Acoustic Ephemeralities: Introduction
Monika Dommann, Boris Previšić, Marianne Sommer
More than 250 years ago, in his aesthesiology, Johann Gottfried Herder addressed the core of the disconcerting nature of the acoustic when he stated that “the sound vibrations […] elapse and are no more” (Herder 1993: 292). Over the last three decades, a field of research has opened up in the sciences and the arts that studies the diverse phenomena through which sound structures everyday life, the sciences and the arts. The philosophical return to the acoustic (Berendt 1983; Sloterdijk 1987) may at first have been subject to the general suspicion of the ideological (Welsch 1993), but is increasingly being transferred to and systematized in presence, performance and media theories (Mersch 2002; Meyer 2016). Strands of research have now developed within sound studies (see Sterne 2012) – intersecting with science studies and media studies in particular (Kursell 2008) – that focus on the physicality and materiality of acoustic perception and storage and therefore examine the question of which physical and corporeal particularities come into play during the listening process. At the same time, cultural historians have been examining how the sounds of the past (such as the chiming of bells) were embedded in acoustic sign systems that structured social and everyday lives (see Corbin 1995) and anchored in soundscapes (Schafer 1994) that shaped people’s sensory perception (Morat 2014).
The acoustic determines time (and time the acoustic), through its unavoidable directness via the sensory organ of the ear and its passive/active intermediary function (Serres 1985) as well as in the fleetingness and precarious transience of the acoustic medium per se. Since the time of Augustinus, at least, the question of time as set out in the eleventh book of his Confessiones has been linked with the acoustic: articulation, the rhythmization of human language, allows time – in which the future becomes the past – to be experienced. Time and acoustics have a self-referential relationship, which music, the art of time par excellence, plays like a virtuoso: music is formed by time and forms time in return without eluding it. The formal structural techniques of repetition or the serial may undermine the unrepeatability, and thus the irretrievability, of the acoustic but do not override it.
If a grace note lasts a month – a fleeting moment when compared the longest sound, which will last almost 59 years – in Halberstadt, where John Cage’s eight-page work “Organ2 / ASLSP” is in the process of being performed during a span of 639 years, a metaphysical thrill, or even pure dismay, can occur at a conceptualization of music that deactivates it. Music expresses that which makes the acoustic unique: its precarious presence. The acoustic presence is not to be translated into its latency. As soon as an attempt is made to stretch acoustic material into infinity without a change of media, and thus to hold it fast, it is lost. And it is precisely this precarity that must be examined. We cannot act as though this acoustic precarity does not exist by reading Cage even “more radically”: “as slow as possible.”
An initial acoustic paradigm can be derived from the musical “phenomenology” central to this special issue on acoustic ephemeralities: a so-called “microephemerality.” The inability to fixate the current moment is transferred in turn to the precarity of the medium which, in contrast to the iconic, does not transport or even contain any further information within this state of supposed temporal deactivation. This temporal/media interdependency of the acoustic microephemerality applies in turn to acoustic documentation, which makes sense only in a temporal conformance with the “original”: visual techniques of cutting, time lapse and slow motion tear apart the temporal structure and, thus, the “informational content” of the acoustic medium.
Therefore, reproduction is directly dependent on the cultural coding of the subjective time experience. The temporal/media interdependency cannot be dissolved, and the further it is removed from the “original point in time,” the greater the historic reconstruction effort, which is diametrically opposed to the presence effect of the acoustic. The attempt to “store” the “microephemerality” for the future therefore results in an increasing “macroephemerality” in historic dimensions.
The following articles draw attention to the specifically ephemeral qualities of the acoustic and to the relationship between “micro- and macroephemeralities” in the modern age. Three focal points will be explicitly highlighted: the functions of media, music and the sciences as generators of acoustic paradigms. The interweaving of micro- and macroephemeralities will reveal three things: 1. acoustic ephemerality as an indicator of the fading of knowledge and its potential return via media, 2. how differences between media become audible and how these differences are esthetically engaged with in the production of knowledge and art, and 3. the remarkable phenomenon of acoustic evidence and the political dimension of sound archives.