New Mimesis: Introduction

Introduction by Jonathan Impett
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As the relevance and utility of compositional models and techniques derived from existing music theory seemed to some composers to be dissolving at the end of the nineteenth century, they turned to other sources for paradigms of musical thought. Mahler effectively turned to phonography, as did Ives. Schönberg could be seen as having turned to symbolic logic, the kind of thinking being developed by Russell, Frege and then the Vienna Circle. One approach is more empiricist, the other more formalist, to use Badiou’s characterisation (Badiou 2007, 11). In neither case is the ‘model’ used literally; what we often see in music and sound is mimesis of the mimetic technique. New models of morphology and geometry are fundamental to the transformation of materials in Varèse; lines become surfaces, changing perspective as the move through space.

Through the later twentieth century, the development of new scientific models of the natural world is paralleled by musicians’ motivation to look beyond music theory for inspiration, analogy and technique. Musicians and sound artists search for ways to create or generate new forms, new structure, new processes, modes of development or modes of analysis or understanding. They may seek to encourage of growth, evolution, complexity and emergence; they may use data from such models or from the natural world. Natural phenomena have a particular natural appeal for those who would construct or create – waves, clouds, stars, plants or the behaviour of humans. But the appropriation of scientific models or data makes the relationship potentially more than metaphor or imagery. Knowledge is re-encoded. Its sources or modes of enquiry bring additional semantic and ethical networks.

In his 1946 meta-epic work Mimesis, Erich Auerbach examines the ways in human events have been represented and interpreted across thousands of years of European literature. He later pointed to its origins in the discussion of imitation (mimesis) in book ten of Plato’s Republic. Socrates turns the discussion away from poetry to consider something more material – the couch. He identifies three kinds of couch: that of nature (God – i.e., the couch as abstract form), that made by a carpenter, and that represented in a painting. The mimetic is thus twice removed from the truth.

Surely, then, mimetic art is far removed from the truth; and, as it seems, the reason why it offers a rendering of everything is that it has only a small grasp of each object - and this as a mere simulacrum. (Plato, Republic Book X, 598c)

There is more than philological curiosity in the analogy with the case of the contemporary artist. In general, the models that artist adopt, whether ‘abstract’ or ‘material’, are the result of the work of others – usually scientists. There is indeed a two-stage remove from any putative phenomenon, natural or otherwise.

Any absolute distinction between theoretical / mathematical models and practical / experimental assemblages collapses once both operate in a computational context. By the same token, the tools of music technique are now the same as those of scientific modelling – differences lie rather in the motivation, practice, use and interpretation of data. Data are never ‘raw’ (Gitelman 2013) but are inscribed with the knowledge that produced them (Fischer at al. 2020). Algorithms have their own dynamics, potential and implications, regardless of the motivation of their encoding (Parisi 2013). Data, algorithms and models are in some ways forms of compression; they represent perspective, motivation and analysis in respect of some behaviour, perceived or imagined, emphasising certain aspects or parameters and ignoring others. Such reduction of dimensionality is inherent in any process of representation. In certain contexts this can be ignored or tacitly agreed. In the case of art it becomes, on some level, an aesthetic decision – a level of mediation to be acknowledged. The production of art then adds new dimensionality.

The model is conceptually and functionally transformed since Badiou’s early work. The computational model is a space not so much for explaining or for testing hypotheses. Rather it becomes a space for simulation – the locus of imagined futures. The kind of knowledge it generates is likewise transformed, as Manuel Delanda shows in his study of the epistemological implications of simulation in different contexts. He describes the field of operation as a ‘space of possibilities’; specifically, we are dealing not only with properties, but with tendencies and capacities (Delanda 2011, 17). The computer simulation is performative and productive. Given that a simulation is paradigmatically reductive, its observables and constants of limited precision, there is no difference in kind between a predictive model of the ‘real’ world and the creation of an alternative reality, the building of a different world. Time has no unique speed or direction.

This issue brings together models and data sources of many kinds. These new fields each have their own body of theory and practice; in art any such borders are plastic and ambiguous. Rather than offering any reductive answer to the many questions, each brings a different perspective on the complexity of our relationship with data, simulation and their possible referends, and with sound and the very idea of music.

In each of these contributions the relationship between observing subject, mimetic object and any notional ‘original’ is held in a dynamic instability. In engaging us as second-order listener they also remind us that in any sound-work we are listening to a listening. Lottie Sebes’ Speaking machines confronts us with this directly and at the most personal level. The mimesis is physical – the human vocal tract – and the medium material. Sebes problematises the assumption that the voice is identical with the person, both in her own work and in the context of historical fascination with the otherness of the nearly-human voice. In its absence of natural referends, Bjarni Gunnarson’s Balancing Behaviours presents a complementary approach. Systems of self-organisation and complexity generate emergent structure. While they are implemented as algorithmic constructs that have no inherent sonic properties, the composer’s role is to select, pilot, frame and focus. At the same time, most of the techniques involved have their origins in the modelling of natural phenomena (complex dynamical systems, for example), or attract interest because of perceived analogous behaviour (cellular automata). Given the behavioural autonomy of the underlying model, our perspective shifts between reading the sonic surface as sonification of an occluded object (perhaps a third-order mimesis in Plato’s terms) or as an auto-generative sonic life-form (first order).

