Presence in Sonic Experience

Toward a Phenomenological Framework for an Embodied Understanding of Experience in Sound

The dominant approaches within the modern discourse on music, most especially concerning the philosophy and aesthetics of music, have persistently framed music and the experience of musicking[1] as a sort of “disembodied” set of activities—activities somehow directed or controlled by the spirit, soul, cognition, or reason.[2] These approaches, most often analytic or linguistic in nature, hone in on terms such as “meaning, metaphor, emotions and expression, invariably from the perspective of the individual listener or composer.”[3] This is not a bad thing by any means; the aforementioned conceptions of and approaches to music serve their purpose effectively, that being a sort of rationalization or reflection and eventual demarcation of a musical experience. However, in a sense these methodologies geared toward sense-making, demarcation, and distinction represent the modern yearning for a rational order of things—a rational order upheld and characterized by the act of “narrowing in” on a principle of instrumental reason.[4]

Pauline Oliveros’ philosophy of Deep Listening initially inspired this philosophical exploration of presence in musical experience, and as such it will be an essential point of reflection. I came to know of Oliveros and Deep Listening musically, by happenstance–a long history with ambient music, and a deep personal love for atmospheric sound, led me to simply stumble upon Oliveros’ Deep Listening Band’s eponymous album, Deep Listening. On an October day, 1988, Oliveros and her bandmates descended 14 feet into the Dan Harpole Cistern at Fort Worden State Park, Port Townsend, WA, wherein the three of them proceeded to make a recording. The cistern, most notably, has a 45 second reverberation decay[5]–soundwaves bounce and tumble and ricochet and crash and undulate for what could be an eternity. Armed with particularly reverberatory instruments (accordion, trombone, didgeridoo, keyboards), the trio allowed themselves to be immersed in the sonic atmosphere, feeling out the sound, truly listening to the sound, and inevitably they created something incredible. It was through this particular experience that Oliveros coined the term “Deep Listening” as a philosophical and aesthetic principle. “Listening,” says Oliveros, “takes place voluntarily. Listening is not the same as hearing and hearing is not the same as listening.”[6] The ability to both hear and listen, though, is possible only by way of the ear–that is, the physical vestige that allows for hearing as a physical, vibrational process. “Deep Listening,” according to Pauline Oliveros, “is learning to expand the perception of sounds to include the whole space/time continuum of sound – encountering the vastness and complexities as much as possible.”[7]

My interest is in the furthered development of a phenomenological framework for an understanding of the philosophy and aesthetics of music. By avoiding the commonplace terminology (meaning, metaphor, emotions and expression), one is given the opportunity to “reshape” or re-approach music with a more materialist[8] rather than idealist[9] sensibility, hopefully leading to a deeper understanding of some of the core elements of the musical experience: music is not simply of the abstract world and is instead experienced as an embodied or corporeal practice, and thus it is the sense of “presence” that allows for truly revelatory musical experience to unfold. In this state of sonic “presence” the experiencer is absorbed into a reality defined by an alternative sense of temporality; a temporality that is particular to music as a nonconceptual entity.[10]

This musical reality is characterized by a resonance and dissolution–resonance being defined as not just a quality of deep sonic reverberation, but also as a state of vibrational unification between experiencer and sound being experienced; dissolution as a dissolving, disintegrating or otherwise breaking down and undoing of the fundamentals of the dichotomous, buffered[11] self–of the individual, through which revelation outside of duality—a fusion of mind/body, the rational and the sensuous, and so forth—might be had.[12] It is in this framework that Pauline Oliveros’ notion of Deep Listening might be best understood as an embodied practice; a visceral, corporeal meditation that has the power to reorient the individual in the world, heightening awareness, attention, and creative energy.

This notion of “embodiment” has worked its way into the discussion on music just in the past few decades, following a long history of presupposed impertinence to musicological thinking—music was perhaps mostly understood as an “act of creation, structure or aesthetic reception, in the service of such noble causes as its signification in social, political and cultural contexts.”[13] This conception of music fueled its “disembodiment” as a practice.. This movement toward a consideration of embodiment and corporeality has been a product of a larger cultural shift, the “body turn”[14]—it is obvious, sure; we do indeed experience things through the modality of our being physical entities. But, this “turn” toward the body was the result of a long, gradual attempt at undoing the core tenets of an Enlightenment understanding of humanness (one centered around the mind/body distinction)—as such, the body has been transformed in theory into “one of the principal battle fields to forge an adequate critical perspective to the changing traits of contemporaneous social, political and cultural reality.”[15] Essentially, musicking should be understood as an embodied set of practices, as “cognitive processes in which corporeal capacities are constitutively implicated play a fundamental role in musical practices.”[16] This notion of embodiment is not an attempt at undoing the analytic and linguistic modes of musical understanding so commonplace in our rational mind-world, but instead it is an attempt at making an inroad into a deeper understanding of musical experience as being primordially lived in a pre-conceptual, non-rational, sensuous manner.

