As an artsy-fartsy Modern Composer, one of the challenges of the Music For Bionic Ears project is having to come up with something that people might want to listen to. When the publicity for your upcoming gig promises a concert “designed to be enjoyed by both cochlear implant users and audiences with normal hearing,” you’re suddenly struck by a conundrum. How do you know whether or not the cochlear implant wearers are hearing something enjoyable in your music, when most “normal hearing” people don’t like your music anyway?
My music’s already been written up as using “bizarre scales”, and I have, on at least two occasions, been confronted face-to-face with the question What Is This Shit? So for this piece, should I try to write something (shudder) “accessible”, or carry on doggedly clutching my copy of “Who Cares if You Listen?” At least I can console myself that the tunings I’m using, which may sound off to most people, seem to sound pretty normal to implant users.
This is the quandary I’ve been facing since visiting the Bionic Ear Institute in Melbourne last November. While I was in town I got to see the (fantastic) launch concert for the CD Artefacts of Australian experimental music: volume 2. One of the composers on the CD, Sarah Hopkins, played her music on whirly tubes. As well as her own works, she performed Amazing Grace. Yeah, it’s simple and obvious, but whirly tubes play only notes in the harmonic series. In other words, it’s not in conventional tuning but a “bizarre scale” similar to the scale I’m using in this particular piece.
The scale is also very similar to one used by Ben Johnston, a composer with over 50 years’ experience of writing music in alternative tunings. His best known piece? A set of microtonal variations on Amazing Grace. This string quartet marked a changed in his style, from the more abstracted idioms of the post-war avant-garde, to using familiar harmony and melody as a foundation on which to build sophisticated elaborations on the physics of sound.
Although my music is still very different, I’m using these examples as a reminder of how I would like my music to be heard: I don’t want it to be easy, but I want it to be clear.
In February, the audience will get to hear the culmination of his experimental musical dialogue when [Robin] Fox and five other composers perform a selection of works at the Arts Centre created especially for the 1000 or so Victorian Cochlear implant recipients.
It will be a concert like no other; the deaf as well as those with normal hearing will be gathered together listening to the same music. While it is difficult to know how it is going to be interpreted by those wearing the device, Fox said: ”Hopefully, it will be a shared musical experience. Those with normal hearing will be able to discuss it together afterwards with those that are hearing-impaired.”
In the meantime, I’m getting stuck into making the finished piece for the February concert:
As you can see, the creative process is a thrilling mix of heady inspiration and unbridled fun.
Underneath all the music I make, there’s a problem nagging away at me. Whatever I do will always be second-rate because of one fatal mistake: I’m working with electronics instead of acoustic instruments.
Have you had this experience? You’re at a gig, someone with a laptop or decks, hi-tech or low-tech gizmos, and you’re into it, thinking to yourself that it all sounds damn good. Then for the next act some old bloke comes on with a penny whistle or ukelele or whatever and blows the room away.
It’s not just that we’re impressed by the visible effort – the ‘work’ – going into the music that is usually less evident in electronic music: the whole experience is tangibly different, more engaging, more exciting. I can’t explain in any satisfactory way why it always has to be like this.
Coincidentally, while procrastinating from writing this I just read a quote from Jeff Harrington:
I find that electronic music has a real problem to it, because, at this point, there is no good way to get across the kind of energy and vitality that the performer brings to acoustic music.
I don’t think that really gets to the heart of this problem, without understanding exactly what is meant when we talk about energy and vitality in music.
And I don’t think it’s all down to the performer either. There’s something in the natures of the two media that will always put acoustic music at an advantage, at least in a live setting. (I suspect I’d rather listen to recordings of boring acoustic music than of boring electronic music, but I’m reluctant to test this theory.)
One time I was playing a gig with live analogue electronics, spontaneously generated, no samples, nothing canned or taped. The air was alive with fresh, new, exciting sounds. As I wound up the piece with a flourish and the last sound ebbed away, a loose cymbal on another act’s percussion rig behind me slid to the floor with a resonant crash, capping off my whole set. The punters laughed and cheered. Acoustic beats electronic, every time.
The Music For Bionic Ears project now has a confirmed concert date and venue:
Interior Design: Music for the Bionic Ear
George Fairfax Theatre, The Arts Centre, Melbourne
13 February 2011, 5.30pm or 8pm (the concert is repeated)
Tickets: $25 (Concession $15).
