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..