The effortlessness of the expert

It takes a lot of effort to make something look effortless – Steven Sondheim

When we witness an expert performer in music or in sport the word “effortless” often springs to mind. However, most people are (hopefully) aware of the amount of work actually needed to reach this level of mastery. Therefor “effort-less” can necessarily not mean that something is “without effort”.

Hånd på klaviatur

A seemingly “effortless” performance is indeed the result of a sophisticated physical and neurological coordination which creates a subtle fluctuation between tension and relaxation in the parts responsible for the movements and to master this coordination is at the true core of every excelling performance.

Excessive and static tension

In a body performing at a high level of function there is very little excessive tension present, each part of the body has just the necessary amount  needed to perform the task.

A lot of us carry an excessive level of tension in certain parts of our bodies, both when we are performing tasks and when we are seemingly relaxed. Changing the tensional pattern of our body takes a long time, primarily because most of us are unaware of much of the tension present in our bodies. In our minds we have a tendency to think that:

TENSION = PAIN

so that when a part of our body is not performing as it should according to its design we may not necessarily attribute the lack of performance to excessive tension as long as it´s not causing us any pain. But the presence of tension is not necessarily visible only through pain but also in restricted movement, non-optimal coordination  and affected performance.

Changing a pattern requires that we first become aware of it. Do a simple exercise: Stand on all fours and allow your stomach to relax and sink down like a hammock.

All the way…

Take some time (think a couple of minutes) to let your stomach completely give in to gravity. You will probably experience that  what you thought were a full relaxation is just a fraction of the potential and that as the seconds pass you will sense more and more micro-releases in the tension in your belly.

Most of us spend an excessive amount of energy constantly sucking in our stomach, so much that when we are in a position where gravity naturally pulls our organs forward we have a problem releasing this tension because it has become a more or less constant and unconscious pattern.

But constant static tension also means restricted circulation and our abdominal region contains things that are dependent on good circulation in order to function properly.

Like your digestive- or reproductive organs.

A constant excess of tension makes it harder to relax but more importantly: it also leads to a limited ability to activate and relax your muscles at different degrees.

A healthier alternative is a constant fluctuating pattern of tension and relaxation where our muscles have the option of not only being in an on/off mode but rather cycling constantly through different degrees of tension/relaxation according to what is needed.

Not this:

av-paa-bryter

but this:

Trinnvis bryter

Keeping a steady frame with your partner while dancing the tango demands a whole range of different degrees of tension that allows you to respond according to the impulses you are receiving. If the muscles of your upper body are so tense and unresponsive that their only options are either on (rigid) or off (loose) there will be no options to choose from, and to just be told to “relax” your elbow or “keep a steady frame” just isn´t detailed enough information.

tangosko

Coordination – using what is needed

When we want to make a movement we have multiple choices  as to how to make our bodies perform that movement. If you intend to pick leafs of the ground in your garden you could use a crane to do the job, it would just not be very practical. Keeping your lower arms extended horizontally in front of you for several hours every day while typing on your computer requires a certain activation in your muscles but the coordination or distribution of workload between those muscles is decisive when it comes to how straining this activity will be for your body. Skjelett

And you can switch the activity of typing with pretty much any other activity, like walking, dancing the tango or playing an instrument.

So why would we use more than we need?

Our muscles are controlled by our neurology. A motor unit consists of a nerve attaching to certain muscle fibres of a muscle. The greater amount of fibres it attaches to the “bigger” the movement the nerve controls. In what we call fine motor skills the motor units attache only to a few fibres and the amount of motor units working at the same time and (hopefully) in coordination is very great, on the opposite side of the scale we have large muscles where a single motor unit controls a great amount of fibres and make them all move at the same time giving a high degree of leverage and force with a lesser degree of coordination needed.

But having the neurological hardware to be able to move the different parts of a muscle independently to one another is not the same as actually being able to do this. Through lack of regular use muscles can become neurologically “lumped together” so that we are not able to differentiate between them any more and differentiation is the key to coordination: if I can’t differentiate between the different muscles in my body I am not able to make them to move independently of one another.

Coordination is the ability to decide  what parts of a muscle  to activate  and how those parts are to move  relative  to each other  and to other muscles of the body.

Some people have a natural tendency for good coordination but for most people the “default” coordination is a result of the sum total of how you have used your body up to this moment which is a highly individual matter for most of us.

Therefor training is sometimes needed.

Both Timani and Nutritious Movement as methods are all about coordination in order to achieve a more sustainable use of the body in order to increase performance and to take a step closer to the realm of the effortlessness we all can benefit from – whether we are experts or no.

 

Passion and Pain

Some time back I had the privilege to be “Artist of the month” in the Timani newsletter and as this was a decidedly new experience I thought I´d share it here, also since the questions of the interview brings up the topic of strain injuries and of having your passion linked to pain, which I think is a big and important topic.

Artist of the month: Miriam Hlavatý

Timani newsletter, March 2017

Did you ever suffer from pain when playing, or think that your body is against you? Then I highly recommend to read about the amazing Timani teacher Miriam Hlavaty in the interview below!

I admire Miriam for the passion she has for musicians’ possibilities to learn about the body and mind. She has already taught Timani at the conservatory in Tromsø and Performance psychology at the conservatory in Trondheim, as well as giving Timani courses in several countries. She is also an amazing composer, a Nutritious Movement instructor, a specialist in listening (hence her website www.thelisteningexperience.com), and she plays the piano with refinement, great sound and musicality. I am just very happy to have met this person and to have her teaching Timani. I highly recommend her teaching if you are considering taking a Timani lesson. Her next weekend course in Timani will be in Oslo on the 5th-7th of May. Don’t miss it:)

T: When did you begin with Timani?

