Afternoon Dust

Reading Notes: Mimesis, Onomatopeia, and Ice Cream

Allen S. Weiss’ Varieties of Audio Mimesis: Musical Evocations of Landscape is only a short book, yet its succinct and convincing arguments were enough to make me rethink my assumptions. The essay is primarily concerned with how mimesis has and can operate in music and sound art, but before this issue can be addressed, a consideration of sound and meaning in language is needed. Weiss identifies two extreme positions that date back at least as far as Plato: one proposes that there is an inherent natural link between the sound of a word and the meaning to which it refers (naturalism), while the other states that the link between a word and its referent is entirely governed by social convention (conventionalism). In the early twentieth century Ferdinand de Saussure began to teach a course at the University of Geneva in which he argued strongly in favour of the conventionalist view; his insistence that the phonological shape of words was entirely arbitrary went on to become highly influential, shaping the development of everything from linguistics to literary and art theory. However, an undercurrent of naturalism remained, even in the writings of those who drew heavily on Saussure’s ideas, as this passage from Ernst Gombrich, in which he draws on an experiment suggested by Roman Jakobson, shows:

“It is my conviction that the problem of synaesthetic equivalences will cease to look embarrassingly arbitrary and subjective if here, too, we fix our attention not on likeness of elements but on structural relationships within a scale or matrix… I have tried out this suggestion in a party game. It consists of creating the simplest imaginable medium in which relationships can still be expressed, a language of two words only — let us call them ‘ping’ and ‘pong’. If these were all we had and we had to name an elephant and a cat, which would be ping and which pong? I think the answer is clear. Or hot soup and ice cream. To me, at least, ice cream is ping and soup pong.” 1

Weiss argues that the meaning of sounds is both partly conventional and partly natural — ‘natural’ in the sense that we often associate auditory qualities such as timbre and pitch with other, ostensibly non-audible qualitative phenomena, such as mass (in the case of Gombrich’s elephant and cat) or temperature (in the case of hot soup and ice cream). Onomatopoeia, if not present in every utterance, is far more widespread than is commonly assumed, operating across the boundaries that have traditionally separated the senses; it is thus capable not only of simple imitation, but also of stylisation. Once this point has been established, Weiss then goes on to propose a number of categories for music and sound art based upon their relationship to mimesis and representation. The purpose of these categories is not to enable a precise system of labelling, but rather to demonstrate the broad spectrum of possible strategies open to composers and sound artists as they seek to position their work in relation to the rest of the world and to the rest of experience. They are not limited to attempts at faithful imitation or recording on the one hand, and completely abstract non-reference on the other: by varying the degree of stylisation, authorial control (in the sense of recording versus notation) and the specificity of evocation, a wide range of effects can be achieved.

Varieties of Audio Mimesis is thus a very useful balance between notions of transcendental listening (to ‘pure’ sonic matter) on the one hand, and sonic documentary on the otherA vocal proponent of transcendental listening is Francisco López — see liner notes for his CD release La Selva, available at However, when I think about what precisely is being represented in audio mimesis, I start to wonder whether we are talking about a world (either ‘real’ or ‘imaginary’), or about techniques or strategies used in trying to understand and make sense of a world. For example, when a composer makes a decision to pursue mimetic specificity, perhaps by seeking a high degree of evocation or by choosing faithfulness to prior perception over stylisation, does this represent a specificity found in the world in question, or rather an attempt to understand this world as an combination of specific elements? In other words, is the object of representation a bird, or is it a manner of understanding the world as being composed of discrete, nameable objects such as bird, tree, sky, etc.? Is the onomatopoeic representation of coldness (which, as Gombrich showed, is entirely possible) an attempt to evoke a specific thing in the world, or rather the invocation of a perceptual system that distinguishes categories of experience (e.g. temperature), and degrees of intensity within those categories (i.e. of hotness and coldness)? Perhaps it is both at once, and perhaps inescapably so.

I also wonder if the widespread onomatopoeia identified by Weiss is perhaps associated with a mode of perception known in cognitive neuroscience as cross-modal processing, whereby parts of the brain normally associated with different senses collaborate in the processing of a sensory stimulus of a single type. An example of this is when a silent video of hands playing a piano is shown to pianists: their brains show activity in areas associated with auditory and kinaesthetic processing as well as in the visual areas one would expect, as if these additional perceptive faculties were being enrolled to ‘fill in the blanks’ and help make sense of the unusually silent visual phenomenonSee Haslinger, et al (2005). ‘Trans-modal Sensorimotor Networks during Action Observation in Professional Pianists’. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience 17:2, pp. 282-293.. Might there be a context-specific process by which cognition of the word ‘ping’ enlists the neurological systems responsible for processing smallness in the one instance, and coldness in another? If so, is such enrolment learned (i.e. we learn an association between sounds of high pitch and sound sources of small size) or innate? Without experimental evidence, any answer would be speculative; however, it is interesting to note that while an explanation can be offered for the link between high pitch and small size in terms of acoustics, no such explanation is forthcoming for temperature, yet Gombrich’s association of ‘ping’ with ice cream rather than soup nonetheless seems to make sense.

Varieties of Audio Mimesis is published by Errant Bodies Press (2008).

  1. Ernst Gombrich, quoted in Weiss, p.16. ↩︎