Tuesday, 22 November 2016

Once More, With Feeling

Over the last 3 weeks or so I have had some fun expanding the reach of this blog by posting electronic music related blogs to Facebook (which has a much larger potential than Twitter for actually engaging people). It has certainly got me more readers but what interests me more than this is being involved in quality conversations. The reach of those blogs enabled me to set up an Electronic Music Philosophy page on Facebook where some interesting discussions of a more theoretical nature than "look at my setup" have already taken place. As you may know from past blogs, I'm very much a quality over quantity person if that is the choice.

Thanks to this group a video was posted of Adam Neely's. Neely is a guy who chats about music theory on You Tube. This was my first introduction to him and, while I found him a bit overblown and "in your face," I cannot deny that the video I watched (about Vaporwave) was largely informative. In speaking about his subject at hand he made what seemed to me to be a fascinating link between timbre and emotion in music. The vlog itself was largely about the draw of Vaporwave as a form of music and Neely made recourse to the phenomenology of music (how music makes you feel, how you experience it) in order to do this. His point was that a musician's primary tool to manipulate the emotional response of a listener was a timbral one, how a sound sounds and how a sound's sound can be affected timbrally. This, so Neely argued, had the power to affect how someone might hear a piece of music and emotionally react to it.

Unsurprisingly, this got me thinking. First of all, I thought about music from the perspective of what it feels like to listen to something, the experience of listening. I considered that this is something not often discussed. What is often discussed is the more trivial like/dislike that people give to music as it is presented to them or as they hear it. These subjects are linked but I doubt they are much discussed anywhere outside of academic circles. Following John Cage, who has educated what I think were probably my base instincts anyway, I've come to find the like/dislike judgment we all give to music of not much use and certainly no good as a musical guide. If one is to take music seriously as a whole (and as a world of sounds which just are what they are) then we need to get over our egos and snap judgments. They may be marginally useful for deciding which thing I want to hear right now that is compatible with my mood but, outside of that, they should be completely set to one side. If one is going to think about music seriously one needs to have more stamina and insight than this.

The second thing I thought of was a scene from one of the old Star Trek films. In this scene Spock, who had been dead and brought back to life, was once again training and educating himself to get back up to full fitness. During the scene, which you will see if you click the link, Spock is being tested by multiple computers simultaneously. He is passing with flying colours, answering every question and puzzle thrown at him with ease, but gets stumped when a computer abruptly asks him "How do you feel?" Spock says he does not understand the question. He even responds to his inquiring mother that it is "irrelevant". Setting aside the fact that this is a play on Spock's half Vulcan, half human nature, I pondered about this in relation to the musical question before me. I wonder, have you ever listened to music and asked "How do I feel?" Does this question make sense to you as one that might be asked and with useful things to find in the answer? If not, I find this amazing. I don't find this amazing because you have not asked it. I find it amazing because considering music can have such a potentially large effect on human emotions surely its a question we should be asking very much more than we do. Contra Spock, its far from irrelevant.

Music is often used expressly to fuel emotions. One thinks of many locker rooms where loud, supposedly motivational music will often blare out before games. Then there is something like the old Dionysian festivals in Greek history where the idea was to work oneself up into a frenzy using music in order to be on the level of the gods. One thinks of ballads which, if done skillfully, are meant to tug at the heart strings. Gospel music, of which I have some past history myself, is meant to be praise of a deity but also includes a strong motivational vibe in promoting peace, happiness and courage in a particular faith amongst its adherents. Singing, especially in groups, is said to be psychologically beneficial. At many concerts or festivals what people will describe first is how the experience made them feel. In many, many places and situations we see music being used to affect human emotions. And yet, when we're alone, do we ever ask how some piece of music is making us feel? Do we ever study music from the phenomenological aspect? Do we ever write or make music seeking to utilize this phenomenological aspect for ourselves?

I thought about this and considered that it might be a good idea to experiment with it. As I also make a weekly podcast and I quite often choose music I haven't heard before when doing this I thought it might make sense to use this to select some music that I could choose to listen to from this phenomenological perspective. I'd like to invite my readers to do this too since the podcast with the music I've chosen is to be number 26 which will be released around the same time this blog is available to read. I wanted to choose music I had not heard before and make it something outside of the norm. In fact, I expect it will be outside of most people's norm. I ended up choosing the music of eight composers whose music is not generally thought of as "popular music". I cannot speak for anyone else, but they are mostly pieces new to my ears. I'd like to challenge anyone who wants to listen to the podcast to do so. Ask yourself as you listen to each piece how you feel and what emotional response each piece triggers. Clearly, there will be no right or wrong answers, only honest or dishonest ones.

The pieces I have chosen are as follows:

The Last Dream of The Beast by Morton Subotnick

Nachtmusik by Karlheinz Stockhausen

Electric Counterpoint by Steve Reich

Branches by John Cage

Apocalypse de Jean by Pierre Henry

Etude aux Objets (parts 1-5) by Pierre Schaeffer

Theme from For A Few Dollars More and Man with A Harmonica by Ennio Morricone

A Rainbow in Curved Air by Terry Riley

The pieces have been fairly randomly chosen. Only two was I familiar with (Morricone's) due to my interest in Westerns. But even there they are interesting choices since I will need to listen through over 90 minutes of music to get to them. This is because context, too, affects an emotional response to something, something any DJ building a set (as I once was) knows very well. It will be noticed that these are all prominent composers from the latter half of the 20th century. Some are still alive and others are not. Pretty much every one of these composers is known for their use of sound and for their interest in composition. This is to say that they think about music rather than just making it and they are familiar with music at the atomic level, as it were, in that they all know very well it is made up of sounds, these sounds being individually and collectively important. I judge these people, then, to be familiar with the idea that music can stimulate feeling even if, as with Cage, they may be wary of this.

