The sound of music vs music of sound

Ebru SÜREK, 13.4.2010

Here is an essay I recently wrote on sound, music, perception and altered states of consciousness for my sound class…

A sound of silence on the startled ear…

Edgar Allan Poe

‘Al Aaraaf’

Four minutes, thirtythree seconds’; a breathtaking symphony, what an amazing nightmare. It is also weird in a way that such a silent ‘music’ has impressed kind of an audiophile like me who wants to enjoy all the vibration and hear every detail in a symphony. However, after my first impression of total amazement, came the distraction. With a split mind, I could sense the cacaphony of thoughts flashing in my mind just like the tictacs of the pendulum swinging between the two extremes; silence or music, symphony or theory, amazing or disturbing? After a while, I found out that the reason of my distraction was totally personal. Apart from the thought provoking theoretical and philosophical allegory that I will mention in the following paragraphs, I realized that the first encounter with John Cage’s 4’33” made me recall one of my everlasting nightmares of going totally deaf and being doomed to eternal silence.

Apparently, as R.Murray Schafer points out in ‘The Tuning of the World’, my nightmare seems to be stemming from the collective unconscious of our times.

‘Modern man likes to remind himself that he is not alone. From this point of view, total silence is the rejection of the human personality. Man fears the absence of sound as he fears the absence of life. UItimate silence is death and modern man fears death as none before him. Therefore he avoids silence to nourish his fantasy of perpetual life. In western life, silence is a negative, a vacuum, a communication hangup. The contemplation of absolute silence has become negative and terrifying for western man.’ (Schafer, 1977, 135)

Just to confirm Schafer’s view, let’s think of ourselves in a simulation of ‘deafness’. Imagine you are in an anechoic chamber, you hear nothing, not even your own nervous system or blood pressure since you happen to be totally deaf. And imagine you will be living in that environment for the rest of your life. How would you feel and react? Probably just like Francisco Goya; after a while you will dive into darker realms of your own mind and totally loose it.

Although absolute lack of sounds can be deranging, silence can also be used as a healing power for the psyche. In a world full of uneven sounds invading the ears of modern men, silence can be the rescuing squad of the ear. Stilling the noise in the mind and learning to hear the silence will improve the acoustic design of the world, therefore the psychological states of the modern societies. But how will this happen in a world full of zillions of sounds? Well, the answer lies in the notion of ‘reduced listening’, that was developed by Pierre Schaeffer.

Reduced listening

In Schaefferian theory, reduced listening is the attitude which requires listening to the sound for its own sake, as a sound object by removing its real or supposed source and the meaning it may convey. Reduced listening has no interest in the origin of the sound, nor in its meaning. ‘To be precise, it seeks to shift attention from the sound as merely a medium (tending to transfer information from targeted objects) toward a feedback from the sound to sound itself’ (Chion, 1995). ‘Reduced listening’ apparently exists in the line between ‘psychologism’ and realism, ‘between the subjectivity of live experience and the objectivity of knowledge’ (Solomos, 1999).

According to Michel Chion, the sound object and reduced listening are correlates of each other; they define each other mutually and respectively as object of perception and perceptual activity. (Chion, 1983). What’s more, as Pierre Schaeffer specified in ‘TOM (Traité des objets musicaux), ‘all music is based on the individual’s activity confronted with each object’.

The reality of listening can’t exist without individual intent, because from a phenomenological standpoint, things are first born in us and in the confrontation between their physical manifestation and our own sensations (Solomos, 1999). And musical objects are no exceptions.

In “ordinary” listening, the sound is always treated as a vehicle. We are expected to hear sounds as liberated from traditional representational devices of musical composition through the very material source. For Cage, however, liberation only occurs by insisting on sound and by extension, direct perception, beyond representation or mediation, as found within the location of the real. Reduced listening can therefore be seen as an “anti-natural” process, which goes against all conditioning. The act of removing all our habitual references in listening is a voluntary and artificial act which allows us to clarify many phenomena implicit in our perception.

