Beating composer’s block

Writing

Teaching your craft to someone else is a great privilege. Apart from the pleasure of sharing knowledge, I’ve found teaching offers many opportunities to learn and reflect on my creative practice, and question how and why I do the things I do.

Recently a student asked me what to do when he gets stuck with writer’s block. Much like people who write words, people who write notes often get frozen by the void of the blank page, and this student’s question gave me an opportunity to think about what I do (or should do) in this situation.

My solution was to come up with a series of questions for a composer to ask themselves, to help begin narrowing down options, and set up parameters to work with. Most of these are things I ask myself when getting ready to write a piece, consciously or subconsciously, most of the time.

Here they are:

  1. Who is going to play this?
    • what instruments are at you disposal
    • what is possible on that instrument
    • what is comfortable on that instrument
    • what is the playing skill level of the player/s (real or anticipated)
    • what is the reading skill level of the player/s
    • what are the special skills of the player/s
  2. Who is going to listen to this?
    • what are the expectations of the listeners you’re anticipating
    • do you want to meet or challenge those expectations
    • where/by what medium are they going to be listening
    • what are the special features of that venue/medium
    • what are the non-musical goals of the piece (commercial, conceptual, functional, therapeutic, etc.)
  3. What are the temporal parameters you’re working with?
    • how long will it be
    • what tempo/s will it have
    • what time signature/s will it be in
    • how many bars long will it be (bpm x minutes / beats in the bar)
    • what rhythmic feel will it have
    • what rhythmic notation will you use
    • what formal structure will you use (if conventional, which one)
    • what are your rhythmic ideas
  4. What are the pitch parameters you’re working with?
    • what pitch organisation system are you using (Western tonality, serial, etc.)
    • what scale/s are you using (or rows, sets, etc.)
    • what kind of harmony are you using (triads, 7th chords, extended chords, etc.)
    • what are your melodic ideas
    • what are your harmonic ideas
    • what simple variations (“exact repetitions” as Schoenberg puts it) can you make of your melodic ideas (retrograde, inversion, retrograde-inversion, chromatic transposition, diatonic transposition, augmentation, diminution)
    • what further variations (“modified repetitions”) can you make of your melodic ideas (rhythmic, intervallic, harmonic, melodic)
    • what simple variations can you make of your harmonic ideas (inversions, voicings)
    • what further variations can you make of your harmonic ideas (extensions, substitutions)
  5. What musical idea/s will be the focus of this piece?
    • this could be the rhythmic, melodic, harmonic ideas mentioned above, or something else
    • what will happen to the focal idea/s over the course of the piece
Advertisements

I’m here to listen 2

Writing

TELEMATIC CAFE

Image from the work by Camille Robinson. I'm Here to Listen. Camille Robinson. I’m Here to Listen, 2014

When any kind of communication technology is used – letters, telephones, email, etc. – there is the expectation that there will be a person to be at the other end of that communication listening to what we have to say, and that in turn our partner in communication will expect us to listen to them.

When we use communication technologies that give a sense of immediacy – telephones, Skype – we commit an act of trust in that technology and the network of which it forms a part, and submit to the belief that the person heard and/or seen is present, willing, and able to communicate with us in real time. We trust that the network will act as a faithful extension of the senses, and show us something genuine; and faithfully represent ourselves, and show us to others as we are. When…

View original post 356 more words

PhD completion seminar speech

Events, Writing

This is the text of my PhD completion seminar presentation I gave last week. It gives a finer grained description of the project than the exhibition essay I posted recently, and it has videos!

Listening Art: making sonic artworks that critique listening

Camille Robinson

1. INTRODUCTION

Hi, I’m Camille Robinson. I’m a sound artist and musician, and a completing PhD candidate with Production at the VCA. Today I’m going to talk about my PhD project “Listening Art: making sonic artworks that critique listening”.

The project began with a problem: By my observation, people who make sonic art [music or any other art form using sound] and people who listen to it take for granted that how a person listens, affects what an artwork is perceived to be, through their inclusion, exclusion, and interpretation of the sonic events that constitute a given work. As sonic art can only be experienced through listening, and depends on people’s listening abilities to be experienced as intended, I found this odd.

In response to this problem, I set out to explore the possibility of making sonic artworks that take criticality of listening as their primary concern, with the aim of making artworks structured as critical discourses on listening, and for those artworks to give rise to critical reflection on listening by their listeners.

