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In 2010 I had more or less stopped making music. I was despondent, negative, and cranky. To anyone who would listen, I complained about other musicians, arts funding, and how much better the European cultural infrastructure was. I’m so glad I’m not there anymore, and want to share what I did to get out of it and some of the results.
Things began to shift when my friend, the composer, conductor, and pianist Paul Leavitt, said that I was probably right about my complaints. He suggested that instead of complaining that Brooklyn wasn’t like Europe, I contribute to the community where I lived. I began looking for opportunities in walking distance from my home. I didn’t anticipate how far this decision would lead me in realizing Music for Contemplation concerts, Creating Music Together workshops and retreats, On Foot walking projects, and Broken Silence concerts.
On February 6th, at 4:00 pm, at St. Cecilia’s Church in Greenpoint, I played the first concert under the name Music for Contemplation. I performed a fifty-minute organ piece called “Elizabeth.” I can still clearly see the sun streaming through the window and hear the silvery jingle of one listener’s bracelet. More than thirty members of the parish came to listen and to rest in the sound on a Sunday afternoon. I saw how music could support listeners in practical ways.
I saw how music could support listeners in practical ways.
In 2013, with the cooperation of Fr. Michael Lynch and Msgr. Joseph Calise at Our Lady of Mount Carmel – Williamsburg, Tyler Wilcox, Andrew Christopher Smith, Erik Carlson and I continued Music for Contemplation. Again, we were surprised and nourished by the resonance with long-time Brooklyn residents. Dan Joseph joined the organizing team, and we put on a series of concerts at the Church of the Annunciation.
We wanted to offer people time to sit and listen and not have to think about anything, choosing pieces by Eva Maria Houben, Alvin Lucier, Shelley Burgon, and Christian Kobi. As the series continued, I noticed programming and pieces themselves took on more of a community aspect. Tyler invited Andrew Lafkas, who wrote a new work for eighteen improvisers. Dan organized Stuart Dempster and twelve trombones, and Tony Geballe led seventeen members of the New York Guitar Circle.
Often, we reserved the entire day on Saturday, rehearsing in the morning and evening, and performing in the evening. The rehearsals and concert became almost a day-long retreat, with energy flowing in the community that came together just for one day.
This lead to Creating Music Together workshops and retreats, where participants realize each other’s work. Everyone writes and everyone performs. To create common ground for the mix of professionals and non-professionals who participate, all work is for voice and hand percussion. Everyone has to develop and communicate their pieces in such a way that other participants can honorably perform them.
The day-long workshops begin with a sitting, followed by listening exercises and an introduction to composition. After a pot-luck lunch, everyone makes a piece of music and writes it down however they are able. Traditional music notation is not necessary, and we’ve seen some gorgeous graphic scores. We then rehearse everyone’s pieces, usually learning them by heart, and perform for friends in the evening.
In the week-long residential retreats, the day begins with a silent sitting followed by breakfast. Days include sessions with listening and composition exercises, silent co-working time, rehearsals, and informal performances. We take turns cooking for each other and caring for the house. There are usually three performance cycles. At the end of the day, there is an optional session where participants report notable moments from the day.
I’ve found a deep connection with participants in Creating Music Together. The atmosphere of mutual support is genuinely nourishing. One of my greatest joys as a musician in the past twenty years has been witnessing the satisfaction when someone hears their first composition for the first time.
Essential to being able to support others in their creative work has been identifying and meeting my own creative needs. Time alone in the music studio has been crucial; I’ve also structured projects, such as On Foot to have time alone as well as time supporting the group.
Essential to being able to support others in their creative work has been identifying and meeting my own creative needs.
In On Foot: Brooklyn, I walked everywhere I went for ninety-one days from February 21 to May 21, 2012. During the week, I walked alone, composing a new piece. Each Sunday, I led a group in a silent walk, and performed that week’s piece on the street.
In 2019’s On Foot: Aubervilliers, I designed and lead twenty-four silent walks in twenty-four days. In the design phase, I spent time alone freely wandering in and around Aubervilliers—letting my feet go where they would often getting lost. After following my curiosity, I looked at what route might work for a group. We began and completed each walk at Les Laboratoires d’Aubervilliers. In the middle, I made a thirty-minute field recording. After the walk was over, we played the recording back in the theater at Les Laboratoires. Participants were asked to commit to stay with us in silence until we returned to the theater.
Craig Shepard instructing participants to walk in silence (Photo by Adele Fournet)
During the group walks, silence depended on attention. I asked participants to refrain from speaking with the mouth, with the eyes, and with the hands, and to refrain from using cell-phones, cameras, or other devices. I asked participants to leave devices at home or securely at the meeting point; I’ve noticed that when walkers had devices on their bodies, even when they were turned off, there was a different quality to attention.
In going over the parameters of the walk, I offered two simple attention exercises to support participants to stay present when their attention may have wandered. The first I learned from Alexander Technique teacher Frank Sheldon: notice what moves in your body when you breathe. The second I discovered during the walks: place part of your attention in your rear foot, alternating with each step.
Silent walks have lasted between three and fourteen hours. The first forty-five minutes were usually a settling period. I’ve noticed the deepest silences after walking together for three hours. We took brief pauses to stretch. On longer walks, we took breaks to sit down for silent meals. At the end of each walk, I broke the silence by saying “thank you” and making eye contact with each member.
After the end of the walk, many participants enjoyed sharing what they saw or heard. Most participants reported hearing sounds they had never heard before. Others noted the arc of the day, a keener awareness of weather, and what it felt like to have extended time in silence.
While I do enjoy walking alone – usually in silence – I’ve noticed a different quality when walking together. Because silence depends on the level of commitment and attention of the participants, the experience depends very much on those who show up for it. Sometimes, we really connected—even when we began as perfect strangers. There were moments where were together—really together—in one moment. And then it was gone.
While I do enjoy walking alone – usually in silence – I’ve noticed a different quality when walking together.
This experience of being together has also been essential to Broken Silence, in which music supports listeners engaging with the abuse scandal in the Catholic Church.
In its final form, two saxophones and three steel-string acoustic guitars build long slow chords as I read text drawn from court testimony about the scandal. The music has three fifteen to eighteen minute parts with silence in between. Each part begins with a pure tone, which the musicians pass across the circle. Over five to ten minutes, tones are added one at a time, building a pulsating chord. Then tones fade out one at a time, often imperceptibly.
Musicians sit in a circle surrounded by listeners in concentric rings. I sit at one end of the concentric circles, directing my attention to the atmosphere of the room. Working intuitively, I sense the flow of the piece for that particular group of people. I make chords, text, and silences faster or slower depending on the energy in the room. As in the silent walks, the listeners attending have a direct effect on the music.
One thing we’ve found is that the group of musicians and listeners supports each of us—holding the space—as we engage with the challenging text about the abuse scandal. This is a difficult subject for contemplation, and many of us cannot bear to “touch” into it on our own. In the concert situation, with the support of the group, we have been able to stay with it—to be present for it—in ways we haven’t been able to alone. This is what workshop listener Jaime Beauchamp called “the light of awareness.” In this awareness, the scandal is only as big as it is. Many of us have found a new hope after listening to the text together. This light of awareness on the specific situation in the Catholic Church has also resonated for those outside the Church in contemplating corruption in other parts of our society.
When really connecting with others, I’ve noticed another presence beyond me and the others—a subtle atmosphere, incense, electricity, or heat. This presence has supported me and others to go beyond what was possible on our own. This connection in music has nourished and sustained me through most of my work of the past ten years, it has become both the aim and the means.
When really connecting with others, I’ve noticed another presence beyond me and the others—a subtle atmosphere, incense, electricity, or heat.
I didn’t anticipate this when I began to think about how to support others with music. Nor did I imagine that some of my happiest and most fulfilling moments making music would be working in this way.
If you’re feeling frustrated, angry or depressed about the world around us, you’re probably right. My suggestion to you is to (1) pick a problem right where you are, (2) focus your energy and attention on what you can contribute to a solution to that problem, (3) do what you can to support others.
Time is different on the internet. We spend time differently in that realm, often more frenetically. While our time in the “real world” is spent in hourly chunks—an hour at lunch, eight hours at work, an evening out with friends—we enter and exit the internet in many short bursts. Our sessions may span from minutes to mere seconds, but they pile up to hours per day. Time passesby differently across the internet. Our capacity to focus while on it both widens and narrows, whether it is spending an entire evening on Netflix, or skirting across dozens of different webpages in a single hour. These differences, in how time is spent and felt in its passing, derive from our control of it. (This is the strangest of relationships we have to time and space.) Online information is easier and quicker to access. It is also easier to produce. Therefore, we don’t invest much time in any single piece of content. It becomes disposable. Ultimately, online content has little control over how much time we spend on it.
In music, this control over time is significant. Consider scrubber bars, the progress bars on digital media players that allow the user to jump to any given moment in a clip. These tools provide a kind of time-travel ability for a listener. It’s not a completely new ability; one can drop a needle anywhere on the side of an LP. Fast-forward and rewind functions are also possible on CDs and cassettes. But scrubbing on these mediums carries a level of randomness to it. On the internet, a media clip can be scrubbed through with maximum specificity and efficiency. The YouTube and Vimeo scrubber bars not only indicate how much time has elapsed in the clip, they also flash a thumbnail of whatever moment you place your cursor over. Scrubber bars on SoundCloud achieve a similar task for audio, as they embody an image of the clip’s waveform. These tools not only enable easy movement through musical time, they also quickly summarize information about the media clip, revealing to a user its contents before they are even experienced aurally.
The scrubber bar alters the agency of a listener. In turn, visuals, developmental structure, and interactivity relate differently on the internet than they do in live spaces.