I started practicing Timani in 2013 when I attended my first weekend course and signed up for the certification training.

T: How have you benefited from taking lessons in Timani?

At that time I suffered from several playing-related strain injuries and had all but given up on piano playing after having fought my way through a Bachelor and Masters degree at the Norwegian Conservatory of Music. The various physical obstacles had stopped me from pursuing a traditional career as a pianist but they had also forced me to become creative and find other possibilities, for instance in the world of contemporary music with its extended piano techniques, into experimental music and, as a lecturer,  into the realm of musical perception and listening. This was a result of signing up for a course in Sonology which was taught at NMH by the composer Lasse Thoresen who later became my mentor during my Masters. All of this is today present in my work.

A friend of mine from the conservatory recommended that I try a weekend course in Timani. She had experienced some of the same strain injury difficulties as myself and knew how fed up I was with trying out every new cure that was on the market. Even so she succeeded in convincing me to give it a try. I remember I was very skeptical at first having experienced several disappointments earlier with other types of methods and systems. At the end of the weekend course everything had changed.

For the first time in 20 years I was given clear and understandable information which told me not only what I had been doing which had sustained the strain injuries and kept them returning again and again, but what was more important: I was given tools in the form of concrete  anatomical, neurological and biomechanical knowledge on how to do things differently, along with exercises in order to make it possible for me to do things differently.

At the end of the weekend course I signed up for the certification-training. I very rarely take abrupt or impulsive choices, I’m usually the kind who needs to ponder things a lot but this was one of the few times in my life when I knew I was in the right place and that this was a moment and a chance not to be missed.

T: You are now a Timani Advanced teacher and have completed the three year certification training.  Would you talk a little bit about how this has affected you?

Apart from recovering from the strain injuries I have finally found that which allows me to express what I need to express through my music, not by becoming the traditional pianist I thought I wanted to be, but by giving me access to the versatile and wondrous instrument that my body now is becoming in terms of playing and expressing music. Composing and experimenting with the instrument has also become a very important path for me.

Also, what I have gained through Timani has gone much deeper than mere technique and physical development.

Living with chronic pain and especially with pain which is linked to doing what you love the most affects you, physically and mentally. There is nothing which drains you more than having your greatest joy in life constantly associated with pain and discomfort. Living with constant and chronic pain also affects the endocrine system of the body. For a period of time I was forced to go on medication in order to dampen the excess production of cortisol and stress hormones, an excess production which was the result of living with chronic pain. During experiences like this it really is no wonder that you begin to hate your body and think of it as something working against you, actively thwarting your greatest wish: to be able to play music.

I would therefore say that the greatest benefit for me becoming an advanced teacher is the ability to see the body not as an adversary but as an incredibly logical construction which is constantly adapting to how it’s being used and under which conditions it has to function. And therefore also as adaptable to an almost unlimited degree.

This helps me to relate to other peoples problems in a different way and hopefully makes me a teacher and a lecturer worth trusting.

I have also found great pleasure in becoming more of a body nerd. I’m taking additional education into different systems of physical movement therapy while at the same time having now the confidence and trust in my own intuition which allows me to once more explore the fields of composition and improvisation. This time not as a way to avoid a problem but out of the sheer joy of exploration.

T:  As a musician, do you have any dreams pertaining to physical and mental mastery?

I think being part of and working with something so heavily rooted in tradition as classical music, has some disadvantages. For instance: at a very early point you start to adopt certain concepts and beliefs concerning what being a musician is about and what it entails, especially  in terms of accepting certain things as inevitable, such as physical pain or discomforts, or a certain level of stress.

In some instances these beliefs are so strong that they might keep us from seeking help and convince us that this is an acceptable state of being if we want to live a life of music.

Therefore the realization that this might not be the case gave me a somewhat different perspective on what to accept as limitations in my life. I think that one of my biggest dreams is to be able to look at my musicianship and my life in general with even greater expectation when it comes to creative potential, artistic ability or my health in general.

T: What would you say to inspire musicians around the world?

The most amazing instrument you’ll ever play is the one you’re walking around in so learn to use it in the best way possible. The knowledge is available, don’t be afraid to seek it out.

Where does the music end and the listenig begin?

Musical jiggsaw-puzzles at Kamfest 2016

Our perception of reality is a highly individual matter: every day our mind is occupied by trying to create coherence between an unimaginable amount of fragments brought to us through our different senses. It is a bit like a game: you’re given certain pieces but how you combine them is up to you.

Art and music reflects this essential fact that we humans are not sharing one reality but rather perceiving myriads of different possibilities of reality, all interlaced and happening at the same time. We are all aware that two people might experience the same piece of music or art in entirely different ways. The music or the art work is the same and yet the experience differs.

The continued construction of our separate realities is a game which every human being plays continuously, whether we are aware of it or not but once we are aware of it it is possible to use it consciously. Within the world of music this sense of the possibility that lies in co-creation with the listener is more present in particular composers and their works than in others.

bent-sorensen

At the Kamfest 2016, the annual chamber music festival in Trondheim, Norway, the Danish composer Bent Sørensen is this year´s “composer in residence” and brings to the festival his unique flavour of musical landscapes. I first encountered his music several years ago when, as a Master student at the Norwegian Conservatory of Music, Bent Sørensen was one of the three composers around whose works I centred my thesis. That knowledge was deepened when, in 2007, Sørensen was composer in residence at Festspillene in Bergen where I was able to attend the performance of several of his works and was also able to conduct an interview with him.