Phrased as a question, I summarized my approach as:
“How can sonic artworks be made that form critiques of listening?”

  • “How can”
    (by what methods can)
  • “sonic artworks”
    (any artworks using sound as their primary medium)
  • “be made”
    (self explanatory)
  • “that form”
    (that are structured as from the artist’s perspective, and give rise to from the listener’s perspective)
  • “critiques of”
    (critical discussions around)
  • “listening”
    (the act of perceiving sound)

This isn’t a problem peculiar to sonic art. Visual art is also affected by and dependent on its perception, however by my reckoning visual art has a stronger tradition of interrogating the act of looking.

A pivotal example for me in clarifying my ideas was David Thomas’ Amid History 2 (Thomas, 2006).

It doesn’t come up well as a projection, but what it is, is a large format photographic print with this rectangle painted onto it in a glossy reflective finish. So, the rectangle shows me a reflection of me looking at the artwork, while also censoring the image behind it, in doing so forcing me to think about my act of looking, and how I look at a seemingly innocuous tourist snap of the Brandenburg Gate, and if I think about it, the complex history of the Gate that I might otherwise filter out.

I’m not a visual artist, but from my perspective it seems critical engagement with perception is probably a more obvious problem to approach in visual art, because so much of it simulates the act of looking at something. Representational art shows me a constructed version of things I recognize from my own perceptions of the world, and I can compare the two. But representation is something music for example doesn’t normally do; and maybe the lack of representation accounts for why criticality of perception is not as commonplace in sonic practices. In any case for me Thomas’ artwork proved that the act of perceiving can be simply and elegantly brought into relief by the object of perceiving. I just needed to find appropriate means to achieve this with sound.

2. LITERATURE

A minute ago I defined listening as “the act of perceiving sound”, this is fine as a simple working definition. But for my project, I wanted to find something more thorough, and to try to understand how listening works; and find clues as to how I could go about making artworks that critique it. I began my review of the literature with a couple of disciplines whose main focus is auditory perception.

On the natural science side of things I looked at psychoacoustics and auditory neuroscience. They determine and describe the qualities and limits of what the human auditory system is capable of sensing. What it’s possible to hear more than the act of listening; they don’t do much discussion of what the mind does with sound once it’s heard, so this didn’t turn out to be a great place to find a more information on listening, although their work can be read as enabling critical reflection on listening by demonstrating what it’s physically possible to listen to (Fastl et al., 2007, Schnupp et al., 2011).

On the human science side of things I looked at listening studies, which investigates listening by proposing and testing models of its cognitive structure, and what behaviors make a person a good listener. What surprised me was that listening studies doesn’t have a fixed definition of listening; a core part of their research is constantly interrogating and redefining listening’s meanings and associations. So on the plus side, I had found an example of a discipline that critiqued listening as one of its main activities, but its methods weren’t relevant to making art, and it showed me my object of research was in a perpetual state of being defined, and maybe indefinable (Glenn, 1989, Bodie et al., 2008).

With this knowledge, I looked further afield to other research that touched on listening.

A pivotal text for me in two ways was Don Ihde’s Listening and Voice: Phenomenologies of Sound. First, by doing a phenomenology of listening, critically examining it by describing in detail the act of doing it, it demonstrated it was possible to elicit critical reflection on listening by leading someone – in this case a reader – through an experience of listening. Second, his application of phenomenology to listening in different situations – listening to environmental sound, to language, to music, to recorded sound – demonstrated that listening differs depending on what a person is listening-to (Ihde, 2007).

This idea of variations or facets of listening became an invaluable tool when conceptualizing my art, and as a critical lens it allowed me to see that most of the research on listening was actually focused on particular types of listening, not listening-in-general.

The aforementioned listening studies deals mostly with listening-to language, with its tests of comprehension and retention of information transmitted via words.

So do writers like Jean-Luc Nancy in Listening who sees listening as a tool for critiquing philosophy and its habits of argument, and Gemma Corradi Fiumara in The other side of language: a philosophy of listening who argues listening’s agency in language, and necessity for language’s existence (Nancy, 2007, Corradi Fiumara, 1990).

