Seth Kim-Cohen, Sound Today
(IS NO LONGER A FUNCTION OF THE EAR)
It is inadequate to write or to say, “I have overcome the problematics of art.”
It is necessary to have done so. I have done so.
Painting today is no longer a function of the eye; it is the function of the one thing we may not possess within ourselves: our LIFE.
(Yves Klein, “Overcoming the Problematics of Art”)
ONE : THE YVES KLEIN BLUES
or, Overcoming the Problematics of Autotune
I’d like to open with an old tune, “The Yves Klein Blues.” I’ve taken the liberty of arranging this traditional number to suit my present purposes. These purposes include introducing the notion of non-cochlear sound and the exhibition which sails under its flag. These purposes also include addressing the question: Why do I so dislike Glee (Tuesdays, 8 Eastern, on Fox)? I want to create a conceptual synonymy between the notion of the non-cochlear and my dislike of Glee.
Although it occupies one time slot, Glee is, in fact, two shows. Or, if we must concede the networks’ privilege in defining the ontological boundaries of a show (based, no doubt, on the subtle epistemological calculus of advertising revenue), then I’ll settle for this assertion: Glee is Janusian, two-faced; it promulgates a divided worldview. On the one hand, the dramatic (non-musical) half of the show is a subtle and sarcastic depiction of difference. The setting of the show, the plot lines, and the individual characters, all riff on the tropes of generic television and movie fare. But, in each case, the particulars are tweaked to unsettle the stereotypes. The dramatic half of the show is a clever subversion of the feel-good, multi-culti, mores of middle-of-the-road liberalism. That’s not to say that Glee is way out there on the branch, overtly pushing a radicalism hitherto unknown in American culture. But it does undermine some of the smugness of After School Special-formulism that reared the political consciousness of the last four decades of American children.
Take, for example, the character, Tina Cohen-Chang: a Jewish-Asian, stuttering, Goth. Her most pronounced and provocative otherness is not established in relation to real American high school students. Her otherness is established relative to television’s representation of American high school otherness. I’m not trying to overstate the self-reflexive, po-mo, lit-crit, value of Glee here. But it’s worth recounting a poll taken in the 1970s in which real American high school students were asked about the fictional t.v. series Room 222. Overwhelmingly, the students confirmed that the show was a realistic depiction of life in an American high school. When asked if Room 222 resembled life in their high school, just as overwhelmingly, the students said “no.” Fiction forges fact. As it turns out, Tina’s been faking her stutter so kids will leave her alone. Get this: she’s protective of her otherness; she embellishes it to preserve it. It’s not Artaud. But for prime time, network t.v., this is pretty progressive, and pretty smart.
Yet, in the fourth episode of the series, when Tina is given the solo in “Tonight” from West Side Story, and Rachel, the Glee Club diva, quits in protest, Tina intentionally misses a crucial high note, so that Rachel will be reinstated as Queen Bee and all will once again be right with the high school hierarchy. Think about it: in the show’s dramatic half, Tina cultivates the aspects of her personality that set her off from the conservatism of her milieu. This setting off, is understood – in the hermeneutical play between text and viewer – as a validating reification of otherness. Tina’s difference is made manifest as a positive aspect of her character. Yet, in the musical half, a different set of values prevails. First, the fact that Tina intentionally tanks the note implies that she is capable of hitting the note. She’s a “good” singer (i.e., she can sing like you’re “supposed to”). Second, the established values of the musical half of the show are such that a bum note is grounds for disqualification. Third, it is an assumption of the plot that if Tina drops a clam, Rachel will be reinstated as the lead because she, certainly, is pitch-perfect. In music, apparently, otherness carries no value. There’s no room for difference, only self-sameness, fidelity to the melody, submission to the score. Tina’s off-ness has no value in the musical half of the show, where Rachel’s on-ness is triumphant.
Everything that recommends the show’s dramatic half – all the subversive snark, all the unstitching of the conventional representations of social fabric – is absent from the musical half. If the musical half of the show had the guts to rise to the challenge of Tina’s knowing otherness, Glee might be closer to the forensic satire of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, John Cameron Mitchell’s 2001 masterpiece in which music is acknowledged as being both constituted by, and constitutive of, the world. Instead Glee’s musical half delivers vapid American Idolatry. When the music starts, the irony disappears in a puff of dry ice smoke. The dramatic half’s social critique; the deconstruction of stereotypes; the gentle, yet insistent undertow working against prevailing sentiments, all exit stage right as the number begins. Where the dramatic half of the show is willing to unmoor acceptable, established values of teledolescent dramatis personae, the musical half is unfailingly deferential to the imperturbability of sincere musical expression. The implication is that, while the real world is shot through with delusions and abuses, music is a safe haven from lived cynicism. Music is separate and unsullied, satisfied with what rock critic, Camden Joy, has called its “stand-alone arrogance.”
