This week I had the opportunity to present at the 3-Minute Thesis competition, during the Interventions & Intersections Humanities and Communication Arts conference at the Parramatta campus of Western Sydney University. For the uninitiated, this is a competition initiated by the University of Queensland, now adopted internationally, where doctoral students present an overview of their entire doctoral research in just three minutes. True. This early career researcher was calm and collected until it dawned that perhaps I hadn’t covered all the requirements, like the significance of the research, key results and outcomes, avoiding jargon and academic-speak and having a clear, logical sequence – was it logical? Or even vaguely interesting to people? And in my attempts to prune every last word and syllable down to the absolute quintessence of the research, would it even be coherent?
As it turned out, my fears were unfounded – the presentation romped in at a comfortable 2 minutes and 50 seconds, I only stumbled once (and recovered) and fellow researchers were interested and wanted to know more. A few were still a little confused by what I was investigating, which given the elusive nature of the research (aesthetic experiences of spatio-temporal suspension in popular music) is perhaps not entirely surprising, but I was quietly pleased with how it all went. Ultimately, the aim of the competition is to provide PhD students with a way to explain in everyday language the nature of our research and its relevance, and not in the often opaque jargon of our respective disciplines. I’ve had a hard time to trying to explain what ‘affect’ is to people and how it works, never mind suspended experience itself. Have a look at this and see if you can make sense of what I’m talking about (and yes, it really only took three minutes):
How many people here could say they’ve had experiences of music where they’d been so immersed that they’d lost sense of space and time? Or music that was so absorbing that it conjured an alternate space in your mind, like an imaginary world?
When I was young, this was my experience, perhaps when the radio or television was on in the background or hearing music in another room; my mind would drift into another reality. What I’m talking about here is a state conducive to subconscious thought, like a gateway into imagination. I see this as similar to hypnagogia, just before we drift off to sleep and our imagination starts to roam. So, how exactly does this happen? Are there particular sounds or features of music that trigger this? And how does the experience work, what is taking place in the brain for this to happen? This project focuses on this experience, what I call ‘spatio-temporal suspension’ and its application in aesthetics.
Current theory suggests that as very young children, our understanding of the world is formed by neurological waves of response to movement, called vitality affects. These ‘call and response’ patterns emerge in the interaction between mothers and babies and shape our aesthetic response to art or music later in life. As the neural pathways are still relatively undefined, there’s potential for overlap between the senses – this may be why certain sounds and music trigger visual associations, what Daniel Stern refers to as ‘cross-modal merging’ (2010, p. 42).
How we process sound and imagery is highly dependent on perception of movement – without it, it’s difficult to gauge a sense of scale, whether an object ‘affords’ interaction or might pose a danger. Gibson’s ecological approach (1986), like Stern’s, places emphasis on direct perception of movement before thought takes place, so anything that we see as transformed or altered from its usual ‘invariant’ state, gives us reason to pause, to examine it afresh. By applying this idea in music and art, we can observe that sounds or images in an abstracted form, like this photograph (indicate slide) could be perceived this way – the image is familiar but unspecified, and removed from its usual context we pay more attention to its aesthetic qualities. I suggest this is where we gain a foothold into imagination and subconscious thought, what Achtermann refers to as “constructs of the imagination” (2016, p. 92).
Recently I conducted experiments with participants viewing and listening to examples of abstracted video and music, using techniques to blur or disguise sounds and imagery. Almost all reported a feeling of immersion. However, although music examples generated imagery like flocks of birds, particles and shifting light patterns, only half of the respondents reported hearing something in the video examples. It appears that music employing abstraction has ability to tap into imaginative thought and gives insight into how aesthetic engagement occurs. For this reason, I believe it also has relevance for music creation, sound recording and music analysis. It will also inform the creation of a new multimedia installation, giving people opportunity to experience ‘suspension’ next year.
So, what do you think? Does it make sense, or do I have more work to do? Please let me know, I’m entirely open to suggestions or ways to tighten this up.