Then you have writers like Jacques Attali in Noise: the political economy of music who uses the history of the act of listening-to music as an analogue for political, social, and economic change; Theodor Adorno in Essays on Music who worries over the emergence of recording and broadcast technologies, jazz, popular music, and the culture industry, and their effect on the act of listening-to music; Christopher Small in Musicking: the meanings of performing and listening like Fiumara with language, argues that music can only exist in conjunction with listening; and of course Ethnomusicologists for example Feld and Seeger, describe myriad culturally constructed variations of the concept and practice of music and the act of listening-to it (Attali, 1985, Adorno, 2002, Small, 1998).

These writers demonstrate many ways to mount an argument as to the properties, applications, and variations of listening-to a type of object (language, music), with words, but little indication of how to do so with listening-in-general, without words. So Ihde remained my best example of a critique of listening-in-general so far, and for ideas for doing so without words I looked to pre-existing work in sonic art forms.

Given my previous education as a composer, I began with western art music. Music is of course concerned with the act of listening-to music, and if you look at histories of it like the Paul Griffiths books, its various technical and stylistic innovations – a series of challenges to what constitutes music – are also challenges to what constitutes the act of listening-to it (Griffiths, 1985, Griffiths, 2010).

As critiques of music these innovations were sometimes implicit, sometimes explicit. A work using an altered set of musical conventions might have been presented as is, or it might have been accompanied by a manifesto of some kind. As critiques of listening-to music they were most often implicit, with the odd exception like Satie and his furniture music that was for not listening to, and Varese and Cage and their calls for all sound to be listened-to as music. Either way, this reading of musical history showed that the values embedded in the act of listening-to sonic art can be changed by that art (Herve, 2013, Bernard, 1987, Cage, 1961).

I also looked to other sonic art forms to see if this effect carried beyond music.

The sonic art forms that emerged in the latter half of the 20th century for the most part branched from music, and as such simply their existence can be read as a series of critiques of the values embedded in listening to it. But beyond this reactionary aspect, they all also proposed fundamentally different relationships to sound for artists and listeners, new types of listening-to sound aesthetically.

With musique concrete, Pierre Schaeffer proposed a new mode of reduced or acousmatic listening-to its collaged and manipulated sounds, disregarding their identities or representational meanings; with acoustic ecology R. Murray Schafer proposed an ethically and aesthetically motivated form of listening-to environmental sounds; with Deep Listening Pauline Oliveros developed listening as a meditative-creative practice concerned with attending to all sound equally; with the concept of Sonic Art Trevor Wishart argued for an aesthetic mode of listening that could encompass any sound or value system; and sound art, and its variant conceptual sound art proposed by Seth Kim Cohen, emerged as a unification of many of these other ideas with practices from the gallery setting, that focuses on listening to sound’s formal properties as an art form, and in the case of Kim-Cohen’s theorization of it, its ability to convey meaning beyond itself (Schaeffer, 2004, Schafer, 1994, Oliveros, 2005, Wishart, 1996, Labelle, 2005, Voegelin, 2010, Kim-Cohen, 2009).

Like the majority of the written literature, even with their proposed new forms of listening, these art forms focused primarily on the object of listening – sound – as the subject of their artworks, whereas I was still looking to make the act of perceiving sound the subject of my art. Their critiques of the act of listening aesthetically were powerful, but to follow directly in their mold I would have had to devise a new art form for each critique I wanted to make, which seemed excessive.

With the knowledge that leading a person through an experience of listening could elicit critical reflection on listening; that there are a multitude of variations or facets of listening-to sound; that the act of listening-to art can be changed by that art; and that this is not limited to a type of object or system such as music, I moved on to develop my own methodology for structuring artworks around critiques of listening, and determining whether they elicited critical reflection on listening by listeners.

3. METHODOLOGY

A research methodology consists of a set of assumptions as to what constitutes a valid approach and appropriate methods for the production of knowledge, predicated on assumptions as to what constitutes knowledge of value. A creative methodology consists of a set of assumptions as to what constitutes a valid approach and appropriate methods for the production of art, predicated on assumptions as to what constitutes art of value.

By definition of this project’s aims, its art of value needed to:

  • Consist of sound
  • That engages in critical argumentation on the subject of listening, and
  • Results in critical appraisal of listening by listeners.

The first criterion required that the artworks take sound as their primary medium, and comes as no surprise.