There will also be a 7pm lecture for ticket holders.
The premiere of six new musical works written specifically for reception through the cochlear implant:
Six of Australia’s foremost experimental music composers have been commissioned to research and test new sounds and musical forms both in the lab and with cochlear implant users themselves.
These tests have resulted in unique new approaches to the composition and diffusion of musical ideas and sensations. The concert is designed to be enjoyed by both cochlear implant users and audiences with normal hearing.
There are over 1000 Bionic Ear users in Victoria today. For these people the Bionic Ear brings sound into a previously silent world, and for the most part allows them to converse with friends and family. However, listening to live music can be a difficult, or even annoying experience!
INTERIOR DESIGN: Music for the Bionic Ear aims to start addressing that problem. Prepare to be challenged by what you hear and be careful not to make assumptions about what others might experience!
It’s a strange experience, having to play your music to an audience of one and waiting to find out their response, face to face. Even stranger, when they know nothing about your music; stranger still when you know they’re not hearing what you’re hearing.
On Monday I got to meet four cochlear implant wearers at the Bionic Ear Institute, as part of the Music For Bionic Ears project. They had differing levels of ability in perceiving music, and of experience in hearing and playing music. I played each of them my Study No. 2 and finally got some feedback on whether or not my experiments would have any positive effect.
The new tuning system seemed to work surprisingly well. The types of chords, and the processed organ sound I had used, weren’t as cluttered and muddy as I feared they might be. All four reported that they could hear chords and harmonies clearly, and that the sounds were, for the most part, pleasant to hear. (By pleasant, I mean that too much muddled sonic information tends to sound like white noise to implant wearers.)
It seemed almost too good to be true when a couple of listeners responded that they could identify the organ sound, hear distinct chords and harmonies, and moreover enjoy them. Previously, they had not found these types of sounds pleasant. This was a much better reaction than I had hoped. It seems that using a just intonation scale instead of standard equal temperament has a big effect on how implant wearers hear music. This could be a useful path of inquiry to follow, examining whether equal temperament is an obstacle to music perception and which tuning systems are clearest.
All listeners could identify the organ sound, although some also heard other instruments in the mix. This may have been due to the synthesised nature of the sound, and the other electronic treatments I had made. There are other aesthetic and philosophical implications to whether or not timbral recognition will be an issue in the finished piece, which I should follow up in a separate post shortly.
The piece I played was not focussed too much on melody, relying instead on presenting a succession of distinct sounds with varied loudness, duration, and harmonic complexity. Implant wearers often have a problem in detecting the small steps between notes that usually make up a melody, so it will be interesting to see if a different tuning has any effect. Alternatively, my piece may continue to work in a way that is less reliant on melody.
The Hearing Organised Sound blog has more information about the meeting, with further details about what the other composers in the project are up to. Their approaches are all quite different and are finding out other details I am now trying to take on board.
Study No. 1 was made by filtering white noise into the 22 frequency bands used in the design of a cochlear implant. This was done using a filtered granular synthesis contraption in AudioMulch. The filtered sounds produced were mimicked by a (virtual) piano, retuned to the 16-tone scale. The sounds you can hear in the study are a mix of the white noise, the piano, and either or both sounds reproduced through the cochlear implant simulator devised by Robin Fox.
Study No. 2 examines the various harmonies that can be produced with the scale. Using only one instrument (electric organ), a sequence of chords and single tones are played in a variable rhythm. Certain pitches, with frequencies that straddled a pair of electrodes, were shifted up or down an octave. This sequence was fed back into the same AudioMulch filter used in Study No. 1, which plays back differing amounts of the original and filtered organ.
What next? Study No. 1 is very rudimentary and serves as a preliminary map of the type of soundworld I am dealing with. Study No. 2 was a demonstration of harmonic combinations that are possible. In the latter piece, I suspect that the combination of chords used and the organ sound will come across as too cluttered in the more rigidly-defined sound structure of the implants. The piece I am working on now uses the following principles:
Composition is largely an act of constructing an instrument.
Emotion arises in the conflict between the structure of the music and the structure of the listener.
