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.

 

 

 

 

Musikk for ører og øyne

Dagens omfattende opptaksteknologi gir oss i dag tilgang på musikk overalt og i alle settinger. Musikk er på sett og vis blitt et legemsløst fenomen: det er i dag fullt mulig å ha hørt flere hundre pianokonserter uten noen gang å ha sett et flygel. Har det noe å si? Tatt i betraktning i hvor stor grad sansene våre vikler seg inn i hverandre og påvirker hverandre så er det fristende å tenke at  det ligger en lite forskjell her – at det visuelle aspektet ved en musikkopplevelse kan ha noe å si for den totale lytteropplevelsen.

Mens vi i dag nærmeste drukner i tilgjengelig musikk gjennom alle tenkelige kanaler og formater var musikk før opptaksteknologiens tilblivelse mer av en ferskvare og konserter var den eneste anledningen til å få oppleve den. Den musikalske opplevelsen krevde dermed at du som lytter var i nærheten av instrumentene som frembrakte musikken og dermed var den visuelle delen av en lytteropplevelse også knyttet til instrumentene og deres utforming. Særlig i tidligere tider kunne disse instrumentene anta ganske så imponerende former.

 Instrumentale møbler

På 17 og 1800-tallet var huskonserter vanlig i de øvre middelklasse-hjemmene. Musikkutdanning var en viktig del av spesielt unge damers allmenndannelse. Dermed var det også vanligere at instrumenter var en naturlig del av hjemmene og et mondent borgerhjem var gjerne forventet å ha i det minste ett tangentinstrument. Flere av disse instrumentene hadde dermed en visuell utsmykning som også gjorde dem til dekorative møbler.

Bildetekst: The Concert av Gerard ter Borch

The concert Gerard_ter_Borch

ClavecinRuckers&Taskin

Sammenlignet med dagens mer edruelige modeller kan tidligere tiders instrumenter imponere og beta oss med sin overflod av vakre detaljer.

Skulpturell skjønnhet og eksperimentering

9.1275404555.giraffe-piano

17 og 1800-tallet var også en tid hvor forløperne til mange av vår tids instrumenter gikk gjennom flere eksperimentelle stadier, både teknisk og utformingsmessig; sidespor som noen ganger endte i ganske fantasifulle resultater.

Giraffpianoet er et slikt kuriøst monster. I 1820 hadde herskeren av Egypt forært en giraff til zoologisk hage i Wien og alt i hele byen dreide seg plutselig om giraffer – fra hårfrisyrer og kjeks til utformingen av vinglass. I byens dansesalonger danset man en ny dans kalt giraffgalopp og på musikkfronten fikk man en ny instrumenthybrid: giraffpianoet – et flygel som var mindre plasskrevende og dermed lettere å bringes inn i middelklassens stuer. Instrumentet minnet om et flygel hvor den buede delen av instrumentkroppen var blitt kuttet av og plassert på høykant bak klaviaturet.  Giraffpianoet kom i flere fantasifulle utsmykninger og var en fryd for så vel øyne som ører.

734-090605Revival-GiraffePiano.standalone.prod_affiliate.79

Instrumentene på denne tiden ga altså lytterne en stadig variert strøm av visuell informasjon, gjerne med fokus på det som i tiden ble ansett som vakkert eller slående og det er fristende å tro at det visuelle også bidro i lyttesituasjonen.

Når visse HiFi-produkter i dag kan sies å nærme seg det rent skulpturelle er det en spennende tanke at det på et vis kan være et svar på tapet av den visuelle opplevelsen som nærheten til musikkinstrumenter en gang ga. HiFi industrien kan på et vis sies å ha tatt over ansvaret for å bringe den skulpturelle skjønnheten (som det før var instrumentene som sto for) tilbake inn i lyttesituasjonen.

mbl101extreme

Mbl´s  Radialstrahler 101 X-treme. Høyttaler og smykke i ett.