The second criterion required that I devise a rationale by which from my perspective as an artist I could justify the artworks as being structured as critiques of listening.

The third criterion required that I devise a method by which I could determine whether the artworks did foster critical reflection on listening by listeners.

To determine how I would justify the works as structured as critiques of listening, I sought to determine what kind of critique they would enact.

My aim of using a sonic artwork – an organized experience of listening – to critique listening is reminiscent of the concept of immanent critique, a form of argument that uses criteria of assessment drawn from within a system to test the assumptions implicit in that system. For example using laws from a legal system to argue that the system itself endorses or commits crimes, or using the grammar of a language to argue that the language itself undermines its own ability to represent meaning (Sonderegger and Boer, 2011).

To make my artworks as immanent critiques of listening, I had to identify the system of judgment that listening uses.

Listening judges and interprets sound; the system of criteria it uses to perform that assessment is often theorized using the concept of schemata. A schema is a set of expectations of what characteristics constitute a physical or mental object, its meaning, and actions relevant to it in a given context (Rumelhart, 1980).

Listening’s schemata judge and interpret sound based on expectations of its content, and form or behaviour. For example I know what the sound of a clap is because I have a schema for it:

  • In terms of content it has a characteristic timbre,
  • In terms of form or behaviour it has a rapid attack and decay, and is made by a person striking their hands together.

Schemata are self-evaluating systems, people learn more about things over time, and the schemata for the things they know self-evaluate comparing their existing criteria for recognition of an object with the exhibited characteristics of a recognised object. If an object matches a schema enough to be recognised but also has characteristics the schema doesn’t account for, the schema may be elaborated on. For example over time I’ve learned the timbre and loudness of a clap varies depending on the size of a person’s hands and how they’re struck together.

Not only sounds are recognised and interpreted with schemata, so are ideas and acts, like listening. To critique listening using the system of assessment it uses itself, what I needed to do with my art was stimulate the listener’s schema for listening itself to self-evaluate, by getting them to recognise an act of listening, and then show that it also had characteristics their schema for listening had not initially accounted for.

To achieve this I returned to the idea of variations or facets of listening. I reasoned that if variations of listening-to sound could be invoked in the course of an artwork and be made to compete or contradict each other, then evaluation of listening could be led to occur.

This resolves the second criterion for art of value, and leads back to the third:

  • Results in critical appraisal of listening by listeners.

For this I had to select an appropriate method for gathering and distilling relevant knowledge of value to determine whether my art fostered critical reflection on listening.

As the problem to be resolved concerned listener’s experiences of listening to artworks, the knowledge of most value was that produced by listeners in experiencing the artworks. This knowledge could be referred to as a form of praxical knowledge, being a product of the practice of listening, however as I was going to be dealing with listeners’ interpretations of an experience, and whether these interpretations contained criticality of listening, I felt it was better described as abductive knowledge (Ihde, 1978, Barrett and Bolt, 2010, Bird, 2005, Josephson and Josephson, 1994).

Abductive knowledge is knowledge that occupies a place among an array of potentially valid truths inferred from given stimuli. For example a doctor’s diagnosis based on a set of presenting symptoms, or a listener’s interpretation of experiencing an artwork.

To gather and distil this abductive knowledge of experiencing the artworks, I turned to the methods of Heuristic Research as set out in the book of the same name by Clark Moustakas. Due to its focus on portraying the phenomenon under investigation as experienced, as opposed to methods that privilege a second order structure or essence of experience, I felt this the most appropriate approach to adopt (Moustakas, 1990).

Another reason for my adopting the Heuristic Research approach was that its typical process seemed easily adaptable to the creative process.

Its stages are:

  1. Formulating the question – isolating a research problem
  2. Preparing to collect data – devising data eliciting tools, interview materials
  3. Collecting data – conducting interviews/collect responses
  4. Data Interpretation – reviewing the data and distilling insights
  5. Writing the manuscript – publishing the data as a textual synthesis

I equated these with:

  1. Formulating the idea/intent – isolating a creative problem
  2. Sketching – devising a draft or prototype version of a work
  3. Showing – showing a draft and observing how it is experienced
  4. Redrafting – using insights from showings to refine the work
  5. Presenting the final artwork – publicly performing or exhibiting a work

I integrated Heuristic Research’s data collection and interpretation techniques into the showing and redrafting stages of my creative process, turning the showings of draft versions to colleagues and acquaintances into a structured interview and data evaluation process.

