Open Access Te Herenga Waka-Victoria University of Wellington
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The ontology of musical objects in contemporary instrumental composition

posted on 2024-06-10, 20:59 authored by Post, Jason William

The musical object occupies a strange place in music criticism. The new musicology schools influenced by post-structuralist continental thought have shied away from the object’s autonomous existence, exemplified by Christopher Small’s view of music as a cultural activity: “musicking.” Other theorists, such as Dennis Smalley, have created taxonomies of musical sound. Smalley’s spectromorphology defines sonic typologies that he claims to be based on an experiential understanding of sound, while simultaneously undertaking the technical project of a systematic cataloguing of sounds. Both views inhabit quite opposite positions in relation to the sound object – either a total rejection of its reality or a positivistic attempt at a catalogue of sound types. Both of these approaches suffer from distancing the sonic object through their respective discourse: by reducing the importance of the object for the sake of viewing music as a network of cultural relations, or by reducing it to an idealized and rationalized object, seeing it as just the product of a bundle of auditory qualities unified by perception. These views introduce a distance from auditory experience, which is at its core an object-oriented experience. In other words, neither meets the musical object on its own level, and because of this, they deny or caricature the musical object’s ontology.  Graham Harman’s philosophical study of Object-oriented Ontology is a radicalization of Heideggerian phenomenology. Through a new reading of Heidegger’s tool-analysis, Harman argues that objects – whether real, living, non-living, ideal or abstract – are the primary location of ontological investigation, and that objects exist both discretely and as a part of a wider network of possible relationships. By viewing the object this way, and by recognizing the multifaceted and multidimensional features of the musical object, we may be able to account for features of music that the trends above are unable to recognize or assess, such as the twentieth century aesthetic practices of György Ligeti, Salvatore Sciarrino, and the Spectral school of composition. It is possible to read these composer’s aesthetics as object-oriented because they are so strongly focused on examining sonic objects themselves –whether it is a physical event or modeling a natural process – instead of examining objects only through their affective potential towards human beings. This practice suggests that these qualities and processes are themselves areas for possible contemplation. Historically, this move away from an emphasis on the human-world binary goes against the nineteenth century aesthetic of Romanticism, which relies on an object’s affective potential. Also, an object-oriented position rejects formalism, because of its reduction of music to an intellectual activity. An object-oriented approach to music traverses the line between these two positions, acknowledging the subtle and shifting relationships between the affective and the analytic or, to locate this within Harman’s approach, between the sensual and real. The thesis will explore the implications of an object oriented approach to music, trace the history of its development in relation to music – chiefly that of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries – as well as make object oriented analyses of selected works, including my own compositions.


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Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

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Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

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Master of Music

ANZSRC Type Of Activity code

970119 Expanding Knowledge through Studies of the Creative Arts and Writing

Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Research Masters Thesis



Victoria University of Wellington School

New Zealand School of Music


Norris, Michael; McKinnon, Dugal