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.

“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