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Page 00000001 THE THING LIKE US: A TOPOLOGY OF ULTRA-LOW FREQUENCIES Sander van Maas University of Amsterdam The Netherlands firstname.lastname@example.org ABSTRACT The musical use of low and ultra-low frequencies is closely related to the twentieth-century development of electronic and digital media. In historical respect, this development continues the steady exploration of the lower ranges of musically significant sound which started with the rise of polyphony. This paper focuses on the consequences this sonic expansion has for the aesthetics of music. Starting from a recent composition for voice, harpsichord and live electronics by composer Yannis Kyriakides it is argued that electronically produced and mediated sound cannot be considered apart from its self-reflectivity and theatricality. However, it is also shown that in Kyriakides and elsewhere, the relation between the appearance and the appearing, between content and form is blurred by, on the one hand, a particular use of ultra-low frequencies which engage the body in musical perception and, on the other hand, a more general instability of the musical phenomenon qua object. Obviously, this instability also affects the notion of musical subjectivity. In the final section the blurring of the topological distinction between insides and outsides is briefly analyzed, introducing the notion of "sonic flesh". Referring to Aristotle, Hegel and Nancy, this notion articulates a reflexivity which underlies both sonic and subjective principles. 1. ELECTRONICS In the course of its history, Western music has gradually expanded its lower register. Whereas Gregorian chant covered the range of an average male or female voice, the early polyphonic styles, which effectuated a division of vocal labor, stimulated the development of specialized registral use. Well-known for his exceptional vocal skills, composer Johannes Ockeghem expanded the default ambitus of the lowest polyphonic parts by a third. Below the range of the human voice, instruments have expanded the musical use of low frequencies. Virtualizing the vocal concepts of cantus firmus and bassus, musical instruments such as the organ projected the grounding function outside of the human body. The rise of tonality put new demands on the presence and clarity of the lowest ranges as they support the music's chordal progression, making it intelligible to the listener. All through these ages, the production of low frequencies posed a problem. Except for the 'pope among the instruments' (i.e., the grand organ), which remained tied to the sacred space of the church, there were no means to produce these registers with sufficient clarity and volume to develop the lower ranges as fruitfully as the higher ones. Although the advance of technology has supported the development of traditional instruments, adding range and definition to the sound of double basses and bassoons, it was not until electric amplification became available that the low registers started to flower. Looking back from today's point of view, it could even be said that the deployment of low frequencies has been one of the defining characteristics of twentieth-century music. In contrast to the liberation of rhythm from the metric bar, and the exploration of timbre as a principle on its own, which have been typical for the development of 'classical' music, the expansion and presence of low frequencies have mainly come from so-called popular music.1 The invention of the 'electric bass' in the 1950's, the use of the Hammond organ on stage, the low difference tones produced by distorted electric guitars all have contributed to a drastic change in the sound-image of Western music. Working within this broad aural tradition, musicians from fields as diverse as techno, experimental electronics and 'new music' (which had already seen the introduction of the electric bass in, e.g., Louis Andriessen's De Staat from 1974-76) have recently added computer technology to enhance their grip on (the production of) this special musical material.2 As I will argue, the particular use of low and ultralow frequencies by some of these musicians requires a reconsideration of the fundamental assumptions made by contemporary music aesthetics, notably with regard to the subject involved in musical experience. In the following, I will refer to a composition by the DutchCypriotic composer Yannis Kyriakides, called The Thing Like Us (2002). The piece's title is a quotation from Spinoza's Ethica (Part III, Proposition xxxiii), which deals with subject of love. "We chose to call the CD 'The Thing Like Us"', Kyriakides writes, "referring to Spinoza's famous phrase 'Res nobis similis', in which he sets out a theory of the imaginary ego and how that affects our conception of ourselves. [...] It struck me how apt that concept was to show how music effects our emotions, how we look for a mirror or ourselves in music, how we identify to certain orderings of sound and feel that expresses 'something like' our feelings and desires" . The mirror which Kyriakides sets up in his 1 Although popular music may not have been the area where this expansion has first been put to the test (the electronic studio's were no doubt the pioneers in this field), it was the first to incorporate and consolidate this new range in its overall sound. 2 Cf. composer David Dramm's essay on the music of Rupert Parkes, an English DJ known as Photek, "Vertraagde geluidsexplosies en lichtbeschadigd tromgeroffel: De drum and bass van Photek", in Mens en melodie, January-February, 2000, pp. 18-21.
