Jamie Lawson

Hearing the Extra Terrestrial

‘Alienness' in the form of an extra-terrestrial sound space has been set as an unachievable creative goal for soundscape composition. Attempting to represent the ‘alienness’ associated with instances of extreme difference offers an avenue for creative explorations of the unknown. Sound phenomena that exist within a boundless potential for difference are filtered by the limitations of humanity’s capacity to both experience and represent sound material. How can one represent the aural landscape of an environment that is potentially beyond the understanding of the audience, whilst using sound material which is embedded with associations to the known human world? Can setting out on an unachievable task which is destined for failure worth anything at all?

'Failure' arises here in the attempted representation the un-representable (the extra-terrestrial 'alien'). However, the act of attempting to impossible inspires creative exploration and experimentation. Sarah Rubridge (2005) considers the artistic ‘failures’ in creative research as advancing a practitioners work the most positively (p. 11). When considering something as ineffable as the ‘alien’, the notion of ‘failure’ is highly relevant. Whether the un-willingness of the ‘alien’ to be categorised and defined (Waldenfels, 2011, p. 10), or the extra-terrestrial’s limitless potential of difference in relation to human understanding, any pursuit of the extra-terrestrial ‘alien’ is ripe with ‘failure’. A continuous process of removing in-appropriate knowledge that accrues through the research ‘failures’. Simon Emerson (1998) remarks that “…perception is determined both by our expectations of ‘real’ behaviour learnt over the considerable period of our evolution and by our personal experience.” (p.138). This reflects the physical and mental limitations of mankind as defined by terrestrial experience. A human attempt at conceiving the unknown can only be considered within the realms of terrestrial recognition. It is this that promotes the likelihood of ‘failure’. But despite this limitation, the human imagination is drawn to the idea of the ‘alien’ encounter.

The ‘alien’ offers a useful concept for inspiring imagination and curiosity through attempted representations of the unknown (Waldenfels, 2011, p.3). The ‘alien’ exists outside of any particular known structural sphere, however must be perceived in relation to it (Waldenfels, 2011, p.11). Douglas Kahn (1999) argues:

“Humans perceive the world while being within the world; they are implicated within it and not somehow outside looking in or on…And if meaning and feeling resides there, it is because the individual finds a piece of himself or herself.” (p.27)

Here the ‘alien’ is encountered as an unknown which only becomes known through relations made by the subject (or listener). The paradox of the ‘alien’ experience is that once categorized, the ‘alien’ is rendered known and therefore no longer ‘alien’. The issue presented by the extra-terrestrial ‘alien’ is that those boundaries of classification, extending beyond human perception, cannot be accessed by a reflexive phenomenological interaction. There is no communication between the objects and any meaning discovered is only that imposed by a single party (in this case the human). Such an encounter renders the extra-terrestrial as human. These relations leave a definition of an ‘alien’ object or experience elusive and potentially fleeting. This begs the question; how can the ‘alien’ be represented as it is (if it is actually any single thing at all), when it can only be known as a transitory phenomenon within the limited human sphere of the listener?

Approaching humanity from a “‘once upon a time’ and an irrevocable ‘elsewhere’” (Waldenfels, 2011, p.41), the ‘alien’ presents an insurmountable distance between the human and extra-terrestrial ‘alien’. It is here that theorised and fictional notions of ‘post-human’ present both creative opportunities to narrow gaps in understanding. Katherine Hayles (1999) proposes the ‘post-human’ as “…an amalgam, a collection of heterogeneous components, a material-information entity whose boundaries undergo continuous construction and reconstruction.” (p. 4) When combined with theorist Brian Massumi (2012), the notion of ‘post-human’ constitutes redefinitions of boundaries which “…expresses extendibility to a degree beyond the human pale.”(p. 179). Most commonly manifesting in fictional forms of cyborg, artificial intelligence or genetically enhanced beings, this extendibility contributes to a continual re-adjustment of humanity’s understanding of itself.

