Thor Magnusson – Sonic writing: technologies of material, symbolic, and signal inscriptions


Bloomsbury Academic, ISBN-13: 978-1501313868, English, 304 pages, 2019, UK

As a young boy the poet Rilke explored phonoautography, where sound waves produced mechanical etchings on a surface that could be subsequently played back. He wondered if such inscriptions existed in nature – would playing the grooves of a human skull produce a uniquely ‘primal’ sound? What Rilke touches on is the notion that any kind of printed matter, deliberately encoded or simply naturally occurring, might be made to resonate through some mechanical act that blends ‘reading’ with ‘sonification’. Magnusson’s Sonic Writing threads the same territory and explores technologies of inscription with respect to sound. The book argues that we can understand contemporary practise through the broad historiography of music as a technology of inscription. It’s a brilliant starting concept, drawing together forms of ‘symbolic inscription’ through the musical score and musical notation; forms of ‘signal inscription’ through analogue recording; ‘material inscription’, describing how specific ideologies are inscribed in instrument design; and ‘digital writing’ detailing the transduction of sound from vibrations into the air into binary code. The book becomes a fascinating study of all forms of sonic writing for anyone interested in the sonic arts, but it’s also a fascinating lens for thinking about the history and politics of technologies of inscription and storage more generally.