» writings


After many years of work, Sound Unseen is published! The editors at Oxford University Press did a wonderful job and I couldn’t be happier with the final result. You can preview and purchase the book here.

In lieu of re-describing the Sound Unseen here, I will simply say this. After many years of writing about acousmatic sound, I got to the point where I felt that articles could no longer do justice to my ideas. I needed the broad canvas of a book to present the history and theory of acousmatic sound, and to  narrate how acousmatic sound plays a significant tole in many fields (literature, film, philosophy, music, etc.). The book presents a continuous argument from beginning to end, starting with Schaeffer’s theories, then considering the history of acousmatic listening as cultural practice, and finally moving onto a new theory of acousmatic sound, illustrated with case studies. Because it speaks to many audiences, I tried to maintain a balance of rigor and readability.

If you have read the book and want to contact me, I would be happy to hear from you.

This is a short contribution to a colloquy on Alain Badiou’s Five Lessons on Wagner, edited by Stephen Decatur Smith, and published in Opera Quarterly 29(3/4) (Summer-Fall 2013), 349-354.

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A review of John Dack and Christine North’s translation of Pierre Schaeffer’s In Search of a Concrete Music.

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An essay on the relation of music and sound art in the contemporary sound art discourse.

First published in Nonsite.org, Issue #8 (“The Music Issue”), Winter 2012/13.

Jean-Luc Nancy and the Listening Subject. Contemporary Music Review, Vol. 31, Nos. 5–6, October–December 2012, pp. 439–447

Abstract: This essay introduces the reader to Jean-Luc Nancy’s writing on listening, by focusing on his use of two French verbs that both mean ‘to listen’, namely entendre and écouter. By playing close attention to way that Nancy differentiates these verbs, and the historical context in which they have played a role, one discovers an entryway into Nancy’s challenging thinking about sound, sense, and subjectivity. Écouter and entendre are discussed in relation to the phenomenological theories of listening of Pierre Schaeffer. Schaeffer emphasizes entendre, which is etymologically related to word intentionality, as the privileged mode of listening to the sound object, an intentional object, whose sense is grounded on the closed reference back to the listening subject. Nancy critiques this mode of listening—and the implicit subject posited—by emphasizing écouter, which holds open the threshold between sense and signification. Listening reveals sound as a structure of resonance—an infinite sending and resending. Nancy’s analyses also reveal that resonance is the structure of the subject and of sense.

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This is an interview with Jim Fleming about my work on Kafka and acousmatic sound. It originally aired on To The Best of Our Knowledge, June 19, 2011.




This is a video of talk presented at “Xenakis: Past, Present, Future,” NYU Polytechnic, January 29-31, 2010. A slightly amended  also be included in a forthcoming collection of essays on Xenakis, entitled “Exploring Xenakis” on Pendragon press.

Here is a quick précis: the talk attempts to challenges certain aspects of Xenakis’ work (mathematics, order and noise) which have been treated mythically, by reconsidering the social origins of probability theory in 19th century and their role in the constitution of biopolitical power. The residual social meaning of probability theory allows for a new way of understanding the relationship between music and architecture in Xenakis’ work, one that does not rely on the shared use of ruled surfaces.

This talk was published as “Xenakis: the first composer of biopolitics?,” In Exploring Xenakis, ed. Sharon Kanach (Hillsdale, NY: Pendragon Press, 2012): 91-100.

Acousmate: history and de-visualised sound in the Schaefferian tradition. Published in Organised Sound 17:2 (Fall 2012): 179–188.

