Tag: context

Listening to the Unknown

A couple months ago I wrote about the first meeting of the Society of Experimental Musicians organized by James Klopfleisch. I thoroughly enjoyed that event, so I was thrilled when James invited me to present my music at last Sunday’s meeting. It gave me the chance to try an experiment of my own that I’ve been meaning to do for some time.

If you’ve read a few of my posts you may have noticed a common refrain of “context matters.” That is, the environment in which you hear a piece of music, and the background you bring going into it, can have as much or more impact on your listening experience than the music itself. I’ve been harping on this for a while, to the point where I wonder if it’s getting tiresome, but it’s been a big part of how I think about music and how I make music. So I decided I would test out this hypothesis in a live setting and see if my cherished beliefs would hold true.

So without telling anyone why, I split the audience into two groups and sent one group off to another room with Daniel Corral (composer, multi-instrumentalist, friend). Daniel gave a short lecture on a topic of his choosing while I talked about one of my compositions, a Steve Reich/Tay Zonday homage for accordion and electronics called Chocolate Phase. When we were finished with our lectures the groups reconvened to listen to the piece. Essentially, one half of the audience had inside information, while the other half went in cold. I was curious to find out if and how this would affect their appreciation and understanding of the piece (or lack thereof).

The results were surprising to me in a very interesting way. While many in the group that heard Daniel’s lecture didn’t know the reference points that the piece was based on, this didn’t seem to prevent them from enjoying it. In fact, it almost seemed like too much understanding might have been a limiting factor for people’s enjoyment. Those who didn’t hear me explain my piece talked about experiencing it in a visceral, physical way, while those who did hear my explanation were a little more circumspect and used more intellectual language in their descriptions.

In other words, context matters, but not necessarily in the way that I expected. I tend to assume that more knowledge allows you to get more out of a work of art, and it didn’t occur to me that this knowledge could actually be a barrier. In retrospect this should have been obvious–I think we’re all familiar with the experience of getting bored with a piece of music, perhaps because we know it too well. Mystery can be an important ingredient in conjuring up music’s more magical properties.

Granted, my experiment was very informal and the evidence extremely anecdotal. Many other factors could have affected the way the audience perceived the piece, like the content of Daniel’s lecture (which I’m told involved a recitation of a found text dealing with nuclear war and monkeys). Something else I didn’t account for is movement–for the half that left the room, the kinesthetic aspect of walking somewhere and back again may have influenced them physiologically in a way that changed their listening. Nonetheless, I’m excited by the content of these results, and eager to try an experiment like this again!

Instruments for Playing Water

Recently, I’ve been working closely with the artist Katherine Kavanaugh as she has designed and built a sculptural installation using bamboo, water, a plexiglass pool, and copper. On Saturday, I’ll perform a new composition at the installation’s official opening that I’m creating along with three fantastic musicians: Jacqueline Pollauf and Noah Getz of Pictures on Silence, and Peabody student composer Benjamin Buchanan.

My concept for the musical performance involves playing the water and other parts of the sculpture directly, and also moving throughout the space in order to evoke a ritualistic sensibility and to involve the entire gallery in the staging. As part of our collaboration, Katherine and I spent a great deal of time considering what tools we would utilize to create the musical sounds. Although we never officially voiced this constraint, we decided to limit ourselves to further manifestations of the materials contained within the installation itself. Bamboo cut to various lengths functions as mallet, trumpet, resonator, and even bubble producer; copper bowls become percussive devices and tone generators; crystal goblets (standing in for plexiglass) add another pitched element and the ability to create melodies.

Last weekend, all the musicians gathered in the VisArts gallery in order to explore the completed installation for the first time. As we physically examined the sculptural materials in order to see what intriguing sounds could be generated from the objects at hand, our varying sensibilities and proclivities allowed each person to produce unique ideas that would eventually be woven into the final sound world. Our united efforts quickly began to merge into a composition that hopefully has a discernible shape and structure and will allow visitors to experience the art in a new light. The curator tells me that she plans to display a video of the performance running on a loop in the gallery in hopes that patrons will continue to conceive of the sculptural display as engendering sonic ideas through time.

Although in our discussions, Katherine and I had agreed that she would leave the performance implements visible in the gallery as part of the overall whole, I was delightfully surprised to find them officially displayed, complete with a tag identifying them as “Instruments for Playing Water.” Yes, that’s exactly what they are. And yet, I found that the mere act of affixing this label to the wall had elevated these devices—which had seemed so utilitarian to me only days earlier—to an integral part of the installation itself. I had once seen these objects as tools, but now in my mind they metamorphosed into sculptures. Of course, I still needed to use them in order to create music, but my relationship with these little devices had been inextricably altered. All because of a little sign on a wall.

Just as I aspire to use sound in order to enhance visitors’ perception of the sculpture, the installation itself intensified my sense of the meaning behind its constituent elements.