The questions used to collect data on experiencing the works were:

  • How would you define listening?
  • What was your experience of the piece?
  • What were you listening to?
  • How do you think you were listening?
  • Did you notice anything unusual about what you were listening to?
  • Did you notice anything unusual about how you were listening?
  • Do you think you were listening the whole time?
  • If you weren’t listening what were you doing?
  • Do you think what you were doing when you weren’t listening was part of your experience of the piece?
  • What do you think was the meaning of the piece?

The responses to these questions allowed me to test the works’ success in:

  • Incurring the intended structure of experience as a sequence of intended types of listening-to the sonic content,

and their success in resulting in critical appraisal of listening by listeners by:

  • Evoking generalized critical reflection on listening
  • Evoking critical reflection on listening along the intended core concepts of a given artwork
  • Evoking reflection on listening matching artist’s interpretation of the core concepts

4. WORKS/DATA COLLECTION & ANALYSIS

The test of evoking generalized critical reflection on listening is best addressed by discussing the works as a group, as the relevant data is drawn from looking at each participant’s responses to the works as a set, and comparing statements between interviews. The works did consistently evoke generalized critical reflection on listening. Throughout each interview the participants continually commented on what listening is and means independent of the question at hand, in several cases commenting on it before the interviews questions began, and responses to How would you define listening?” which demanded critical reflection on listening, were clearly influenced by the participants’ interpretation of each work’s conceptual focus, changing in depth and emphasis with each one.

The rest of the tests are best addressed on a work-by-work basis.

I’ll begin with an excerpt from I’m here to listen (Robinson, 2014a)

It consists of a phone handset, a set of instructions, and a button which when pressed triggers playback of a recording through the handset, and a speaker concealed in an adjacent room: of a phone ringing, a person answering the phone and saying “I’m here to listen”, listening quietly for about three and a half minutes, and then hanging up.

Putting the listener in an ambiguous situation using the phone, the piece asks them to reflect on the dual role of listener/speaker, the performance of listening, and the sounds that signify it, with my position being that the roles of perceiver and producer of sound are inseparable, and for a person to be known to listen they must produce sound to signify it.

To achieve this aim, I intended the structure of the experience lead the listener through reciprocal, and solitary types of listening, triggered by belief in the existence of someone listening on the phone, and dissolution of that belief.

With this work, the structure of the majority of participants’ experiences was as intended, with the exception of one who disregarded the problem of belief in the person on the phone, and embraced the opportunity to speak unconditionally whether or not someone was there.

In all cases the participants’ responses referred to the intended key concepts of listener and speaker behaviour, and on this level it was successful.

As for communication of my particular take on these concepts, listener responses aligned with it some of the time, but less than half.

Given its overall success in achieving its intent, the changes made to this work in redrafting were minor. In the interest of prolonging the initial reciprocal listening state in the exhibited version, the computer used for audio playback, and display of the instructions in the draft was concealed, to de-emphasize it as a likely source of sound.

This is an excerpt of Sound, proof (Robinson, 2014d)

It consists of a series of small cardboard boxes arranged in a line, with labels describing their contents, real or nominal; the first box (box with the sound of its own making) containing a device playing back an audio recording of the box’s construction.

Beginning with an homage to Robert Morris’ Box with the sound of its own making, then its soundproof counterpart, and a series of others, the piece asks the listener to reflect on the acts of listening to heard and to imagined sounds, with my position being that listening can occur independent of the presence of sound.

To achieve this, I intended that the structure of the experience lead the listener through sensation directed, and imagination directed types of listening, triggered by attending to the sound of the first box, and responding to the cues for listening given by the boxes’ labels.

For the majority of listeners the structure of experiencing this piece was as intended. There were two exceptions, both of whom recognised they were expected to listen to their imagination when engaging with the latter boxes, but rejected the idea of imagined sound as listened to.

In the majority of cases, the participants’ discussion of the piece referred to the intended key concepts of sensed or real sound, and imagining, remembering, or listening for sound.

The majority of listeners’ interpretations of the work’s meaning or purpose were also strikingly similar to my take on the key concepts of the work.

