Guide to Sound Objects: Acousmatic – Michel Chion (estratto)

The acousmatic revelation
A number of historical circumstances has led to the notion of the sound object. First, the initial discoveries of “musique concrète” with its two inaugural experiments: the closed groove and the cut bell; then, the awareness of a listening situation, not new, but whose originality had never been identified or given a specific name; the acousmatic situation.

1) Acousmatic: a rare word, derived from the Greek, and defined in the dictionary as:
adjective, indicating a noise which is heard without the causes from which it originates being seen.
The word was taken up again by Pierre Schaeffer and Jérôme Peignot to describe an experience which is very common today but whose consequences are more or less unrecognised, consisting of hearing sounds with no visible cause on the radio, records, telephone, tape recorder etc.
Acousmatic listening is the opposite of direct listening, which is the “natural” situation where sound sources are present and visible.
The acousmatic situation changes the way we hear. By isolating the sound from the “audiovisual complex” to which it initially belonged, it creates favourable conditions for reduced listening which concentrates on the sound for its own sake, as sound object, independently of its causes or its meaning (although reduced listening can also take place, but with greater difficulty, in a direct listening situation).

2) Effects of the acousmatic situation: the acousmatic situation alters the conditions of listening, with certain characteristic effects. Some of these are:
a) The help provided by sight to identify the sound sources is absent. “We discover much of what we thought we were hearing was in reality only seen and explained by the context”
b) Sight and hearing are dissociated, encouraging listening to sound forms for themselves (and hence, to the sound object).
Indeed, if curiosity about causes remains in acousmatic listening (and it can even be aroused by the situation), the repetition of the recorded signal can perhaps “exhaust” this curiosity and little by little impose “the sound object as a perception worthy of being listened to for itself”, revealing all its richness to us.
c) By repeated listening to the same recorded sound fragment, the emphasis is placed on variations of listening. These variations do not arise from a “blurring” of perception, but from “specific moments of illumination, directions which are always precise and always reveal a new aspect of the object, towards which our attention is deliberately or unconsciously drawn”.
3) The acousmatic experience: the rare word “acousmatic” also described in Greek a sect of the disciples of Pythagoras who were said to follow a form of teaching where the Master spoke to them hidden behind a screen. This was done in order to distract their visual attention from his physical appearance.
P.S. emphasises the initiatory significance of the acousmatic experience which enables the listener to become aware of his perceptual activity as well as of the sound object. It was the acousmatic nature of sound on the Radio which, in 1948, led him to develop a self-contained “noise music” which he was to call musique concrète. This is why he came to extend the meaning of the term “acousmatic” and speak of the “acousmatic experience” to
describe a new way of hearing: “giving oneself over entirely and exclusively to listening”, in order to discover the path from the “sonorous” to the “musical”. The tape recorder in this research plays the initiatory role of “the screen of Pythagoras”, by creating not only new phenomena to be studied (by manipulations in the studio), but also and above all “new conditions for observation”.

Acousmatic and acoustic
We must take care not to misinterpret the acousmatic situation, for example by making a distinction between the “objective” – what is behind the curtain – and the “subjective” – “the listener’s reaction to these stimuli” in an over–scientific simplification of the phenomenon. On the contrary “the acousmatic involves a reversal of the normal course of events (…) it is no longer a question of knowing how a subjective listening interprets or distorts ‘reality’ or of studying reactions to stimuli; the listening itself becomes the origin of the phenomenon to be studied. (…)
The question: ‘What am I hearing?… What precisely are you hearing?” is turned back on to the subject, in the sense that he is being asked to describe, not the external references of the sound he perceives, but his perception

So Acousmatic and Acoustic are not opposites like objective and subjective. Insofar as it is a procedure (and not just simply a situation) the Acousmatic “must be unaware of (…) measures and experiments which apply only to the physical object, the acoustician’s ‘signal’.
But the fact that the Acousmatic is focused on the subject does not mean that it must give up all claim to its own objectivity (…). The problem is how, by comparing subjective experiences, we might find something that several experimenters could agree upon”.

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