Reflections on SAAR - Part 2

Urged to “experiment” in the sessions we lead, I decided that for my second led-session on Thursday, I would design a “listening experiment” for my group of six. Amongst the musician fellows, and the larger group, we had been discussing the ideas of “listening” and “hearing” in the first couple days on Utøya. On the very first day of SAAR, in the opening session, “listening versus hearing” was discussed at length (hearing as a choice, empathetic listening as a more active listening process). As a musician hearing, of course, is integral to what I do on a daily basis. So much so, I rarely think about it. But in the course of the week, I began to differentiate more and more between what I hear when something contains sound, from film to visual arts to nature, and what another musician or non-musician hears. I notice this difference the most, though, in the aural perspective I have as a performer listening to what I play during performance, versus what a listener would hear.

A bit tangential from my research topic, I admit, but bear with me. After all, contemporary music often gets labeled as “difficult to listen to”. The late 20th century reluctance to program contemporary music on classical music orchestra concerts in the United States was based on the notion that contemporary music would drive classical music fans away, its aural difficulty was proof that it was elitist and not ‘for the masses’. Joshua Friedman, in his book, argues that contemporary music is foreign-enough to a brain new to that genre, that the brain does not know how to respond to it. Therefore, it takes repeated listenings, and repeated exposure, after which listening to contemporary music is familiar enough for the brain to process it. Fred Lerdahl explained in “Cognitive Constraints on Compositional Systems” (from Generative Processes in Music, ed. John Sloboda) that serial music (what many Americans imagine when they think of “contemporary classical music”) is hard to listen to because it is permutational, whereas our natural listening patterns are elaborational.

So if I aim to design my concert programs for both the musician and the non-musician audience, it begs the question - what does the non-musician hear? As an experiment, I asked my artistic research colleagues in small group to listen to six short, 1-minute examples of contemporary clarinet music. All were recordings of myself, based only on what I had on my computer at the time. I chose

  1. James Cohn Clarinet Concerto No. 1, movement 1 opening

  2. Markku Klami Twirl, opening

  3. Uljas Pulkkis Aria, opening

  4. Elliott Carter Gra, opening

  5. Sebastian Fagerlund Sonata, movement 1 starting about 1 minute in

  6. Donald Martino A Set for Clarinet, movement 3 opening

After playing each clip, I gave everyone about 30-40 seconds to write down key words of what they heard. I tried to keep the instructions very simple, I asked them to write whatever popped into their heads - colors, feelings, what instruments, melody, harmony - there were no wrong answers. I also asked them to write if the works was at all familiar, whether it reminded them of something, or if the sounds were completely unfamiliar.

I admit when I listened back to their responses during discussion, I was hoping they would hear clear differences between the American and Finnish works, regardless of the style of composition. But in all examples, most listeners took note of some emotional content, though composers were expressionist or romantic. When I was initially taking notes during the discussion, I noted that listeners were drawn to some structural aspects in the Cohn, Carter and Martino examples, while in the Klami, Pulkkis and Fagerlund examples, listeners made notes to elements of time and space. A noteworthy distinction, however one that could have easily been attributed to my interpretation of their comments, especially as I was looking to make some sort of distinction.

When I listened back to the entire session (which I recorded) a week later, what I noticed most of all was how the experiment proved in many ways Rose Subotnik’s supposition that “what the public hears is what is always heard, not autonomous structure but the sensuous manifestation of particular cultural values” (Gann 85). While the specific things certain people heard, and the way they articulated them, was fascinating, the truth was that there was more commonality in the way one person responded to all the examples, than the way six different people responded to one example. There were two fellows in the group who both work with film, and both admitted openly to attributing narrative qualities to their aural perceptions because of their film background. The descriptions of a textile artist in our group nearly all had to do with reactions to feelings, or emotions in the musical example. One of the supervisors in our group has a background in psychology, choreography and dance, and what he heard was very specific images which rarely included people. Everyone might hear the same thing, but how the brain translates the non-tangible, non-visual sound is completely dependent on the background and make-up of that individual. It does not even have anything to do with familiarity to the contemporary music genre, at least in this experiment.

When I asked the group if the assignment I gave them was difficult, they nearly all expressed stress or disappointment that they lacked “a technical knowledge” [of music] and therefore were quick to look for and attribute visual images, narratives, story, etc. In a sense, I set them up for this problem, as I see it. By asking, “what do you hear”, I essentially asked them to attribute the tangible to the intangible. Even though I said there were no wrong answers, I said one could write “clarinet” for all examples if they saw fit, in reality I pushed them to listen for something. Which is not always the purpose of music, in my opinion. But it is curious, and I said this to them, that they consider it a subjugation of the music to attribute an image or an emotion to sound: image making “come[s] forth more readily due to the failure of an understanding and an appreciation of form”, as a supervisor commented. But why do we consider it a failure of understanding? Or a failure of appreciation? When presented with only a sound, without the visual, I would think image making would be the natural cognitive process, if ones cultural background (for instance, musical training) does not offer some other way of listening. While I prefer listening without a visual, in music and sometimes even in lectures, I think they were all accustomed to listening with a visual, like in a live performance.

As a small example, to end, I played them the opening of Kraft, first requiring them only to hear audio, then a second time with the video. Expectedly, some preferred the abstract purity of only listening, while others could only understand the work as a collective effort when they had the visual. Perhaps with some contemporary music, especially when it comes to works that experiment with sound and ‘non classical’ effects, the visual is a necessary component for the audience. The work can only make sense if the brain has the added visual component to clarify and explain what one is hearing. But I think that we should never forget that the ear listens differently, and sometimes more acutely, when no visual element is presented.

As I prepare my second concert for next spring, this experiment will remain in the back of my mind. I have ideas to perform different works in different parts of the botanic garden, but I must remain cognizant of the visual as capable of contributing positively to aural understanding, but also simultaneously its ability to detract from aural focus.

Lucy Abrams