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R. Murray Schafer's 1977 book The Soundscape is highly recommended; as Bernard Krause said on amazon.com: "the narrative still reads like a contemporary novel." Just as Patrick Suskind in Perfume sensitizes us to the world of smells we never knew existed, Schafer engulfs the reader with a wealth of sonic details (without filtering them through the mind of a maniac). Here are some political conclusions he reaches based on the book's careful study of aural history and geography:
The acoustic community eventually found itself in collision with the spatial community, as evidenced by numerous noise abatement by-laws. This conflict is also recorded in the decline of Christianity when the parish shrank under the bombardment of traffic noise, just as Islam waned when it became necessary to hang loudspeakers on the minarets, and the age of Goethe's humanism passed when the watchman's voice no longer reached all the inhabitants of the city-state of Weimar. [...]He is proposing to stand society on its ear (so to speak).
Modern man continues this retreat indoors to avoid the canceled environments of outdoor life. In the lo-fi soundscape of the contemporary megalopolis, acoustic definitions are harder to perceive. The sound output of the police siren (100+ dBA) may have surpassed the faltering voice of the church bell (80+ dBA), but such an attempt to produce a new order by sheer might is today proving anachronistic, as increased anomie and social disintregration prove. Today, when the slop and spawn of the megalopolis invite a multiplication of sonic jabberware, the task of the acoustic designer in sorting out the mess and placing society again in a humanistic framework is no less difficult than that of the urbanologist and planner, but it is equally necessary. The problem of redefining the acoustic community may involve the establishment of zoning regulations; but to limit it to this, as is common today, is to mistake the trajectories of the soundscape for the sight lines of the landscape. Only when the outsweep and interpenetration of sonic profiles is known and accepted as the operative reality will acoustic zoning rise to the level of an intelligent undertaking.
It seems appropriate to mention here a passage from Daniel Albright's book Untwisting the Serpent: Modernism in Music, Literature, and Other Arts, which also gets at the antagonism of the visual and aural worlds, less on the political side than the poetic:
In his remarkable centennial essay on Beethoven (1870), Wagner (partly following Schopenhauer) divided human experience into a light world--a domain defined by the eye, vigilant, alert, prosaic--and a sound world--a domain defined by the ear, inward-turned, unconscious, so far outside the boundaries of time and space as to permit telepathy and prophecy. [Lengthy Wagner quote omitted] Music then, is a sort of dreaming of the ear; an endless, subtly readjusting refinement of a shriek.
"Eye Music." This post will eventually get around to techno music, but let's start with Claude Debussy. It's almost a cliche of criticism to compare the French composer's shimmery tone clusters to Impressionist painting. Daniel Albright's book of comparative aesthetics, Untwisting the Serpent: Modernism in Music, Literature and the Other Arts, takes a 180 degree tack, disagreeing with an assertion by Ezra Pound back in the day that Debussy's music is "suggestive of colors, suggestive of visions." According to Albright,
[...] Debussy's music is typically an art of slight temporal adjustments, discursive, an artful series of instabilities; it seems visual only because of the peculiar evolution of the visual arts in Europe, from the notion that the primary act of drawing is the recognizable depiction of a finite object--as it is in most cultures--to the notion that the primary act of drawing is the recognizable depiction of the eyeball's whole visual field. In Western art, the space in which objects appear is often more vivid than the objects themselves: perspective drawing carefully poses and graduates the objects that it treats, to create the illusion that the artist is presenting everything that a certain angle of vision makes available. Debussy's works are like French impressionist painting--or like Renaissance chiaroscuro, for that matter--in that the mind tries to grasp fleeting visual phenomena from a puzzling density of events. But it is not Debussy who is visual, but Monet and Leonardo who are discursive, in that they require the spectator to apprehend slowly and work out over time the possibilities inherent in the painted surface.The above paragraph is bang-on, but now it starts to get confusing:
Truly visual music, it seems to me, is epigrammatic: music that operates by means of instantaneously grasped units, pieced together not according to progressive tonalities, not according to some standard template of evolution (the sonata-allegro, the fugue, the rondo, the three-part song), but according to any principle that can not be understood as discursive development. Music becomes visual simply by lacking musically comprehensible connections between its parts, and by having parts that permit rapid apprehension as elementary units. Certain older procedures of form, such as the rondo (a repetitive piece with a pattern of symmetrical digressions, according to a scheme such a ABACABA), can approach the condition of eye music, in that the listener is conscious of the phonic equivalent of charms tallied on a bracelet; and as A and B get shorter and shorter, and as the musical links between A and B grow more unsettled and hard to understand, the composition will increasingly lose any sense of temporal progression and flatten into eye music. [...]These paragraphs sum up an earlier discussion of the "hieroglyph" or the "epigram" in music, a self-contained sonic event usually but not necessarily paired with words or some onstage deed. Albright describes these melodies or moments as having visual-like properties within the larger continuum of the piece. He gives several examples: the "oracle tune" in The Magic Flute, musical cues for specific emotions in silent film, and the motifs of the medieval master songs in Wagner's Die Meistersinger. Regarding the latter, he writes: "The rules [of the master songs] are discursive, but the discourse is chopped into tough leathery chunks, so predictable that the ear stops straining to understand, simply waits for the next bit to fall in place. A musical composition that consists of stringing-together of cadences has no possibility of moving toward a goal, no possibility of genuine discursive development at all." So in the rondo example above, the development of self-contained, multi-note motifs over time remains musical until the ear can no longer sort out their "narrative" structure, at which point they become visual--mere blocks of notes being absorbed and compared. Later, in describing the collage of musical motifs in Stravinsky's Renard, he concludes:
