The letter O in the S.O.A.P. diagrams stands for objects, meaning the sounds and their source during a live performance. Objects can come from a multitude of sources including, though not limited to, speakers, live performers, instruments, and voices. In the S.O.A.P. analysis framework, the term objects is primarily used to refer to sound objects (as opposed to sounding objects). By this, I mean the sounds in themselves – what Schaeffer believed to be the primary concern of music. The importance of sound objects does not suggest that sounding objects – the source and cause of the sound – are disregarded in the S.O.A.P. framework. Instead, such connotative sounds should be discussed throughout the supporting text when it is appropriate to do so. For example, when the sound of traffic and heeled shoes hitting pavement brings a sense of a particular location, it would be more appropriate to discuss this when talking about place. There is no singular aspect of S.O.A.P. where the discussion of sounding objects belongs as the source and cause of a sound has the potential to impact our perception of agency, space, and place.
Whether we hear a sound as recognisable or not dramatically affects our overall perception of the piece we are listening to. This is because recognisable sounds trigger us to use instinctual listening modes. In research following on from Schaeffer’s four listening modes – ecouter, ouir, entendre, and comprendre – Michel Chion’s Audio-Vision: Sound on Screen (1990) proposed that there are three modes of listening: causal, semantic and reduced. In our primal mode of listening (causal listening) we search for any connotations that allow us to discern a meaning from the sound. As a means of survival, humans have developed an ability to recognise sounds without needing to see their cause and can locate the direction and proximity of the sound source. Our second primal listening mode, according to Chion, is semantic listening, where we listen to sound like a code with underlying meaning. We ordinarily reserve this mode for languages, though this is also instinctual and a key factor in human evolution is our ability to communicate and work as a team. The third mode of listening can feel unnatural. Reduced listening is when we hear a sound but disregard any further meaning – it is merely the sound in itself and nothing more.
When musique concrète was in its infancy, reduced or acousmatic listening was the intended method of approaching these types of work. This approach meant that, even though the sounds used may be very close to the original, the listener was supposed to disregard any connotations or extrinsic meaning. Their focus should be on the sound object as opposed to the sounding object. Today, fixed media music has evolved to be more accepting of what Jonty Harrison calls expanded listening. Now, when a composer uses recognisable sounds, we assume that they want us to consider the external references of these sounds – Pete Stollery’s ABZ/A (1998), for example, demonstrates the need to recognise accents and location-cues to give a sense of place. Conversely, Pierre Schaeffer’s suite, Etude aux Objets (1959), does not rely on the listener recognising the objects that the sounds were taken from. Many of my compositions (Sounds of the Silent City (2017), In(Habit)Space (2019), and 57N (2018) as examples) require the listener to recognise certain sounds because their connotations contribute to the themes and ideas.
Depending on what mode of listening we approach a piece with, we may experience it differently. Acousmatic music often leads us through many changes in listening modes. I believe that an excellent example of this is New Shruti (2013) by Manuella Blackburn. Whether intentional or not, Blackburn’s piece pulled me between causal and reduced listening modes. At the beginning of the composition, the changes are less frequent. However, as it goes on, I am bombarded with fragments of a recognisable sitar sounds as well as more abstract sounds. When I listen to this piece, I find that I default to a reduced listening mode as my perception cannot switch between causal listening and reduced listening quickly enough. This new approach to the sitar material gives me a fresh perspective on the sound of the instrument and how it relates to the abstract material used alongside it.
When I was first introduced to electroacoustic music, I was particularly awestruck by Gilles Gobiel’s composition, Le Vertige Inconnu (1994). The title of the piece translates as The Mysterious Vertigo and was inspired by the Paul Valéry quote from Le solitaire:
… here, on the roof of the world, I feel a shadow of uneasiness… It’s not at all the height, nor the kind of suction exerted by the abrupt depths and its emptiness which troubles me. It’s an altogether different emptiness which affects an altogether different sense… the essence of solitude…
Le Vertige Inconnu is an example of when expanded listening is desirable. By jumping suddenly into different environments (a field at night, or a fast moving train, for example), Gobeil demonstrates a range of depths and spaces – some frighteningly vast, others unsettlingly small. Not all sounds in this piece are recognisable, however; many serve to suggest large, open space with their sparsity and reverberation; others make the sound world feel close, chaotic and cluttered. This constant jumping between extremes is what keeps the piece interesting for me. Although I have listened to Le Vertige Inconnu many times, my attention is always captured by the suspense of sudden changes between pseudo-claustrophobic and pseudo-agoraphobic scenes.
I believe that I often use sounds similarly to Gobeil. In Sounds of the Silent City, for example, all of the sounds I use are carefully selected for their relevance to Aberdeen. Recognising the bulk of the sounds is key to understanding the piece, however, a listener does not need to recognise all of them. The way in which I use these sounds is also carefully considered – by using similar techniques to Gobeil, I endeavored to create various emotional responses from the listeners. At times, the sound world is so full and chaotic that it can feel stressful; at other times, the contrasting sparsity can feel unsettling. I often use recognisable sounds to both paint images and paint emotions, hereby imbuing my work with more meaning than can be conveyed through abstract sound alone.
Schaeffer, Treatise on Musical Objects: An Essay Across Disciplines, pp. 232-48.
Michel Chion, Audio-Vision: Sound on Screen, trans. Claudia Gorbman (New York: Columbia University Press, 1990), p. 26.
Ibid., p. 26-7.
Ibid., p. 28.
Ibid., p. 29-33.
Monty Adkins, Richard Scott, Pierre Alexandre Tremblay, ‘Post-Acousmatic Practice: Re-Evaluating Schaeffer’s Heritage’, Organised Sound, 21/2 (2016), pp 106-16 (p. 106).
Denis Smalley, ‘The Listening Imagination: Listening in the Electroacoustic Era’, Contemporary Music Review, 13/2 (1996), p. 105.
John Palmer, ‘High Spirits With Jony Harrison’, 21st Century Music, 9/1 (2002), pp. 1-4 (p.1).
Pete Stollery, ABZ/A (1998).
Pierre Schaeffer, Etude aux Objets (1959).
Manuella Blackburn, New Shruti (2013).
Gilles Gobiel, Le Vertige Inconnu (1994).
ElectroCD, ElectroCD [Website], https://electrocd.com/en/piste/cec_95cd-1.6 (Unknown Authored Year, Accessed 13th June 2020).