Given the success of this work in achieving its intent, with even the listeners it failed to engage fully recognising its aims, no changes were made to this piece in redrafting.

This is an excerpt from Over hear (Robinson, 2014c)

It consists of a recorded composition for three guitars, played through headphones and one freestanding speaker in its draft version, and headphones and three freestanding speakers in the exhibited version. The participant puts on the headphones and presses a button to trigger playback of the composition, which shifts in emphasis between the virtual space of the headphones and the physical space of the room.

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 auditory perception of space, with my position being that listener attention has an editorial effect on the sounds that are heard, but also on how space is perceived and inhabited.

To achieve this, I intended that the structure of the experience lead the listener through attentionally and spatially focused, and attentionally and spatially flexible types of listening, triggered by attending to the headphones, and being distracted by and redistributing attention to the freestanding speaker/s, and the physical and sonic characteristics of the space they were situated in.

For six of the eleven participants, the structure of their experiences was as intended. Four participants only experienced the initial intended type of listening and were unaware the freestanding speaker was a sound source, and one participant only experienced the latter intended type of listening, being aware of the speaker from the outset.

The piece was only moderately successful in eliciting discussion referring to its key concepts. Five participants referred to spatial perception, and three of those five referred to it in relation to attention, whereas four participants focused on the work’s musical dimension to the exclusion of most other features.

As for communication of my take on the key concepts, only one participant’s comments explicitly resembled my interpretation.

Given its general lack of success in achieving its intent, in redrafting the materials of this piece were spatially reorganised in the hope of better eliciting awareness of the headphones and freestanding speaker(s) as distinct sources of sound, and as signifying distinct [virtual and real] spaces. The three channels of the composition were relocated from the headphones and one freestanding speaker to three freestanding speakers, and I repurposed the headphones to play back a recording of the ambient sound of the exhibition space, with the intent of making the properties of the real space an earlier object of attention, and placing it in more direct dialogue with the virtual by virtualising a version of it.

This is an excerpt from Memory Walk (Robinson, 2014b)

It consists of a recursively structured video and binaural audio recording of the walk to and away from the location of the showing of the piece.

Presenting variations on a sound walk – a curated walk whereby a listener’s attention is directed to the sounds of a given environment – already unknowingly experienced, the piece invites the listener to compare heard and remembered sounds, to use this comparison to imagine future sounds, and reflect on the interweaving of sensation, memory, and imagination, with my position being that these are inseparable components of each other.

To achieve this, I intended that the structure of the experience lead the listener through passive, and temporally aware types of listening, triggered by the presentation of a mundane stimulus, and its recursion, variation, and play on the listener’s memory of their experiences in and coming to the showing location.

The structure of all the participants’ experiences of this work was as intended.

As for eliciting discussion of its key concepts of memory, imagination, and time, imagination wasn’t explicitly discussed by any of the participants, and memory and differentiating sounds across time, together were only discussed in six of the interviews. In this regard I considered the success of this work indeterminate.

None of the participants’ discussions of the work’s meaning or purpose explicitly resembled my take on its key concepts. However despite its limitations in communicating a fixed conceptual meaning, all of the participants found this artwork intensely meaningful, and its success in this regard led me to set aside my own interpretation of it, and avoid altering it significantly in redrafting. The only difference between the draft and exhibited versions is their customisation to their given locations.

5. OUTCOMES

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 those experiences and the content of listeners’ interpretations of the works’ conceptual content is more or less variable, depending on the specific artwork in question.

Original contributions knowledge include the original artworks and their rationale as critiques of listening, the interpretation of developments in the western art music tradition as critiques of listening-to it, and my adaptation of heuristic research to the creative process. All of these may be subjects for elaboration in future research, as may exploration of the conditions for the variation of experiential structure and conceptual interpretation in listening to artworks such as those of this project.

Thank you for listening.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

ADORNO, T. W. 2002. Essays on music, Berkeley, Calif., University of California Press.

ATTALI, J. 1985. Noise: the political economy of music, Manchester, Manchester University Press.

BARRETT, E. & BOLT, B. 2010. Practice as Research: Approaches to Creative Arts Enquiry, London, I.B.Tauris.

BERNARD, J. W. 1987. The music of Edgard Varèse, New Haven, Yale University Press.