[T]he Modernist taste for ocularity in music, for easily-apprehended pattern-units juxtaposed rather than developed, brought the principle of scissors construction [collage] to its highest level. It is remarkable how strongly this procedure in sound appeals to the visual imagination: when I hear Stravinsky, I often feel exactly as Pound felt hearing Stravinsky's Capriccio in 1935--that a kind of slide projection of the score starts to hover in front of the music: "I had the mirage of seeing the unknown score from the aural stimulae offered."I still have questions, though. How can you envision a score without hearing a relationship between its parts? How is it that charms on a bracelet are "apprehended" musically but not as an image? Earlier in the book, Albright observes that Gotthold Lessing's analysis of the Laoco÷n problem---a consideration of ways emotions are expressed in different media, specifically sculpture and literature--has limited use to us now because it is so embedded in the conventions and decorum of the 18th Century. Perhaps Albright chafes against similar limitations, by restricting his discussion to classical music, which is so form- and history-ridden. One yearns to see his analysis applied to more contemporary, fluid, amorphous arts, such as jazz, rock/blues, or (finally getting to the point) Detroit techno, with its simple but elusive sequences of notes announcing themselves and dropping out in a dense, continuous mosaic. Without reference to words or stage pictures, one can easily "see" techno's unknown score; if anything, the genre is all about that--rhythm provides the sensual pleasure and structure the intellectual lift. As with many of Albright's examples, electronic dance loops lack the discursive complexity of a sonata or symphony; they switch on and off or change texture, conjuring a score like a Mondrian checkerboard, something Albright also invokes in his consideration of Stravinsky.
Daniel Albright, a teacher of mine at UVa who is now at Harvard, returns often to the theme of "elementary particles" in poetry, music, and art--the charged, irreducible core memes that make art art. His writing has much to say to current digital practice, I think, where pixels, vectors, and 1s and 0s have become a philosophical as well as technological obsession. Quantum Poetics: Yeats, Pound, Eliot, and the Science of Modernism mercifully sidesteps New Age-y Tao of Physics murk in favor of single-minded focus on the wave/particle duality, dividing the poets into one or the other function. Thus, Yeats surfed The Wave with the all-encompassing poetic cosmology of A Vision, the image- and vortex-seeking Pound was a particle man, and Eliot's perverse blend of urban anomie and squishy undersea metaphors seemed All Wave until the appearance of "Christ particles" in his late work. Untwisting the Serpent: Modernism in Music, Literature, and the Other Arts begins with a consideration of the Laoco÷n problem--Lessing's formulation of the "rules" for expressing ideas in different media--and then zeroes in on peak moments in musical theatre where sounds, speech, and scenery achieve a synaesthetic unity. Albright takes most of his examples from the early 20th Century and avoids recent artforms based on newfangled gadgets, but many concerns of the Modernists--the interest in science, the exploration of psyches shaped by a technological society, the centrifugal splitting of aesthetics--have never been more relevant. (Which is not to say we have to throw out poMo critiques of those agendas.) Fair warning and/or full disclosure: In this blog and future writings I'll be leaning heavily on my old Prof's work as I stumble around trying to make sense of what's going on with new media, electronic music and tech-based gallery art.
From Daniel Albright's Quantum Poetics (Cambridge University Press 1997), p. 191:
For several years before writing Hugh Selwyn Mauberly, Ezra Pound had earned money by writing criticism, with varying degrees of good humor and bitterness. Much of this criticism was published pseudonymously:I am writing regularly for [Orage, editor of The New Age] as B. H. Dias and Wm. Atheling. The former on art, where E. P. would be hopelessly suspect of Vorticist Propaganda, and the elderly Atheling on music because no one writer should publicly appear to know about everything. These wind shields are to be kept secret. Dias only puts over as much as the N[ew].A[ge]. reader is supposed to be able to stand. (Ezra Pound and the Visual Arts, p. xxii )Clearly these personae are conventional critics generated by a general subtraction of talent, vigor, and idiosyncrasy. (Though of course they still managed to give a good deal of offense--particularly because of Atheling's invectives against the piano.) Atheling is elderly, while Dias is--at least on a few occasions--a fuddy-duddy horrified by certain advanced Modernist ideas, such as those of Ezra Pound. As Dias wrote to The New Age:There is no use arguing with these people. There is no use trying to make them understand [that]...sculpture...is an art of form, whose language is form... Mr. Ezra Pound attempted some such explanation in your paper years ago; it only produced a riot. But, then, he expressed himself very badly and in the jargon of his horrible vortex. (Ezra Pound and the Visual Arts, p. 36 )