TIM PERKIS: WRITINGS
Transcript of a talk given at ICAD '97, the International Conference on Auditory Display, November 1997, Palo Alto, California.
I do electronic music. In my case this means that I spend alot of time developing some complex system whose behavior is beyond what I can really understand -- and set it in motion. Usually the system is on a computer, or sometimes on a network of computers, or a larger system involving people and scores. Then I add behavior to generate some kind of sonic representation of this system, that tracks the system that's running and acts as an ongoing representation of its behavior. This trace of the system's behavior is what constitutes the music.
There are two articles of faith that underly this way of working. One is that perceiving and understanding some sort of complex system is itself a worthwhile thing to be doing -- it's enlightening, and interesting, and a worthy subject for artistic work. And the other point is a belief that such kinds of sonic representations are possible: that we actually have an ability to understand the dynamics of a system by listening to some representation of its behavior.
Since I work this way I spend alot of time listening to these things: I build systems which can be thought of as simulations of things that never existed before -- sometimes spending many hours listening to the same system -- OR, in fact not listening, but letting these computer programs run, and kind of letting them go on in the background while I'm doing other things. Doing this got me interested in what happens when you DON'T listen -- and the kind of information you get, the moods and atmospheres you can glean, from a certain kind of non-listening.
So that's really what I'm going to talk about tonight -- I'm not really going to say anything more about my work, any more than what I've said already -- I'm going to talk about not listening.
I recently read a very interesting book. It's called Listening in Paris, by James H. Johnson of Boston University. In this book he attempts a history not so much of music but of listening to music -- a history of audiences, and the uses people make of music, in the period of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, in Paris. And early on in the book he gives a very vivid description of the scene of the Paris Opera House circa 1700. The behavior of the audience there is not what we've come to regard as "good behavior" for concert-going audiences.
It's essentially a big party. There's no seating on the main floor; so people are kind of milling around; it really sounds more like a modern club scene than a concert. And the social intercourse is going on, unabated. Nobody's shushing anybody. Upstairs in the boxes, aristocrats who are lucky enough to have these boxes, which are beautifully appointed, like their sitting rooms at home, are entertaining. And the music -- and drama -- are both forming a sort of backdrop to this ongoing social activity -- the real drama is still in the social interaction.
Johnson also looks into music criticism of the period and the criterion for success for composers in that period is quite simply this: are they accurate in representing a sonic environment of some kind? A musical composition is expected to be a good representation of some environment -- a storm-tossed ship at sea; or a spring morning -- or a clash of armies.
So it's interesting -- this model is much different than what emerged later, as serious concertgoing. We have a situation where people are 1) using music as a representation of a sound environment, representing something about the atmosphere or mood of a real sound environment; and 2) also have a sort of relaxed idea about attention: they're not really applying the direct attention we've come to expect from concert-goers.
So in the light of this, something interesting and strange happened in the 19th century, or at the end of the 18th century. Basically a new idea has come in -- sit down, shut up, and listen to the music. It's really kind of a weird idea, and it's an aberration in the history of the world, and a new departure from the way music has been used before. It's somewhat strange, really, to think that hundreds of people congregate in a place, presumably a community, people who know each other, want to see each other, and talk to each other -- and at a certain point in the evening, this bubbling network of social interconnections at the gathering all ceases -- it all stops -- everybody is absolutely silent and attends to one person, or a small group of people who are playing.
In fact the whole idea of a solo concert, which sort of goes with this frame of consciousness was introduced around this time. The first solo concert, in the west anyway, was in 1844. Liszt advertised a solo recital -- a "mono-concert" it was called --and some people at the time thought it was far-fetched, to think that such a thing could be done. By proposing to play solo, Liszt was assuming, and demanding, the new level of quiet and attention.
All this makes sense in the light of romanticism, and what was happening in the culture at large around that time. With the romantic movement there was a curious kind of inversion of the relationship between emotion and action: where instead of emotion being seen as sort of an epiphenomenon around some kind of action going on -- and the focus of attention being on the action -- instead, emotion itself starts to become a worthy subject of attention. As a consequence music was promoted from its proper and traditional function as background, to being something that was thought worthy of being attended to on it's own.
Notice here that the job music was being asked to do had also drifted somewhat. Just as emotion had now been cut loose from action, music no longer was being asked to represent real sonic environments, but was seen as the representative of emotion only, of simple subjective mood.
So we're really the heirs of this way of thinking about sound and music -- especially the people in this room, I would say doubly so -- because we are what Rich Gold might call the sound tribe, and even more than the general public have the idea that sound and music are worth paying alot of attention to. But as a consequence we undervalue another kind of listening -- or non-listening -- another kind of attention, the unconscious attention to sound, and we underrate the power of the kind of information that can be conveyed this way.
Sorry to say this to all you audiophiles, but hearing is a secondary sense. Our ears are on the side of our heads, our eyes are on the front. The sense of hearing is, in fact, primarily a sense of orientation, a sense which provides placement for us in a space. It's maybe just a coincidence, but it's an interesting coincidence, that our organs of balance are also in the ears -- it's a related function, it's your sense of placement in a space. This process of orientation goes on independent of conscious listening.
The psychological problems that sometimes afflict the deaf, of alienation, dislocation, are not only the result of their isolation from a speaking community, but really come from their isolation from their own perceptual body, their own sense of being oriented in a larger space and knowing what's happening around them. It's a shame, actually, that in our inattention to the importance of the information we get from low sound levels and un-attended-to sound, we're letting the sonic environment degrade to the point where we can all share in this alienation of the deaf. Computer fans, disk drives, flourescent lighting, refrigerator motors -- all this low level sonic pollution that we have even in our "quiet places" at home and work is reducing our own groundedness in a sonic environment.
If you look at the situation of someone trying to stay alive in the woods: you know, their attention is focused on whatever they're working on at the moment - but at the same time they're getting, without attending to it, a constant report of the state of the world around them -- in essence they're getting something about the mood of the world around them. Mood may not be a serious enough word for this kind of information -- in fact they're getting very important survival-level information. (By mood I mean an objective mood, the mood of a real place, not the romantic subjective mood I mentioned earlier.) The sound of the wind in the trees perhaps may be telling them something important about changes in the weather ahead; the sound of birds and small animals as it changes may alert them to the presence of large predators nearby.
Mood is important. You could think of mood as being a sort of perceptual shorthand for the unanalyzable complexity of a real sound environment. We're able to hear subtle changes, and over time memorize the connection of these changes with other factors, all without being able to analyze what is actually changing in each sound source in the environment. All this power is available to our unconscious, non-attentive listening mind.
And I would propose that music -- and other forms of encultured sound, like what we're inventing here, are really attempts to create synthetic environments, that give that level of information, that convey mood, in this serious sense of mood. And the important point, I suppose, is that this process goes on with, or without our direct attention. What's really important in music works whether you're attending to it or not. (Perhaps in the light of this we should give Muzak, and other forms of despised "mood music" a little more respect.)
So what does this mean for sonification? I guess it's obvious by this point that I'm trying to say that we need to create sonifications that work without direct attention. I'd like to leave with the idea that perhaps we take inspiration from this image: of french aristocrats at the opera -- enriching and modulating their ongoing social discourse with the re-sonifications of natural environments that the musicians of the opera are providing for them.
We'd do well to tap into some of the power of non-attentive listening.