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More to sound than meets the ears

by Heloisa Amaral

In response to Rewire 2023’s theme Inter/relations, pianist, artistic researcher, and curator Heloisa Amaral contributes her essay, More to sound than meets the ears, on modes of listening and the possibility of multiphonic attention. During Rewire Festival 2023, Amaral will participate in the opening programme on Thursday 6 April. 

Each context has its unique practice of listening that may spill over into other areas of our lives and have a significant impact on our behavior and thoughts. Some of these practices are taken for granted, despite the historical and ideological factors that shape them, and the potential implications they hold. The way we engage with music in the classical concert hall is an example of a listening practice that is less spontaneous than we may think. This form of listening focuses solely on the music. Silence is mandatory because it preserves the music from interruptions that might disrupt its temporal coherence. The music is “protected,” so to say, from the influence of its immediate physical environment. It appears to the listener as if emerging from a world and a time “apart.”

This silence is a Romantic invention, from a time when listening to music, especially classical music, was considered as a promise and a condition for the most private but also the most elevating experiences involving communication with the self and with the world. Silence, in this context, was an omen; it preceded the music as a “presence in the air” waiting to be revealed. Over time, silence has come to be valued as an ideal background for musical performance also beyond the concert hall. The history of the classical concert and the more recent history of the recording medium are marked by efforts to cleanse the acoustic environment of performance, removing or minimising all sounds extraneous to the music in order to create a background of silence upon which music can shine undisturbed.

Yet behind this silence and the existential experience it facilitates lies also another story, connected to the societal emphasis on sustained attention in the period surrounding the Industrial Revolution. Focusing one's attention on a single object, to the exclusion of other perceptual stimuli, was considered necessary for the establishment of a productive relationship with that object. Within a rationalised capitalist context, forming these productive relationships was important because the harnessing and mastering of objects resulted in increased productivity and economic flow. Next to this, the bourgeois ruling class was involved in a process of self-emancipation affecting both educational and aesthetic spheres. To “produce oneself” by accumulating knowledge through sustained attention to cultural objects such as music, novels, or the visual arts was important for maintaining a social position or climbing the social ladder. New practices and norms of attention developed in art institutions, schools, and factories, as caricatured in actor and filmmaker Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936), as disciplinary tools aimed at sharpening attention to the object or task at hand.

Within the emerging classical concert, listeners paid attention because they were spellbound by the music, but also because focus was one of the driving forces of society at the time. Focus was facilitated by the implementation of what communication and media theorists refer to as the principle of the “excluded middle,” presupposing that the materialities involved in the transmission of a message – the music – should disappear in the communication act. All sounds extraneous to the music should be either silenced, suppressed, or made discreet. This happened through a constant negotiation between performers, audiences, concert organisers, and other partakers of musical events, all of whom enacted and continue to enact conventions, rules, and strategies designed to create and to maintain silence.

The proliferation of concert halls and other attentive environments in the urban landscape of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, such as museums and public libraries, shows how the general concern with attention affected various aspects of life, with lasting effects on future generations. With time, the harnessing of attention becomes integrated into the habitus. Sociologically speaking, the habitus is a system of dispositions formed in specific social environments, such as family, school, work, and mass culture, and that largely determines how we engage with these environments. Bodily techniques are one example of how the habitus is formed. These are purposeful actions passed down through education or imitation. As they become deeply ingrained in our neural pathways, bodily techniques turn our bodies into social instruments and living archives of social memory. Neuroscientists have shown for instance how individuals have learned to orientate themselves effectively in a sonic landscape by disengaging certain sounds from a noisy background. In conclusion, individuals are not only expected to focus but are also trained to do so, even in unfavourable conditions.

