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"Tones from Out of Nowhere"

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Thomas LevinEdit

Thomas Levin is Associate Professor of German at Princeton University, specializing in media and cultural theory, aesthetic theory, the Frankfurt School, and the theory of art history. Levin has been at Priceton since 1990, following MAs in Art History and Philosophy from Yale and a Ph.D. in Philosophy from Yale.

“Tones from out of Nowhere”: Rudolf Pfenninger and the Archaeology of Synthetic Sound" [2003]Edit

In this essay from New Media, Old Media [2006], (originally published in Grey Room) Levin proposes an alternative history that takes into account underexamined developments in synthetic sound reproduction. While contemporary accounts of new media make it sound like threats to “real” or indexical sound only come with digitization, Levin explores well-documented events in the history of sythentic or “hand-written” sound by analog means.

The time period of his article hovers around mostly the 1930s, and draws on primary documents, films and sound recordings from primarily Germany, with nods to Britain and the Soviet Union. Levin is interested in the ability to not just capture and rephenomenalize acoustic sound in the form of inscription (as the gramophone could) but to actually “write sound as such” (47). This depends on 4 distinct developments, each of which has an archaeological corollary:

1. initial experiments that correlated sound with graphic traces, making it possible to 'see' the acoustic [the coming-into-writing of sound as mere graphic translation or transcription]

2. the invention of an acoustic writing that was not merely a graphic translation of sound but one that could also serve to reproduce it (the gramophone) [the functional development of that inscription as means to both trace and then rephenomenalize the inscribed sound]

3. the accessibility of such acoustic inscription in a form that could be studied and manipulated as such [the optical materialization of such sounding graphic traces that would render them available to artisanal interventions]

4. the systematic analysis of these now manipulatable traces such that they could be used to produce any sound at will [the analytic method that would make possible a functional systematic vocabulary for generating actual sounds from simple graphematic marks]

Crucial to this history are Oskar Fischinger and Rudolf Pfinninger, two men working in German on handwritten sound. Levin notes that Fischinger has been almost unanimously cited as the inventor of animated sound (for his “sound ornaments”) even though Pfinninger was commended by Maholy-Nagy for the “development of a functional sound script” [synthetic sound] (60). Maholy-Nagy was an early theorizer of synthetic sound, believing that if a gramophone disk could be “read” for its inscriptions, it would be possible to create a wholly non-organically or instrumentally based sound.

What distinguishes these men, according to Levin, is their method: Fischinger ultimately had aesthetic interests in mind, and started at the graphic mark—he wanted to understand how certain graphic forms rendered acoustically. Fischinger had high creative aesthetics in mind, believing synthetic sound returned creative direction to the sole province of one person, rather than collaborators. His work was “in the service of a thoroughly anti-technological (irrational) artistic intention” and he himself claimed “hand-made film renders possible pure artistic creation” (67). Pfenninger, in constrast, was engaged with a “semio-pragmatics of sound whose function was to liberate composition from the constrants of both the extant musical instrumentarium and reigning notational conventions” (67). Pfenninger's “new technique of acoustic notation, while visual appealing, did not function as ornament in the sense of Fischinger's. Pfenninger sought to produce sounds in a “linguistic—which is to say, thoroughly technical and rule-governed—manner” (68).

One of the larger concerns looming behind synthetic sound is how it “did fundamentally change […] the ontological stability of all recorded sound. These developments in optical sound allowed for more work post-production, “undermining temporal integrity of acoustic recording, which could now be patched together out of various takes at various times” (70). Creating synthetic speech raised the concern that all sound could be non-organically produced and its fundamental authenticity would be in question: “a technological doubt has been introduced into the indexical readability of record performance […] recorded sound in the era of its referential ambiguity” (71). For Levin, this offers a useful counterpoise to contemporary discussions regarding the graphic rendering of human forms through advanced 3D animation.

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