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date: 14 December 2018

Abstract and Keywords

The notion of the “ethereal” has a long and surprisingly continuous history in Western art music. From the Aeolian harp to early electronic music, listeners have identified certain instruments as producing otherworldly and supernatural sounds. This essay considers the diverse range of technologies that have been frequently identified as “ethereal,” while also delving into the use of the idea of the ethereal within writing about music. This phenomenon is found to be unsurprisingly elusive, in some cases seeming to correlate to certain timbral qualities, such as sustained tones with shimmering upper harmonics or slowly fading envelopes, while in other instances relating instead to circumstances of audition, most famously in the case of the unseen sound sources of “acousmatic” listening. The study of ethereal timbres thus occupies a nexus between the topics of sound technology, listening practices, musical aesthetics, and experimental art.

Keywords: timbre, aeolian harp, glass harmonica, acousmatic sound, black box, nature, electronic music, sound art

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