Sonified Solipsism: Digital Economies of Sound

April 19th, 2015 | Category: Reviews

One of the many lessons of chaos theory was that the limits of numerous traditional scientific and mathematical approaches had been reached. The elements filtered out by the methods in use kept edging in, refusing to be ignored. Information theorists, physicists, and mathematicians were all grappling with similar, persistent problems: noise in phone-lines, measurements that varied wildly at different scales, fluctuations in computer-generated weather, the onset of turbulence in vastly different dynamical systems. New lenses were needed to see a more finely grained world. New tools were needed to measure it.

As a discipline, media studies has been struggling with a similar filter bubble (Parser, 2011). Its sister subdiscipline, sound studies, has been vying to help fix it (Sterne, 2012). Music journalist Alex Ross (2015) writes,

Shortly before his death, in 1992, John Cage said: “We live in a time I think not of mainstream, but of many streams, or even, if you insist, upon a river of time, that we have come to delta, maybe even beyond delta to an ocean which is going back to the skies.” Stream, delta, border, boundary: we keep reaching for geographical metaphors as we speak of genres and we sense that the real landscape of musical activity ultimately has little to do with our tidy delineations, or indeed with the dismantling of them. Fluid and shifting, music is spread out like populations around urban centres, and certain communities could plausibly be assigned to one city’s suburbs or to another’s. Genre may be a kind of gerrymandering practised by musical politicians. Indeed, composers routinely complain when they are described as busters of genre or crossers of boundaries; they tend to view themselves simply as artists working with various kinds of material.

Ross is writing about Björk and musical genres, but thinking outside of the usual boundaries, the usual filters, is exactly what makes sound studies at large so compelling.

The Tones of Our TimesIn The Tone of Our Times: Sound, Sense, Economy, and Ecology (MIT Press, 2014), Frances Dyson writes, “It is really only in the last half century that, à la Cage, we have created an environment from our inner workings, that we have sonified a form of solipsism… Mobile media might move us out of the house and into the world, but the world is now domed by a data cloud” (p. 119). The borders, the boundaries, the bounds may blur, but we still try to draw discrete lines between sound, music, and noise. We still try to control what enters our ears. Earbuds. Noise-cancelling Bose. Beats by Dre.

Félix Guattari wrote in 1989,

Contemporary human beings have been fundamentally deterritorialized. Their original existential territories — bodies, domestic spaces, clans, cults — are no longer secured by a fixed ground; but henceforth they are indexed to a world of precarious representations and in perpetual motion. Young people are walking around the streets with Walkmans glued to their ears, and are habituated by refrains produced far, very far, from their homelands (2015, p. 97).

Chaos MediaAs Stephen Kennedy points out in Chaos Media: A Sonic Economy of Digital Space (Bloomsbury, 2015), these theoretical viewpoints “periodically cohere to form a ‘refrain'” (p. 130): “The refrain calms the chaos — settles things down — resolves anxiety…” (p. 130). Kennedy uses Foucault, Bergson, Bachelard, and Latour’s Actor Network Theory to draw his lines. He writes, “This is a book about space, digital space. As such, it is concerned with boundaries, thresholds, and borders” (p. viii). Music went from strictly live performances to portable recordings. Playback went from ephemeral events to the home hi-fi to the pocket player (see Bartmanski & Woodward, 2015; Bull, 2005; Frith, 2013; Levy, 2006; Zagorski-Thomas, 2014). Lines may be drawn, but they are not so easily maintained.

Ross (2015) continues, “…it becomes clear that for all of her career Björk has created a body of work in which the landscape around her, she herself and the landscape inside of her – her blood, her organs, the sounds made by her and perceived by her – are all one universe of objects and subjects, subjects and objects, robots and humans, plants and animals, stone and volcanoes and oceans at the same time.” With nothing filtered out, we are the tone of our times.


Bartmanski, Dominik & Woodward, Ian. (2015). Vinyl: The Analogue Record in the Digital Age. New York: Bloomsbury.

Bull, Michael. (2005). No Dead Air! The iPod and the Culture of Mobile Listening. Leisure Studies, 24(4), pp. 343-55.

Dyson, Frances (2014). The Tone of Our Times: Sound, Sense, Economy, and Ecology. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Frith, Simon. (2013). The Industrialization of Popular Music–Part II. In S. T. Horsfall, J-M. Meij, & M. D. Probstfield (Eds.), Music Sociology: Examining the Role of Music in Social Life. Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 223-231.

Guattari, Félix. (2015). Ecosophical Practices and the Restoration of the “Subjective City.” In G. Genosko & J. Hetrick (Eds.), Machinic Eros: Writings on Japan. Minneapolis, MN: Univocal, pp. 97-115.

Kennedy, Stephen. (2015). Chaos Media: A Sonic Economy of Digital Space. New York: Bloomsbury.

Levy, Steven. (2006). The Perfect Thing: How the iPod Shuffles Commerce, Culture, and Coolness. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Parser, Eli. (2011). The Filter Bubble: What the Internet is Hiding from You. New York: Penguin.

Ross, Alex. (2015, February). How Björk Broke the Sound Barrier. The Guardian.

Sterne, Jonathan. (2012). Sonic Imaginations. In Sterne, J. (Ed.), The Sound Studies Reader. New York: Routledge, pp. 1-17.

Zagorski-Thomas, Simon. (2014). The Musicology of Record Production. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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