Sounds matter through their relationships with other sounds, materials, and processes. The ways that this mattering occurs are multiple. In the case of the sound art work Compositional Routes of the Magdalen Islands, I have been pursuing sound’s mattering processes in relation to the ongoing erosion central both to the geological formation of the archipelago and to present-day concerns of inhabitants. Instead of approaching erosion primarily as a process of deterioration or disintegration from a previous state of wholeness and integrity, I have attempted to think of erosion as it occurs on the islands as a challenge to such narratives of loss and the binaries between intact and broken, self-sufficient and compromised. Multiple forces and materials work together to produce the effects of erosion, such that I have avoided speaking in terms of one thing eroding another (the water eroding the cliffs, for example), favoring conceptualizing the process as various materials and forces eroding together. These include the local, but they also include a global system of processes such as those involved in climate change.
Understanding erosion as both breaking-apart and coming-together, and as drawing on a vast array of sometimes disparate materials and forces, seems to me to be a provocative way of approaching the mattering processes of sound. It asks us to imagine multiple non-exclusive trajectories of sound, to question the relationships between making and unmaking, togetherness and breakdown. This can be applied to how sound holds together and breaks apart as it moves through physical media (air, water, solids, etc.), technologies of sound reproduction, and social and cultural imaginaries, being transformed in various ways as it does so. It also applies to how these movements of sound bring many other things into relation. That is to say: (1) relationships are required for sound to materialize and move through the world, and (2) as sound moves it produces relationships. Such relationships are characterized by imbricated processes of joining together and breaking apart.
My own relationship to the mattering processes of sound as erosion is not without tension. I have approached erosion as someone not from the islands, who cannot fully comprehend the complexity of current concerns as sea levels rise and accelerated erosion diminishes the land area that Madelinots call home. My grasp of erosion, as a mainlander visiting the islands for three weeks, was and is limited. My art work engaged with erosion without explicitly focusing on the accelerated erosion of the dunes, and without a thorough cultural and political investigation into the related issues faced by islanders. It brought erosion to matter sonically in particular ways that neither educated nor took a political position. What, then, are the ethical implications of conceptualizing and potentially aestheticizing erosion, when it is of real concern to people who may have to relocate their homes, and when its acceleration in recent years threatens lagoon ecosystems and is connected to climate change and rising sea levels? If, as I have been arguing, sound’s processes of mattering must be understood in their situated complexity, did I follow the situatedness of erosion deeply enough? And should I have taken more of a didactic or political position in my sonic engagement? At a loss for simple answers to these questions, I emphasize the importance of continuing to raise such lines of questioning. This paper and Compositional Routes have attempted to produce a space for multiple non-exclusive understandings of erosion and sonic mattering, all of which share an emphasis on relationality. Yet while I argue there is a need for such spaces, one of the greatest challenges for this kind of sonic rumination is to not be detached from other spaces, such as those of environmental action. Put otherwise, relationality must be followed through in the process of connecting various fields and spaces through sound – something that is an ongoing practice (involving, among other things, tensions, possible missteps, and uncertainties) rather than a finished achievement.
These tensions and challenges highlight the necessity of keeping the issue of how sound matters – how it is important, how it makes other things important, and how it is materially entangled – continually at play. Approaching sound’s mattering as erosive can take many paths, and I have only followed some of them. Moreover, the premise of sound as erosion itself both emphasizes and obscures certain things. As Kanngieser notes, “sound brings into the world novel relations, it shifts paradigms and builds new formations” (Kanngieser 2015: 81). How this happens requires constant attention. Returning to Barad, one of the challenges for approaching sound’s mattering is “to contest and rework what matters and what is excluded from mattering” (Barad 2003: 827) – not only what, but also how what matters matters and how it might matter differently.