In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • Toward a Post-Phenomenology of Extra-Musical Sound as Compositional Determinant
  • Seth Cluett, composer (bio)

For a number of years, I have been developing a musical language from extra-musical study of auditory perception, recorded sound and architectural acoustics. My practice has its roots in the experience of sound in space as an explicit concern. In a given piece the listener's phenomenological experience of the acoustic potential of both the room and the instrumental or electronic forces employed help inform my decisions regarding content, discrete and semantic pitch choices, rhythm, tempo and form.

It can be argued that the experience of music is an inherently phenomenological enterprise. In the late Renaissance antiphonal choral works of Palestrina, the offstage trumpets of Verdi's Requiem, Bruckner's attention to the acoustics of his basilica, Wagner's orchestra under the stage, and in countless other examples, composers have made anecdotal and implicit use of space in the performance of and compositional process in their works. In the 20th century, work by Brant, Cage, Lucier, Oliveros, Radigue, Scelsi, Varèse, Xenakis, Young, the spectral school and others has brought the experience of acoustics to bear as a much more explicit component of their methodology. Most recently, in the sound artworks of Cardiff, Kuhn, Kubisch, Leitner and Minard, these concerns have been liberated from proscenium presentation and brought out into greater architectural space. It is in the spirit of these explorations of space through sound that I began my inquiry.

I invoke the term post-phenomenology in my work to show that phenomenology is taken into consideration, acknowledged as important and then moved beyond. I am interested in the potential of systems embedded in the stuff of acoustics and perceptual science that may be capable of generating new materials for expression. My hope is that these materials are robustly connected to some of the many ways in which people hear the world. I am not interested in the exploitation of acoustic or perceptual effects as such, but rather in extending the traditional musical language systems of orchestration, counterpoint, harmony and form by exploring the way in which sound moves through space and the manner in which people perceive sound in a media-saturated and pervasively technologized world.

Pitch and orchestration have often been treated as separate categories in compositional practice. However, when considering a sentient, perceivable connection between the sound of the ensemble and the space in which the ensemble is performing, the two are inseparable for me. Composers often abstract pitch to the level of semantic signifiers and develop its semiotic content separate from its spectral content. Orchestration is often seen as an additional step in which tone color is applied to the pitches at hand. This is often true even in instances in which the orchestrational idea comes first. Consequently, the two systems are traditionally treated as discrete elements; although they often work together, they are rarely fused. For me, both pitch and orchestration comprise the complete frequency component of the auditory scene as such, serving as active agents in the process of producing a space in which listeners feel connected to the work.

Much of my practice has consisted of concert pieces and installations making use of sine tones, acoustic instruments and amplified objects, and field recordings that are tuned to the spaces in which they are performed. In these pieces I have been developing the relationship between sine tone pitches and a given room's acoustic signature. Over time, the contrapuntal relationships between the pitches themselves become intricately connected to the acoustics of the space, the instruments or field recordings employed, and the experience of the listener. In addition to these contrapuntal complexes, I have found that using sine tones in conjunction with the acoustics of a room affords access to psycho-acoustic phenomena such as masking, precedence effect, just-intoned harmonic relationships, additive tones and more.

Through an extension of pitch, counterpoint and orchestration, form can be explored in not only linear but also spatial terms. A composition thus emerges as a space more akin to the multidimensional space of everyday listening habits with their myriad possible interpretations and affordances. The ears that one uses outside of musical experience...


Additional Information

Print ISSN
p. 42
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.