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.

Listening intentions, sound-pollution and singing tapestries

The SoundscapeIn an earlier post on this blog I mentioned the book “The Soundscape” by Canadian composer and writer R. Murray Schafer. The word “soundscape”, one of Schafer’s designs, is used to describe our sonic environment, all of the everyday sounds which surrounds us in our lives. Schafer talks about how these soundscapes have changed as a result of our ever-changing society. The sonic onslaught of the Industrial Revolution, and the ever-spreading urbanisation of the world forever altered our natural sonic surroundings, filling them up with ever more sounds, both pleasurable and otherwise.

Schafer looks at how these soundscapes have become ever more denser, no longer linked to the natural rhythms of day and night but stretching our borders of consciousness along with our waking hours. Last but not least the author investigates how these our soundscapes affect us and how we adapt to them by different means. It should come as no surprise that Schafer bears no love for our current sonic environment, in fact, the term he uses is “ sound-pollution”.

I dare say many will agree with him. People of today, at least those living in an urban environment, have come to depend on different kinds of filters. From the simple earplugs which we use in order to get a good night sleep dispite the screaming todler next door øreproppto the kind we use to lock ourselves into our own private bubble of sound:earphones

(often used on the subways and buses in order to shield ourselves from other people’s attempt to shield themselves from other people´s attempt to….)

Musical tapestries
Music has gradually changed from being an object of focus to being a screen which allows us to focus on something else. In the year 1917 the composer Erik Satie coined the term furniture music (a slightly more literal translation would be furnishing music ) which at the time were background music meant to be played by live performers. Satie only used this term on four smal pieces of Music, as in: 1. Tapisserie en fer forgé (“Tapestry in forged iron” – for the arrival of the guests (grand reception) – to be played in a vestibule – Movement: Very rich) but the term has since stayed, evolving into our present-day “beloved” shopping mall- phenomenon: Muzak

Eric Satie Yuri Khanon Vospominania zadnim cislom
I’m not sure that Satie really knew what he was unleashing with these humorous notions. But what is certainly true is that music has gradually become one of our most readily available filters shielding us from the steadily increasing chaos of our present sonic environments.

Earplugs – for better or for worse?

“For the listener who wears earplugs are very LOUD performance is the best” – J. Levinson

The American philosopher J. Levinson gives here his rather humorous contribution to the topic of filters. Levinson addresses the notion of “inner” earplugs, the sort of conscious and unconscious filtering which we all make use of during our day. Chatting with a good friend in a cafe on a Saturday afternoon would be a completely hopeless task unless we were able to effectively sift out and ignore parts of the surrounding mayhem of hissing coffee machines, loud chattering, background music, screaming babies, revving cars and blaring cellphones.

Our ability to pick out the voice of our friend from all of these surrounding sounds is part of the same ability our brain uses when it filters away the parts of our reality which it deems not strictly necessary for us at the moment. Without this ability we would all quickly die of mental overload. This is more or less an unconscious act on our brains part. However, interesting things might happen when we try to challenge this natural inclination in ourselves.

The reason for doing this is simple: most of the time this filtering ability protects us from a very real danger of mental overload but just as many times a filter might have been created for a specific reason: as protection against a situation long gone. It might have been a reaction to a situation which we once found threatening or invasive but even if the situation now has changed the filter might still be in place.

The standard word for this mechanism is prejudice.

Today we are however following a different trail: that of Listening. There is a very important difference between hearing something and listening to something. Hearing is a purely physical process which happens automatically provided that we have the necessary physiological components. Listening, on the other hand, demands a change of attitude from passive receptor to active observer.

Hearing versus Listening

“To listen is an effort, and just to hear is no merit. A duck hears also”         – Igor Stravinsky

The most important ingredient when turning from hearing to listening is intent. Intent is the tool with which we are made masters of ourselves. With it we reach into the world around us with a clear purpose.