Searching for the familiar un-known

From my very first encounter with his music, Sørensen’s works always held a strange and unique fascination. Perhaps it had to do with a lifelong love for jigsaw puzzles; as a child jigsaw puzzles held an endless fascination for a mind who was constantly looking for patterns. Or maybe it was the other way around: maybe the hour-long searching for pieces that would fit each other was the activity which triggered a lifelong fascination for pattern-seeking.

puslenoter

The search for patterns and form can be conducted both visually but also aurally and musically. When listening to music we are essentially listening for form. The listening mind is forever searching for an underlying pattern, something which will make what we hear “logical” and “understandable”. This is however not a logic and understanding based so much on intellectual concepts as it is based on a sense of relationships, and acute sense that some parts are closer connected than others and that the entire piece therefore consists of a sort of pattern which is graspable if we are able to conceive it.

The Norwegian composer Arne Nordheim made a rather famous and much quoted comment of Sørensen’s music that “it reminds me of something I have never heard before” pinpointing this strange feeling of familiarity coupled with the sense of something unknown which the music of Sørensen triggers.

The music is all texture and movement, fragments and whispers which give rise to slips of memory. Unexpected qualities of sound (in several of his pieces musicians are asked to sing or hum while playing their instruments) and tempos which plays with our ability of perception and where fast moving sonic structures tricks the mind into a perception of larger, slower moving fields of sound, like millions of small rivulets of current creating the larger swellings of a river.

deserted-church

Listen to the piece The Deserted Churchyards where two lines of texture move together, one from above and one from below , crossing and departing- shimmering facets and velvety lines entwining and dancing, and where the glockenspiel also triggers the pictures of church bells swallowed slowly by an ever encroaching sea line (especially if you stay on to the end of the piece). 

The deserted Churchyards performed by Esbjerg ensemble conducted by Jules van Hessen

Another hot tip is the CD Birds and Bells with Oslo Sinfonietta, Christian Lindberg and Christian Eggen playing music of Sørensen for those who wish to submerge deeper into his music.

The Jigsaw puzzle that never stops

In one of the concerts in Bergen, which was given the title “Songs in rings of bells,” ten of Sørensen´s compositions were organized into a sequence where the different individual works were fused into each other in a long cycle. Some of the works were solo pieces, others were written for chamber ensemble.

According to Sørensen the challenge in organizing the concert laid in discovering the coherence and connection between pieces which were composed at different times but which still held the same subconscious element of connection, something, he stated, which had always been there.

In a way a composer´s entire output of works might be likened to the pieces of a gigantic jigsaw puzzle where each individual work relates to one piece of the puzzle, excavated with enduring and painstaking integrity from the composers unique musical landscape. In the concert in Bergen the fusing of the different pieces woke to life this sense of unfolding of a landscape which continued outside of its borders.

This hints to one of the most fascinating aspects of music: As an ever reflecting living prism, music changes and is affected by the setting in which it is presented. As humans we are multi-sensorial creatures: unless we actively shut off our senses, isolating only one at a time, our senses will forever fill out and enrich each other and our experiences. The same piece of music experienced on a train late at night with headphones or in a fully packed concert Hall during a festival are two entirely different experiences no matter if the music is the same. A person in love and a person with a dental appointment will probably colour their experience of the same piece of music quite differently. A piece of music, however well we might know it, is forever growing, sprouting new limbs, whispering in new voices and our possibility for experiencing it in new ways are endless.

The multiple realities of art and of humans

Just as all of our senses are engaged to a certain degree in every art- experiences we encounter, listening and perceiving art is also a highly co-creative experience.

My father worked, among other things, as a scenographer at the theatre, providing the visual parts and settings of the performance. His main creed was always that the less visual cues you give the audience, the greater liberty you are granting to their imagination and co-creation of the experience. Theatre, as well as music is a co-op: it demands the active co-operation of everyone involved and that includes the audience/listeners.

svart-teater

From the rehearsal of the theatre performance Måne over gjøglarvogna, one of the first performances in Norway where black light theatre was used, a form of theatre introduced in Norway by my father Karel Hlavaty. This performance was created in cooperation between my father and my mother, Nina Martins

The only reason why it is possible for a scenographer to depend on the co-creation of the audience or for a composer to depend on the aural jigsaw puzzle-skills of his audience is the knowledge that this is a central part of the human mind: the ability and fascination for filling out the picture, for joining the dots.

JSBachIn the suites for solo cello by Johan Sebastian Bach the cellist has four strings, four fingers and a bow at his or her disposal. Only two strings can be played simultaneously and therefore the possibilities for creating harmony and chords (three or more notes played simultaneously) is limited. How then is it possible to create the impression of more than one voice moving along?

The solution is to involve the listener as a co-creator: in his music Bach often implies harmony by having the cellist move between fragments of two or more voices. In the listener’s mind the fragments merge into two or three separate voices being played simultaneously and thus harmony is created. One way this is done is through arpeggios or broken chords, where the notes of the chord are played after one another but where the listener combines them in his head. Here is an example from the Allemande of the second Suite in d-minor.

Seen in a time perspective the notes are played after one another in succession along a horizontal timeline, the hallmark of melody, but in the mind of the listener harmony (the stacking of notes vertically) is nevertheless created.

Most of us are highly unaware of all the amazing processes happening inside ourselves when we are conceiving art; of how many amazing sensorial connections that are being made and contributing to our overall experience. If we were aware of this we might perhaps place less of an emphasis on the opinion of others to tell us how to think and feel about what we have just experienced and simply be present in the unique jigsaw puzzle-games of our amazing minds.

george_crumb_agnus_dei_detail

A detail from one of the beautiful scripts of American composer George Crumb

Maybe we should all be more in awe over our own creative ability when encountering music or art, an ability without which would render music and art as barren constructions and not as the amazing playgrounds for the mind that they are.

