Giada Dalla Bontà: Sonic Agency in unsustainable Worlds

1 January, 2023 | Giada Dalla Bontà

© Stefanie Kulisch

Giada Dalla Bontà: Sonic Agency in unsustainable Worlds

The Dostoevskian motto "Beauty will save the world," expanding from the realms of literature to philosophical and theological debates of ethico-aesthetic nature, has nowadays reached popular culture in forms of quotational knowledge printed on posters, tea mugs and home décor items.

Sadly, prince Myshkin, the hero of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novel "The Idiot", never formulates such a statement. Rather, he is asked if he really declared once that beauty would save the world, to which Myshkin replies with silence (Dostoevsky: 2003, 632). And although in the novel the beauty of his beloved Nastasja Filippovna is characterised as world-changing, what he notes first, gleaming through the delicate features of her portrait, is suffering.

As a matter of fact, Myshkin was conceived by Dostoevsky as the archetype of a wholly beautiful human being thrown into this complicated world, a world that will kill his beloved Nastasja and will drive him to insanity, back to the sanatorium he came from.

Beyond Dostoevsky’s ethico-theological concept of beauty and suffering and its artistic elaboration by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the power of culture and music has been scientifically proven by sociologists and psychologists to impact our emotional state and way of thinking as well as our interpersonal conduct and sense of identity (Hallam; Cross; Thaut: 2008; Hallam: 2010). Music matters, as does the information it conveys socially and affectively.

I clench to their data and papers while discriminatory politics are on the rise, refugees flee from wars, and anthropogenic climate disasters graze the point of irreversibility under our inoperative glances. Whereas the ubiquitous interconnectedness of such problems seems to outscale human capacity to understand and act, petrifying our agency, it also suggests that a whole ecology of non-human actors generates opportunities and limitations for certain meanings and actions over others, because of us and regardless of us.

The "agency of things", as Bruno Latour calls it (Latour: 2014), allows us to reconsider our anthropocentric view, but not to dismiss our responsibility. It instead makes it possible to acknowledge how this view is intertwined with non-human agents—including cultural manifestations such as music—in making a difference.

The concept of "sonic agency", delineated by Brandon Labelle in his eponymous book (Labelle: 2020), addresses sound’s ability to contribute to new notions of the public and of emancipatory practices through both affective politics of mutual support and the experiences we live through our senses.

The concept of sonic fiction is one of the most compelling examples of how music can shape and articulate desires for recognition and change stemming from affects and sociocultural impulses. Music, with its constellation of visual, performative, and ephemeral elements that gravitate around the hic et nunc of the sonic event, constitute the cosmogony of fictional worlds through new narratives and signification systems.

As the Afrofuturist tradition demonstrates, sonic fictions are tightly intertwined with knowledge production, subject constitution, and materiality. They do not merely offer a brief moment of escapism and refusal of the real world, but rather substantiate the desire for alternative possible ones in concrete and transformative self-affirmative manifestations.

The agency of music is not confined to the realm of affects and socially determined mechanisms only—it has indeed a material and physical dimension. As a form of mechanical energy released by vibrations, sound oscillates across animate and inanimate bodies, creating intricate ecologies of energy and matter from which we can learn about the "entangled depths of the world" (Labelle: 2020). Sound resonates between the intensities of different social aggregations and to our bare corporeal lives, revealing the political nature of acts of listening, tuning in, and caring; both with others and with our environment, respectively.

Tracing the continuous loop that music creates between subjects and objects, music is then a highly relational practice not only in aesthetic and psychological terms but also in material ones: it moves from the sound source through the room in which we are located, through our bodies, and back. An audience is not simply a passive receiving end, but the complementary actor of a discursive movement which depends on both the agency and experience of the listener. To listen is to push the limits of the acquainted, predisposing ourselves to tune in with the unfamiliar beyond the vibro-tactile stimuli perceived by our mechanoreceptors and vestibular system and towards attentive and empathic positionalities enabled in the hic et nunc of the music performance.

The interconnectedness and the situatedness of music then become a feature that is not only desirable according to contemporary ideologies and aesthetic trends, but an essential aspect of music matter itself. It requires careful consideration also in the moment of composition and performance of a piece: who are we talking to when we do and play music? Where is it taking place? Are there spaces more appropriate for the transmission of a certain message or impulse? Is the atmosphere crafted by the sound, the space, and other factors an effective social and cultural conductor and is it taking into account the surrounding environment itself?

