Future Sounds: The Temporality of Noise - Stephen Kennedy. New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2018

by Ben Byrne


Stephen Kennedy's Future Sounds: The Temporality of Noise addresses noise as simultaneously something in itself and an interaction between things (p. 58). Building on the author's previous book Chaos Media: A Sonic Economy of Digital Space (2015) and his essay "A Sonic Economy" (2010), the book employs music, heard from within noise, as the basis for charting sonic production, distribution, trade, and consumption as lived in digital media and known through listening. Explaining what he means by sonic economy, Kennedy refers to Manuel Delanda's claim that human languages are the results of sonic accumulations – of sounds, words, grammar, etc. – which are structured linguistically but also socioeconomically, following class and other divisions (p. 38). Music as a sonic language, then, for Kennedy, is similarly understood to exhibit economic structure.


Kennedy finds that the forces of social, political, and economic life "do not work in accordance with dialectical logic but as multifaceted and multidimensional features of a dynamic system" (p. 61), and so he is concerned with moving past dialectical thinking. Also, he claims that "the digital operates as a sonic spatiotemporal environment" (p. 2), and it is thus necessary to deal with time as non-linear. The case for the former is made quite convincingly throughout the book. The latter, however, less so, with the specifics of the temporal understanding Kennedy argues for left unclear to me.


Inter-relating references such as Greg Hainge's approach to noise as resistance (in which it is understood as both the carrier of and an impediment to communication), Frances Dyson's privileging of the sonic as key to understanding the digital, and Jean Luc Nancy's positioning of the listening subject as a "place of resonance" (p. 146), Kennedy articulates noise as "the interaction of all elements within a system rather than an external infringement" (p. 153). His work is thus adjacent to but distinct from both Marie Thompson's approach to noise as affective force and Michel Serres' metaphysics of noise. Especially key for Kennedy, however, is Jacques Attali's attempt to address music as an art form that "heralds" coming shifts in society, and the book is structured as an attempt to follow through from that project. This is motivated by a concern that the "movement and incessant connection" of "a digital time period [...] creates a very different kind of economy where exchange based on generality, representation and equivalence is no longer sufficient" (p. 14). A fascinating idea that warrants more exploration than it is explicitly given in this book. Across four chapters, the book outlines Kennedy's approach and its philosophical underpinnings and recounts and evaluates Attali's work before using both to examine, first, the relationship of music to society since 1977, when Attali's book Noise: The Political Economy of Music was published, and then the place of music in the contemporary digital world.


Chapter 1, "Critical Temporalities," sets up the project of the book, building on the work of Paul Virilio to make a case for a sonic approach to the digital contemporary. Here, necessary foundations are laid. However, Kennedy relies too heavily, both in methodology and expression, on a staging of discursive argument between different philosophers and their positions, in particular in an effort to build a case for a shift away from dialectical thought – clearly a cause he finds crucial, but one that could have been handled more efficiently.


In Chapter 2, "Noise and Political Economy," Kennedy offers a brief, and unfortunately Euro-centric, history of music as understood in relation to Attali's phases of music in society. As Kennedy addresses, the first three of these phases – sacrificing, representing, and repeating – articulate, for Attali, broad stages of the history of music from its ritual use and formalization via musical notation to its repetition with sound reproducing technologies.


Chapter 3, "Remembering the Future: 1977—2017," then attempts to chart, as Kennedy puts it, "the noise of time" (p. 95) following Attali's book. This section is idiosyncratic in its choice of examples, as the author himself admits, but also erratic in its referencing, for example relying at one point on Adam Curtis's heavily editorialized “documentary” Hypernormalisation and its account of Patti Smith's involvement in 1970s New York (p. 97). Despite this, it is here that Kennedy manages to draw me into this reformulation of Attali's project that he has undertaken. He does so by analyzing the period since 1977 in relation to Attali's last phase of musical history, composing, which Attali framed as perhaps emergent at his time of writing and which has been much speculated on for its revolutionary potential. Kennedy uses the genesis of punk in the UK to argue that composing did not herald social change; instead, music, entangled with political economy, is more accurately "the sound of history moving through noise" (p. 104). He further lists contemporary artists that produce, to his ears, "future sounds" (p. 112). This includes JLin, Nils Frahm, Felicia Atkinson, Oneohtrix Point Never, Johann Johannsson, Holly Herndon, and Laurel Halo, among others (p. 112). Interested in how these artists often employ both experimental electronic techniques and classical orchestration and engage with "questions of noise and temporality," he finds that "they meet the world and are met by it in a manner that allows for a kind of non-representational expression that interfaces between the analogue and the digital, between the organic and the inorganic, between human and machine" (p. 112). More detailed engagement with the specifics of the music referred to would be welcome here – explorations of Oneohtrix Point Never's album The Garden of Delete (p. 112-114) and Johann Johannsson's oeuvre notwithstanding (p. 116-122) – especially given Kennedy's criticism of Attali for focusing on the political economy of music rather than tracing a sonic economy via listening, as Kennedy himself attempts. Although the description and analysis of the music referenced lacks both breadth and depth, and Kennedy offers little detail of what the digital contemporary he refers to specifically entails, technologically, socially or politically, his claim that the music of these artists is usefully understood as contributing to sonic economies of the digital present is compelling. Kennedy suggests that the works of these contemporary artists call for "a multi-temporal engagement with our time, a time of noise, where listening is more than a singular sensory activity, and is a form of engagement that is essential in identifying patterns in our digital present" (p. 112). This music, Kennedy argues, "does not herald, but is rather a complex sounding of infinite referrals" (p. 122).


The final chapter, "Continuous Discontinuity: A Non-Linear History of Noise," then seeks to unpack the implications of understanding time as non-linear and noise as an all-encompassing set of relations. Most compellingly, it draws on Nancy and others to explore the implications, as Kennedy hears them, of addressing noise as the interaction of all elements in a system. This includes, as Kennedy himself notes, a possible reformulation of the issue of correlationism by way of "a singular noisy cosmos" (p. 136).



Music, Kennedy argues, may not be able to herald the future but can amplify the sonic economies of digital life. Perhaps, then, the contemporary artists Kennedy refers to produce future sounds in that they make work in which both a processing of the past and an imagining of the future can be heard, underpinned by an engagement with digital technologies as computational, as difference engines that act on listening subjects as much as sounds. "We do not make music in a noisy world, we are music in a noisy world," Kennedy asserts (p. 138).