Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Perception, Good Taste, Quiet Music

Eastside Road, January 11, 2017 —

BECAUSE IT HAS BEEN so noisy lately let me encourage you to concentrate, for an hour, on small and quiet sounds.

Perception coverTHE INSTITUTE FOR ECOTECHNICS is an extremely interesting private organization that conducts researches into art, consciousness, and technology on a variety of platforms that has included a closed-environment center in Arizona, a seagoing ship of their own construction, a gallery and cultural center in London, and a conference center in Provence. There seems to be no limit to the energy and intellectual curiosity of its associates. It is or has been, however, rather closed, and I may be committing an indiscretion in writing about it here.

Almost twenty years ago I was asked to participate in one of their annual (or perhaps biennial) conferences in a marvelous old manor house in the countryside outside Aix-en-Provence. The conference theme was characteristically both general and sharp-focussed: Perception. Participants came from many different countries and represented many different areas of expertise. One woman spoke of perception as it related to botanical experiments conducted in space; another spoke of his work with the fragrances of plants growing in the Amazon forest canopy. Hard and soft sciences were represented; also engineering. But, it was explained to me, not arts and letters. Would I address them as they influence the way we come to perceive, and to perceive that we do perceive?

I have long been interested in the problem of writing about music, and was suddenly struck by the possibility that the nucleus of the problem likes in perception — in how we process our awareness of music, of being aware of sound vibrations: and this whether we are listeners or musicians. And, being a composer, I wanted to organize my investigation as itself a sonic event, in which the speaking voice — my own — would alternate with many kinds of music, in a sonically illustrated lecture meant to discuss but also express the possibility that we can organize sound waves in order to elicit both verbal and nonverbal understanding.

The choice of music would be crucial. It would have to be accessible to the layman — not only accessible, but interesting; meaningful; even moving. There should be several kinds of music, some of it involving words. The examples would have to be the right length, no more than a few minutes; and there should be a common thread, capable of being spun along throughout the lecture. In the end I settled on the Lament as my theme: one nearly all of us have had occasion to profit from. I gathered my musical examples and wrote the following text, delivering it to an attentive audience with the help of my sound engineer, John Whiting, whom I thank for having brought it back to my attention after all these years.

You can read the lecture as an e-book here. Alas, the sound examples will appear only as text: you'll have to find recordings of the examples yourself, perhaps on YouTube.