Sunday, February 1, 2015

Listening, Hearing, Remembering

In high school, I was shown a score of music which held an inscription on the back of the title page that said that the music was important, but to really understand the piece, you needed to listen to the silences. I have thought about this particular page ever since, and had never before considered the idea that the only reason specific sounds are special is because they are defined by the silence around them. The above concept was further cemented in Sophomore English when we were introduced to the Tao. Within that volume I read a similar parable: that the spokes of a wagon wheel only have importance because of the space that divides them.

Often, I think that many composers (including myself) get caught up in the process of creating sound that we forget that we must also create silence. It is the thing between that gives the rest meaning. A thing is a hole in a thing it is not.

How do we listen? How do we really listen? Sure, most of us “hear” pretty well. A lot of us zonk out during the rests as we daydream about whatever we're doing later in the day, only to spiral back to reality as the conductor flashes us a cue. How many of us create silence? How many of us really listen?

An interesting aspect of music, special and separate from other artistic disciplines, is that it also incorporates a temporal dimension – a dimension that in part relies on the memory of the listener. We use our memories to enjoy the great cathedrals of the Old Masters built from kernels. We use memories to see how intellectual we are; how clever we are; how many things in the music we can recall and compare against sounds yet to be heard. Is the piece itself really the notes being played, or is it in actuality the change that occurs between notes? Is a piece of music the surface of what we experience, or is it the rebellion against preconceived / established notions?

In painting, you're presented with all of the stimulus in one instant, and you're able to constantly refer back to it, measuring what you perceive immediately with what you perceive gradually. You see the painting created by the original artist, and not a filtered version. You see it within a definable space. In most cases, you do not hear all of the music instantaneously; you do not hear it presented by the original artist (unless of course they are the performer as well), and you aren't able to constantly refer to previous sounds (unless the composer repeats them, or if you use your memory).

Imagine for a moment that you went to a gallery and each piece you viewed constantly changed. You have to rely on your visual memory in order to understand and more greatly appreciate the art. I can't help but wonder if there was a way to create music where we weren't bound to our aural memory? Surely you can't just present all sounds at the same time – it would just sound like a garbled mess.  What would it sound like? How would it be performed or written?

Much in the same way that silence between notes defines the sound, I believe that so too do the moments of quiet existence define who we are in the larger moments – both positive and negative.

Interestingly, several years ago a music group did a project where all of the participants recorded the same number of seconds at the same time of day (relative to their time zone). Each audio clip was overlayed with the others to create a single aural image of the world for those few seconds.

Surprisingly, it was quite peaceful.