Now, most music is meant to be listened to straight through. A listener isn’t required to utilize the scrubber bar. In fact, to do so can be a deadly temptation, especially in classical and contemporary concert music. Pausing, skipping, or taking a peek at the timecode, these can spoil hard-earned accumulations of musical tension and long-form development. But staying on a single webpage for more than just a few minutes, this is not natural behavior on the internet. The scrubber bar, like all the other tools built into a digital interface, is designed to eliminate wait time and get a user to a particular moment as fast as possible. Such goals are not often pertinent to a musical experience, yet they carry a significant effect on the aesthetics of listening to music online. The scrubber bar alters the agency of a listener. In turn, visuals, developmental structure, and interactivity relate differently on the internet than they do in live spaces. Before diving further into these particularities though, we must understand first how time in music is related to space, both physical and digital.
Spending time and experiencing the passing of time are both about personal expectations. They are also about choice. Liza Lim’s opera The Navigator is 90 minutes long without intermission. Is this too long? Not at all, certainly not for the concert hall. Audience members are expecting this length. They know when they buy their tickets and when they settle into their seats that they are going to be there for about an hour. Performance spaces govern the length of musical time. For example, classical music concerts are often one to three hours long. They usually begin with one, two, or three shorter works (five to twenty minutes), and then one long work (between an hour and ninety minutes). Artistically, there is no reason concert music cannot be made for much shorter or much longer lengths. However, such instances are often statements about length, a purposeful deviation from the normal. While a piece of concert music may be within or outside of the standard length of a concert, there is no denying that a standard length for music in the concert hall exists.
This principle is true for all performance spaces. Think about a dance club. The social function of that space, just like the concert hall, begets a standard length of time for the music it houses. A DJ set is usually one or two hours, but each song will never be more than a few minutes. In a dance club, the energy must be high and constant. Songs are best kept short and impactful, allowing for the flow of energy to be tightly controlled by the DJ. The way people enter and exit the dance club, this also begets a standard for how the music develops over time. Back at the concert hall, audience members enter before the beginning and are expected to remain in their seats until the end of the performance. Therefore, this space, with its captive audience, is well suited to have music that makes long-form motivic connections (such as the kind in a Beethoven symphony). In the dance club, development becomes less about motives and more about the flow of energy and mood. With people entering and exiting at different moments, motivic connections will not necessarily be perceived by a listener. However, many people come to the club for a dance experience with a dynamic flow of energy. Therefore, the DJ focuses less on musical motives in their set, and more on a visceral, physical continuity. This way in which performance spaces influence development illustrates how these standards around time are not arbitrary. The social context, that communal ritual that takes place in the hall, club, temple, mall, and coffee shop, carves acoustic peculiarities into the walls and ceiling of the space, reinforcing and encouraging music inside it to behave a certain way in time.
II: Time is Hard Won on the Internet
Compared to performance spaces in the “real world,” the internet is not a normal place for music.
Compared to performance spaces in the “real world,” the internet is not a normal place for music. The scrubber bar in digital media players gives listeners a particular control over their listening experience, making it markedly different from any live circumstance. On one hand, some music made for live performance becomes more difficult to listen to on the internet. It can feel unnatural to listen to a piece without pause, to not click away before the end. On the other hand, this new relationship between listener and music opens the door to aesthetic avenues rarely exploited in the corporeal realm. The visuals, development, and interactivity of music are three components drastically redefined online.
The visuals of a musical performance are straightforward in most circumstances. In a concert hall, we see the musicians performing when we listen to the music. In a temple, we often are faced with religious iconography during a liturgy. Digital standards for the visual elements in a piece of music are much broader. On YouTube or Vimeo, it’s plausible that you would see either of those two things. However, it’s just as plausible that the music would be accompanied by a produced music video, some album artwork, GoPro footage, or any number of other things. Online, where depth perception, peripheral vision, and audio playback are completely different from a “real world” viewing experience, performing musicians are not necessarily the most logical visual material to pair with a piece of music.
Sheet music is a popular visual for contemporary music online. Conduct a YouTube search of the composer “Brian Ferneyhough,” and you’ll see that a majority of recordings are paired with images of the score, rather than the live musicians. This makes sense. Through a camera lens, often much is lost from a visual of the live musicians. To look from one musician to another, or to notice different aspects of the stage and lighting, this ability is given away to the videographer. On the other hand, with a still image of sheet music, where the visual plane is two-dimensional, the agency to focus on different regions of the picture is returned to the listener. Today, there is a whole network of synchronized score-to-video creators on YouTube, such as the Score Follower channels, George N. Gianopoulos, Mexican Scores, gerubach, and many others.
Of course, it is still possible for live musicians to be engaging on video. After all, the ability to shift perspective and attention around a visual is not removed. Rather, it’s merely transferred from the listener to the videographer. Four/Ten Media invests great attention into the visual design of their videos. Consider their production of Argus Quartet performing Andrew Norman’s Peculiar Strokes. The cutting of the camera angles aligns with the momentum and focus of the music. The lighting and set design is sleek and playful, much like the aesthetic of the work. And, rather than having the traditional silent pause between movements, the camera cuts to headshots of the musicians verbally signaling each movement. These visuals are amplifying and elevating the music. In his film of Vicky Chow performing Andy Akiho’s Vick(i/y), Gabriel Gomez skirts the line between performance and music video. Over a performance by Chow on an upright piano in a Brooklyn apartment building, Gomez inserts footage of other locations and people. This material is not functional to performing the music. Rather, it adds metaphorical energy to Chow’s playing and Akiho’s composition. Like Four/Ten Media, Gomez is outfitting a live performance for a digital medium, only with an added layer of visual poetry. Videography can also take a less straightforward relationship with the music. In Angela Guyton’s video of Kate Ledger performing Ray Evanoff’s A Series of Postures (Piano), the close, hand-held, continuous shot from the camera provides a fluid visual counterpoint to the piece’s pointillistic, angular articulations.
In all of these examples, the visual component is outfitted to make each moment of the music is more stimulating, engaging, and full of information. With an increased level of interest in each moment, the listener might forgo any desire to operate the scrubber bar on the YouTube or Vimeo player. That surrender of control, which a listener voluntarily gives at the beginning of any performance in a concert hall, is now even surrendered in the digital space. Even an hour-long piece without break can retain viewership over the entire performance if the video is produced just right. However, this is only part of the picture. Just as there is music that is designed to erase the scrubber bar, there are internet-born aesthetics that acknowledge, even exploit, this tool’s function.
III: Control Varies on the Internet
The hard-won item that the scrubber bar gives to the listener is control of time, the ability to move to any moment of a piece at will. However, such tight control is not always a necessary asset to a piece of music. For the likes of Radigue, Czernowin, or Beethoven, control of time is important. These composers take large amounts of it in order to express unique, long-form ideas. They paint narrative, trigger tension and release, and accumulate powerful physical sensation. Development is the concept that requires control over time. But long-form development, at least in this conventional sense of the idea, is not always a primary component in a piece of music. Conceptual music, as well as music from meme culture, has become highly disseminated online. These types of music are not without development. Rather they structure musical time in a way that does not rely on the listener’s full experience of it.
Conceptual music like this takes up time, but it does not need to control much time.
Conceptual music from both a pre- and post-internet age has an immediacy to its temporal structure that sits easily in the space of a digital media player. Consider Patrick Liddell’s I Am Sitting In A Video Room. Following a similar structure to Alvin Lucier’s I Am Sitting In A Room, this piece is a sequence of the same 41-second video of Liddell, uploaded, downloaded, and re-uploaded to YouTube many, many times. Specifically, he does this 1,000 times, causing a slow incremental degradation of picture quality over time. This degradation is a type of long-form development. However, that development is present to serve the concept of the piece, not the listener’s experience of the concept. The piece is centered around the conceptual idea of quality and degradation on the internet. Such a concept is immediately clear from the start of the piece. It doesn’t matter whether the viewer watches every single moment of the 1,000 re-uploaded videos or not. The concept is expressed regardless of whether the viewer watches the whole video, skips over the middle, or never gets to the end. Conceptual music like this takes up time, but it does not need to control much time. The viewer may move around in the scrubber bar as they wish, or they may even sit and listen to every single moment of the work. Either way, the piece still effectively conveys itself, and the listener is able to receive it adequately.
This release of control is present even in pre-internet-age conceptual music. In György Ligeti’s Poème Symphonique (1962), 100 mechanical metronomes are triggered all at once. The performance ends when the last metronome ceases motion. Additionally, Erik Satie’s piano piece Vexations (1893) is a single page of piano music played 840 times very slowly. Performances of this piece range from as short as eight hours to as long as 35. Like I Am Sitting In A Video Room, these pieces don’t require the audience to listen to the piece in its entirety. It doesn’t even require them to listen at the same pace as the piece’s form. One aspect of these pieces, when performed live, is that an audience may enter and exit as they wish, like a sound installation. Now, in online settings of these pieces, the scrubber bar provides an augmented version of this enter/exit freedom an audience had in live performances. Online, the ability to skip and rewind is added to this set of listener freedoms, providing a contemporary analogue for an agency that already existed in the live performance space of sound installations.