 

 

 

 

An artistic meeting beyond time

Last Tuesday, the 5 of January the great composer, conductor and pianist Pierre Boulez passed into eternity. As a lifetime explorer of new musical dimensions he has, for me, been a great source of inspiration. The following is an imagined meeting which I personally would have loved to witness and a small tribute to the great and timeless minds of three immaculate artists who, in my view, share the common feature of fearless exploration into Art: Pierre Boulez, Pablo Picasso and Johann Sebastian Bach.

So what if it were possible to create a quiet place beyond the limits of time and allow these three to meet for an amiable chat concerning life and art? To erase the years between them and let them meet as equals, each formed by his own time but also at the same time combined in their mutual love of Art and their own work. What if it were possible to let them meet on neutral ground in a half-fictional setting but at the same time partly real?

The setting of this experience owes its imagery to the books of Lawrence Durrel “The Alexandria Quartet” and Keith Miller “The Book on Fire”. Other sources of inspiration used are: http://www.baroquemusic.org/bqxjsbach.html, an interview with Pierre Boulez by the Magazine Musikblätter (Interview: Wolfgang Schaufler, Transcript: Christopher Roth, Baden-Baden; December 2010) © Universal Edition and a lifetime of quotes, tidbits and remembrances from books, articles and half-heard stories.

Please bear in mind that this is meant as a purely fictional meandering and respectful hommage to three men who have and will continue to have a profound impact on music and art everywhere.

An imagined meeting. Pablo Picasso, Pierre Boulez and johann Sebastian Bach

AlexandriaPablo Picasso, Pierre Boulez and Johann Sebastian Bach are meeting over a pair of Havana cigars and cognac on the terrace of a bar overlooking the harbour in Alexandria. The sky is tall and bright and the three gentlemen are immaculately dressed in white linen suits. Bach has lifted off his wig and placed it on the chair beside him, fanning himself lightly with Boulez´ Panama hat. Picasso squints eagerly into the sun while his hand moves ceaselessly over the drawing pad on his lap. When Boulez urges him to take a short break he excuses himself saying that as he has vowed never to write a diary (to the relief of many of the husbands of his previous mistresses) his pictures will be his only memoires and the pages of his life’s Journal, and this occasion certainly merits to be remembered.

As three friends of old, connected through their creative ideas and passion for their work there is little need to discuss seemingly irrelevant facts like differences in age and language. Instead the conversation invariably turns towards familiar elements like work and life.

Since neither of the three has ever been burdened with unnecessary shyness the conversation flows freely and amiably.

Bach, having finally obtained a position at the Thomas school in Leipzig shares his joy over the new possibilities such a position offers with his friends and the conversation turns towards the subject of artistic freedom.

Boulez: I believe I have finally begun my quest towards my own freedom, friends. I feel as if I have been confined to the crudest building blocks by a hoarding older brother for many years and now he has left home and all of a sudden I found the door to his room ajar and sneaked in and upturned the box under his bed and got creatively drunk on the riches I discovered there!

In many ways you know, Arnold was like a bigger brother to me in creative spirit. Coming home with his bag stuffed full of a strange new language and impressing everyone at the family reunions. I was impressed as well, I admit it. And I learned a lot but at the same time my thoughts were inevitably straying towards the eternal Cain-motif. I needed more, I needed to break free and conquer my own land, my own language, a language with infinitely more freedom than his. And so I began to assemble the blocks in an entirely different way and according to a completely new system, my system.

My system would be a system in which freedom was essential like the totem of the entire country, a freedom like the empty workshop of a mason where only the hammer lies resting on the bench, waiting.

Picasso: But there is always freedom! How else could you create if you have not freedom? If you be a true man your work is bound to be your own and therefore, of course, free.picasso portrett

Bach: But the system is the essence here, Pablo! After all, what is structure and system but a blueprint that shows us the inner structures of existence, no less. No structure, no creation. Of course like all things containing great power it must be mastered…

Picasso: Like with any woman or any blank canvas..

Bach: Never the less it can be mastered but it takes time and hard work, it does not simply fall into one’s lap. Then of course you have to endure the experience of having your beautiful structure completely disintegrated by a third rate musician who cannot even be bothered to play the correct rhythmical ornamentation.

Picasso: For me the system comes with the gut-impulse. I always paint objects as I think them, not as I see them, therefore any system inherent in my thoughts invariably shows itself in my work, I cannot put it there intentionally in order for the art to emerge within it.

As for your talk about Cain-motifs, Pierre: in my opinion every creation starts with destruction. You have to rid yourself of or deliberately destroy any previous notion of what you think you know about something when attempting to describe it. How else can you gain access to its essence, and once you’ve found that: how else can you make an accurate description of it?

Boulez: I believe that is something I can relate to. What finally gave me my stand against my Viennese brothers: I needed to be allowed to describe, to be a painter! You really cannot just be constructive all the time; you have to be descriptive, as well!

Picasso: Perhaps you would like a canvas? But of course when describing something the real question is always “who are you describing for?”

I have been describing the world to so many people and in such an amount of different languages but it was not until I finally started describing it to myself that it really got interesting.

Bach: By “yourself”, you mean the divine core of your own self?

JSBach

Picasso: If there ever is or was a divinity he lives within the perfectly painted line of a woman´s back.. (Smiles)

Bach: Personally I would say that I have never doubted his presence in my music.

After all, gentlemen, did not the great Luther himself one state that it is “when music is sharpened and polished by Art that one begins to see with amazement the great and perfect wisdom of God in his wonderful work of harmony”

But the problem as I see it seems to be that in order to make a living and to be able to live with yourself while making it, your descriptions needs to be accessible to others as well as to yourself.

Unless of course you are very wealthy and may do as you please.

