‘Varieties of Audio Mimesis’ book review

Allen S. Weiss
Varieties of Audio Mimesis: Musical Evocations of Landscape

Errant Bodies Press, Los Angeles, 2008

I knew Allen S. Weiss from his penetrating book ‘Phantasmatic Radio’, Duke University Press, 1995, an overview of the extremes of phonetics in art and disembodied language (Artaud, Novarina, Whitehead, Migone) that the author calls onomatopeia. Weiss wrote nearly 40 books on such diverse topics as acousmatic theater, experimental radio, French literature or French gastronomy (on the latter, see this article for Cabinet magazine).

Cover-front‘Varieties of Audio Mimesis’ offers a typology of imitation strategies in music, bringing new examples to the old debate of music being abstract or representational (p11). The author’s definition of Mimesis is imitation and creation (p37), whereas the classical definition, according to Aristotle, is basically imitation of life in art. The author mentions Ligeti’s composition for organ ‘Harmonics’, 1967, as imitating electronics, which pushes the mimesis definition a bit too far (p69).

Weiss notes the gardens multiple correspondences with the other arts: dance, theater, mathematics, architecture, perspective,… (p12) and he considers Gardening the 17th century’s gesamtkunstwerk, a synthesis of the different contemporary art forms. Weiss attributes a different gesamtkunstwerk to each century (p12):

  • 16th = opera
  • 17th = gardens
  • 18th = encyclopedia
  • 19th = Wagner and novels
  • 20th = cinema and multimedia
  • 21st = virtual reality

‘Speech is musical’ (p31) and what follows is an overview of linguistics’ imitation strategies, with various examples of phonemes imitating nature  from the writings of Jakobson, Rimbaud and Genette. According to Bachelard: ‘It is by imitating that we invent’ (p33). Hence, after Busoni, nature’s sounds are considered a source for expanding musical possibilities (p10).

Glissando or noise?: the Cat's Concert, from the book under reviewBased on examples from Gregoy Whitehead or Scott Konzelmann’s 1997 Dry Hole,  Weiss examines unwanted noise and precarious elements such as natural reverb, technical recording errors, aleatory or static, as constitutive of many sound works, not only noise music (pp60-63). He tends to favor analogous techniques as more prone to ‘happy accidents’ than digital, and praises ‘serendipity’ in audio creation (p63). Weiss stresses the key role of glissando technique in avantgarde music’s development, with examples from Edgar Varèse’s Amériques, Michael Snow’s Wavelength and Xenakis (pp70-75). For instance, an orchestra of sirens was apparently devised by mathematician Henri A. Naber in 1903 (note 122, p106). Interesting mention of the Futurists’ Intonarumori as instruments for communicating with the dead, according to Luciano Chessa’s book ‘Luigi Russolo and the Occult’, 2004 (p80).

As much as I enjoyed the examples above, I wasn’t convinced by the 8 categories created by Weiss (p44) to describe all existing sound works, based on the following musical styles: concrete, notated, hyperreal, stylized, evocative or ambient, with any combinations possible. These are self-limiting, arbitrary and not very useful tools and, besides, Weiss aknowledges their permeability. The all concept looks like a mere frame to structure his book. A style-based approach of music would be rather superficial compared to, say: structure, extra-musical elements or performance properties investigation. Anyway, this is a substantial if short book from a fine publisher (see also the Radio Territories book review).

3 Responses to “‘Varieties of Audio Mimesis’ book review”

  1. 1 Acousmata July 16, 2009 at 3:25 pm

    I had not heard of this book– I will check it out, and other works by Weiss as well. Thanks!

  2. 2 Jared July 5, 2010 at 12:32 am

    Re: Weiss’s ‘Phantasmic Radio’, I’ve been looking for a copy of Valere Novarina’s ‘le theatre des oreilles’ – which Weiss talks about – tape on the Artalect label for a good while. Do you have a copy you could post on the blog?

  3. 3 continuo July 5, 2010 at 6:08 am

    Unfortunately, I don’t have a copy of this tape.

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