IV: Development Through Time vs. Through Network
Music from meme culture also carries an immediacy that sits well in the online space. Like conceptual music, it does not require a tight control of time in the listener’s experience. Unlike conceptual music though, which still needs time to actualize a concept, meme music relies on social networks, rather than time, to express itself. Consider the meme, “All Star” by Smash Mouth, which is slightly different from the song that is “All Star.” The song “All Star” is a standard three-and-a-half-minute radio hit from 1999, and that is all it is. However, the meme that is “All Star” is an open-ended collection of different homemade treatments of the song by the same title. Here is a treatment of “All Star” where the song’s lyrics are replaced entirely by the single phrase from the pre-chorus “and they don’t stop coming.” Here is another where the vocal line has been pitch corrected into a four-part chorale in style of J. S. Bach. Here’s even another where a man named Jon Sudano uploads dozens of vocal covers to pop songs, where he will only sing the melody of “All Star” over the given pop song. When it comes to time and development, the duration of each of these meme-pieces is ultimately inconsequential. The expression of the meme-piece does not come from time, but from the cultural baggage accumulated via the meme’s dissemination and connection to other memes. Therefore, as long as the cultural reference is communicated, the role of time in the meme is irrelevant. What is significant about a version of “All Star” that is performed on an old cell phone has nothing to do with compositional technique, harmonic content, or performance practice. Rather, such a piece prompts a listener to recall an earlier time (early 2000s pop-rock, Shrek, dial-up tones) in an absurd and emotional way.
As more iterations of the “All Star” format are created, the internet-native humor and disjointed coherence of the viral process take over the original aesthetics of the band’s song. To invoke the song “All Star” today is to reference a meme, not a mere song. This is a form of development, of evolution, that occurs outside of the individual meme-piece. It’s a form of development defined by its networked connection to other meme-pieces of similar format. It doesn’t happen over the course of any single iteration of the meme. The development is the change between iterations, between meme creators, over the course of its viral lifespan.
Self-awareness is characteristic of meme culture that has created a sort of musical catalog of its trends and moments. Adam Emond created 225 YouTube videos of pop songs where every other beat is removed. Whereas reordering the beats of a song is usually one of many treatments that are applied to a meme-song, Emond has taken an inverse approach and applied the same treatment to many different songs. ZimoNitrome has done a catalogue-work in the piece april.meme, where 24 memes trending in April 2018 were used as material to create a single two-minute video piece.
V: Surrendering Control and Opening the Door
A recording, as it exists on YouTube, is less of a performance to sit through, and more of a landscape to explore.
There is one last posture towards time that the internet encourages music to take: interactivity. Through intentionally massive lengths of time, listeners are prompted to actively use the scrubber bar as a means of exploring at their own pace. Johannes Kreidler’s piece Audioguide is a seven-hour long, non-stop theater work that exhibits this. It’s comprised of many smaller conceptual pieces, sequenced together one after another without break. While certain moments of the seven-hour work are uploaded as excerpts, the piece also exists in its entirety as a single video. This length, which is nearly indigestible in a single sitting on the internet, inevitably prompts the listener to “search around” the piece using the scrubber bar. A recording, as it exists on YouTube, is less of a performance to sit through, and more of a landscape to explore. Through incorporating massive durations, music on the internet can take on an interactive component, where the timing of the listening experience is reliant on the viewer.
Now, achieving a sense of “landscape” via extreme length is not an internet-native aesthetic. Rather, these lengthy online pieces can also be seen as a sub-category to the sound installation. In 2001, St. Burchardi church in Halberstadt, Germany began a performance of John Cage’s ORGAN2/ASLSP for organ (a piece composed in 1987). The piece is comprised of extremely long durations, and this particular performance, live-streamed 24/7, will last until the year 2640 (639 years). In the early 2000s Lief Inge began time stretching recordings of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony so that they were each 24 hours in length. Inge has been producing live installations of these time-stretches around the world ever since, as well as maintaining a constant live stream on his website. Like Audioguide, these pieces exist on a magnitude of duration beyond the average person’s attention span. However, in physical spaces, as well as live streams (where scrubber bars are not present), there is only an intention for the listener to experience a single portion of the piece. The composer still controls time as it runs through the music. The key difference between these live performances/streams and video pieces like Audioguide (as well as these next examples) is that the scrubber bar allows for the piece to be digested in a way that is more cursory, exploratory, and non-linear. Time and form there is determined by the listener rather than the composer.
Stretch videos, in the likes of Inge’s, have become an entire category of this interactivity in themselves. Hundreds of these videos exist online, time stretching the music of Brian Eno, Radiohead, Beethoven, John Williams, even computer sound effects such as the Windows startup sound. Unlike a live stream, these take the form of multi-hour videos in which a listener may move from moment to moment at their preferred pace. Though music will always be moving transiently through time, these stretch videos are the closest thing there is to exploring a piece as a static object, something to touch, observe, and walk through.
These super-long pieces of music have a second posture towards control of time: if a listener is not scrubbing through the piece, it is most likely that they are playing it as background music while they study, read, or sleep. This more passive form of interactivity imports easily into the internet space, where performing music (i.e. vibrating speaker cones) requires a near-to-nothing expense of energy. Currently on Spotify, Sleep by Max Richter is a piece designed around this very idea. The eight-hour-long ensemble piece is meant to play while a listener sleeps. Additionally, Jack Stratton of the band Vulfpeck released Sleepify in 2014, a ten-track album comprised of silence. A pun of the streaming platform Spotify, the album is meant to be played on repeat during sleep so that streaming royalties can be farmed while people’s devices are not in use. “Sleep music” like this actually has a rich history, one full of live spaces, not just online. R.I.P. Hayman was presenting sleep concerts as early as 1977, and many more artists have come since then. So while the concept of sleep music is not native to the internet, the low amount of mechanical work needed for sound to be digitally produced illustrates how sleep music fits easily into the internet space.
All in all, we’ve looked at three different postures towards the control of time on the internet. Through examining visuals, we have seen how control of time can be aggressively won over from the listener. When development becomes centered around concept and cultural reference more than around time, control of time becomes less relevant to the piece. And finally, in creating massive, interactive terrains of sound through extremely long pieces, control is given over to the listener. In surveying these aesthetics, it is also clear that music on the internet carries an extremely broad spectrum in how much effort and resources are needed to create it. The Four/Ten Media video of Argus Quartet was likely the fruit of a team of artists, editors, and technicians, as well as several thousand dollars. That piece rests on the same viewing platform as the time-stretched video of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, a piece that requires only a laptop, free software, and an internet connection to create. The internet is a strange place for time. It is in this strangeness that a door is opened up to the parameter of resources.
At the beginning of this piece, the scrubber bar was presented as an anomaly to the musical experience. Like nearly all online tools, it functions to increase efficiency and deliver information faster, two imperatives that seem unrelated to the priorities of experiencing music. But beneath the goal to maximize efficiency is a deeper one to democratize resources and equalize different voices in a conversation. It is an ethic and virtue of the internet, open source and public domain. If this is true, then listening to music on the internet is not an anomaly at all. The concert hall, a dance club, and a religious temple all have social and physical peculiarities that carve and mold music to fit easily into the space’s original design. The internet is no exception to this fact. Its virtues for democratization, and its digital peculiarities such as the scrubber bar, shape and mold music. It touches music’s visuals, developmental structures, and interactivity in a way that ultimately makes composing possible for more people. More and more, the internet is being considered as a primary space for music performance and dissemination. While the initial effects of this trend are aesthetic, shaping the way time is controlled and utilized by the artist, music on the internet inevitably influences every aspect of creating music. For many, this makes the internet a strange place for music. But given just how pervasive the digital space is becoming each day, such a place may not remain strange much longer at all.
The previous post in this series took a look into my production process for non-classical projects such as rock bands and singer-songwriters. Although my process changes significantly when I produce contemporary classical sessions, there are a few core philosophical similarities in how I approach a classical project. For this post, I want to walk through what changes, what is similar, and in what ways contemporary classical production can evolve.
The starkest difference between the two worlds of producing independent artists versus contemporary classical is the inclusion of a composer and a written score. When working with independent artists, you are usually working directly with the songwriter, and there is flexibility for changes. This flexibility doesn’t generally exist for classical music, so the focus then shifts almost entirely to the performance.
In classical recordings, there is an emphasis placed on producing a flawless performance with technical facility becoming the focal point of the recording. However, the inability to alter the content of a piece does not mean that production must solely focus on playing the right notes at the right time. During a recent project I was producing, the performer and I had an in-depth discussion about one piece that didn’t quite feel as satisfying as it could have. The performer was executing it flawlessly as written, but it took a deeper dive into the music to understand the best way to portray the work emotionally. Certain rhythms were flexible enough to be interpreted differently, and phrasing was altered to imbue a sense of drama that was previously lacking.
This is a drawback of working from a score; the details aren’t always as clear as they could be on the page. In these situations, a producer should assist in providing direction for the performers. As a composer myself, I can confidently say that scores often times fall short, and using your musical instincts can clear up any insecurities a performer may have about what’s written. It’s much like a performer coaching an ensemble, you dig deeper than what is on the page to understand what the piece is and where it is going. Not to mention that studio time is not free (nor cheap), so decisions need to be made as quickly and confidently as possible.
Good producers will do their homework for an upcoming project. Score study is only one aspect of preparation for classical music recording sessions. Other ways to prepare for a session could involve researching instruments that you have less experience with to gain a basic understanding of how they produce sound. This is a necessary practice for composers. Without an understanding of how an instrument works, a composer cannot effectively compose idiomatically. Producers can use this same knowledge—in dialogue with the performers—to make suggestions, coach, or troubleshoot sonically problematic passages.
Preparation should also involve researching the performers you will be working with, which will provide insight into how those performers sound and what they are capable of. When producing a classical project, I spend a lot of time listening to recordings. I listen to any previous or live recordings by the performers as well as other recordings in the same field, e.g. string quartets, solo flute, solo violin, etc. When listening to other performers’ recordings, I’m not as interested in the performance as I am interested in how the music impacts me when I listen to it. If I really enjoy listening to a record, I will deconstruct the production of the record. Or, transversely, if I don’t like how a particular record sounds, I will know what it is I want to avoid as I prepare for the upcoming project.
Instead of the recording acting as an archival document, it can become an expansion of the music itself.
