Theorizing Sound Writing

Theorizing Sound Writing

by Deborah Kapchan

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The study of listening—aurality—and its relation to writing is the subject of this eclectic edited volume. Theorizing Sound Writing explores the relationship between sound, theory, language, and inscription. This volume contains an impressive lineup of scholars from anthropology, ethnomusicology, musicology, performance, and sound studies. The contributors write about sound in their ongoing work, while also making an intervention into the ethics of academic knowledge, one in which listening is the first step not only in translating sound into words but also in compassionate scholarship.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780819576651
Publisher: Wesleyan University Press
Publication date: 04/04/2017
Series: Music/Culture Series
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 336
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

DEBORAH A. KAPCHAN is associate professor of performance studies at New York University. A Guggenheim fellow, she is the author of Gender on the Market and Traveling Spirit Masters, as well as numerous articles on sound, narrative, and poetics.

Read an Excerpt



Musicology, Performativity, Acoustemology

In the 1990s, in North America, the nexus of ideas associated with performativity and performance studies were all the rage in musicology, indeed in music studies across the subdisciplines. Performativity promised to invigorate academic, professional, and public thought about music (and in music), and to enable critics, practitioners, and ordinary listeners to understand music's myriad imbrications in the always tense power relations of race, gender, sexuality, and class. Moreover, it promised to release music studies from the parochialism encouraged by our practice and rehearsal regimens into fully reciprocal engagement with other humanistic disciplines, and ultimately with the intersecting economic, political, and social worlds that we were still inclined, in the 1990s, to describe as "real."

Sometime in the new century, however, the musicological fashion for performativity began (like the fashion for hermeneutics) to fade, gradually replaced by insistent and pervasive calls to refocus on music as heard sound, and by the rise to near-disciplinary status of something variously called "sound studies," "auditory" or "aural" culture, or "acoustemology." Whatever musicology's new "Other" might be called, by its attention to the whole spectrum of acoustic experience in which musical behaviors nestle, the new field promises to be intellectually exciting because, unlike the musicologies, it tries to theorize the myriad relationships among acoustical energy, human agency, technologies, and power that characterize contemporary acoustical experience — whether that experience be called musical or not. Yet until quite recently "sound studies"/acoustemology has also proven to be a problematic interdiscipline. Curiously detached from critical thinking about race, gender, sexuality, or class, it is more celebratory than critical about the new regimes of listening enabled by twenty first-century technology. Almost exclusively a practice of white men, too, it is often oblivious to questions of performance and performativity, even when, as in the case of hip-hop deejaying, the performance of relationships to technology, commerce, history, and power are obviously inseparable from the production of a characteristic set of sounds.

Because "sound studies"/acoustemology could well prove to be the interdiscipline that serves our century's needs for a way to talk about acoustical experience (parallel to the way that the musicologies served the last century's needs), it seems important to think through the possible relationships of musicology, performativity, and acoustemology. This essay is my first effort to think about these relationships: it is therefore an avowedly speculative text, the thoughts of someone with long experience in the musicology of early modern Italy who awoke, as if from a long dream made of music, to discover that her country used music as a tool of psychological and physical torture — and that she needed to know what sound studies taught if she was to understand that practice.

Still, I dare to hope that the effort to think the relationship of these interdisciplines to each other might prompt others to have productive thoughts, perhaps on new ways of engaging the acoustical practices and regimes that characterize twenty-first-century lives.


Theories of performativity entered musicology from two directions in the 1990s — from gender-and-sexuality studies and from performance studies. Both, of course, were relatively new interdisciplines that had emerged slowly from the intellectual and social ferment of the 1960s and 1970s, and that offered intentionally eclectic intellectual tools by which to think, rethink, and destabilize categories of human experience that traditional academic disciplines had rendered both unthinkable and fixed. In both, performativity theory's emphasis on human action and interaction as what constituted reality promised to have enormous liberatory power.

