Nature is not natural and can never be naturalized — Graham Harman

Monday, January 5, 2009

Tim's guide to Timbre

This is a brief exploration of timbre, which I think is so important to ecological criticism. You can find a little more in the first chapter of Ecology without Nature and in an essay I wrote for the online journal Literature Compass, called “Of Matter and Meter.”

Think of Yves Klein's paintings of pure color, such as IKB. Color is always suspended in a medium. In Yves Klein's case, it's a very precious, unusual medium that lets the lapis lazuli base of ultramarine blue shine forth with unusual luster.

Now think of a sound. We never hear sounds as such: we only ever hear sounds as mediated through a material of some kind or other. Heidegger puts it beautifully when he says that we never hear the wind in itself, only the wind in the door, the wind in the trees. We never hear B flat as such, only B flat through a trumpet, B flat through a violin. The material out of which the instrument is made generates the timbre of the note.

This is also true of the voice. Vowels are a way of adding different timbres to breath. An /o/ sound requires a certain tension of the throat and windpipe, while an /a/ sound requires another kind of tension.

When you hear a violin note, you are hearing the cat gut or wire out of which the strings are made; the horsehair bow modulated by the wood on which the horsehair is strung; the wooden body of the violin, curved and of a certain thickness and quality of wood, and so on. Timbre is the materiality of sound. And what a materiality.

You only hear certain aspects of that materiality. Because we have ears and an auditory system of a certain range, we do not hear wood as a bat might hear the same wood, when it sends out a high-pitched sound that bounces off its surface. So in a sense when we hear a timbre we are also hearing our nervous system's way of processing that particular sound—there is no sound as such.

Bridget Riley's paintings work directly upon your optic nerves. Well—all paintings do; but Riley's work puts this work into the foreground. You can think of sound art as the sonic version of Riley's paintings.

This week I played La Monte Young's Drift Study 31 1 69, which is basically two superimposed tones. I was surprised to find that the sound changed as I moved around the room—sometimes it was a clear single tone, sometimes it varied in pitch.

Notes are made up of layer upon layer of harmonics. The particular timbre of a sound is the harmonic signature of the material out of which it's made: which harmonics are amplified, which ones repressed, and so forth. The breathy, scratchy sound of a bowed violin string contrasts with the open ting of a vibraphone. This is because the metal in the vibraphone and the materials of the violin allow certain harmonics to be heard. So when you hear a sound, you are hearing a sensory material manifold consisting of the matter through which the sound emanates, modulated by the ears and auditory equipment of the brain-mind.

If you like, scent also has a kind of timbre. That's why you can talk about woody or spicy notes in a perfume. You are literally inhaling and smelling the volatile particles circulated by a certain material. So timbre is the perfume of sound. That's why it's so primal and intimate. Timbre affects our bodies just as they are. There's no way of avoiding the cringe your nervous system does when you hear fingers going down a blackboard. It just happens.

Some contemporary artists make music out of timbre (principally or alone), just as some artists have made visual art out of color. Composers such as La Monte Young have produced music that attunes us to particular timbres. One way of doing this is through just intonation. Most modern instruments fudge the way they produce sound, so that most sounds are okay most of the time, but none are spectacular—all are relatively muddy, that is, they have a limited harmonic range.

The visual equivalent would be dull browns rather than Yves Klein's brilliant blue. Perhaps the most egregious example is the equally-tempered piano. Because the piano is the reference instrument for so many other ones—including, for example, most synthesized instrument sound—piano tuning has a pervasive effect on what we think musical sound is. Piano notes are fudged to make the instrument even across a range of tones and scales, but the notes are ever so slightly out of tune with each other, as they are tuned to fractional harmonics rather than ones with whole-number values.

When you tune a piano or any other instrument with whole-number values, you create an instrument with a much narrower functionality (you can't play everything on it without some things sounding weird), but extreme depth and beauty (and, if you like, astonishing dissonance).

Or you can write drone music that consists of notes held for an extremely long time, to allow the listener to get a feel for the timbre of the instrument playing the note. This is common in Indian music, which developed many wonderful instruments that emphasized harmonic depths and heights, such as the tambura.

Or you can put sounds in actually existing spaces and have listeners walk around the spaces (such as La Monte Young's Dream Houses), so that the environment as such becomes one of the instruments that modulates the sound (as it always does in any case), thus making you aware that your position and movement relative to the sonic source is also part of the music.

You can (and La Monte Young does) combine all these things, of course, and produce something really compelling and powerful. Something that allows the listener profound insight into the nature of matter, the receptive properties of her or his body and mind, and the resonant qualities of the environment in which an instrument is played. All these phenomena are bound up in the notion of timbre.

