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Sound symbols and surrealism

March 3, 2006

For the past month or so I have been reading The soundscape: Our Sonic Environment and the Tuning of the World by R. Murray Schafer. It is the most interesting book I have read in a very long while. Of course the subject interests me a lot but the book has still been a positive surprise being full of sharp and original observations. I could more or less have blogged it all. Today I am particularly preoccupied with the discussion on symbolism and his discussion of representation in sound as signs signals and symbols:

The sounds of the environment have referential meanings. For the soundscape researcher they are not merely abstract acoustical events but must be investigated as acoustic signs signals and symbols. A sign is any representation of a physical reality (the note C in a musical score the on or off switch on a radio etc.). A sign does not sound but merely indicates. A signal is a sound with a specific meaning and it often stimulates a direct response (telephone bell siren etc.). A symbol however has richer connotations:

“A word or an image is symbolic” writes C. G. Jung “when it implies something more than its obvious and immediate meaning. It has a wider ‘unconscious’ aspect that is never precisely defined or fully explained.” A sound event is symbolic when it stirs in us emotions or thoughts beyond its mechanical sensations or signaling function when it has a numinosity or reverberation that rings through the deeper recesses of the psyche.

In his book Psychological Types Jung speaks of certain types of “symbols which can arise autochthonously in every corner of the earth and are more or less identical just because they are fashioned out of the same world-wide human unconscious whose contents are infinitely less variable than are races and individuals.” To these “first form” symbols Jung gave the name “archetypes.” These are the inherited primordial patterns of experience reaching back to the beginning of time. They have no sensible extensions themselves but may be given expression in dreams works of art and fantasy.

p. 169


There are several issues here that I find interesting.

First of all I am wondering if the use of the word “reverberation” in the discussion is accidental or if it might be that there is some sort of tie between symbols and space. For a while I have been preoccupied with the relationship between sound and space. I touched upon the subject during my presentation at the sound seminar last week discussing the possibilities of working on real and virtual space in sound and the possibilities for artistic expression offered by introducing virtual spaces.

In an ongoing discussion on how to define sound art at the Sound as art mailing list Douglas Kahn points to the 1938 Surrealist Exhibition as an early example of sound as art. I ended up reading the thesis on surrealism in the landscape by Micah S. Lipscomb that he is referring to for a photo of Oscar Dominguez’Never.

There seems to be some shared denominators between the statement above by Schafer and some of Libscombs listing of common elements of surrealist art (p. 15):

  • exposes the unconscious in art or poetry
  • elicits revelations
  • uses uncanny juxtaposition
  • uses or is inspired by found objects
  • sensual disorientation
  • finds the extraordinary within the ordinary
  • promotes the aesthetics of confrontation shock (convulsive beauty)

I am not necessarily convinced about the existence of archetypical symbols my personal belief is that these symbols to a high degree will have to be subjective and relativistic. A similar criticism has also been raised against the surrealism:

The surrealists often employed images and symbols in their art that have personal significance however these symbols often do not resonate with other people (Muller 54). They assumed that their images were a reflection of an unconscious that everyone shared in. However this depends upon the existence of a universal unconscious which is debatable.

(Libscomb pp. 12-13)

In the further discussion of symbolic sound Schafer becomes fairly literal: water wind bells horns and sirens and ends with a discussion of how the associations stirred by these types of sounds are culturally and historically dependent and undergoing continuous changes. From this discussion I am not convinced that Schafer himself is necessarily subscribing to the idea of the universal archetypes.

I believe the discussion of symbols in sound could be extended to much more artificial or abstracted sounds as well. When working on art projects I often find one of the most difficult and critical phases of the process to be the hunting for sound to work on. I might have ideas beforehand of what I want to do and context and content to relate to but I still tend to end up in an deadlock creating and rejecting sound for the project. I am not able to move further before I have “found something” a sound or a rudimental sketch for a sound generating process that I feel have the potential for further development. I have not been able to understand what this “something” is in a way that could make the process of finding it easier faster or more accurate (so that I would be able to push the material further). This is always a stage of crisis in the project with the possible result that I do not find sound to work on leading to total failure.

All I know is that the sound in addition to be able to relate to the general ideas and concepts of the project also has to be suggestive offer an openness hinting at a number of different associations perhaps vague ones and it need to have an aesthetic surface and quality that is worth paying attention to that stirs curiosity.

Cross-reading Schafer and the text on surrealism the most striking contrast is in the consequences of the awareness gained:

The surrealists never fulfilled Rimbaud’s invocation to – change life – their goal of transforming society never happened. Their art rarely convinces the viewer to take action. Yes it shocks and overwhelms the viewer but only once in a blue moon does it cause true revelation (Gersham 18). Their technique of depaysement or disorientation of the senses of the viewer takes viewers into dream-like spaces. However disorienting the viewer is not an end in itself (Muller 55). If surrealism serves as an escape from reality is there something that viewers come out of this escape with? This is an enduring question that has been posed to surrealism. Surrealists sought to infuse their art with revelation but this challenge was not always met. Without fulfilling this challenge surrealist art can be dismissed as a weird novelty. Yes these dream pioneers take us on fantastic exhilarating journeys into the unconscious but what do we come back with?

(Libscomb pp. 12-13)

Schafer on the other hand moves on to discuss noise noise pollution noise abatement legislation acoustic ecology and acoustic design.