How Do You Listen To Music?

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How do you listen to music? Do you listen analytically, trying to dissect it into its component parts? Do you listen impressionistically, letting it roll over you like waves? Do you lock into the beat or sing along to the melody? What in the sounds draws you in and keeps you there? Is this where you want to be? If not, where do you want to be?

I approach a music by feel, at least at first. After just a few moments I have a sense of whether the sounds are moving me or not. I should but don’t give the music the benefit of the doubt—it needs to prove itself and make its case to me, swiftly and with conviction. The music must take a stance and weave its magic sooner rather than later or else there won’t be a later. When I listen I’m hoping to experience a sense of enchantment, wonder, magic, surprise, epiphany, connection, and insight. I’m an impatient listener, but if the music is interesting I’ll bring to it everything I’ve ever heard, marshaling my past listening to bear on the now. We’re in this shared present together and I want the music to work.

Once a music has proved its interestingness, it can get comfortable, make itself at home (free to open my fridge and have a snack, but don’t touch the Icelandic yogurt) and hang out with me. I’ll be re-listening to it from time to time, sitting down with its sounds and asking questions through my noticing. As I get to know the organization and contours of the music I’ll ask it to reflect on why it went here and not over there—how it came to be. Sometimes the music will be mum on the matter, and other times it will open up. “This seemed like the most sensible course” it might say. “I mean, one can only repeat something for so long. I had to change and evolve because I want to keep your attention.” I keep prodding: But did you know in advance you’d turn out like this? The music pauses, pondering the implications of my question and sensing that I want to know more than it’s designed to reveal. “Well no. A music never knows beforehand how it’ll go.”

Timbrebuilding

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“The power of art objects stems from the technical processes they objectively embody: the technology of enchantment is founded on the enchantment of technology. The enchantment of technology is the power that technical processes have of casting a spell over us so that we see the real world in an enchanted form.”

-Alfred Gell,
“The Technology of Enchantment and the Enchantment of Technology” (1992), p. 44

When I trained as a musician in university, I didn’t think much about my sound because I didn’t have one beyond trying to copy the tone of my teacher. I strove after his tone, as well as his touch. (I’m still working on both of those things.) In the many years since that time, I got into making music with the help of digital tools and came to understand that one’s sound is, to some degree, a function of the sounds one works with. This is why many musicians make a big deal about the particulars of the gear they use. There are hardcore devotees of analog synthesis, for instance, or modular hardware synthesizers, or the virtues of computer software that emulates all this, or abstract coding languages, and on and on. Many musicians feel strongly that it makes an audible difference whether one uses a vintage Moog or Nord Lead, and that the Roland TR-808 drum machine will never be replicated in its virtual forms. In electronic music, touch is configured a bit differently than it is in acoustic music making, because your touch is traveling through additional layers of electrified (analog or digital) mediation. Hence some musicians believe that certain vintage instruments sound more real than anything in the computer realm. 

But I don’t subscribe to this. As I‘ve learned more about some of the tools electronic musicians use, I let myself be guided by what my ear likes—by the sounds that I find enchanting. It doesn’t matter to me where these sounds come from, but because of practical and financial constraints, I’ve taken to music software and doing sound design “in the box” of the computer. The studio for me is my laptop. (But—if you want to ship me a grand piano, I will accept it.)

I spend some time each week going through sounds—either presets or ones I’ve made or modified myself—to hear what they can do. I’ll play a few chords and listen to how they sound. Of the many virtues of music software is its endless capacity for malleability, for shapeshifting. As I play a sound, I experiment with adding in different timbre layers, or swapping out one waveform or sample for another, or changing the ADSR (attack, decay, sustain, release) settings, or applying my own effects chain. My problem—if it is a problem, or maybe it’s a good thing?—is that I like so much of what I hear and can barely process one timbre variation before I’ve moved, out of curiosity and excitement, onto another. I’m wandering in a vast and unchartable land, making mental notes and picking up a few gems as I move along, but there’s much I can’t fathom. Unlike a piano keyboard where I can see all of the notes, I can never see all of music software’s terrain at once. 