Abstract: The word ‘acousmatic’ has a strange and complicated history. Recent Schaefferian accounts have replicated François Bayle’s sketch of the ‘histoire du mot’ from his Musique acousmatique, in particular, the assumed synonymy between ‘acousmatique’ and ‘acousmate’. However, this synonymy is mistaken. The word ‘Acousmate’ was first coined in an article from 1730 to describe a strange noise heard one evening in the small French village of Ansacq. A discussion of the article follows, which shows how the word is unrelated to the Pythagorean Acousmatics, and how its author understood his ‘Acousmate’ in the context of contemporary natural science. Additionally, a sketch of the term’s changing signification in three discourses—scientific, psychological, and literary—is presented. The goal of this paper is to articulate a set of problems concerning the historiography of acousmatic listening in the Schaefferian tradition. These problems include: 1) the need to authorize a practice of musique acousmatique, which has limited historical investigation to moments where the word ‘acousmate’ or ‘acousmatique’ appear in the archive; 2) a mistaken assumption that ‘acousmate’ and ‘acousmatique’ are synonymous, which has forced together historical moments that are not in fact affiliated; 3) an adherence to this affiliation, which has foreclosed the opportunity to consider acousmatic listening as a set of culturally and historically specific practices concerning the relationship of seeing and hearing.

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Acousmatic Fabrications: Les Paul and the Les Paulverizer. Journal of Visual Culture 10:2 (August 2011): 212-231.

Abstract: Acousmatic sound—a sound that one hears without seeing the causes behind it—creates situations where visual contributions to auditory experience are diminished. I theorize that acousmatic separation unsettles the relationship of the source, cause and effect of sound. To draw out the consequences this theory, I examine Les Paul and Mary Ford’s multi-tracked recordings and live performances.

First, I argue that Paul’s turn to multi-tracked recording was motivated by mimetic rivalry when his “sound” was imitated on the radio. Second, I show how Paul misdirected listeners of his radio program by creating scenarios that depended on false attributions of source and cause. Third, I address the problems that faced Paul in live performance of his multi-tracked hits. Finally, I argue that Paul’s creation of the “Les Paulverizer” afforded the maintenance of acousmatic spacing during live performance but also forced him into the unusual position of ventriloquizing his own voice.

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Music, Image Schemata and the “Hidden Art.” Nonsite 2 (Summer 2011), available online: http://nonsite.org/issue-2/music-image-schemata-and-the-hidden-art.

Published in Music Theory Spectrum 33:1 (2011): 27-36.

Abstract: David Lewin’s “Music Theory, Phenomenology, and Modes of Perception” is a touchstone for phenomenologically influenced music theory, yet something puzzling remains about the role of perception in Lewin’s phenomenology. On the one hand, Lewin emphasizes the embodied nature of perception by arguing that perception is itself a type of skill, a “mode of response,” which manifests itself in an infinite number of creative acts. On the other hand, he explicitly employs phenomenology in only a limited manner; in Parts I–III of his essay, he sets up his phenomenological “p-model” and then, in Part V, critiques it as ultimately inadequate for forging a link between perception and creation.

In this essay, I offer a solution to this puzzle by examining Lewin’s sources. I argue that he is indebted to the school of West Coast phenomenology in two respects: 1) that Lewin’s style of phenomenology is influenced by the Fregean interpretation of Husserl, which supports the ontological and categorical split between perceptual sense and reference presented in the p-model; 2) that the general argument presented in Lewin’s essay, which moves from the p-model toward a critique of disembodied perception, is modeled on Hubert Dreyfus’s two-stage argument against Artificial Intelligence.

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I edited and wrote the introduction for a special issue of The Journal of Music Theory on Stanley Cavell’s “Music Discomposed at 40.” Journal of Music Theory, 54:1, Spring 2010.

This issue emerged out of position papers and a panel organized by the Society for Music Theory’s Music and Philosophy Interest Group. We wanted to revisit Stanley Cavell’s famous essay “Music Discomposed” on its 40th anniversary of publication. There are some fantastic essays in this collection–reflective, personal, literary–so please take a look at the whole issue if you have a chance. My introduction is attached:

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Den mystiska akusmatiken

Published in Nutida Musik, 3 (2008): 36-42, ©2008 International Society for Contemporary Music

This is a Swedish translation of a talk entitled, “L’acousmatique mythique: reconsidering the acousmatic reduction and the Pythagorean veil,” delivered at the EMS08 conference in Paris, commemorating the 60th anniversary of musique concréte. It is availble in the EMS08 proceedings. In it, I compare two readings of the Pythagorean veil in ancient sources, Iamblichus’ Life of Pythagoras and Clement of Alexandria’s Stromata, to address the mythic construction of the Schaefferian acousmatic tradition and its preference for Iamblichus. I also draw out some implications of the two readings for current and future acousmatic theory.