The question of focus is particularly timely as transformations in the larger social environment affect the structure of our attention. While in the past, socialisation agents were relatively homogeneous, today they are hybrid and diverse. Different instances of socialisation coexist, with greater circularity of values ​​and identity references. Media, particularly, produce dispositions sometimes very different from what one learns at home or at school. In addition, it confronts us to massive amounts of stimuli and information. Our perception of the environment becomes more multilayered, with many impulses to relate to. When it comes to music, ever since the 1970s, portable technologies have been making it increasingly common to listen to music outside of its traditional venues and in acoustically messy environments. One relates to the music in a more fragmented way, interrupted by the unexpected situations encountered along the way. There are real concerns that such phenomena would diminish our capacity for paying attention, as well as about the way the market exploits new technologies for financial profit, orienting the consumers' attention towards certain things over others. At the same time, and as our habitus becomes less sedimented, we become more interested in different things. Rather than being only disorientating, this can also be potentially rich and stimulating.

New forms of awareness emerge, challenging habitual practices such as the undisputed way in which sustained attention is commonly considered as something important and good. We become for instance more mindful of how focusing on certain stimuli to the detriment of others might offer a too narrow or incomplete perspective on the object of attention, most likely preventing other sensations or areas of knowledge from being activated. Furthermore, the habit of ignoring the environment or extracting from it the objects of one’s interest reproduces established structures and hierarchies, enhancing the distance between the individual and the environment in which perception occurs. It also enhances therewith the anthropocentric logic that positions humans outside the world that they control. By contrast, considering objects within the larger context in which they are embedded facilitates the making of connections, since the individual will engage with objects or events that someone absorbed in the contemplation of one object would not be able to hear or see. What also seems to be gained as the mind transitions between various stimuli, is a form of intensity and presence – the sensation, so rarely felt, of being in the now, arising from the fact that each interruption to the individual’s efforts to focus on one or the other sign, brings them back to the here and now where perception occurs.

We start imagining new functions and possibilities for music. While some musicians insist on focus, conceiving performances that emphasise deep attention, others explore new attentive realities as possibly productive modes of engaging with sound. This manifests itself in many artistic proposals conceived for non-conventional musical environments, or in reconfigurations of the concert hall which give listeners the possibility of, for example, entering and leaving the performance space at will. Without the optimal conditions for focused listening, the symbolic time of music is experienced differently: absorbed and synthetic listening aimed at grasping the music and its structure leaves way for more serendipitous forms of understanding that do not follow one direction only. We might become less sensitive to the larger temporal structure of the music, but more attentive to its microstructures or to the sounds themselves. This offers new understandings of music as a temporal phenomenon and creates space for the perception of environmental sounds traditionally considered as unwanted or disturbing. The temporal unfolding and acoustic characteristics of such emergent sounds are largely undetermined and unpredictable; considered along with, rather than as a background to the music, they mobilise different temporal realities and listening modes.

Music, inscribed in an environment that is fundamentally unpredictable, becomes a relational, reactive, and contextual activity that develops in the interplay between the time of the music and the fluctuations of the physical present. It is “entangled and worldly,” to use an expression by theorist Donna Haraway. Experiencing the performance is centred on its situatedness, including the interactions between various agents, and the relations that audience and performers draw from these interactions.

This calls for a multiphonic form of attention in which several intensities and modalities might coexist, including “intentional” or focused attention, but also non-intentional, distracted, wandering, or floating. Multiphonic attention covers a sonic landscape broader than that of the music itself. The focus is on the sonic environment as a rich and important medium for the shaping of the artistic experience. This environment is no longer like a lake in which we fish, but a lake in which we swim. As a musician, I see this as an incentive for greater spontaneity: instead of protecting the music from “intruding” sounds, these are embraced and improvised with—music as the beginning of an experience rather than its end.

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Heloisa Amaral is a pianist, artistic researcher, and curator. She lectures in curatorial practices at The Royal Conservatoire The Hague and is currently the director of the Ultima Oslo Contemporary Music Festival. This text is based on her doctoral dissertation Mediating from Within: Alternative Environments for Musical Performance, defended last year at Leiden University, Leiden.