One of my first memories of working with a producer was at a pre-production meeting where the producer asked me what records I was listening to at the moment and what I really liked about them. At the time, this idea of taking ideas for the sonic imprint of my own record from other records I loved had never crossed my mind. This is now a consistent practice for me. Any time I begin working with new artists, one of the first things I ask is about which records comparable to their own work do they enjoy listening to. This frame of reference provides a tangible source to study for the producer so that they can confidently execute stylistic choices that are in line with what the performers prefer but may not know how to articulate.
Listening through recordings from previous decades, the production style of classical music has only very recently begun to change. The biggest differences over the years have been the improvement of recording technology which produced higher quality recordings. For the most part, producing classical music has been as much about capturing the space as the performance itself. However, when you look at the history of pop or rock music, the production quickly moved away from capturing a sonically accurate live performance recording, and instead creating a unique aural experience on record that, in some ways, intends to replicate the live image but utilizes recording techniques that isolate instruments and add an immediacy to the sonic landscape. Music listeners never think twice about this approach. You hear a band on record and when you see them live you usually never think about how different the sonic experience is. Whereas, with classical recordings, what you hear on the recording can sound almost identical to what you would hear live if you were to witness the performance in the same space.
The idea of creating a unique aural experience on record that differs from a live performance without changing the content of the music itself is an exciting notion both from the perspective of a composer and a producer. Instead of the recording acting as an archival document, it can become an expansion of the music itself. On record, you can provide a unique look into a piece of music that can’t be replicated live, especially in the present day where most people listen to music through headphones.
There is a growing trend among contemporary composers of creating works that ignore the arbitrary boundaries of genre. These works—such as Sarah Kirkland Snider’s Unremembered and Gemma Peacocke’s upcoming record, Waves & Lines—are ideal canvasses for modern production techniques, and a glimpse into what the future of contemporary classical production could be. The isolation and immediacy of the instruments in these recordings and the liberal exploration of the stereo field leaves behind the fixed spatial recordings of past classical recordings. Listeners are able to aurally navigate dense instrumental textures as if they were a part of the ensemble. The intimacy of this type of production also creates an emotional relationship to the music, much like the way a pop singer’s voice is recorded to hear every nuance of sound created. For as much as classical music harps on the emotion and drama embedded in works, it could benefit from this type of intimate production style.
My final installment in this series on the potential of the collaborative studio will offer up some suggestions for taking full advantage of your studio project and how to be a better collaborator with the rest of your production team. Every studio experience is a learning opportunity, and with the right positive mental attitude, everyone involved can benefit and learn in different ways.
This is the first in a short series of essays about how sound is inscribed.
It’s a Friday afternoon and the nearby school kids are playing with such ferocity that it seems possible an enhanced interrogation center has sprung up just two floors down from my office window.
Then a loud bell rings. Its waveforms are so thick it’s as if you can see them floating in the misty San Francisco air. The bell is all stately gravitas. Even if you didn’t know that the nearby school is parochial, you’d sense the bell’s churchly vibe.
And then, suddenly, there is silence: Recess has concluded. The bell has marked a juncture. There was a before and now I’m in the after. It’s not utter silence, not the absence of sound, what I’m experiencing now. It’s the sort of silence that traffic and hallway chatter and a neighbor’s music can still, somehow, collectively suggest as silence when the ear is no longer burdened by hundreds of energized children screaming at one another.
I’m struck by the moment. So, I do something that comes naturally to me when something of sonic interest arises. I tweet about it. I tweet about the transition from chaos to peacefulness, summarizing the tonal shift in just under 140 characters.
Shortly thereafter someone replies to my tweet.
Before paraphrasing the reply, it might be easier to first characterize the incident by employing a comparison. Perhaps you’re familiar with the phrase “pics or it didn’t happen.” It’s a not uncommon response when someone posts—text-only—something of interest that seems to beg visual documentation, like if you run into a celebrity (“Jonny Greenwood was at the music equipment shop!”) or buy something snazzy (“I finally sprang for a sequencer module for my synthesizer”) or do something tawdry (“Judging by the mess, last night’s jam session involved too much bourbon, too little music”).
The “pics or it didn’t happen” response isn’t necessarily a literal encouragement to follow up with a document of evidence. It’s a gentle teasing. It’s a friendly social-network admonition in the form of a rhetorical nudge—though, it’s worth noting, virtually no one who ever says “pics or it didn’t happen” would be unhappy if pics did follow.
As for the response I got to my afternoon tweet—the response I have not infrequently received to such a tweet—it was the audio equivalent of “pics or it didn’t happen.” Essentially I was asked: “But did you record it?”
That’s a complicated question to answer, despite the inquiry’s brevity. The simplest answer is: no. No, I didn’t record it, not with an audio recorder. But I did record it, in the sense that my tidy, brief, Twitter-circumscribed description was consciously intended to encapsulate it.
That’s how and why I record sound: by writing it, inscribing it—not so much notating it as noting it, unpacking it, coming to understand how it works by investigating how it works.
The matter comes down in part to what “it” is. Is “it” the bells, or is “it” the sound of the bells through the window, or the sound of the kids, or the way the kids and the bells worked in congress with each other, or how the bells masked the more detailed nature of the kids walking back into school from the playground, or how when the bells ended the remaining low-key urban cacophony was still, in its own way, peculiarly placid. That’s a lot of “it.” There was a lot packed into the period of time that passed.
And then again, how much time had passed, how long of a hypothetical audio recording are we talking about? Sure the transition could be mapped from a few seconds of screaming kids to a few seconds of street noise with the bell sequence in between—maybe a minute total? However, the impact of those kids screaming had built up over the hours prior I’d been seated at my desk working—in fact, as an experience, the impact had built up over the years I’ve sat at that desk in that room listening and not listening.
An audio recording might have given some glimpse into what I’d experienced, but no more and arguably less than what I’d been able to summarize in my description.
Photo: Luke Barnard
And that’s how and why I record sound: by writing it, inscribing it—not so much notating it as noting it, unpacking it, coming to understand how it works by investigating how it works. I do it a lot, sometimes on Twitter or Facebook, occasionally on Instagram (to caption a photo), sometimes in longer essays or reflections—once as an extended series of mini-essays in which I treated everyday sound as something that one might review, much as one reviews a record or concert. Titled “Listening to Yesterday,” the series ranged from birdsong in a toxic harbor to restaurant kitchen noise to the user interfaces of conference call systems.
As I hoped to express in the slightly longer form of those “Listening to Yesterday” entries, the descriptions of sound in my tweets and my longer-form writing aren’t about description, any more than a record review is about description—well, a good record review. My hope in describing sound is to unpack it. It’s about getting inside the sound, sonically and contextually. The best advice I ever got about reviewing music was to give the reader a suggestion about how to listen to the piece in question, what one might listen for. The same can be said—should be said—about writing about everyday sound. (As I write this I’ve become aware of the fact that I’m writing about the process of describing sound on a social media platform whose name is itself a common instance of onomatopoeia.) Writing differs from sound in key ways. Sound is temporal. Writing, especially pithy writing, can happen in an instant, and yet suggest something of any given length. A tweet of a moment’s sound is both briefer than the occurrence and yet capable of suggesting something altogether longer, even timeless, which is to say something not just about that moment but about similar moments—not just that school day, but many school days at many schools, in and out of the mist, with and without bells, parochial and secular, yesterday, today, and tomorrow.
Sound is temporal. Writing, especially pithy writing, can happen in an instant, and yet suggest something altogether longer, even timeless.
If anything, to reproduce with a recording rather than a description would fall short of my own goals in several ways.
For one, the recording (I have made them) never sounds like what I heard. The ear doesn’t work that way. The ear hears through things, focuses on things, filters out things. That happens in the world as a mix of brain wiring and personal inclinations. Once reproduced as a recording, those varying degrees of attentiveness are flattened: everything becomes evident relative to its respective volume.
For another, if you listened to the recording, you’d likely not hear what I heard—I heard a pulse, but you hear a beat; I heard something soothing, but you hear something antagonizing; I heard children, but you hear traffic. To share the moment in sonic form is to instantiate a Rashomon, to introduce the opportunity for multiple interpretations. My goal in these moments isn’t, generally speaking, to ask what something is; it’s to say what I think it is—and to ask that you say what you think some other moment of sound is.
Finally, my attentive listening in the day-to-day world is almost always a matter of retrospectively acknowledged reflection. That is to say, it’s a matter of “This is something I just heard, and now I will note it down as a means to capture my sense of it.” I couldn’t have recorded it because I hadn’t become conscious of it until it was happening, perhaps even until after it had happened. The only way I could really accomplish what’s asked when someone says, “Did you record it?” is if I had the sort of technology running that Nagra helped innovate, in which I was always recording everything around me, and then at the end of the day could go back to the tape and locate it.
I don’t do that, because recording everything—putting aside matters of surveillance and ethics—is exactly contrary to the reason I summed up the moment in the first place. I’m not looking to reproduce a generality, to document a public moment; I’m looking to hone a specific experience, a private moment.
Not only is music an important conduit for ecological awareness, it is also a powerful expression of resilience. This final post is anchored in the Caribbean, where music’s ability to instill hope and joy in spite of difficulty is affirmed time and again. Affirming the value of such music within global environmental politics may not be easy, but—if achieved—it might be precisely what we need to turn this proverbial ship around.
“Afro-Cuban dance is the dance of slaves. When they danced, it was their only time to feel free. So they could be a bird, or do a flamenco step and make fun of their owners, or just be in the sea instead of on an island far away from home. It is a dance about being exactly who you want to be in that moment. It has to look, and feel, as natural as the waves.”
So says Javier, the male lead in a film that was so poorly rated that for years I’ve been embarrassed to quote it. In many ways, Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights fell out of my favor by its name alone. But despite this, this quotation is one of the most apt descriptions of Afro-Caribbean music I know.
