The nature of creativity

A video still from States of Suspensionwww.statesofsuspension.com

During this week I had the opportunity to be interviewed by Anne Blair-Hickman for ArtsBytes through BMCAN (the Blue Mountains Creative Artist Network) broadcast on our very own Radio Blue Mountains 89.1 later this week. During the conversation, we discussed artistic practice and the role of imagination in creativity, which lead me to think further about how we engage in creative practice and naturally, why we make art in the first place.

As a kid growing up in the foothills of Adelaide in South Australia, I was fortunate to have a wonderfully stimulating environment to draw upon for creativity. As well as the rolling vineyards and green paddocks bordered with eucalypts of my semi-rural upbringing, visits to my grandparents’ house in suburban Dover Gardens, where as kids we would trek to beach in summer to play in the cool sand beneath tiled pavilions, would all inform my world view. In retrospect it was an idyllic time, and these experiences played further into my creative pursuits. As a solitary child I alternated between reality and an imaginary world, drawing, painting and creating scenarios with imagined friends. As a child of the late 1960s I was exposed to fantastic artwork and music, and was aware of events of the time such as space exploration, the moon landing in 1969, 2001: A Space Odyssey – this all seemed fantastic and somewhat unreal and played further into imagined worlds and places.

Later in my teens I became interested in graphic design and illustration and learnt photography and movie-making through my uncle, using Super 8 cameras to make hand-drawn and stop-motion animations and using still cameras to create time-lapse images. I enjoyed darkroom photography, what could be done with images within the darkroom environment, using filters or pushing film stock to obtain high contrast, grainy imagery. I was interested especially in effects of photography such as motion blur and using depth of field to create background imagery that was out of focus, ambiguous. These abstract effects I found fascinating as they captured a sense of time and space that would lend easily to imagination, a place one step removed from reality. Perhaps through this spatial and temporal interest in imagery I found a similar home in music. I became interested in recordings that created environments, especially how music in combination with sound could impart a sense of place and time. For me, this was apparent in mid-60s popular music with the advent of psychedelia and the manipulation and juxtaposition of sound environments to impart unreal or dream-like spaces, i.e. the Beatles Tomorrow Never Knows and Strawberry Fields Forever or early Pink Floyd songs such as See Emily Play. I was interested in how these recordings appeared to do strange things with space and time, bringing the listener into hypnagogic, dream-like worlds. And by logical extension, I eventually wanted to discover how these spaces were created. Much of my early experimentation with sound and music was done on borrowed reel-to-reel tape recorders, bouncing tracks between them and seeing what I could achieve by changing tape speed, playing audio backwards and using feedback and echo. I loved making and recording music, but I equally loved creating weird and wonderful places in sound.

This interest in alternate spaces in music and imagery stayed with me through much of my creative life and was revisited in detail during my honours year at Western Sydney University in 2014, culminating in doctoral studies that I have only just finalised this year. My research aimed to discover how the suspension of time and space is perceived and experienced through music, sound and imagery and looks into some of the aesthetic reasons why this may occur, further suggesting how this experience is conducive to imagination and creativity. What has emerged through this research is the idea of art not only serving as a mode of expression, but a desire to recreate alternate spaces or worlds, however fleetingly. Lord of The Rings author J.R.R. Tolkien has written of the idea of what he terms “secondary worlds” or the capability of the human mind to create “a Secondary World sufficiently convincing to allow Secondary Belief…the assignment of reality to something known rationally to be improbable or impossible”. By “forming mental pictures of things not actually present”, Tolkien considered art to be “the operative link between Imagination and the final result, Sub-creation”. Academic Mark Achtermann considers that the sound and music work of Brian Eno in many respects fulfils many of Tolkien’s criteria for a ‘secondary world’. The “arresting strangeness” of Eno’s music and its capacity to suggest “an environmental re-creation as much as a music composition” goes some way to explaining my own fascination with sound and light environments and their capacity to elicit places that could exist in the imagination.