At this point it is tempting to diverging into a long philosophical discussion but to keep (at least a little bit) in line with the topic of this blog I will instead turn to Listening Intentions, a term used to denote the kind of intent or different attitudes with which we might approach a piece of music.

L1020411The ever-changing experience
The famous proverb about not being able to step into the same river twice could apply just as easily to music: it is never possible to listen to the same piece of music twice. Of course a work of music can never be performed identically twice but the point here is that even listening to a recorded piece of music will yield two different experiences as we as listeners will be at different mental stages or in different places when we hear them.

Our attitude towards what we hear changes what we hear. Therefore by changing our listening attitude or our listening intent we can change our experience of the Music.

Still with me? In the next post I will take you by the ear and we will enter the wonderous land of listening intensions. It is well worth a visit..

Tensegrity, tango and giant bridges

Question: What does a tango dancer, a giant bridge and a geodesic dome have in common?

Answer: They are all subject to the same laws of physics pertaining to a specific kind of principle that I wish to talk about here.

Tango dancers have feet. Feet are basically foundations  and speaking about foundations it is tempting to move into the world of  construction and architecture, a world in which a solid foundation is invaluable.  The foundation is  the point from which everything else is decided.  It dictates the later possibilities, construction wise, of whatever is to be resting upon that foundation. We are talking about forces of physics here, of thrust and counter thrust, ground force reaction, balance and integrity of structure.

tensegrity-architecture-30-620x503

No one in their right mind would ever build a pyramid upside down (except perhaps in the world of Walt Disney where there was a story once where Scrooge was searching for an upside-down pyramid balancing on a giant diamond in the middle of the jungle). No matter how fascinating balance might be, in construction we tend to prefer stable objects which are able to carry their weight and distribute the forces of what is resting upon them in an even way.

When the foundation crumbles the results are often disastrous as might be seen in the collapsed sweatshops in some Asian countries. For a building to be solid a good foundation is a requirement. At the same time the forces working inwardly in the structure are equally importent. Enter the term Tensegrity

Tensegrity as a term is coined out of the two words tensional integrity. The man who created the term, Buckminster Fuller, used it to relate to a principle of engineering used in architecture describing structures in which the tension between the different parts of a structure make up the main supporting principle of it and not the individual strength or mass of each part.

In other words: the synergy of tension and compression distributed between the different parts of the structure is used actively in order to create structures that are both lighter, stronger and more stable than one would think possible. For instance the Kurilpa Bridge in Australia:

kurilpa_bridge_01

Notice how none of the poles are actually touching each other?

Here is an example of a building created on such principles. What you’re looking at is an example of a geodesic dome. For more info on these structures look here.

800px-Mtl__Biosphere_in_Sept__2004

and here is a second example of how these principles might be used in creating beauty:

Tens.rainbow_arch

Okay, so what is the connection between all of these incredible structures and the trials and tribulations of a tango dancer?

And the answer is:

Tensegrity!

Our bodies are in fact tensegrity structures, highly complex and balanced organisms where each part is dependent on the other in order to function correctly. Just as the poles and cables distribute stress and compression through a tensegrity bridge, our skeleton, muscles, sinews and last but not least our connective tissue make up a structure of mutually dependent elements were forces of tension and compression are distributed in an evenly manner.

Or so at least we would wish.

But unfortunately this is not always the case. Unlike a bridge we humans have a mind of our own and that mind is often occupied in adapting to a society and an environment less than ideally suited to our bodies and their needs. We have a highly developed ability to adapt ourselves to our surroundings, especially when there is pleasure involved.