With this notion of embodiment at least briefly expanded upon, we can move on to phenomenology. Phenomenology is a valuable framework insofar as the understanding of lived existence within the conceptual field consists of four tenets, among others:

• The basis of knowledge is the irreducible nature of conscious, lived experience, as the condition of possibility of any predication;

• Perception is always perception of an object whose intentional existence is a function of its relation with the perceiving subject;

• The first step to accessing lived experience is to suspend the attitude of thought naturally inclined towards its contents, in order to reorient it towards the origin and structure of the states of conscience. Through this phenomenological reduction (epoché) we can apprehend the experience in the immediacy of its subjective intuitions;

• The description of our conscious experiences of the ‘life-world’ epistemologically precedes the explanations, the constructions and the abstract and derivative constitutions of scientific thought.[17]

In these notions we see a recurrence of the importance of the pre-conceptual, non-rational experience—and furthermore, it may be clear how seamlessly “embodiment” could fit into the phenomenological framework.

Phenomenology has, as a field, had a longstanding relationship with the philosophy of music. It is in the thoughts and feelings of phenomenologists spread across history that the basis for an understanding of musical reality, musical time, and music’s “nonceptuality” can be found.

Husserl, in his Phenomenology of Internal Time-Consciousness (1905), compared and contrasted “objective time” (the clocks, calendars, and so forth that direct society) and “immanent time”, the latter of which is subjective while the former is objective and thereby not available to one’s consciousness.[18] Phenomenological time persists as the interface between “changing consciousness and changing reality”—it is a continuous flow within which the “nows” of lived experience are recognized. Music, in its ephemerality, forms its own sort of phenomenological time—music is not “in time, and neither does it move through time, for this would be to suggest that time is something external or logically prior to it.”[19] In other words, musical time is how time unfolds in music; it is how time is for music and its listeners—a temporality that is totally unique to the musical experience. In this respect music forms phenomenological time. Hegel, in his Aesthetics, reflected on sound and temporality, explaining that:

since time, and not space as such, provides the essential element in which sound gains existence in respect of its musical value, and since the time of the sound is that of the subject too, sound on this principle penetrates the self, grips it in its simplest being…[20]

Hegel is getting at the fact that music, as an aurally experience and ephemeral thing, exists in sound, but only insofar as the listener experiences said sound subjectively. It is in this way that, in the penetration and gripping of the self (akin to the notions of resonance and dissolution aforementioned) time is formed phenomenologically through music.

Heidegger’s term, “world”, can be understood as the totality of things that can be present within the world at hand—this is, in his eyes, a “nonconceptual historical totality.”[21] The “nonconceptual” is necessarily closed to predication; it is of immense significance and holds power or direction over the individual. The realm of music is thus a nonconceptual one; it is vast and cannot be predicated. The conceptual and nonconceptual exist as one in nearly all experience, though, so there are concepts alongside the nonconceptual that can be predicated, asserted, made sense of; pitch, timbre, rhythm, for example. “Musical concepts can usually help nonconceptual musical experience insofar as they can provide toeholds for concentration.”[22]

Music, to Hegel, does not present itself as other, and in this respect it is not an object—instead, it is almost as though it shapes from within one’s self or consciousness.[23] Music, though, is not of the inner-world, it is of its own realm—musical experience does not generate inwardness but outwardness unto the nonconceptual world. This nonconceptual world is, in a sense, a collective one—it is free, it is open. To find “presence” in sound through music, one must offer themselves up to the nonconceptual force. This is where Deep Listening comes in–it is a contemplative discourse comprised of the aforementioned “toeholds.”

Deep Listening, as a practice, is focused on the heightening of the “consciousness of sound” in dimensions of awareness and attention.[24] The end result, if one follows through in their use of the meditative practice, is an immersion in the lush soundscapes of being–a means of honing in on, and making the leap unto, the nonconceptual.

Why does any of this matter? Well, in a sense, it does not. Our analytic, inner-world mode of listening to and making sense of music is effective, as I have stated, to an extent. However, there is value to an understanding of an alternative framework for musicking–the only way to know music is to “live” it; to become one with the music in the process of the experience, to be present in the soundscape–by way of Deep Listening, in one’s own spatiotemporally situated corporeality. One does not need to “know” music to immerse themselves, for there is nothing to know–vivid, resonant perceptual experience can be had, as long as one is willing to listen with depth and let the sound in.


