History of Sound

There are four regions, each over-lapping and ill-defined, in this approach to Sound Archaeology. (i) The Perception of Sound, or how we hear. (ii) The History of Recording and Technical Devices, drawing parallels with the development of computing machines and memory storage. This flows into (iii) a deeper time of sound and inscription by considering the well-known Orality/Literacy shift, from the ancient sonosphere to the invention of alphabets and writing. And lastly (iv) the relation of Sound and Number, attempting to rethink the long-standing bond between maths and music.

It is the uncertain notion of Time, flowing beneath all four, that causes the over- lappings and correspondences. However, time and arithmetic can be strange bedfellows. A not inconsiderable aim of mathematics is to arrive at formulae which, once conceived, do away with the need to work things through; in a sense, discarding the process. It seems the very idea of a mathematical formula is to purge time. Beneath the surface, nevertheless, are the gears, the turning wheels, found inside any timepiece. So I would suggest that a different connection between sound or music and its unfolding over time might be discovered, not through pictorial geometry, but rather within the more abstract realm of numbers; in particular those numbers and ratios which result in non-halting, irrational, divergent, convergent, limit processes and remainders; and thus based not so much on the visual symmetry and patterns of a Bach score, but rather on the dynamics of time and processuality. Furthermore, mathematical theories of tuning offer up a rich plethora of irrational functions from the attempt to divide the octave into twelve equal steps to the Pythagorean comma.

The doing of history itself is, at least partly, to confront the diabolical task of unravelling the nature of time. To occupy the site of someone else’s listening is, of course, impossible. To then seek to do this over a time span of say three millennia, creates yet greater challenges! What holds true for sound also applies to time; they both depend on disappearing as they come into existence. It turns out that to think about listening in the past is to probe the nature of history itself. Evidently, we are helped in this task by the archaeological exploration of music instruments, technical devices and the history, not just of tuning theory, but of systems of measurement from all branches of science, from medicine to mathematics, from celestial motion to the casting in bronze of, amongst other artefacts, bells.

From the limited perspective of European history, I wonder too if the Orality/Literacy shift, positioned some 2,800 years ago in the ancient Mediterranean, isn’t preceded by another movement not so often remarked upon. That is the shift from the acoustic into number and then from number to geometry, again a move from ear to eye; regardless that the rendering of irrational number in geometrical form imposes a means of expression which seems profoundly inimical to the nature of what it seeks to describe. 2000 years will pass before the Calculus appears in the West. With its unfreezing action this time machine opens a way back past the visual to the abstractly numerical and ultimately, to two voices where a child and adult singing an octave apart would, by sounding that interval, be doing the equivalent of a multiplication by two in an arithmetic without signs.

amoore arles november 2012

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