Reflections on Sonic Environments

Vincent Meelberg and Marcel Cobussen



Listening to Byetone’s “Plastic Star” (2008) is an aural experience that exceeds the purely audible. This music needs to be felt as well as heard. It does something with me, both to my body and to my mind, and it does this in such a way that it bypasses my conscious awareness. The sounds that make up this musical piece incite to movement, and I have no choice but to move along with the music. My body, involuntarily, kinesthetically senses, and subsequently processes, the dynamics, the physical properties, of music. The body thus is literally, unintentionally, moved by musical movement. Not necessarily because I want to dance to the music, but rather as a result of the particular way the sonic vibrations address my body. This kind of bodily movement thus is a far more rudimentary, involuntary, and primal reaction to the music than dancing could ever be. At most, dancing is a partial externalization of these primal bodily movements.

“Plastic Star” is able to intensify and foreground the fact that listening is also an embodied, physical activity, because electronic and digital technology allows for the creation of sounds and gestures that address the listener in ways that make explicit this aspect of music, ways that are impossible to realize via purely acoustic, analog means. Digitization allows for the creation of sounds that go lower, higher, louder, softer, faster, and slower than any purely handmade sound can go. Listening to these kinds of digital sounds is, as Kodwo Eshun calls it, like “[..] being hit by electric currents that convulses you into spasm.” (Eshun 1998: 87) It “[…] alters the reflexes, adapting the human into the electroid, the electronic android who turns electric shock into controlled convulsion.” (Eshun 1998: 87). And this is exactly how I feel while listening to “Plastic Star.”

Moreover, the abstract nature of electronic music such as “Plastic Star” invites the listener to imagine the possible source that could have produced the sounds, since these sounds are often detached from known instruments and other direct causes of the sounds. Being surrounded by such sounds may give an explicit feeling of immersion and being driven by an external force, which, according to Marc Leman, is “[…] close to a feeling of ownership (‘I am moving’) without the sense of agency (‘I am not causing the movement’).” (Leman 2008: 98) Consequently, “Plastic Star” seems to be able to specifically address the embodied, kinesthetic aspect of music.

This raises the question as to what extent we have control over our own bodily movements while listening to music. According to Gilles Deleuze (Deleuze 2003) and David Huron (Huron 2006), these forms of musical affection are involuntary and inescapable. Musical affection invokes a prepersonal intensity corresponding to the passage from one experiential state of the listener’s body to another and implying an augmentation or diminution in that body’s capacity to act. It is prepersonal in the sense that it exists beyond control or influence of the individual subject who is affected. These intensities only become personal after the subject has reflected on these intensities, an act in which these intensities are turned into (subjective, personal) emotions. Furthermore, affect can literally immobilize a person, for instance by putting him or her in a state of shock. The affect responsible for this shock thus diminishes the subject’s capacity to act. The opposite effect can also be generated by affect. Music, in particular, is able to augment the body’s capacity to act. Think for instance of the music joggers listen to while running, or the songs soldiers sing in unison while exercising. The sonic strokes that are generated by these musical events motivate these listeners, and their bodies in particular, to improve their performance according to a certain desired outcome: to perform longer, more regulated, with more force, with more controlled force, more in unison, etc.

In short, affect is an autonomous reaction of the listener’s body when confronted with another sonic entity. And since it is an autonomous reaction, I have no choice but to undergo the effects of affection, and sense and enjoy, or dislike, the movements caused by the intensities elicited by listening to “Plastic Star,” a listening that can never be motionless. “Plastic Star” foregrounds the physical reactions any kind of (musical) listening elicits.


                                                                                                                              The Study

                                                        The Shop

            Sirens                                                                                                                                                                  The Gym


                    The Bedroom


                             The Ear and/versus the Eye

                Sound Design    



                                                    Footsteps                                                                                                                                      Rattle and Hum

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