Sunday, September 13, 2009

The art of listening

Part of Brian Eno's ambient music manifesto was that "Ambient Music must be able to accomodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular." Quite often my mind wanders during a music performance, invaded by myriad isolated thoughts from recent internal and external events. Nevertheless, either through increased familiarity or a serendipitous awakening, repeated listenings provoke new insights, perhaps because of some random mental association with some element in the piece. Books, by contrast, enforce a linearity only mildly adjusted for chapter shuffling or other superficial devices. Composer and writer Katharine Norman manages to portray successfully a scattered listening experience in her book Sounding Art, which is also one of the few academic music books that discusses contemporary musique concrète.

These written decentering strategies are quite clever. Take, for example, the two chapters on noise. The first one, after setting out a number of noise definitions (unwanted and irrelevant fluctuations in the signal, unwanted and irrelevant sonic fragments in our subconscious, etc.), mirrors the interruptions in the text, her essay intermingled with lyrics from a Sarah Vaughan blues and definitions from the OED, Foucault, Glenn Gould and Derrida. The footnotes for this essay encircle the text for the second noise chapter, making the two essays virtually impossible to read with any kind of linearity. Elsewhere, an article on Francis Dhomont's exploration of the unconscious mind, Sous le regard d'un soleil noir, is printed in four columns and needs to be read in landscape mode, and an extended interview . And the book comes with a CD with 34 examples, essential to an understanding of her arguments, but which make the reading even less straightforward.

Fun with typography isn't exactly new, although it's still unusual to find in an academic work. Fortunately, the printing devices enhance the intellectual arguments, establishing a parallel between different modes of reading and listening. Her most dazzling analytic sleight-of-hand comes using Leonardo's Annunciation and works for instruments and tape by Jonathan Harvey and Luigi Ceccarelli to illustrate a multitude of polarities: acoustic/electronic, performance/emanation, performer/tape, etc. The whole discussion turns on metaphors of flight that lead to images of other places, turning on the reversibility of metaphor, where the two poles play the role of the real and the ideal alternately. In her own contemplation of music and space, Norman cites Gaston Bachelard (also one of Takemitsu's favorite authors), whose vision of poetic contemplation went beyond any specific sounds.

Metaphorical space isn't the only listening strategy that Norman investigates. Two chapters discuss soundscapes and field recordings, making a map to the world — metaphors of travel culminate with a wide-ranging and sprawling interview with Hildegard Westerkamp on field recordings. The transcribed conversation retains the hesitations and odd subject changes that mark conversations in the wild, full of the kinds of distractions that one might encounter on a sound walk.

The more discursive chapter on field recordings starts with R. Murray Schafer's soundmarks for an extended rumination on music and maps, both of real-world destinations and inner landscapes populated with memories and emotions. It seems strange to speak of maps and nebulous personal recollections, since most maps seek to provide direction through a solid field of knowledge for an uninformed petitioner. But not all maps strive to provide such straightforward direction. Following her previous discussion of metaphor reversability, a musical map, whether or not composed from field recordings, aims for an emotional response, working around and through the listener's private pantheon of memory. The music here is the petitioner, and each listener hears his or her own direction through the monuments and events in the piece. (The mapping metaphor is further complication with the use of liner notes, essentially a story that provides a map for the musical work.) Norman uses examples from field recordings and works by Barry Truax, Paul Lansky and Francisco López to sift through mapping perspectives, all refreshingly non-academic.

Norman is also a composer of instrumental and electronic works. Her album Transparent Things has an unusual format: three solo piano works (played by Philip Mead), two works for electronics, and one for piano and tape. Many of her electronic works incorporate voices from interviews and media samples, an important disembodied layer that is also one of the important topics in the book. Her tape piece Hard Cash (and Small Dreams of Change) is available on emusic, immune as of this writing to emusic's new album pricing practices and thus available as a single track download.

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