Invaluable props

tangoskoAs tango consists of a lot of pivoting movements high heeled shoes has long been the mantra as it often is necessary to be on one’s toes. In this way the foundation of our axis (the central line of balance through our body from feet to head) is a small as possible. This makes it possible for us to twirl and do things like this (check out the twirls at 3.13 and onwards):

The price we pay, however, is high. Burning forefeet, bunions, hallux valgus or similar deformations of the foot causing pain and eventually diminished range of motion in the feet. Our heel bone is more than capable of carrying the weight of our body. The small bones in our  forefoot and toes on the other hand have less of this capability. They are not designed to carry the amount of weight that we stack upon them when our heels forces our entire bodymass forward hoovering above our toes which for the moment are trapped inside a beautiful pair of thight, pointy shoes.

hallux

In addition to that the heels underneath our “heels” tilts our body out of alignment making it necessary for the muscles in our calves, thighs, hips, back and shoulders to compensate in order to keep us in a vertical position.

Remember that tensegrity bridge from earlier? What do you think would happen if we removed one of those poles or slackened one of the wires? Would you be willing to cross it?

The tensegrity system of our body is based on our alignment without high heeled shoes strapped under our feet. In a way the heel acts as an additional pole adding an element of instability into our perfectly balanced structure. Unlike the bridge our bodies are able to compensate for this instability, the cost, however, is often high.

So what if you are unable to give up your heels, what if tango and the experience of twirling around on 10 inch heels is the one thing that keeps you (literally) up?

The next best solution

First of all: the awareness of what we are doing to our body and our feet is an important knowledge which might help us at least not to treat our feet as if they were made of titanium. They are (hopefully) going to last a lifetime so a little atention is not to much of a request.

Secondly: have you ever seen those artists that paints or play the piano with their feet and toes? The feet that they use are no different from yours except that they have been forced to use them actively instead of just shoving them into tight, unyielding shoes every day.

The good news: your feet are adaptable, exercises and stretches actually work so with no further ado here are two recommendations:

The MELT method by Sue Hitzman. This is a training programme including, among other things, small rubber balls and rubber bands of different texture and firmness used to work and manipulate the connective tissue in the feet and hands. A regular workout with these or just having a little session after each late night on the dancefloor does not seem much but has a surprising effect.

For anyone interested I recommend this link in checking it out. The kit costs about  $40 and is worth every cent.

Then there is the invaluable book “Every woman’s guide to foot pain relief” by bio-mechanist Katy Bowman, a true “Bible” when it comes to foot health and a great insight into how your feet are designed to work and exercises in order to make your feet feel a lot more happy. This goes far beyond giving yourself a little footrub now and then. At the moment Timani-founder Tina Margarete Nilsson is teaching a course based on, among other things, principles and excersises from this book in Oslo. If you did not make it then you still have the chance of buying this book

K bowmanand as always: buy it at Bookdepository.com. Great online bookstore with great prices and free shipping to Norway and a lot of other countries!

also: check out Katy Bowmans blog here for more info on feet and foothealth in general.

Interested in knowing more about the tensegrity of your body and how to play with it in stead of against it? Try a lesson in Timani! I give lessons in Timani for both musicians and non-musicians. Read more about it on my webpage here or in this post (only in Norwegian for the time being..)

“Understanding” music. The paradox of the musical experience

I don´t understand it!

I once interviewed the Danish composer Bent Sørensen about his music during the Bergen International Festival in 2007. While talking about the effect of music Sørensen was quite firm on the fact that music was not necessarily to be understood, but first and foremost to be experienced.   It is not difficult to agree with this, but at the same time it is something of a paradox that one of the standard responses to contemporary or “difficult” music of any kind quite often is the phrase  “I don´t understand it”. So I thought I´d write a little bit about why “understanding” so often is experienced as something vital to our experience of the music.

This is in fact very logical as we are, by nature, equipped with a perception that is based on organization and “pattern-seeking”. We organize our perception of the world around us in order to be able to perceive it, and this act of organizing is what gives most people a sense of “meaning” and “understanding”.

In other words “understanding” is not strictly about getting an intellectual grip on something with our minds but more about sensing a sort of inner structure and coherence within what we are presented with. This is especially true when it comes to our experience with music and with language.

