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

Problems with the original notion of the ‘sound object’

In his work Traité des objets musicaux, composer Pierre Schaeffer first defined the ‘sound object’ (l’objet sonore), a term he proposed for referring to non-musical sounds recorded onto magnetic tape that could then be manipulated into musical compositions (Schaeffer, in Cox and Warner, 2004, p 76–81). Enmeshed with Schaeffer’s creation of the compositional form using pre-recorded sound known as musique concrète, Schaeffer’s ‘sound object’ was a perceptual object reliant upon the listener’s inability to identify the original source of the sound captured and subsequently manipulated on tape. Schaefer suggested that sound objects were possible through what he called reduced listening, a process described by Michel Chion as ‘tak[ing] a sound…as an object of observation in itself, instead of cutting across it with the aim of getting at something else’ (Chion, 2016, p 170). However, reduced listening requires a belief that modes or hierarchies of listening exist, which is also considered problematic by contemporary sound theorists like Tom Rice (2015, p 104).

According to Brian Kane, Schaeffer conceptualised his ‘sound object’ through a close reading of the phenomenology practiced by Edmund Husserl; however, Schaeffer’s methods in conceptualising the sound object have recently come under attack for their inconsistencies, creating an ontological problem that, for Kane, ‘…emerges when sounds are conceptualised as sound objects that reify sonic effects, rather than events that bind source, cause, and effect together’ (2014, p 37).

Although Schaeffer’s ‘improvised ontology’ may or may not be inherently flawed, contemporary sound studies invokes the ‘sound object’ as a primary point of reference, often naming it as a conceptual forerunner to the sampling culture of DJs and other methods of composition that use pre-recorded non-musical sounds as their source material, to the point where the concept of sound as a malleable, manipulated object has become generally accepted (McLeod, 2005; Smith, 2007; Saiber, 2007).

The notion of the sound object in a musical composition context continues into the digital age as well, with practitioners such as Drew Daniel of Matmos who, in an instance that could be described as conceptual punning, has conflated object-oriented computer programming and object-oriented ontology to make a claim for the existence of ‘digital sound objects’: he finds an analogy between the obscure ‘inner reality’ of Max/MSP audio composition software patches and the ‘dark reality’ within traditional objects that also remains undisclosed with their use, as discussed by theorist Graham Harman (Daniel, 2014, pp 87–92).

While Daniel may still find relevance for identifying sounds as objects, it is critiques like Kane’s which appear to be most relevant within contemporary musical thinking. The sound object, then, would appear for the most part to have been abandoned within musical practice, potentially leaving it open for use by another discipline. Similarly, sound studies theorists such as Christoph Cox appear to have coalesced around the idea that, from their perspective, sound is incapable of being an object, and is instead an event, although sounds are still capable of being considered object-like in some respects. Cox derives this notion from the work of philosopher Casey O’Callaghan, whose book Sounds: A Philosophical Theory (2007) proposes the following definition: ‘…sounds are particular events in which a medium is disturbed or set into motion in a wavelike manner by the activities of objects or interacting bodies’ (p 64). O’Callaghan’s methodical build up to this definition begins by claiming that, from a certain point of view, sounds are indeed objects:

Sounds are public objects of auditory perception. By ‘object’ I mean only that which is perceived – that which is available for attention, thought, and demonstrative reference (p 13).

O’Callaghan refutes the notion that sounds are merely properties of the objects that generate them, but rather are particular individuals, with lifespans distinct from the objects that generate them. These generating objects are also not qualified by the sounds they generate, effectively unbinding them from the sounds they produce (p 17). He goes on to analyse the previously accepted notion that sounds are waves, ultimately concluding that:

[waves] make peculiar sorts of objects: their capacity to overlap and pass through themselves makes them stranger than most everyday objects. Though this may be a mereologically interesting problem, it seems to pose no fundamental obstacle to viewing wave bundles as in some, perhaps minimal, sense object-like (pp 25–26).

Yet there is one crucial element which tips the scales for O’Callaghan and removes all doubt that, although sounds are inherently object-like, they are in fact not objects but events: time.

...[W]e intuitively think of objects, as opposed to time-taking particulars, as being wholly present at each time at which they exist. Intuitively, all that is required to be the desk is before me… Sounds, instead, are things that occur over time… What is clear is that sounds are in important respects different from ordinary objects in their ways of extending through time (p 27, emphasis mine).

It is this philosophical notion – that sounds are distinct events that exhibit object-like qualities, and are not merely properties of, but are instead distinctly separate from, the objects that generate them – which has led me to my revised museologically contextualised sound object definition. I believe that, within my own museum practice, sounds can be considered connected to their sound sources while also being independent from them, similar to O’Callaghan’s philosophy. The Museum of Portable Sound exhibits recordings of sounds accompanied by information about their sources in a printed gallery guidebook, yet that source is physically unavailable to MOPS visitors. As O’Callaghan suggests, sounds ‘have identity, individuation, and persistence conditions that require us to distinguish them from properties of the sources that we should understand to make or produce sounds’ (p 22).

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/170805/006