What my own work sets out to achieve is not a prescriptive rendition of an auditory or visual environment, but rather provide the means or circumstances for it to occur. When a creative use of light and sound come together in a way that is imitative or recreates the condition of an environment that might exist, it stands to reason that this would elicit a similar bodily and affective response. I suggest there is a perceptual ‘sweet spot’ that emerges along a spectrum between recognisable, easily identified phenomena, and at the other end, that which is completely unrecognisable and abstract. Where a recognisable phenomenon starts to leave the dominion of reality and head into an unknown realm, imagination is, in a sense, given permission to follow. This invitation to imagination I believe is an aspect of what I call suspended experience, as a way for our creative selves to step briefly into a world of imaginative thought and recognising this a safe place to do so. Brian Eno has said effectively the same thing about the purpose of art:

Every art object is the manifestation of a point in cultural space….But every art object is also an invitation to anybody else to experience that point in cultural space. It’s a way of saying to people ‘here’s a little world, here’s a world of propositions, about how things could be. What do you feel like when you experience that?’ I think this is what happens when you look at something or listen to something. For a little while you surrender to the terms of a different world. (Eno, 2007)

I would suggest that as we become older, our natural curiosity and sense of wonder of the world often diminishes, perhaps through an increasing knowledge or cynicism of the world or reliance on technologies to provide new aesthetic experiences. So how do we maintain a sense of interest into new experiences, to maintain that sense of wonder about our craft and about the world? I believe that the idea of suspension taps into that sense of wonder, about the creative impulse and the magic that allows us to see everyday occurrences in a fresh light. It attempts to understand in a physiological and neurological sense the factors that engender a sense of wonder in the world, uncovering the underlying principles, patterns and correspondences with our experience of the natural world that provide inspiration and meaning in our lives. The cyclical phenomena in nature we often take for granted hides a potential, a fascination with processes already at hand. The abstraction already taking place in natural phenomena is perhaps reflected in particular types of music and imagery, especially that which is not conclusive, leaving an open area of possibility, of engagement in the process. The suspended approach leaves this open—there is no requirement to conclude, rather an invitation to engage in an ongoing process, to take part in the flow of life itself.

The interview will be broadcast on ArtHouse on RBM 89.1 at 6pm Thursday, or you can hear it online at Talking Artz at https://talkingart.com.au/podcasts/ later in the week.

Vapour Trails

This is another video experiment into perceptions of time and space in music and moving imagery. This was interesting to see how many ways I could take some innocuous imagery of clouds and treat them in a way where perception could be challenged. Clouds are already conducive to imaginative thought (remember the game many of us played as children, trying to identify something in the tufts of condensed vapour). Hopefully the new soundtrack, in which I already had in mind arcs of vapour trails criss-crossing the sky, enhances this experience – enjoy.

Submarine Bells

This is a piece of music I’ve recently set vision to (rather than the other way around) as an example of spatio-temporal ‘suspension’, both musically and visually. It took somewhat longer than I would have anticipated (rendering video in Adobe Premier seem to take eons with the effects I’ve been applying) but I’m quite pleased with the results – hope you enjoy it too.


<p><a href=”https://vimeo.com/341466746″>Suspension 6</a> from <a href=”https://vimeo.com/immed8″>immed8</a&gt; on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>

3-Minute Thesis

Time-is-MoneyThis 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.

Time & space research participants required

Clouds

Do you ever lose a sense of time and place when experiencing music or art? Or do you see imagery when listening to music or hear music when looking at art? 

I am currently seeking students and individuals to participate in a study researching perceptions of space and time in popular music and imagery, and in particular, whether we may experience a diminishing awareness of time and space, or feeling of ‘suspension’, in certain instances of music and art. It also looks at whether there may be similar experiences of suspension that exist between visuals and music in film, music videos and multimedia. Participants will be asked to listen and view excerpts of music and video footage and asked a series of questions in relation to their perception of time and spatial awareness during exposure to this footage. Participants may also be asked to perform a creative task, e.g. drawing, during exposure to music to ascertain their perceptions of time and spatial awareness while performing a creative task. The tests will take approximately 1 hour, and all participants will receive a $20 gift card for their time. Although musical ability is not required, an interest in the research area would be beneficial.

