Listening Art exhibition accompanying essay and program

Events, Research, Writing

Below are the accompanying essay and program I had available at the Listening Art exhibition. They give a quick overview of the ideas of the project and the intent of the works. Photo and video documentation of the show will be posted soon.

Listening Art

Camille Robinson

Sonic artists and listeners to sonic artworks tend to take for granted that how a listener listens to a sonic artwork affects what that listener perceives that sonic artwork to be, through the listener’s inclusion, exclusion, and interpretation of the sonic events that constitute a given artwork. This tendency leaves the act of perception un-theorised in the production of sonic artworks, and unquestioned in their reception by listeners. This project has sought to address this problem by investigating making sonic artworks that take as their primary concern criticality of listening on the part of artists and listeners. Its aim has been to structure sonic artworks around critical discourses on listening, and for those artworks to foster critical reflection on listening by listeners.

The artworks use organized sound to engender particular types of listening, with the aim of doing so in such a way as to stimulate awareness of certain aspects of listening. As the listener’s experience is so integral to the artist’s conception of the artworks, this essay avoids describing each work’s specific intent, in an effort to avoid influencing the listener’s experience of each work unduly. Rather descriptions of each works’ intent may be found in the accompanying exhibition program, which should be read after listening to the works. This essay focuses on giving a brief overview of the project’s core concepts, methodology, and outcomes.

The central concept of this project – listening – is a complex and difficult one to define. Communications theorists (Bostrom, 1990, Glenn, 1989, Bodie et al., 2008, Janusik, 2007), psychologists (Fastl et al., 2007, Handel, 1989), cognitive neuroscientists (Schnupp et al., 2011, Peretz and Zatorre, 2003, Handel, 2006), philosophers (Ihde, 2007, Nancy, 2007, Corradi Fiumara, 1990), cultural theorists (Adorno, 1973, Small, 1998, Attali, 1985), ethnomusicologists (Howes, 2005, Reck and Reck, 1997), and sonic art theorists (Voegelin, 2010, Oliveros, 2005, Wishart, 1996, LaBelle, 2006) have all worked at defining and exploring the experiences and acts referred to by the term listening, with divergent although intersecting results. By reviewing the literature across these fields I observed that the majority of listening researchers have focused not on listening in general, but each on a variation of the listening act directed at a specific type of object. For example, communications theorists researched the act of listening-to-language, cultural theorists researched the act of listening-to-music, and they each understood listening in a way defined by the listener-object relationship under their observation – to continue the example, in terms of information comprehension and retention with listening-to-language, and in terms of the skills, knowledge, and acculturation needed for listening-to-music. From this observation I inferred that listening-in-general must encompass the sum total of these variations, and that a more thorough understanding of listening-in-general may be attained through the exploration of the relationships between its variations.

My method for structuring the artworks around critical discourses on listening has been to use the framing and re-framing of sound to elicit and contrast these variations of listening-to sound. This method is based in a rationale by which I argue that the act of listening may be used to critique itself – conduct an immanent critique – by leading a listener to simultaneously entertain multiple sets of standards of evaluation – schemata of types of listening-to sound – for the same object of listening (Sonderegger and Boer, 2011, Rumelhart, 1980). These competing schemata should conflict and cause alteration to themselves and their governing set of standards – the schema of listening-in-general – theoretically altering a listener’s conception of listening through an experience that juxtaposes listening’s variations.

My method for determining whether the artworks do foster critical reflection on listening has been based on a variation of that outlined in Clark Moustakas’ Heuristic Research (1990), a research methodology that emphasizes investigation of phenomena as experienced. I have used this modified heuristic method to test the works’ efficacy: in stimulating the intended structure of the experience as a sequence of intended types of listening-to the sonic content; in evoking general critical reflection on listening; and in evoking reflection on listening matching the intended sentiment and themes of critique of each work. The testing was carried out with a group of eleven participants, who were shown draft versions of the artworks in a one-on-one setting with the artist, and interviewed on their experiences after listening to each work. Analysis of the interview responses produced the results of the tests of the works’ efficacy, and these results were used to inform the refinement and completion of the works as presented in this exhibition.