The two halves of the show are undoubtedly the products of two distinct production teams. The scriptwriters responsible for the drama probably have little to say about the singing and dancing of the production numbers. The arrangers and choreographers doubtless contribute nothing to the overarching plots. The disconnect between the two halves’ worldviews is apparent in the musical half’s employment of what is ostensibly a corrective prosthesis. This technological curative, known in the recording world as “autotune,” is a device which nudges out-of-tune notes back in tune. As soon as one of the Glee kids opens his or her mouth to belt out a show-stopper or to breathily evince a weepy ballad, someone in the control room flips a switch and autotune guarantees that Glee delivers melodic fidelity (if not marital, social, or pecking-order fidelity). For decades, mainstream television has been applying the psychological equivalent of autotune to its characters – call them “autopaths” – nudging them back into emotional and rational tune.
What gets my goat is how Glee reflects a broadly-held cultural attitude in which music (and, by association, sound) is fetishized as sacrosanct and virtuous, as if music has overcome the problematics of being-with-others (and of otherness). Glee’s musical world, untainted by the complexity of lived reality, rejects Glee’s dramatic world, in which difference is rightly seen as the generator of meaning. In this musical world, sameness is celebrated: hit the notes as written, do what’s expected, be correct. Autotune is this world’s insurance policy. Break a leg, wreck the car, come down with bird flu, and like a good neighbor, “autotune” is there. But perhaps it’s closer to the truth of how behavior is made, to think of autotune as a societal tool of control, akin to Jacques Rancière’s conception of “the police.” Deviate and autotune is always already there to modify your behavior. The society of the autotune can’t abide deviation.
Economic disparity? Autotune it into alignment. Racial inequality? Autotune it into accord. Philosophical disagreement? Autotune it into consensus. All is right with the world. Let us open our hymnals…
TWO : MAKE IT OLD
The term “non-cochlear” appears in the subtitle of my 2009 book In The Blink of an Ear: Toward a Non-Cochlear Sonic Art. Since the book came out, there’s been a minor fuss about this phrase. I understand why it’s minor (we’re talking about sound art after all). But, frankly, I don’t understand why there’s been any fuss at all. I’m leaning hard on old ideas here. It’s been nearly a century since Marcel Duchamp famously called for a non-retinal visual art, an art that would appeal to modes of experience and response that are not primarily about what one sees.
Crudely, the retina is to seeing as the cochlea is to hearing. So, in a transparent attempt to piggyback on Duchamp’s brilliance, I coined the term “non-cochlear” to designate the kind of conceptual sonic practice I wanted to promote.
For almost 100 years the visual arts have been reconciling themselves to this idea. But in sound and music, we’ve witnessed a resistance resembling, if not born of, ignorance. Sound has remained stubbornly attached to the ear. This is true of composers from Igor Stravinsky to John Cage and of artists from, well, Cage to Francisco López. While visual artists have opened the doors of their practice to concerns such as politics, economics, sociality, gender, and power, musicians, artists, and theorists remain self-satisfied: “Hey, all the arts aspire to the condition of music” (a claim issued by Walter Pater in 1873). These practitioners and theorists believe that sound, being inviolate and separate from worldly (read petty) concerns, can and should go about its rarified business in privileged, unburdened isolation. This is the attitude of the musical half of Glee.
The other old idea on which I’m leaning hard isn’t quite as old, dating from 1967 when Jacques Derrida published both Speech and Phenomena (La Voix et le Phénomène) and Of Grammatology (De la Grammatologie). Derrida questions the most basic of presumptions: that a thing has its own, internal identity. The pinnacle of this kind of thinking, Descartes’ “I think therefore I am,” kicks philosophy off from the one thing I can be sure of: that I am. How can I be sure of it? Because I need no outside proof, no confirmation, no translation or communication of myself to myself. I don’t need formulae, language, signs, pictures. I simply know that I am. But Derrida remains unconvinced and, over the course of a few years and a few books in the late-1960s and early-1970s, he unconvinced a lot of other folks too. Derrida responds to Descartes (and, more directly, to Husserl): a thing has no internal identity. Instead, its identity, its meaning, its being, is formed by a differential process. That is to say, I only know what a chair is by ruling out other possibilities, such as seat, stool, couch, recliner, table, lamp, and on and on. (Although, if you’ve read Derrida, you know that these ruled-out possibilities are never thoroughly ruled out. They stubbornly mark the thing in question, infecting the self-sameness of its identity with a radical, constitutive otherness.)
