Sound and the Pathos of the Air

Sound and the Pathos of the Air

Steven Connor

The opening section from a talk given on April 21st 2007 at Two Thousand + SEVEN, a symposium held at the Sonic Arts Research Center, Queen’s University Belfast, in parallel to the Sonorities Festival of Contemporary Music.

This talk arises from a larger attempt to meditate upon the material imagination of air – the ways in which the air has been imagined and made material to the mind. Because there is always something airy in what we have in mind when we say mind, thought, dream, spirit, this is of necessity also a meditation on the ways in which imagination is itself imagined, mentality itself brought to mind. When you imagine the air, you must in part be imagining the stuff you are imagining it with. Sound is one of the principal ways in which air, which cannot be seen, may be imagined. I suggest that our implication in air, and air’s implication in our self-figuring, can be understood as predominantly a mode of suffering or vital pathos, a suffering that is our life. And so it is a phenomenology of the sonorous passions of air that I try to compose in this talk.

Gaston Bachelard provides in his Air and Dreams (1988) a soaring account of the cultural oneirism of air. For Bachelard, air signifies reach, sweep, aspiration and eminence. What he calls the dream of air dreams dream itself, in its Romantic aspect as the faculty of yearning, as we say, longing, of the imagination stretching to go beyond itself.

But the airy imagination that Bachelard makes out is imagined predominantly in images – albeit dynamic, or kinaesthetic images, of flight and plummet. And these are always forms of peaceful longing, a longing that is in its element and at its ease.

Air is not just a theatre of images. For air is the carrier of sound and, as such, almost always implicated in the thought of sound, especially the organised sounds we call music or the sounds that we pay organised, and therefore musicalising attention to. Of course, sound is to a significant degree conducted through other substances – notably bone and water. But it is sound in air, the sounded and sounding air, that our hearing has evolved to detect and that provides a reference for much of our thinking about music. In this sense, all musical compositions are airs, and all musical instruments wind instruments. Thinking of the sounding air, the air in its sonorous aspect, reveals a dimension or accent of the air that complements Bachelard’s.

For sound to occur, there must be, as Aristotle points out in his de Anima, II.8, impacts, blows, impingements; there must be, however minimally, pathos, suffering. The air ‘must be struck with a sudden sharp blow, if it is to sound – the movement of the whip must outrun the dispersion of the air, just as one might get in a stroke at a heap or whirl of sand as it was traveling rapidly past’. Aristotle, who thought that it probable that ‘in all generation of sound echo takes place’, might almost have been thinking of the word ‘reverberation’, which is from reverberare, meaning to beat repeatedly, from the Latin root ‘verber’, a lash, scourge or blow – indeed ‘verberation’ was still being used to mean whipping or flogging until late in the nineteenth century.

Not all sounds are voices, as Aristotle also points out, for ‘Voice is a kind of sound characteristic of what has soul in it; nothing that is without soul utters voice… Voice then is the impact of the inbreathed air against the ‘windpipe’, and the agent that produces the impact is the soul resident in these parts of the body’. But the fact that all voices have soul in them and that only a soul can produce the kind of sound we call voice, does not mean that every sound produced by the soul is uniformly and exclusively voice. There is necessarily soul in every voice, but not only soul:

Not every sound, as we said, made by an animal is voice (even with the tongue we may merely make a sound which is not voice, or without the tongue as in coughing); what produces the impact must have soul in it and must be accompanied by an act of imagination, for voice is a sound with a meaning, and is not merely the result of any impact of the breath as in coughing.

The rumour that Aristotle has a stammer may have given him a reason to be particularly sensitive to this possibility. We might wonder about music in this definition. Is all music voice, or is music an example of the kind of sound produced by an animate or ensouled being, that is, a being capable of producing voice, that is not itself voice? For the logophilic Greeks, instrumental music was indeed thought of as inferior to music that was accompanied by song. But Aristotle’s distinction between voice and the sounds that form part of voice that are nevertheless nonvocal meets with a difficulty, that has recently been articulated by Mladen Dolar, namely the fact that what we call voice is in fact that which escapes the science of phonology, which must concern itself with phonetic abstracts and averages, not with the small, idiomatic variations, the rasps and lisps and hisses – the grain – that constitute voice: ‘The voice is the flesh of the soul, its ineradicable materiality, by which the soul can never be rid of the body’ (Dolar 2006, 71). So we can perhaps improve Aristotle’s formula: ‘Voice is the sound that is characteristic of (the foreign body within) that which has soul in it’. Or: voice is the fly in the soul’s ointment.

What makes the air different from the other elements is the fact that it circulates between soul and matter; indeed, it is the matter of soul, the matter that mediates between matter and mind. Where they mingle and circulate, there is pathos, perturbation, and never more so than in music, and never more so than today, in which sweetness and suffering, fluency and fracture, are so often brought into communication.

It is this aspect of the air, so different from Bachelard’s, that interests me, and especially as it bears upon, or is borne out in, the idea of voice, all the senses of bearing – endurance, carriage, posture, parturition – being relevant.

For Aristotle, the pathos of the sounded air is a result of the conflict of two opposite movements, those of dissipation and constriction. In a way that Aristotle cannot quite comprehend or express, the sounded air is always subject to some impediment, detention, or prevention, just as light requires to be bent or reflected to be seen:

An echo occurs, when, a mass of air having been unified, bounded, and prevented from dissipation by the containing walls of a vessel, the air originally struck by the impinging body and set in movement by it rebounds from this mass of air like a ball from a wall. It is probable that in all generation of sound echo takes place.

This impediment prevents the free dissipation of the air, folding air upon itself, setting it against itself. At the same time, of course, it is a characteristic of sound that it expands or diffuses. But sounded air expands, says Aristotle, as ‘a single mass of air which is continuous from the impinging body up to the organ of hearing’. How do we conceive ‘a single mass of air’ – a body of air, we might say – that is nevertheless agitated, and dissipated? Air that is at once there and not there, and always in passage? Sound is that which shivers and shakes a body, prolonging its shuddering, making its boundaries insecure, interfering with the spatiotemporal distinctiveness that constitutes a body; and yet it is this which makes the body of sound, a body made of its perturbings, a phantasmal body brought to life and made entire in agitation and impairment: a standing wave, and interference pattern.

Air is the body of sound, in the sense that it is the occasion, medium or theatre of sound. But sound is equally the body of air – air gathered into form, given itinerary, intensity and intent. In either case, the body is a stressed body, a body in and of duress.

I want to come at this question of the perturbed body of sound and the body of sound’s perturbation in three phases. I will begin with idea of voice, but will move to a much more general condition, of what we might call panophonia, a general vocality in which paradoxically it is no longer quite clear what is voice and what is not. The first phase is the idea of stress, or bending. The second is the idea of impairment, in the particular kind of buckled or baulked utterance instanced in the stutter. And the third, most particular to us, and to the electrophonic air which we inhabit, but implicit in Aristotle’s awareness of that which is not soul which is to be found in every ensouled utterance, is the idea of interference, or breaking in. So, three chapters of pathos, that may be denominated as strain; stutter; and static.


Aristotle. de Anima (On the Soul)

Bachelard, Gaston (1988). Air and Dreams: An Essay on the Imagination of Movement. Trans. Edith R. Farrell and C. Frederick Farrell. Dallas: Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture.

Dolar, Mladen (2006). A Voice and Nothing More. Cambridge, Mass. and London: MIT Press.