Page 00000002 composition for alto solo, harpsichord, percussion and live electronics, is a remarkable one. It features a human voice singing Spinoza's table of definitions of the 48 emotions, accompanied more or less by harpsichord, and set in an electronic environment which continually produces what Kyriakides calls an 'organism'. "The intention is that the electronics create a sense of a living organism; an image of the physical. A body of slowly transforming states, that constantly move between the mental and the material world ('idea and extension')". 2. THEATRICALITY The new low tones and vibrations which appear in contemporary music, do not arrive at us on their own. Their production, amplification and projection is mediated by electronic media, which always color the aural phenomena involved. Presenting at once that which is 'intended' to be presented (i.e., the sound) and the medium in and through which it appears, the new range of low frequencies is characterized by its inherent theatricality. The sounds do not just appear on the aural stage, but do so in a manner which continually refers to their very appearing. The medium of appearance, in other words, is inextricably part of the possibility of these sounds to become present. Or, to put it in Kantian term s: to listen to electronically mediated low frequencies is to be aware of their conditions of possibility. Recently, this theatrical self-reflexivity as become part of the tissue of experimental digital music. Rather than presenting digitally produced sounds as though they are of ideal origin, this music thematizes the very means of production by making its media aurally present. Doing so, it often turns out to double the theatricality already inherent in the electronic production of sound, multiplying the frames through which one hears the sounds. A famous example of these procedures can be found in so-called glitch, which plays with the sound of skipping CD players, maltreated mixers, distortion produced by extreme intensities, etc. In Kyriakides, the 'living organism' consists of similar effects of mediation, presenting a self-reflective medium ('clicks and cuts') rather than the aural traces of a substantial living being. As Deleuze would have it, the effects of something 'living' turn out to be the movements of a self-reflective folding of something which already appeared to be a fold (strictly speaking, the question of life is literally its own reply). This multiplicity of mediations obviously leads to questions about the relation between the presentation and the thing presented. This problem is intensified by the fact that, listening to high-volume low and ultra-low frequencies, the listener too is confronted with a split between appearance and appearing. The sounds which seem to be subject of the music involved, find their way through the resonating flesh and cavities of the body, announcing the advent of a sonic presence beyond its mere becoming-audible through the ears. This sonic presence qua presence may be virtually tactile, physically 'there' and immediate. It penetrates there listener in a way which recalls Plato's description of music. "[M]ore than anything else rhythm and harmony find their way to the inmost soul and take strongest hold upon it [erromenestata haptetai] [...]".' The image Plato uses is that of 'grabbing filrmly', of 'touching forcefully'. However, despite these filgures of physicality and contact, the Platonic philosophy of music insists on the immediacy of music's effects on the soul. Whatever music's effects may be, as a matter of principle these effects will be based on similarity between the laws (i.e., a spiritual dimension) which rule both music and the soul. In Aristotle, the functioning of the ear becomes a matter of mediation. Aristotle 'medium theory of perception' emphasizes the fact that any sound arriving at our ears will do so on the basis of medium which transports the sound.2 The air as such becomes crucial for the possibility of anything touching the tympanum. In other words, that which appears to me does not - because it cannot - do so outside of its mediation. Ultimately, however, the Aristotelian theory of perception insists on the primacy of the sense of touch, which summarizes the essence of sensibility. "Touch occurs by direct contact with its objects, and that is why it has its name. The other sense organs perceive through a medium; touch alone seems to perceive immediately".3 The 'immediate medium' of the sense of touch is, as Aristotle concludes much to his own surprise, the flesh. Which is to say - according to a strange, but as we shall see important logic - that touch (and, a fortiori, sensibility as such) implies the unity of perception and that which is perceived.4 With regard to musical experience, this strange logic seems to have particular relevance. The act of listening attracts notions of the body, touch and physical presence. Much in the way the telephone reassembles bodily presence through its very exclusion of physical presence, even intensifying the presence of the other beyond the level of presence attainable by being-together, the act of listening produces forms of 'touch', 'flesh', corporeality. "The injunction to listen is the total interpellation of one subject by another: it places above everything else the quasi-physical contact of these subjects (by voice and ear): it creates transference: 'listen to me' means 'touch me, know that I exist"'.5 As Daniel Putman has argued, the 'metaphor of touch' is more fitting for the analysis of music and musical experience than the linguistic and visual vocabularies that dominate our way of thinking about music. One reason for this is the possibilities this metaphor offers for a better understanding of music is "the strongly invasive quality of both tactile and auditory sensations".6 "The space each of us carries around us, the personal bubble as it is sometimes called, is pierced 1 Plato, Republic, 401e. 2 Aristotle, De anima, 419b ff. 3 Ibid., 435a-b. SIbid., 423b. R oland Barthes, "Listening", in The Responsibility of Forms:~ Critical Essays on Art, M2usic, and Representation. Berkteley, University of California Press, 1991, pp. 25 1-52. 6 Daniel A. Putman, "Music and the Metaphor of Touch", in The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 44, No. 1, pp. 59-66: p. 61.