Research location: Western Sydney University, Kingswood campus, School of Humanities and Communication Arts Building C (music department), Room C.G.04

Research date: Friday June 9, 10.30am

If you would like to take part in this research, please contact Peter at p.long@westernsydney.edu.au

Affect in music and imagery

stan-brakhage-night-music-1983

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.

Sounds Of In-Between – the album

The cover artwork for Sounds Of In-Between

Just a short post to announce that ‘Sounds Of In-Between’ (formerly ‘The Sound of In-Between) has been officially released and is available via BandCamp here. If you’re at all concerned about how artists receive funds through recording sales, BandCamp is about the most direct route from listener to creator, as the artist determines what to charge and there is an option for the buyer to pay more for an album if they wish – it’s a good system. The album will also be made available on iTunes and the usual digital channels in the coming month, but expect to pay more for it there.

And for those who haven’t heard the album yet, or haven’t been following the many blog posts over the preceeding months – expect to be transported in a contemplative, mesmerising and captivating exploration of sound, from gentle ukuleles and reverberant drums, iridescent bells and distant voices to water-filled woks and acid-streaked guitars. It’s quite a trip, and you’ll be pleasantly surprised you took it. 🙂

Keep an eye for further posts as I explore liminality further in cinema and music video. If anyone has their own ideas on what they’d consider to be states of suspension in other forms of music or visual art, please feel free to drop me a line via the contact form on this site. I’ll also be working on visual interpretations (i.e. music video) of the pieces from the album in the coming months.

The phenomenological aspect of sound and vision

Lunar Eclipse by Keith Burns - courtesy NASA

Lunar Eclipse by Keith Burns – courtesy NASA

In the interim from my last entry, a great deal has happened – the submission of of my honours research (which you can now read here), graduation from the B.Mus. at UWS, a university medal and now the commencement of a PhD, which is something I’d never dreamed of undertaking a few years ago. Really though, this all seems to be a continuation of a very long journey I’ve been pursuing, unconsciously sometimes, over many years. Trying to tie down this ‘in-between’ quality in music has actually led me back to where it all started in the first place, the nexus point where music and the visual seem to coalesce in this suspended state that I’m so fascinated with.

Although the main interest has always been with music and sound, I have a similar relationship to visual phenomena that appears to share the same ‘in-between’ quality, which I’ve documented in previous posts. Arnold Van Gennup, who first posited the idea of a liminal state in Rites de Passage (1908), noted that “the universe itself is governed by a periodicity which has repercussions on human life with stages of transition” (Van Gennep, 1960, p. 3). Although Van Gennup’s observations were based on human behaviour in rites of passage, it is the idea of liminality as a “nameless, spatio-temporally dislocated and socially unstructured” state (Thomassen, 2006, p. 322) that I believe has application for both music and imagery. Victor Turner expanded on Van Gennup’s ideas in the 1960s “to include both a personal and collective liminality, temporal as well as spatial” (Thomassen, p. 322) and in this respect Turner’s definition of liminality relates to both time and space. Van Gennup acknowledged that ritual often accompanied “celestial changes, such as the changeover from month to month (ceremonies of the full moon), from season to season (festivals related to solstices and equinoxes), and from year to year (New Years Day)” (Van Gennup, 1960, p.4) and it’s often in these transitional periods that I observe liminal occurences at play, i.e. the transition periods between day and night, namely twilight and dawn, when the quality of light and colour are changed so markedly from the pure tones of daylight. I seem to derive this sense of ‘in-between’ particularly in these periods, and use this quality in creating both my sense of a ‘liminal aesthetic’ in my work and attempting to bring about a ‘liminal state’ in the creative approach.

Phenomenological approaches to sound and vision

In my honours year research, I investigated what I believed to be liminality in popular music, especially music that sidestepped conventional notions of time. Looking at elements such as drone, repetition, metrical ambiguity and different forms of harmony all informed the practical component of the research. The examples I used were from my background in popular music, in particular 1960s pop and psychedelia, the ambient work of Brian Eno in the 1970s and the ‘shoegaze’ movement in the late 1980s, although I recognised precursors in the music of Debussy, Stravinsky and Copland, and in the minimalist work of Steve Reich, Terry Riley and Phillip Glass. I also acknowledged traditional musics such as the Indian classical music tradition (which was a direct influence on psychedelia and several of the minimalist composers), Georgian and Bulgarian vocal music and Scottish and Irish traditional music, all of which use drone and metrical interplay.