In a music software review by Geary Yelton in emusician (October 21, 2015), I came across the term timbrebuilding which describes well what I do when I’m going through sounds. I’m searching for points upon which to build and timbrebuilding gets me thinking about how different sounds suggest different affective states and ways of feeling. I notice that I keep returning to particular timbres, as if the timbres are themselves kinds of instruments I’m getting to know. I modify and combine sounds, I alter them in tiny ways to make them feel more personal, I smooth or sharpen their edges, and I play with their waveform DNA to see how that changes anything or everything. As I explore and tinker, I think about how my music education both keeps me on track and maybe also prevents me from more fluidly using my remarkable software which would be even more remarkable if I could flow with it more. I hear through the fluff, but also miss quirky possibilities. I look for long form structures, but miss short-term pleasures. Is the software stiff, or is it me? I timbrebuild while wondering, Is all this mere surface gloss? But then something clicks with a sound and I’m enchanted again. 

  

Resonant Thoughts: Tristan Garcia’s “The Life Intense” (2018)

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“I hear a piece of music, and out of nowhere I’m surprised by an unexpected change of tuning, key, or rhythm. This variation might shake my ear out of its unfeeling slumber, a numbness brought on by what were all-too-predictable changes in the music at hand. Now I get the feeling that the piece is being played and was composed by someone fed up with rigid bar structures, someone interested in and excited by alterations, breakdowns, and imbalances […] Practitioners of such forms think that having to reiterate music is like being trapped in a cage made of sound. They try to escape from repetition and use variation to chase after intensity. As in every ethics of variation, it’s all about adopting different ruses to pre-empt perception, playing with norms generated alongside the action of perception, and celebrating the creative character of life while struggling to keep everything from always coming back as the same thing. It is now indispensable never to be where you are expected, to refuse to play any note or chord that could reasonably follow from the preceding one, to adopt a view in opposition to the system, to take the road less travelled, to get off the beaten path, and to give the melodic line or the rhythmic pattern a little twist. And why? All of this is a way of making it known that what is intense in life is that which does not stay identical, that which eludes systematic re-identification, and that which is free to become what it is. Improvised music accomplishes an ethical act every time it changes in an unexpected way in order to avoid being predictable. What improvised music achieves in the order of harmony and rhythm is analogous to the decision that the intense person makes while always trying to vary, to reinvent herself, and to never get caught in the trap of a predetermined destiny.”

“I realize that change itself is precisely what never changes. We can only be certain of irregularity. It’s like hanging out with a hipster.”

Tristan Garcia, The Life Intense (2018), p. 103-104. [italics added]

On Being Fluid And Deliberate

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A fair many years ago at one of my music lessons my teacher, Russell, suggested that I make my body movements more fluid, more deliberate. I was playing a multi-percussion piece for marimba and some tom-toms, moving from one instrument group to another, probably rather abruptly. Russell suggested making the tempo of my gestures match the tempo of the music. He spoke of how the time of the music continues even in the silences between sections as I move among the instruments. He also spoke of the concept of theatricality: it was a question of good optics intersecting with how I might conceptualize the music differently—more holistically—and bring more power to my playing. He demonstrated so I could see what he meant, moving from the drums off to one side over to the marimba in the middle in one fluid shift of body weight and focus. As I watched I noticed that he held my attention as much when he wasn’t making a sound as when he was. It was a kind of theater because there was something magical, or at least deeply intentional about it.

Sometime recently I noticed that I had begun playing differently. Maybe it started a few years ago, but I became conscious of it only a few months ago. I noticed that my gestures at my instruments were expanding, even though no one but me can see them. The tambourine roll had become a grand left to right arm arc as I traced the jingle-jangle with a calibrated shape. The marimba playing was more relaxed, more playful. The hand drumming was more economical and easy. What I noticed in particular was how I moved from the marimba to the drum behind me. After the last chord my hands came slowly upwards off the keys, as if my mallets were wands. At the same time I pivoted 180 degrees in slow-motion—slow enough to make use of the bars of rest—to face the drum and bring my hands down just in time to play.

All this was a little theatrical: as my gestures sought flourish I had finally heeded that long ago lesson to be more fluid and deliberate.