Friday, March 27, 2009

The Antemusical: Timbre of a Voice that Doubles as its Own

"Music is not the origin of language, as people have so often wanted to think, but what withdraws and sinks into it" (Listening, p. 75, No. 42). Although I've taken a great interest in the musicality of language I should want to hesitate to adopt the position Nancy criticizes. Does music come before sense? Does it come before a kind of sense that might be called linguistic? What exactly is Nancy's view? "One can say of music that it silences sound and that it interprets sounds: makes them sound and make sense no longer as the sounds of something, but in their own resonance" (p. 32). Music makes sense, but it is not the only sense to be made of the sonorous. There is antemusical sound, the sounds that have been silenced by music. Nancy quotes Wallace Stevens on the existence of an antemusical: "the self/detects the sound of a voice that doubles as its own" ("The Woman That Had More Babies than That," in Listening, p. 72, No. 21). Resonance is the stuff of bodies. Is embodiment a basis on which to deny music priority to language? I'm being crude, it's true. Let's listen to how Nancy speaks of resonance, and its relation to timbre.

Rather than speaking of timbre and listening in terms of "intentional aim," it is necessary to say that before any relationship to object, listening opens up in timbre, which resounds in it rather than for it. In truth, resonance is at once listening to to timbre and the timbre of listening, if one may put it that way. Resonance is at once that of a body that is sonorous for itself and resonance of sonority in a listening body that, itself, resounds as it listens. (At the same time, this resonance is not an immobile given, since timbre itself is an evolving process, and, consequently, listening evolves along with it.)

(p. 40)

Timbre is an evolving process. If we are not to take the musical as given, and therefore simply project a received idea of timbre upon all sounds, interpreting all sounds through this musicological idea, but instead recognize its evolution, then it becomes of prime importance to investigate how one form develops from another, how listening might be said to evolve rather than merely change or manifest itself in a variety of ways. Perhaps, though, the evolutions of listening are many. The analogy with life on Earth only goes so far. Was there ever a stage in the evolution of listening when music became language? See, already this is a misleading question because listenings are indeed surely many, and we wouldn't rush to say that any one adventure of listening recapitulates *listening, or that a listening must repeat or mimic other listenings, other developmental pathways. No outcome is predetermined. And so we confront the obvious problem of separating the given from the elaborated, and, secondarily, of describing the very how of evolution, and of justifying an implied distinction between a variance and a transformation. Now, in the passage immediately above, Nancy speaks of a nonintentional (in a phenomenological sense) listening as prior to intentional listening, yet in the earlier quoted passage he says that music makes sounds nonintentional. Is nonintentional listening made or discovered by music? If we are to speak intelligibly of the evolution of listening, don't we need an answer to this question of how nonintentionality in listening is arrived at? (I'm not completely sure, though I have enough of an opinion to pose the question.)

Do we move from babble to a speaking that is already listening? How does listening develop through infancy? Can we grasp listening in the context of a transcendental murmuring, "the condition of all words and all silence" (p. 25), without confronting what could be taken for a listening that transcends babble, and therewith a speaking that is already listening, at some stage or another? (I honestly don't know enough about transcendence to say whether it is one or many, or whether it really exists at all. It could after all simply be a reality of our linguistic life that we project onto things of experience in accordance with language's power to fashion reality–the withdrawal of the musical into reality, into the plasma of the real–but I'm just tossing ideas around here.)

This profound disposition [musical listening, FtY]–arranged, in fact, according to the profundity of a reverberation chamber that is nothing other than the body from end to end–is a relationship to meaning [sens], a tension toward it: but toward it completely ahead of signification, meaning in its nascent state, in the state of return [renvoi] for which the end of this return is not given (the concept, the idea, the information), and hence to the sate of return without end, like an echo that continues on its own and that is nothing but this continuance going in a decrescendo, or even in moriendo. To be listening is to be inclined toward the opening of meaning, hence to a slash, a cut in un-sensed [in sensée] indifference at the same time as toward a reserve that is anterior and posterior to any signifying punctuation. [T]he beginning of sense . . . takes place nowhere but in a sonorous attack. . . a stridency where a weighty, murmurring matter breathes, opened into the division of its resonance.

(p. 27, Nancy's emphasis)

Likewise, "sense consists first of all. . . not in a signifying intention, but rather in a listening" (p. 30). First of all. Hmmm.

Let's return for a second to the doubling of a voice, a voice of the self. In listening do we communicate with ourselves? "Communication is not transmission but a sharing that becomes subject" (p. 41). Perhaps we communicate with ourselves in our nascent states, but even so we should question the possibility of the frictionless voice, and, especially, frictionless doubling. How then might we describe any friction we feel in communication with our own voice? Is timbre really the bottom of it all? The musical? Now that we have discovered the musical, and brought its style of listening back from the language it'd sunk into, we can ask, paradoxically, whether there exists a voice without timbre, or any voice that isn't yet doubled, and the question may be not simply a variation on a theme of friction, but an evolution, a movement into the musical, from which we've been estranged. In timbre we hear bodies, hear that voices are voices of bodies. Are the voices of bodies bottomless? Is music? What is the bottom to listening? Is communication a condition for all doubling and all singling out? What are the primitive conditions of listening? Having an idea, perhaps? Or something that could double as a person's own idea?

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posted by Fido the Yak at 8:37 AM.


Blogger Nicola Masciandaro said...

