Open Access Te Herenga Waka-Victoria University of Wellington
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Do I Get a Say in This? Environmental Sound Composition, the Phonograph and Intentionality

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posted on 2021-11-15, 20:28 authored by Thomas VoyceThomas Voyce

Environmental sound composition, a term I employ to describe all forms of electroacoustic works in which the core materials are abstracted from real environments through technology, has been practiced in a variety of forms for more than 50 years. A tension exists between environmental sound composition and western art music, one that continues to make this marriage uncomfortable. In short, the use of mimetic materials in environmental sound composition does not fit the prescriptions of formalism, an ideology that electroacoustic composition inherited from western art music. Though attempts have been made to lessen this tension (Emmerson, 1986 and Smalley, 1996), an underlying anxiety persists in environmental sound composition, as the twin legacy of Pierre Schaeffer’s ideas concerning musique concrète and the concerns of acoustic ecology, a movement championed by soundscape composers (Westerkamp, 2002), continues to influence the genre.  Recently there has emerged an increasing resistance to the didactic ideology of soundscape theory in particular, as exemplified by Lopez (1997), Ingold (2007) and Kelman (2010). However, soundscape theory continues to influence the production of environmental sound composition, as composers seek to align themselves with such concerns, or place themselves in opposition to them. In my view, the tension between formalism and mimesis has resulted in a widespread fixation on poietic intent in environmental sound composition. As a result, composers have tried to dictate how their works should be heard, while ignoring the complexity of listener response. While a number of fresh perspectives have arisen in recent years looking at environmental sound composition methodology and the role of esthetic analysis in such works, including Voegelin (2010) and Lane and Carlyle (2013), a rigorous investigation into the roles of intentionality, technology and hermeneutic analysis in the production and reception of environmental sound composition remains absent.  My thesis explores the nature of the phonograph (an audio recording) and phonography (the act of recording) in broad terms, and then with specific attention to environmental sound composition. Various recording genres and phonograph types associated with these genres are identified, while the attitudes of composers towards technology and the ontological nature of their works are investigated. This approach is applied in making a critical assessment of environmental sound composition, exposing the specificity of the rift between poietic intention and esthetic reception. I argue for a hermeneutic evaluation of the phonograph on similar terms as those set out by Roland Barthes in Camera Lucida (1981). In examining the temporal dimensions of the phonograph, along with its formal and affective traits, my research aims to elevate the phonograph from the role of a passive bearer of composer intentionality, to that of a primary contributor to the listening experience. With this aim in mind, I present a portfolio of creative works as a second volume to this thesis, born of the ideas discussed herein, which explore the nature of the phonograph, its temporalities, the site specific aspects of phonography and compositional intervention with the phonograph. I will refer to my works throughout this thesis, detailing how I have incorporated my theoretical concerns into my compositional practice, especially in chapter four, five and six.


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Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

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Degree Grantor

Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

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Doctor of Philosophy

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Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Doctoral Thesis



Alternative Title

Environmental Sound Composition, the Phonograph and Intentionality

Victoria University of Wellington School

New Zealand School of Music


McKinnon, Dugal