Indeed, theories of performativity did wonders for North American musicology in the 1990s and early 2000s. First, they validated the artistic labor and artistic contributions of performers, after several generations of musicological thought that had treated performance as merely the realization of a composer's intentions and performers as if they (we) were ideally transparent media through which a composer's thoughts moved, as if we were living playback systems. Theories of performativity spurred some of us to think long and hard about the physicality of music making, about the myriad strange ways that we humans discipline our bodies so that we can produce sounds and sonic-social interactions with each other that our fellows will hear as meaningful, or beautiful, or both. Furthermore, theories of performativity facilitated interpretations of musical works that included the social relations enacted by music in performance — including the many levels of paraperformance social relations about which Christopher Small wrote so eloquently for so long, and the social relations of production that Marxist theory associated with the "base." Theories of performativity allowed musicians and music scholars intellectual access to an understanding of gender, sexuality, ethnicity, and race as produced by constantly repeated "performance" (actions), rather than as fixed categories of being (or of analysis); and therefore they allowed us to decipher some of the ways that our self-disciplined bodies and musical performances were also performances of gender, ethnicity, or race — both when our performances were transparent to a composer's intentions (or audience desires) and when they resisted those intentions and desires. Finally, performativity theory encouraged writing about music that aspired to the performative (as well as the constative) — that is, it encouraged us to write in ways that might intervene in the very relations of power our writing also described.

Despite these rich contributions, however, in musicology (if not so much in ethnomusicology) the turn to performativity was part of a larger turn to scholarly immersion in critical and cultural theory that led to the emergence of a new kind of musicology-without-music. Too often, this so-called "new musicology" proved every bit as hermetic as the old musicology, focused more on source studies, style analysis and archive-based history, that it had sought to supplant. As Carolyn Abbate pointed out mordantly in a 2004 essay, even critical musicology that claimed allegiance to performers' perspectives, performance studies, or performativity theory often got so wrapped up in some form of hermeneutics as to ignore the physical fact of music's sound. Consequently, she argued, this "new musicology" tended to ignore the ways in which musical sound linked physical beings in profoundly physical ways — in physical joys or physical anguish that defied written description. Abbate did not note that the same entanglement in hermeneutical practices which ignored the physical reality of music-as-sound was combined with critical musicology's renewed focus on canons of masterworks and musical cultures that correlated closely with variants of the "Western art music tradition," to which the commercial descendant of that tradition, Western popular music, was increasingly joined. Thus the "new musicology without music" was neither all that new nor all that liberated: by remaining hermetically and hermeneutically focused on the canonic musics of Western elites, it had largely retreated from musicology's once-strong commitment to creating audiences for new music in the Western concert tradition, and it had retreated both from its fleeting commitment to performers as knowers and creators of knowledge and from intense engagement with music as sound. An unfortunate side effect, then, of musicology's assimilation of performativity theory to hermeneutics and the study of music's embodied practices was the unintentional distancing of performativity from sound.


At the turn of the present century, musicologists who were troubled by the gradual return of a "silent musicology" began increasingly to notice that scholars in a variety of nonmusical disciplines seemed to be writing not just about music, but about sound. About sound as sound. About film sound as contributing to the illusions of realism and human subjectivity projected as images on a screen. And especially, about recorded sound, as an innovation of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries that had surely revolutionized what it meant to be musical, and about the new listening practices facilitated by portable audio devices. It was not until I turned my attention to my country's weaponizations of music in the so-called "global war on terror" that I, personally, realized how solidly a new, sound-centered interdiscipline had coalesced. It was an interdiscipline I would need to know if I were to understand the full implications of something a psychological operations officer said to a journalist after the sonic bombardment of Fallujah in November 2004, "It's not the music, it's the sound."