An absolutely wonderful constellation of questions. I think you may be interested in Scott Wilson's Amusia blog:

Below is a paragraph I wrote about metal vocals that relates to what you saying about doubling and the space of voice. Full paper at The Whim. Cheers, Nicola Masciandaro

For vocal sound, the noisiness of metallic deixis means sound’s becoming self, the embodied being of the one to whom voice belongs and hence ‘no longer’ the sound of being, nor the sound of language, but a being in and of itself. This may be understood as an inversion of the usual experiential relation between voice and language, whereby voice disappears via articulation into language and thus stands behind the word, informing it. In the metal lyric, voice appears via disarticulation from language and thus stands between us and the word, interfering with it. Accordingly, metal vocals, especially of the black and death variety, are capable of producing the experience of hearing the word detached from vocal intentionality, the word as unsaid by the one who speaks, as exemplified by the self-indicating word of the demonically possessed: ‘Jesus then asked him, ‘What is your name?’ And he said, ‘Legion’; for many demons had entered him’(Luke 8:30). Opening a space between sound and meaning where voice teems (cf. legion [legio, λεγιών] as simultaneously noun and name, both and neither), metal vocals similarly produce voice as a singular multiplicity, so that rather than hearing words spoken by voice (the one in the many), we hear voice spoken by words (the many in the one). Vocal metallic deixis is the inside-out voice of a linguistic self-possession indicating the presence of what it says in the being who speaks. Thinking the metal vocal auto-deictically in these terms, as intensifying the presence of its producer such that (following Gadamer) the vocal does not merely speak something because what it speaks is actually there, in other words, as voice as possessed by what it says, coordinates with Agamben’s ontological understanding of the negativity of deixis as grounded in the removal or dispossession of the voice: ‘that which is removed each time in speaking, this, is the voice. . . . ‘Taking-the-This’ and ‘Being-the-there’ are possible only through the experience of the Voice, that is, the experience of the taking place of language in the removal of the voice.’ What the metal vocal enacts, then, is something like the return of the voice in vengeance against the event of language as what negates it and thus a repossession and being possessed by the voice as ontic exponent, a dialetheic pure will and pure refusal to signify.


Cf. ‘what is common to most death, doom, and black metal is the anti-melodic, non-natural treatment of the voice . . . . If, as Deleuze and Guattari assert, “the first musical operation” is “to machine the voice” [Thousand Plateaus, B Massumi (trans), University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1987, p. 303], that is, to deterritorialize the voice from its ordinary, “natural” speaking function, then death, doom, and black vocalists are fundamentally—indeed, primarily—musical in their anti-lyrical non-singing, in that their growls, screams and grunts simply push music’s de-naturalization of the speaking voice to extremes’ (R Bogue, ‘Violence in Three Shades of Metal: Death, Doom, and Black’, chapter 3 of Deleuze’s Way: Essays in Transverse Ethics and Aesthetics, Ashgate, Burlington, VT, 2007, pp. 45-6).
Eugene Thacker has explored the shared phenomenology of the Gerasene demoniac’s plural name and black metal vocals in his analysis of sonic swarms, ‘Pusle Demons’, Culture Machine, vol. 9, 2007,
Cf. ‘the demons blaspheme the theological relation between the One and the Many. What is noteworthy here is that the demons first announce their presence through voice. We are not told whether the infamous answer “Legion” (more commonly translated as “I am legion”) is uttered in chorus or as a single voice. The word “legion” itself denotes some sort of an organized quasi-military unit, and thus a more rigid, disciplined mode of organization. But it is spoken – or rather, “resounded.” We might even imagine that Jesus hears this demonic swarm before it is seen. But in fact, it is never seen as such. For, during the exorcism, the demonic swarm is immediately and invisibly transferred to a herd of swine. The iconography of the passage is striking—the true nature of the demons, we presume, is revealed by the choice of their receptacle in a herd of “dumb,” lowly animals. But, throughout the parable, the only real indication we have of a swarm of demons is this enigmatic resounding of the word “Legion”’ (Eugene Thacker, ‘Pulse Demons’). So metal is symbolically invested/infested with swarmic self-images, e.g. ‘Howling our metal we light up the world, / And the banner of Ungol is proudly unfurled. / Raising our legion, and now you belong, / And the point of the blade will be screaming our song’ (Cirith Ungol, ‘Join the Legion’, Paradise Lost, Restless Records, 1991). On the horde-concept in Black Metal, via Darwin, Freud, and Deleuze, see Valter, ‘Horde,’ Documents <>.
G Agamben, Language and Death, pp. 32-3.
Cf. Agamben reading of Augustine’s analysis of the experience of the dead and/or unknown word: ‘[Augustine] isolates an experience of the word in which it is no longer mere sound (istas tres syllabus) and it is not yet meaning, but the pure intention to signfty. This experience of an unknown word (verbum incognitum) in the no-man’s-land between sound and signification, is, for Augustine, the amorous experience as a will to knowledge: the intention to signify without a signified corresponds, in fact, not to logical understanding, but to the desire for knowledge’ (Language and Death, pp. 33-4, my emphasis). Agamben’s ‘intention to signify without a signified’ intersects with the structure of metallic deixis.

March 28, 2009 6:34 AM  
Blogger Fido the Yak said...

I've been listening to Paco Peña this week. I'd be interested in your thoughts on cante jondo.

March 28, 2009 5:39 PM  

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