Many of the pieces have a connection with feeling in their creation it seems to me. Subotnick's piece utilizes "ghost electronics", modules created by Don Buchla which are making no sounds themselves but are affecting the timbre, pitch and amplitude of the instruments you can hear as you hear them. This, then, is massaging Subotnick's need to be involved in a music he cannot be said to be wholly responsible for. Stockhausen's piece was written during a seven day period in 1968 when he was going through some personal turmoil. He wrote 14 other pieces during this time too, a prolific spurt of creativity which produced Aus den Sieben Tagen, which Nachtmusik is taken from. Steve Reich's Electric Counterpoint, played in the version I've chosen by Pat Metheny, utilizes looping to create the counterpoint of the title. I think it will function in interesting ways when set after the two pieces before it. 

Then we come to, perhaps, the most problematic piece here, Cage's Branches. This is a relatively long piece of music made up of the sounds of cacti and other plants being plucked by toothpicks. The plants have contact microphones attached to them to amplify the sounds. This piece also contains considerable silences as Cage was apt to have. Cage, notably, repeated many times that he did not need music to communicate to him nor for it to have any message. He wanted sounds to just be themselves. I wonder if that is what a potential listener will feel listening to Branches and how the silences will make them react? 

Pierre Henry's Apocalypse de Jean is verses of the biblical Revelation set to music. This is interesting in itself as the book of Revelation is in the literary style "apocalyptic", a style which is meant to give hope to persecuted insiders such as the Christians it refers to, but to preach doom to its enemies. Pierre Schaeffer's Etude aux Objets was his last study of sounds within the musique concrete perspective. Musique Concrete was literally "real music" by which Schaeffer, and Henry who made such music with him throughout the 1950s, meant a music made from real sounds. This, I think, lends itself particularly to unpredictable emotional responses.

The two pieces by Morricone are from film scores and, thus, lend themselves to dramatic interpretation. Indeed, this is what director Sergio Leone literally did himself as it was Morricone's practice to write the music before filming had even started, something Leone encouraged. Leone would then interpret the music visually on screen. I finish with an influential track from Terry Riley which influenced Pete Townshend to name a song after Riley (Baba O'Riley) and another group of musicians to take the name of the piece as their own (Curved Air). This piece again utilizes looping (and directly influenced Steve Reich's piece earlier) and is improvisational in nature. Riley himself played all the instruments (hence the looping). This track is often claimed as "psychedelic" and so who knows what emotions it might release?

At this moment I'm aware that I've given readers information regarding the contents of the podcast. This information will, of course, colour your listening or potential for listening to the music. But I'm pointing this up right now because I want you to get past it. Listening to music is often regarded by people as a lazy, relaxing activity in which the listener is expected to do no work, they soak up the music by osmosis. But it need not be this. It can be an active listening, a hearing, in which we take notice of what we are listening to. I imagine all the composers I've chosen here both did that and would encourage it.

But back to listening and emotion. This subject takes place in the context of a discussion that really goes back as far as when human beings first started having connected thoughts. This discussion is about the nature of the human being and the supposed war inside each example of that species between reason and emotion or, as its sometimes put, logic and the passions. This opposition is, of course, both false and fake. Human beings are organisms and not discrete parts. Human beings are both thoroughly and thorough-goingly rational beings as well as being emotional ones. There is no means to switch off either faculty within us even though, with effort, we can attempt to ignore or counteract their impulses. How this applies to music is that there can often be a tendency to regard it intellectually, rationally, technically as a collection of notes, time signatures and formal styles but to ignore questions exactly like "How will this make a person feel?" This latter question, under pressure from a heavy scientism in much of society today, seems a little namby-pamby and unscientific. It is a question which appeals to emotion and not reason. However, in these hopefully more psychologically and emotionally aware times, we should beware the idea that the emotions should never be questioned or their impulses buried deep inside and hidden away. Our psychologists would be quick to point out all the possible disorders which could result from that. If we have only appreciated music rationally then we have only scratched the surface.

With this insight its with a wholeness of human being in mind that I raise up the subject of music's emotional power and influence in today's blog. I have no idea if any readers of mine will listen to the pieces of music I've chosen for my podcast and I certainly can't make anyone listen. But I hope some of you will and, should you, I hope you'll think about how the music makes you feel and muse on the importance and uses of this question. I also hope next time you make some music you ponder, maybe even only for a moment, how someone hearing the piece you are making might feel upon hearing it because, to be sure, they will certainly feel something. And that's important too. Its seems to me there is much research that could be done on the phenomenology of music as we ask questions about how it makes us feel and then study the responses to this. This is because the experience of listening to music is perhaps one of the most important things about it. If you made music with one ear open to its emotional effects then, it seems to me, it would be a completely different way to make music, one that might contain many creative possibilities you had never thought of before.


  1. It struck me reading your blog that once upon a time you would have been talking about the emotional response to live music, whereas now we are dealing with disembodied recordings. I have often been struck by the way that music which is difficult to listen to on record makes perfect sense when heard in performance.

    1. Good point Guy. Until the 20th Century recorded music the public could buy and sell didn't exist of course.