Erosive Matters


Anthropologist Tim Ingold asserts that human beings, like all creatures, “swim in an ocean of materials” characterized not by some homogenous idea of materiality, but by “a flux in which materials of the most diverse kinds, through processes of admixture and distillation, of coagulation and dispersal, and of evaporation and precipitation, undergo continual generation and transformation.” The world occurs through this “current of materials” (Ingold 2011: 24). Ingold’s description emphasizes the inescapability of materials, the huge array of differences among them, and their entanglements with one another. This approach helps to undermine the notion of a particular class of things – usually hard, visible, and relatively stable – as exemplifying materiality, instead focusing on the occurrence of multiple materials and their relationships. When Ingold (2011: 32) argues for a conception of materials that attends to histories and relationships rather than fixed attributes, his position seems to resonate with Barad’s understanding of matter “as a dynamic and shifting entanglement of relations, rather than a property of things” (Barad 2007: 224). Geographers Ben Anderson and John Wylie also highlight this dynamism when, drawing on the work of philosopher Alphonso Lingis, they argue that materiality connotes “forces and processes that exceed any one state (solid, liquid, gas), and are defined ultimately in terms of movement and process rather than stasis” (Anderson and Wylie 2009: 326). Importantly, Anderson and Wylie (2009: 332) contend that materiality is not a glue holding together presumably less material things, such as social relations and cultural meanings. As with Law, Barad, and Ingold, they refuse the conception of a fundamental border between material stuff and immaterial ideas and meanings. Drawing from such perspectives, my approach to materials views them as diverse, dynamic, relational, and situated.

Erosion of sandstone. Fatima, Îles-de-la-Madeleine, Quebec.

Erosion, then, can be thought of as the breaking apart and coming together of these multiple materials, as the ways in which they modulate each other. Although erosion is often used to refer to the wearing away of a “solid” material and seems to indicate a particular identifiable and coherent process, it is actually divergent – not just in the sense that erosion on the Îles-de-la-Madeleine is different from erosion elsewhere, but also in the sense that erosion on the Îles-de-la-Madeleine is not one single phenomenon. It involves an array of forces and processes operating on different timescales and rhythms, and it transforms the Îles-de-la-Madeleine physically, socially, and culturally. Moreover, the centrality of erosion to the formation of the archipelago and its continual transformation makes it difficult to differentiate erosion from not-erosion. For example, the beautiful sand beaches that are so characteristic of the islands were formed through the erosion – specifically processes of fragmentation and redistribution – of the islands’ red sandstone cliffs. These beaches attract a huge influx of visitors during the summer months, making the tourist economy arguably an extension of erosion. Going a step further, summer homes have become increasingly common in recent years, but summer residents unfamiliar with the islands’ conditions are prone to build too close to the shore. Such activity simultaneously puts their homes at risk and potentially heightens the erosion of the islands’ dunes through the construction process. Finding the end of erosion, or what remains unaffected by it on the islands, may be as difficult as tracing a single grain of sand from the beach back to the cliff in which it was once compacted. 

Sand beach. Pointe-aux-Loups, Îles-de-la-Madeleine, Quebec.

Compositional Routes was created through the process of making audio recordings in the littoral zones of the islands, bearing witness to ongoing erosion at the point where the ocean comes into contact with the land. The force of the process of erosion is audible. But it is also complicated by the fact that erosion, as the wearing away of the islands, is complemented by the redistribution of sand along the islands’ beaches in a process that can actually help to build up dunes. So it is not necessarily clear if what is being heard is a breaking apart or a coming together. To take the process of erosion seriously means following its mobility along multiple non-exclusive trajectories – exploring how it comes to matter in different ways, how sound can be one of these ways, and how sound’s mattering is also erosive. 

