The timbre out of space

van Elferen, Isabella (2015) The timbre out of space. In: Thirty-Sixth International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts : The Scientific Imagination; 18-22 Mar 2015, Orlando, U.S.. (Unpublished)


“Shall I say the voice was deep; hollow; gelatinous; remote; unearthly; inhuman; disembodied? What shall I say?” (H.P. Lovecraft, “The Statement of Randolph Carter”). My paper explores the role of timbre in Gothic, SF, and Weird music. Timbre, the most indescribable of musical parameters, is able to add an immediately nostalgic or otherworldly feel to a composition: timbre turns a power chord (on distorted guitar) to bourdon (on hurdy gurdy) in many medieval Goth songs; the timbre of the theremin evokes outer space in countless SF film soundtracks; the unheard timbre of H.P. Lovecraft’s “nameless gods” resonates with numinosity. And yet how can timbre be described except with the help of imprecise adjectives? How can voices such as that in Lovecraft’s story above be conceptualised if they cannot sufficiently be described? Timbre is material and immaterial, signifier and unsignifier, real and unreal. Precisely because it is so evasive and yet so powerful, timbre is able to immerse listeners in the well-defined space and time of a composition. Reading timbre not only as “the grain of the voice” (Barthes) but also as a musical form of heterotopia (Foucault), I argue that timbre in Gothic, SF, and Weird music effects an ephemerally un/real sonic manifestation of the alternative times and places thematised in these genres. The heterotopia heralded by timbre is vast and undefined, but its lure is inescapable. Its ineffable, unattainable closeness functions as a site of imagination or desire (Dolar) within which our subjectivity becomes displaced. Other-placed. Un-placed.

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