Brian Kane, ‘Sound Unseen: Acousmatic Sound in Theory and Practice’, Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: June 2014

This wonderfully explorative text is concerned with rethinking the concept of acousmatic sound. For Kane, this concern is not a question of tracing the etymology of the term ‘acousmatic’, but rather is a question of tracing the practice of acousmatic listening. Acousmatic sound is generally understood as a sound whose source cannot be seen, or whose source is unknown. Kane unpacks the myth behind this concept – that fabled story of Pythagorus teaching his students from behind a veil. He examines how this story is employed as a foundational myth for Pierre Schaeffer’s concepts of the ‘sound object’ and ‘reduced listening’. Schaeffer was concerned with the sound object as separate from its indexical context. From his perspective, when sound is treated indexically it is always replaced by another object (for example the sound of a siren is replaced by the perception of an ambulance). Kane discusses how Schaeffer’s location of the sound object is informed by and echoes Husserl’s concept of ‘epoche’ – the phenomenological bracketing which produces the intentional object – the object as an ideality or an ‘eidetic intuition’. The fact that, according to Schaeffer’s theory, this object can be shared by many subjects means it is a transcendental or ideal object. Kane locates the problem in Schaeffer’s theory where it fails to acknowledge the relationship between ‘physis’ and ‘technis’. For Kane, Shaeffer’s complete dislocation of the sound object from its production through technology and its source, reifies the sound object and renders it as phastasmagoria.
Kane writes:
‘Phatasmagoria treats the distance between a sound and its source as a gap or rift between the transcendental and the mundane, when the source is dismissed transcendence is installed under the name of music’s nature or essence – its physis.’ (116)
For Kane the experience of acousmatic listening involves the sound apprehended not as the mundane nor the transcendental, but that which moves in the mysterious space between the two. For him it is the spacing between ‘source’, ’cause’ and ‘effect’ that produces the acousmatic sound or the experience of acousmatic listening. He writes:
‘By emphasizing undetermination and uncertainty in acousmatic listening, my theory of acousmatic sound differs … from Schaefferian theory … Were acousmatic sounds truly autonomous as they are in Schaeffer’s theory of the sound object they would possess none of their griping tension and mystery.’
‘It is precisely the spacing of the auditory effect from its source or cause that grants … acousmatic sound its strange power … Acousmatic sound … [is] neither heteronomous-nor-autonomous sound … [it] can neither be reduced to its source nor reified as an object in its own right. It only is when source, cause and effect are spaced. But even to use the word is, is itself an infelicity, for the being of acousmatic sound is to be a gap. Acousmatic sound is neither entity nor sound object nor effect nor source nor cause. It flickers into being only with spacing with the simultaneous difference and relation of auditory effect, cause and source.’ (148)
He continues:
‘One understands the impulse for reduction, whether to the eidetic intuition of the sound object or to the materiality of the source, as recoiling from an acousmatic sound’s constitutive unsettledness.’ (150)
It is this unsettledness of the acousmatic sound and sound in general by which Kane explains the interdisplinary nature of his text:
‘Acousmatic sound gathers … together — music studies, sound studies, philosophy, literature, film, and psychoanalysis — with a sublime indifference to disciplinary propriety. Sound respects no boundaries, and neither does sound unseen.’ (224)

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