Field-recording of cave formed through erosion of sandstone cliff. Fatima, Îles-de-la-Madeleine, Quebec.[3]

The conceptual multiplicity of the notion of “eroding together” is vital to understanding how erosion figures in sound’s mattering. “Eroding together” has at least four vectors. The first has to do with how Madelinots (inhabitants of the islands) collectively confront erosion as a matter of concern. Attention FragÎles (Mouvement pour le patrimoine naturel des Iles), a local organization concerned with preserving the islands’ natural heritage, has been particularly active in this respect, providing resources for addressing the accelerated erosion of the islands’ dunes and their ecosystems (Chevrier, d’Amours and Gauthier 1990; Grenier 2010). The coming together of concerned citizens experiencing the shrinking of their territory is one articulation of “eroding together.” But while erosion seems to now threaten the islands, on a geological timescale it has been at the heart of the formation of the Îles-de-la-Madeleine. Salt domes under the ocean pushed the islands up, but initially each island was not linked with another. Over time erosion from wind, water, and temperature changes wore away at the islands’ red cliffs breaking them down into the white sand that now forms the islands’ beaches and dunes, chaining the archipelago (Tourisme Quebec 2014). “Eroding together” here finds three other articulations, referring to: the various forces and materials that come together in a process of erosion; the simultaneity of erosion among the different islands; and the way the simultaneity of erosion fused the islands through bodies of sand – the way it joined the islands together. “Eroding together” also flickers between eroding the whole, completeness of each individual island – its togetherness – marked at some elusive original point (the birth of the islands) and the process by which that erosion conjoins each island with another island, another material – blending them together relationally. The constant movement of the particles of sand makes it impossible to know what sand came from where and thus to draw any strict boundaries between the islands in terms of their material existence. It echoes geographer Doreen Massey’s understanding of place as a “coming together of trajectories” rather than something intrinsically coherent, stable, and bounded (Massey 2005: 141).

Ongoing erosion. Île Boudreau, Îles-de-la-Madeleine, Quebec. 

I argue that sonic mattering also involves this kind of multiplicity of “eroding together,” defined by a combination of collective concern, forces and materials acting on each other, simultaneity of multiple processes, and blurriness of boundaries. This resonates with musicologist Nina Sun Eidsheim’s philosophical reflections on the relationality of music as intermaterial vibration at the end of her book Sensing Sound. Eidsheim raises the question of where something ends and something begins, while also pointing out that relationality often erases itself in analysis, as it presumes isolated aspects that are linked – effectively cutting things into pieces – rather than attending to the “thick event” in terms of a continuous field of vibration and energy (Eidsheim 2015: 181-5). Barad’s account of agential realism deals with some similar issues, coining the term “intra-action” to counter the notion of separate entities interacting. Barad (2003; 2007; 2014) delves into processes of what she calls agential separability, emphasizing the importance of how related but differentiated components within phenomena emerge rather than existing prior to relations. On the Îles-de-la-Madeleine, such ideas relate to the complexity of materials falling apart and folding together through the process of erosion and to the sonic mattering of this coming together and breaking apart. It’s not just that waves rolling on the beach or crashing against a cliff give voice to these material processes. The littoral soundscape does not simply arise from erosion in the sense of erosion as cause and sound as effect. Rather, I want to suggest that erosion carries over into the sound – that sound, too, is erosive.


To be clear, sonic erosion is not just about signal degradation, a particular audio effect, or recording the sound of erosion. It is about how sound is continuously modulated by, and modulates, many other forces, energies, media, technologies, attitudes, meanings, understandings, etc. “Eroding together” on the Îles-de-la-Madeleine necessitates attending not only to how the physical processes of erosion carry over into sound and sonic composition by way of analogy, but also to the complexity of the social, cultural, and ecological aspects of erosion – changes to the habitats and lives of human and nonhuman beings on the islands and the dangers of accelerated erosion. If erosion is at once a process that has been necessary to the formation of the archipelago and a process that now threatens to make parts of it uninhabitable for multiple species, how does this complex double potential matter in sound? In part, it does so by undermining any sense of certainty about what is being heard and by pointing to the limits of our capacity to understand the “full story” of sonic phenomena. The complexity of erosion also acts as a reminder of the different matterings sound has for different listeners in specific situations. Erosion is multiple, its mattering through sound is multiple, and sound’s erosive mattering is multiple. In Compositional Routes, sound is made material in particular ways both through the process of producing the work and through its presentation. In what follows I trace the sounds and signals of the work, showing some of the ways they manifest erosion. A cleanly articulated stable representation of erosion is never reached. 

Cap-aux-Meules, Îles-de-la-Madeleine, Quebec.