Speaking of Sound: The Bodies of Henri Chopin.

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Speaking of Microsound: the Bodies of Henri Chopin The lines separating music and poetry, writing and painting, are purely arbitrary, and sound poetry is precisely designed to break down these categories. William Burroughs, “Introduction” to Henri Chopin’s Poésie Sonore Internationale (1979) Introduction Between 1983 and 1992, the Exploratorium at San Francisco, Charles Amirkhanian and KPFA radio co-presented the celebrated Speaking of Music series. Amirkhanian, the well-known composer, sound artist, and percussionist, produced the show, which featured John Cage, Astor Piazolla, Pamela Z, Laurie Anderson, Steve Reich, Sarah Hopkins, Meredith Monk, and many other leading music makers. Typically, the series would involve a conversation, a performance, and audience questions. Appearing on Speaking in 1987, Cage answered a final question enigmatically: “there’s no reason,” he said, to listen to music rather than to sounds around us. He didn’t object to people making records, but didn’t have a playing machine in the house. Why would he play music, when there are sounds hanging in the air, offered to us as event, when we do or do not want to hear? We know all this, and yet the core business of musicology – the legitimate “speaker” on music – in America and Europe continues to be music in a classical and a strict sense: music that lends itself to music theory. Indeed, the anonymous reviewer of the first version of this paper wondered why I would discuss a “performance artist” for this volume and not, say, “Boulez's Pli selon pli, which is identifiably music.” Would that be: organized sound, in Edgar Varèse’s original phrase? What would it mean not to be music? Since the twentieth century, music-makers, composers, poets, and sound artists have precisely sought to diversify music, as well as our conception of it, and to test the artificial boundaries between “music” and “non-music,” “music” and “sound,” “music” and “poetry.” Yet now, a scholar still asks for something that is identifiably music (since we are speaking of music here). Maybe Cage still inadvertently implied something that is identifiably music, as a contrastive figure against which sounds can appear “as such”. Or even: “music” as a mental frame in which accidental sounds can emerge as melodious, harmonious, striking. Perhaps we cannot stop thinking and speaking of music. Cage was a great listener, yet while being open to sounds around him, he never tapped a soundscape within. It is this inner soundscape, the recorded and manipulated sounds of body organs and body cavities that I will be concerned with in this chapter. I will focus on a sound-explorer – perhaps we should call him a speleologist – who, half a decade after Cage visited the anechoic chamber and discovered the sounds of silence, was swallowing microphones to disclose a factory of sound beneath the skin: Henri Chopin (1922-2008). The reason why I am interested in Chopin is not simply because his sound works are incomparable to anything else, unsettling, appalling, and amazing as they are. It is because as such they test our very register to speak of and interpret sound worlds. Interpretation, Lawrence Kramer has recently affirmed, is the activity of subjectivity as it has been defined since the Enlightenment in terms of knowing, feeling, and creating meaning freely – an activity pre-eminently taking shape in relation to musical listening. Chopin’s L’énergie du sommeil (1965, released in Chopin’s revue OU 23/24), I will argue here, probes the limits of interpretation as such a humanist practice. A study in sleep, it teases out the decomposition of subjectivity, making audible an impersonal life that leaves little room for affective engagement: the bio-physical vibrations prior to the I. How can we speak of sounds that are precisely meant to foreclose the symbolic order?
Original languageUndefined/Unknown
Title of host publicationIn: Speaking of Music.
EditorsK Chapin, A Clark
Place of PublicationNew York
PublisherFordham University Press/Oxford University Press
Number of pages34
Publication statusPublished - 20 Feb 2009


  • Specialized histories (international relations, law)
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