The results of the analysis of participant responses demonstrated that the works did reliably stimulate general critical reflection on listening in most participants’ responses. This conclusion was ascertained from the participants’ responses to the initial question of each interview, which asked for the participant to define the term listening; the majority of responses contained critical reflection on listening that changed in emphasis from piece to piece, and reflected their present understanding of listening in light of the piece just listened to. The results of the analysis also demonstrated that in the majority of cases the works did evoke experiences containing the intended types of listening-to sound following the intended structure of events, although the reproducibility of the intended structure and listening types varied from piece to piece. In addition, the results demonstrated that overall the artworks did not reliably stimulate reflection on listening that exactly matched the artist’s intended sentiment, although they did evoke discussion including the works’ intended themes with relative reliability. By all of these measures Sound, proof (Robinson, 2014d) proved the most consistent in achieving its intent, and Over hear (Robinson, 2014c) the least. These conclusions were ascertained from responses to a group of questions asking participants to describe their general experience of each piece, what they were listening to during the piece, and how or in what way they were listening.

The refinements made to the artworks from their draft versions to those presented in this exhibition are generally minor; the most dramatic alteration to the works overall is their placement in the less intimate context of a gallery. I’m here to listen (Robinson, 2014a) is virtually unchanged, as is Sound, proof (Robinson, 2014d). Memory walk (Robinson, 2014b) has been revised to accommodate its site specificity, while Over hear (Robinson, 2014c) has had the most significant revision – a rearrangement of its elements – in response to its marked lack of success in achieving its intent in testing. Access to the draft versions of the artworks may be arranged upon request, and walk-through videos of them will be posted to my website at http://www.camillerobinson.com alongside videos of this exhibition; both will be submitted with the dissertation.

By producing artworks following a rigorous rationale, and by systematically testing them against listeners’ experiences, this project has been able to demonstrate that it is possible to make sonic artworks structured around critical discourses on listening, which foster critical reflection on listening by listeners. The predictability of the structure of listeners’ experiences and the content of listeners’ interpretations of the works has been shown to be more or less variable, depending on the specific artwork in question. Determining the conditions for these variations may provide the basis for further creative-research endeavor.

