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Purely Sonorous: The Rhetoric of Sound in Twentieth-Century Music



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Dickson, Ian 


This thesis investigates a common aesthetic-hermeneutic tendency in discussions of twentieth-century and contemporary music: that of legitimating particular repertoires as exceptionally sound-oriented or sound-based—in contrast with other, usually older music, which is figured as subordinating sound to musical language. In this thesis, I call this tendency ‘sonicism’. I analyse the rhetoric of sonicism on the level both of discourse and of compositional technique. The analysis is comparative: modernist concert music, electroacoustic/electronic music, and sound art are considered. These repertoires, although apparently disparate in their aesthetic and technical premises, imply a common conceptual and metaphorical framework, based on the distinction between ‘sound material’ and its ‘organisation’—hence the rhetorical strategy of hypostatising sound to characterise an advocated approach, while abstracting quasi-linguistic entities and relationships from sound to characterise other music. I argue that beliefs regarding the priority of sound in a given repertoire are determined above all by assumptions about musical organisation. Moreover, in realising their sonic ideals, composers tend to adopt organisational signifiers that are also common to apparently disparate positions. These signifiers negate aspects of traditional musical grammar but tend gradually to be conventionalised in their turn. These core arguments are presented in Chapter 1 and developed through the rest of the thesis. Chapters 2 and 3 are case studies focusing on the discourse, techniques, and reception of two composers associated with particular archetypes: that of the mutual independence of ‘sounds themselves’ (the early Morton Feldman), and that of the journey inside a three-dimensional sound (Giacinto Scelsi). The analysis then turns to electronic music and sound art, highlighting the continuity of both discourse and organisational signifiers. The thesis concludes with a discussion of the present-day situation, in which the emancipation of sound is regarded as a fait accompli, but the standardisation of signifiers is still not widely acknowledged.





Cook, Nicholas
Thurlow, Jeremy


aesthetics of music, musical modernism, relationship between sound and music, twentieth-century music history, music analysis, music semiotics, aesthetics of electronic music, sound art


Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Awarding Institution

University of Cambridge