Westzaan: Loudspeaker listening, Siegert and Stockhausen (Session 8)

Loudspeaker listening fascinates me. Loudspeakers are everywhere and mediate every daily listening experience. However, a concrete theory of loudspeaker listening is lacking. In my Master thesis I conducted cultural historical/musicological research on the reinvention of loudspeaker experience after the Second World War. In this contribution, I present some sketches of my analysis of the relations between Siegert and Sloterdijk, as an attempt to relate Siegert to a deeper and more profound analysis of Stockhausen’s loudspeaker listener, offering a starting point to dissect the loudspeaker from a media historal and media archeological perspective.

Loudspeaker experience pops up when I rethink concert hall listening, while participating in the Concert 3.0 research project, and it recurs in aesthetic experiments with radio in the 1920s, by for instance, Brecht, Weill and Hindemith. However, for me, one of the best loudspeaker listening theorists is still Stockhausen. His writings, the constitution of loudspeaker experience in compositions like Gesang der Jünglinge, and, even better, in Kontakte (1958-1960) for music instruments and electronic sounds, his gigantic spherical ear at the Osaka World Expo of 1970, are all experiments that explore loudspeaker experience while at the same time formulating a theory and reinventing loudspeaker listening. In Kontakte Stockhausen drastically abandoned the Classical-Romantic notion of a listening experience guided by a narrative structure of beginning, middle and end. Instead, Stockhausen created a critical, conscious and participating experience. The listener was encouraged to take the initiative himself to tune in and out in his listening experience of the composition, which would induce a relationship with the composition on the basis of participation. The loudspeaker listener became conceptualized as a concrete and physical phenomenon, since his position was actively accounted for by trajectories of sound moving through four loudspeakers that were positioned in the concert hall space. The audience was positioned at the center of the performance space. Through this process, loudspeaker listening became a physical experience.

The loudspeaker in relation to our daily listening practices raises a variety of questions. Siegert’s media technical analysis of electricity offers an alternative perspective to one that approaches the loudspeaker as a finished, functioning piece of technology, or as an instrument for degenerating concert hall experience (Adorno). The loudspeaker can neither be reduced to a political apparatus, nor to a social apparatus that creates or fragments hearing collectives, or a ‘radio voice’. Instead, it will be interesting to depart from an analysis of the loudspeaker as an electrical phenomenon, and dissect it.

Siegert’s analysis of electricity and his conception of the organ of the soul, reminds me of some passages in Sloterdijk’s Sphären III: Schäume (2004). In these passages he accounts for the fact that things that were not supposed to be experienced by our human eyes, were magnified by instruments.

Vergrößerung: das ist (neben der Kartographie) die Erstschlagskapazität der Explikation, durch welche die bisher unsichtbare Welt unter Bildzwang gesetzt wird. Erst nach der auto-operativen Drehung gerät das neuere Wissen in die Position, in welcher ihm zum Phänomen wird, was in keiner Weise für die menschlichen Wahrnehmungsapparat bestimmt war, zumindest nicht nach dessen erstem Entwurf. (Sloterdijk: 83)

Magnifying instruments have offered us insights in new aspects of a previously hidden world. This implies a rather radical turn in how we encounter and experience phenomena in the world, what phenomena we exactly encounter and how we enter into relations with them. I see some parallels between this and Siegert’s accounts of Hegel’s Phänomenologie des Geistes in relation to Ritter, which connects the works of Sloterdijk and Siegert to the loudspeaker and electricity.  Loudspeakers magnify sounds that are already there and that have been recorded by the microphone. For this simple reason the loudspeaker is, more than a microphone, a prosthesis of the ear. As Sloterdijk explains:

Daher ist die Entfaltung des Prothesenbaus – Kernstück des Explikationsgeschehens – die Phänomenologie des wirklichen Geistes. Die Wiederholung des Lebens an anderer Stelle zeigt auf, wieviel vom Leben in seiner ersten Gestalt verstanden wurde. (Sloterdijk 2004: 317)

Also, from the beginning of the commercialization of sound technology, sound engineers focused in their research on the acoustic experience of sounds in order to develop and improve the loudspeakers. As Sloterdijk reasons: Das technische Machen ist wesenhaft ein Ersetzen oder Prothetisieren. (316) And the other way around: the design and construction of prostheses help us to understand ourselves, to explore ourselves.

Correspondingly, as Siegert tells at page 299, Chladni’s and Fourier’s (graphical) visualizations of sound – ‘das Herauswachsen des Diskreten’ – were radicalized by Oersted who first of all reasoned that these waves are composed of a number of even tinier waves that diffuse. Secondly, Oersted’s discovery in 1820 accounts for a change in media. (301)

These themes seem to recur in Stockhausen’s conception of loudspeaker experience. He not only created synthetical sound, but also believed that this sound would become the new standard for music listening. Die Elektronische Musik als Gattung hat […] ihre eigene Klangphänomenologie, die nicht zuletzt durch die Lautsprecherwiedergabe bedingt ist.  (Stockhausen 1963: 144) This sound phenomenology is inseparable from the loudspeaker: Die Hörer am Lautsprecher werden früher oder später verstehen, daß es sinnvoller ist, wenn aus dem Lautsprecher Musik kommt, die man nur am Lautsprecher und nirgendwo anders empfangen kann. (146-147)

Stockhausen and Siegert both give insights in the reinvention of subjectivity; Siegert in ‘Medien des Unbewuβten’ and Stockhausen by using loudspeakers as music instruments creating shifting perspectives. Other relevant concepts come from Ritter/Hegel and Oersted like feedback mechanism, short circuity (302), and the electric shock (page 298 of Siegert): Erst durch den Stromschlag (bei Trennung und Schlieβung der Kette) wird der “Eintritt der Bestimmung des Organs ein Gegenstand der Wahrnehmung.” As Siegert then depicts in ‘Spasmen’, how the introduction of new concepts, like Cauchy’s proof (Siegert: 309-312), almost announces a new religion, or a new relation with the transcendental. Similarly, Stockhausen’s sketches of a new concert hall (Kugelauditorium) and his prophetic writings almost imply a new religion.