The element of temporalityklokke bern

Music is, along with language, a temporal art, meaning that it manifests itself along a timeline and we experience it as successive sound-manifestations. In contrast to this a painted picture can be experienced in the flash of a glance, although maybe not in its every detail. Music and verbal language share the fact that both of them are temporal expressions, we might call them temporal objects. So how do we humans experience temporal objects? What happens in our minds when we encounter them?

The “then”, the “now” and the “soon to come”

The key to the experience of something temporal is the sense of duration that it creates in us. We do not experience a temporal object as a series of “nows” one after the other. If that was the case then nothing would seem to endure through time; everything would be experienced as unrelated momentary flashes that would be wiped from our minds the moment they were replaced by something else.

When we experience temporality through our perception it comes with a primary sense of past and future given from the very beginning together with the “now” of the situation itself.  In phenomenology the full and immediate experience of temporality is called The living present. This is the name of the temporal whole so to speak, and as a whole it is composed of three moments called primal impression, retention and protention. These three moments are inseparable.

I´ll illustrate: Look at how we experience a sentence spoken to us. When we listen to someone speaking we are in a way in three different places at the same time. One part of our mind focus on the words at the very moment we perceive their sound (primal impression), one part retains the by-gone beginning of the sentence in the back of our mind, creating coherence between the by-gone and the present (retention) and the third part senses what is to come, making it possible for us to mentally anticipate the conclusion of what is being said (protention) and at the same time shedding additional light on what has gone before (this is also what makes it possible for people to interrupt each other during a conversation as they anticipate – correctly or incorrectly – the end of the other persons sentence)

In other words: Primal impression, retention, and protention refers to the way in which our consciousness structures its experience of temporal objects, both objects that are present and before us, and inner objects experienced in our mind.

With these three aspects we build our understanding of the world.

Do you know what you are saying?

Ever heard the joke about the millipede who one day started to ponder in which sequence to move his legs and from then on were unable to move ever again? Millipede

Every expression we make consists of a myriad of details (like the myriad of legs on the millipede) which have their natural place and relation to each other. When we speak we use words, pronunciation, stress and tone of voice consciously to impart meaning and as listeners all of these elements contribute to our understanding of what is said.

In music phrasing and a logical relation between the different parts of the music together creates an organic whole where every part is logically related to the other like the parts of a living organism. When we speak or play we seldom focus on all of these details as that would be a sure way to go mad quite quickly or end up paralyzed like our poor millipede. Instead we focus on the expression and the meaning which we wish to convey and then the details naturally fall into place all by them self.

The German conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler describes this as he says that the only indispensable condition for an audience to be able to understand a speaker is that the speaker himself knows what he is saying, that he understands the meaning of what he is speaking of; Only when what is communicated is in accordance with one’s own understanding can it be given the right sound which leads to others understanding it as well. Furtwängler were of course speaking of conductors as well as speakers using verbal language.

Yet again the quote of the great conductor Celibidache becomes relevant “When do I know that a piece has come to its end? I know it when the end is in the beginning. When the end keeps what the beginning promised.”

The importance of memory

In order to know that the end has kept what the beginning promised I need to be able to remember the beginning (retention-work) and my memory works best when confronted with something familiar, something regular.

The language of contemporary music often (not always) consists of irregularities; irregular rhythms, irregular keys, irregular harmonic changes, irregular instrumental combinations, irregular instrumental techniques (etc etc) giving our retention a hard time retaining what has gone before. At about the same time our protention gives up trying to anticipate what is to come since it is having trouble finding a match in our database of previous musical experiences.  So after a while all that  is left is a constant stream of primal impressions which gives us the sense of being lost in a foreign musical landscape with a vague sense of confusion and the feeling of not “understanding” where we are.

For some people this can actually be a blast as it triggers their curiosity, but most people don´t like to be lost.

So we turn of the music.

