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Sonic Affects: Experimental Electronic Music in Sound Art, Cinema, and Performance

  • Author(s): Hutson, William Moran
  • Advisor(s): Case, Sue-Ellen;
  • Taylor, Timothy D.
  • et al.

The last decade has witnessed an increase in scholarly attention paid to experimental electronic music, especially the subgenres of sound art and noise music. Numerous books, articles, and conferences have taken up these topics as objects of study. However, only a small amount of that work has focused on the music’s relationship to affect, identification, and cultural history. There remains in some disciplines an assumption that examples of experimental electronic music are either dryly formal demonstrations of art-for-art’s-sake, or essentially resistant to legibility and meaning. The more “abstract” and “difficult” a piece appears on first glance, the more likely it will be seen to retreat from social and political concerns. This dissertation considers specific works of experimental electronic music through the lenses of affect theory, performance studies, sound studies, cultural studies, and other related approaches to argue for a perspective that more thoroughly accounts for the human in the electronic.

The dissertation’s case studies are selected from a variety of different media. Chapter 1 addresses four historically significant works of sound art that each take a technological or physical property of sound as a guiding compositional principle. The chapter considers the ways these pieces can be heard to signify beyond their “modernist” strategies with attention both to the affective experiences of hearing the works, and the sociopolitical contexts of their creation. Chapter 2 outlines a selective history of noise music through the vacillation between opposing poles of “noise” and “music.” The chapter contains a sustained analysis of Macronympha’s Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (1995) that investigates the titular city’s deindustrialization and the affects of anger and disappointment that animate the album’s representations of “white trash” masculinity. Chapter 3 examines diegetic appearances of experimental electronic music in two films—Lipstick (1976), and Bewildered Youth (1957)—in which the music is made to signify sexual perversion and criminality. Using Susan McClary’s notion of gendered structures in western tonal music, I argue that, in these cases, music that rejects tonality becomes characterized by a failure to adequately perform “normal” gender. Finally, Chapter 4 engages examples of extreme performance art with a particular focus on the significance of recorded audio in the documentation of John Duncan’s Blind Date (1980). All four chapters prioritize close readings of audio compositions to interrogate the dense bundles of affect and meaning they generate.

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