On Soundscape Listening And Moshing

by Thomas Brett

Last weekend I was in Montreal for the IASPM Canada (International Association For The Study Of Popular Music, Canada) meeting at McGill University where I gave a paper on an iPhone soundscape app called Ambiance.  My research explores how Ambiance users listen to ambient nature sounds for therapeutic purposes–to relax, to relieve stress, to sleep, etc.  Over forty years after R. Murray Schafer began mapping and recording urban and rural soundscapes through his World Soundscape Project, soundscape listening today is not just a niche market: anyone with a smartphone can enhance their sonic environment with the touch of a button.  My paper also considered the meanings of ambient listening:  Is it a kind of blissful tuning out or a mindful tuning in?  And finally, how does technological nature (to borrow a phrase from Peter H. Kahn)–the mediated experience of listening to ocean waves on headphones, for instance–differ from experiencing the real thing?

On my panel were two other presenters who both shared interesting work in progress.  Raphael Nowak explored the different ways iPod users exert agency in their use if the mobile technology.  And Samuel Thulin shared a sound art research project he designed which takes the ambient sounds of a particular place (e.g. a Montreal bus ride on a particular route) and builds a musical work out of the soundscape.  But here’s the catch: the resulting musical work is to be listened to on headphones while the listener is in the very space from which the recorded sounds were derived (in this case, the same bus).  Pretty fascinating conceptually speaking, and just as important, Thulin’s compositions
were beautiful in their hazy, wabi-sabi quality.

A memorable paper at the conference was Christopher Driver’s presentation on the aesthetics of moshing at hardcore music shows in Australia.  (Moshing, in case you don’t know, is a kind of violent body movement/dance where participants slam into one another.)  Christopher played a YouTube clip of a band called Confession performing live, and the clip was striking for the sheer aggressiveness of the music: its frenetic pace, its (one would imagine) immensely loud volume, and the singer’s truly disturbing vocal growl that sounds, well, just really disturbed.  (What kind of vocal processing do they use to get this sound?  A kind of auto-tune tuned to a very low register?  Or is his voice actually like this?)  There aren’t that many shots of the crowd moshing until the end of the clip (if you can make it that far), but you nevertheless get a visceral sense of the tight unity between band and fans engendered by this music.  Anyone doubting the power of musical sound to create a coherent scene need look and listen no further than this video.  If you’re interested, the song here, “She’s Not What She Seems” is actually a kind of breakup song (I looked up the lyrics!):

I spoke with Christopher after my panel and asked him about the connection between moshing and hardcore music.  Many musics have within them aural cues that help dancers orient themselves–downbeats and upbeats, four beat meters, and so on.  But the music of a band like Confession is different in that it pushes the limits of our ability to engage to the point that perhaps flinging ourselves around in a mosh pit is the only reasonable response.  An analysis of the relationship between musical structure and moshing moves would be quite interesting, though probably not easy to pull off.  And finally, hearing the thoughts of those moshers might help us understand how this music has affective power for its listeners.

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