What many of these had in common, to my ears, was an interest in what Eric Tamm refers to as “verticality” in music, in this case referring to the music of Brian Eno (Tamm, 1995, p. 4). I read this as a focus on phenomenological aspects of sound in music, rather than a linear, narrative-driven unfolding of events still very prevalent in western music, especially popular music. I also observed that literature concerned with this kind of music often uses terminology with visual connotations, for example, Sheila Whitely’s description of the ‘codes’ evident in psychedelia (my italics):

the manipulation of timbre (blurred, bright, overlapping), upward movement (and its comparison with psychedelic flight), harmonies (lurching, oscillating), rhythms (regular, irregular), relationships (foreground, background) and collages which provide a point of comparison with more conventionalised, i.e., normal treatment (Whitely, 1992, p. 4).

The use of visual art terminology to describe music is nothing new, but it’s a reminder that in both music and visual arts there is a phenomenological aspect to how we see and hear music and art, and I believe the approach to be useful in the analysis of the visual and auditory aspects of my project, as it applies readily to both. Phenomenology, a philosophy founded by Edmund Husserl and expanded upon by Heidegger in the first half of the 20th century, is explained rather nicely by Wayne Bowman:

As a philosophical approach to music, the phenomenological method typically resists efforts to explain what music is ‘about’, resembles, symbolises, or is useful for, preferring instead to describe as richly as possible what music itself says, how music is experienced… its concern is not so much to establish absolute or universal truths, but to help recover the richness and fullness of the experientially given. (Bowman, 1998, p. 255)

Although Bowman is referring here to the musical experience, phenomenology I find is readily transferable to the visual, and is a very useful approach in creative practice.  F. Joseph Smith states that “phenomenological philosophy is an attempt at openness and true listening. Openness in this case means not just open eyes and sight but open ears and hearing” (Smith, 1979, p. 17).  Don Ihde also observes the use of visual metaphor in describing the musical experience and notes that “the intimate relation between animation, motion and sound lies at the threshold of the inner secret of auditory experience, the timefulness of sound” (Ihde, 1976, p. 82). Mikel Dufrenne explains that both temporal and spatial factors are present in all artforms, in that time and space “become correlative and even continuous, so that the space of every aesthetic object is temporalized and its time spatialized” (Dufrenne, p. 241). Clearly, a phenomenological-based approach has some advantages in tackling an area that has both auditory and visual dimensions and deals specifically with time and our apprehension of it. Bennett Reimer also observes the idea of a “lived or virtual time” opposed to “real or clock time” in the music listening experience, and this idea of the suspension of time is fundamental to my perception of the liminal experience, both in the work and creative practice.

Evidently there’s much interest in the subject of liminality, judging from the amount of hits I receive through academia.com – there may be something in this after all. More on other theoretical approaches as I work through theories on perception – watch this space.

References

Bowman, W. D. (1998). Philosophical perspectives on music. New York, NY, U.S.A.: Oxford University Press.

Dufrenne, M. (1973). The phenomenology of aesthetic experience. Northwestern University Press.

Ihde, D. (1979). Technics and Praxis. Dordrecht. Reidel.

Reimer, B., & Wright, J. E. (1992). On the nature of musical experience.

Smith, F. J. (1979). The Experiencing of Musical Sound: prelude to a phenomenology of music (Vol. 1). Routledge.

Thomassen, B. (2006). Liminality. In The encyclopedia of social theory. Ed. Harrington, A. Routledge, Taylor and Francis: Abingdon, UK.

Turner, V. W. (1967). The forest of symbols: Aspects of Ndembu ritual (Vol. 101). Cornell University Press.

Thomassen, B. (2006). Liminality. In The encyclopedia of social theory. Ed. Harrington, A. Routledge, Taylor and Francis: Abingdon, UK.

Van Gennep, A. (1960). The rites of passage. University of Chicago Press: Chicago.