Resilience is in the bloodstream of people of African descent in the Caribbean. And it is no coincidence that Caribbean musical genres such as reggae and bomba inspire such joy in those who listen to, play, and dance to it. And as Javier implies, this music has always been deeply connected to the patterns and rhythms of nature—which, of course, stand in stark contrast to the oppressive system of plantation slavery which brought so many people to the Caribbean in the first place.
These forms of music and dance have also served as powerful forces for coexistence. Today, they continue to bring people of diverse profiles together to celebrate life, often outdoors in shared public spaces. They have also served to affirm humor, culture, and dignity in the face of a wide host of social, economic, and political challenges. At times, they serve as conduits for grief. And—crucially for the topic of climate change—they underscore the importance of place and shared space, for resilience and solidarity.
Musical practices remind us that community, ecology, and strength can come together through the arts.
In the Caribbean and elsewhere, musical practices—participatory traditions in particular—remind us that community, ecology, and strength can come together through the arts. These are important in any time and place, but now, in this age of climate change, they are indispensable.
Even if we have not memorized the statistics around climate change, we are certainly familiar with them. And we are equally familiar with the images that accompany them. Let’s take sea level rise: news outlets which trade in non-alternative facts tell us that sea level rise is one of the clearest and most disconcerting consequences of climate change. In the coming years, people living on islands and along coastlines are expected to lose their homes. Shocking photos have been taken to illustrate that these losses are already taking place. For many of us “island people,” the mere suggestion that sea level rise could wash away our neighborhoods is too much to handle. As always, I turn to music.
In internationally visible ways, music has been used to mobilize support for disaster relief efforts in the past. For instance: Music for Relief is a nonprofit founded (to my surprise) by Linkin Park in response to the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. It has since responded to more than 25 natural disasters on four continents, in each case using its position within the music community to raise funds and awareness to aid those affected by these ecological crises. The organization has also planted 1.3 million trees to help mitigate climate change.
Such efforts are wonderful and well publicized, as they should be. Yet mainstream media does not give nearly as much attention to the music of the regions affected by climate change. This puzzles me. If traditions of social and cultural resilience through music have developed for centuries in the “global South,” and if many of these contain deep ecological elements, then why is it that existing global climate politics fail to recognize and mobilize this power?
Music for Relief, a nonprofit founded by Linkin Park, has responded to more than 25 natural disasters on four continents.
Leading global relief institutions such as the Red Cross regularly conduct studies on human resilience in the face of ecological disasters, but music rarely figures into these investigations. We must honor the practices of resilience through the music that exists in our world, and do what we can to support them, so that the world’s people are able to mobilize their formidable musical resources for social and cultural thriving.
Throughout this series, I have highlighted the need for the musical and ecological wisdom of the “global South” to be more deeply recognized within global environmental politics as a whole. As difficult as this can be to talk about, the topic of resilience reflects many of the themes which unify these posts. Here are a few.
In diverse geographies around the world, the connections between music and the environment have long histories and deep implications. Music has been used in countless settings as a means by which humans can attain an intimate relationship not only with each other, but with their natural surroundings. While these practices never originate within or center around international bodies, institutions like the United Nations can play an important role in supporting music-based environmental initiatives. Within universities, international institutions, and community organizations alike, the links between music and the environment can and must be more deeply explored.
As readers know by now, the regions most deeply affected by climate change are (and will continue to be) islands and coastlines. Many of these places possess rich musical and ecological resources which could both reinforce activist initiatives close to home and inspire others to work for climate action as well. Yet in keeping with the geopolitical narratives that most of us grow up with and often internalize, these islands and coastlines are presented as “marginal” places, removed from the centers of power and thus (by some peculiar logic) also removed from the social, cultural, and ecological resources and expertise that are necessary to promote environmental awareness and action. Within the arena of resilience, this disconnect feels particularly unsettling.
In my view, for both music and climate action to thrive together, a “centering” of these so-called “margins” is essential. The living traditions of “music and the Earth” must be respected, humbly supported, and learned from. Musical and ecological wisdom in South Asia, the Caribbean, the Pacific Islands, Africa, and beyond can point the way towards all of the qualities that we must cultivate for truly sustainable living—from listening to collaboration to resilience.
For me, the subject of music and the Earth links directly to a deep conversation about who we are as human beings—what we live for and how we define a peaceful world. If each of these pieces probes these questions just a little bit, then I may fall asleep to the sound of the waves and be content.
In recent years, transnational musical collaborations have emerged, in which musicians from different countries have joined forces to promote awareness of shared ecological challenges. This article will discuss one such collaboration, the Nile Project, which has brought together musicians from throughout the Nile Delta. I will use this example to briefly discuss the alternative vision that such music can pose to our current, highly unsustainable forms of globalization.
The borders between our futures have never been so porous. Globalization and climate change have already illustrated—with startling clarity—that our wellness depends not only on ourselves and the people around us, but also on the individual and collective actions of people thousands of miles away.
We live in a time of unprecedented ecological change, in which the habits that human beings have developed over the course of the past five hundred years or so, with the advent of industrialization and “modernity,” are manifesting in unpredictable and devastating ways. The present and potential impacts of climate change are greater than any of us can easily take in. Changes in temperature, sea level rise, and disruptions to precious webs of interdependency between the world’s living beings: all of these have implications for our homes and loved ones that we cannot bring ourselves to engage with. We must—and yet we can’t. Some might say that this conundrum lies at the heart of our global inaction on climate change.
Taking action on climate change—especially when we live in places where the powers-that-be have little concern for the issue—can be painful and overwhelming. And in spite of the fact that we have more avenues for communication—and across longer distances—than ever before, we still suffer from a crisis of communication. Do the latest online platforms, like Facebook and WhatsApp, make mindful and empathetic conversation easier? Some would say yes, but I am inclined to say no. Amidst all of the changes that globalization has brought into our lives, it seems that we have not yet figured out how to bring such essentials as dialogue, music, and ecological consciousness into our rapidly expanding array of communications options.
Increased “connectivity” with other human beings seems to be propelled by changes in technology rather than genuine engagement.
Increased “connectivity” with other human beings seems to be propelled by changes in technology rather than genuine engagement. Often, our common ground is based upon the expanding reach of narrow expressions of popular culture, exported from the world’s most powerful centers for commercial media (such as Los Angeles and Mumbai). Wealth is distributed more quickly (though not more equitably) than before, through inscrutable networks of finance based in places such as Singapore and New York. And (some) human bodies are more mobile than ever, traveling on airplanes that emit colossal amounts of carbon. The wealthiest of these people travel from London to Paris to Rome, and vacation in tropical islands whose rainforests and shorelines are threatened by our shared, global disregard for the ramifications of the lifestyles that we endorse. Biodiversity, in all its myriad definitions, is put at risk by the narrative of globalization that we tell ourselves and enact: that we live in a world in which diversity, communication, and an enjoyment of the world’s beauties are more available than ever before. Yet more often than not, this globalization does not translate into new forms of transnational collaboration for environmental awareness.
The above is quite a dismal view of globalization, connection, and culture in our times. However, for the past few years, a group of musicians and educators along the Nile River are offering a new example. The Nile Project is an ambitious project in the best sense of the word. Its stated mission is to “inspire, inform, and connect Nile citizens to help them collaborate on cultivating the sustainability of their river.” The Nile is the second longest river in the world, and it quite literally gives life to eleven African countries. The Nile Project engages with people in every one of these countries—from Egypt to Tanzania to the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Bringing people together is not a “side benefit” of the Nile Project. On the contrary, it is its primary goal. Exposure, curiosity, learning, understanding, empathy, trust, and engagement (in that order) are the pillars of the Nile Project. In dramatic contradiction to the dynamics of global environmental politics discussed so far in this series, common humanity is regarded by the Nile Project as the mechanism through which true sustainability takes place.
Common humanity is regarded by the Nile Project as the mechanism through which true sustainability takes place.
As is the case with the connections between music and climate change in general, the precise links between common humanity and sustainability tend not to be explored in the scholarship, media, and everyday attitudes that those of us in the industrialized (or industrializing) world commonly encounter. The brevity of this post does not permit me to elaborate the ways in which our humanity and our ecological futures depend upon each other.
Simply put, however, the qualities that true sustainability requires are the same qualities that form the bedrock of a truly humane society. Sensitivity to the beauty and the needs of others; an ability to engage honestly with friends and strangers, in the interest of a common good; a willingness to learn and test one’s preconceived notions about other people and places; a desire to imagine a future which celebrates and protects the well-being of all life: These qualities are the cornerstones of healthy humans, and a healthy Earth. In the Nile Delta, conflicts over water already take place. Thus, the men and women involved in the Nile Project emphasize the importance of collaboration and mutual understanding for both spiritual and deeply practical reasons: If we are not able to resolve our water conflicts now, they say, how on Earth will we get on when population grows and droughts become more common?
Music offers its answers
Musicians and educators are particularly well suited to carrying out the Nile Project’s mission. It’s no surprise, then, that musicians lead a significant portion of the Project’s initiatives, and also garner a great deal of appreciation and publicity for their efforts. The musical branch (tributary?) of the Nile Project consists of “an expanding collective of artists from the eleven Nile countries, redefining principles of cross-cultural musical collaboration.” It also includes a “series of community choirs applying the same principles across the Nile Basin.”
