Ear Reset

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A few weeks into the quarantine, with barely a car on the road or people on the sidewalks, I’m hearing my neighborhood’s soundscape more acutely. Where I used to spend a lot of time blocking out the city’s sounds (with earplugs, music, or avoidance), now its decibels have fallen back down to nature’s mix level. 

The raucous spring birdsong is especially loud, probably because there are so few other sounds competing with it. The birds sing in loose rhythms and overlapping sequences of high pitched chirping with occasional trill syncopations that fit together in spirited counterpoint. 

I stand for a few moments under a large tree, listening to the birds and trying to figure out which voice is coming from which branch as the bird’s parts hocket from high limb to low, left perch to right, from back to front. I make a note to keep this depth in mind in my own music—to think more about sound placement and interaction, about back to front perspectives. Is it the variation and spatial depth of birds chirping together that makes their sound so satisfying to listen to? (The French composer Olivier Messiaen was fascinated by birdsong. He expertly transcribed its melodies and incorporated them into his music.)

As I hear it, this birdsong isn’t melodic and isn’t going anywhere the way a song goes somewhere. It’s just chugging away with constant variation and enthusiasm, not caring if anyone else is listening. Noted. 

Along with birds, the wind gets to stretch out in this quieted soundscape now, creating a white noise drone for the bird rhythms, and once in a while stray rain drops fall onto air conditioners for metallic click-clack-clickety-click-click—clack timekeeping. In the distance I can just make out a faint siren of a racing ambulance. It reminds me of why my listening has changed, and why it’s so quiet even though there’s a lot going on.   

Resonant Thoughts: Michael Polanyi’s “Personal Knowledge” (1958)

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“I shall take as my clue for this investigation the well-known fact that the aim of a skillful performance is achieved by the observance of a set of rules which are not known as such to the person following them.”

“Rules of art can be useful, but they do not determine the practice of an art; they are maxims, which can serve as a guide to an art only if they can be integrated into the practical knowledge of the art. They cannot replace this knowledge.”

Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge (1958)

Resonant Thoughts: Einar Torfi Einarsson’s “Music Is Not” (2019)

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“[M]usic is not so fast that adequate control of movements is lost”[8], “music is not art”[9], “music is not appropriate for worship”[10], “music is not always entirely clear”[11], “music is not so likely to use the voice as a conveyor of subjective experience”[12], “music is not solely a twentieth-century phenomenon”[13]

https://www.lhi.is/tolublad-4-music-not

Notes On Unknowns And Conditions For Musical Flourishing 

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unknown—unrevealed, uncertain, unsettled, undecided

“I’ve come to think that attention is the most important thing in a studio situation.”
– Brian Eno

Sometime last year I was listening to an almost finished track and heard a sound I couldn’t recall making, a sound I couldn’t figure out in retrospect how it came about. Some quality of the sound drew my attention to a sense of the unknown woven into what I had done, maybe despite what I had been trying to do.

This got me thinking about how one interacts with unknowns in the production process. Unknowns come in two forms, deliberately created or accidentally transpiring. Beyond that they are, by definition, somewhat mysterious. Unknowns are all around us; we just need to notice them. 

One way I have approached unknowns in production is to think of a project or a track or even a single sound design task as setting up conditions that allow unknowns to flourish and for me to interact with that flourishing. In other words, the music I’m in the process of making is an excuse to play with unknowns. This play always has a tension about it— between our sense of being in the dark about the direction of our work and our trying to impose order on our process. Two examples of this tension: I want to impose a fixed tempo (easy to do with computer software), rather than let a fluid one emerge from my materials; or I want to cement a key or a soundset ahead of time, rather than listen for random emergences and what is inherent in the mix at this moment. Yesterday I was auditioning sounds when I heard something different that caught my attention—a one-shot droning chord. Why not make something out it? In the right context, a single chord is more than enough, and in this case, it was.     

So: be in the dark about the direction of your project or track or sound for as long as possible so its unknown qualities can flourish and you can interact with that flourishing. Sometimes, you don’t understand where the music is going until it’s almost finished.