Music you could walk around in

Phil Ford

At some earlier point I wrote something about sound culture. This is as much a way of listening as it is any intentional artifact of music. The flow of sound that emerges from any continuous chunk of broadcast, for example, is constitutive of a sound culture, but it is not a consciously crafted aesthetic object, which is to say, no-one planned this particular succession of sounds, or even thought of it as a succession of sounds. Sound culture is what we become aware of when we cultivate the avant-garde habits of listening that John Cage practiced, and taught us all to practice. We enter an environment that is full of sound — whether it be an actual physical space or a virtual one, like the “environment” of a TV broadcast — and rather than use our ears to select meaningful sounds from the flux of noise, we embrace all sounds equally as elements of a total sound field. It’s a bit like Schoenberg’s “emancipation of dissonance”: Schoenberg insisted that we hear dissonances the way we formerly heard consonances, as things complete in themselves. If you hear a dissonance as the tension that sets up the release of consonance, you are hearing that dissonance as not-consonance: your ears are making hierarchical distinctions which Schoenberg wanted to dissolve. I think Cage’s biggest contribution was to extend this principle to sound itself. The recent scholarly interest in auditory culture is, I think, the application of Cage’s insight to the study of music. Or, put another way, it is the scholarly weaponization of Cage’s insights, which results in a conceptual shift from the study of music to the study of human-created sound.


One corrolary of this shift is a new way of thinking about music performance. Back in the spring, two students of mine (Kim Schafer, a Ph.D. candidate in musicology, and Leanne Zacharias, a graduate student in cello performance) put together a concert that aimed at creating a “performance” that was also an enviroment — music you could walk around in. Leanne has been doing several concerts she calls “music for spaces,” where she performs cello pieces (often solo, sometimes with various enhancements) in odd, non-canonical spaces — a stairwell, or under the gigantic fossilized skeleton of a Quetzalcoatlus in the Texas Memorial Museum. (Because I have a seven-year-old son, I knew this creature is called Quetzalcoatlus without even having to look it up.) The spring concert, “New Music at the Tower,” took place at the University of Texas tower. The performance took place in the colonnade at the front of the main administrative building of which the tower is the pre-eminent feature:


(Don’t know who the person is in this picture: I swiped it from this site, which plays an obnoxious synthesized version of the Texas state song.)

Anyway, at one point Leanne moved out into an open space in front of the building and played a duet with Kim, who played the Tower carillon. They played transcriptions of a couple of songs by Manuel de Falla (“Nana” and “Asturiana”). Kim was unable to see or hear Leanne, who synched her own part to Kim’s playing as best she could. Keep in mind that the sound from the carillon was coming from hundreds of yards away and could be heard throughout the campus; Leanne was unamplified and could not be heard properly more than about 50 feet out. The sonic environment this created therefore depended on where you stood. There were maybe 30 of us gathered for the concert, and we followed Leanne around as she played different pieces in different places, but several people walked by as Leanne was playing, and I like to imagine what their sonic experience might have been. It was not the experience of a “performance,” which assumes a certain intention to go somewhere at some time in order to listen to something, generally from a single sonic point of view. Theirs was a moving point of view, their ears traversing a space comprising ordinary unsculpted noises (birds, talking, footfalls, leaves in the breeze) and also intentional ones. As you moved towards where Leanne was playing, you would first hear the carillon (or would you hear it? would you tune it out the way you tune out the birds and footfalls?), and only gradually would the cello move into your field of listening. Perhaps it would only gradually dawn on you that the cello coming into focus was doing something with the carillon. As you walked to maybe 30 feet away you would become aware that you were moving through a performance of some kind (what are all these people doing?), and you might stop to listen a while, or you might keep on going, the cello growing fainter against the continuous presence of the carillon.

To a lesser extent, this was the experience of everyone at the concert. My daughter was cranky and I was chasing her around, trying to keep her out of trouble, so my own sonic point of view was changing too. (My son, finding no dinosaurs this time, had gone off somewhere else.) What was really beautiful about this concert was that, when you inhabited the temporary auditory enviroment that Leanne and Kim had created, your ears would do the John Cage thing. You would start to hear not only the cello and carillon but the space between them, not just the music but the music in that temporary enviroment, the birds and the leaves and the people moving around. Your perception would encompass the entire social and spatial field the concert had come to comprise, and this of course is an old move of the avant-garde: make your life the play, make yourself the author, make the passers-by the actors, make chance the script. But here it really worked, because it refreshed our experience of the world, which is what the avant-garde always tries to do.

Here is a recording of the event:


But of course a recording doesn’t capture the lived and embodied sensory experience of the moment. The challenge of auditory culture as an academic sub-discipline lies in trying to write about such moments. What makes them important is what Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht calls their presence, those aspects of their phenomenal existence that do not survive their inscription in writing — or, for that matter, their inscription in the “machined fusion of literacy and orality” that is recording. (The term is Douglas Kahn’s.) The recording captures the presence of sound, but not the presence of the body in sonic space. Recordings are like cut flowers in a vase: presence withers when severed from where it blooms.

About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
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