2.2. Agency

There is much debate surrounding the exact definition of an agent or agency and many arguments depend on knowledge of the agent’s intentions, mindset, or goals.[18] In the context of recorded sound, where the listener can only hear the outcome of an action, such knowledge cannot always be obtained. Instead, the listener relies on their own knowledge and experiences to “fill in the gaps”, to find the most likely reason for what they have heard. Perhaps the clearest way for a composer to give a sense of agency is through using voice recordings. From voice alone, a listener can gather a likely gender, approximate age, nationality, and perhaps the emotion of the person making the sound. Despite many definitions requiring an agent to be human or at least living in some capacity, in the context of electroacoustic music, where  sounds have often been morphed by the composer, a listener cannot always be certain of what they are hearing.[19] A listener may perceive there to be an agent performing an action that results in what they hear but, as the sounding objects often remain undisclosed, the listener cannot always know if the sound was made by a living being. 


For the purpose of this framework, I have adapted what Barandairan et al. (2009) call “minimal agency” to suit the context of electroacoustic music. Broadly speaking, the definition of a minimal agent is “a unified entity that is distinguishable from its environment and that is doing something by itself in accord with a certain goal (or norm).”[20] Although this definition of an agent is applied to living beings and micro-organisms, in the context of sound I would like to extend this to include non-living agents such as inanimate objects, the wind or the sea. 


In normal circumstances, inanimate objects do not act of any free will; they do not make decisions and they can only react to external forces. However, in the context of sound as music, the composer can give the illusion of agency to such objects. In my composition, Lines (2017-18), for example, the first sound is that of a ping-pong ball being dropped into a drinking glass. When this sound is heard, a listener may imagine a human releasing the ball into the glass. In this example, the human is the agent. However, as the piece progresses and the sound of the ping-pong ball bouncing continues on long past what any person would expect, it is as though the ball has a life of its own and that it is generating its own energy with which to continue bouncing. This altered image of the ball that the composer has crafted is outwith the norm of how a ping-pong ball would usually react. It is as though the composer has brought life to the ball and this may cause the listener to perceive it as an agent, capable of acting and not just simply reacting. 


Our perception of agency is altered depending on the information that is available to us. The above examples were strictly and solely sound-based. However, many forms of musical performance use live performers with sound being generated acoustically, that is untransformed and with the agent’s actions visible to the audience. Having live performers impacts the audience’s perception of agency as these agents are often obvious and not hidden. 


The aforementioned New Shruti is an example of an acousmatic composition, meaning that the sounds come purely from the loudspeakers.[21] It uses sound material from a sitar and a selection of other, unrecognisable sources. Whilst all sounds come through the loudspeakers, I can imagine that having a live sitar player performing would result in a very different experience for the audience. A piece for live sitar and live electronics might be able to sound the same as New Shruti but would give a different experience to the listener. The presence of a performer adds greater emphasis to the sounds coming from that source as it draws the attention of both our ears and our eyes. Even if the piece sounds the same, the performer’s behaviour – whether they smile or frown, or if they move quickly or slowly – can alter our perception of the composition. 


There can also be cases of displaced agency, where the composer gives the impression that an agent’s action is affecting the sound but in a non-linear way. For example, in my piece, In(Habit)Space, there are female hands shown on screen to be rubbing different rocks while various rock scraping and tapping sounds can be heard. The audio does not directly align with the actions in the video but instead suggests that these actions (or similar actions) have caused these sounds. The agent who made the sounds might be a different person but as there is no information to confirm this, the sensible conclusion would be that the audio and visuals contain the same agent. Therefore, the rock-scraping agent appears displaced, perceived as acting in visual and audio but at different points in time.


Bearing Zero is an example of implied agency. This is form of agency that the composer can create through providing a false narrative, crafting the sounds in such a way that implies one things but was in reality something different. In this live coding piece, I use samples of individual guzheng notes, which, when considering the sound on its own, imply the presence of a skillful guzheng performer. In reality, this agent does not exist as it is merely the computer cycling through patterns of guzheng notes. 


The last form of agency I would like to touch upon is collective agency. 


Collective agency occurs when two or more individuals act as a group (in accordance with certain principles or procedures that constitute and organize the group).[22]


Such examples in music might include soundscapes as these are often constituted of many different sounds from many different agents, living or nonliving. The city soundscape in Sounds of the Silent City is a clear example of this. There are the sounds of pedestrian crossings, footsteps, bus breaks, wind, seagulls, and talking. While it is possible to break the scene down to consider each individual agent and their sounds, it is the juxtaposition of these sounds and corresponding agents that create the image of a city. Therefore, as we consider all sounds together to be contributing to one scene, we also consider the various agents together to be contributing to one collective agency.


As I will discuss at greater length in section three, my approach to agency in my compositions often seeks to subvert and challenge our societal expectations of what an agent can be; in Lines, I tried to create a sense of agency in the inanimate bouncing ping-pong ball; in Bearing Zero (2018), I exploited traditional instrumental performance practice to create and then manipulate and break the mental image of a guzheng performer; in 57N, I brought the audience into my piece as a collective agent without it becoming apparent until the end of the piece; and finally, in In(Habit)Space, I created an implied agent through dissonance between the audio and visual elements of the piece.


[18]Markus Schlosser, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy [Website], https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/agency/ (Authored 2015, Revised 2019, Accessed 13th June 2020).



[21]It should be noted that there is a difference between acousmatic listening (hearing sounds whilst disregarding their source) and an acousmatic composition (a piece designed to be performed through loudspeakers with no visual aspect).