Perception • June 2016
Discomfort and creation



Cet article s’intéresse aux liens qu’entretient la création musicale avec la douleur de l’auditeur. Il s’agit de voir comment l’émancipation de la musique par rapport à l’exigence de plaire aux sens modifie les pratiques créatives, en élargissant à la fois le matériau musical et la manière de l’agencer. A travers l’analyse d’exemples empruntés à la musique occidentale contemporaine savante et populaire, deux types d’inconfort sont envisagés : le premier concerne une écoute intellectuelle, tandis que le second surgit dans l’affection du corps. Ces analyses engagent une réflexion sur la manière qu’a la musique d’exercer ses effets, ainsi que des considérations sur les limites du musical.

Article's keywords

Arme sonore, bruit, création, douleur, inconfort, matériau, musique, sensation, Arme sonore, bruit, création, douleur, inconfort, matériau, musique, sensation.

Table of Contents

Creating Beyond the Pleasure Principle

The notion of creation refers to the organization of material, for the production of a new element, a priori, previously unheard of, which becomes a work. In the case of music, this material is sound, which is (possibly produced and) arranged according to various parameters, relative to rhythm and pitch.

Musical creation in the west has traditionally been linked to a requirement to please the senses of the listener. Phrases such as “racket,” “din” or “hubbub” refer to a disorganized set of sounds, made unpleasant. The oft formulated judgment, “This is not music. It’s noise,” suggests that music ends where unwanted sound begins. For example, in Diderot’s Encyclopédie, “music” is defined as “the science of sounds, as they pleasantly affect the ear, or the art of arranging and conducting sounds, so that their resonance, their succession, and their relative durations result in pleasant sensations.” (Rousseau, Jaucourt, Menuret, 1966-67)

From such a definition of music, ensue requirements for composers: Tonal composition, a grammar of musical material, was established in the west during the Renaissance. The various musical treatises that flourished in the classical age intended to clarify the means to achieving a goal: the pleasure of the listener. This approach is particularly taken in the Musicae Compendium by Descartes. After having said of music that, “Its goal is to please and move various passions within us,” the author details the conditions of this pleasure: The object must be proportional to the senses; It should neither be perceived too easily nor with too much difficulty; Musical creation must be situated within boundaries, established in accordance with the listener’s limits, those within which the senses are capable pleasure. Just as excessive sunlight dazzles the eyes, an unpleasant noise is incommensurate to human hearing, and thus can not be a source of pleasure. Composing means anticipating this reception, which is comprised of an intelligible part and a sensitive part. It means knowing the limits of the faculties of the listener and remaining within these limits, so as not to arouse boredom (which occurs with an object too easily perceived) nor discomfort (provoked by an object that is incommensurate to the senses).

However, at the dawn of the twentieth century, composers tended to distance themselves from this requirement, either for the benefit of musical composition, or with a view to work on the senses of the listener. Freed from the limits of a receiver whose senses should be flattered, writing music could venture down paths as of yet unexplored. We would like to examine here how this emancipation from the pleasure principle informs and renews musical creation practices. More specifically, we will look at how creation can be linked to pain, conceived as an unpleasant physiological or psychological state, and therefore usually avoided. Though the concepts of suffering and pain are often used as equivalents, a look at the two concepts, can help us to clarify our remarks. The phenomena of pain that we have seen involves a more or less intense discomfort – from light discomfort to the unbearable – of limited duration. This definition of pain differs from that of suffering, which implies a lasting negative personnel state, entangled in the subject’s biography. Note that in the case of music, this discomfort may be purely physiological (with a physical impact on hearing), or the result of a preexisting cognitive relation with the sensation (the perception of musical structures).

Our purpose here will not be to see how a negative psychological state can orient creative practices, but rather to look at how targeted discomfort may inform musical creation. What happens to composition practices when music is detached from pleasure, and allowed to experiment with listener discomfort? How might the structuring of musical material be linked with a concept of the listener’s physiological and psychological limits? Does an effort to provoke discomfort allow to generate a new grammar of musical material, that would, like that of tonality, have its own rules and proscriptions?

Music and Pain

Before addressing a few cases of creation of painful music, we must note that this inclusion of pain in musical practices is not an entirely new phenomenon. Since the advent of tone, pain has not been systematically avoided. On the contrary, it has been integrated, because considered as one of the conditions of musical enjoyment. The pleasure of hearing a chord is increased when preceded by dissonance. Thus, in the diachronic structure that music is, moments of tension are the condition for pleasure, which accompanies its resolution. In this sense, the music that we aim to consider only exacerbates and generalizes what was meant to be just a short moment in a dynamic process leading to pleasure.

Moreover, in terms of theory, pain is integrated into the definition of pleasure. Rather than simply being conceived as the opposite thereof, it is considered as one of its ingredients. Consider the concept of “tickling” as defined by Descartes (Descartes, 1990), regarded as the highest form of aesthetic pleasure. Tickling is an unequivocal pleasure. It implies a rather mixed experience, consisting partly of pain. It indicates that moment when the body resists an object threatening to destroy it, while the soul rejoices in the strength of the body associated to it. Tickling is therefore a pleasure characterized by the imminence of pain and destruction of senses (Charrak, 2001, pp. 271-272).

