Sunday, 26 September 2010

Excedido En Número Uno A Siete

By some weird quirk of fate or coincidence (yr choice), out of the 8 flats in the building I live in, 7 of those have at least one musician living in them*. However, they are uniformly of the classical stripe and, horrifyingly, more than one of them plays the fucking clarinet**. There's also a cellist, a harpist, 2 pianists, a conductor/composition lecturer, and a flautist***. Sometimes, walking up the stairs to my lair at the top of the building, I hear beautiful random music when 2 or more people are practicing, Ivesian collisions of melody and time signature, unexpected harmonies and wonderful discordancies, diffracted round doors and reflecting off the bare white walls and ceiling of the narrow stairwell. When it's harmonious it's almost like having an Eno installation in yr house, which is really quite a good thing. Sometimes it's multiple fucking clarinets, which is not, well unless one of 'em is playing Messiaen. I wouldn't mind that.

The walls in this building are old and thick, which means you can make a hell of a fucking racket without disturbing anyone, unless of course you fling all the windows open, but aside from then, you can only hear the sound of other people in the stairwell. As I said, I always notice, and often stop and listen for a bit, to the music of the stairs, and I wonder if everyone else does it too. I also wonder what they feel and think about the sounds that emanate from the top flat of our shared home, noises made by a musician who shares almost none of their musical values save those of precision and striving for excellence (however you view either of those nebulous concepts).

Because we live and play in utterly different soundworlds. Right down to first principles, the way we make music is simply not the same. Neither is better, or more correct, just very, very different. Not that there aren't odd and unexpected crossovers, they just tend to happen by accident, similar conclusions reached by disparate means, like Leibniz and Newton with the invention of the calculus§. Take tuning. My conception of tuning is based upon a completely different set of assumptions (or axioms, if you want to be a ponce about it) to those of the classical musician (of today anyway, tuning was a much more fluid thing, even in the classical world, in the past). I'm not going to go into details, because I'd have to get seriously maths on yr arse, and no one's reading this blog for equations§§.

But, as I am prone to do, I digress. I really would like to know what yr average classical clarinettist thinks when they walk up the stairs and hear the sound of Bach wafting out of one flat, mixing with the sound of "Dumping The Fucking Rubbish" by Whitehouse or Albert Ayler at full bore, let alone the howling violence that can ensue when I'm playing guitar, from my place. Probably "what the fuck are they doing up there?" or "I didn't see any roadworks outside", but then again, I've never had a noise complaint so who knows? And it's not just idle curiosity, I'm seriously interested in other peoples reactions to unfamiliar sound/music because, as you know, I crave it like smack, and find others responses to it constantly surprising (and occasionally inspiring).

I mean, the gap between music that people are willing to accept, and even enjoy, when it's presented as soundtrack/accompaniment as opposed to being the main focus of attention is often huge. For many, it seems to me anyway, dissonance/harshness/just plain weirdness is perfectly acceptable when it's used as manipulation, an intensification of affect, a way to cue the subconscious into viscerally reacting to the images/action on the screen/stage/whatever, and will even wax lyrical about how amazing the music was, how they'd never heard anything like that before, but are then appalled by the same music when they hear it again removed from the visual context. An example; a huge fan of 2001 (who shall remain nameless), who loved the music in the context of the film, absolutely loathed the same Ligeti pieces (Atmosphères and Lux Aeterna) when I put them on at home, especially Lux Aeterna, which she memorably criticised with the words "turn that fucking wailing shit off", yet during the film told me it was one of the most beautiful, awe-inspiring things she'd ever heard.

And that's what interests me so much, these differences in perception of a piece of music, of sound itself, in different contexts. Maybe I'm wired differently, just far more sonically oriented than other people (or just plain obsessed), but for as long as I can remember, listening has held greater importance than sight for me, even over the visual (then again, I can't see shit without my contacts in), possibly to a slightly debilitating degree at times - I know I've missed things I could/should have seen at the time because I was paying too much attention to listening, because other people have pointed it out to me later§§§ - although I've got better at the balance these days - but when you've got ears like a bat with eyes to match you gotta work with what you've got.

