Sound Unseen: Acousmatic Sound in Theory and Practice - Brian Kane. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014


By Joseph Sannicandro

An acousmatic sound is generally considered to be one in which a sound is heard without seeing its cause. The term acousmatique was coined by the critic Jérôme Peignot as a more accurate description of what composer Pierre Schaeffer labeled musique concrète: compositions created by manipulating, mixing and arranging pre-recorded sounds that intentionally downplayed or obscured the origins of the material. Peignot drew on the ancient Greek philosopher Pythagoras, who was said to have lectured to his initiate disciplines from behind a veil, so as to force them to better consider the meaning of his words. These disciples were required to remain silent, their sole duty but to listen to the master’s voice.

In his first monograph, Sound Unseen: The Theory and Practice of Acousmatic Sound, Brian Kane uncovers a history of acousmatic sound independent of the legacy of Schaeffer and Pythagoras in order to articulate a rather distinct approach to the study of sound that transcends the divisions between musicology and sound studies. A review essay of two recent influential works of sound studies, Seth Kim-Cohen’s In the Blink of an Ear and Salomé Voegelin’s Listening to Noise and Silence (“Musicophobia,” NonSite #8, 2013) may help to articulate how Kane understands the contribution made by his own work. There Kane criticizes both works for ignoring music (and musicology) in favor of art theory. This preference, he argues, results in unnecessary theorizing that neglects the work already done by musicologists. Sound Unseen serves as an example of how scholarship can proceed taking both traditions into account.

Though certainly not “musicophobic,” (Kane himself is also composer and performer), the scope of the book nonetheless far exceeds music. In fact, Sound Unseen successfully posits a new understanding of acousmatic sound that has important implications not only for the study of music and sound, but also for film, literature, and philosophy. For Kane, acousmatic sound is not about a division between the senses. In fact, the experience of acousmatic sound is not even fundamentally about seeing and hearing. Acousmatic sound is epistemological in nature: it is about knowledge, certainty, and uncertainty. In order to make clear that his interpretation of acousmatic sound will be distinct rather than invoking the usual suspects, Kane begins the book with the unexpected example of the Moodus cave noises. In Connecticut, not far from where Kane teaches at Yale, this cave emits strange sounds that have been puzzled over for centuries by native peoples, colonists, and modern scientists. The invisibility of the sounds, and the uncertainty as to their origins, is central to experiencing them.

Despite articulating an alternative history of acousmatic sound, Sound Unseen is also the first in-depth analysis written in English of Schaeffer’s theoretical work, and as such it is an essential text for scholars of the philosophy of music, electronic music, sound studies, and phenomenology. In Kane’s account, Schaeffer turned towards the acousmatic in opposition to the acoustic in order to theorize that which the latter cannot account for. Kane compares this relation by analogy to the Heideggerian distinction between ontology and the ontic, between the study of Being and of Beings, stressing the difference between the scientific understanding of sound and a perceptual experience of sound-in-itself. Other works on Schaeffer have attributed his phenomenological approach to the influence of Merleau-Ponty; Kane however details how Schaeffer’s core concepts of reduced listening and the sound object owe a debt to Husserl above all. Ultimately, Kane argues, Schaeffer is unable to properly attend to the relationship between techne and physis by which the sound object is produced through technologies and techniques of listening. It is in this detaching of the sound object from the condition of its creations that Schaeffer is guilty of reifying the sound object, rendering it, in Marxist terms, phantasmagoria.

Kane’s primary intervention, at least on the surface, is a recuperation of acousmatic sound away from the context of Schaeffer. To do so, Kane turns to the modes of listening as conceived of in Jean-Luc Nancy’s slim volume Listening, contrasted with Schaeffer’s phenomenological account. Kane situates Nancy as continuing in the wake of Derrida’s post-phenomenological critique, emphasizing the tension in his work lessened by the English translation. Nancy begins by asking if philosophy hasn’t in fact substituted “listening (l’écouter) for something more on the order of understanding [l’entente].” The use of the English “understanding” suggest the French comprendre, which “refers specifically to the reception of languages,” both linguistic and musical. But in this passage from Nancy, the English translator’s usage blurs the distinction between l’entente and comprendre. The latter is one of Schaeffer’s four modes of listening, and hence, Kane argues, this collapse effaces the very philosophical intervention Nancy has set out as his task in Listening.