Review of Peter Szendy, Listen: a history of our ears

Forthcoming in Current Musicology, Number 86, Winter 2009.

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Published in Contemporary Music Review 27(6): 595-610, ©2008 Taylor & Francis.

This article is part of a large issue dedicated to the music of Mathias Spahlinger and Nicolaus A. Huber, guest edited by Philipp Blume. It is the first substantial English-language publication on the work of these fine composers.

Abstract: This paper employs a Wittgensteinian framework to describe the experience of listening to the music of Mathias Spahlinger. First, a “skeptical puzzle” is introduced, based on a reading of Wittgentein’s Philosophical Investigations. The puzzle problematizes the security of ascriptions of meaning to material practices. Then, Spahlinger’s éphémère is used as a test case: it is described from a first-person perspective, compared with an account of the work given by Claus-Steffen Mahnkopf, and given as an example of an audible presentation of the “skeptical puzzle.” Such a presentation is marked by a phenomenon that Wittgenstein described as “the dawning of an aspect.” By focusing on the role of aspect perception and the problems of ascription in Spahlinger’s music, it is possible to argue against Mahnkopf’s criticism of Spahlinger’s work, as well as understand an underlying affinity between extreme forms of repetition and perpetual transition within Spahlinger’s compositional habitus.

Link to Article

French translation published in Pierre Schaeffer: Portraits Polychromes No. 13 and English version published in Pierre Schaeffer: Portraits Polychromes No. 14, ed. Evelyne Gayou, ©2008 Institut national de l’audiovisuel.

This is a short essay on the state of Pierre Schaeffer’s current reception in America. It addresses some of the interdisciplinary aspects of Schaeffer’s thinking and argues that, if there were ever to be a translation of the Traité, it may have greater impact in cultural studies, auditory culture, philosophy and media studies rather than electro-acoustic music.


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Published in Current Musicology, Number 85, Spring 2008, 137-145.

A review of Andy Hamilton, Aesthetics and Music.

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Published in Organised Sound 12(1): 15-24, ©2007 Cambridge University Press.

Abstract: The work of Pierre Schaeffer (theorist, composer and inventor of musique concrète) bears a complex relationship to the philosophical school of phenomenology. Although often seen as working at the periphery of this movement, this paper argues that Schaeffer’s effort to ground musical works in a ‘hybrid discipline’ is quite orthodox, modelled upon Husserl’s foundational critique of both logical ‘realism’ and ‘psychologism’. As part of this orthodoxy, Schaeffer develops his notion of the ‘sound object’ along essentialist (eidetic) lines. This has two consequences: first, an emphasis is placed on ‘reduced listening’ over indicative and communicative modes of listening; secondly, the ‘sound object’ promotes an ahistorical ontology of musical material and technology. Despite frequent references to Schaeffer and the ‘sound object’ in recent literature on networked music, concatenative synthesis and high-level music descriptors, the original phenomenological context in which Schaeffer’s work developed is rarely revisited. By critically exploring Schaeffer’s theorizing of the ‘sound object’, this paper aims at articulating the distance between contemporary and historical usage of the term.


Link to article 

Nota bene: An early version of this paper was delivered at Spark 2005: festival of electronic music and art, University of Minnesota, Friday, Feb. 18, 2005. The attached version is reproduced from the conference proceedings.

A paper read at Spark 2007, University of Minnesota, in Feb 2007.

