Music has traditionally had a very human form and origin. Horns amplify and focus the power of the lungs and voice. Drums analogize and pronounce the movements of our arms and legs. Even the pillars of musical theory— melody, harmony, rhythm— have typically remained bound to the productive forces of the human body. Something like natural beauty hasn’t had as much of a place in music. Music could become less human in so far as it was more than human, in so far as it was transcendent — revealing an ideal ratio or a divine Will— but it wasn’t until relatively late in its history that music would find a counterpart to the painted landscape. For one, music was only weakly mimetic. If you wanted, you could mimic birdsong, flowing water, or the rumble of thunder, though not in a way that was music’s center or substance. For two, nature was a pretty quiet place. Its soundstuff didn’t offer much in the way of source material and I’m really struggling to think of examples beyond the ones I already mentioned… Rustling leaves? Animal sounds? Falling rocks?
Human society too was relatively quiet up until the industrial revolutions, after which the soundstuff of our environments became considerably noisier, considerably more varied, pronounced, exciting, and significative. And then fairly late into the industrialization of the West, in 1877, the phonograph was invented and the true mimesis of sound was finally possible. Something like landscapes, or natural beauty, could find a musical form— especially in the expanded sense of “environments” or musics without a human origin or form. It was inside these historical conditions that you begin seeing things like Mahler and Messiaen turning to birdsong, or those two and countless others writing music in the form of scapes, environments, and things. If sounds were neither transcendent or expressive of a human subject, if sounds came in from the world and represented pieces of it, the question of their origins become material: what’s making that sound and what could it mean?
I say all this as a lead-up to talking about the Swiss sound-installer Zimoun, the man behind the video and works above. Zimoun uses very man-made materials, like cardboard or motors, but his musicalized sounds have completely shed human form. They’re not our body or voice. They’re not our needs or feelings. But something else. Unlike many other inhuman musics, Zimoun’s sounds aren’t very “ambient” ambiences. They aren’t patient or pastoral landscapes, or montages of the world. They aren’t brooks, fields, and farms. They’re floods, storms, and stampedes. If musics are now capable of natural beauty, Zimoun’s works are closer to what has been understood as the oceanic or as the Romantic sublime— when nature overwhelms, terrorizes, boggles, and surges forth with an apparent will of its own (and one way, way bigger than us). Just listen to those wiggling cotton xylophone malletheads or whatever they are. They remind you of an eager generation of larvae ready to hatch from eggs and take flight. And those cardboard boxes rustling together and darkly filling up the ceiling: you are now a deepsea diver under a passing school of manta rays. Or what about those waves of styrofoam peanuts rushing against the windows of a buildings like rising floodwaters? It’s mesmerizing but with some definite notes of dread or foreboding, as you’d expect from the oceanic or Romantic sublime.
Zimoun’s works show us that such a sublime doesn’t have to be physically large in height, depth, or breadth, in order to overwhelm. Magnitude can be number or force or anything else, like a swarm of wasps or colony of ants, or like Zimoun’s wiggling panels and tables that aren’t that large but wiggle with an intensity that makes the mind reel and the skin crawl. Nature offers sublime terror at any scale, and Zimoun’s musicalization of nature (in the wider sense of “the inhuman”) is no different. In his case, the musicalization is greatly aided by the timbral and temporal unity of the sounds. It’s overwhelming but not chaotic or the hodge-podge you find in the average environment. Instead it’s a chorus of identical cells cranking out identical noises, making it far more amenable to musical sense (though not just by moving closer to a pitch or pure tone). Its unity is the collectivity of the swarm, the herd, the molecules of the wind or crashing waves. It’s a musical unity that refuses to be brought within the human ken even when it’s man-made or placed in a pristine kunsthalle in the hills of Switzerland.