God knows I tried in my youth, my head bursting with the new ideas from the evening songs, with the new possibilities! All of these new ideas literally pouring from my fingertips! And what do they say?? “Surprising variations and irrelevant ornaments which obliterate the melody and confuse the congregation”. (Mumbles and reaches for his glass) As if three months is such an enormous amount of lost time…

Boulez: In that case I am thankful for our differences in time. At least I had the fortune of being born into a world where creating your own language can be seen as a valid line of work. Although of course merely trying to oppose old structures can easily get you artistically dismissed as an attention-hungry musician.

No, the skill that must be “mastered” has for me always been the skill of balance, the delicate balance between constructivism on the one hand and spontaneity on the other. For me, these are the two elements of a true musician.

Bach: Hah! Spontaneity! a lost art in deed. You know, there were times when I felt myself suffocating underneath all of these innumerable careful souls. People who lived by rules, never venturing outside of what they had been taught were possible. Especially the organ builders! At times I would give them all a good fright just to get back into a happy mood. Pulling out all the stops on the organ and letting the instrument make its loudest sound ever always made them all go quite white. I used to say that I needed to hear whether the organ had a good lung (chuckles) Ah, but that sound, gentlemen, what an experience!

You know, Pierre, I quite envy you your enormous palette of sound. What I could have done with such a palette…

Picasso: It is still just a palette. What use is a palette without the ability to wield the brush? Not that you of all people lack that ability, my friend. (smiles and places his hand briefly on Bach´s shoulder) My point is only that the wielding, or maybe more accurately the will to wield is infinitely more important that what you happen to be wielding at the moment.

Boulez: I must certainly say that your palette has changed considerably during your lifetime, Pablo. But at the same time your brush stays true.

(softly, far away the call from the surrounding muezzins starts weaving random harmonies through the afternoon air)Vindussprosser

Will you listen to that! You know, in spite of all this talk of brushes and personal ways of wielding them; sitting here with this magnificent view I am very glad that we decided to meet here as this journey has given me the possibility to enrich my pallet with new sounds and impulses, to absorb this culture and all of its lovely sounds and to take it all back with me to replenish my “brush”. I almost feel like a thief, hoarding riches into the purse of my imagination..

Bach: I was doing the same! There are some very interesting harmonic progressions happening here (pulls out a feather pen and ink bottle and starts jotting down a figured bass on the napkin)

Picasso: And of course you know, my friends, bad artists copy but good artists steal.

 

 

Everything is connected – entangled senses

syn og hørsel

Music is known as an efficient emotional trigger, but physiologically speaking our auditory senses has the potential for creating multi-sensory experiences and sometimes making it possible for us to accomplish seemingly impossible tasks.

Among the gastronomic diverse experiences on offer in Berlin you will find the restaurant Unsicht-Bar, a place where the guests dine in complete darkness served by blind waiters. The role as a food critic is not to be taken here (something which would incidentally leave the restaurant with little credit). The experience however has relevance for the theme of this blog which is listening, as it highlights the degree of interconnectedness existing between our different senses and how they might, often surprisingly, affect one another.

A sensory network

Our senses cooperate in a system of intricate coordination, the most common example is how the loss of one sense might strengthen another. It is for instance a well-known fact that blind people often have a particularly sharpened sense of hearing (something which makes them eminent piano tuners). However, there is another connection between hearing and seeing which is not equally well-known.

American teenager Ben Underwood lost his eyesight to cancer at an early age yet, as a teenager, were able to perform seemingly impossible tasks such as playing basketball, bicycling and zigzagging between parked cars on rollerblades.

In order to perform this Ben made use of human echolocation, a technique where sharp sounds such as tongue clicks or clapping is used to orient oneself. The technique of echolocation is also used by bats hunting in the dark and in the sonar technology of U-boats.

flaggermus

The sound waves from the clicks hits objects close by and reflects them back to the sender. But what is truly remarkable is that the reflected sounds are processed in what is normally the “visual” part of the brain, creating an internal “image” of the object. In other words: an experienced echolocator is actually “seeing” i.e. using the visual parts of his brain but without the eyes being the provider of the sensory input.

Many people, when listening to music, experience a sense of internal imaging triggered by associations to the music but the fact that our brain is able to “re-map” a more direct connection between auditory input and visual imagining is nevertheless quite extraordinary, as is the fact that the human brain is not dependent of the eyes in order to “see”.

You talkin´ to me?

There is however no need to lose a sense in order to experience how sight and hearing are interconnected. The restaurant in Berlin might be used to highlight another interesting connection between hearing and seeing. unsichtbar

The concept of the place worked like this: you order your food out in the bar, were given a designated waiter which then led you, Jenka- style, to your table. Here the food were served and digested, all in complete darkness before you were led back out into the bar and the awaiting bill.

The most interesting part of the experience (which might say something concerning the quality of the food served) was that even though my sense of hearing were sharpened in the pitch black dining hall what quickly became obvious was to what degree my sense of vision was normally aiding my hearing when it came to organising the received auditory information.

The ability to be able to see the origin of surrounding noises turned out to be quite important in arranging the auditory input into an understandable sensory experience. Without this help the surrounding noises quickly became an un-distinct mesh of sensory input, sort of like the difference between a two-dimensional and three-dimensional picture: to the brain everything was equally important and consequentially the result was confusion. (Added to this came the unpleasant experience of tentativly fumbling over a plate of uncertain content and the awareness that half of this content might indeed be outside of the plate or in my lap at the end of the meal without my knowing it).

What was lacking was in other words the ability to filter out the important parts of the surrounding auditory information, a task familiar to anyone who has ever tried to have a conversation with a friend while sitting in a cafe surrounded by the noise of clicking copy cops, background music, traffic and hissing steamers.

It is possible that a somewhat longer exposure would have changed the experience. Whatever the case: the novel sensory experience was worth the unpleasantness of the moment.