Abstract: This paper addresses issues involved in the formation of an aesthetics of Net music. The main factors considered are: 1) the affordances of networked communications, 2) digital ontology and de-differentiation, and 3) the lack of an essential relationship between digital ontology and its medium of realization. By focusing on cognitive, affective and sensory results of the mappings (or algorithms) that link digital ontology with its medium of realization, this paper outlines an aesthetics of Net music, and suggests some strategies for the creation of Net musical works.


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The Music Of Skepticism: Materiality, Intentionality, Forms of Life

This, along with Anaphora, constitutes my doctoral dissertation. Here is a link to it, and here is the abstract:

This dissertation addresses the role of skepticism in the theory, practice and philosophy of New Music. My aim is twofold: 1) to expose the anti-skeptical background behind the acousmatic reduction and to address its persistence in recent compositional practices; 2) to define a skeptical music in theory and practice, through a philosophical discussion of the productive ways that skepticism critiques intentionality, through an analysis of works exhibiting skeptical strategies, and through the creation of a new composition informed by these strategies.

Part I addresses Pierre Schaeffer’s concept of l’objet sonore and its origins in Husserlian phenomenology. Schaeffer reduces the experience of listening to its objective foundations in intentionality, dismissing the significance of history, culture, and context. I argue that the compositional inheritors of Schaeffer’s project are the Spectralists. Analyzing Grisey’s Partiels, I demonstrate how Spectral composers create musical phenomenological reductions that present listeners with a reduced experience of sounds, ultimately displacing musical skepticism for a non-arbitrary, self-certain grounding to musical composition.

Roger Scruton’s identification of the “acousmatic experience” with the “art of music” inherits Schaeffer’s attempt to secure musical practices in the intentional realm. Although formulating a philosophy of music which tacitly accepts the skeptical notion that our relation to the world as such is not one of knowing, Scruton deadens skepticism’s force by appealing to the publicity of a common musical language (tonality) and the shared cognitive features of musical understanding (metaphor). Compositionally, Steve Reich’s Different Trains repeats Scruton’s concerns by resisting the mere literalness of sounds through the transformation of compositional materials into metaphors, appealing to musical conventions and recuperating tonality.

In Part II, Wittgenstein’s skeptical paradox is invoked to critique the security of the intentional realm, initiating a non-acousmatic theory of listening. This establishes a skeptical project for New Music—the attempt to make our musical “forms of life” perspicuous. The outlines of a skeptical compositional practice are concretely addressed in two works: Morton Feldman’sPiano, Violin, Viola, Cello and Elliott Carter’s Night Fantasies. In a final appendix, I discuss the connections between this skeptical practice and my composition of a new work for strings, harp and piano, entitled Anaphora.

TABLE OF CONTENTS, with brief descriptions

Introduction — skepticism, specific and generic objects, the Pythagorian curtain


Chapter 1: Phenomenological Reductions: Pierre Schaeffer — an analysis of Schaeffer’s phenomenological method for arriving at the sonorous object.
Chapter 2: The Metaphysics of Organical Form: Gérard Grisey’s Partiels – an analysis of Partiels in relationship to “reduced listening.”
Chapter 3: Wittgenstein on Essences — a Wittgensteinian critique of phenomenology.
Chapter 4: Epistemological Reductions: Roger Scruton — a critique of Scruton’s concept of musical metaphor.
Chapter 5: From Gestalt to Metaphor: Steve Reich’s Different Trains – tracing the shift towards metaphor in Reich’s later works.


Chapter 6: Making the Musical Form of Life Perspicuous — an application of Wittgenstein’s skeptical paradox to the aesthetics of new music.
Chapter 7: Skeptical Strategies: Morton Feldman and Elliott Carter — describing the shape of musical skepticism in practice.

Appendix 1: The Reductio ad absurdum of Virtual Musical Space — would Roger Scruton agree with Roger Shepard?
Appendix 2: Anaphora, for strings, harp and piano.
Attached is brief summary of the philosophical portion of the dissertation, presented at the Townsend Center for the Humanities on Sept 8th, 2005.