Growing up during The War, you would turn on the radio and hear an announcer valorising the dead of Stalingrad for their sacrifice in defense of the Fatherland, followed by Beethoven’s 5th Symphony. When the death of the Führer was announced it was followed by the Siegfrieds Tod. Music was used as a tool to remove thought. This was the millieu of the post-war avant-garde.
Favourite title is Morton Feldman’s The Viola in My Life.
“There are no electronics in my life.”
The piano doesn’t play the melody, the melody plays the piano.
Study with Nono was impossible. Everything was an imperialist relic of capitalist oppression. One note followed by another note was a melody, which was bourgeois. How could he work himself free from these strictures? [cf. Feldman telling his students he wanted to make composition impossible for them.]
Teaching about beauty in art to class of schoolchildren, he brought in a photograph of Gina Lollobrigida and a print of Albrecht Dürer’s mother and asked which was more beautiful. The class hesitated, unsure of what answer he wanted to hear. One girl whispered to her friend, “The ugly one’s more beautiful.”
(Sorry for the delay – it was a long dinner. Part one is here.)
That’s the problem when you take an immediate liking to something you don’t fully understand: as you find out more about it you’re likely to be disappointed, as the reality fails to tally with the happy imaginings you’ve projected into the gaps of your knowledge. I remember feeling a little underwhelmed when I was at the premiere of Grido, Lachenmann’s third string quartet, back in 2001. It sounded too much like yet another European intellectual, railing against the past while hopelessly entangled in it. Walter Benjamin’s destructive, cheerful character was in scant evidence. The rest of the concert included something by Wolfgang Rihm and Schoenberg’s 2nd quartet, the latter of which showed up the others as still relearning a lesson ninety years old.
I know he’s revised it a bit since then, but Grido sounded very different to my ears this time around. Perhaps the different context helped. As mentioned last time, Lachenmann spoke of how a new field of sounds, however abundant, inevitably becomes a sort of prison over time. Grido became an attempt by Lachenmann to escape from his own musical past, retaining his voice while allowing fuller, “proper” musical sounds into the music. Okay, he actually wrote it that way because Irvine Arditti wanted a louder piece (his arm gets tired, don’t you know).
Other people I know were dismayed by the most recent piece, Got Lost for soprano and piano. It’s a long but slight work, which requires Sarah Leonard to produce a range of clicks, hisses and gasps while singing a text pulverised into scattered phonemes – a panoply of classic techniques from the 60s avant-garde. Nevertheless, I admired the skillful interplay between the voice and piano, while others bemoaned it as a capitulation to the conservative forces of the Establishment.
The pianist, Rolf Hind, returned in his iridescent green shirt to perform Ausklang with a greatly embiggened London Sinfonietta. My favourite Lachenmann shares a quality with that of Luigi Nono’s late music, a sense of unstructured timelessness in which sounds appear, half-appear, and disappear as they do in life, seeking no external justification for their existence. (It was good to learn later that Lachenmann had indeed studied with Nono.) As a practical necessity, Ausklang requires more forthright gestures from the piano for it to be heard against the orchestra, however sibilantly they may play. At first, a series of disjointed, blocky sounds come from the piano, amidst occasional abortive runs at virtuosity. It feels like this could quickly become very tedious.
At nearly an hour long, Ausklang fortunately doesn’t seek to wear the listener down; rather it takes on a life of its own. The music rises up, falls back to a prolonged whisper, recedes to an almost intractable stasis before gradually recovering into animation – all while seeming part of one unbroken, organic process. The motivation for esacpe and the inertia of the orchestra’s apparatus are held in an unesay equilibrium. Under intense observation from the audience, the sense of an internal logic began to emerge. In the Royal Festival Hall, the audience listened with the same intensity as they had to that first quartet.
We still don’t really get Helmut Lachenmann, do we? OK, you all understand him but I don’t – sorry about the journalist’s “we”. He has one of the most distinctive voices of the post-war European avant-garde, but it’s difficult working out exactly what that voice is saying.
Lachenmann is famous for his extensive use of extended playing techniques in his music – sometimes almost to the exclusion of any “normal” sounds. This makes him a rather obvious marker for the designated cutting-edge of European concert hall music. His apparent disregard for convention can easily be perceived as nihilism, but this perception is tempered by the delicacy of the sounds he coaxes from his instruments. The word ‘sussurus’ could have been invented just to describe a recurring texture in his music, created by stringed instruments brushed with the wood of the bow, or unpitched air blown through the brass. Nevertheless, he can still divide even the most culturally sophisticated audience.