Sound studies had been emerging gradually over the course of the twentieth century, as a field in which inventors, engineers, architects, physicists of sound, military planners, businessmen, and eventually, anthropologists, linguists, musicians, philosophers, computer scientists, and new media artists would find common interest in the phenomena and phenomenology of sound. One way to trace the genealogy of the interdiscipline goes back to Edison's invention of phonography and Bell's invention of telephony (in the same generation, of course, that saw the invention of musicology) and leads forward to Jonathan Sterne's historicist theorizing of audio technologies, Michael Bull and Les Back's studies of auditory culture, and Jason Stanyek and Sumanth Gopinath's collection of essays studying such phenomena as iPhone orchestras and ringtones. Another path can include General Charles Squier's invention and management of various devices that used the physical properties of sound, mathematics, and multiplex telephony to locate artillery placements on the battlefield in World War I and communicate the coordinates to bomber pilots, and then move directly to Squier's best-known civilian application of multiplex telephony, the technology that led to Muzak, mother of all "piped music." Still another leads through Varese's involvement with Western Electric's labs in lower Manhattan; Pierre Schaeffer's theory and practice of musique concrete in post–World War II Paris; John Cage's many experimental efforts to reconfigure the relationships linking sound, silence, listening practices, and the increasingly problematized concept "music"; and Pauline Oliveros's recordings of "deep caves," to the various sound-centered rather than music-centered rewritings of modernist and postmodernist acoustical practice produced by Friedrich Kittler. And still another derives from Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer's theorization of "the soundscape" — a term that he meant, I think, to encompass the entire range of sounds and acoustical practices in a given place. Schafer's work generated a significant swath of contemporary "sound studies" work that ranges from "sound walks" to electroacousmatic "soundscape" compositions to both ethnographic studies of specific acoustical ecologies and scientific studies commissioned in the service of local, national, and international noise abatement policies.

The intellectual influence of Schafer's work on current "sound studies" scholarship is matched only by the influence of anthropologist Steven Feld, who coined the word "acoustemology" to mean "a union of acoustics and epistemology" that could "investigate the primacy of sound as a modality of knowing and being in the world." Feld went on to articulate what has become the foundational premise of most "sound studies" writing in the last decade — foundational because it is so broad:

Sound both emanates from and penetrates bodies; this reciprocity of reflection and absorption is a creative means of orientation — one that tunes bodies to places and times through their sounding potential. Hearing and producing sound are thus embodied competencies that situate actors and their agency in particular historical worlds. These competencies contribute to their distinct and shared ways of being human: they contribute to possibilities for and realizations of authority, understanding, reflexivity, compassion and identity.

If Feld's statement can be said to be the foundational premise of "sound studies," it can also be said to have inspired many scholars in the humanities who had been writing about music — mostly popular music — for years, but who persisted in feeling intimidated by the expert knowledges to which scholars trained in music departments laid claim, especially the technical knowledges necessary to analyze musical style. By widening the field to include all sound, Feld made intellectual room for these scholars, many of whom had highly developed expert knowledges of their own, especially the technical knowledges about microphone placement, mixing of recorded tracks, and so forth that are necessary to analyze recorded sounds. Because these were scholars who had long been driven by their sheer, passionate love for an entity called "music" that they knew almost exclusively through electronic technologies of sound production and reproduction — through media, that is — they have been able both to acknowledge and to think critically about the fact that the listening practices of almost every human being now alive were formed in a media-saturated world. These scholars — people such as Josh Kun, Jayna Brown, and Daphne Brooks — have written some of the most accurate and compelling critical studies of contemporary musical life, especially as contemporary musical practices interact with practices of power, but they have written them more as studies of contemporary acoustical life. Overwhelmingly, however, they have written as extremely attentive listeners. To the limited extent that they have applied performativity theory to the recordings they discuss, it has mostly been in the way that literary critics apply performativity theory to written texts. In that privileging of specific recorded texts, some of these writers have inadvertently erased both the performative acts of musical and acoustical labor that produced those texts and the economic interests served by the proliferation of new acoustical technologies.

Feld's statement can also be said to have produced subsidiary, often unspoken premises about sound that echo across the different strands of the interdiscipline. One (to which I will return at the end of this essay) is the radical decentering of music from the field of study. The other is the provocative notion that, in Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman's words, "sound is not merely a scientific phenomenon — vibrations passing through matter at particular frequencies — it is also a set of social relations." This statement might be read as implying that because sound is vibration passing through matter at particular frequencies, it automatically creates social relations among all the people present, which would make sound always performative.

