The Frequency of Imagination: Auditory Distress and Aurality in Contemporary Music Theatre

Research output: ThesisThesis fully external


In this dissertation, Pieter Verstraete investigates how ‘auditory distress’ and its ramifications form a conceptual basis for analysing the listener’s various modes of relating to sound and music in contemporary music theatre. Among these modes, he discusses the modes of listening (attention), narrativisation and auditory imagination as meaningful ways to deal with auditory distress. Encouraged by his analysis of six contemporary music theatre performances in Belgium and the Netherlands, Verstraete proposes that auditory distress is to be understood not so much as an aesthetic strategy but as the departure point of all auditory perception. This distress is produced by an excess of intensities in listening, which can be heightened by the theatre’s context of visual deprivation. As such, the distress marks a crisis in the listener as subject, which questions the agency of the listener in relation to the ‘authoritative’ power of sound in calling her or him for a response. Unlike the dramatic traditions in theatre and opera, music theatre makes the listener aware of her or his position towards the distress, which is not alleviated by the overall channelling perspectives proposed by the performance. In order to grasp the workings and meanings of music theatre today, Verstraete proposes a concept-based investigation that rereads such concepts as acoustic community, sonorous envelope, acoustic mirror, acousmatic listening, schizophonic perspectives, vocal and musical personae, haptic space and spatialisation as results of the listener’s responses to auditory distress. In this way, Verstraete argues, music theatre ultimately engages in present-day cultures and politics of listening within the comprehensive though much contested space of aurality.
Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Awarding Institution
  • University of Amsterdam
  • Bleeker, M.A., Supervisor, External person
  • Balme, C.B., Co-supervisor, External person
Award date2-Jun-2009
Place of PublicationEnschede
Publication statusPublished - 2009
Externally publishedYes


  • Receptie-esthetica
  • Muziektheater
  • Toneel
  • dissertatie
  • Theatre Studies
  • Sound Studies
  • reception aesthetics
  • research methodology
  • performing arts
  • opera studies
  • music and media
  • New media art
  • music studies
  • listening
  • aurality
  • auditory distress
  • contemporary theatre
  • Narratology
  • space
  • total theatre

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