Saturday, June 14, 2008

The Car-Voice-Bird Chord

I'm sitting outside, in the sun, right outside Gallery 1412, about an hour before our little "experimental music" show was to begin. I close my eyes and listen to everything around me:

A woman speaking with "poetry voice" in the coffee shop, and the two girls trying not to snicker as they sneak out the front door, the station wagon parallel parking next to me, the cranking of a socket wrench by a man working on his bike behind me, tables and chairs being moved aside, people talking about art, jogging shoes trotting by, smokers breathing out, birds twittering.

I'm trying to focus on all the audio that my brain has been trained to filter out, to exclude from my normal listening experience. But there are too many different sounds to pay attention to all at once. I can listen to 3 or 4 at once but then I realize I'm forgetting to hear the bird or the far away traffic. I've heard that the brain can only hold 6 or 7 things in short term memory at one time. I realize that to take it all in, I need to be able to hear the sounds not as multiple simultaneous audio experiences, but as a single audio experience, like a symphony that happens to be made of dozens of instruments, or a chord made of several notes but experienced as a unity, an atom of sound.

So I'm sitting there trying to hear the chord that is formed by birds and cars and ratchets and coughs, a mumble's worth of poetry and my own breathing. What could a unity formed by such disparate elements sound like?

I try to relax. I try to listen without imposing any order on the stream of aural data. It doesn't really work. (Maybe I'm not trying hard enough. Or maybe I need to not-try even harder.) Next I try to organize the sound from low to high: the car motors are the low notes in the chord, the voices are the mid-range notes, and the birds are the high notes. Still I can't hear the unity of it.

Of course maybe all this John Cage-ian experimental avant guard noise-sound stuff -- this idea that we should expand our notion of what sounds count as music -- is all just bullshit. (Why waste your time listening to clanking pipes and air conditioning machines when you can be listening to The Boss or something?) But even if that's right, it shows us something sort of interesting, something in need of an explanation. Namely, that certain sounds have a special privileged status. You can make a chord with a trumpet, melodica, and piano each playing a different note, but you can't make a chord from cars, birds, and human conversation. Why? Why can our minds unify one set of sounds and not another?



smoldering bagpipes said...

The Golden Mean?

Rob said...

The instruments have a better union.