Consequently, interest in this sort of music is not simply an interest in an aesthetic fact or in relatively recent artistic practices. It touches something that has been defined as one of the main components musical pleasure, impending pain.

We will not try here to draw up a comprehensive inventory of forms of musical creation aiming to engage in this sort of discomfort for the listener, but rather develop a typology of these practices, addressing some paradigmatic cases, each which indicate a specific link between musical creation and pain, implicitly revealing something about the effects of music and how it is received. In developing this typology, we will endeavor to take different levels of listening to music into consideration, which, while involving a degree, which is, above all, sensory, also involves intellectual faculties (expectations shaped by cultural memory and attention to shapes or structures …). In order to highlight different forms of discomfort that may arise while listening, we will consider separately what takes place simultaneously in real listening: the cognitive aspect and physiological aspect. The cases discussed were chosen in order to show how sound parameters may vary relative to the production of listening discomfort.

From Boredom to the Unheard (of):
The Confusion of Sound.

Before consideration from a purely physiological perspective – the pain of the senses and of the listening body – pain can be considered as a cognitive discomfort: particularly the confusion created by dissonance or noise. Debates on the origin of the pleasure of harmony have shown: listening can hardly be seen as a pure physiological phenomenon (Charrak, 2001). First, a certain form – a sequence of notes and chords – is grasped; Then, expectations – cultural expectations, forged by the history of music as we know it – structure listening.

No doubt this form of pain was in play in the early twentieth century, when composers such as Schoenberg (Schoenberg, 2002) and Russolo decided to go beyond the principals of tonal composition, and to propose new ways of structiong of musical material. Discomfort was not targeted as an end in itself, in a logic that would clash with the ear of the listener, at any cost. It was more a necessary step in undertaking a renewal of musical practices. Yet, contrary to what may be the case in some avant-garde initiatives, this does not mean that the listener’s sensitivity was not part of creative considerations. Discomfort was considered as part of a broader project of reorientation of sensitivity, in which musical work was both the means and the subject.

It was from this perspective that Russolo, considered a shock of the senses (Russolo, 2003). His project was the education of the modern ear, necessitated by the fact that the tonal, harmonic musical material of the past had lost its ability to affect our senses. His futurist manifesto begins with acknowledgement of failure: Tonal music is no longer able to affect us. “Each has a core of already familiar and worn out sensations, that predispose the listener to boredom, despite the efforts of innovative musicians. We have all loved and enjoyed the harmonies of great masters. Beethoven and Wagner have made our hearts tremble for many years. We are satiated.” (Russolo, 2003, p. 15) Here, Russolo joins two elements: first, the fact that sensation (the grasp of a determined relation between pitches) is familiar and has been the subject of repeated experience, and, second, the pleasure that this sensation is able to providing. The pleasure derived from a sensation is inversely proportional to the number of times we have experienced it: The more a sound arrangement is familiar, the less likely it is to appeal to us. In place of pleasure come habit and boredom. Russolo shows us the relationship between the history of the senses – the history of what they perceive – and the pleasure of these senses: Through practicing with same the content, the senses grow weary and are no longer able to grasp what initially was accompanied by pleasure.

This creative approach by Russolo is presented as an almost medical response to the problem of boredom of the senses, since it involves renewal of musical material, in order to awaken a sensitivity that may otherwise become sleepy, through contact with the familiar. Incidentally, the classical concert halls were described as “hospitals of anemic sounds” (Russolo, 2003, p. 16).

To preserve our sensitivity from this death, Russolo proposed a renewal of musical material. It involved drawing on resources from outside the usual supply of musical sounds (limited by those generated by musical instruments, defined according to pitch and precise timber, and arranged according to the principles of tonal writing) to confront the modern ear with the unheard (of).

Thus the necessity for the introduction of noise into music, as an extension, richer in intension and in timber than musical sound, (the variety of sounds of a modern city being infinite) noise is seen as a remedy to the diagnosis of senses formulated by futurists.

If this approach allows to surprise and slam the ears of contemporaries, by creating instruments that can imitate the sounds of the city – snoring, screeching, hooting; it is not done in the name of aesthetic of displeasure, but rather to awaken a sleeping sensitivity, to create the conditions for a richer aesthetic experience. The discomfort of the listener is seen as a new step forward towards the perception of the rich and varied sound that noise is. “We will enlist all truly gifted adventurous young musicians, to observe all noise and to understand the different rhythms that make up their main tones and secondary tones. Comparing the different timbers of noise to those of sounds, they will understand how the former are far more varied than the latter. We will thus develop understanding of, and taste and passion for noises. Our sensitivity exponentially increased, after having developed futurist eyes, we will also have futurist ears.” (Russolo, 2003, p. 30)

The taste for noise has to be cultivated. It requires increased sensitivity, an ability to discern variety and consistency, there where uneducated, the non-futuristic ear feels only the pain of confusion. Pain makes an extended scope of creation possible. Ignoring expectations and requirements for listener pleasure is what allowed Russolo to enrich musical material, by drawing on what had been previously considered not to belong to the field of music: noise. The acceptance of listener pain as a possibility – and not as a limit that cannot be crossed – frees the creative space from a set of syntactic constraints (tonal composition rules), as well as from limits on the makeup of creation material: previously confined to the field of defined pitches played by musical instruments. Musical material can now include irregular sounds.

