Affect in music and imagery


A still from Stan Brakhage’s experimental film Night Music (1983)

As it’s been a while since I last posted and 2016 is hurtling rapidly toward a close, I thought it might be timely to rattle off a quick missive, both to bring my thoughts into focus and audience up to date with what’s been happening in PhD land (as well as trying to get back into some serious writing again).

For those new to this blog, I made a late-career decision a few years back to go back to university, enrolling as what’s politely referred to as a ‘mature aged’ student. Despite being the oldest in my cohort at Western Sydney, I progressed from a Bachelor degree in music through a first-class honours year and jumped straight into a PhD in 2015. My honours year research was concerned with an ‘in-between’ state in music, a zone in which time appeared to be stretched out, elongated, even suspended altogether – I observed this state in various types of music (see previous posts) and eventually decided this may be related to liminal or ‘in-between’ stages in rites of passage, according Van Gennep, Turner, et al. (see Liminality: a state of ‘in-between’). Although the liminal stage is anthropologically based, the idea of the in-between zone, or an immersive experience where time appears suspended, has stayed with me. This in-between quality has popped up in a few other unexpected places – Michel Foucault’s heteretopias, or spaces that exist outside normal societal functioning, have some interesting parallels in regards to time, in creating “a space of illusion that exposes every real space… as still more illusory” (1986, p. 27). The Japanese concept of ma, or ‘negative space’ carries through a number of Asian philosophies, though in Japan is notable as “intervals of space and time that become meaningful only when filled with motion” (Chennette, 1985, p. 2). Even Csikszentmihalyi’s flow theory observes distortions of time when “one is actively involved in a task or performance” (1999, p. 381). For myself, my ‘in-between’ experiences often occur in creative pursuits, especially improvised experience in music performance or recording when one becomes ‘lost’ in the experience – Brian Eno has likened this state to ‘surfing’, when one surrenders to creativity and loss of ego, like surfers catching a wave and ‘riding’ the experience.

However, one crucial part of the puzzle was missing, and forms the basis of my current research – what about the visual aspect of the experience? My associations with the musical and auditory aspects of the ‘in-between’ quality are also intensely visual – I often ‘see’ flashes of light and colour, usually quite abstracted and diffuse, like trying to recall a distant memory. The closest I have seen to this has been some of the experimental films of Stan Brakhage, like Mothlight (1963) or Stellar (1993) in their ephemeral, flickering quality – this is a bit like the images that form in the stage of hypnagogia, before we drift off to sleep.  Trying to relate this quality to people (including my supervisors) has been challenging, and describing the experience even more so – this blog isn’t called Adventures in Sound and Vision for nothing! The visual associations I have are invariably brief and fleeting, but are nonetheless there, and part of the challenge of the research has been trying to discover the visual basis of the phenomenon and why it correlates with music so readily.

Fortunately, a new approach was suggested by one of my supervisors, and has little to do with philosophical approaches, moving more into the realms of perception and neuroscience. The idea of affect, or a primary neurological response to changes in an environment, particular lymovement, hold a great deal of promise for my research, not least that it has grounding in observable physical phenomena. Eric Shouse (2005) defines affect as “a non-conscious experience of intensity” or “the body’s way of preparing itself for action in a given circumstance by adding a… dimension of intensity to the quality of an experience” (para 5). Affect is our base, primary neurological response before any thought or signification takes place, before feeling and emotion: it “precedes will and consciousness” (para 9). Importantly, Shouse observes that “the power of affect lies in [it’s] “abstractivity” that makes it transmittable in ways that feelings and emotions are not” (para. 15) and in this respect has considerable relevance for our base physical responses to music.

Psychologist Daniel Stern (2010) observes the role of what he terms vitality affects in aesthetics, suggesting that we have been ‘attuned’ to aesthetic waveforms since birth – as infants we mirror previously learned movement and experience (p. 42). Notably, he observes that “cross-modal merging and synesthesias are initially more common in infancy and are in fact the norm” (p. 35). In the time-based arts especially, Stern observes the capacity of vitality affects to “elicit similar felt states regardless of what modality they arise from” (p. 76) providing opportunity for collaborations across art forms or “correspondences”:

“Correspondences” between art forms are necessarily created because of the meta-modal nature of vitality forms that assure a common ability to render similar, but not identical, experiences. The magic lies in pairing the similar with the “not exactly the same”. (p. 78)

This potential for correspondence across art forms suggests that a sensory pairing between moving imagery and auditory or musical isn’t entirely unreasonable, given the “meta-modality and potential speed of modulation” of vitality affects (p. 79). In the case of forms of music that construct ‘sound worlds’ like psychedelia and other immersive  music, I would suggest that the sound and musical phenomena experienced has correspondences in moving imagery. Stern also suggests “the dynamics of experience are revealed in all art forms because they speak the same meta-modal language of vitality forms with or without identifiable emotions” (p. 81) and in respect to music and moving imagery, this makes a great deal of sense as perception of movement in sound and visuals frequently appear to ‘mirror’ each other dynamically – how often do we see a music video that appears to relate the experience of the music without any obvious link to lyrics or narrative? When someone says they are moved by music, they may mean it, literally. Suffice to say, affect is front and foremost in my current investigations, although I feel I’m barely scratching the surface yet – there’s clearly more to investigate in this fascinating area.

More discoveries in the New Year – have a happy Christmas, see you in 2017.