Eroding Together: Mattering Processes of Sound


Samuel Thulin



How does sound matter? I ask this question intending to evoke “matter” simultaneously in the sense related to import or concern and in the sense related to materials and materiality. Parsed out, the line of questioning could be posed as such: (1) How is sound important? (2) How does sound make certain things important as matters of concern? (3) How is sound material, and how does it relate with other materials? Taken together these questions highlight what I refer to as the mattering processes of sound. The notion of mattering I refer to here draws on the work of science and technology studies scholar John Law as well as that of feminist theorist and philosopher Karen Barad. Both Law and Barad understand mattering in terms of process and relationality, while refusing any primordial division between matter as material and matter as signification. Law succinctly explains that mattering is, “Making material in a manner that is of concern” (Law 2004: n.p.). He builds on Barad’s understanding of mattering and her assertion that “The world is an ongoing open process of mattering through which “mattering” itself acquires meaning and form in the realization of different agential possibilities” (Barad 2003: 817). Agential possibilities here refer to “doings” or enactments rather than notions of agency that see it as an attribute belonging to someone or something (Barad 2003: 826-7). Sound can be approached as one avenue of agential possibilities, as it is a “doing” that involves drawing together (and cutting apart) materials and meanings in ways that are of concern. But how does this occur?


In this article, I explore how sound comes to matter through the process of erosion. In relation to conventional understandings of matter as already-constituted physical material that is out there in the world, erosion suggests a focus on wearing away and breaking apart – a material decomposition. This attention to decomposition points to the importance of focusing not only on sound-making as a kind of construction process but also on sound-unmaking, the breakdown of sound. At the same time, in relation to the more complex and relational understandings of mattering that I draw on throughout this article, erosion provides ways of attending to a vast array of materials and forces, extending beyond ideas of breakdown related to a strictly physical understanding of matter. I argue that erosion actually challenges the mutual exclusivity that seems to be implied by processes of breaking down or apart and processes of coming together, drawing attention to the simultaneity of multiple trajectories of mattering. This simultaneous multiplicity is at the heart of the mattering processes of sound.


I investigate sonic mattering and erosion through a process of research and creation that led to a specific sonic artwork, Compositional Routes of the Magdalen Islands (2016), developed during a three week residency on the Îles-de-la-Madeleine archipelago in the Gulf of the St. Laurence.[1] On the Îles-de-la-Madeleine, erosion is both a matter of concern, as over the past 30 years the islands have been eaten away at ever-increasing rates, and a matter of geographic identity, as erosion is fundamental to the creation of the vast sand beaches and dunes that join the islands. Informed by the islands’ erosion processes, I develop a concept of erosion that diverges from the focus on loss and degradation that the term often engenders. Without denying the poignancy of these ways of understanding erosion, I approach the concept with a greater emphasis on continuous processes of breaking apart and coming together, fragmentation, and redistribution. In this view, erosion is not restricted to physical deterioration (such as the wearing away of a surface) or figurative decline (as in “the erosion of morals”), but suggests an ongoing interpenetration of materials and meanings that does not necessarily begin with a fully constituted object that is subsequently eroded. This is as much true of the islands’ erosion as of the work I created on the islands, which delves into erosion through processes such as field-recording, granular synthesis, and microFM transmission.


What follows is a specific, situated understanding of the processes of sound’s mattering and erosion. Sound can and does matter differently. As Anja Kanngieser puts it: “sound has general affordances, but these are contingent and always non-identical” (Kanngieser 2015: 83). Each particular investigation, such as this one, contributes to a richer understanding of how to approach the multiplicity and heterodoxy of sound’s mattering.