In the past five years, Nile Project musicians have recorded two albums (one studio and one live), both of which are rich and inspiring expressions of unity in diversity. The artists hail from Uganda, South Sudan, Ethiopia, and Egypt (to name a few). Their first album, Aswan, was recorded after ten intensive days of creative collaboration, in which the musicians taught each other their respective musical languages, and then wove together a unified tapestry. They performed this co-created composition in two Egyptian cities—Cairo and Aswan—only four days later. Their second album, Jinja, brought in new musicians from countries such as Burundi, Kenya, and Rwanda. The mood of the album is as varied and wide-reaching as the instruments and styles that created it. For instance, the bluesy opening track, “Inganji” strikes me as a blend of the singer Fatoumata Diawara and the Tuareg ensemble Tinariwen, both from the West (not East) African country of Mali. The track “Tenseo,” meanwhile, sounds closer to the Nile’s Project’s geographic center: a haunting dialogue between the vocal style of Egyptian legend Umm Kulthum, and spare Ethiopian jazz.
Throughout the album, a variety of instruments from across the region—the enanga, a zither native to Uganda and Rwanda; the ikembe, a thumb piano; Ethiopian vocals and Egyptian drums; the adungu, a harp from Uganda—convey the profound human collaborations that were involved in producing the album in the first place.
The Nile Project musicians are currently on tour in the United States. Their itinerary is intense—averaging at one, sometimes two concerts per day. The Nile Project also continues to support ongoing programming closer to home. For instance, they have created a Choir which uses storytelling and song to illustrate some of the region’s most enduring ecological challenges. The Project also offers a Fellowship Program for young people in Nile Basin countries who wish to create “Nile Project Clubs” on their university campuses. In this sense, the Nile Project is both deepening and broadening its scope. And as always, the interconnectivity of the Project’s musicians serves as a powerful sonic metaphor for the sorts of social and cultural collaborations which are necessary for border-crossing, positive change.
Many of us take for granted what we hear about globalization. We assume that the only form which contact across borders can take is economic, commercial, and—in some cases—neo-colonial. Expanded markets, cultural homogenization, and environmental disregard are, unfortunately, some of the hallmarks of the kind of globalization that is popular among the world’s wealthiest. However, other initiatives are taking place which affirm connections across borders in a much more vibrant and sustainable way. As the Nile Project has demonstrated, a dialogue between music and the Earth provides a solid foundation for these alternatives. We would do well to support intersections between music and the environment where they exist, and advocate on their behalf where they are absent.
The international policy landscape that I discussed in my previous post doesn’t allow much space for the sensibilities, or participation, of ecologically minded musicians. By consequence, the avenues for initiatives like the Nile Project to directly inform climate-related political decisions are far and few between. Yet the spirit of this post, as well as the others in this series, is not necessarily to highlight the ways in which music already inspires climate debates, but rather to introduce the possibility that they could do so more deeply. In order for transnational collaborations such as the Nile Project to inspire policy-making, the cooperation of a whole host of professionals—from diplomats to educators to lawyers to the public—is required. A paradigm shift, if you will, is necessary. Globalization and ecology, as expressed through music, must be “written” into the ways in which we talk, write, fear, hope, and converse about the climate landscapes of our day.
Ed. Note: American composers have sometimes played a significant role during U.S. presidential inaugurations and, upon a few occasions, there have even been new musical compositions created expressly for these events. Leonard Bernstein composed a minute-long fanfare for JFK’s inaugural. (Bernstein’s frequent orchestrator Sid Ramin created the arrangement for winds and percussion that was performed during the ceremony.) More recently, John Williams composed Air and Simple Gifts for Barack Obama’s first swearing-in which was performed, albeit to a synced soundtrack, by an all-star quartet of clarinetist Anthony McGill, violinist Itzhak Perlman, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, and pianist Gabriela Montero.
There have been even greater controversies surrounding inauguration music. Though not commissioned specifically for Eisenhower’s 1953 inaugural ceremony, Aaron Copland’s Lincoln Portrait was scheduled to be performed during the official inaugural concert. But it was cancelled only days before in response to testimony before the U.S. House of Representatives by Illinois Republican Congressman Fred Busbey in which he claimed that Copland had a “long record of questionable affiliations.” (In May 1953, Senator Joseph McCarthy demanded Copland appear before the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations; Copland would not be completely exonerated until November 1955, at which point the State Department declared there was “insufficient evidence to warrant prosecution.” Since then, Copland’s music was featured in inaugural ceremonies for Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton.)
In October 2016, a bipartisan Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies commissioned 34-year-old Tennessee-based composer John Wykoff to compose music for the 58th presidential inauguration on January 21, 2017. Wykoff collaborated with Minnesota poet Michael Dennis Browne to create a four-minute unaccompanied choral composition titled Now We Belong, which received its world premiere outdoors during the inauguration in a performance by the Missouri State University Chorale.
The next day, the Missouri State University Chorale performed the work again, indoors, which was a much more conducive setting for recording.
The homepage of Wykoff’s website features a short statement regarding this commission: “I am honored to compose music for this important national ceremony. Some have asked, and I don’t hesitate to say, that my involvement is not intended to communicate any political views or endorsements.” After hearing his composition and reading his statement, we contacted Wykoff and asked him to share his thoughts on how he sees his role as an artist and citizen in this complex time.
Composers can nourish a listening culture. Indeed, helping society to cultivate a habit of hearing may be the timeliest goal a company of composers might undertake together today. Ours is an age of loudness and of speech. It is a day of talking, telling, saying, shouting. But who is listening? Who leads with the ear? When there is so much ado over the number of messengers and the volume of their voices, but not the content of their message, is that not a tacit admission that no one, in fact, has heard what they said? Has our society lost its hearing? With that, I think, composers can help.
To start, I suggest a hard concession. I suggest that composers give up using their music to change people’s minds. (When I say “minds,” I really mean people’s beliefs, opinions, and convictions.) I do not, please notice, suggest that anyone stop trying to change minds altogether, only that they stop using music to do it. Argument, not art, is the best tool for proving opinions. Music is poorly suited for that. But music is very well suited, or least it can be, for helping people to change their habits, especially habits of thinking and perceiving. True, habits of thought and perception may lead to and flow from the convictions of the mind. But they also may be surprisingly at odds with them, as when someone honestly believes that no race is better than another, but has tacit habits of prejudicial suspicion. It is with mental habits, not mental convictions, that art is most effective for change.
Similarly, I suggest that composers resist the metaphor of artist-as-prophet. The prophetic role of an artist has been discussed directly and indirectly for a long time. There is some good reason for it. Artists, like prophets, sometimes point to an unrealized future. And artists, like prophets, sometimes hold a mirror to society. Yet there must be the possibility of embarrassment when the prophetic mantle is assumed rather than bestowed. Reluctance, not self-anointing, is the trademark of prophets. The metaphor is best left to music historians and culture critics to use. Most of us shouldn’t think of ourselves in a prophetic role.
Then what might be our role? Or what good can we do for society? I believe we can help society cultivate a habit of hearing. Composers are famous for their ability to listen deeply. By nature and by training, they hear beneath the surface and beyond the moment. More importantly, there is a predisposition—widespread among composers today—to approach new music receptively, to hear what other composers are doing, to lead with the ear. There are so many varieties of music, so many modes of creativity, that many composers have learned to suspend their own reactions to new music until they have been able to hear it on its own terms. That, it seems to me, is a composerly virtue—not that composers alone possess it, but that they possess it in spades. Nor is it somehow intrinsic to a composer. Predispositions are not intrinsic. They are habitual stances that can be formed.
There are two things composers may do to help others form an ears-first predisposition. The first and principal thing is to strive to create music that invites close listening, requires close listening, and rewards close listening. Music can’t help people learn to hear unless it first invites them to listen. It has to be winsome. If it is too confrontational on the surface, it may actually cultivate close-mindedness—the practice of stopping one’s ears.
Yet having attracted listeners, it does not help matters to require nothing of them. In order to cultivate listening, music should strengthen the ear, not pacify it. When music is merely pandering, when it doesn’t require close, attentive, repeated listening, then it doesn’t do anything to help form the habitual stance I’m writing about. Such music may not cause anyone to stop their ears, but it may still cultivate close-mindedness because it keeps the ear comatose.
Yet attracting listeners and awakening their ears is not enough. The music I’m prescribing should also reward the hard work of hearing with a payoff in proportion to what was required to hear it. I imagine that most composers know full well the temptation to construct a barrier of complexity that masks a lack of substance. This is a kind of musical dishonesty. It is like a bad work of philosophy which, lacking a definite conclusion, still asks the reader to follow a difficult train of thought that leads nowhere. To beckon people in to listen closely, to require them to work at hearing, and then to offer them nothing for their efforts is a sure way to teach them to distrust what is new or hard. They will justifiably take their ears elsewhere. But if their patience and trust are rewarded with something meaningful and valuable, they may seek additional brushes with music that challenges them. That is a good start to forming a habit of hearing.
There are surely many examples of music with the qualities I am describing. For instance, almost anything by Paul Lansky could serve as a model. Whether it is his iconic electronic works or his newer acoustic works, his music has a way of beckoning you in, requiring much of you, and rewarding your efforts. His famous Idle Chatter is immediately fascinating. But it is also perplexing. You want to slow it down. You want to pick it apart. You want to discern how one element relates to another. You want to know what’s going on. You simply have to hear it again. And as you listen repeatedly, you may come to find that the piece only “makes sense” insofar as you choose to put on “sense-making” filters. You are forced to choose how you will listen to it, and forced to refresh your choice each time you listen again. The reward for your efforts is surely a measure of self-knowledge. You become more aware of your tacit filters—the implicit ways you listen. You learn what you automatically listen for, and what you automatically ignore. By extension, it may cause you to consider the “sense-making” filters through which you experience life’s barrage. It may even lead you to wonder what there is out in the world that you automatically ignore. Such self-knowledge is a sensible reward.