At first glance, this description seems less likely to be true than positing the identity of the chair in the chair. But, if we consider the most basic procedure of semantic identification: looking up a word in the dictionary, we realize there might be something to this. Look up the definition of the word chair to say definitively what it is. My dictionary says “A separate seat for one person…” So I look up seat: “A thing made or used for sitting on, such as a chair.” Already the circularity is biting us in the ass – you’ll pardon the pun. We look up sitting: “Adopt or be in a position in which one’s weight is supported by one’s buttocks…” We look up buttocks: “Either of the two round fleshy parts that form the lower rear of the human trunk.” I won’t drag this out. The point – Derrida’s point – is that you can keep looking up words that appear in the definitions of other words forever and you’ll never reach the definition that says “Congratulations! You now understand definitively what chair means.”
What a chair is derives from a network of relation and differentiation. What’s more, as we’ve seen, this process never ends, but is deferred endlessly in the accumulation and sorting of knowledge. If we try to match Descartes’ pith, we have to settle for something like “I am not X(∞), therefore I am I.” Not quite as catchy as the cogito.
Nevertheless, if we can swallow Duchamp and Derrida, I don’t know why we should have trouble choking down the idea of a non-cochlear sonic art. Indeed, the only undigestible thought is that of sound-in-itself, and sonic conceptualism should be as controversial as a new Thai restaurant.
THREE : OUT ON PAROLE
One could easily argue that sound art, as a discrete practice, is merely the remainder created by music closing off its borders to the extramusical, to any instance of parole that could not be comfortably expressed in the langue of the Western notational system. Sound art is art that posits meaning or value in registers not accounted for by musical systems. Unlike sculpture, and to a lesser extent, cinema, music failed to recognize itself in its expanded situation. Instead, it judged the territory adopted by expansion as alien and excluded it tout de suite. The term “sound art” suggests the route of escape from music, the path of least resistance available to this errant practice. The gallery-art world, having already learned the tricks of expansion and the assimilation of once-excluded modes, proved a more hospitable homeland for the sound practice of the late-1980s, the 1990s, and the 2000s.
I trust I don’t need to draw too much attention to the political analogies suggested by this account. Let me simply say that, just as the expanded situation of a given practice includes and is created by social, political, gender, class, and racial exigencies, so too are the responses of institutions; the attitude of a field of cultural activity; the acceptance by critics, academics, and practitioners of a version of a discipline’s history. The expulsion of sound art from music is both analogous to politics and is politics. Likewise, the acceptance of sound art into the spaces and discourse of the gallery arts is politics in theory and in practice. As such, the history to which I am alluding here and the revision I am suggesting have implications beyond the apparently limited scope of which tag we append to a practice, which institutions host it, and which critics have a territorial stake in examining it. As Derrida says, “there is no outside the text,” nor is there a safe haven inside it. I’m of the opinion that sound art has always been non-cochlear at heart. But it’s difficult to break from convention, from the autotuning of positions. People hear what they want to hear.
I wrote my book, In The Blink of an Ear in response to such recalcitrance. My strategy was not simply to prescribe the practice of the future, but to redescribe the practice of the past and the present, to highlight the non-cochlearity already there. So, when Michael Schumacher at Diapason invited me to put together a show of non-cochlear sound, I saw it as a chance to test my optimism and to let the practice speak for itself. Still, I wasn’t sure how many contemporary artists might respond to my term, “non-cochlear sound,” or self-identify with the practices I describe in the book. The best way to find out was with an open call for proposals. I would have been happy with thirty or forty submissions – really I would have. As it happens, we got more than one hundred and sixty. Clearly, I wasn’t alone in thinking there was something to this non-cochlear thing.
If my book was an attempt to expand the field of sonic practice, these examples of practice have expanded my expansion. The artists who submitted proposals (not just those who were accepted) reimagined what non-cochlearity might look like, what it might sound like; how it might behave. So this exhibition is much more than an illustration or an example of a theory. It is precisely the best outcome of writing a book: a dialogue between theory and practice, a call and a response moving in both directions: from thinking to making, from making to thinking.
My sincere thanks to all involved.
(My attention to the use of autotune in Glee derives from a conversation with Professor Seth Brodsky of the Yale Music Department.)