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Towards a Narratology of Acousmatic Music

James Andean

James Andean, Centre for Music & Technology, Sibelius Academy, University of the Arts Helsinki


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Acousmatic works tend to operate on two simultaneous planes: a more abstract, musical level of gesture, phrase, colour, texture, and motion; and a narrative level, which references real-world objects, actions, contexts and environments. Where instrumental music, broadly speaking, accesses this narrative level primarily through the use of metaphor, acousmatic music, while maintaining access to the more programmatic elements found in instrumental music, also has the capacity to enact experience much more directly, through the explicit use and application of real-world sound and motion. This ranges from the use of referential sound imagery, to a broader use of gesture and action enacted via acousmatic music’s phenomenologically-grounded syntax.
Most theoretical approaches to the acousmatic genre tend to focus more or less exclusively on the structural and formal elements of the sonic plane, with minimal reference to more overtly narrative aspects. In the attempt to rectify this imbalance, the field of narratology suggests itself as a likely candidate for expanding our theoretical toolkit.
While narratology was initially focused more or less exclusively on literary narratives, over the past decade, the field of narratology has branched out from these roots to a range of new media and intermedia narratives, including key focuses on film, video games, and hypertext. While this has indeed significantly broadened the field, it could be argued that this expansion has simply added a visual bias to the previous textual bias.
There is therefore much to be gained from a narratological approach to acousmatic music, in both directions. The narratological perspective calls attention to aspects of acousmatic composition and reception which have received too little theoretical attention; in exchange, acousmatic music offers an extremely relevant narratological case study, as the genre’s strong narrative elements are for the most part entirely free of both the textual and visual elements upon which so much existing narrative theory is based. Acousmatic music can therefore serve to differentiate core aspects of narratology that hold true across diverse media from those elements which are significantly diminished in relevance once both text and vision are left behind.
This paper will present some of the primary findings of my doctoral investigation of acousmatic narrative. This investigation draws heavily from the field of cognitive narratology, championed by David Herman, and Marie-Laure Ryan’s work on narrative across media, while incorporating past and current perspectives on acousmatic narrative. Central issues include the cognitive structuring of narratives; the apparent – though possibly illusory – absence of narrator in acousmatic music; fiction vs. non-fiction in the acousmatic; mimesis vs. diegesis; the concept of ‘spatial narrative’; and narrative intention vs. narrative reception.

EMS14 Proceedings