Timbre, quite simply, is the material environment as such emerging as aesthetic experience. Ecological art, then, must necessarily have to do with timbre.

One problem with our “materialistic” society is that it's not nearly materialist enough. The short, rigid time frames in which capitalism compels us to live, and the drifting, aimless consumerism it enjoins us to perform, don't allow for anything like a deep appreciation of matter. Certain religious contemplative traditions such as those found in Buddhism hold open a space for a far more engaged materialism than is currently permitted in contemporary society. And certain forms of art walk us through the insights that contemplative traditions enable us to gain into the nature of matter and the qualities of our bodies and minds. These insights are earned through serious investments of time (if not money).

One important insight is that there's no sound as such, there's no matter as such. At bottom sound and matter are differential, relative phenomena. Matter is vivid and empty, real yet illusory. In fact, our sense of its realness is in direct proportion to our sense of its illusoriness.

The more of a hardcore materialist you become, the more you open up your mind.


srblevins said...

Hey Tim,

I really loved this post. Sorry I missed you at MLA this year. Hope all is well.

Anonymous said...

Are notes material? Is C a specific material vibration? Is it not a number (lowest C being 16.35Hz)? Are numbers material then? Is there a special timbre to C as such? What is the relationship between sounds and notes, if not that of representation (notation being a rather poor system of representation, if truth be told)? Your post is poetic, but very confusing when it comes to these matters...

Timothy Morton said...

Hi Mikhail,

It's quite straightforward. You have never heard a note all on its own, have you? You have only heard glass, metal, wood and amplifiers emitting notes, yes? Those notes are material vibrations of certain kinds of material. You have never heard a note without some kind of material.

Anonymous said...

You are confusing notes and sounds. Notes are not sounds, sounds of certain frequencies can be associated with names/numbers, but there are more sounds than there are notes. You mistake certain reality (frequencies) for their presentations (notes).

As for hearing notes without material incarnation, let me ask you this: have you ever seen a number as such? have you ever seen a triangle? Can you deal with abstract notions such a chiliogon that you cannot imagine? In mathematics we don't need actual material triangles to learn all sorts of things about them and the fact that some are drawn on sand and some are drawn on paper makes no difference whatsoever.

Again, notes are not sounds and sounds are not notes - this is the source of your confusion. I left a comment on Levi's blog (he goes on to say that notes have timbre which is just wrong, notes are pitches, timbre is color of sound regardless of pitch etc etc) about it as well - your material interpretation of music is confusing because it does not distinguish between elementary realities of material sound and abstract notions like notes, tones, consonance/dissonance and so on.

I can hear notes in abstract sense (using my basic sight-reading skills), sure it might be easier to imagine them as notes played on a piano if it is an easy piece, but that's not as important a point as you make it to be. Some combinations of notes are impossible to hear materially (unless you are very good at it which most people are not), but they are an abstract combination that can still exist on its own without every being played. Again, my analogy to mathematics is the best way to approach it. Your materialism here, again, is poetic but confusing.

Timothy Morton said...

I believe you are hung up on my use of certain words. I am well trained musically and I write it almost every day.

Timothy Morton said...

You are also confusing Graham Harman's use of "notes" (used on Levi's blog) with your music theory definition.

Anonymous said...

It's easy to be "hung up on a use of words" when you misuse those words, especially since you are a trained musician and a composer. I've given you my reasons for why your points about "notes" are wrong, because they deal with "sounds" and all you do is a) tell me I'm "hung up on words" and b) that you write music every day, therefore you are correct. Notes are not sounds by any definition, not "music theory" definition. Just because someone chooses to use a word in a peculiar way (Harman) does not change the meaning of that word, does it?

I have sincerely posed some questions, if you don't have answers to them, you don't need to respond (learn from Levi). It's pathetic that your best shot is the accusation that one is "hung up on words" - I thought only obnoxious graduate students were using such lame defenses. For shame...

ali hayes said...

I was wondering if you can give me a bibliography of the quote by Heidegger that you referenced ("We never hear B-flat as such, only B-flat through a trumpet, or B-flat through a violin"). I stumbled upon this quote in Victoria Meyers'book Shape of Sound. On page 39, she quotes this followed by (L Bryant and T Marton). However, there is no bibliography or credits about the quote. After searching the internet for half an hour, I found your blog post, surprised to find that your last name is Morton, not Marton. I assume she was referencing you, but I find it odd that she would have misspelled your last name and not given you proper credit. Anyways, I intend to use Heidegger's quote in a research paper I am writing, and would appreciate a proper citation. (P.S. I enjoyed your post, so I guess it wasn't a horrible thing that I went on a tangent to find this reference). Thank you