There are of course several ways in getting acquainted with this strange and sometimes beautiful  foreign world, for it can be beautiful, but that is for a later blog text.
karel 1

Beauty is in the eyes (and ears) of the beholder

Look closely

Have you ever had the time lately to really look at something or someone? Not the quick glance or the romantic eye-gazing but looking as an act of true curiosity and wonder. As children we often indulged in this activity, becoming completely absorbed by the wings of a shiny, black beetle trudging slowly across the ground, or a drop of rain trailing down the window.

As grownups there are as far as I know only two professions which encourages this kind of activity: the meditation-teacher and the artist. Some meditational techniques uses a visual point of focus, often the flame of a candle, as a means to enter certain states of consciousness. The artist painting a live model enters into a similar state of consciousness but an infinitely more active one.

Several years ago I was an avid amateur painter and attended several courses in figure painting at Olav Mosebekks Tegneskole in Oslo with the great teachers Dang van Ty and Hans Norman Dahl. We  started off with still lives and copies and then moved on to painting live models. After getting over the initial embarrassment of staring openly at a naked complete stranger the process gradually took on a totally different flavour. As my fascination grew the models started to change. What had initially been a mixture of individuals gradually turned into something else and as their personalities seemed to vanish their features and shapes came sharper into my focus. My mind was forced off its usual labelling- activity (fat man, thin girl with no chin, woman with too long arms) by the task of trying to capture what I saw and reproduce it on paper. As my mind craved more and more details in order to accomplish the task the models, without exception, grew more and more beautiful in my eyes.

I do not believe that it was some sense of altruism that was at work here (“see the beauty in every person”) although such a phrase, trite and worn thin as it is, might in its time initially have been created by an experience much like mine.

My experience was rather “colder” in that I felt no bond to the persons who happened to inhabit the bodies I was looking at, nor no wish to get to know them personally or desire to fall in love with them. Rather what I felt was a detached form of wonder and awe at the beauty that was gradually growing before my eyes. And maybe this is the clue to the experience: this kind of focus is solely occupied with observing, by the act of focusing.

sittende,bakfra beskåretThe art of mindful focus

This blog centres around the art of mindful focus, mostly in music although this is far from the only place it exists of course, but no matter the setting or topic; the result of such a focus seems always to be the same: a sense of wonder. We lose ourselves in the experience and at the same time are more present than ever before, maybe because what we are experiencing is our perceptive capacity at its highest potential. Not filtered through layers of expectations or thoughts around how to best put this information to good use but just as a very quite form of perception.

Some years later: I am a student at the Norwegian Academy of Music in Oslo, in my second year. Tendinitis in both arms threatens my studies and my student loan is worn thin. As every other Norwegian student I need an extra job to make ends meet but any job involving the use of my hands will be the last drop that tips the tendinitis-scales and shuts the lid on my piano studies. I need a job that doesn´t involve the use of my hands.

Well….

This, admittingly, was not the only reason that I chose to start working as an art model. One very strong reason was my memory of that experience when painting models myself. My thought was: if I am not the only one who has this experience of beauty when looking at and painting a model (which I doubt) then this is something that most models are experiencing, probably without knowing it in some cases.

And I wanted very much to experience what that was like. So I did.

I found out from the other side of the easels that ever so often during a painting session (more often with a professional artist but also quite often in art classes) there would come these long stretches of silence with a very particular form of energy in them. I believe these to be somewhat related to the moments of connection that a performer on stage and an audience sometimes experiences, when the listening involves more than recognising the parts of the music that one “likes” and where the listening on both sides switches to something deeper.

In the last lines of his beautiful poem Allegro, the Swedish poet Thomas Tranströmer describes something that gives me this same experience of ringing, present stillness:

(…)

The music is a house of glass standing on a slope;

rocks are flying, rocks are rolling.

The rocks roll straight through the house

but every pane of glass is still whole.

The painting above was done by the Norwegian painter and artist Roar Kjærnstad. Check out his other Works here: http://www.kjernstad.com/index.htm

Oh, and by the way did you know that Tranströmer also have influenced and inspired several Composers and musicians? This great website tells of some of them: http://wp.me/16OAX