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 – there may be something in this after all. More on other theoretical approaches as I work through theories on perception – watch this space.


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 joys of looping

IMG_0151aAs I’ve noted in previous posts, a core aspect of my honours year project is based upon the idea of extending ‘vertical’ aspects of sound (borrowing from Eric Tamm’s observations of Brian Eno’s approach to music creation), insofar as using timbre and texture as a source for music creation, rather than a linear, time-based approach. Although our perception of music in the broadest sense is usually based upon a series of sound events occurring over a given period, I believe it’s entirely possible to create the impression of time being ‘suspended’ – as I’ve previously suggested, the use of quartal harmony, drone and the use of repetition all go some way to creating a feeling of suspension in music. What I haven’t discussed in great detail up until this point is my working methodology, which is integral to this process and which I have only arrived at through through a degree of trial and error, from trying out several different compositional approaches and software applications.

What was impressed upon me early in this investigation was that in exploring timbral qualities, the use of notation was perhaps not advisable, insofar as detailing musical ideas – it would be difficult for example, to notate a guitar with a number of audio effects applied, such as reverb, reverse echo and phasing. As I’m looking equally at the quality of sound as well as pitch material in music composition, or more specifically a phenomenological approach to sound, using conventional notation seems cumbersome and limited. What became apparent in adopting this approach to sound, that not only would a recording technology necessarily be my prime compositional tool, but preferably also one that somehow negated, or at least relegated a sense of time passing. As readers would be aware, most modern recording software such as Avid Pro Tools and Apple’s Logic and Garageband employ a window-based interface with a time line, usually scrolling from left to right – it’s aimed principally at recording engineers, and although simplified for the domestic market (as in Garageband) these interfaces are both visibly crowded and make the user constantly aware of a time-based approach, in keeping with conventional recording practices. There are numerous editing tools, controllers, menus and plug-ins competing for your attention, and what I often found was once an idea was recorded (after the rigmarole of plugging in iLoks, connecting an audio interface and booting up the software), there was a tendency to try to make the recording ‘sound better’, by using effects plug-ins, or editing a sound with various tools, or employing time-stretching or pitch-correction – the sound could not be accepted for its own intrinsic quality and had to ‘fixed’ somehow. This tendency to ‘fiddle’ also tended to kill off any creativity fairly quickly and I found myself mostly frustrated and irritated by the process. Although an experienced Pro Tools user for the last ten years, I was finding that a different approach to composition required a different type of technology, and I was in a way yearning for the simplicity of the tape-based recording methods I had use back in my art-school days. Enter Loopy…

The Loopy interface

The Loopy interface

Loopy is an iPad and iPhone based app that employs a simple interface consisting of a series of circular ‘loops’ – to record a sound, you simply tap one of the circles, and when you’re finished, simply tap again – the waveform of the sound appears in the circle as it records, with each loop ending up looking somewhat like a peppermint Life Saver. Being loop-based, the recorded sound simply cycles around and around – it can be as short or as long as you wish. Many musicians use loop stations to lay down repetitive elements in music, such as rhythm tracks and simple harmonic structures that exploit the synchronised features of the application, usually so users can improvise a performance over the top, and the loop station effectively operates as a self-made backing track for performance. However, the most attractive element to me of Loopy apart from its visual interface and simplicity, is that it can also record unsynchronised – this feature alone is worth its weight in gold. You may wonder at this point why on earth I would wish to unsynchronise each track – surely I would wish each track to be in time with each other? Well, no…

Part of the attraction of the Brian Eno approach to music creation is allowing for music elements to evolve gradually, almost imperceptibly over time. Eno uses a number of methods to bring this about, but principle among these is the tape-based approach that he employed with Robert Fripp in the making of No Pussyfooting (1973), developed further on Discreet Music (1975), his initial foray into ‘ambient’ music. Utilising two tape recorders, Eno created a tape delay system that repeated elements at varied lengths of time, continuously overlapping and reconfiguring in myriad combinations to create random generations of the original source material. Although repetitive in nature, no one point in a piece is exactly like another; musical interest is generated by placing emphasis on both the repeated sound itself and upon the phenomena it arouses, holding the listener in a kind of suspension: the effect can be mesmerising. This ‘generative’ approach would be developed by Eno in the ensuing years in a number of forms, but I have have used this as both a source of inspiration and a method to use in conjunction with Loopy, which in many ways is already set up for this purpose.

As Loopy is inherently designed to repeat elements over and over, and by de-synchronising its tracks, it allows me to create music in a way that approaches Eno’s methodology. By using a combination of short and longer loops, and by using quartal harmony as a template, I’m finally beginning to bring about some of the ideas that have existed only in my head up until this point. Using a combination of ‘found’ environmental sounds, mixed with instrumental improvisations based on quartal motifs, I’m beginning to find the ephemeral, timeless and ‘spectral’ quality that I’ve been looking for. Using Loopy in conjunction with Audiobus, which allows you to ‘chain’ sound generating devices and effects together, I can introduce audio effects such as reverberation, echo and phasing to introduce new textural possibilities and further remove sounds from their original context, building on a phenomenological approach. The simplified interface allows me to start recording virtually straight away – I can use the internal microphone or plug into an audio interface via the lightning connector, and be ready to go within seconds, without all the visual clutter and myriad buttons and choices of Pro Tools or Logic.

For sheer spontaneity, it’s a magical application to have, and for this particular project, improvisation and spontaneity are paramount to the creative process. This is not a project of contemplation, though the process itself has been: this is a project born of creating a mood or feeling on a particular morning or afternoon and working with the materials I have available to me at any given time. And all this on an iPad, with very little external equipment  – it can be done with as little as the iPad itself and a pair of headphones.

I’ll be posting a number of my efforts as I go, but you can hear some of the initial experiments here: these are all works in progress, but I’m pleasantly surprised by what I’ve come up with so far. All are based on quartal four note clusters, hence the titles:

Enjoy… more discoveries as they come to hand.


Crickets that sing hymns?

This is a fascinating program, showing what can be revealed in audio when we slow something down to extreme amounts:

I’m highly interested in this, as it relates to an area I’m intending to explore in my forthcoming honours year, looking at spectral nature of sound and the notes ‘in-between’, using timbre and tone colour as a basis for composition. This loosely follows Eric Tamm’s observations of Brian Eno’s music and his ‘vertical’ nature of constructing sound, but also takes into account the compositional techniques of the French spectral school of composition, in particular Gerard Grisey and Tristan Murail. It’s a bit like extreme macro photography, looking at the detail of say, a blade of grass, and finding more and more beauty and detail the closer you go.

Curiouser and curiouser… more soon.