Go back to article: Towards a more sonically inclusive museum practice: a new definition of the ‘sound object’

Defining a museological ‘sound object’

Although it may be presumptuous to propose the re-definition of an established term, my interest in a museologically-contextualised definition of ‘sound object’ has come about as the result of my own experiments in the curation of sound. Theorist and curator Mieke Bal, in her 1994 book On Meaning-Making: Essays in Semiotics, suggests that meanings are ‘the result of interpretation…not a fixed, objectified thing, but a complex process’ (p 11). There is also a philosophical precedent for the re-definition of a term to move it from the lexicon of one tradition to another. Jacques Derrida proposed a process by which terms that he described as having run their course could be redefined:

Hence the necessity, today, of working out at every turn, with redoubled effort, the question of preservation of names: of paleonomy. Why should an old name, for a determinate time, be retained? Why should the effects of a new meaning, concept, or object be damped by memory? (Derrida, 1981, p 3)

Art theorist Gerhard Richter used Derrida’s philosophical device of the paleonomy in order to re-define the notion of the ‘thought-image’, or denkbild, for his own theoretical purposes, stating that ‘…the paleonomic gesture requires us to stand inside and outside a tradition at the same time, perpetuating the tradition while breaking with it, and breaking with the tradition while perpetuating it’ (2007, p 1). It is therefore with both Bal’s notion of the fluidity of meaning, as well as Derrida’s paleonomy, in mind that I have taken up my own attempt at re-definition.

My own concept of a museological sound object – a ‘sound object’ as defined for the benefit of a museum practice – is a listenable sonic event generated by a physical object, animal, human, or force of nature, independent of its source. It is here that my own re-definition overlaps with Schaeffer’s original definition, in that I view the sonic event separated from its source as the museological sound object. It is the event – the act of a sound being heard, received and acknowledged by a museum visitor – that I want to consider as object-like in a museological sense: a thing that is to be collected, interpreted and displayed to museum audiences in a similar manner to a visual/physical object, regardless of its source or its technical requirements for presentation within a museum exhibition. These sonic events would, of course, be linked to a source object – either a material object that makes a sound, or a recording format via which the sound object is played back – but the sound object could be considered independent, in that the sonic event, the listening back by a visitor, could be included within an exhibition with or without acknowledgement of the material source of the sound.

The key to my own implementation of a museological sound object, however, has been reproducibility. In order for a sound to be collected, catalogued, and exhibited by my museum, the sound must be able to be repeated. Therefore, a museological sound object does not require my own museum to hold the sound’s original source, just a source – in the case of The Museum of Portable Sound, this means field recordings – digital audio files.

Any sonic event that can be reproduced and heard by a listener – regardless of the identity or presence of its generating object – is, in my curatorial practice, a museological sound object. Although my own museum’s sound objects consist entirely of audio recordings of sounds, I do not see reproducibility as equal to recording, if this notion were ever to be widely adopted by museum practice in general. If a physical object is capable of being sounded without causing damage to itself, the authenticity of its physical sounding would obviously be preferable to a recording.

Preliminary results of my curatorial practice with The Museum of Portable Sound appear to indicate that duration may have an impact on the ability to perceive specific sounds as object-like. Multiple visitors to my own Museum, including Eric de Visscher, formerly director of the Musée de la Musique in Paris, have suggested that my decision to limit the duration of the majority of sounds within the Museum’s galleries (to no more than one minute and thirty seconds in length) perhaps aids the visitor’s acceptance of the sounds on display as objects. Much like a sculpture or painting can be perceived in its entirety quite quickly, de Visscher said, a short sound clip seems to evoke a similar thing-ness (de Visscher, 2017).

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/170805/008