Music is Surveillance

Short thesis

Surveillance typically echoes visions of the Pan-opticon and Big Brother’s omnipresent gaze, as if it was all (and just) about being watched, especially by those we cannot see. But what if we tried to think of surveillance through sound and music? This talk will tilt the audience’s ‘paranoid ears’, inviting them to explore surveillance and/as music, ultimately putting forward that music (as accessed and distributed in modern societies) is, to some extent, surveillance.


Common understandings of surveillance are marked by the notions of visibility and invisibility, epitomised in popular culture by images such as a secret watchful eye, or Big Borther’s ubiquitous gaze, and often defined by theoretical concepts like the Pan(syn)opticon. All this emphasis on the interplay between the visible and invisible, however, may leave in the dark important insights on contemporary surveillance’s functioning, power and impact. This talk is an invitation to move beyond such conceptions by exploring surveillance via the ‘paranoid ear’, to quote Seth Cluett, discussing the ways in which surveillance might be sonically approached and unpacked. It will take as a starting point that music appears to want to tell us about surveillance, as document by numerous examples of (un)popular music tackling the subject (including works by Kraftwerk, AGF, Holly Herndon, or Anohni), but also sound art projects, such as Christina Kubisch’s electrical city walks and their tracking of invisible data flows. It will then highlight the common technological roots of contemporary surveillance and modern music, acknowledging their intertwined rhizomatic histories – as embodied, for instance, by Lev Sergueïevitch Termen’s biography and influence. FInally, it will question the validity of thinking (modern) music as surveillance and vice versa, as supported by Theodor W. Adorno’s sociological critique, Jacques Attali’s 1970s portrayal of the evolution of the contemporary music industry, and the use of music as a method of acoustic control and for social sorting in the public space. In this context, we will consider how current practices of (digital) musical consumption relate to, or even constitute surveillance, and the spaces this leaves for any sound contestation.