In From Music to Sound: The Emergence of Sound in 20th and 21st-century Music (Routledge, 2019), Makis Solomos (Professor of Musicology, University of Vincennes in Saint-Denis “Paris 8”) argues that the 20th century bears witness to a kind of paradigm shift relating to the subject matter of music, a shift “from a musical culture centered on the note to a culture of sound” (5). Crucially, Solomos sets out to track this transformation as a change that is music-internal: that is, one that may be understood with reference to the new aesthetic and cultural forms of particular compositions that put sound at stake. Solomos draws on analysis, listening, and the aesthetic writings of composers themselves to argue for the “emergence” of sound-as-such as a topic of 20th- and 21st-century music, one consequence of the increasing complexity of music since 1900.
His first sole-author monograph in English, From Music to Sound is an accessible and engaging entry point into Solomos’s work for an Anglophone audience that draws not only on his long career as a musicologist with extensive experience of contemporary music but also as a specialist in the musical thought of Theodor Adorno and the music of Iannis Xenakis. The book's attention to the contingency of the six themes around which Solomos organises this history—timbre, noise, listening, immersion, the composition of sound as material, and “sound-space”—marks it out not only as a contribution to the history of contemporary music but also to its historiography. Composers and works likely familiar to listeners are marshaled to develop these themes: Russolo, Webern, Schaeffer, Xenakis, Tristan Murail. Its rich selection of music examples provides ample points of departure into the work of composers perhaps less well known to listeners: François-Bernard Mâche, Fausto Romitelli, and Dmitri Kourliandski, among others. Though the principal focus of the book rests squarely on the tradition of Western art music composition, Solomos is careful to acknowledge that this titular transition from “music to sound” is not the exclusive preserve of institutional music culture: examples from recorded rock, jazz, and post-rock help round out the picture by pointing to the role that sound-studio cultures—and, we might say, technique and technics in general—play in the objectification of sound across genre lines.
Eamonn Bell (@_eamonnbell) is a postdoctoral Research Fellow at Trinity College Dublin in the Department of Music. His current research project examines the story of the compact disc from a viewpoint between musicology and media studies.