Changeable brains

Even though Ben Underwood is far from the only blind person making use of echolocation few have been able to match the ease with which he were able to navigate his surroundings. Using a technique called Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging in which activity in the different areas of the brain are detected scientist were able to show that whereas the brain of an echolocation-expert showed significant activity in the brains “visual” areas when subjected to the reflected sound waves of clicking, a non-blind person subjected to the same sounds showed no activity in these areas. In other words: the connection between the different areas of the brain is due to something called neuroplasticity, an activity in which the brain essentially re-maps itself, creating new connections -and this takes time. Learning to echolocate is therefore not easily done. At the same time there is evidence that the connection between our different senses are initially rather tightly woven in all of us.

Colourful letters and sweet smelling pitches

Synesthesia is the name of a neurological phenomenon where stimulation of one sense (for example hearing) unwillingly triggers other senses creating uncontrollable parallel sensory experiences. The sight of a particular colour might trigger the experience of a taste, certain sounds might create the experience of particular smells and (the most usual variety) different numbers and letters (either spoken or written) are perceived in colours even though they might be written with black ink on white paper. Synaesthesia appears more often in children than in adults and tends to disappear as the child reaches adolescence (some scientists also claims that before the age of three months we are all colour-hearing synesthetes) but in some cases synaesthesia might linger on into adult age.

The musical world is full of synesthetes which with a varying degree of success has made use of this condition and allowed it to affect their music making and creativity. Among the great classical composers several have told of how certain pitches or chords triggers the experience of a certain colour. The Russian composer Alexander Scriabin made an attempt to convey his own inner experiences to the audience by composing works which were to be performed on specifically designed “colour-organ” where each tone simultaneously produced a beam of coloured light projected into the concert hall. Olivier Messiaen and Franz Liszt are among other classical composers who are known synesthetes but in the world of popular music we also find artists such as Duke Ellington and Elvin Jones who has described similar experiences. Scriabin-Color-Circle

Many synesthetes report that they consider this condition as an enriching part of their music making (indeed for many it initially came as a surprise that not everyone shared their experience.)This might not be so strange, after all: when considering a phenomenon like a contemporary rock concert it might seem that the goal is to create something similar to the synesthetes multi-sensory experience with the rock concert’s sensory onslaught of light show, sound, film and pyrotechnics. And this wish for multisensory stimulation is no new phenomenon either.

The multisensory listening experience

A central term from the time period known as Romanticism is the so-called “Gesamtkunstwerk” where the goal of the composer was to create an art-form in which all of the different art-forms were merged together into a single unity. Richard Wagner is considered as a composer who were consistently striving towards this goal. According to Wagner art had been in a pitifully fragmented state of being ever since its ancient Greek roots and he promptly set forth merging the different forms by revolutionising the opera genre. The result was, as we know, gigantic works in which the music no longer were seen as merely the means to convey text but where melody, chords, harmony and rhythm all were used as conveyors of meaning in themselves, and where the elements of drama and music were integrated in a completely new way.

The 4 operas known as the Ring cycle is one of the great achievements of this thought where every person and important object in the great 4-part saga has its own designated theme or sound-flavour making it possible to a certain extent to follow the story without understanding the text. In 2010 – 2012 at the famous Metropolitan Opera in New York City director Robert Lepage staged a spectacular rendering of the complete Ring cycle in which projected film, a gigantic movable scene -construction, music, colours and drama merged in a way that would make any synesthete nod which recognition. (The entire cycle is available on Blu-ray and is highly recommendable). Ringen boks

Even among the most ardent sceptic’s the staging was an immediate success. Could it be that all of us harbour deep inside an indistinctive longing towards the multi-sensory experience of the synesthete? Especially when considering that this most likely mirrors a way of experiencing the world which we all have had at an early infant age?

That is however not to say that more is always better: the earlier mentioned Alexander Scriabin (the one with the colour-organ) is also famous for having planned an enormous work. Stretching over seven days the intended work was to stimulate not only the visual- and auditory- but the olfactory-senses of the audience as well: at certain points in the score the audience were to be showered with different perfumes which would change according to the music. If the idea originated from a wish to recreate his own synesthetic experiences or merely were the result of a stroke of creative madness one cannot tell. As perfume has a tendency to linger one can only imagine the state of smell inside that concert Hall after only a couple of pages of music, let alone after a stretch of seven days.

Neurology versus perception

In addition to the amazing possibilities for cross connections hidden within our neurology we humans also possess the ability to willingly alter our perception to a certain extent: we have the possibility to mentally organise the auditory experiences we receive, allowing us to experience a work of music in numerous different ways.

Even though our neurological starting point might to a certain extent be given (most synesthetes have at least one relative sharing their condition so scientists strongly believe that genes are involved here) our ability to train our perceptional abilities when it comes to listening is not so limited. As the ability to change focus while listening to a large extent is dependent on knowledge and having listened a lot to music, subjecting oneself to new listening experiences is the first step towards a richer musical experience. In the Blu-ray box with Lepage’s staging of the Ring cycle a whole DVD is given to extra material where the listener is guided into the numerous quirky secrets and meanings hidden in the music; a fascinating roadmap into a complex and multisensory experience.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FBmDU7RKI_s

Masterthesis concerning listening and listening intentions

master-frontpageFor any hard-core listeners out there: I said I would post more about listening intentions.

My initial interest in listening and listening intentions started while writing my master thesis at the Conservatory of music in Oslo where I was introduced to the subject Aural Sonology, developed and taught by the two composers Lasse Thoresen and Olav Anton Tommesen.