BIRD, A. 2005. Abductive Knowledge and Holmesian Inference. In: HAWTHORNE, J. & GENDLER, T. (eds.) Oxford Studies in Epistemology. Oxford: Clarendon 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.

CAGE, J. 1961. Silence: lectures and writings, Middletown, Conn., Wesleyan University 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.

GRIFFITHS, P. 1985. Modern music : a concise history from Debussy to Boulez, New York, N.Y., Thames and Hudson.

GRIFFITHS, P. 2010. Modern music and after, New York, Oxford University Press.

HERVE, V. 2013. Chapter 1. Furniture Music: A Musical Irresolution by Erik Satie. Triple Entendre : Furniture Music, Muzak, Muzak-Plus. Champaign: University of Illinois Press.

IHDE, D. 1978. Technics and Praxis, Dordrecht, Springer Netherlands.

IHDE, D. 2007. Listening and voice : phenomenologies of sound, Albany, State University of New York Press.

JOSEPHSON, J. R. & JOSEPHSON, S. G. (eds.) 1994. Abductive inference : computation, philosophy, technology, Cambridge ; New York: Cambridge University Press.

KIM-COHEN, S. 2009. In the blink of an ear : towards a non-cochlear sonic art, New York, Continuum.

LABELLE, B. 2005. Background noise : sound art and the resonance of place. University of London.

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.

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.

SCHAEFFER, P. 2004. Acousmatics. In: COX, C. & WARNER, D. (eds.) Audio culture : readings in modern music. New York: Continuum.

SCHAFER, R. M. 1994. The soundscape : our sonic environment and the tuning of the world, Rochester, Vt., Destiny Books ; [United States] : Distributed to the book trade in the United States by American International Distribution Corp.

SCHNUPP, J., NELKEN, I. & KING, A. 2011. Auditory neuroscience : making sense of sound, 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.

THOMAS, D. 2006. Amid history 2 (Large version) National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne: National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne

Purchased, Victorian Foundation for Living Australian Artists, 2007

© David Thomas.

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.

 

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

Temporal process models

Writing

Often it can be difficult to come up with a structure for a piece of music (or dance, film, other time based arts) that doesn’t conform to conventional models. That’s not to say that convention is bad per se, but it’s good to be able to choose how you’re going to do something, rather than say “oh, I’m writing something classical, it has to be a sonata or a rondo or a theme and variations”.
Below is a list of processes that occur in time, which processes like the elaboration of sound or movement ideas might follow, to help you generate the form for a piece, or to help you add some kind of structural subtext to other formal ideas of your own, or that are pre-existing.

Storytelling
Learning
Building
Decaying
Growing
Evolving
Remembering
Creating
Speaking
Ageing
Travelling
Sex
Assembling
Unwinding
Hardening
Softening
Moving
Stopping
Heating
Cooling
Revealing
Concealing
Pursuing
Leading
Turning
Metamorphosing
Expanding
Contracting
Accelerating
Decelerating
Crescendo
Decresendo
Changing
Repeating
Reproducing
Gestating

Thoughts on Practice and Technique

Writing

One of the reasons I began a degree in composition, aside from loving all the stuff that goes on under the hood of music, was that playing guitar was becoming a difficult and consistently painful thing to do and I wanted to ensure that whatever happened I’d still be able to make music.

By the end of my first year of undergrad I pretty much had to give the guitar up altogether. Luckily (?) I was able to get away with this as performance on my instrument wasn’t a front and centre concern for a composition degree however it was a far from ideal situation.

I had no one to blame but myself, I’d put myself in this situation through bad habits. My practice had been lazy, inefficient, bullish.

I took a year off guitar and in 2009 began a series of attempts to repair my ability to play. I went to a physio for a while, took a class in Alexander Technique at uni, began practicing yoga again, and between the skills I picked up I cobbled together a rehab program for myself.

Within a year I was able to play basic rock guitar a couple of times a week without significant pain, and I’ve been very carefully re-developing my guitar technique since then. In the last couple of months I’ve been able to resume practicing regularly, if I’m sensible with what I do I can practice every day.

What’s the point of me writing all this?

I’d just like to share a few lessons I’ve learned the hard way about playing instruments and about practice, and hopefully whoever reads this might avoid a couple of pitfalls.