Constantly creating new music with such qualities is foundational, but it isn’t the only thing we can do to encourage a habit of hearing. Composers can work alongside performers, educators, scholars, and critics to find better ways of inviting people into frequent, worthwhile encounters with challenging music. Together we can find more effective ways to guide inexperienced listeners, helping them learn how to suspend their reactions while they listen deeply. ICE (International Contemporary Ensemble) is leading the way here. Through their educational and outreach efforts, they are helping young people all over the world learn how to engage music that, were it not for ICE’s winning manner, might be too strange for some people. It is undoubtedly a lofty goal, but if such efforts and similar ones were duplicated, and new worthy efforts devised, and if composers will provide a reliable stream of inviting, yet challenging and rewarding music of many varieties, is it not conceivable that many could learn, as a habitual stance, always to bring a listening ear to what is new? Is not conceivable that a whole society could be marked by a habit of hearing?
Probably you will have noticed that I have been using the word “hearing” equivocally. To “hear” strange music is not the same thing as to “hear” a strange opinion. For example, to “hear” a piece of music, in the sense that I mean, probably involves comprehending a musical element (a motive or a timbre, say) and relating it to other elements or other instances of the same element. But to “hear” a well-formed opinion probably involves comprehending one or more reasons, or at least motivations, and connecting them to some kind of a conclusion. The skills are different. I am aware of this, and I do not intend to fool anyone. I do not pretend that the skills for listening closely to new music will translate directly into skills for listening closely to a new opinion. However, even if the skills are not transferable, I suspect that the habit is. And it is only the habit that I am concerned with—the composerly virtue. And it is one, I think, in desperate need of cultivation.
John Wykoff is assistant professor of music theory and composition at Lee University. He holds a Ph. D. from the City University of New York, and an M. A. from the Aaron Copland School of Music at Queens College. He studied composition with David Del Tredici, Bruce Saylor, and Jeffrey Nichols and choral arranging with Alice Parker. John writes for choir, piano, organ, orchestra, and a variety of chamber ensembles. His music has been premiered by groups such as ICE, MIVOS Quartet, and Enso String Quartet. He was given the Opus Award by the Missouri Choral Directors Association for Panis Angelicus for string quartet and choir. In collaboration with poet Michael Dennis Browne he wrote Now We Belong, a choral work about the nation’s immigrant identity, which was commissioned, ironically, for the 2017 Presidential Inauguration.
Affirming nature through music is not a new phenomenon. Cultures around the world have been practicing environment-based music for millennia, and many of these traditions continue to the present day. Using an example that is both ancient and contemporary, I will illustrate how much can be learned from musical traditions which anchor spiritual, romantic, and/or social life in the rhythms of the Earth.
The first post in this series opened with a description of the urban culture of Washington, D.C. Given that D.C. is one of the world’s most powerful political and economic centers, perhaps this is not surprising. Many explorations of social change, whether in writing or in speech, anchor themselves in cities like Washington or New York or Brussels. After all, these are the places in which so many influential decisions (including those related to both cultural policy and climate change) take place. Yet often, discussions about critical topics such as culture and climate do not extend beyond the borders of these cities and the institutions that they house. That is to say, debates about the proper course of action in the face of pressing issues rarely consider the insights that people in other places on Earth have developed over centuries and have enshrined in their social and artistic practices. For instance, while prevailing cultural forces tend to prioritize noisemaking over listening (as was explored in the previous post), there are countless places on Earth which have developed profound cultures of listening. They have affirmed “eco-soundscapes” in which both music and landscapes are approached with mindfulness and appreciation.
There are countless places on Earth which have affirmed “eco-soundscapes” in which both music and landscapes are approached with mindfulness and appreciation.
Our methods of solving global problems (specifically, climate change) sideline musical and ecological wisdom, rendering them neither “advanced” enough, nor “relevant” enough, for the task at hand.
The geopolitics of our time frequently divides the world’s people and ecologies into two categories: “center” and “periphery.” With some exceptions, the “center” is typically understood to include countries in the “global North”: the United States, Canada, parts of Western Europe, Australia, New Zealand, as well as active centers of commerce in countries like China and Singapore. Though not all of these places are actually located in the northern hemisphere, they share political and economic characteristics that qualify them as geopolitical “centers.” The “periphery,” by contrast, is comprised by countries in the “global South.” And the label “global South” encompasses pretty much everywhere else: Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, East Asia, Latin America, the Caribbean, and the Pacific Islands.
In spite of the astonishing ecological and musical diversity that has developed in these enormous swaths of land, political and economic decisions made in the so-called “center” are often premised on the easy assumption that the solutions to global problems are most likely to originate in the “global North.” This assumption is convenient for those making sweeping decisions on tight schedules; perhaps this is how it acquired so much traction in the first place. However, it is wildly problematic for many reasons—not the least of which is that it automatically denies the wisdom that has developed in the global South, and continues to define the worldviews and lifestyles of millions, if not billions, of the world’s people.
The world of global environmental politics is not particularly appreciative of the musics of the “periphery”—or of music in general, for that matter. The overarching framework which governs climate-related decision making on a global scale has recently come under criticism for several reasons. All of these reasons are relevant to those of us who believe in the power of music to mitigate environmental crisis.
First, technology seems to rule the roost in climate negotiations. Many high-level decision-makers assume that technology will provide the solutions to most, if not all, of our climate-related concerns. The tech wizards of today have developed solutions to many seemingly intractable problems; surely, then, they can solve our ecological challenges. This emphasis on technology tends to sideline arts and culture, distracting both policy makers and the public from the power that arts and culture often have to inspire, comfort, and unify people in the face of shared challenges. Music, of course, is one of humanity’s most ubiquitous artistic and cultural phenomena. Climate change, I argue, is humanity’s greatest challenge. That the two rarely come together in high-level negotiations is more than a little unsettling.
Second, much of climate-related problem solving in the “centers” is premised on a certain conception of science. (Though often, as we are seeing now, even science itself is discredited by our most powerful leaders—but this topic is too unreal for this particular post.) The methods and metrics of “Western” science are seen as more valid forms of environmental insight than, for instance, traditional ecological knowledge systems that have been maintained for centuries by societies around the world. Many of these knowledge systems incorporate music, with ecologically derived instruments, compositions, and performance norms reinforcing the links between humans and the eco-soundscapes which surround us. These two cultural characteristics—ecologically minded resource management and ecologically minded music—accompany each other too frequently to be mere coincidence. Though these connections are rarely probed by mainstream music lovers, they exist and could possibly yield essential insights if observed.
These features of global environmental politics marginalize ecological knowledge in the global South and music in general. This is unfortunate, because when these two come together, we find some of the wisest expressions of both sustainability and musical culture in existence.
Take, for instance, Vedic chants. Vedic chanting is an oral tradition from the Indian subcontinent. Composed in Sanskrit, the Vedas constitute the earliest body of Sanskrit literature, as well as the oldest Hindu scriptures. Vedic chanting is often considered the oldest unbroken oral tradition in existence. And it is a living tradition, as relevant and sacred to the world’s Hindus as it ever was.
One of the most acclaimed albums of Vedic chants in recent history is Chants of India, directed and arranged by Ravi Shankar and produced by George Harrison. In an interview several years later with Krista Tippett, Ravi Shankar’s daughter Anoushka Shankar (who also worked on the album) discussed the relationship between these ancient chants and the natural world. She explains that most Hindu gods—to and for which these chants are typically sung—are connected to natural elements such as water, fire, or earth. She goes on to say that “om,” the primordial sacred sound, is supposed to contain “the full power of the universe.” These features of Vedic chants are not merely points of conceptual interest. On the contrary, they are inseparable from the actual vibrations that are produced by this music. This music has been engaged in the practice of attaining harmony with the universe from the very beginning. We might say, then, that this tradition comes to us today with thousands of years of ecological nuance in its history.
Here we see that if we celebrate the ways in which music and ecological knowledge have co-evolved in our world, then this could open up not only a new policy arena in the world of climate change. It might allow us, for instance, to broaden our conversation about how ecological awareness might be promoted to a wider public. At present, most people associate climate awareness with statistics and photographs too sad to recount. But ecologically oriented music could inspire the artistically and culturally minded among us to participate in a wider process of consciousness raising, with creative possibilities we may not have considered before.
The resonances between music and ecology also create space for a new worldview. This worldview affirms the capacity of art, and humanity, to generate the insights required to change our unsustainable lifestyles at their foundations. With all due respect to technology and Western science, I believe that wisdom, a change of heart, and cultural joy are required in order to turn this proverbial boat around.
Centers of power need to recognize the cultural expertise (ecological and musical) contained within societies in the global South.
In my view, the lesson to be learned from this is that centers of power need to recognize the cultural expertise (ecological and musical) contained within societies in the global South, and defer to their leadership in the world of climate mitigation—particularly its social dimensions. Amplifying the message of organizations and collectives that are currently affirming these connections (one of which will be explored in the next post), and doing everything in our power to ensure that they have the resources and global platforms necessary to continue their work, are possible ways to support such leadership.
Because in all honesty, which is a more enlivening expression of humanity’s power and beauty: a morning raga or one of those diagrams depicting how geo-engineering is supposed to work?
I, for one, have my answer ready in case policy makers ask. And I hope they will.
Some (myself included) would argue that one of the primary contributors to our current ecological crisis is the fact that so many of us have forgotten how to listen. Daily soundscapes (especially in the world’s urban spaces) are becoming increasingly cluttered, and very rarely are we encouraged to pause and consider the beauty of other voices—birds, streams, crickets, ocean waves. The first post in this series will propose that if we wish for sustainability, we must consider the musics of nature. The musics of nature can anchor our conversations about the environment.
