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  • On Not Letting Sounds Be Themselves
  • Holly Watkins (bio)

Music is the art of enlivening sounds. Music transforms the acoustic results of material excitation—of keys striking hammers, bows traveling across strings, columns of air vibrating in larynxes—into signs of excitation unbounded, depersonalized, writ large. Musical sounds constitute a lexicon of arousal whose interpretive possibilities span physical, physiological, emotional, and ideational realms. Yet music also teaches us that these realms cannot be separated so easily. Music's play of sonic and formal energies may simulate the release of mechanical or inorganic energies, but historically music has been partner to expressly organic pursuits. The danceable tune, the singing line, the invigorating rhythm, the seductive timbre—music not only enhances feelings of vitality but projects its own sense of animation. Even music that soothes and relaxes does so by entraining us to alternative metabolisms sonically realized. "We hear music as a manifestation [End Page 75] of vitality," writes philosopher Kathleen Marie Higgins, "and part of our enjoyment is empathy with its liveliness" (2012, 18). Empathizing with music, we encounter a form of animation—not biological but not merely illusory either—that thrives where human, organic, and inorganic energies cross over and shade into one another.

Whose life resonates in music? The answer appears to be obvious: the lives of those who create it, play it, listen to it, dance to it, daydream to it. But music's liveliness is not reducible to that of the agents responsible for its sounding or its reception. Music is emergent, so that when, say, a melody is performed adequately, it becomes something more than just a sequence of sounds—it becomes something holistic rather than additive. That which coalesces out of tones or beats, such as a metrical pattern or recurring refrain, appears to take on a lifelike, self-maintaining character. Listeners are necessary participants in this phenomenon, but they are not its sole point of origin. What music does and what listeners hear are mutually constitutive.

Emergence, however, does not fully account for music's liveliness. The life of music—tenuous, metaphorical, contingent, and mortal—has multiple sources: not only the self-sustaining character of musical patterns but also the phylogenetic significance of hearing and the cross-modal interpretation of musical actions. Sounds alert us to dynamic forces in the environment, to the presence of predators and prey, to dangers and lures both animate and inanimate. Sounds are ambiguous: regular patterns (drip-drip-drip or inhale-exhale) and singular events (a boom or a scream) result from both unintended physical events and the intentional actions of living beings. Music retains that ambiguity; music is the art of possibly animate things. Music spurs us to imagine creating, being, or undergoing an almost endless variety of dynamic movements that, especially in the case of instrumental music, need not be heard as expressions of human subjectivity or embodiment.1 Such imaginative work generally does not take place on a conscious level. Listening to music, we unconsciously experiment with being other. Music creates a multitude of virtual worlds, or virtual configurations of space and time, that listeners can vicariously experience as alternative forms of embodiment, affect, spirit, thought, or some combination thereof. Music makes us feel more present and embodied, but it also carries us away. In either case, music affords [End Page 76] experiences of selfhood that are broadly distributed across the terrain of body and mind. Music both diversifies the self and extends it toward other selves in motion, whether real or imaginary, human or not.

My current work grapples with the vitality of music in all the enigmatic senses I have just outlined, which cluster around two of music's most cherished aptitudes: to stimulate and simulate life.2 One of my primary concerns is to elucidate how music brings its human practitioners into real and imagined contact with more-than-human vitalities. By the latter, I mean aspects of existence experienced by humans but not limited to them, such as possessing flesh capable of vibration, being in periodic motion (the breath, the heartbeat, the gait) as well as entrained to external periodicities (the cycles of days, months, and years), and engaging in...


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pp. 75-98
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