion of composition and on modes of listening deemed aesthetically discerning. Indeed, in one of his many aphorisms, Marchetti writes: “Listening to music which has been composed and organised is, frankly speaking, dismal and disheartening, at times even intolerable […] it excludes the world of sense perception in order to enslave us to the world of dominion.” 34 This ‘world of sense perception’ that Marchetti mentions could well have resonance with notions of the general intellect as a Sonosphere and open up the idea that ‘sonic entities’ can unmoor us from the certainties of our orderly placement in the symbolic world of commodifiable ‘musics’.

I had the good fortune to interview Walter Marchetti at a London Musician’s Collective Festival many years ago and whilst it felt at times that I was imposing on a shy man he had the good nature to respond to my questions. I asked specifically about these four pieces and Walter would only say that nothing was done to any of the recordings; there was neither sound processing nor compositional editing in any of the four. He did not mention anything about the location of the recordings. So, as we listen to this CD we wonder where we are: in a tunnel, in a dripping cave, underwater, on a scree-slope, in a dry forest, buried alive in an underground vessel. At times it seems as if Marchetti is recording the most eventless of background sounds far away from society and at other times it feels that he is somehow presenting to us the non-locatable whirrings and whistlings that Kafka’s mole experienced in the short story entitled The Burrow. Thus, as well as devolving the role of composer there can be no sense of Marchetti intending a documentary effect. That he is subjectively present in a space it may have taken him a long time to find, as well as his employing at the same time the ‘active detachment’ that Ferrari speaks of, means there is no veracity for him to attain. Not even the veracity of the acousmatic. In this may lay the sense of ‘being in a coma’. Indeed, we are in suspended animation as we listen to the almost drone-like quality of the lo-fi recordings; recordings made by a ‘composer’, who seems to want us to share with him that sensation of being overwhelmed by ‘impersonal affect’ to the degree that any notion of himself is itself suspended, has been put on hold (‘in a coma’). This, then, is the unique mode of listening that this CD suggests to us. What we hear is mediated by Marchetti’s listening. He is listening whilst presenting us with something non-generic, something opaque for us to respond to. Sound as absence? Never before heard sounds? Imagined sound? Harbingers of new emotions? We hear him listening and for Lawrence English such an occurrence is deemed a ‘relational listening.’35 In the case of Antibarbarus, with Marchetti seemingly at a distance from the norms of society and its perceptual habits, this could be a relation that figures a sensual connection to that which is other, a ‘poetics of relation’, in that, accompanying Marchetti on a terra incognita that induces anxieties of belonging, the necessity of our togetherness is implied. 36

In Presque Rien, Ferrari chose familiar quotidien sounds unfurling in form of real time. Marchetti, on the other hand, presents us with a dreamlike dissociation of non-referential sound in a kind of atemporality (has he finally found the “abyss of music”?) Like Kafka’s mole we cannot be certain what is making or is causing these sounds, and as Brian Kane has gone onto explore via The Burrow, what we are present-to is a ‘sonic underdetermination’ of the source by the sonic effect, which he goes on to suggest ‘unsettles our musical conditioning.’ 37 This conditioning could well be that we expect the source-cause-effect of sound to be co-present to one another and that this is in some ways a definition of a musical experience that induces a ‘transparent’ and dis-intensified mode of listening. We listen and we know. Is it perhaps in this sense that those precisely named ‘soundscape compositions’ can be deemed as ‘musical’ which would undermine the sonic theorists claim for such pieces as being indicative of an anonymising ‘sonic materialism.’ If some sonic theorists return to privileging the source of a sound in its ‘materiality’ and the Schaefferians point instead to the sound-effect separated from its context then Kane urges us to place our listening emphasis on the spacings between source-cause-effect. However the effects of such a ‘spacing’ are hard to grasp or associate to our listening. This is perhaps because, what is underdeveloped here is the ‘cause’ and its implications for discussing practical action, the praxis of the musician-composer and by extension the active accompaniment of the listener; a doing that is often done in relational contexts of more than one person (c.f. Musica Elettronica Viva, Morphogenesis, etc. and the many other groups that improvise with live electronics). This oversight could well be an effect of ‘sonic theory’ and its abstraction from practice in that ‘cause’ in this context could extend from physically playing an instrument through to recording, sampling and manipulating a sound up to travelling for days to stumble upon a sonically interesting place. Furthermore, it neglects the intent and the way that ‘desire-for’ a sound is not solely individualistic but is informed by both the society we live in and its history; in short by common presuppositions of the ‘general intellect’. It is as if this neglect of praxis diminishes the political efficacy of sonic theory in that it renders null (or arts-out) what Deleuze and Guattari called “non sonorous forces”, forces such as duration and intensity38 that can act upon us in the manner of an imperceptible individuation. ‘Entity music’, existing beyond genre and beyond habituated perception, may well be that which, by eluding conscious knowledge, intensifies us as listeners eager to share and relate to one another. It encourages us to pass over the horizon, it adumbrates new social relations.