Det er kanskje ikke tilfeldig at Mbl i et intervju med monoandstereo.com beskriver denne kreasjonen som ” … high-end instruments that create genuinely lifelike music in your living room.”

Skiftende idealer

Skjønnhetsidealer har alltid vært kulturelt betingede fenomener og det er bare å bla i en kunsthistoriebok for å se at idealene har endret seg betraktelig oppgjennom tidene. Så også i instrumentverdenen: Selv om standardinstrumenter i dag fortsatt har en iboende skjønnhet er det ikke primært det visuelle aspektet ved dem som ansees som det viktigste. Først og fremst skal de jo kunne frembringe vakker musikk.

Allikevel finnes det de som fortsetter å legge vekt på det visuelle aspektet ved instrumentene, noen ganger med fantasifulle resultat.

schimmel-grand-piano-pegasus-by-luigi-colani

Når vi ser Luigi Colanis flygelfantasi ovenfor er det fristende å tenke at ringen er sluttet fra de visuelt overdådige eksemplene blant instrumentene på  17-1800 tallet og frem til i dag. Men instrumentet ovenfor er allikevel først og fremst et instrument. Hvis det ikke var i stand til å produsere lyden vi forventer fra et flygel vil det også tape en god del av sin status.

Men hva med instrumenter hvor det visuelle aspektet er like viktig som det auditive?

Syngende skulpturer

Som henholdsvis skulptør og ingeniør dannet brødrene Francois og Bernhard Baschet en uvanlig og fantasimessig eksplosiv kunstnerisk duo.

baschetbrothers

Fra 1950-årene og framover konstruerte de to franskmennene flerfoldige musikalske skulpturer hvor skillet mellom instrument og skulptur er ytterst vag. Brødrene selv så på verkene sine som skulpturer som også var i stand til å produsere musikk. Skulptur-objektene deres, som ofte består av materialer som metall, glass og tre, er både vakre å se på og fascinerende å lytte til.

Som grunnlag for det hele ligger en nitid utforskning av akustiske fenomener. Med vitenskapelig grundighet startet brødrene med å klassifisere allerede eksisterende musikkinstrumenter. De kom opp med en oversikt over fire grunnleggende egenskaper som gikk igjen hos de fleste av dem:

  •  Muligheten for å produsere periodiske vibrasjoner
  • Muligheten for å opprettholde disse vibrasjonene
  • Muligheten for å frembringe en skala og modulere tonehøyde
  • Muligheten for å forsterke en lyd

Med en metodisk grundighet gikk brødrene dermed i gang med å lage skulpturer hvor disse fire egenskapene skulle danne de grunnleggende premissene.

baschetinstrumenter

I tillegg bestemte de seg for å inkludere enda et element, nemlig resonatorer, elementer som kan bevege seg synkront med lyden som skapes og forsterke den. (Disse finner vi også hos enkelte musikkinstrumenter, blant annet har hardingfelen et dobbelt sett med strenger hvor det nederst er der for å vibrere synkront med og å skape resonans til klangen skapt av de øverste strengene.)

hardingfele

Av hensyn til resonansmulighetene ble metall derfor et viktig materiale i mange av skulpturene.

Er dét kunst?

Den uvante kombinasjonen av instrument og skulptur har også bidratt til å endre definisjonen av kunstbegrepet: Da de musikalske skulpturene skulle sendes til USA for å stilles ut på MOMA, Museum of Modern Art, ble de stoppet i tollen. Ifølge tollmyndighetene i USA var nemlig kunst på den tiden definert gjennom sin unyttighet(!) og siden skulpturene til Baschet-brødrene var i stand til å produsere musikk var de dermed ikke lenger unyttige og derfor pålagt 16% toll og avgifter.