He was in town over the weekend for a short series of concerts commemorating his 75th birthday. The highlights were the first and last pieces played. Hearing Gran Torso, his first string quartet, performed live was a revelatory experience. It was so quiet! Long passages of hushed, almost inaudible wisps of sound blended together as the Arditti Quartet made minute gestures over various parts of their instruments. I was in the fourth row and was straining to hear; god knows what the people up the back of the Queen Elizabeth Hall made of it.
What were we listening to? Or, what were we listening for? It would be easy to say that this music is an attempt at negation of musical tradition, an understandable position for a post-war German artist to take. In an interview after the concert, Lachenmann returned several times to the idea of escape, although he didn’t name it as such. He spoke of how a new field of sounds, however abundant, inevitably becomes a sort of prison over time. Gran Torso is an attempt at escape from, not a negation of, tradition.
The long, still section in the middle of the piece cannot help but suggest the sound of breathing – as natural and as imperceptible. I may hear it as a vindication of John Cage’s aesthetic of imitating nature’s manner of operation; you may hear it is the irresolvable impasse of attempts to escape tradition through the means of the very embodiment of that tradition. Part of the problem may be that when listening to Lachenmann, we hear what we want to hear.
(Continued tomorrow – my casserole’s ready. UPDATE: Part two.)
I think I’ve settled on a tuning system for my Bionic Ear Institute piece. It’s a tricky thing. I’m trying to build up pitches based on overtones of a fundamental frequency. Each electrode in a cochlear implant is designed to respond to only a certain bandwidth of frequencies. The range of bandwidths used mean that certain parts of the scale will be received and interpreted differently, depending on which octave you play in.
Luckily, Robin Fox has sent me an implant simulator, which I am now using to test out different harmonies and combinations. Of course, the interaction of overtones with the cochlear implant becomes more complex still when differentiating between different instrumental timbres.
I’m not sure. I’m supposed to be working on this piece for the Bionic Ear Institute, but it always seems to be the case that when I work on one piece, I soon get sidetracked into starting another piece. This second piece will usually get finished first.
This time, the second piece was left behind while I started a third piece. I got some way into making this third piece when I broke off. Sometimes you come up with a few pretty sounds when preparing your material and you want to stop, afraid that they’ll get lost in the composition. I’m listening again now to the source material I prepared last night and I don’t want to do any of the things I had planned for it.
Morton Feldman said “material reigns supreme” and boasted that he kept “construction” in his music to a minimum, but this is an oversimplification of his technique: he also criticised music for not being composition, just wallowing in timbre. The material he allowed into his music was kept under strict control.
Particularly because I work with computers and electronics, I always have a question in the back of my head: “Is this too easy?” Listening to it I wonder if it’s too obvious, in its material and its construction. I think it has an effect on the listener but I’m not sure if that’s because it’s relying on some old, familiar trick. Since I’ve mentioned Feldman, I’ll also bring up his question, “Is music art?” Another one of his questions: when is a piece finished?
I was trying to make art, and by stopping now I’m not sure if I’ve made art or just achieved an amusing effect. It seems wrong to go any further with it. This is one of those pieces I have to set aside and listen to now and again until I can get some perspective on it, either to see through its superficial appeal or recognise the strength in its apparent simplicity.
I love receiving swag, and I’ve been listening to so much capital-A Arty Stuff lately, so I was happy to get hold of a copy of Robert Poss’ new CD, “Settings”. My knowledge of Poss’ music didn’t go much beyond him being that bloke from the Band of Susans who I’ve heard play Phill Niblock’s music, so the neat photo of pedal porn on the front cover was encouraging.
This album’s subtitled “Music For Dance, Film, Fashion and Industry”, but it’s more than just a grab-bag of background music for completists. The fourteen tracks build up into a varied and substantial body of music with some unexpected twists and turns.
You might get that Brian Eno Music for Films vibe over the first few tracks: relatively short pieces of sustained guitars and rin gongs made for Alexandra Beller/Dances. If you’re anticipating a collection of more-or-less variegated slabs of guitar drone, you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the shifts in tone and style, such as the chiming guitar patterns in “Concordance”, which reappear later as a sinister set of interlocking piano loops in the darker “Border Piano Walk”. Brooding, atmospheric guitar-based tracks like “Inverness” are contrasted by the tumbling reverse samples that make up “Trio (excerpt)” and the undulating flute from which “Stare Decisis” builds.