So…

Playing an instrument should be easy

That’s not to say it’s not complicated, or challenging. That’s the art of practice, learning to make progressively complicated tasks easy to execute. Amazing instrumentalists, Hendrix, Menuhin, whoever, play complicated music with ease. For you this might be a quick process or it might be a slow process, it depends. You might be lucky and slip naturally into a really efficient technique, or you might be really good at analysing problems of technique and be able to consciously self correct relatively quickly. If this doesn’t happen for you it doesn’t matter, enjoy what you are able to do with ease and look for small ways to refine and improve what you do. The worst thing you can do is force the matter.

For example a lot of people (myself included) get hung up on how fast they can play. A natural thing to do if an increase in speed doesn’t come easily is to tense up and try to force your hands to move faster. This will work for a while. However if the only way you know how to maintain this ability is through tension and force then you WILL burn out sooner or later, that’s guaranteed.

In this example the route to increased speed is smaller movements, with less energy expended.

Pain is your body telling you you’re doing something wrong

If any part of your technique is causing you pain stop, rest it and try something else. If it’s a pain that’s persistent for minutes or more after you stop, rest it for a day and try something else. If it’s a pain that doesn’t go away at all after you stop (this will happen after years of bad practice) rest it for as long as it takes for the pain to ease, in some cases this could be weeks or months. You need to rest anything causing you pain. You have pain for a very good reason, it’s built into your body at a very primal level and it’s a vital survival tool. Anyone who tells you to “play through” pain doesn’t know what they’re talking about, and they’re on the path to disaster themselves. Follow at your peril.

The only instance in which pain is not something to take too seriously is when you first begin playing an instrument and get some stinging on your skin where you need to form a callus. Even in this instance you need to allow the skin sufficient time to toughen up.

Practice how you intend to perform

A lot of people will adopt a different physical posture, tone, volume level, etc. practicing and performing. If you perform playing standing up and with a broad dynamic range then practice playing standing up with a broad dynamic range. If you practice and perform differently then you’re learning to play in two different ways, you’re essentially learning two instruments, doubling your workload. It will take you longer to improve, and any technical gains that you achieve in your practice may take a while to translate across to performance or may not translate at all.

Only play if you really want to

This one may seem a little silly, practicing an instrument takes a lot of energy and time, but I’ve met a lot of people studying an instrument at university level, who are really good at what they do, who play an instrument…because they play an instrument. They get to the end of it and find themselves at a loose end, and not really wanting to play any more. If this is you, save your time and energy for something you really care about. You’re a very capable, intelligent person, and you could be doing something far more satisfying with your time. Inertia is a pretty tawdry form of motivation, find a better reason, or find something better to do with yourself. And don’t beat yourself up over the effort you’ve already put into it, who knows you may come back to it some day with a new perspective, and if you do your insight will probably make it easier and more rewarding.

Musical musings

Writing

My phD research is coming along well at the moment, and I thought it might be nice to share some ideas here that are arising from it. I suppose generally speaking at the moment I’m looking at how I define the ideas that underpin what I do…composing music.

So,what is…

Sound?

Vibration

Hearing?

The apprehension of vibration and its effects by the body. The traditional assumption is that this occurs only through the ears, but this could/should be extended to include any other organs sensitive to vibration or to its effects; the skin, proprioceptive apparatus, the eyes.

Listening?

Attentiveness to vibration and its effects.

An interpretive act relating vibration based stimuli to memory and knowledge of physical phenomena, methods and means of communication, context, sense of time, etc.

Music?

The cognitive result of listening.

Composition?

The act of shaping or contextualising sounds.

Pre-emptive listening, based on a knowledge of vibration based stimuli, their effects and associations for the listener.

The Location of Music?

The body of the listener.

The specifics of how I describe each of these ideas to myself varies every day, however the general theme stays the same, that notions of hearing/listening are traditionally over-focussed on the ear and exclude much of what goes on in situations where people engage with music. My aim, for the moment at least, is to address the question of how to explore composing for this “expanded listening”.

I’m aware that these definitions are very broad, but I have a hunch they need to be in the present world. For instance language could easily come under my definition of music, which I don’t think is such a bad thing, there have been lots of attempts to wrestle music into linguistic theoretical frameworks and it doesn’t fit, it’s too vague. Whereas I think there’s a good chance language could be a music, or at least it can’t hurt to think of it in that way.

Stay tuned…