Baschet plakat

Saken havnet i retten hvor Baschet-brødrene fikk god hjelp og støtte fra kunstmiljøet i New York og fra presedensen skapt av en tidligere rettssak rundt kunstneren Brancusi (Da Brancusi første gangen sendte sine kunstverk til USA for å stilles ut ble også de stoppet i tollen med en kommentar om at dette ikke var kunst men stener som ikke lignet noe og slikt noe var det toll på.) På lik linje med Brancusi vant også Baschet-brødrene frem i retten og de musikalske skulpturene deres bidro dermed til diskusjonen rundt hva som skulle defineres som kunst.

De instrumentale skulpturene gjorde stor lykke på museene hvor de ble stilt ut, for i motsetning til skulpturutstillinger flest som hadde et vell av små skilt med “ikke rør!” plassert rundt seg var Bashet-skulpturene akkompagnert av små skilt med oppfordringer til publikum om å “spille/leke” med verkene (en dobbeltmening ved bruken av ordet play). dermed var gjerne utstillingssalene fulle av voksne og barn som stimlet rundt verkene i lykkelig klanglig utforskning.

The Crystal Organ

cristal

Men for å utnytte de musikalske mulighetene til de skulpturelle instrumentene fullt ut var det nødvendig med musikalsk kompetanse og Baschetbrødrene startet et samarbeid med flere etablerte musikere hvor enkelte av skulpturene nå tok steget over i instrumentenes verden. Sammen med musikerekteparet Jacques og Yvonne Lasry etablerte de ensembelet Lasry-Baschet Sound Structures mens musikeren Michel Deneuve fikk en spesiell forkjærlighet for instrumentet Cristal  (også kalt The Cristal Baschet) og bidro til å utvikle dette til et virtuost instrument egnet både for solo spill og orkester som brukes i moderne musikk i dag.

Cristalen tilhører en gruppe instrumenter som kalles friksjonsidiofoner  hvor tonene skapes ved hjelp av friksjon, i dette tilfellet strykes glasstenger med fuktede fingre og vibrasjonene som skapes forsterkes så av store metallresonatorer som kan minne om enorme blomsterblad. (Teknikken med å produsere musikk ved å gni på glass har vært brukt i flere varianter helt tilbake til 1700tallet da  ingen ringere enn Benjamin Franklin utviklet glassharmonikaen, men mer om det en annen gang.)

En av dem som har innlemmet Cristalen i sitt klanglige univers er multiinstrumentalisten og komponisten Loup Barrow. Her er han i et spennende samspill med Cristal, Hang og Ondes Martenot med Locus Solus Orchestra:

Nye instrumenter og nye komponister

Det er kanskje lett at instrumenter som har et såpass sterkt visuelt særpreg ender opp som mer av en wow-effekt enn en musikalsk opplevelse, og det skal ikke nektes for at Cristalen er et slående innslag på en konsertscene. Med sin kombinasjon av vitenskapelig teknologi, estetisk skjønnhet og fantasieggende klangmuligheter er Cristalen og de andre lydskulpturene til Baschetbrødrene en moderne vri på tidligere tiders instrumentale fantasifullhet.

Samtidig er gjerne et instruments levedyktighet mest av alt knyttet til musikken som skrives til den, komponistenes evner til å utnytte alle dets iboende muligheter og, ikke minst, utøvere som er villige til å eksperimentere og utvikle den nødvendige teknikken for å spille på dem.

Loup Barrow er en av dem som sørger for at Cristalen ikke bare slår oss med sin visuelle prakt men appellerer vel så mye til ørene som til øynene. Vil du vite mer om Barrow kan du gå til nettsiden hans her; mange nye lydlige opplevelser å finne der.

Bangogolufsen beolab90speakers

Med slike instrumenter og med en parallell fantasifull og formmessig utforskning innen HiFi-industrien (som her i Bang& Olufsens fantastiske Beolab90) har visuell undring nok en gang kommet tilbake inn i  lyttersituasjonen.

Artikkelen ble publisert i Audiophile.no 03.01.16

 

 

 

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..

“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