In a comment on my recent post about English as a kind of second language, Zoë Westhof mentioned the Surrealists’ interest in the unconscious mind, and their question of whether our unconscious experiences can escape the ‘taint’ of the conscious mind.
This got me thinking about all those wordless singers and composers, from Lisa Gerrard to György Ligeti, who have used ‘nonsense’ languages to sidestep the entanglements of verbal meaning. A lot of vocal music in the Western tradition was never meant to be understood by the audience. Avoiding the vernacular has been an important historical thread for centuries.
Our conscious mind wants to interpret, to construct meaning and narrative from our fragmentary sensations. Look at all those examples floating around the internet of human faces seen in everyday objects and urban landscapes: from fire hydrants to sinks to peeling walls.
When we see a manhole cover with a smile on its ‘face’ we know on a rational level that happy manhole cover is incapable of being happy.
Yet the ‘found faces‘ group on Flickr has nearly 5000 photos, contributed by almost 1200 members.
Interpretation of sense as symbol seems inescapable. And once your mind has made such an interpretation, try undoing it. Try looking at that manhole cover without seeing a smile. It’s incredibly difficult.
I’ve found in music, as with fire hydrants and manhole covers, that sounds with no semantic meaning, phonemes that are presented entirely outside of language, are still perceived as meaningful.
Back in the 90s, I heard a recording of baby sounds on an effects CD I got from the library. The twists and turns in these little voices reminded me of the ornaments and appoggiatura you might add to a Bach sinfonia or a Haydn sonata. Why couldn’t these sounds become the basic elements of a composition, instead of a piano or an oboe? Surely they are more natural musical material than the sound of an organ or a turntable?
I began to imagine writing music for a choir of toddlers. While thrilled at the potential, I knew it was impractical in the extreme, but I also thought that maybe I could create some semblance of the idea by chopping up the recording and rearranging the pieces.
Click here to listen to the final result in a new window.
As I’ve played this piece for various people over the last fourteen years or so, the range of reactions has been fascinating to me.
Some people seem to run into an “It’s not music” wall, or for some other reason just don’t like it. And that’s fine.
In those that do react with interest, there seems to be a tendency to project whatever is on their mind onto the sounds.
For example, one friend, more concerned about the efficacy of her birth-control tactics than the ticking of her biological clock, felt haunted by it. The sounds evoked a terrible image of a baby army on the march — and maybe they were coming for her!
Another listener paused contemplatively at the end, and then, almost in tears, he told me that I had “captured the too-long-repressed voice of the Native American people crying for freedom!” In a random assortment of British babies?
By far the most common response has been: “Aww, that’s cute!”
Really? It wasn’t meant to be.
To me, these were just interesting sounds that I liked and wanted to work with. That’s all.
An Antidote for Too Much Math?
Well, maybe there was a little more than that going on. I created the piece in 1995, when home computers were only barely powerful enough to do this kind of thing. I used a system called CSound, which required tedious number-crunching: each entrance, exit, change in volume or position had to be calculated to the millisecond or programmed with a mathematical function. It was more like working on a complex spreadsheet than a musical score:
The software took about an hour to process each minute of sound, so even the slightest change required hours of computing time before I could hear the results.
It was incredibly sterile and linear and boring work. The warmth and complexity and nuance of the sounds themselves — these little pre-verbal gurgles — provided an antidote to all that left-brain work. It kept me going in a way that might not have been possible if I’d been working with digitally-produced beeps and squiggles.
So I guess, even to me, as I was working with them, these sounds were not just sounds.
No matter how much I might have wished to work with meaningless phonemes, they just aren’t heard that way.
To our brains, that’s not a muted two-second sine wave that wavers slightly in pitch towards the end, it is a vulnerable little human that needs protection, affection, nutrition or attention. Maybe it even triggers instinctual responses?
Whatever we as artists and idea-shapers do to try to escape cultural references and connotations, we can’t control the other side of the equation: the interpretations of our audience.
What we intend to express and the message received can be very different.
We can deny that, or we can work with it. And if we choose to work with it, we take on the task of understanding as much as we can about how the mind works, about how perception works, about culture, about history — about all the different things it means to be and feel and see and hear as humans.
Is it possible to perceive without interpreting or translating? What’s your experience?
Links and Related Articles
- Elsewise Media Blog: My Experience of English as a Second Language
- Zoë Westhof blogs, shares insights and asks great questions at Essential Prose
- Flickr Group: Found Faces Pool
- Poetry Off the Shelf Podcast: What If It Doesn’t Make Sense? Matthew Zapruder parses a John Ashbery poem, and there’s a few snippets of an interview with Ashbery about being open to interpretation. (That’s at about the nine-minute mark.)
- #30 (mp3) Commonly known as ‘the baby piece’ by those who have heard it.