Stay Still

With his well known story about two sounds heard in an anechoic chamber, John Cage reminds us that there is no actual silence where listening (namely the phenomenology of sensing or hearing vibration) is taking place. Two remarkable observations follow from this. First, that the basic division of musical material into sounds and silences may be more precisely differentiated as intentional and non-intentional sounds, made by humans and/or by other sources. Second, that if music is thus considered to include both intentional and non-intentional sounds, it must to some degree be indeterminate, that is, it must be dependent on the particular experiences of listening taking place.

So music may be defined as that which is perceived whilst listening-to: by this term I mean listening for its own sake. This is the beginning of an experimental practice of music, which seeks to formulate empirical investigations taking place within listening-to. Many branches have grown from this thinking; one intersection important to me is the relationship between listening-to and internal time consciousness. How does one shape the other? How does what we call ‘now’ widen to accommodate the perception of sound forms? How do temporal parameters of sounds manifest within corporeal qualities? How is it that even the flowing of time may seem to be stilled?

Our hearing can be considered as a mechanism that samples air pressure levels and converts them into neural impulses. A network of unconscious and conscious listening schemes searches for possible periodicities across a range of frequencies and correlates the incoming data into streams. These in turn are interpreted as the sensation of pitches, timbres and rhythms associated with sound sources positioned around us. Albert S. Bregman calls this process auditory scene analysis.

When listening for music, we make a conscious representation of the texture of sound as a polyphony of hierarchically nested forms, which James Tenney and Larry Polansky have named temporal gestalts. Each gestalt binds together vectors of information gathered in time into a shape retained in consciousness whilst itself passing in time, slipping between two modes: cohering and flowing. Frequencies of various partials fuse into a complex noisy or pitched timbre; yet to keep ‘following’ that sound, for it to sustain our attention, we need to hear that something is changing. Parametric morphologies have characteristic envelopes that identify and ‘fix’ a sound; yet shaping sounds is one of the ways musicians make music ‘move’. Some repeating patterns, especially those with small asymmetries, with shifting vertical or horizontal relationships, seem to float around in time, whilst the inexorable repetition of others can propel our sense of time forward. Time may also be collapsed into a representation of physical space: binaural delay times are interpreted as cues to localize a sound; multiple echoes produced by reflected sound fuse into the representation of room acoustics.

In my music, I seek to open up the possibility of sculptural listening, a stretching-out of time-consciousness to include the piece as a whole in the same present space as the passing forms of sound. This is evident in some of my earliest work, such as 3 Chorales for Harry Partch (1993), and more recently in Wave Piano Scenery Player (2007) or Cucumber Spiral Serenade (2009). I am especially careful about choices that articulate beyond the extended ‘now’, to maintain a sense of being in a piece without engaging memory (recurrence) or anticipation (drama). Instead I prefer if the range of variation within sounding textures might at times suggest having been like or possibly becoming without actually doing so, transformations taking place disassociated from remembrance.

Material for me often emerges upon finding unfoldings, filters: derivations from a larger form. In turn, such larger forms arise from thinking about psychoacoustic, physical and instrumental processes; for example, by listening-to the complex harmonic relations that connect perceived sounds to one another, by noticing how the patterns of vibration heard share intentional or non-intentional periodicities. This has led me to a familiarity with the tuneable intervals and chords, the combination tones and periodic interference patterns, the phenomena comprising what Ben Johnston calls extended Just Intonation. Here temporal coherences occur not only on the level of timbral fusion and refraction, but also through awareness of the geometry of microtonally differentiated harmonic spaces, and of how these may become melodic.

I like when music resembles the changing of a river, of mineral forms, of forms in the sky: a moving stillness, suggestive and fascinating in its detail. Being in the world, without seizing attention. To invite a listening-to closer to the experience, say, of sculpture or architecture, of moving freely within time and space. For me, this allows for thinking to take place, not a thinking-about, but a thinking-through the forms created by listening-to as they open in our awareness before dissolving away.


8 October 2011—Villa Massimo, Rome

to my friends, thanks for the many conversations and criticisms
a German translation is published in the journal Positionen (Nov. 2011)



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