Bibliography

ADORNO, T. W. 1973. Philosophy ofmodern music, London, Sheed and Ward.
ATTALI, J. 1985. Noise: the political economy of music, Manchester, Manchester University Press.
BODIE, G. D., WORTHINGTON, D., IMHOF, M. & COOPER, L. O. 2008. What Would a Unified Field of Listening Look Like? A Proposal Linking Past
Perspectives and Future Endeavors. International Journal of Listening, 22, 103-122.
BOSTROM, R. N. (ed.) 1990. Listening behavior : measurement and application, New York: Guilford Press.
CORRADI FIUMARA, G. 1990. The other side of language : a philosophy of listening, London ; New York, Routledge.
FASTL, H., ZWICKER, E., HUANG, T. S., KOHONEN, T. & SCHROEDER, M. R. (eds.) 2007. Psychoacoustics: Facts and Models, Berlin Heidelberg New York: Springer.
GLENN, E. C. 1989. A Content Analysis of Fifty Definitions of Listening. International Listening Association. Journal, 3, 21-31.
HANDEL, S. 1989. Listening : an introduction to the perception of auditory events, Cambridge, Mass., MIT Press.
HANDEL, S. 2006. Perceptual coherence : hearing and seeing, Oxford ; New York, Oxford University Press.
HOWES, D. (ed.) 2005. Empire of the senses : the sensual culture reader, Oxford ; New York: Berg.
IHDE, D. 2007. Listening and voice : phenomenologies of sound, Albany, State University of New York Press.
JANUSIK, L. A. 2007. Building Listening Theory: The Validation of the Conversational Listening Span. Communication Studies, 58, 139-156.
LABELLE, B. 2006. Background noise : perspectives on sound art, New York, Continuum International.
MOUSTAKAS, C. E. 1990. Heuristic research : design, methodology, and applications, Newbury Park, Calif. ; London, SAGE.
NANCY, J.-L. 2007. Listening, New York, Fordham University Press.
OLIVEROS, P. 2005. Deep listening : a composer’s sound practice, New York, iUniverse.
PERETZ, I. & ZATORRE, R. J. 2003. The cognitive neuroscience of music, Oxford ; New York, Oxford University Press.
RECK, D. B. & RECK, C. (eds.) 1997. Music of the whole earth, New York: Da Capo Press.
ROBINSON, C. 2014a. I’m here to listen.
ROBINSON, C. 2014b. Memory walk.
ROBINSON, C. 2014c. Over hear.
ROBINSON, C. 2014d. Sound, proof.
RUMELHART, D. E. 1980. Schemata: the building blocks of cognition. In: SPIRO, R. J., BRUCE, B. C. & BREWER, W. F. (eds.) Theoretical issues in reading comprehension : perspectives from cognitive psychology, linguistics, artificial intelligence, and education. Hillsdale, N.J.: L. Erlbaum Associates.
SCHNUPP, J., NELKEN, I. & KING, A. 2011. Auditory neuroscience : making sense ofsound, Cambridge, Mass., MIT Press.
SMALL, C. 1998. Musicking : the meanings of performing and listening, Hanover, University Press of New England.
SONDEREGGER, R. & BOER, K. D. (eds.) 2011. Conceptions of Critique in Modern and Contemporary Philosophy, Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan.
VOEGELIN, S. 2010. Listening to noise and silence : towards a philosophy of sound art, New York, Continuum.
WISHART, T. 1996. On sonic art, Amsterdam, Harwood Academic Publishers.

I’m here to listen, 2014

Audio

3 minutes, 52 seconds

I’m here to listen was made in response to experiences of using telephones, and the uncertainty that can arise as to who if anyone is listening when conversing on the phone, depending on your partner in conversation, or lack of one. Placing the listener in an ambiguous situation in using the phone, the piece asks him or her to reflect on the dual role of listener/speaker, the performance of listening, and the sounds that signify it, by engaging reciprocal, and solitary types of listening.

Sound, proof, 2014

Audio

23 minutes, 45 seconds

Sound, proof results from a cross pollination of Robert Morris’ Box with the sound of its own making (Morris, 1961) and the box containing Schrödinger’s cat, and the idea that the belief in the existence of an object, the reality of its existence, and its perception are all separate phenomena. Beginning with an homage to Morris’ box, and its soundproof counterpart, the series takes the listener on a brief tour of a series of sounds that the listener may listen for, independent of literally hearing them, by engaging sensation directed, and imagination directed types of listening.

Over hear, 2014

Audio

5 minutes, 30 seconds

Over hear responds to the experience of using headphones, and the unstable distribution of attention and ambiguous sense of space that can occur, when stimuli in the virtual space of the headphones and stimuli in the real space occupied by the listener compete. Initially presenting the listener with the sound of a virtual space, using musical sound the piece gradually invites the listener to draw their attention outward, and to reflect on the effect of attention on the perception of space, by engaging spatially and attentionally focused, and spatially and attentionally flexible types of listening.

Memory walk, 2014

Binaural audio, video

7 minutes, 43 seconds

Memory Walk combines the idea of a sound walk – a curated walk whereby a listener’s attention is directed to the sounds of a given environment – and the idea that as well as being listened to as sensation in the present, sound can be listened to across time in memory, and in projection of the future. Presenting variations on a sound walk already unknowingly experienced, the piece invites the listener to compare heard and remembered sounds, to use this comparison to imagine future sounds, and to reflect on the interweaving of sensation, memory, and imagination in perception, by engaging passive, and temporally aware and mobile types of listening.