Kane’s recuperation of Nancy’s ontology of listening is a crucial point on which the rest of his book hinges. Kane points out the relation between the Old French l’entente, meaning “intent,” and the verb entendre, to direct one’s intention, “which echoes the Latin, ‘intendere’ – to stretch out, to lean toward, to strain,” (p. 127) and hence the question of tension is very much at the foreground of Nancy’s investigation. Kane is careful to emphasize that the ways in which the tension between the various French verbs is lessened by the recent English translation, which proves difficult as the translations of each verb have different etymological roots in English than they do in French. Nonetheless, he must correct the slackening caused by the English translation in order to deploy Nancy’s mode of listening as écouter in order to build his own alternate ontology of acousmatic sound freed from the phenomenological baggage of Schaeffer’s strong association with the term acousmatic. Whereas Husserlian (and Schaefferian) entendre-as-intention structurally requires a subject (an Ego), “Nancy selects écouter as the axis for his interrogation of listening because of his sensitivity to the etymology and implications of the verb entendre” (p. 128). Throughout the book, Kane demonstrates how in many cases, like the Moodus noises, “sounds are neither heard primarily as aesthetic objects, nor capable of being made intelligible in aesthetic terms” (p. 6). Kane posits his own tripartite ontology of sound, revolving around the relationship between source, cause, and effect. The dynamic of acousmatic sound, according to Kane, is in fact in the spacing between the three, the creation of mystery and tension that makes acousmatic sound compelling.

Following his critique of Schaeffer, Kane historicizes the deployment of the Pythagorean veil – the mechanism by which the master was masked from his disciples’ view – as a myth, one deployed by Schaeffer and his followers in order to further their own goals. The entire second chapter, “Interruptions,” is dedicated to subjecting these utilizations to a mythic analysis à la Levi-Strauss. Having demonstrated that this myth was used to transform the loudspeaker into a modern-day manifestation of the veil, obscuring the role of techne in the process, Kane is able to offer a counter-narrative to contextualize Schaeffer’s use of the term within a broader history of cultural practice. This history of acousmatic sound includes a hidden choir of nuns singing from behind a grill, concert hall architecture designed to obscure the orchestra culminating in Wagner’s Bayreuth opera house, and the quasi-religious Nazi recuperation of Bruckner via the pitch-black Dunkelkonzerte.

In a key chapter, the work of Schaeffer’s associate (and self-described “deviant”) Luc Ferrari is reoriented not as the inheritor of Cagean listening (that is, to foreground the intention of the listener), or as the musical equivalent of Duchamp’s ready-mades, but as “the return of the repressed” in the form of anecdotal music. Such “anecdotal music” explicitly foregrounds and exploits its connection to a particular place or event. Kane persuasively argues that Ferrari’s famous work Presque rien (1967–70) articulates “its own technical condition by bringing the recorded character of the recording into audibility” (p. 132). Unlike Schaeffer’s denial of technology, Ferrari utilized the logic of the microphone, which follows the law record whatever, to produce acousmatic listening that is balanced between immanence and transcendence. With decades of hindsight, Ferrari’s corpus certainly holds up better than Schaeffer’s, and yet Schaeffer’s theoretical writing receives disproportionate attention. I suspect I’m not alone in often listening to Ferrari’s music, but how many of us can say we revisit Schaeffer’s work with any such regularity? As such Kane’s treatment of Ferrari’s work and technique is refreshing, and a detailed engagement with his work and writings is welcome and overdue.

The attention to techne reveals the broader aim of the book, which is to theorize the relationship between techne and physis, technique and nature. Kane employs Kafka’s story “The Burrow,” in which a poor animal is tortured by a high-pitched noise that it cannot identify, as an alternative ontology of acousmatic sound. This gives way to an extended analysis of novel case studies, particularly the music of Les Paul and Mary Ford, before ending with an extended chapter dealing with psychoanalysis and the acousmatic voice.

Despite the sophistication of this book length argument, which commendably treats a variety of philosophical arguments with respect and rigor while maintaining readability, Kane’s intervention is almost entirely focused on French and German figures. It never strays from a Euro-American and male-centric narrative, with not even a passing mention of the role of women, black music or indeed non-Western cultures in general. It is only as an aside about contemporary work in literary theory at the junction of critical race theory and sound studies that, in the attendant footnote, Kane gestures towards this perspective at all. Especially jarring are the omissions of composer Eliane Radigue, who began as an assistant to the male musique concrète composers, and of Egyptian composer Halim el-Dabh’s 1944 work “Ta’abir Al-Zaar” (Wire Recorder Piece) which predated Schaeffer’s first etudes by four years and is now considered to be the earliest composition in electronic music. I won’t push too hard on this omission, but rather pose this an opportunity to continue this work. Sound Unseen will be essential reading for any scholar interested in music, sound studies, and philosophy, and should serve as a strong example of successful interdisciplinary writing and research.


Joseph Sannicandro is a writer and scholar currently based in Minneapolis, where he is pursuing a PhD in Cultural Studies. He is co-founder of, through which he publishes Sound Propositions, a series of essays and in-depth interviews with artists discussing their creative practices, deemphasizing gear fetishism. He has curated a number of compilations, including Con fuoco d’occhi un nostalgico lupo (2010, Lost Children) which showcased contemporary instrumental music from Italy. He also records under the moniker the new objective and under his own name, most recently with pianist Stefan Christoff. The cassette Les Rumeurs de la montagne rouge, en chœur, convergent (2014, Howl Arts) utilizes field-recordings from the 2012 Québec student strike to explore the relationship between art and activism.