To allow the multiplicity of artistic expressions in and to give space and voice to the unheard lays at the very basis of the political practice of care. What music can do is to facilitate the experience of the interconnectedness of the world and create an inclusive space within which sociopolitical, environmental, and ethical messages of sustainability can be voiced out openly. Starting with protest songs that become anthems of revolutions, such as "Baraye", composed by Shervin Hajipour with fragments of Iranian tweets explaining the reasons for which they demonstrate, or ecologically themed sound practices, there are many examples of how music can accompany, comment on, and drive change on a local or even global level.

Voicing does not imply necessarily the need to represent minorities, the excluded ones, or important ethical, political, and ecological issues as long as such mediation is inevitably enmeshed with dynamics of power and co-option (as it is the case with the appropriation of certain musical crafts by nationalistic politics). Voicing the unheard and the disenfranchised should rather follow the sonic principle of in-betweenness and interconnectedness via means of direct collaboration with the unheard subjects and of space-making for their own voice to speak without mediation. Such politics of representation should aim to reconsider not the content of art and music, but rather its forms, its structures and dynamics as Adorno would invoke them in the case of so-called autonomous art (Adorno: 1997).

To choose and create inclusive structures, organisational principles, and spaces to allow the agency of other actants (e.g., more local, and less centralised or uniformed metaphorical and physical spaces, less "separated" enclaves, more participatory and inclusive dynamics, processes of music production and dissemination that are more ecologically sustainable) would reflect the material and psychological ability of sound to re-orient our listening positionality and our awareness of the global entanglements in which we live.

In order to promote a more sustainable world through music and the arts, cultural workers and institutions alike should be the first attempting and requesting to put into practice the principle that such arts divulge by focusing on the "how" rather than the "what", and by giving a voice to what Labelle calls the invisible, the overheard, the itinerant, and the weak as modalities "by which subjects contend with dominant structures and assemblies saturated with imbalances of power" (Labelle: 2020, 157.)

The kindness and truthfulness that compound the inner beauty of prince Myshkin did not save him from the complex and somewhat banal ferocity of the world. Music and culture alone may not have the power to fully overcome the social and environmental challenges that beset us today. However, the agency embedded in its modes of elicitation and circulation has the potential to allow for possible sustainable ecologies and interconnections between us and our environment, between the vibrant matter (Bennett: 2010) and fleshy thoughts.

It is important to acknowledge the seemingly invisible but permeating power of sound. While making use of this power to uphold personal and relational changes, we should remember that structural endeavours are equally decisive in fostering re-orientations towards a resilient and sustainable society stemming from music and along with music.

Ultimately, it is upon us to translate these impulses and suggestions into structures and actions able to materialise them. After hearing some pupils of Shinichi Suzuki performing, the Catalonian cellist and conductor Pablo Casals once commented that perhaps "it is music that will save the world." Later, Suzuki reflected upon Casals’ affirmation (Suzuki: 1981, 61): "Maybe music will save the world. That is, if we work for that purpose… There are people who think that art exists for its own sake, but I do not think so… I think that all of the people who love art, those who teach art, and all of you, should burn with the obligation to save the world."



Adorno, Theodor W. Aesthetic Theory, trans. Robert Hullot-Kentor. Continuum: [1970] 1997.

Bennett, Jane. Vibrant Matter. A Political Ecology of Things. Duke University Press: 2010.

Dostoevsky, Fyodor. The Idiot. Vintage: [1868] 2003.

Labelle, Brandon. Sonic Agency. Sound and Emergent Forms of Resistance. Goldsmiths Press: 2020.

Latour, Bruno. »How Better to Register the Agency of Things.« Lecture, The Tanner Lecture on Human Values, Yale University, March 26, 2014. Online paper:

Suzuki, Shinichi. Ability development from age zero. Suzuki Method International, Summy-Birchard; Secaucus, N.J: 1981.

Hallam, S. »The power of music: Its impact on the intellectual, social and personal development of children and young people«. International Journal of Music Education, 28(3), 269–289: 2010.

Hallam, Susan; Cross, Ian; Thaut, Michael H. (eds). Oxford Handbook of Music Psychology. Oxford Library of Psychology: 2008.

– Giada Dalla Bontà
Giada Dalla Bontà arbeitet als Wissenschaftlerin an der Schnittstelle von Klang, Kunst und Politik und ist zudem als Kuratorin und Autorin tätig. Derzeit lebt sie in Berlin und Kopenhagen, wo sie im Fachbereich Kunst- und Kulturwissenschaften der Universität Kopenhagen promoviert.

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