Pierre Schaeffer’s notion of “acousmatic” refers to the separation of sound from the sounding body which caused it. This disembodiment of sound was crucial for Musique Concrète which aimed to establish a whole new system of musical organization (solfège) of recorded sounds. The erasure of its physical origin facilitated the sound material’s entry to a new systemization solely based on the purity of reduced listening. But of course neither a complete disembodiment nor total reduction can actually be achieved. For the composer to close his eyes and forget the physicality of sounds, he needed to retrieve into his studio, safely detached both in space and time from any effects of the sounding body. Outside the safe havens of the Parisian RTF electronic studio, the absence of sounding body first and foremost triggers the listener to search for, or guess at least, the unknown origin of the sound. This is for the simple reason that in real life, encounters between bodies can be violent and even deadly. So the listening body attempts to identify, visually or conceptually, the sounding body to avoid the dangers of collision. In this way, the notion of acousmatic, along with reduced listening, bases itself on a primal reduction of collisions—an annulment of physical percussions and repercussions.
But the very technology that enabled this annulment also adds an ironical twist to the tale. For the spatial and temporal separation of sound from its body relied on recording technology, which—from microphone to magnetic tape, and from tape to loudspeaker—was enabled and regulated primarily via the mechanism of electro-magnetic forces. In order to record sounds, sound waves are first transduced into electric signals through the workings of a coil and a surrounding magnet inside the microphone; signals then are used to move the electromagnet which applies a magnetic flux to the oxide on the tape. The play back simply reverses this process, outputting the sound from the loudspeakers by transducing the electric signal back into sound waves. The invisible power of magnetic field was thus responsible for making sounding bodies invisible. But the very same force is also responsible for attracting and repelling bodies. The technological condition for acousmatic disembodiment thus turns out to be the central force to dismantle the Schaefferian reduction of collisions. The intent of erasing bodies on one side, and the forces governing the attraction/repulsion of bodies on the other. Pierre Schaeffer was a paradoxical man.
The works presented tonight all hinge on this curious paradox around the notion of acousmatic and magnetism. They intend to demonstrate, as well as feed upon, the fact that percussions and repercussions of bodies are not only the source of accidents, but also constitute the primordial condition of sound, and therefore, music.
Ellen C. Covito (April 1, 2014)