This masterthesis focuses on form-awareness and investigates why this is an important skill for students aiming at a career as performing musicians. The world-famous composer Wilhelm Fürtwängler once emphasised the importance for any performer to be completely aware of what he or she is “saying” when trying to communicate a message, whether it be music or language.

The core term of this thesis is “organic form”. In short, organic form is a form concept where each musical work is seen as an integrated, organic whole. This means that all the parts of the composition needs to relate to the other parts as the parts of a living organism would relate to each other: changing one effects all the others. This has far-reaching consequences in the field of performative choices as each musical work is a unique universe where we as performers are constantly invoking a multitude of butterfly-effects for each new musical choice we make.

The thesis is based on an analytical system known as aural sonology, a system where the object of the analysis is the aural aspect of the music as opposed to the written score. Therefore a large part of the thesis is concerned with the topic of listening and different kind of theories concerning listening intentions. These subjects can be found under the heading 1.2 Concerning Sonology and Aural Sonology.

The main part of the thesis is given over to a detailed analysis of three compositions: Black Angels by George Crumb, The Lady of Shalott by Bent Sørensen and Solve et Coagula by Rolf wallin.

Towards the end, in the appendix there is also an interview with each of the three composers.

 ………

 Denne Masteroppgaven tar for seg begrepet form-forståelse og ser spesielt på hvorfor dette er en viktig type forståelse for studenter som studerer til å bli utøvende musikere. Den verdensberømte dirigenten Wilhelm Furtwängler fremhevet at det å videreformidle mening kun var mulig når dét man formidlet stemte overens med ens egen forståelse. For å kunne formidle noe må vi selv som formidlere vite hva det er vi sier og forstå det til bunns.

Hvert musikalske verk er et unikt univers hvor vi som utøvere konstant setter i gang sommerfugleffekter for hvert musikalske valg vi tar. Velger vi å dra ut starten på en musikalsk frase må vi hente inn energien vi har brukt fra et annet sted senere. Dette er hva vi kaller Organisk form i musikk. Det medfører at vi betrakter et hvert musikkverk som en integrert enhet hvor hver del forholder seg til hverandre som delene i en levende organism. Hver enkelt del har sin klart definerte rolle og står i et spesielt forhold til de andre delene. Dette skaper et logisk forhold mellom de enkelte delene og gjør at musikken får et mer helhetlig preg over seg.

I oppgaven min benytter jeg meg av et analysesystem basert på emnet aural sonologi som har med musikkforståelse basert på musikk slik den klinger i motsetning til musikkanalyse basert på det musikalske notebildet. Oppgaven inneholder også intervjuer med komponistene George Crumb, Bent Sørensen og Rolf Wallin og er sentrert rundt tre verk av disse komponistene: G. Crumbs Black Angels, B. Sørensens The lady of Shalott og R. Wallins Solve et Coagula.

Read the thesis here  / Les oppgaven her:

The development of formawareness by means of aural sonology

Listening intentions part 1: It is all about attitude

Nameless sounds
In the last post I promise to talk a little bit about listening intentions. The background for this term is found in the development of the electroacoustic music in the late 1940s. With the electroacoustic music composers and musicians were faced with a brand-new sound-world, the world of recorded sounds, which, for the time being, lacked a terminology.

In order to talk about music you need words to name the different parts of it. In traditional music there is a wealth of terminology for elements such as pitch, rhythm, timbre, dynamics and tone which can all be used in order to put our experience of the music into words. But what happens when you are suddenly given a new set of toys which gives you the possibility to create sounds that does not fit into the previous models of what we consider “music”? What terms do you use for the sound of ice being crunched under a boot? Or a keychain hitting a sement floor? Or the drumming of train wheels hitting iron rails?

Have a try yourself: what words would you use to describe what you have just heard?

The clip you have (maybe) just heard were made by Pierre Schaeffer, creator of the phenomenon Musique Concrete, you can read more about that here .P schaeffer In addition to composing with recorded sounds Schaeffer also sought a way to analyze and talk about this strange new sound-world. The noise-loving Composer s approach to the music was a typical phenomenological one, meaning that he sought to describe and reflect upon the sound-experiences rather than to explain them. The main focus was: how to name the new nameless sounds within the music. In Norway this approach was continued within the Aural Sonology Project at the Norwegian Academy of Music in Oslo led by the two composers Lasse Thoresen (a great Norwegian composer whom I was lucky enough to have as my mentor when I wrote my Master thesis at the conservatory) and Olav Anton Thommesen.

The Frenchman François Delalande took this research a step further. While Schaeffer’s main interest was the musical objects themselves and how to name them, Delalande was more interested in music appreciation in general. Through interviews with listeners he identified six types of reception behaviour or what we might call listening intentions. Through his research he found evidence that a listener might favour a specific listening intention regardless of the type of music he or she listens to. At the same time through experiments it became obvious that a person’s listening intentions might be “open for negotiations”, in other words: we ourselves have the ability to change them.

So what is needed in order to make a conscious choice in the way we listen?

Change your perception – change your world
Two things.

One: that we have knowledge of the fact that there are different listening intentions available,
and two: that we are able to make a specific change in our everyday way of perception. Now this change is concerned with how we perceive things in general, not only music.

Every day we experience the world through our senses, from the touch of a door handle and the sight of a view to the scent of a flower. These experiences are a natural result of having functional senses and living in the world of today. We respond to these experiences in different ways: speaking of them, acting or reacting upon them. They might trigger emotional responses of different kinds in us (some things might appear attractive, others things repellent) and the reasons for these different responses might be more or less subconscious.

Within the subject of phenomenology this way of perception is called the Natural Attitude. It might seem strange that this natural way of experiencing the world might be called an “attitude” but the reason is that there exists another way, another “attitude” towards reality.