That is not, however, the way the idea is generally used. Instead, particularly in the rapidly growing literature on phonographies, sound is taken to condense the social relations that produced it — rather in the way that a phonograph record could once be said to have condensed into the grooves carved in wax or molded in vinyl both the somatic labor of performers and the acoustical energy their efforts produced. This belief seems (even in the recent, very sophisticated special issues of American Quarterly, differences, and Social Text devoted to sound studies) to go along with a kind of utopian fantasy that recordings in whatever format allow us to know by hearing the social relations of either past cultures (early twentieth-century North America) or distant ones (twenty-first-century Brazil), and to know those social relations in ways that neither writing nor the performative acts required to turn written music into sound allow. Present in another foundational text of the field that is very widely cited, Josh Kun's Audiotopia, that fantasy has an extremely familiar ring, for it resembles the fantasy attributing something like transcendent knowledge to music in nineteenth-century European culture. (It even resembles the old Neoplatonic fantasy of early modern Italy, which proclaimed the world to be made of geometric relations that music made audible — and that music could then change — or the even older fantasy of the pre-Socratics, for whom the world was made of vibrations.) Still, fantastical and perhaps hopelessly Western though it might seem to be, the idea that sound might both condense social relations and constitute them through its inherent performativity seems extremely promising: it promises to illuminate, for example, both efforts to understand the cultural factors that produce the particular ways music has been used to torture people recently and any broader effort to understand how musicology, performativity and sound studies might yield insights about how we live now.


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Table of Contents

Deborah Kapchan, The Splash of Icarus: Theorizing Sound Writing/Writing Sound Theory
Suzanne G. Cusick, Musicology, Performativity, Acoustemology
J. Martin Daughtry, Acoustic Palimpsests
Michele Kisliuk, Writing the Magnified Musicking Moment
Alex Waterman, Listening to Resonant Words
Tomie Hahn, Sound Commitments: Extraordinary Stories
David Henderson, Traffic Patterns
Carol Muller, In My Solitude: Jazz Song as "Sound Writing"
Anne K. Rasmussen, Women Out Loud: Religious Performance in Islamic Indonesia
Katherine Johanna Hagedorn, "Where the Transcendent Breaks into Time": Toward a Theology of Sound in Afro-Cuban Regla de Ochá
Ana Pais, Almost Imperceptible Rhythms and Stuff Like That: The Power of Affect in Live Performance
Deborah Wong, Deadly Soundscapes: Scripts of Lethal Force and Lo-Fi Death
Deborah Kapchan, Listening Acts: Witnessing the Pain (and Praise) of Others
Michael Jackson, Afterword: Sound Properties of the Written Word
About the Contributors

What People are Saying About This

Veit Erlmann

“Having come of age, Sound Studies can no longer pretend that writing about sound and experiencing sound belong to different orders of knowledge. The essays in this collection—performative, resonant, sonorous—show that sound, listening, and inscription have far more in common than is usually assumed. Theorizing Sound Writing takes Sound Studies to the next level.”

From the Publisher

"Listen to how writing culture meets sound studies. These patient and passionate essays reveal critical stakes for research ethics and aesthetics. In doing so they stimulate resonant theoretical alliances between performance studies, media studies, musicology, and ethnomusicology." —Steven Feld, author of Sound and Sentiment, and Jazz Cosmopolitanism in Accra

"Having come of age, Sound Studies can no longer pretend that writing about sound and experiencing sound belong to different orders of knowledge. The essays in this collection—performative, resonant, sonorous—show that sound, listening, and inscription have far more in common than is usually assumed. Theorizing Sound Writing takes Sound Studies to the next level."—Veit Erlmann, author of Reason and Resonance

Steven Feld

“Listen to how writing culture meets sound studies. These patient and passionate essays reveal critical stakes for research ethics and aesthetics. In doing so they stimulate resonant theoretical alliances between performance studies, media studies, musicology, and ethnomusicology.”

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