Sonic fiction is a term that conjures images of musical landscapes as fertile and varied as the literary worlds of McCarthy or Camus, and rightfully so. Chiefly an auditory venture, as the name suggests, sonic fiction, in its most elemental means of expression, is an exploration of the soundscape as a cultural narrative, with artists as the quintessential narrators of an experience both intimately relatable and expansively universal.
This nascent subgenre, if one dares to confine it within such pedestrian limits as “genre,” resounds on the notion that music is not merely an aesthetic indulgence, not merely an expression of Dionysian ecstasy nor a celebratory Apollonian beauty-for-its-own-sake, but also a vehicle for existential storytelling as rich and complex as any classic tome. These aural, albeit relatively niche, architects craft experiences that weave together waves of elegant melody, ambient noise, industrial ‘found sound’ experiments, and a plethora of enigmatic sonic textures to fabricate auto-centric stories that are primarily felt rather than told, understood viscerally rather than intellectually. One may also venture to insert another platitude in coining the term “abstract wilderness,” but one dares not to risk engaging in a verbose inebriation of superlatives.
The growing proliferation of such thematically literary soundscapes parallels the increasing wearisomeness of our era’s unique social malaise – a sense of inner quieting in isolation amidst the barrage of infernal noise characteristic of the ever-increasing hyper-connectivity in the modern world. In an overwhelmingly digitised sphere, where human interactions are often distilled into binary, data-driven transactions, the soundscaping artist – commonly of the isolationist variant – finds in this subgenre a paradoxical bridge to the soul and spirit of the audience. Here, within the muffle of headphones, the listener is invited into a deeply personal vision, a shared solitude that is at once an escape and a profound connection to the ontological nature of being in the world in the most Heideggerian sense.
In the evolving landscape of sonic fiction, artists like Dan Barrett and Thom Wasluck stand as monumental figures, sculpting soundscapes that transcend mere auditory experiences. Barrett, famed notably for his enigmatic projects Have A Nice Life, and Giles Corey masterfully construct existential sonic operas that resonate with a hauntingly melancholic profundity. Take, for instance, the anthemic postmodernist track “Bloodhail” from Have A Nice Life’s seminal album “Deathconsciousness.” Here, Barrett and his co-member Tim Macuga weave a dense fabric of sound, layering brooding guitar riffs with droning synths and a pulsating rhythm that captures a sense of lurking, overwhelming dread. This is not merely music; it is a profound meditation on the perennial human condition, sprang from the despair and isolation inherent to the materialist trappings reflective of modern society.
Similarly, in Giles Corey’s self-titled album, the song “Nobody’s Ever Going to Want Me” offers a raw, unfiltered glimpse into the depths of personal lack and despondency. Barrett’s use of minimalistic guitar and haunting vocals creates a sense of intimate desolation, echoing the loneliness and alienation that pervades contemporary life.
Thom Wasluck, under the moniker Planning For Burial, similarly delves into the socio-political and existential dimensions of sound. His work, characterised by a fusion of shoegaze, drone, and ambient found sounds, presents a sombre reflection on the human psyche. In songs like “Warmth of You” and “Below the House,” Wasluck crafts soundscapes that are at once deeply personal and universally resonant. These tracks are not just compositions but emotional time capsules, mapping the contours of grief, loss, and longing. The sonic textures he employs, ranging from the ethereal to the abrasive, mirror the complexities of the human condition in a society fraught with existential angst and psychically invasive socio-political turmoil. This type of soundscaping offers a more nuanced representation of our culture and society, providing a space for introspection and understanding amidst the chaotic and meretricious throes of modernity. Through their art, Barrett and Wasluck invite listeners to confront the darker aspects of existence, challenging them to find beauty and emotional resilience in the plundering depths of the abyss. They create not just music and art for the purpose of personal expression but entire cosmologies of sound and visionary storytelling that wholly envelop the listener, enticing them into a realm in which the experience of the music is inseparable from the deeply existential narrative it conveys.
These vivant sonic realms are not a carte blanche for one-dimensional escapism, however, but an exploration of the Self-born from within the collective human experience in relation to the external world – nor are we to imply that the relationship between creator and consumer in this unique subgenre fails in venturing to transcend the prosaic artist-to-fan dynamic. To the contrary, no longer is the artist a distant ‘deity’ illuminated solely upon the plateau of his/her castle; instead, they become a type of psychopomp of a distinctly relatable sonic and lyrical variant, spearheading the listener through the undulating, metaphysical landscapes of sound and the complexities of human experience in conjunction with the need to engage in reasoned social and metapolitical discourse, thus consummating in the hyper-connected domain to which it relates. In turn, the fan – the listener, not ‘consumer’ as such – is not just an admirer but an active participant within and recipient of this multifaceted sonic experience, thus becoming a self-elected co-creator as they imbue their own meanings and narratives into the music. But why does it matter, and what place does music have in dispensing such expressions of active, existential storytelling?
In “Noise: The Political Economy of Music”, the French philosopher and economics advisor Jacques Atalli provides a similar theoretical framework for understanding the socio-political power of sonic fiction soundscaping. Attali discusses music as a “mirror of society,” suggesting that its organic structure and evolution reflect and influence the progressive state of civilised society at large. Looking at it through this context, sonic fiction may well be deemed a powerful tool for tacit socio-political expression through an implicit means, providing a dynamic platform to explore and critique the world around us in a manner that is both practical and cathartic, therefore acting upon the will to effect key change, to engage in public protest, and even to explore philosophical re-evaluations via application of reason in addition to the emotional desire for self-gratification.
