Unreal Nature

August 28, 2012

With Other Moving Bodies

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 6:32 am

… I assume that it is a basic psychological proclivity not to hear sound as an uninterpreted quality, but to hear it as bearing information that is adaptively useful.

This is from The Sonic Self: Musical Subjectivity and Signification by Naomi Cumming (2000):

… The classical player Itzhak Perlman impresses with the depth and verve of his sound as he plays a Jewish theme, “Firn Di Mekhutonium Aheym,” with all the force of his Romantic vibrato. Duncan Chisholm appears as a “fiddle player from Wolfstone, a Celtic rock band that produces an interesting fusion of traditional Irish style with modern rock.” His sound is exhileratingly fresh in its spare and edgy quality. A “cutting-edge” player creates some electronically modified violin sounds, tantalizing in their ethereal “presence.” … These “living” sounds have complex timbral characteristics as an inseparable part of their aural presentation. Timbre is like the wrinkles of their “skin,” the surface without which the body of vibration could not possibly be heard. It is “in the sound,” as part of its presenting quality, before a deliberative process has taken place to examine the associations it brings. Because distinctive timbres cannot be identified with simple alphabetic labels, as pitches can, or named with nouns that belong to them alone, their description has to find a different linguistic mode. That is why they are most often pointed at with words for action and quality, words that modify the description of a neutral “sound.” … The sounds are “warm” or “cool,” “gentle” (in legato) or “assertive” (in strong attack). They might be “cool and distant,” without vocal nuance, or, in sul ponticello (playing with the bow on top of the bridge), “thin and edgy.”

To interpret the signification of sounds in an acoustic instrument is not, then, to deal just with abstracted pitches, in their nuanced alteration, but with pitched sounds of definite timbre, duration, and context. If you hear the sound as constant or interrupted, in tune, sharp, or flat, you are noticing simple aspects of its duration or frequency, and “representing” it in the mind (in the sense used by cognitive science), with reference to a standardized grid … . But what about when you hear it as the index of an action or as a tone of voice? Sounds may come bearing the mark of actions, or as suggesting voices of various emotional tone. Taking a semiotic view … I assume that it is a basic psychological proclivity not to hear sound as an uninterpreted quality, but to hear it as bearing information that is adaptively useful. In a natural environment, such information could be about the location and movement of objects, the position and attitude of another living thing, the affective state of another as bidding affection or retreat. “Mental representations” of sound are not, then, aural recordings of pure acoustic properties, but assessments of a sound’s source and connection with other moving bodies, whether inert or living.

My most recent previous post from Cumming’s book is here.

-Julie

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