At several points in the history of acoustics, figures have argued that human hearing can or should access ultra or infrasound. And certain recent post-tonal works have notated pitches that explicitly play with, or exceed, the ordinary range of human hearing (cf. Schoenberg, Per Nørgård, and Salvatore Sciarrino). This talk asks what kind of listener such works imply.
Amid recent moves toward sound as vibrational force, it argues that hearing has a special role in determining our natural sensory limits and human identity, and that attempts to push against these limits foreground the underlying matter of what status the biological body has for performance and the perception of music. In a historical critique of auditory sense augmentation, I contrast Jakob von Uexküll’s theory of Umwelt (where sensory limits are a material fact of biology) with a transhumanist worldview which anticipates—and for some, already realizes—the enhancement of biological sense capacities through technology.
The discourse of transhumanism poses questions for musical listening as soon as the body becomes an assemblage subject to variation. It raises the question of how identity—ours as well as that of musical works—might be affected by “morphological freedom,” the extent to which self-identity becomes the lost referential when agency is distributed between biological and non-biological parts, and it asks what value are the new intellectual vistas that emerge when musical experience is conceived in material terms as communication between bodies.