Two contributions take their inner movement and outer form from that of water – one as perceived in human time, the other across a century. Jean Penny’s New Sounds - Ancient Resonances references, even depicts place quite specifically: Lal Lal Falls in southeast Australia. By their being situated in a clearly composed context, the mimetic properties of the field recordings are clear. Penny writes about ‘decoding’ the landscape – not just its aspect and sound, but the traces of its history – and the process of composition then becomes one of re-encoding. In Playing Attention, Chris Chafe and Greg Niemeyer take a century of sea-level data in the San Francisco area as the foundation of their work The Metered Tide. An electronic score derives from sonification of the data, further mediated in Chafe’s cello improvisations. Two temporal planes are juxtaposed: the ‘objective’ linear trajectory of the sonification, and the shifting time windows of real-time human response. Niemeyer’s filming of Chafe at the edge of that very body of water completes a circle of reference and difference. Bothe of these works enhance or draw attention to features that might otherwise escape our notice. Both invite us to consider the significance of being presented with bodies of water, their behaviours and histories in explicitly artistic, non-documentary contexts and at a moment of heightened cultural awareness of such phenomena.

Water reappears in Pond Sound Mystery by David Rothenberg, now from the perspective of the creatures that animate it, their movement and sounds. In this work, the smallest movement combines with wide-screen metaphor. As in much of the work featured in this issue, the dual representation of phenomena as sound and as non-audio data constitutes a dynamic, productive dialectic that itself seems to act as a source of energy. Jorge Boehringer traces a kaleidoscopic thread of various modes of mimicry through a series of his sonic works in Dog Barks at Own Echo. Representation is invariably a form of imitation; here again, the primary models are largely natural, mediated through different kinds of representation: field recording, data sonification, graphical forms. The elements both retain certain elements and find new resonances as emerging patterns mix with traces of recognition. The opening words of Benjamin- ‘Nature creates similarities. One need only think of mimicry. The highest capacity for producing similarities, however, is man’s …’ – would serve as a worthy epigraph to this issue. We should add mention of the extraordinary human capacity for recognising similarities.

A further pair of contributions is concerned with the relationship of music with graphical models, one gestural and seemingly performative, the other plotted and mechanical. Adam Linson’s Through the Membrane reflects on the ways in which the musical works of Ornette Coleman and Morton Feldman respond to the abstract expressionism of Jackson Pollock. In fact, the work used for the cover of Colemans’ 1961 Free Jazz is not one of Pollock’s action paintings, while Feldman worked with a film of Pollock working ‘as if I were writing music for choreography’. Three filters illuminate these relationships prismatically to describe different kinds of visual-musical vectors: consideration of the materialisation of the musical work, of its reception and of its situating in a cultural context.

Martin Scheuregger and Danica Maeier’s project, Score: Mechanical Asynchronicity, has its roots in an intricate nineteenth-century pattern for a lace-making machine. It is built of successive iterations of reinscription across different media – score, image, instrumentalist, vinyl, music-box – over different time-scales. Properties and behaviours are highlighted or obscured in various manifestations, while new structures emerge. The authors relate this process to Adorno’s discussion of notation as mimesis, and of the role of art as mimetic of wider truths that otherwise escape formulation as ‘knowledge’. This analogue work reminds us that Babbage’s first computing engines had their mechanical origins in weaving machines and their punch-card patterns.

If Scheuregger and Maeier’s work emerges from chains of difference, Frédéric Mathevet’s Plasticity vs mimesisis concerned directly with the gaps. He presents two sound works that explore the voids opened up by the transmedial transcription of different kinds of information. Forms are re-encoded across media and semantic networks to articulate new spaces. In Listening Back, Jasmine Guffond sonifies internet cookies in real time – a moving reflection of our reflection in cyberspace. But this project becomes a performing instrument and a tool for listening critically to our own activity and context. Guffond adopts an approach of ‘pragmatic aesthetics’ in a search for ‘creative sonification strategies that strive for a co-habitation of aesthetics and functionality to provide listening enjoyment as well useful information about the world.’ In presenting a mimetic relationship with our place in the wider world, she offers a that relationship and the shape of the mirror.


Auerbach, Erich. 2003. Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature. Princeton University PRess, Princeton NJ.

Badiou, Alain. 2007. The concept of model: an introduction to the materialist epistemology of mathematics. Melbourne,

DeLanda, Manuel. 2011. Philosophy and Simulation: The Emergence of Synthetic Reason. London, Continuum.

Fischer, Philipp, Gabriele Gramelsberger, Christoph Hoffmann, Hans Hofmann, Hannes Rickli, and Hans-Jörg Rheinberger. 2020. Natures of Data. Diaphanes: Zürich.

Gitelman, Lisa (ed.). 2013. “Raw Data" Is an Oxymoron. Cambridge MA, MIT Press.

Parisi, Luciana. 2013. Contagious Architecture: Computation, Aesthetics, and Space. Cambridge MA, MIT Press.

Plato. 1988. Republic X (ed. S. Halliwell). Oxford, Aris & Phillips.


16 February 2023
Review status
Double-blind peer review
Cite as
Impett, Jonathan. 2023. "New Mimesis: Instroduction." ECHO, a journal of music, thought and technology 4. doi: 10.47041/JFPI1409

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