UBC Theses and Dissertations

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UBC Theses and Dissertations

“The megaphone of destiny—” composition, voice, and multitude in the auditory avant-garde of the Twentieth Century : Gertrude Stein, Samuel Beckett, John Cage, and Frank Zappa Michalak, Tomasz Zbigniew


This thesis traces the critical history of the term ‘auditory turn.’ Following Marshall McLuhan, I argue that the emergence of sound and sound-oriented concepts in Twentieth-Century literature and culture exemplifies a paradigm shift in the way a literary text operates. This shift affects not just literature but forms of literacy and literary analysis. By drawing on McLuhan’s notions like ‘the scandal of cubism’ and the ‘acoustic space’ as well as Walter Ong’s ‘secondary orality’ along with subsequent research in media and sound studies, I examine a group of selected works that manifest the idea of auditory text, a text characterized by performative sonority, aspiring to the condition of music. The thesis offers four ‘representative anecdotes’ of the ‘auditory turn’ in avant-garde and experimental literature, Gertrude Stein, Samuel Beckett, John Cage, and Frank Zappa, each of which is engaged in a separate chapter. Chapter 1 draws on the relationship between sound and presence and landscape as it applies to Stein’s ideas concerning composition and landscape theatre. Chapter 2 turns to selected short prose works of Beckett to demonstrate the attention to sound in the way in which the problem of voice as a marker of self preoccupies Beckett. Chapter 3 examines selected writings of John Cage that engage the problem of sound and voice both theoretically, as themes addressed critically, and in his practice of using voice as an instrument. Chapter 4 directs critical attention to Frank Zappa’s writings as well as musical compositions that explicitly engage the issue of sound, voice, and noise in popular culture. The four chapters help develop systematically the structural argument of the thesis concerning the interface of sound, text, and image, demonstrating this interface to manifest in three related ways, as composition, voice, and multitude (also referred to as peopling).

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