Further, in the convoluted realm of modern discourse, the rise of personal public platforms has emerged as a pivotal wrench in the works of established socio-political narratives. This phenomenon, ushered in by the digital age, marks a seismic shift from the traditional media industry’s dominion over public conversation. Where once the flow of information was meticulously channelled through a handful of selective pedagogues, today’s landscape is a sprawling, decentralised forum of myriad ideas in which common voices, once muted or even non-existent, may now resonate with unfiltered potency. Arguably stemming from the advent of Web 2.0 technology, this unprecedented empowerment of individual voices also raises philosophical questions relating to the nature of truth and reality in the contemporary socio-political sphere, as the polyphonic nature of social media creates an onslaught of conflicting narratives, where truth is often deemed ‘subjective’, and the collective voices of individuals democratically construct the consensus of reality. This challenges traditional epistemological frameworks and necessitates a re-evaluation of how existential truths, desires, and phenomena are discerned and validated. The incoming proliferation of Web 3.0 technology thus poses many prophecies, but I digress.
Central to this shift are storytelling artists, particularly those operating in the realm of music. Historically, successful musicians have been the chief vanguards in exercising social and political influence, with their melodies and lyrics mirroring the zeitgeist of mass discourse and effective political and social action. However, during an era where social media reigns as a paramount necessity for voicing one’s ideas in such universal political discourse, their role has transcended mere reflection of societal currents. Now, independent artists – often ironically isolated by the very platforms that amplify their voices – are just as well architects of fiction-oriented soundscapes that can potentially facilitate more than passing (or trivial) entertainment, for they can influence to the full extent of their public reach. Thus, by weaving socio-political commentaries into their craft, they can not only capture but also shape public sentiment by virtue of their online popularity, irrespective of their ‘offline’ social standing and status. This weaving of musical and lyrical storytelling is, therefore, reflective of the way in which modern society is progressively becoming a useful vehicle for just about anybody willing, and not only for the purpose of artistic expression but also for tangible influence, thus potentially challenging and reshaping universal narratives in active real-time at a seemingly incessant pace. This unique convergence of art and socio-political advocacy underscores the evolving interplay between politics and the digital public square, where the sound of music is as much a tool for change as the written word or spoken speech.
Sonic fiction soundscaping, then, in its most resplendent form, emerges as an audacious conduit for socio-political exploration, transcending the conventional narratives and rhetorics that often mire outmoded means of public discourse. Unlike the didactic and often convoluted pathways of standard cultural and political dialogue, music, particularly within the realms of fiction-oriented soundscaping, sculpts and embodies an immovable purity of expression – it is the ‘thing-in-itself’, a Kantian ‘Ding an sich’, unadulterated and unmediated. Through its resonant frequencies and rhythmic architectures, it communicates complex ideas and social concerns not solely as abstract concepts over which to pontificate on a purely cerebral level but as lived, sensory experiences, offering a canny ability to amalgamate disparate cultural and musical elements and mirroring the pluralistic and often chaotic nature of cultural and political landscapes today.
This direct sensory experience becomes a microcosm of society’s multifaceted (and at times seemingly confused and conflicted) voice, an aural showcase that depicts the heterogeneity of common human difficulties and perspectives. Indeed, this is the inherent power and beauty of the literary aspect of soundscaping: it serves as a stark and sobering mirror to society, reflecting its complexities, its tensions, and its aspirations in a form that is both immediate and deeply affecting, not to mention occasionally disturbing. And in their most enlightened form, these aspects provide a more direct and less convoluted pathway for both internal and external exploration. They do so not through the imposition of preconceived notions or rigid ideologies but through the pure, unmediated experience of sound – a medium that, in its very essence, is both the message and the messenger, a vibrant, living thing in itself.
In a world increasingly fragmented by partisan politicking, extremist ideologies, and well-nigh febrile social divisions, these authentic literary soundscapes can act as mediating grounds on which listeners can come together, free from the constraints of conventional, rigid discourse. Through their craft, these artists of virile potency become the builders and architects of a unique form of dialogue, one that is felt and acted upon rather than merely spoken, experienced, rather than simply explained. This form of universal communication opens up avenues for an immediate and accessible understanding as well as an interconnected embrace of empathy, which centralised forms of controlled dialogue most often fail to achieve due to a lack of experiential nuance. This aspect serves as a reminder once again of the power of the platonic arts to unite, heal, and, perhaps above all, inspire. For the storytelling artist, it’s a bridge to the perennial time and being of the world at large, a means for the artist to extend his hand to the disaffected, the unheard, and the hurt in a way that is both profound and practical, and thus paving a way to form an uncanny potential to dissolve barriers between the fraught Self and one’s relationship to the chaos inherent to the modern world. They offer a space where the isolated artist can whisper directly into the ears of their listeners and where those listeners can, in turn, find their own voices in the echoes of that very whisper.
As this audacious movement gathers quiet momentum, it beckons to all those who seek connection in the fractured landscape of modernity. Sonic fiction soundscaping is not merely a subgenre; it is a vessel for collective catharsis, a painting of vibrations that ties the frayed ends of our shared emotional experience back together. And in this ever-fluxing world of ours, where noise often drowns out personal meaning, the deceptively silent promise of sonic fiction is that the music, the story, and the silence in between will speak louder than the ubiquitous ringing of incessant noise and chaos ever could.
Cover image: Planning For Burial via Bandcamp