Is there a ‘music’ of ‘sound’?

As Trevor Wishart proposes in ‘On Sonic Art’, there has always been debates and rejections by musicians and musicologists about sonic art on the grounds that ‘it is not music’. He opposes the rejections in his prelude of ‘On Sonic Art’ and says that sonic art includes music and electroacustic music. Is this really the case?

One question triggering the other, I think it is the right time to seek the answer for ‘what has changed the view of music and what constitutes music?’ Well, the answer lies in ‘technology’. With the invention of sound recording technologies and then sound processing and synthesis, our knowledge of the nature of sounds have vastly expanded and our perception of them contradicted many 19th Century preconceptions about the nature of pitch and its relation to timbre (Wishart, 1983). For a better understanding of this contradiction, we have to clarify the notion of music and how its definition changed through time.

Music can be described as an art form whose medium is sound. Common elements of music are pitch (which governs melody and harmony), rhythm (and its associated concepts tempo, meter, and articulation), dynamics, and the sonic qualities of timbre and texture. The creation, performance, significance, and even the definition of music vary according to culture and social context. It ranges from strictly organized compositions (and their recreation in performance), through improvisational music to aleatoric forms. Greek philosophers and ancient Indian philosophers defined music as tones ordered horizontally as melodies and vertically as harmonies.

However, 20th-century composer John Cage thought that any sound can be music. Music is sounds, sounds around us whether we are in or out of concert halls. For Cage, ‘music means nothing as a thing’. In contrast, for Schaeffer, and musique concrète in general, context must disappear in order to arrive at music. For both though, what is discovered and cultivated is sound’s ability to build presence through processes of material crafting as well as through a locational sensitivity. In seeking to liberate sound, Cage emphasizes real life, social space and environments as sites for dislocating the self from habitual references of perception. Schaeffer, in turn, engages sound and its materiality through its presentation within spatial terms. (from Exposing the Sound Object)

For this aim, he introduced a new technique for composition called ‘musique concrète’. This technique involved editing together recorded fragments of natural and industrial sounds. The first pieces of musique concrète were assembled by Pierre Schaeffer and Pierre Henry. Schaeffer’s well known ‘Etude aux chemins de fer’ marked the beginning of studio realizations and musique concrète (or acousmatic art).

Music concrète offers a parallel yet alternative voice in the move towards everyday life in the postwar period, initiating a liberating listening not as social transformation but as perceptual intensity. The analysis of auditory perceptions, or psychoacoustics, unfolds notably in musique concrète, alongside a critique of the classical notions of the timbre, or the color of sound, as embodied to the domain of pitch control. As theorized by Schaffer and Bayle, the acousmatic situation emphasizes reduced listening through the presentation of music in such a way that lessens the intrusion of outside reference. (from Exposing the Sound Object)

In conclusion, due to natural factors (absence of anything like eyelids for the ears, the omnidirectionality of hearing, and the physical nature of sound) and the lack of any real aural training in our culture, the way we are ‘imposed’ to hear makes it too difficult for us to select or cut things out. There is always something about sound that overwhelms and surprises us no matter what, especially when we refuse to give it our conscious attention. Thus sound interferes with our perception, affects it. Our conscious perception can surely work at submitting everything to its control, but in the present cultural state of things, sound more than image has the ability to saturate and stimulate our perception.

The question of listening with the ear is inseparable from that of listening with the mind, just as looking is with seeing. In other words, in order to describe perceptual phenomena, we must take into account that conscious and active perception is only one part of a wider perceptual field in operation. Through reduced listening, established habits can be disrupted and a splendid world previously unimagined can be opened for those who try it.


3 Responses to “The sound of music vs music of sound”

  1. Thank you.I hope I can improve through learning this respect. But overall, it’s very nice. Thank you for your share!

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