Talk delivered at Spark 2006: festival of electronic music and art, University of Minnesota, Friday, Feb. 24, 2006. The attached version is reproduced from the conference proceedings.

Abstract: The development and refinement of real-time sound processing has important consequences for the aesthetic relevance of improvisation in the creation of “tape music.” While Andy Hamilton’s essay on improvisation introduces the terms for discussing the aesthetic relevance of improvisation, his dismissal “spontaneity at the level of composition” in fixed electronic works falls behind the perfectionist/imperfectionist dichotomy he seeks to overcome. By redeploying the notions of “instrumental impulse” and an “improvised feel” into the context of tape music, one begins, in a small but significant way, to overcome the acousmatic thesis and the idea of reduced listening.

Link to article

Published in Array, Winter 2006, pp. 46-50. Published by the International Computer Music Association.

A brief review of the Spark 2005 Festival of Electronic Music and Art, held at the University of Minnesota.



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Published in Qui Parle, Volume 14, Number 2, Spring/Summer 2004, pp. 117-143.

In diagnosing the current state of music, composer Tristan Murail argues that “sound has been confused with its representations.” What would a music without representation sound like? Is it even possible to separate sound from representation? In what way is representation necessary in experiencing music? In this paper, I investigate this claim, and other claims by figures such as philosopher Roger Scruton, and composer Elliott Carter about the relationship between sound and representation, and evaluate the results from a materialist perspective.

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Published in Qui Parle, Volume 15, Number 1, Fall/Winter 2004-5, pp. 169-174.

A brief review of After Adorno by Tia DeNora. By plucking the methodological kernel from Adorno’s sociological works, while abandoning his systematic negation, DeNora tries to rethink the questions of music sociology. But at what price?



Link to Article

When is Art Research?

Talk delivered at the conference When is art Research? at the Townsend Center, UCB, on Friday, Feb. 6, 2004.

First, a brief diatribe about contemporary music and grant money, within the confines of the university. Then, I try to give an expanded definition of technique as a corrective to the one-sidedness of the concept of research. Lastly, I try to give an example of the relationship between technique and research as it applies to my own work in electronic music.

Click here to view the conference webpage.


A short article on Ecuatorial and its connections to Varèse’s modernism. The text set by Varèse is based on the Popul Vuh, and has a long and unusual history. I trace this history in some detail, in order to show the multiple levels of mediation between the text’s “origin” and its reception by Varèse. I argue that many of Varèse’s own modernist concerns are articulated in the text. The article also contains a musical analysis, and an interpretation of Ecuatorial’s bizarre coda, in the light of Henry Miller’s essay on Varèse from The Air-Conditioned Nightmare.

Link to article

This article analyzes Morton Feldman’s last piece, entitled Piano, Violin, Viola, Cello. The first part identifies the various types of musical material appearing in the piece, and characterizes some features of Feldman’s late style. The second part looks at timbre, rhythm and organization in order to glean Feldman’s larger formal concerns. I argue that Feldman is interested in creating forms which project a constantly unfolding, yet inscrutable, logic. The final part brings in Beckett and Proust, as well as Feldman’s own writings, to address the topics of repetition and memory, and speculate upon their musical consequences.

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There is much evidence that Cézanne was an avid reader of Lucretius. But just how far did his commitment to classical atomism go? This article speculates upon the question: what if Cézanne was an Epicurean? How does this change the way we look at his paintings? Limiting myself to the portraits, I try to interpret some of Cézanne’s unusual tropes in the light of Epicurean thinking. In the final section of the paper I contrast some famous interpretations of Cézanne’s work (Roger Fry, Kurt Badt, and Merleau-Ponty) with the classical atomism of Epicurus, as well as some other modern day materialists, in order to tease out the ethical claims embodied in Cézanne’s paintings.

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