  1. Christopher Small. Musicking: The meanings of performing and listening. Wesleyan University Press, 1998. “Musicking”, the groundbreaking term coined by Small, is the assertion of music not as a thing, but as an activity. This framework aids in an understanding of the importance of taking part–music is not about completed works, but active experience.
  2. Ramón Pelinski. “Embodiment and musical experience.” Trans. Revista Transcultural de Música 9 (2005), 1-2.
  3. Charles Ford. “Musical presence: Towards a new philosophy of music.” Contemporary Aesthetics 8, no. 1 (2010), 1.
  4. Many theorists, such as Zygmunt Bauman, Tilman Schiel, and Ning Wang, believe that instrumental rationality, rational order, and a belief in scientific truths are universal characteristics of modernity, and that all modern states maintain these tenets to some degree.
  5. Reverberation Decay is the time required for the reflections/reverberations of any one sound to die away.
  6. Pauline Oliveros. Deep listening: A composer’s sound practice. IUniverse, 2005, 3.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Materialism as a monist philosophy that operates under the assumption that matter is the fundamental substance in nature, all things–even mental experience and consciousness–are a result of material networks of interaction.
  9. Idealism, as opposed to materialism, is a metaphysical philosophy that asserts that reality is fundamentally of the mind, is therefore mentally constructed, and is otherwise immaterial.
  10. Ibid, 16.
  11. Taylor, Charles. A secular age. Harvard university press, 2007. The buffered self is a notion of Taylor’s that refers to the modern conception of the self as less vulnerable to external forces, as autonomous, as independent, as unchangingly agentive. Contrasted with a porous self, which allows external forces in, creating a more relational network with the greater world.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Ramón Pelinski. “Embodiment and musical experience.” Trans. Revista Transcultural de Música 9 (2005), 1.
  14. The “body turn” is a vast ideological development comprised of many facets, but the general idea is that, in recent decades, the body has become a site of investigation in the social sciences, and this bodily omnipresence has had its presence felt in the field of musical research. Examples of the ‘body turn’ in practice: A living platform for the acquisition of ‘techniques’, abilities and habits (Mauss 1936; Bourdieu 1980; Dreyfus 1996; Lloyd, 1996; Crossley 2001a); A docile object configured by the power of discipline (Foucault 1976); Endowed with senses designed to specific cultural uses (Howes 1991); A bearer of symbolisms and inscription site of cultural memory (Blacking 1977; Jackson 1989; Crapanzano 1996); The physical ground of cognitive semantics (Johnson 1987; Lakoff and Johnson 1980, 1999); A product of a discursive construction (Butler 1993; Pandolfi 1996).
  15. Terence Turner. “Bodies and anti-bodies: flesh and fetish in contemporary social theory.” Embodiment and experience: The existential ground of culture and self 2 (1994), 31.
  16. Ramón Pelinski. “Embodiment and musical experience.” Trans. Revista Transcultural de Música 9 (2005), 2.
  17. These four bulletpoints are a selective synthesis of the “big names” in phenomenology–the big names that cared about music, that is–and the statutes upon which they establish themselves in conducting philosophical investigation; Husserl, Merleau-Ponty, Schütz, Ingarden: Schutz, Alfred. “La ejecución musical conjunta. Estudio sobre las relaciones sociales.” Estudios sobre teoría social, Escritos II (1951). Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. The visible and the invisible: Followed by working notes. Northwestern University Press, 1968. Ingarden, Roman. The Work of Music and the Problem of its Identity. Univ of California Press, 1986. Husserl, Edmund. Philosophie als strenge Wissenschaft. Vol. 603. Felix Meiner Verlag, 2009.
  18. Charles Ford. “Musical presence: Towards a new philosophy of music.” Contemporary Aesthetics 8, no. 1 (2010), 5.
  19. Ibid, 4.
  20. Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. Aesthetics. Vol. 1. Clarendon Press, 1998, 908.
  21. Charles Ford. “Musical presence: Towards a new philosophy of music.” Contemporary Aesthetics 8, no. 1 (2010), 13.
  22. Ibid.
  23. Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. Aesthetics. Vol. 1. Clarendon Press, 1998, 891.
  24. Pauline Oliveros. Deep listening: A composer’s sound practice. IUniverse, 2005, 3.

Bibliography

Ford, Charles. “Musical presence: Towards a new philosophy of music.” Contemporary Aesthetics 8, no. 1 (2010).

Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich. Aesthetics. Vol. 1. Clarendon Press, 1998.

Husserl, Edmund. Philosophie als strenge Wissenschaft. Vol. 603. Felix Meiner Verlag, 2009.

Ingarden, Roman. The Work of Music and the Problem of its Identity. Univ of California Press, 1986.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. The visible and the invisible: Followed by working notes. Northwestern University Press, 1968.

Oliveros, Pauline. Deep listening: A composer’s sound practice. IUniverse, 2005.

Pelinski, Ramón. “Embodiment and musical experience.” Trans. Revista Transcultural de Música 9 (2005).

Schutz, Alfred. “La ejecución musical conjunta. Estudio sobre las relaciones sociales.” Estudios sobre teoría social, Escritos II (1951): 153-170.

Small, Christopher. Musicking: The meanings of performing and listening. Wesleyan University Press, 1998.

Taylor, Charles. A secular age. Harvard university press, 2007.

Turner, Terence. “Bodies and anti-bodies: flesh and fetish in contemporary social theory.” Embodiment and experience: The existential ground of culture and self 2 (1994).

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