Howard Slater


1 Plan: 0. Preamble (Sonic theory, Pierre Schaeffer, EDZ, techno and ambient etc.) 1. Soundscape (Ferrari etc.) 2. Entity music (Marchetti) 3. Drone (Radigue, Kayn) 4. Aural collage (Cage, Ferrari etc.) 5. Studio Based Electronics (Stockhausen, Parmegiani, etc) 6. Live Electronic Improvisation (David Tudor, Morphogenesis etc) 7. Hybrids/Heterogeneity (i.e. undermine and meld previous categories. Entity music reprise) Appendix – a sequence of reviews of more recent records

2 Paolo Virno, ‘Angels and the General Intellect: Individuation in Duns Scotus and Gilbert Simondon’ in Parrhesia Vol. 7, 2009.

3 Will Schrimshaw, ‘Non-cochlear sound: on affect and exteriority’ in Sound, Music, Affect, eds. Thompson and Biddle, Bloomsbury, 2011, p.40.

4 Christophe Cox, ‘Beyond Representation and Signification: Toward a Sonic Materialism’ in Journal of Visual Culture, 2011, p.147.

5 Howard Slater, Spoiled Ideals of Lost Situations, Infopool No.2, 2000.

6 John Mowitt, ‘The Sound of music in the era of its electronic reproducibility’ in Music and Society, ed. Leppert and McClary, Cambridge 1987, p.188.

7 It could be said that Edgar Varèse in envisioning a sound-producing machine foretold of both free jazz and drum and bass when he hoped that such a machine could produce “cross-rhythms unrelated to each other, treated simultaneously […] since the machine would be able to beat any number of desired notes […] all these in a given unit of measure […] that is humanly impossible to attain”. I believe, as he once collaborated with Charlie Parker, that Varèse was inspired in these conjectures by jazz.

8 DJ Ambidextrous, ‘In Search Of Space’, Praxis Newsletter No.2 1994

9 I-Spy, ‘The Enemy Within’, in Praxis Newsletter No.4, 1994

10 Adorno and Eisler, ‘Composing for Films’ in Audio Culture, ed. Cox and Warner, Continuum, 2005, p.74.

11 Mowitt, op cit, p.176.

12 Cited by Brian Kane in Sound Unseen – Acousmatic Sound in Theory and Practice, Oxford University Press, 2014, p34. Kane makes the point that Schaeffer’s ‘reduced listening’ was the more elaborated of the four modes of listening as it was seen by him as the best means of receiving those works designated as musique concrète.

13 Olga Stockfelt, ‘Adequate Modes of Listening’ in Audio Culture, op cit, p.91.

14 Jacques Attali, Noise, University of Minnesota, 1977, p.137. See also: “Composition is revealed as the demand for a truly different system of organization, a network within which a different kind of music and different social relations arise.”

15 Paolo Virno, General Intellect on generation-on-line, 2001. A note of caution should be sounded here in that it is always possible to siphon-off aspects of the ‘general intellect’ and ‘farm’ it as an original innovation for artistic-entrepreneurial ends. See Mattin, ‘Managerial Authoriship’ in Unconstituted Praxis, CAC Bretigny/TMTG, 2011.

