Sounds Between Things: A Bogostian Take on the Nonhuman’s Experience of Music

by Richard Floeckher

This project intersects with one of the main goals of my MA thesis in Ethnomusicology: to interrogate the ways in which the [fetishized] cyborg voice of performer Marilyn Manson at once reveals important things about cyborg ontology and grants Manson access into the world of things in his live performances. Chapter one moves from a Dolarian critique of the fetishized singing voice to the creation of a typography of the characteristics of Manson’s cyborg voice. Chapter two, which I am currently writing, aims, through analysis of a single concert in Hamilton, Ontario, to put the theorizing of chapter one to work, showing how the cyborg voice allows Manson to, as it were, “quicken” the things with which he interacts on stage. This chapter begins with an interrogation of Bill Brown’s “thing theory” and Bogost’s Object-Oriented Ontology, considering the ways in which both theoretical apparatuses can be used to help understand the interaction between Manson’s cyborg voice and the object his sings to, about and in the presence of.

Brown’s “thing theory” is useful insofar as it provides a fairly compelling way to account for the way things (such as a robotic mannequin, during one song) are brought to life by Manson-the-cyborg singing to them. The cyborg voice can be imagined as wrenching these objects awake and into conscious contact with Manson himself. Indeed, there is poetry in this approach to the interaction between Manson’s cyborg voice and the things onstage, and it preserves both the human and mechanical elements of his ontology as a cyborg. The idea of an inanimate thing responding to the sounds of a voice positioned somewhere between human and nonhuman contributes in powerful ways to both the aural and visual components of Manson’s live performance. Yet, such an approach is also problematic for two interconnected reasons: 1. The way in which it anthropomorphizes the relationship between Manson and the thing. 2. The way in which it privileges the relationship between things that have been acted upon by (and “awakened” by) something human (or in Manson-the-cyborg’s case, part-human) over the relationship these have independently of human intervention.

This, then, is where we turn to Bogost and to the “carpentry” project at hand. The theoretical question my “alien phenomenology” project asks is whether and how it would be possible to describe and/or represent the way things experience music without that experience being mediated in some way by human beings. If, as Bogost writes, “a thing is not just a thing for humans, but a thing for many other things as well, both material and immaterial” (25), is it possible to depict music as a thing not only for humans but also for and between other things, as well? The hope is that such an inquiry will develop into a semester-long project and, as far as my thesis is concerned, illuminate new ways of understanding how the cyborg voice mediates relationships between Manson-the-cyborg and the realm of things.

To this end, I have created three short videos, all shot with my iPhone, that “watch” how things experience sound. The first two were filmed in my piano studio at Rhapsody Arts Center in Verona. The music I’m playing (passages from Chopin’s F major Ballade) was selected somewhat arbitrarily, but the positions/angles from which the video was shot were chosen to obscure the human element of the music making. The first was shot “from the perspective” of the piano lid looking down on the strings and dampers. As the music sounds, the viewer can see the dampers moving up and down as the pedal is pressed and released. The second video looks up at the studio ceiling from the perspective of a chair. There is no visible movement of/between things in this video as the music plays. Lastly, the third video is shot from the perspective of a coffee mug sitting on my office desk. It watches M.I.A’s “Born Free” video on my computer. The video is violent and disturbing, but the cup, described in anthropomorphic terms, remains unmoved.

[These embedded videos will not display in certain browsers. You may also access them via the links at the bottom of the page]

To describe what happens in these films in non-anthropomorphic terms is exceedingly difficult. Separating the music from the things it acts upon would make the task easier, but what we’re interested in here is the relationship between music and thing and the ways in which music mediates relationships between things. Like things, music (regardless of whether it employs text or not) arrives laden with meaning and stories. So, first, it’s critical for the viewer/interpreter of these films forget that the meaning and stories he/she attaches to the music. Second, the viewer/interpreter must attempt to abandon the ways in which he/she conceives of the music’s use in his/her life. The process, as I see it, is one of stripping the music down to its sounds, that is, divesting it of the extra-musical meaning with which we routinely imbue it. This does not necessarily mean that, for the things framed in the video, the music possesses no meaning beyond its sounds themselves. It means, simply, that its meaning for things cannot be the same meaning it holds for human beings. Perhaps, for this reason, the interpretation of these videos involves a kind of “interpretation of absence,” the enumeration of the absence of all those characteristics of music that make music meaningful to human beings. Perhaps, even, the idea of musical meaning is, itself, irrelevant to the relationships captured on these videos. Such consideration of these films raises a question that can be considered in a future project: In order to mediate the relationship between things, must music be “meaningful” at all? Do sounds themselves suffice as vehicles of communication for and between things?

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