review in the Wire: Adventures in Modern Music, 374, April 2015

The Tone Of Our Times: Sound, Sense, Ecology And Economy

Frances Dyson, MIT Press Hbk 232 pp

Frances Dyson listens to The Tone Of Our Times through religious rituals and the act of acclamation to parliamentary systems and philosophical language, and on to the tenor of the voice and its media-political reality, to articulate the echoes of economy and ecology in the contemporary soundscape. Her writing is dense and complex, rigorously working through historical and philosophical references to open a space for this tone to echo beyond an inward looking sound study, and away from anechoic institutional and linguistic conventions to move outward and bring together “an experience that is qualitatively different to other experiences of commonality”.

The notion of the tone, as opposed to the sound, is chosen deliberately and with intent, creating a focus on tonal relationships rather than on the medium of sound and its emphasis on reception, thus enabling the insertion of discord and the possibility of change into a hermeneutic system of listening. It serves to subvert the order and hierarchy of harmony in favour of incommensurability: irrational relationships that fall outside of language, as well as outside of good form, taste and governance. Dyson locates this in the accident, the “Pythagorean comma”: the place of silence in musical harmony and the place from which the Big Bang makes its move to create a different order, where resonance becomes echo and acclamation to God or the divine loses its certain aim.

By considering the fundamental influence of Christian Trinitarianism and its ideal, the oneness of a threefold divine, on the development of Western harmony, Dyson elaborates first on the concealment and suppression of the voice that utters other possibilities, and then offers access to this concealed voice through her elaboration of an “echography” that contrasts with the study of resonance and meaning and instead explores sense as the centrifugal motion of dissonance. Her interpretation of Western polyphony, a seeming multivocality, as being conducted to “count-as-one” by the “hierarchy of angels”, which manifests a precedent for civil administration, lays the ground for the development of metaphors between cultural religiosity, music and politics that pervades the book and forms the basis of its methodology. The tone of Liturgy, the practice of religious acclamation through hymns, and the economies of a Judeo-Christian ontology are surveyed and debated via philosophy and art, to reach a vista of the world that reveals and grants access not to its magnitude but to an invisible multitude and their inaudibility.

As if to mimic the Trinity of its historical background the book moves through three manifestations: the first three chapters outlining the religious and philosophical landscape on which the tone must find its echo; the fourth and fifth search for an affective echo in noise and in the post-humanist voices of ECAs (Embodied Conversational Agents: computer-generated characters that are able to communicate in a human-like way) and the last chapter listens for the echo of the incommensurable between financial institutions and political uprising and activism such as Occupy and the Arab Spring. This triadic motion is forceful and persuasive, opening new ways to think about the world and what its tone rather than its sound reveals about the ecology of our political systems and subjectivities.

Given Dyson’s deliberate eschewal of sound in favour of tone, and her interpretation of its relationships via history, philosophy and theology, discourses that observe and represent rather than make us hear, it is inevitable perhaps that the book ends on the discussion of a visual artwork, Helen Grace’s  “Sleep Per Night-October,” from Speculation: The October Series (2012). Oil on canvas. A tone not listened to but written about, brings forth an image, saturated with tonality whose own ambiguity and multiplicity is held firmly in a graph. This concession to the visual reveals one inescapable paradox of writing an echography: the necessity to yield to the accord of communication. This contradiction is extended further in the conclusion, where Dyson attributes the ultimate failure of activist movements such as Occupy to their refusal to accept leadership structures and integrate into a (harmonic) system. This lack of success mirrors the lack of a sonic work that could summarise and persuade us with the same immediacy and force, at the end of this book, to move away from the “hierarchy of angels” and see the devil at work in the monochord.