16 Attali, op cit, p146. The liberal puritanism in Boulez’s phrase is evident on several levels. One, there is a rejection of the social jouissance (collective arousal) and libidinal polymorphosity (ear as erotic ‘orifice’) of music-making; second, there is a belief that only one person can arouse many people and that that person is a transcendent being and finally, if we bear in mind Boulez’s investment in the IRCAM institution, there is a warning against self-institution; of what Attali referred to as the “the right to compose one’s life.”

17 Luc Ferrari, ‘Advice to Amateurs’ in Les Cahiers Recherches/Musique No.4 – The Future is Already Here, INA-GRM, 1977, p.78.

18 Schrimshaw, op cit, p.35.

19 Gregory Seigworth and Melissa Greg, ‘An Inventory of Shimmers’ in The Affect Reader, Duke University Press, 2010 p.2.

20 Felix Guattari, Chaosmosis, Power Institute, 1995, p.192. Guattari goes on to add that these mutating blocks of percept and affect (‘estranging sounds’) are “not easily found at the usual marketplace for subjectivity… yet they haunt everything concerned with creation, the desire for becoming other, as well as mental disorder and the passion for power.”

21 Kane, op cit, p.34.

22 Luc Ferrari in Jacqueline Caux, Almost Nothing, Errant Bodies Press, 2014, p.134.

23 op cit, p136. Ferrari here is astonishingly close to the ‘alert inactivity’ or ‘free floating attention’ required of some therapists whose aim is to move away from being a transferential object for the analysand (i.e. parent or sibling substitute) to being a ‘facilitating environment.’ Christopher Bollas says of such therapeutic environments (which are not without their quota of self-estrangement and trauma) that they can be “experientially identified […] with the process of the alteration of self-experience.” Apposite to an interest in electronic music he adds that “in adult life that I think we have failed to take notice of the wide-ranging collective search for an ‘object’ that is identified with the metamorphosis of the self.”

24 Andra McCartney, ‘Soundscape Composition and the Subversion of Electroacoustic Norms’. Accessed via Academia.com

25 Eric Drott, ‘The Politics of Presque Rien’ in Sound Commitments ed. Richard Adlington, Oxford University Press, 2009, p.159.

26 R Murray Schafer, The New Soundscape, Berandol Music Ltd, 1969, p49.

27 Ferrari’s Presque Rien languished unreleased for several years.

28 Ultra Red, Public Record Archive – Introduction. See: http://www.ultrared.org/publicrecord/about/index.html

29 Cox, op cit, p. 154.

30 Lopez, ‘Environmental Sound Matter’ (1998). See http://www.franciscolopez.net/env.html

31 Kane, op cit, p.19.

32 Barry Truax, Acoustic Communication, Ablex 1984, p.12.

33 Tim Hodgkinson, Music and The Myth of Wholeness, MIT Press, 2016, p.101.

34 Walter Marchetti, De Musicorum Infelicitate, Alga Marghen, 2002. I relate to his setting of ‘sense perception’ in opposition to ‘dominion’ as a salvo in the war of the membrane. He has written elsewhere that “The maximum artistic production is by now represented by reality itself.” See CD sleeve notes to ‘Vandalia’, Cramps Record, 1989.

35 Lawrence English, ‘Relational Listening’. See https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/07494467.2017.1395141

36 The work of Édouard Glissant on the ‘poetics of relation’ sees this open up into a ‘politics of relation’: “In the world of relatedness (which takes over after the unifying system of Being), we must consent to the opacity, that is the irreducible mystery of the other. This is, as I see it, the only way to realize genuinely, through diversity, the human”. See his ‘Free and Forced Poetics’ in Alcheringa Vol.2, No.2, 1976.

37 Kane, op cit, p.148. This is akin to Levinas’s suggestion that “in sound the perceptible quality overflows so that form can no longer contain its content” Entity music? See Levinas, ‘The Transcendence of Words’ in the Levinas Reader, John Wiley & Sons, p.147, 2001.

38 Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, Athlone, 1984, p.343.

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