I could do without the brief intrusions of tablas at a couple of points, and some of the synth patches used grate in one or two places, but that’s probably just me being a snob. The thing is, the more elaborate and ambitious pieces such as “Tourniquet Revisited” confirm what I already had come to believe, that I’m listening to fully-formed music by a serious composer, not just some muso noodling around (or droning on, in this case) to fill out the time.
Occasionally in the past I’ve struggled with the critical distinction so casually made between Proper Composition – which usually means stuff played in concert halls – and music like on Poss’ CD. (The reviews section of The Wire magazine helpfully illustrates this distinction in reverse, sequestering certain discs in a subsection headed “Modern Composition”.) Listening to this album reminded me why I usually conclude that attempts to rationalise this distinction are futile.
In my email today:
Subject: Urgently Needed
My name is Kelvin Mcdowells,I would like to make an inquiry based on your products. Do you carry Piano in stock for sales?
Hang on, I’ll just check under the bed…. Nope. I used to have one, but I couldn’t sneak it out past my landlady when I moved.
If you do, can you kindly get back at me as soon as possible and let me know the price ranges availability for the Piano.Also please advise the type of Piano that you do have when you don’t have what i am requesting What type of credit cards do you accept for all orders Looking forward to hear back from you as soon as possible.
I’ll get back at you,you nugatory nincompoop.Also please see below some of the many wonderful pianos I have when I don’t have any pianos Please send bacon.
Otherwise, try getting in touch with this guy.
So I was listening to music last night and this question popped into my head, how come all the minimalists pussied out? Of course I immediately realised this was the wrong question, but it was wrong for more than one reason.
The most obvious reason, natch, is that there are minimalists and there are minimalists. I don’t want to get into an argument about who’s a True Scotsman, but minimalism is an unusual musical influence in as much as the label can be applied fairly accurately to more than three people and the most famous examples aren’t necessarily the most representative. This leads to the other reason: when I gratuitously accused all these many fine composers of the nebulous crime of pussying out, I was thinking of the Big Famous Minimalists. You know, the ones with movie soundtracks and orchestra commissions and tasteful album covers*.
Okay, so maybe these Big Famous Minimalists are really just sloppy old-fashioned romantics with more taste than imagination when it comes to matters of harmony and rhythm. In which case, the question becomes how the hell did these boring old farts manage to write some amazingly cool music for a few years back in the 70s? Those old Glass and Reich pieces sound at least as extraordinary today as when they first appeared, not least because they were produced by the same tedious fusspots who churn out pricey aural wallpaper today.
What I’m really trying to say here is that I’m surprised at how my perception of Terry Riley has changed over the years. When I was young and arrogant I thought less of his music ‘cos he seemed a bit woolly-minded (his website doesn’t help) and too interested in aimlessly noodling around. Now I’m old and dismissive I notice that while his sometime peers got respectable and boring, he’s still noodling away – with a better sense of adventure, formal rigour and musicianship than the Movie Music guys.
I guess the old hippie ethos of being true to yourself can pay off if you stick to it, and there’s something to be said for repetition.
* Unless you’re Philip Glass.
One thing I’ve been meaning to tell everyone is that I’m currently working on a project conducted by the Bionic Ear Institute and composer/laserdude Robin Fox. Although cochlear implants (or, to use the technical term, “bionic ears”) are pretty damn miraculous at restoring hearing, they reconstitute sound in ways that make it extremely difficult for users to properly perceive, let alone enjoy, music. It takes patience and training to learn, or even relearn, how to appreciate the musical attributes of sounds.
The BEI is working on several projects to improve music perception. One of these involves asking several composers to write pieces specifically intended for reception by a cochlear implant. For the last little while I’ve been reading up on the design and function of the implants, and how users perceive different aspects of sound through them. So far I’ve produced a number of sets of data on how to best re-think sound, and from this made a few short musical studies and sketched out plans for the final piece. Hopefully I’ll keep posting regular updates on how the work is going, and discussing the various tricky issues that arise from it.
Further news about this and related projects can be found on the Hearing Organised Sound blog.