Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The Language and Experience of Listening: A Framed Thought Bubble

There are no cupholders on the Metra train. And I'm always drinking something. I've grown accustomed to transcribing scrawls from tea-stained, curly-edged pages.

This spring -- out of the institution, eager for the institution -- I'm sitting in on a special topics in philosophy class at my old school -- not every day but once every couple of weeks. It's a class in sound art, specifically the aesthetics of sound and the phenomenology of listening. My former professor asked me to come by once in a while to help facilitate good discussions. I guess I came in handy in that German Romantic Aesthetics class last year (I was all about the Schlegel), and maybe he fears a dead room in this half-term class. They are a large assortment of mainstream-looking students. I'd be fearful too. And I hope I'm not the only "student" who does the reading.

The reading list, and of course, the listening list, is exciting. I'm definitely going to read along with the class, and I even want to make a listening journal like the kids are required to do. (I wouldn't be so inclined to call them kids if it weren't for their outrageous hairstyles and destroyed jeans.) I thought of turning my Twitter account into a listening journal, exclusively. "A micro-blog of experiential learning through sound." What a tagline. I'd probably get more followers than I'd know what to do with. Gawd, I'm starting to think of my own online presence as a social marketing experiment. It's bad. But the real social marketing experiments I'm working on (for clients, for money) put shoes on my feet and put bacon in the boy's belly. So I can't remove that thinking model from my brain completely. (Train just arrived in Chicago. I'm here for an email marketing seminar!) So while I cannot fully lobotomize the marketing out of my brain just yet, I will at least make some attempt to keep'em separated. (In this paragraph, the frame intrudes on the thought bubble.)

Back to the good stuff. Wait. I'm realizing how weird I dress. Jeans (oops), 1940s looking heels, pearls (I look up to Lisa Simpson I guess) and a light blue shirt I just picked up that looks like the past and the future at the same time. A short tunic with 1960s Star Trek shoulders. The kind of thing some princess on a planet of advanced peoples was always wearing, reminiscent of the classical heights of Earth civilization, but with some geometric embellishment to prove her technological futuristicness. I, with my pointy shoulders, am the interloper here. I come from the planet BATAVIA. Look at our picture! We used to have the largest particle accelerator in the galaxy (it is true, friend), until the Swiss outdid us. They still send us their particle data for our expert analyses. So I, citizen of BATAVIA, Planet of Energy, am still quite superior to all of you. Now, teach me this skill you call "email marketing," earthlings. (See what happens to my brain when I have a regular job?)

BATAVIA and the edge of the Particle Accelerator's Cooling Ring

Ok, now back to the good stuff. The stuff of philosophy, which (if we trust our etymologies) is love and knowledge. I am loving to know about:

A) How we experience sound and sound-as-art, i.e. the phenomenology of listening

B) How we articulate the experience of sound and sound art, specifically how this language (really, all language) is so founded in the visual, so that some qualities of sound and the experience of sound might get lost in translation. Is this loss of understanding, or this "misreading" of sound inevitable? Can we bypass our seemingly visually oriented hard-wiring by simply creating a new aural lexicon?

The funny thing is, speech is aural. Maybe we were always trying to communicate what we were looking at (eventually, what we were thinking about) instead of what we were hearing. Onomatopoeia is good enough for that. We can make some good noises.

In class we listened to sound art of the genus musique concrete -- embers burning, doors squeaking, and a symphony of forest floor sounds. Also some garbled and flipped recordings of Blue Suede Shoes that were more like sampling. I took notes, to begin my listening journal, and I found myself describing the pieces in visual terms. Not only in vulgar visual terms, but in terms from the study of art. As an erstwhile art student I couldn't help but make analogies to various art movements and plastic media for each piece. Henry's "...pour une porte" is a ready-made-aided. Tenney's Elvis inspired "Collage #1," well it really is a collage. Xenakis' embers I likened to some kind of found object art, which can be said of most musique concrete. M...'s (don't have my notes, I'll fill the name in at home) piece, a harmonious composition (but with no melody) played by humans on instruments, I called a colorfield. This kind of categorization helps me to remember the sounds, and to more clearly analyze the elements of them. But even though I have a personal reason to be so grounded in the visual, I don't think I'm unique for it. The other students were not exactly visual in their descriptions, but they were very sucked into the concreteness of them, and re-expressed the sounds in worldy terms -- images conjured by the sounds-- like falling rain and creaking rocking chairs. Any non-painting sort of images I saw were filmic, timed and edited to the sounds. That kind of image is a little more in line with sound I suppose, since film is a temporal medium. The embers sounded like a psychological break, the Blue Suede Shoes like someone who wished to speak but couldn't make any intelligible noise.

So how can we listen without seeing images? Do we even want to do that? You know, we look at things without hearing them every day.

Lunch Break. Crazy city tea shop. "Tea Bites." Muffin shaped croissants with aromatic ingredients like Earl Grey tea leaves and pesto salmon (none of them are "Tuscan" thank goodness), bubble tea (coconut with red tea) wherein the bubbles are actually cubes. It must be from the future. Even in BATAVIA, bubbles are round.

Some kind of representation is the aim of much art, whether it is figurative and literal or not. It's very easy to see representation. Listening for it is a little more subtle. Language in all its arbitrariness is no practice at listening for representation. Music is practice at listening for representation. With mainstream aural art (such as music), representation is still quite accessible. We hear joy, despair, tension, speed -- well we sort of feel these things almost directly, without mediating them much (at least not very consciously). But music also represents, for instance, pastoral landscapes. The end to the musical means, in the case of say Vivaldi, seems to be almost completely visual, even if we are reminded of some real-life sounds on the way to the pasture. Many sound impressions become just as visual once we intend ourselves toward them. Industrial sounds are common in music, and they act a little like musique concrete in that they are real sounds of industry. But don't we end up with an image of a factory in our heads by the time a piece is through?

Some music, like Vivaldi's, was probably meant to put the pictures in our minds. Other composers probably cringe at the thought of their sounds being mediated into images. Some of the greats may have been capable of "music language immerision" and did not need any visual aid either to listen or to compose. But they must know that most of us do! Even the good, careful listeners. But anyhow, what poor deaf Beethoven wanted us to hear is none of our concern.

More on this very soon. I'm being kicked out of Chicago, and it's time for band practice. I will try not to envision anything at all as I sing.

No more pictures, of course. Just enjoy BATAVIA.

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