For more than a decade, my favorite spot in Washington, D.C. has been the rooftop of the Metro station closest to my home. When I was a teenager, friends of mine and I would sit in its stairwell, taking turns reading poems by Rumi and Hafez, as the dusk showed us its deep colors. Some of the most transformative conversations I have had with other people, with myself, and with the world in general have taken place on that rooftop. Recently, I have begun to venture there alone. It is one of the few places in the city where I feel safe standing in silence, listening to the ins and outs of my own breath. Urban sounds are barely audible on the roof of the Metro. It is an excellent place to breathe, to sing, and to listen to the sounds of the sky.
Washington, D.C. is a curious place to begin an article on the art of listening. It is one of the busiest cities in the world, filled with distracted people who are generally unreceptive to the sounds of nature. It is a powerful political center, where decisions are made which affect countless people, for better or for worse. At present, it is undergoing a change in its political climate which does not bode well for the well-being of our planet. Amidst the stress of these changes, many of us (whether in D.C. or elsewhere), turn to music. Perhaps it is music—the music of nature in particular—that can help us understand the practice of sustainability, and the means through which we can all participate in the co-creation of a more sustainable world.
Culturally, we live in times that have made a fetish out of noise. Many of us are encouraged to be busy at all hours of the day, and distractions are now available to take us away from every moment of our lives. This lifestyle has a history in the Western world, dating at least to the Industrial Revolution (if not before), when noise-making machines were seen, quite literally, as the engine of progress. Prior to this, colonialism, which was premised on acquisition and on asserting superiority over cultures which possessed deeper levels of ecological knowledge, laid the foundation for a mentality that lives with us today. As a result of all this, the most powerful politics and media in our world tend to imply that connection to the environment is strange. It is a departure from the rhythm of everyday life, and signals a lack of connection to the pulse of the day.
This sense of disconnect manifests itself not only in the broad arcs of our everyday lives, but also in the way we engage with music. “Nature sounds” are often considered the domain of spas and yoga studios, and many people do not consider the sounds of rivers, breezes, and rainfall as “valid” forms of music. Certainly, no such music would ever garner the distinction of winning a Grammy or acquiring Top 40 status. The very idea seems ludicrous. And yet, might such disregard for ecological sounds shed light on the depth of our shared, contemporary ecological crisis?
If the most basic thing we do, listening, is hardly ever anchored in the environment, how can we possibly engage in an enduring conversation about environmental sustainability? Put differently: If our predominant culture of music listening does not engage with nature, then where is the anchor for a lifestyle of sustainability? What would a culture that affirms the validity, beauty, and lessons of listening to nature look like?
Singing is, for me, a powerful complement to the sort of criticism I just shared with you, and an important source of insight into the questions I’ve posed. The most profound lessons I have learned about music have come from singing a cappella in particular, accompanied by nothing more than my natural surroundings at the time: the twitter of birds in the early morning, the chirp of tree frogs at night, the rush of the waves at any time of day.
Not surprisingly, it is in these settings that I can hear myself most clearly. I can be present with the depths of my own being, find silence, cultivate patience, and listen to the way that mountains, meadows, or the ocean fill in the space between lines of music. And crucially, I restore my relationship with breath and become newly aware of the fact that without the prana (a word used in the Indian medicinal system Ayurveda, which means “life energy”) conferred by the air, I would not be able to live, let alone create music, at all.
Which brings me to another observation about our present moment: those of us within cultures of busy-ness do not have a chance to spend time—real time—with our own inner landscapes. Through social media, we can externalize anything we want (our desires, our moods, our choice of breakfast); but it is harder to spend time with our own spirits, discover our own peace, and learn how to live our lives anchored in our most sattvic selves (another Ayurvedic word, used to describe inner clarity). And in addition to supporting us in absolutely fundamental ways (as I will explore in later posts in this series), nature offers a beautiful companion to those inquiries. Though there are many musicologists who do not consider the sounds of nature to be a form of music, I would say that it is a profound inspiration for many of the musical cultures that have developed in our world.
Ecological sustainability is a conversation between our outer and inner lives. In other words, it relies upon policy change, to be sure, but it can also be supported by changes in our lifestyles, our sense of place in the world, and the cultures that emerge from these concerns. And one of the most profound cultural shifts that we require at this point in time is a movement away from busy-ness and towards simplicity. We must consider adopting lifestyles which are guided by the rhythms of nature, which asks us not to speed up, but rather to slow down and appreciate the musicality of the non-human world.
As readers of this publication know, music has always been one of humanity’s most important catalysts for change and equally, for preserving the status quo. We are what we listen to. We are how we listen. And by extension, we are how we speak. We are how we create. We are the music we choose to listen to, and we are the music we develop. Whether we are listeners, musicians, or both, our life choices are shaped by the way we engage with the inexhaustible variety of sounds that are available to us today.
Our environmental crisis invites a global social movement on a vaster scale than the movements of the 1960s, or the decolonizing movements that took place throughout the world in the 20th century. And to begin, we must listen to the sounds that bring us peace, the sounds that humble us to the limitations of our own music, the sounds that make people the world over smile softly, sigh with relief, and cry their confusion—by the shore of the sea, under a big sky, or beside a patch of grass.
The next post in this series will broadly explore the ways in which human musics in diverse regions of the world carry important ecological lessons, with direct cultural ramifications. But for now, I meditate upon the first and last music—the sounds of nature, which has inspired musical systems since the dawn of humanity. In these times, when not only global ecology but also global humanity is at stake. Surely there is no better soundtrack.
Priya Parrotta is a writer and singer committed to fostering empathy, curiosity, and responsibility across geopolitical divides in the interest of our shared, brilliant planet. She is the author of The Politics of Coexistence in the Atlantic World, which brings light to what is arguably the Caribbean’s greatest gift to the world: Centuries of experience in living together. Her current project is titled Music & the Earth.
Oozing out as clots and drops, there should not have been so much blood, yet the dribble of coal-colored fluid wouldn’t stop. How did my ear get infected? Was it a byproduct of that nasty yet passing flu? Dunking my head under water the third time I ever sat in a hot tub? Galactic ear cooties?
I tried to laugh it off and failed. After two days, the pressure in my left ear swelled like a cork pounded into my head. My right ear was fine; in my left, I heard only my footsteps, swallowing, and the bassy hum of my voice.
Terrified that my livelihood as a teacher, composer, and performer might come to an end, I began fretting over the seemingly small losses: delving into Webern’s chamber music on my should-have-died-in-1999 portable CD player; savoring the bellicose cardinal who drowns out the other birds in my neighborhood’s dawn chorus; and the indescribable, almost-sublime sound of faint wind across my ears as I walk in the woods.
Everything I heard was either close or far with nothing in between and without perspective, depth, or life. I acutely missed my sense of sonic distance. Our two ears enable us to localize sound, determining (or guessing) the location and trajectory of what we hear. With only one, I felt profoundly disoriented.
Oh, My Aching H(ear)t
After two days, my worrying changed from “How can I listen?” to “How will I live?”.
Dragged to urgent care by my wife, who refused to brook my near-prayerful excuse (“No my dear, it will clear up tomorrow, I’m sure”), I went home and dutifully began a regimen of eardrops which did nothing except to dilute the ooze into a semi-regular dribbling leak.
Neither Beethoven Nor the Beach Boys
I also laughed at myself, remembering my advice a decade ago to a hearing-impaired student who wanted to make electronic music. Excitedly, I urged him to try it and sign up for my class. I suggested that his so-called hearing deficiencies might teach us new things about sound and listening. Artist Christine Sun Kim has done just that, detailing her arresting work in a TED talk.
With just one ear, I dreamt of listening and composing with a new kind of depth and determination. Brian Wilson never heardPet Sounds in Capitol’s phony Duophonic Stereo or the more recent and well-done stereo re-mixes. Beethoven continued to compose using his inner ear despite encroaching deafness: “O how harshly was I repulsed by the doubly sad experience of my bad hearing…”
I adapted neither brilliantly nor heroically. Retreating, I made no music.
I adapted neither brilliantly nor heroically. Retreating, I made no music. While hemispherically half-deaf, I was either testy or verging on despair. I spent too much time mourning what I was missing and wondering who might loan me a Dyson vacuum cleaner to suck the effluent corked in my ear. I felt guilty critiquing student work and, fearful of pity and diminished job prospects, kept my condition to myself.
Many miserable days later, I returned to urgent care; my randomly assigned doctor turned out to be a former flight surgeon in the Air Force who recognized the severity of my condition and prescribed fierce antibiotics. Within a week, my hearing returned. Each audible milestone—such as discerning speech clearly and chirping birds—was marked by a quick burbling in my ear canal, a release of pressure similar to peeling off the lid of a yogurt container.
Once the birds returned to my ears, I began composing again.
The Usual Lessons, and…
I discovered that I’m no Prometheus. I make and find sound first for myself
You can guess the dumbly obvious lessons I learned. I should take better care of my hearing; go to the doctor at the first sign of ear trouble.
After living with one ear, I listen with newfound gratitude for sound in space. As Albert Bregman explains in Auditory Scene Analysis, “Sounds go around corners. Low-frequency sound bends around an obstruction while higher frequency sound bounces around it.” During my evening walk, distant train toots are not just “over there” but reverberate, surging and ebbing between houses and trees. Some sounds are less dangerous. Again, I can locate oncoming traffic without constantly turning my head to look back and forth. A more crucial question: why had I lost all interest in composing during those weeks? I discovered that I’m no Prometheus. I make and find sound first for myself: to teach myself something about an idea, a feeling, a sense of (imagined) place, and—grandly—the world. Then, I try to hear what I make with amnesia and empathy, listening not as a maker but as someone who has never heard the work.
Unable to listen like “most people,” how could I ethically communicate what I neither knew nor believed? Without my ears, all two of them, I was not only a different person, but who I was began to shift somewhere else. I hope to meet that person on my deathbed, or never.
The last thing I learned? Cold eardrops hurt like hell. (I would rather lose a fingernail.) Never again!