Here, the fictional ‘post-human’ as represented through Black Library publishing’s Adeptus Astartes has been adopted as a creative means to unravel the non-communicative nature of ‘alien’ sound material. The Adeptus Astartes are gene-enhanced soldiers created to conquer the galaxy in the name of Mankind (Abnett, 2006, p. 19). Having been born human these beings are considered to be both connected to and removed from humanity. This occurs through processes of extension and enhancement rather than complete differentiation or abstraction (Harpham, 2012, p. 103) and offers experiences beyond human possibilities. The Astartes act as an intermediary third-party figure capable of embodying Waldenfels’ (2011) “...involved, witnessing and neutral.” (p. 81). This is not only an opportunity to expose differences between human and ‘alien’, but also render that difference accessible to a human understanding.

The theoretical and practical engagements with conceptualised extra-terrestrial ‘alien’ representation informed a substantial listening, recording and compositional process which contributed to the production of novel musical and sonic artefacts:

1. 140-20 (3’30)
2. Guiding Mechanisms: Selective Analysis (i-v) (13’19)
i. Selective Analysis: Wind (3’30)
ii. Selective Analysis: Stalk Forest (2’03)
iii. Selective Analysis: Larvae (2’10)
iv. Selective Analysis: Life-form 1a (2’25)
v. Selective Analysis: Life-form 1b (3’11)
3. Reflections from 140-20 (7’00)

Although the research ‘failed’ to achieve an auditory representation of an extra-terrestrial ‘alien’ landscape, this failure ultimately contributed to the achievement of a reflexive process of research-creation which resulted in the production of new musical works and contemporary musicological thought so as to examine the nexus between listening, recording and compositional processes. This collection of electro-acoustic compositions attempts to envisage a mediating ‘post-human’ listening which combats the insurmountable gap between human and ‘alien’. Through the creative exploration of field recording practices and electroacoustic composition the ‘alien’ is traced from an initial state of perceived ‘noise’ (140-20), subjected to processes of selective analysis (Guiding Mechanisms: Selective Analysis [i-v]), before being re-contextualised and rendered as human (Reflections from 140-20).


Abnett, D. (2006). Horus Rising. Great Britain: Black Library Publishing.
Emmerson, S. (1998). Aural landscape: Musical space. Organised Sound, 3(2), 135-140.
Harpham, G. G. (2012). The Posthuman: Without It, Nothing Else Is Possible. Interdisciplinary Science Reviews 37, no. 2: 101-12.
Hayles, K. (1999). How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics. Chicago, Ill.: University of Chicago Press.
Kahn, D. (1999) Noise, Water, Meat: A History of Sound in the Arts, ed Inc ebrary Cambridge, Mass. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.
Massumi, B. (2012). “Floating the Social: an electronic art of noise.” In Reverberations: The Philosophy, Aesthetics and Politics of Noise, ed Michael Goddard, Benjamin Halligan and Paul Hegarty London: London: Continuum.
Rubidge, S. (2005). Artists in the academy: Reflections on artistic practice as research. Paper presented at Dance Rebooted: Initialising the Grid, Deakin University.
Waldenfels, B. (2011). Phenomenology of the Alien: Basic Concepts. Evanston, Ill.: Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press.


Jamie Lawson is a soundscape composer from Western Sydney, Australia. Beginning the Bachelor of Music program at The University of Western Sydney in 2010, Jamie was soon introduced to electroacoustic music and from there has developed a keen interest in field recording and soundscape composition. In 2014 Jamie completed a Bachelor of Music (Honours) at the University of Western Sydney under the supervision of Dr. Ian Stevenson. Jamie's Honours submission entitled 'Hearing the Extra-Terrestrial Soundscape: Creative Explorations of the Alien through Post-Human Mediation' explores fictional landscapes through soundscape and electroacoustic compositions. Currently enrolled in a Master of Creative Media at Macquarie University, Jamie continues to research and compose across varying fields of sonic arts.

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* 1.-140-20.mp3
140-20, Jamie Lawson, Electro-acoustic composition, 2015
* 2.-Guiding-Mechanisms-Selective-Analysis-i-v.wav
Guiding Mechanisms: Selective Analysis [i-v], Jamie Lawson, Electro-acoustic composition, 2015
* 3.-Reflections-from-140-20.wav
Reflections from 140-20, Jamie Lawson, Electro-acoustic composition, 2015

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