PDFs

Essay

Program

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Research

Research, Writing

It feels a bit strange that I’ve been doing research for my Honours thesis for about 3 or 4 months now but I’ve yet to share anything on here. So, a short introduction to my topic and at a later stage I’ll put some more specific writing about my subjects.

Plan A

Originally my plan for this year’s research project was to be to investigate early experimental performance practice in Australia, primarily pre-World War 2. Why? A fair bit of the work I did last year led me to learn about Dadaist and Futurist and Surrealist performance in Europe, and I assumed there must have been some kind of parallel or at least link to here (Australia). Never assume. Well, that’s a bit simplistic, I’m still confident there were progressive music performance practices going on in Australia at that time, it’s just a matter of finding a record of such activity – not easy. I’ve found a couple of mentions of some pretty interesting stuff going on in the music hall scene but what I was looking for was performance that regarded itself as something more serious than light entertainment. So, after panicking about that dead end for a while and trying to think of people I could interview under what seemed at the time pretty oppressive university ethics guidelines, I came to Plan B.

Plan B

…was to look at pre-war ‘experimental’ music practice in Australia in general. I defined experimental (and still do) as musical activity which seeks to extend or transform an existing music tradition either by the exploration of new musical materials, of new methods of composition or improvisation, of new technologies, or of new or novel instrumental and performance techniques. It didn’t take too long for it to become apparent that this was a ridiculously huge topic for an Honous thesis, although I did get a fair way into researching it, far enough to know there’s very little work done in the area and that I should probably return to it in later studies. I did spend a fair bit of time looking into Grainger’s work and ideas, and I’ve cooked up some fun toys that refer to them in Max/MSP, but more about that later. I did have a lot of fun checking out the Grainger Museum’s collection of instruments and artefacts thanks to their curator Astrid Britt Krautschneider, and I’ll be using ideas from that experience in work coming soon.

So that idea got pushed through a sieve and as I had gathered a fairly significant amount of information on a couple of very interesting characters in Australian experimental music I came to…

Plan F

Not strictly alphabetical but that’s how I referred to it with my supervisor. My current and final game plan is to look at two early Australian experimentalists – Elsie Hamilton and Jack Ellitt, and compare them to later, more well known composers who used similar ideas. Their ideas? Hamilton collaborated extensively with Kathleen Schlesinger, an early advocate for and writer on just intonation. Schlesinger devised a system of modes based on equal divisions of a string, theorising that this would have been the first way people would have approached tuning an instrument and was thus a more ‘pure’ principle for pitch choice/organisation than equal temperament. I’m paraphrasing and generalising massively here but she has a very big book on the subject [The Greek Aulos] which is hard to summarise in a sentence. Anyway, Schlesinger’s system captured the imagination of Hamilton and she went on to use it extensively in her own work and became something of spokesperson for it. Jack Ellitt was an early experimenter with tape collage, apparently using optical sound-on-film technology prior to the advent of magnetic audio tape, and was a collaborator with experimental film maker Len Lye for a number of years. The people I chose for comparison were Harry Partch and Karlheinz Stockhausen. Partch because he cites the work of Schlesinger in his book Genesis of a Music and analyses her system in depth, and Stockhausen because of an anecdote (which has since proven to be more urban myth) that he was aware of Ellitt’s pioneering work and attempted to make contact with the then reclusive Ellitt some time in the late 70s / early 80s.

So, that’s what I’m working on.

Information on Elsie Hamilton and Kathleen Schlesinger can be found on Brian Lee’s website nakedlight.co.uk

Thanks are due to Clinton Green for his help with information about Jack Ellitt, you can visit his website here shamefilemusic.com/clinton

If anyone out there in internet world has information about Hamilton or Ellitt and would like to share it, I’d be very appreciative.