Brian Kane – Sound Unseen: Acousmatic Sound in Theory and Practice


Oxford University Press, ISBN: 9780199347841, English, 336 pages, 2014, USA

In a contemporary mediascape where the “non-visual” still seems to be a privileged category, the acousmatic as “the experience of hearing a sound without seeing its cause” is a relevant dimension. From its origins in Pythagoras’ practice of delivering lectures from behind a screen, the term was relaunched in the 1960s, first by novelist Jerôme Peignot and later practised and theorised by composer Pierre Schaeffer in his fundamental concept of the ‘sound object,’ describing a sound separated from its indexical context, completely disconnected from its source through recording technology. We have acousmatic media by definition like radio, records, CDs or the telephone. And in Film Studies, ‘acousmatic’ defines sounds that are heard where none of their generating causes are seen on the screen. In Sound Unseen, the definition by Schaeffer is repeatedly rejected by Kane, who argues that this disconnection makes acousmatic sounds autonomous and then lacking ‘tension’ and ‘mystery.’ He affirms that “[a]cousmatic sound is neither entity nor sound object nor effect nor source nor cause.” Instead, it comes into being in the complex relationship between “auditory effect, cause and source.” Even more, it crosses different disciplines like sound studies, philosophy, film and psychoanalysis. In keeping with this, Kane’s methodology is multi-disciplinary, analysing a variety of cases. One example is Franz Kafka’s “The Burrow,” a novel based on an unidentified animal (similar to a mole) living in the dark and relying only on unseen (acousmatic) sounds. As Kane states then: “Sound respects no boundaries, and neither does sound unseen”.