The Sound of In-Between

IMG_1285aAs you could probably surmise by lack of posts of late, it’s been busy; the UWS honours submission date has been looming and it’s been all go, go go. Thankfully, I’m almost across the finish line, and the investigation into liminality in music is all but complete, for now anyway. It’s been an interesting journey, and one that continues, as music tends to do – I’m fortunate to have a chosen a pursuit that never ceases to surprise me, there’s always something new about music to discover, and this project has been no exception.

If you haven’t been following my posts so far, I’d invite you to go back a few and see where I’ve been coming from – and for those who have and are curious to hear the results of all this liminal investigation, I’ve posted the final mix on Soundcloud. If you like music that’s a little ambient, uses space, repetition, drone and alternate forms of harmony, this may be right up your alley.

Once I’ve submitted, I’ll post a summary of what I’ve discovered – better let the examiners have a look first. But for now, enjoy some explorations of liminality – happy listening.

Liminality: a state of ‘in-between’

IMG_1221

I’ve recently been floating around a new concept that may very well tie all of my creative work together, and in the scheme of things makes a whole lot of sense in relation to the music I’ve been trying to create, the ‘spectral’ quality that I’ve been seeking

The concept of liminality (drawing from Greek work limin, meaning ‘a threshold’) describes a state of being that is between things, inter-medial, in transition, suspended… and in many respects, this is very good fit for the quality I’ve been looking for. Although the term itself is drawn from anthropology and refers to a transitional state in rituals and rites of passage, between casting off a previous identity and adopting a new one, it has applications in many areas, and for myself this applies especially to the time-based aspects of my work. Whereas I had been preoccupied with the methods used to produce the ‘spectral’ quality I was observing, namely the use of timbre, drone, repetition, quartal harmony approaches etc., what I’d been after all along was a suspension of time in music; being in ‘a moment’ so speak, and trying to make that last as long as feasibly possible. Liminality perhaps defines this, as an overarching concept or idea, which up until now I didn’t have a name for. It makes a lot of sense – quartal harmony is really an in-between approach to composition, in comparison to more conventional tertial harmony approaches, as I’d been searching for an suspended quality in harmony that didn’t feel a need for resolution. Emphasising timbral aspects in composition over harmonising a melody is perhaps another example of liminality, looking at composition with a more ‘vertical’ approach to sound. Using repetition to focus upon the phenomena of sound (a phenomenological approach) I believe also emphasises this quality, and my recent use of polyrhythms to further disrupt a sense of absolute metre in a piece also contributes to a sense of being ‘in-between’, the potential in what may be, a kind of ‘becoming’… the moment between sleep and waking, the nexus between day and night (twilight), the midpoint between conscious thought and daydreaming…. well, that’s pretty much what I’ve been after all along, really.

IMG_1256What I’ve created thus far has been, in a way, meditative, but not in the conventional sense that ‘meditation music’ usually is, replete with washy synthesisers, distant vocals and pan pipes. I’ve avoided using synthesisers up until this point, which I suspect is something to do with not using ‘real’ instruments, it feels a little like cheating. But really, I’ve been disguising the nature of the instruments or sounds that I’ve been using all along, so in this sense I seem to be striving for a state of unreality. I’ve been unsure up until this point whether to take this all into the realm of the fantastic or surreal, which is what synths seem to do, but working with natural sounds and timbres and seeing what I can do to enhance, or perhaps extend, the normal listening experience of these instruments seems to be my primary working method, so…? Perhaps this project is more about creating a mood, or ambience, or perhaps a state of listening – a place in-between the real and the unreal aspects of sound, taking something that you already recognise and then bending or twisting it, taking it into another realm or world. It seem there’s no point in starting with a sound that’s fantastic to begin with, because there’s no semiotic meaning or reference one can ascribe to it – it appears one has to take an existing, recognisable sound first, establish its significance and then take it on a journey elsewhere. Which is what I seem to have been doing, perhaps inadvertently…

I believe this is it, the quality I’ve been looking for – it’s the nexus, the liminal state between the everyday and the other… and I suspect it’s something I’ve been looking for in music for quite a long time.