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.

Harmonics, fourths and fifths

Fourths and fifths - a spectral analysisI’m having several different ideas of where to go with this honours year spectral music project at present, and my thoughts have been a little scrambled. From where I was coming from originally, and trying to use a compositional method that related everything back to the harmonic series, I’ve been feeling a little boxed in – to compose completely in this style throws up two challenges:

  • as pointed out in a recent paper, ‘The European Folk Scale’ (Hirt, 2013), if I’m to truly use the series as a basis for composition, notes ideally need to follow the order of harmonics as they evolve, i.e. in the key of C, it would follow C1, C2, G2, C3, E3, G3, Bb4, C4, D4, E4 etc. Any transposition down or up an octave is pointless, because there was no ‘octave’ equivalence on early instruments, one had to work with natural overtones inherent in the instrument.
  • if I’m to be true to this method, I would really need to start writing in just intonation; apart from being particularly limited (as a guitarist and keyboard player, tuning to just intonation is more than a little awkward, especially on piano) and essentially limits you to only one key.

In a way I feel I’m confining myself, yet a core part of my reasoning behind this idea of using the harmonic series is to get back to some basic harmonic ‘truths’. When I first started investigating using the harmonic series as a compositional method, it was pointed out that I should look to the French Spectral School of composition, as the main proponents, Gerard Grisey and Tristan Murail, were chiefly concerned with representing the often very detailed information contained within Fourier transforms (a spectral analysis) of musical instrument tones. The results were, to my mind, interesting as they represented, in great detail, the partials evident within say, a trombone note (e.g. Partiels). Although initially very striking, I generally found these pieces both difficult to listen to (the upper partials being represented in the woodwind section of the orchestra became increasingly dissonant) and exceedingly complex: an analysis by François Rose, Introduction to the Pitch Organisation of French Spectral Music, was enough to convince me that this was not a path a wished to pursue. It was getting further and further away from where I wanted to go, which was more a preoccupation with tone colour and the compositional possibilities offered by the harmonic series, rather than a need to replicate it.

One thought that occurred was that I didn’t have to necessarily represent every harmonic. Some time back I decided that everything past, say, the 12th harmonic I could disregard, as the overtones were becoming so tightly packed that their usefulness became questionable, not to mention fairly unpleasant to the ears – these were also beginning to get out of the range of what could be physically ‘played’ (on guitar, it’s very hard to obtain natural harmonics past the 12th partial anyway). In this way, it occurred to me that it was perhaps more the phenomena of the series I was interested in, and my focus shifted to timbre, and tone colour. It also seemed to be particular tone colours I was interested in, in particular metallic sounds – electric guitars and string instruments, pianos, chimes, bells, even xylophones and marimbas. It was also the ring of overtones that got me, the sound one gets with open fifths and fourths, open ninth chords, which are stacked intervals of a fifth anyway, and… perhaps it was the intervals themselves contributing to this phenomena?

I tried some recording experiments with open guitar tuning back on March 5, which were interesting – apart from experimenting with slide rubbed back and forth across the strings in the manner of a violin bow (which brought about some natural harmonics) I also tuned the guitar to open fifths, in the manner of an Indian classical drone instrument such as a tanpura – although the original intention was to exploit the use of slide to find harmonic tones naturally, I gradually moved to using the slackened G string (now tuned to an E3) as a highly nuanced melodic string, with the other strings acting as sympathetic drones. Not unusually, this sounded somewhat like a sitar, and also not unnaturally considering the tuning, I started to come up with melodic lines that emulated sitar ragas, especially with the use of a flattened 5th and microtonal bends. I noted that if I abstained from using the 4th degree of the scale and stayed with notes contained within the harmonic series in order of their appearance, the resultant sound was very much like Indian classical music. Which was not exactly what I had in mind, but led to another idea…

On a hunch, today I re-listened to a number of pieces that I felt encapsulated to some extent the quality I was after. Aaron Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man and Debussy’s La Cathédrale Engloutie, both struck me as exemplifying what I was actually hearing in my head, without knowing exactly why. Once I examined the scores for both, it started to become more apparent. Both pieces make extensive use of open 4th and 5ths, often consecutively. This gives, to my ears anyway, a kind of bell-like, ringing quality, and emphasises overtones without having to actually play them. I noticed this with my Indian-esque noodlings too; the buzz of overtones was quite apparent with the sympathetic open strings picking up on what was played on the ‘melody’ string. But the difference of course with both the Copland and Debussy pieces, were neither were chained to one key: both modulated several times, and both strikingly so, with some faraway excursions to distant keys. Evidently, it was the quality of the intervallic nature of the pieces that was attractive to me; once this particular penny had dropped, it became quite apparent in music where I had perceived this quality before: in the Georgian male vocal tradition, in some Bulgarian music, in fact a whole range of popular music which had started this investigation in the first place – the vocal harmonies of the Beatles and those that came after them, and in fact much of the Indian-influenced ‘raga-rock’ and psychedelia that appeared in the mid 1960s. Many of these musics employ the use of ‘stacked’ 4th and 5th intervals to produce a particular ringing kind of harmony, often against a common ‘drone’ tone which carries through a chord sequence – the result are chords that will often contain suspensions and a mix of sixths and ninths, often without the third degree of the scale, which lends them a floating, unresolved quality.

I suspect in some ways I have known this all along, and have in fact experimented with similar tonalities previously (see Grass, Desert, Earth and Air). But it has taken this long to confirm my thoughts, and I hadn’t realised the importance of the intervallic nature of the fifths and fourths – it also implies pentatonic modes (travelling by fifths/fourths eventually produces a pentatonic scale) and the cycle of fifths itself. So in a way, I’m tapping into something quite fundamental and possibly rudimentary… but it feels like I’m finally on the right path.

I will press on with a few more audio experiments… more later