I know I'm off on one, that'd be the wine (or possibly my amusing cold medication and sleeping tablets which essentially constitute a solid version of purple drank), but bear with me, it will get somewhere eventually. Possibly. Now, where was I? Oh yeah, ears and eyes and brains and shit. It strikes me that an awful lot of people (this is not a criticism, just an observation) don't (or won't, or can't, or choose not to) view the visual and sonic aspects of perception as complementary but separate, possibly because of the visual bias in our culture, hearing seems to be viewed as an adjunct to sight as opposed to what it actually is, a far more highly developed, innately more sensitive faculty (in terms of frequency, we can hear nine octaves give or take, but we can see less than one, to give but one example), or maybe because, when we're conscious anyway, hearing is involuntary, you can close yr eyes, but no matter how hard you try it's incredibly difficult to truly block yr ears, you don't have to look, but you have to hear, even if you really don't want to listen.

Our hearing seems to be hardwired into the limbic system, to the un/subconscious mind to a greater degree than sight, and if I was going to go out on a limb (as this is not my field of expertise), I would guess it evolved first, an extension of the ability to sense vibration or movement in the environment, which I'd imagine is where our conscious tactile senses evolved from too. We generally have so much less control over (the perception of and willed interaction with) our sonic environment, and it pushes our buttons in such a primal, basic manner, bypassing so may of the perceptual/intellectual filters we see the world through, cuts to the quick in way sight doesn't, and maybe that atavistic side to hearing is what relegates it to a position below sight in the worldview of so many. You can't see out the back of yr head, but you know when y're being followed, and it's the ears, and possibly unconscious tactile inputs that alert you to those things, and maybe it's those very ancient facets of our sense of sound that create the very visceral reactions to unfamiliar sound and music, almost provoking a fight or flight response.

I've never encountered any other artform which can provoke such a deep sense of unease and discomfort when confronting the unknown whilst bypassing the intellect (for want of a better word) as music. I've heard certain pieces of both music and film described as harrowing, but if asked why the film was harrowing, people know why, can put it into words, conceptualise and describe exactly why it was so horrible, but with music, that often isn't the case, it's a case of "it's nasty" or "it just feels wrong"^, and maybe that lack of conscious control over what is heard and our reaction to it, as opposed to what is seen, is the key.

Or maybe red wine + codeine + promethazine has bent my brain out of shape so far I've taken leave of reality and am talking vast dungloads of pretentious bullshit. Reality's a vastly overrated and (from my physicist's eye) misunderstood concept anyway in the first place. But fuck it, that's a rant for another day. And different drugs.

*Yes you sarcastic bastards, I am including myself. The 8th contains a financier (who works in sub-prime mortgages!) and a psychiatrist. Bloody Hell.

**Clarinets, and their effect on my life and others, is a rant for another day.

***I may not be the biggest fan of the flute, but I'm sure as shit glad it's a classical flautist and not a fucking hippy with a bongo playing friend.

§Given the amount of mathematics buried in theories of music, this isn't such a glib comparison as you might think.

§§I would, if I wasn't writing it, but then again I really, really love that shit. If you really want to get into tuning, go to this wikipedia article, then follow the links there and elsewhere until yr head falls off. If you really want to know I use Just Intonation (for the acoustic stuff) and variations on Meantone Temperament (electric stuff), gotta love them wolf notes, and I do not necessarily use a fixed tuning centre; i.e. A=440Hz.

§§§Sometimes, this annoys me, particularly when if what I had missed had been pointed out to me at an apposite time I might have had a much better night...

^I've never been called a cunt for suggesting we watch a certain film and someone else finding it disagreeable, but I gave up caring a long fucking time ago if I receive abuse for putting certain records on. Like I say, atavistic as opposed to reasoned reactions.


  1. Case in point: Bela Lugosi's Dracula with original soundtrack = holy fuck, people scared easy back in the 1930's. Bela Lugosi's Dracula with Philip Glass's soundtrack = discomfiting and sort of horny. And I don't even like Philip Glass. Or vampires. Or Hungarians.

  2. Exactly. Sound is so much more powerful than most people give it credit for, able to provoke emotions and sensations so totally other, away from the norm, that it makes no fucking sense when you try to analyse it, and repetition in parrticular, handled correctly and in the right context, can really fucking take you somewhere you just weren't expecting.

    Brilliant, isn't it?