Siegert’s history of media techniques helps us to understand ourselves as creatures who learn to understand ourselves by entering into relations with actors around us through techniques and technology. My thought experiments with the applicability of Siegert to loudspeaker listening, mediated by the theories of Sloterdijk and Stockhausen’s experiments, also functioned as a way to illustrate  the most significant points I located in the chapters of this session.

Siegert shows that throughout history humans have developed and changed perspectives, each time exposing different aspects of ourselves and conceptualizing and re-conceptualizing our modes of experience.


3 thoughts on “Westzaan: Loudspeaker listening, Siegert and Stockhausen (Session 8)”

  1. Great post! Bringing Stockhausen into this space is an intriguing move. One of the recurring themes from the beginning of this book has been the interconnected relationship between the analog and the digital. The early history of electronic music is often told, interestingly, in terms of two streams, musique concrète, which has close connections to tape and, more properly, recordings of the world around us; and elektronische Musik, composed of sound synthesized from oscillators which is very much part of the electrification of culture that Siegert seems to be focusing in on. It’s an interesting distinction in itself, but this reading of Stockhausen might suggest that the real critical distinction in early electronic music is not composition method (i.e., tape or synthesizers) but the kinds of work that the loudspeaker-prostheses do. This would also create a nice space to think about sound art within the same context (which usually doesn’t happen).

    All that being said, one thought that occurred to me repeatedly in reading these sections was that the deep history of sound technologies, at least in a European context, is inextricable from the history of musical instruments. Could everything Stockhausen says about loudspeakers hold true for organs (and/or organ pipes)? That seems like one of the key ruptures in the history of sonic Vergrößerung.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for the comment! It mentions two themes I cannot stop talking about.

      The difference between electronic music and musique concrète you mentioned in your reply summarizes my idea of the development of electroacoustic composition, which seemed to be marked by a rupture around 1945. (Also, one of the instruments I came across in my thesis, that caused this rupture, might be the high frequency Magnetophon, discovered by the Allied forces after the Second WW.) Concerning the particularities of electronic music, there is a comment by Stockhausen himself on the difference, in a lecture where he brilliantly answers a question on dehumanization in electronic music. His vision of supra-humanization and on the rebirth of humanity and consciousness seems to recall the prosthesis of human functions by technology.
      In another excerpt of the same lecture, he discusses musique concrète and elaborates on his position as a composer of electronic music towards sound and how he studied it. Here he mentions music instruments, as well as the organ in classical music and in pop music. It comes down to the fact that his analyses of sounds and acoustics made him think ‘why not synthesizing sounds?’ Eventually, through instruments of measurement (he mentions this around 6.00) he created new sounds. Watch it here.

      I really liked the idea to introduce the organ! Max Weber’s Die rationalen und soziologischen Grundlagen der Musik (1923) might be interesting and relevant, especially with regard to your statement that ‘the deep history of sound technologies, at least in a European context, is inextricable from the history of musical instruments’. His book gives a sociological account of the rationalization process in music (e.g., from an ‘irrational’ musical system to the rational tonal system, and the mechanization of music instruments). Despite some historical inaccuracies, the following description of the organ offers an interesting perspective on music machines and recalls the issue of dehumanization:

      Die Orgel ist dasjenige Instrument, welches am stärksten den Charakter einer Maschine an sich trägt, weil es denjenigen, der es bedient, am stärksten an die objektiv technisch gegebenen Möglichkeiten der Tongestaltung bindet und ihm am wenigsten die Freiheit gibt, seine persönliche Sprache zu reden. Sie ist in ihrer Entwicklung auch darin den Maschinenprinzip gefolgt, daß, während ihre Bedienung, welche im Mittelalter noch eine Vielzahl von Personen, vor allem von Balgtretern, erforderte – für die 24 Bälge der alten Orgel des Magdeburger Domes waren immer noch 12 »Kalkanten« nötig, für die gleiche Orgel der Kathedrale in Winchester im 10. Jahrhundert waren es noch 70 –, diese physische Arbeit zunehmend durch maschinelle Vorrichtungen ersetzt ist, und daß sie dabei auch das technische Problem des kontinuierlichen Gebläses mit der Eisenverhüttung geteilt hat. –

      (The complete text is available at zeno.org)

      So, in the development of the organ the replacement of the labour of human beings seems characteristic. But perhaps I’m too easily distracted. I’m interested to know more about your vision of the organ with regard to Siegert’s Vergröβerung, and in relation to the loudspeaker! Could you tell me more?


  2. This is great, sorry to be slow re-replying! I’d love to hear more about the magnetophone–I was just reading about it (and saw some related objects at Humboldt University’s Media Archaeology Fundus). When and how did tape get picked up by electroacoustic studios? The story of Allied forces (especially Americans) capturing magnetophones and taking them to Hollywood (as the Ampex company) is a commonly told story. But how and when it makes the jump to studios would be intriguing. (I’ve heard from some composer friends, for example, that Pierre Schaeffer’s famous etudes were not on tape. I somehow assumed they were.)

    More on the organ and things sometime soon!


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