Page 00000003 whenever we touch someone or another entity touches us. Once inside our space the person or object is in a position to affect us directly and profoundly. Similarly, through tuning in or tuning out auditory signals, we can to a great extent let music and other sounds inside our personal space or keep them distant. We are profoundly annoyed when disturbing loud noise touches us without our permission. We feel invaded in a way analogous to someone touching us physically against our will".1 The dynamic process of 'bubble' transpiercing and formation described by Putman deals in fact with the constitution of a border zone which differentiates the inside (the self, or, to remain close to the image of a bubble, the 'sphere' of our 'soul') from the outside (the world beyond ourselves). Describing to the feeble character of this border zone, Putnam touches upon one of the most profound aspects of musical experience, namely, the play of constitution and de-constitution of listening subjectivity, which, as I intend to argue, no where else becomes more manifest than in the performative effects of low and ultra-low frequencies. 3. TOPOLOGY The way electronic music presents itself - i.e., its sonic presence - problematizes the difference between insides and outsides. It destabilizes the distinction between sound and its mediation, between content and form, between the exterior and the interior. As Hegel put it, "A piece of music [...] does also proceed, like any work of art, to a beginning of the distinction between subjective enjoyment and the objective work, because in its notes as they actually sound it acquires a perceptible existence different from inner appreciation; but, for one thing, this contrast is not intensified, as it is in visual art, into a permanent external existent in space and the perceptibility of an object existing independently, but conversely volatilizes its real or objective existence into an immediate temporal disappearance".2 On the subjective side, something similar seems to happen, although Hegel does not draw the full consequences from his own observation. Talking about the distinction between "a) the self that sees, has ideas, and thinks, and b) the object of sight, ideas, and thought", he remarks that "in feeling [which, according to Hegel, it is music's main interest to express, SvM], this distinction is expunged, or rather is not yet explicit, since there the thing is interwoven with the inner feeling as such, without separation between them". Since Hegel regards the expression of "pure inwardness" (i.e., the movements and intensities of feeling) as the proper content of music which is to be expressed in its form, this observation about the topology of feeling should have lead him toward a rethinking of music beyond the subject-object divide. Instead, however, he decides to render the external form of music obsolete and relegate music to the "texture" of "pure inwardness". 1 Ibid. 2 G.W.F. Hegel, Aesthetics: Lectures on Fine Art. Trans. T.M. Knox, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1975, Vol. II, pp. 904-905. In his composition, Kyriakides puts on stage the alternative view Hegel did not accept. With some reservations it could be said that The Thing Like Us introduces the idea of sonic flesh. The "living organism" produced by the electronics, "highlights", according to the composer, "the grey area between the corporeal, sensual presence of sound in space, and its abstraction into a codified musical language". On the surface, this highlighting takes the form of a representation, picturing as it were the affective states mentioned in Spinoza's table of the emotions. Alternatively these states can be understood to partake in the musical setting, representing the affective flux involved in the actual production of this representative music. Kyriakides, however, has made this music so as to exceed the mere level of musical representation, breaking through the (predicative-visual) divide which it presupposes.3 Although the setting for alto solo and harpsichord evokes the earliest days of opera, i.e., the time when, in conformity with the contemporary expressive ideology of Vincenzo Galilei and his party, the subject made its entry into Western music, the 'thing like us' is not simply to be understood in terms of a possible identification between listener and musical subject. The music counters this strategy by minimizing the distance required for the application of an analogizing or mimetic schema. The very beginning of the piece (track 1) may serve as an example here. The voice which opens the piece is aesthetically speaking 'too near', whispering in virtual intimacy into the listening ear, and registering its vocal grain by singing very close into its electronic medium. The music's production of excessive nearness is also apparent in the way the harpsichord's f sharp is taken over by the electronics, rising imperceptibly to a g flat, and gradually transforming musically codified sound (harpsichord, trained voice) into what may be called "machinic" sound. This sound (technically a standing sine wave, which is often avoided by instrumentalists) crosses the constitutive distinction between on the one hand music and its layers of subjective significance, such as musical emotion, and on the other hand mere affect. It is a becoming-physical of sound, an extension of the sonic beyond the level of objective codification and subjective signification. In Deleuzian terms, it could be regarded as a "body without organs", the entering of a plane of immanence by means of an "involution", i.e., a dissolution of form which frees the affects, speeds and "haecceities" which constitute and precondition the emergence of formal and meaningful coherence (Sinnzusammenhang). This originary excess opens up the non-subjective (and, for that matter, non-objective) dimension of music. 3 Cf. Putman, op. cit. 4 Gilles Deleuze and Fl1ix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaux: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Trans. by Brian Massumi. Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 2002, p. 266-67. Cf. Christian Asplund, "A Body without Organs: Three Approaches - Cage, Bach, and Messiaen", in Perspectives of New Music, Vol. 35, No. 2 (Summer, 1997), pp. 171 -87.