As humans we have the possibility of not only having a sensory experience, but at the same time to take a “step back” and watch ourselves have the experience and reflect upon how the experience affects us. Instead of simply smelling the flower I observe myself smelling the flower and at the same time I observe how “I” react to the smell.blomster This is called the Phenomenological Attitude and when moving into this attitude we become philosophers and mystics reflecting upon everything that presents itself to us instead of merely acting upon it (be it the smell of a flower, our own stream of thoughts during meditation or a piece of music).

Fascinating!

Yes, but I don’t like that kind of music
A subject´s way of listening is a highly personal and individual matter. 100 people might be listening to the same performance and each of them might experience a unique reaction towards what they have just heard. Each of these experiences are equally valid and important to the person experiencing it.

The point of listening intentions is not to enable us to give the “correct” interpretation of a piece of music but rather to open up different routes into the music. Either consciously or subconsciously a lot of people might have a tendency to think: “the music has to be in a particular way for me to be able to enjoy it“. A more uncommon idea is that maybe “I” as a listener have to listen in a certain way in order to be able to fully experience music of this particular kind.

As I mentioned earlier: listening is not a natural gift that follows the ability to hear, but rather an acquired skill that must be honed in order to be developed. So, as we have just talked about: what is needed is the right attitude (the phenomenological one) and a wee bit of knowledge concerning listening intentions. So here goes:

Selected listening intentions according to Delalande
Lastly in this blog post we are going to look at one of Mr Delalande’s listening intentions. The others will follow in a later post. I’m going to present you with a specific type of listening intention that is very common among musicians.

#Taxonomic listening
Taxonomic listening is concerned with form and analysis. In this type of listening intention we focus on the abstract music itself and the architecture within it. For musicians the knowledge of musical form (i.e. the structure or plan along which a piece of music is constructed) is essential both in analysis and in performance.

sonataform

When we adopt a taxonomic listening intention we recognise and subtract parts of the music, we compare it to other parts and we look for an overall shape or logical form.

How do you convey meaning through music? In the beginning the meaning of music was mainly conveyed through its text but from around 1700 instrumental music had developed to a great degree and musical forms was beginning to replace text as the meaning conveyor. The concert audiences at this time in history were mainly from the upper classes of European society as concerts at this time were not yet a public spectacle. People from the upper classes were often given a general tuition by house-teachers which consisted among other things of knowledge of literature and music.

Today taxonomic listening is not that normal among listeners except by those who have had a musical education. During the classical period however, (a musical period primarily associated with the names of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven) the taxonomic listening perspective was somewhat of a standard as audiences discussed and took delight in discovering and observing a comprehensible musical landscape organised according to general musical forms; forms which were recognised by everybody at the time who listened seriously to music.

Natural limits
Of course, in order for this type of listening to be possible it is often necessary that the music fulfil certain criteria. The composer Arnold Schoenberg once said:

“To be concerned with form is taking into account man’s limited powers of understanding; as he is unable to keep in mind very long time stretches, the musical discourse must be subdivided into manageable segments. However, these shorter segments must again be joined to the others in such a way that one segment presupposes the other and vice versa (…).”

For those of you who got stuck in the part about “man’s limited powers of understanding” no, this is not meant as an insult, it merely points to the fact that all of us are in the possession of a short-term memory which, being short-term, has certain limitations: it has an upper limit of 7 objects at a time, give or take a few (this is why we always memorize 0ur phone number like this: 122 33 455 instead of like this: 1 2 2 3 3 4 5 5 ).

When using a taxonomic listening intention our short-term memory is actively at work. In the standard diagram of the sonata form shown above the principal subject is repeated in the recapitulation. In order for me to experience that I need to be able to remember the principal subject, and it is the composer’s responsibility to make sure that I do. How does he do this? By making sure that it is, in the words of Schoenberg, “manageable” (i.e. short enough) and by repeating it.

Just look at the beginning of Beethoves 5th Symphony and you get the picture. That motif and that theme sticks

5th_symphony

It is however are also possible to use a taxonomic listening intention in the encounter of more modern music.

In the 1960s composers like Penderecki and Ligeti came up with a kind of music unlike anything ever heard before. This was music as mass, as process, as development. All ideas of motif and themes were discarded in favour of gigantic constructions of sound, often built by adding layer upon layer of voices a quarter tone apart.

But still, even if we don’t have any recognisable themes or motifs it is still possible to listen to this kind of music with a taxonomic intention. We will take a quick tour through this great and terrible piece of music. Keep an eye on the timer and look at the points below:

  • From the beginning at 00:07 – a static layer is developed by adding more and more voices.
  • At 00:23 the intensity receides and the layer is given a more flexible and moving texture as the strings start playing tremolos instead of repeated static pitches.
  • At 00:43 there is a sharp break as the middle part of the mass is drawn back and we are left with a thin sliver of sound in the upper and lower register forming a shimmering frame.
  • Then, at 00:55 a new layer slowly developes within this frame, one whose texture is more chaotic, uneven and rough, consisting of percussive sounds and sliding. squeeking noises. Gradually these noises are increased by adding more and more voices from the thin static frames until they form a complete tapestry of writhing mass which increases until it abruptly ends at 01:57.
  • 01:57 Now we are left with a static ribbon of sound which is slowly streached in both directions like a piece of wet cloth before it recedes again.
  • At 02:08 a new ribbon is introduced, this one also spreading out like aquarell paint diluted in water. And so on and so on….

I do not know how this works in writing but I have used this sort of guided listening at lectures and it seemed to give people a sense of this kind of form-and-structure-listening that taxonomic listening intention is all about. Personally this is one of my favourite ways of listening but then I am a bit of a structure-maniac who always loved geometry in school…

Interested in more? The next post will be about Emphatic and Figurative listening intentions.