[ISEA94] Paper: Douglas Kahn – Amplifications: Transformations in Sound and Technology in the Western Avant-garde and Experimental Arts


Prior to the advent of the phonograph, cultural concepts of amplification were dominated by figures of the scream and loud or far reaching voices, subtended by a divine and anthropocentric aurality. Because the phonograph could record non-human sounds as well, the notion of all sound grew, as did the relational figure of a non-expressive dispersal, i.e., sounds deployed spatially throughout the environment and not situated by acts of human utterance. This phonographic birth of hearing was anticipated by a decade in Lautréamont’s Les Chants de Maldodor, where the protagonist’s scream upon confronting the violent monstrosity of the Creator created the sense of hearing. This one scene of the effects of amplification can be understood as the veritable Big Bang of modernist aurality. The loud sounds of modernity, especially the military sounds during World War I, imposed themselves upon the discourses of the avant-garde. Microphony and radiophony assured that sounds need not be imposing in themselves. Technologies for amplifying smalls sounds and transmitting others to great distances, created a new modulation of spaces, objects and bodies. They were also key in Varese’s unrealized telecommunication works and at the crux of Cage’s entire aesthetic. The denouement of modernist amplification arrived with the paradigmatics of La Monte Young, where the barely audible sustained at length becomes a way to assert aural acuity and loudness at the threshhold of pain a way to assert corporeal, social and environmental presence.

  • Douglas Kahn is an American artist and writer currently living in Australia. He is coeditor of Wireless Imagination: Sound, Radio and the Avant-garde (MIT Press, 1992), author of John Heartfield: Art & Mass Media (Tanam, 1985) and, beginning in 1995, an editor of Leonardo Music Journal. His essays have appeared in such journals as October, Art & Text, InterCommunication, Music Today Biannual, Musicworks, Parachute, Performing Arts Journal, Public, Experimental Musical Instruments, and in the books Critical Issues in Electronic Media, Radio Rethink, In the Spirit of Fluxus and Sound by Artists.