Page 00000004 The structure of this immanent transcendence is further exemplified by Kyriakides' use of low and ultralow frequencies in tracks 16 through 18 of The Thing Like Us. Starting in the silent intermission between track 16 "Joy (Gaudium)", and track 17 "Disappointment (Conscientiae morsus)", a deep bass sets in that intensifies until its pressure is physically felt on the ears.1 Next, the aural bubble which results from this saturating effect is pierced by the high hiss of the 'microphoned' singing voice, opening an enormous aural space. Initially, the low frequencies appear to be a 'part' of sorts, a possible 'layer' or 'voice' in the sonic texture. However, the steady lowering and intensification transform these frequencies' character into a sonically soft, but physically clearly felt vibration (cf. the beginning of track 18). Rather than loosing its intensity because of the lessening volume, the vibration actually intensifies even further, though now on a different level. It produces a plane of continuity, which neither reduces to the objective continuity typical of mere vibration (e.g., heavy traffic passing by), nor to the continuity of an aesthetic totality. Rather, the continuity these ultra-low frequencies produce actualize the "grey area" to which I referred as sonic flesh. What does this category signify? First, according to the logic of Aristotle's notion of flesh, it refers to the originary unity of that which touches and that which is touched. It refers to the "texture" which Hegel erroneously locates in the inner world of the subject, but which in fact precedes this inside-outside topology. Next, it refers to the self-diffraction of sound, which is both the source of its own existence (i.e., internal resonance) and of its possibility to resonate outward and become a meaningful part of a 'world' (e.g., a musical work). Again, Hegel has well noticed this particularity of the sonic medium, but did not relate it to the shared structure of sound and subjectivity. He described resonance as the "concrete and active process of positive negation within the attributes of matter", but missed the more general relevance of this very "process".2 Finally, then, the category of sonic flesh refers to the selfreflexive structure which - being the constitutive movement of both sound (i.e., timbre, spectrum) and self (i.e., perception and its reflective superstructures) - underlies the enveloping experience of "sonic presence".3 Breaking radically away from the linguisticvisual logic of spectatorship, sonic enveloping substitutes methexis (participation) for mimesis, and puts into play the rhythm of "evolution" and "involution", i.e., the movements of formation and de-formation of listener, music and their interrelation (such as the intentional act of listening). In short, condensing this brief analysis into a single figure, sonic enveloping actualizes the rhythm of topology.4 1 This passage obviously demands high-end playback equipment. 2 G.W.F. Hegel, Introductory Lectures on Aesthetics. Trans. by B. Bosanquet. London (etc.), Penguin, 1993, p. 94. 3 Jean-Luc Nancy, A l'ecoute. Paris, Galilee, 2002, p. 30 ff. 4 Ibid., pp. 27, 74. 4. REFERENCES  Aristotle, De anima. Trans. by W.S. Hett. Cambridge, MA (etc.), Harvard University Press (Loeb edition), 2000.  Asplund, Christian. "A Body without Organs: Three Approaches - Cage, Bach, and Messiaen", in Perspectives of New Music, Vol. 35, No. 2 (Summer, 1997).  Barthes, Roland. The Responsibility of Forms: Critical Essays on Art, Music, and Representation. Berkeley, University of California Press, 1991.  Deleuze, Gilles and Guattari, F6lix. A Thousand Plateaux: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Trans. by Brian Massumi. Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 2002.  Dramm, David. "Vertraagde geluidsexplosies en lichtbeschadigd tromgeroffel: De drum and bass van Photek", in Mens en melodie, January-February, 2000.  Hamilton, E., and Cairns, H. (eds.). Plato: The Collected Dialogues. Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1996.  Hegel, G.W.F. Aesthetics: Lectures on Fine Art. Trans. by T.M. Knox. Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1975 (2 Vols.).  Hegel, G.W.F. Introductory Lectures on Aesthetics. Trans. by B. Bosanquet. London (etc.), Penguin, 1993.  Kyriakides, Yannis. The Thing Like Us. Music from SPINOZA: I am not where I think myself to be. Amsterdam, Unsounds CDO9 (2002). Nancy, Jean-Luc. A I 'Icoute. Paris, Galil6e, 2002.  Putman, Daniel A. "Music and the Metaphor of Touch", in The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 44, No. 1.