dimanche 17 juillet 2011

Acoustic Space.

Ricardo Villalobos & Max Loderbauer, Re: ECM, ECM, 2011.

How does one orient oneself within electronic culture? Our first impulse, metaphorically at least, is probably to try and see it more clearly. We seek to read the signs of the times, to look forward, to focus on the fluctuating horizon. But I fear that the clarity we expect from sight, the bird's-eye view of the mappable field, can no longer be relied on to illuminate the network of relations that surround us. Instead, I suspect we might do better to prick our ears, to sound the sensorium that engulfs us. In other words, electronic culture is a space to plumb, an immersive sea we discover through the dive. But to sound also means to listen, and to listen to the now means to listen, at least in part, to the sounds and music emerging from electronic machines.

I am not just talking about listening as an act of sensation, but as a fundamentally different mode of engaging the world, one that tugs against long-standing habits of perception, knowledge, and experience. According to Marshall McLuhan, whose tendencies toward technological determinism by no means undermine his continuing relevance to electronic culture, "visual space" became the dominant mode of Western consciousness following the Italian Renaissance. McLuhan argued that the Renaissance perspective not only provided a powerful new representational mode of organizing the visual field, but also engendered a very specific form of subjectivity. He associated this subjectivity with the point of view produced by the techniques of perspective painting, but also related it to print technologies and to some formal properties of the printed book. In essence, he argued that the self we inherit from the Renaissance is a visual self. 

Renaissance perspective thus serves as an analogy for much more general phenomenon: the power to create a distinct, single point of view that organizes thought and perception along linear lines. We know this space from Descartes and from William Gibson's cyberspace: a homogenous field organized by an objective coordinate grid that simultaneously produces an apparently coherent individual subject who maintains control over his or her unique point of view. Not only do we conventionnaly overlay this panoptic grid onto the far more ambiguous visual field that our nervous system constructs on the fly, but we have embraced it as the dominant conceptual image of space itself. McLuhan related visual space to print technologies - and print culture - because, he argued, these technologies inculcate within us the habit of organizing the world as a field of objects distributed in a largely linear, atomized, and sequential fashion. Central to the concept of visual space is the axiom or assumption that "different" objects, vectors, or points are not and cannot be superimposed; instead, the world is perceived as a linear grid organized along strictly causal lines. 

McLuhan constrasts this construction of visual space, and the kind of subjectivity associated with it, with what he calls "acoustic space". Simply put, acoustic space is the space we hear rather than the space we see; and he argued that, in constrast to print technologies, electronic media submerge us in this acoustic environment. Acoustic space is multidimensional, resonant, invisibly tactile, "a total and simultaneous field of relations". Where visual space emphasizes linearity, acoustic space emphasizes simultaneity - the possibility that many events can occur in the same holistic zone of space-time. Unlike visual space, where points either fuse or remain distinct, blocks of sound can overlap and interpenetrate without necessarily collapsing into a harmonic unity or consonance, thereby maintaining the paradox of "simultaneous difference". 

Acoustic space isn't limited to a world of music or sound; the environment of electronic media, visual as well as aural, itself engenders an acoustic mode of organizing and perceiving information and experience. Still, our increasingly aural orientation helps explain why music, and especially electronic music, plays such a crucial role in sounding the acoustic space of technoculture. On both academic and popular levels, electronic music has articulated and generated an impressive number of soundcapes, atmospheres, and immersive environments that evoke metaphors of space far more readily than metaphors of time.

This secret sympathy between electronics and space also marks the imaginal realm, a dimension easily as important as more technical or purely musical domains. As a particularly convenient example, you can trace the changing fortunes of Leon Theremin's eponymous electronic instrument, which the Russian inventor first developed in the early 1920s. Theremin felt that the eerie glissandi of his instrument belonged to the concert hall, and the theremin's first great practitioner, Clara Rockmore, played a conventional repertoire. But the instrument would not find its cultural home until its use in the soundtracks of UFO movies from the 1950s forevermore linked its synthetic vocal tones with outer space, cosmic communication, and the uncanny.

Erik Davis, Roots and Wires Remix: Polyrhythmic Tricks and the Black Electronic in Sound Unbound, The MIT Press, 2008, p.53-55.

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