Music For Bionic Ears: A question of taste

Wednesday 5 January 2011

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.