Friday, January 15, 2010

Sensory Overload

The kids and I got a dog for Christmas, a handsome rescue dog from Hungary, a mix, but mostly Russell terrier. Now each day includes a couple of long walks with Lucky through fields or along the river, and when outside the dog really comes alive, with his hunting instinct very much intact. One quickly realises, especially out-of-doors, in the snowy landscapes of the moment, that what appears almost empty to our senses must, at times, be overwhelming to an animal so attuned to scent and sound and the slightest movements at a distance. Each time he locates a rabbit inside a mess of bushes or across a field, the human advantage in intellectual capacity is bested by his command of a set of perceptual cues that are totally lost to us.


I suspect, when we look (better: listen) back to music of the 20th century, we will be increasingly struck by the dynamic of competing approaches to the synthesis of musical experiences, one designed to focus and the other to overwhelm both the sense of hearing and the capacity for musical cognition. It was a century that began, after all, with both Satie and Richard Strauss. With Schönberg alone, one has both approaches with the contrast between the over-fullness of pieces like the Gurre-Lieder or Erwartung and the concentration of the miniatures (one reason for the sensory timidity of the twelve-tone music — in comparison with extremism of the works preceding — is, perhaps, that the composer has held these two extreme tendencies in a somewhat stubborn check). In the late 20th century, some will locate the vital contrast between complexity and minimalism, but I find instead that the radical music was always as interested in complexity as in facilitating audition, making it possible (as La Monte Young put it) to get "inside" a sound, as well as to generate complex surfaces or continuities through the application of clear processes.


I try to keep an open ear toward research in the psychophysics (and, increasingly, neuroscience) of music, but try not to take the research as prescriptive or limiting when thinking about composition. Our perceptual and cognitive apparatus is, indeed, limiting, a bottleneck on what sounds, and what characteristics of those sounds, we may take in, and how we take them in. But new music — whether new in Euripides's Athens, or new in the Ars Nova, or new in the late Beethoven quartets, or new in Die Neue Musik or Ultramodernism of the 1920s, or new in the west coast radical music and its repercussions, or new in the so-called new complexity — has always been about hearing more rather than less. The late Maryanne Amacher experimented with bypassing the ears (or, as she called it, "cochlear listening") in favor of more direct contact with the cognitive organs (or "post-cochlear listening"). Very interesting stuff, but direct electrical stimulation of my brain is not yet how I wish to encounter music; I think there's still plenty of music to be heard the old fashioned way, with air and ears, and I'm optimistic that inventive composers and musicians are sure to come up with way of presenting sounds that can prove the pessimism of the psychoacousticians wrong. Just a walk with Lucky is a reminder of how much more I have to learn about listening.

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