Low End Theory

Paper: Ritual Sound Design

Ritual Sound Design

Abstract for a paper I gave recently at the Affect Project Conference, in Winnipeg, Canada. I investigate some of the ways that religious cultures around the world have exploited low-frequency vibration for its capacity to confound perception, filling bodies with nebulous energies and producing felt-but-unseen presences …

‘Engineering Numinous Affect: An Ethico-Acoustics of Ritual Sound Design’
ABSTRACT: Religious cultures around the world have long recognized the intrinsic peculiarity of bodily encounters with low-frequency sound.  Consider the prevalence of ritual bass-making devices (and structures) designed to hum the body, mystify the senses, and conjure visceral perceptions of invisible presence.  Beyond meaty vibration, this is sound as an incitement to the imagination.   It re-textures felt surroundings and turns the body into a string of questions: “What is that … what’s happening … how will I work with it …?” Brian Massumi would call this synaesthetic ontogenesis.  For Donald Tuzin, it was the audiogenesis of religious culture: sound, modulating affect, as a catalyst of belief.  This paper theorizes low-frequency sound as a non-representational strategy, deployed for its extra-musical (and largely non-cochlear) perceptual effects, in what could be termed “numinous sound design.”  The discussion combines a materialist approach with insights from anthropology, religious studies, musicology and acoustic science.  It takes, as its central example, the case of the pipe organ and the Church, examining the machine’s material contribution – alongside architectural, visual, and liturgical practices – to the sensory (re)generation of belief within a religious assemblage.  The guiding question is not so much what we make of low-frequency sound (how we “construct” or instrumentalize it), but what it makes of us: how does it undulate and unsettle; how does it incite; how does it modulate experience, drawing bodily thought into new equations with itself and its surroundings?

Article: Perceptual Abstraction


My recent article in The Senses and Society on shared affective strategies in the work of bass-drone mysterio Eleh and Op artist Bridget Riley.

Paul Jasen, “A Transversal Lineage: Perceptual Abstraction from Eleh to Op Art,” The Senses and Society 9(1) (March 2014), pp. 16-32.

Abstract: This article proposes the term “perceptual abstraction” to describe the methods of artists who take bodily contingency as their medium. It focuses on the low-frequency drone work of an anonymous figure called Eleh. Like others in the Minimalist tradition, Eleh follows a processual ethic that begins from a minimum of structural elements and asks how they might reshape one another over time. What sets Eleh apart, however, is its singular focus on frequencies within, and sometimes beyond, the lowest reaches of human hearing. These tones play strangely on the sensorium because they can evade cochlear audition even while haunting other registers. This is bass as an agent of bodily mystification, and in Eleh’s hands it becomes a sonic strategy for modulating felt space and fleshy thought. If Eleh diverges from most Minimalists in these ways, then liner notes and cover art point to another, more like-minded body of work. Might Op(tical) Art – with its interest in “charging fields” and rhythmically unraveling retinal perception – share at least as much with Eleh, at the level of affective strategy? If so, could we posit an alternate, transversal lineage of artistic practices defined not by form or tradition, but by a desire to confound perception, by whatever aesthetic and sensory routes?

Paper: Bass Cultures and the Sensory Construction of the Audio-Social

‘I know you’ve all been prepared for this but I thought I’d just remind you just the same…’

Abstract from an older paper on bass cult(ure)s, affect engineering and sonic-fictional resonance presented at the 2009 IASPM-Canada conference.

‘Bass Cultures and the Sensory Construction of the Audio-Social’
ABSTRACT: This paper focuses on bass, the body, and the culturally constitutive functions of sensory experience.  As essential as it is to so much contemporary music, and despite centuries of experimentation around with its corporeal force, surprisingly little has been written about the cultural uses of low-frequency sound. The following discussion combines sonic fictional synthesis with a materialist account of bodily sound to make a case for expanded attention to the corporeal and the incorporeal in musical culture.  My larger project is concerned with developing a conceptual toolkit more suited to this task than are dominant models rooted in the language of mediation, construction and consumption.  Popular music studies scholarship has yielded many important insights on matters of identity, power relations, technology, and industry.  However, its disinterest in the non-representational along with its tendency to disregard the corporeal, or construe it as an effect of social construction, is analytically debilitating.  For all of our speculations on people’s subjectivities we still have very little sense of how it sounds and feels in the sites we describe, even though these are among the main concerns of the people involved.