Sonic Weapons and the Pain of the Listening Body

Yet pain can also be targeted as an end itself. Musical composition, freed from the constraints of tonal composition, can venture into unusual (very low or very high) pitches or play more on timber and volume. Amplification techniques allow to push volume beyond the usual limits of instruments, while the emergence of new means of sound production multiply pitch and volume options. These techniques open up a space for a greater disproportionality between the senses of the listener and the music produced – and with disproportionality, open us to the idea that the sound, instead of being captured by the senses, is rather a threat to them, and could destroy them.

High volume can indeed cause a lot of physical pain, not limited to hearing. Beyond 120 dB, in addition to hearing loss, sound waves cause different sorts of uncomfortable physical states: difficulty breathing, nausea, concussion… Military research quickly took note of these properties of sound and integrated sound weapons into their arsenal, creating torture instruments, by using the capacity of sound to adversely affect the whole body (Goodman, 2009; Volcler, 2011). What interests us here is how these properties of sound are used in compositional practice. The fact that, in the 1960s, sound could be used as a weapon must indeed shed light on effects that can be targeted through its use.

In amplified rock music and in bruitist music, high volume has been used, not just as a parameter for playing music that would come into play as an afterthought to the composition, but as material in musical creation, just like pitch or structure. As Matthieu Saladin explains, “Volume is one of the parameters of musical creation, in the sense that it is part of the experience of listening to music. It can be ignored in favor of other parameters, or often not considered, as evidenced by the fact that it is often set at the same level throughout a concert. Yet it can also prove to be a key element in the music produced.” (Saladin, 2007).

This is the case for many indie rock bands, such as My Bloody Valentine, Swans or Sunn O))) whose concerts are full-fledged creations, which based themselves on the recorded versions of the compositions, only to better depart from them. In these concerts, guitar amplification techniques and effects pedals filtering sounds become creative means, generating their own sounds – feedback or acoustic illusions, caused by the high volume. These strategies aim, first, to expand the range of sounds, but also to create an immersive music experience, which is perceptible not only through hearing, but also through kinesthetic experience, as vibrations affect the body as a whole. Creation – which takes place through improvisation, because occurring simultaneous to listening – takes sounds produced at a high volume as material, and is also oriented through listening to this material.

Hearing and the body are put to the test, for both listener and the musician, united in the same sound space; a space whose continuity lies in the vibrations that affect the body. The creation of such an experience often implies ignoring the health of the listeners’ bodies, including neglecting laws on maximum volumes not surpass, as the groups mentioned above do. Yet, as Gérôme Guibert shows (Guibert, 2011), this lawlessness is linked to artistic demand, high volume being one material of creation like another. The Swans singer, proponent of this sort of transgression, confirms Guibert’s thesis, explaining his choice, “Our art has to be played loudly, because it is the physical experience that’s important to us. Those who do not wish to take part are warned and don’t have to come.”(Fanen, 2014)

This physical experience may include the tactile sensation of the sound wave – which, in the case of Sunn O))), extends to the listener’s skeleton – and is oppressive, even up to the point of provoking nausea. It removes the distance between music and listener, between musician and audience, unifying bodies in a continuous space that encompasses both the stage and the rest of the auditorium.

Moving away from music conceived as art of arranging sounds for pleasure of the ear, these new practices can focus on properties of sounds neglected during its harmonious shaping: on its tactile properties, its materiality and its encompassing nature.

Pain and Musical Limits

The emancipation of musical creation from the pleasure principle allows, above all, to expand the range of material available to the composer. Rendering obsolete the equation in which only a sound or an arrangement of pleasant sounds can be considered as musical sound, and considering integration of the pain of the listener as a possibility – and not as outer boundary of music – authorizes the creator to incorporate new arrangements of sounds (including dissonance) into the composing practice, including those traditionally excluded from the field of musical sounds (noise). This also opens up the possibility of play on parameters that a requirement for listener comfort prevented the manipulation of – sound level, for example. Integrating and acknowledging the possibility of clashing with the listener’s hearing, means renewing musical material and grammar and absorbing that which was previously considered extra-musical into music. More broadly, this image of pain paves the way for a redefinition of the field of music, which, once an art of arranging pitches, so as to please the senses, has become more of a play on the properties of sound and its capacity to affect the listener. The integration of pain makes possible expanded musical conception, which overlaps with the realm of sound – music becoming this place where the capacity of sound to affect us in different ways reveals itself.


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, Discomfort and creation, published 11 June 2016


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