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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.

Sourire

It's just metal. (photo by skywaaker on Flickr)

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.

Ha-bee-uh-doo-ah-eh-oo-ai

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 original score for #30

Meaningless numbers? (Parts of the original score for #30)

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.

Meaningless: Impossible?

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?

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A few days ago, I happened across an old episode of the Guardian Books Podcast which featured authors choosing and contemplating “a key word that opened up the literary territories” they’ve explored in their work.

I particularly enjoyed the delightful obstinancy of Olivia Rosenthal’s exploration of “no” and Anne Weber’s “Attend Attentive” which I quoted on the scrapbook blog yesterday.

And then there was the opening volley of Arthur Japin’s piece about the unreal:

“Reality already exists. What’s the point of describing it one more time? The common place is all around. Why would you want to imitate it? What kind of challenge is truth? It is already there!”

I bristled at that initially — until I understood where he was headed.

Truth and reality would only be boring if we could perceive and understand them in their entirety. And we can’t.

What makes this scribbled-on rock so special?

What makes this scribbled-on rock so special?

Imagine a dozen people whose only experience of the world is wandering through the British Museum. After ten minutes, each in different rooms, they meet out front to compare notes. One person starts enthusiastically describing the Rosetta Stone, another asks “Who are the Egyptians?” and yet another mutters: “Greeks? Never heard of them…”

Common Place

Here’s a less contrived example: Imagine a group of people in the same room for a few minutes. How many details do they each notice? Five? Maybe ten?

Let’s be optimistic and say ten. Do they all notice the same things? Unlikely. And that’s what we have to share with each other.

Reality and truth exist in some physical sense. (I’ll leave philosophical debates about the details for another time.)

But they don’t exist in a way that is always present and complete and comprehensible in our minds. None of us individually can perceive and understand everything.

Ideas emerge from the gaps in our common perceptions, and those ideas become the ingredients of the stories we tell, the art we make and the perspectives we share.

Imagine someone that lives two thousand kilometers (or miles) in any direction from you. Is their daily life so much like your own, do you have so much in common in every thought and action, that they would learn nothing from you, and you nothing from them?

There is no such thing as commonplace, at least not one that we can perceive in any depth or detail.

To the extent that we do perceive a commonplace, it is something we construct by telling each other what we notice about our lives and our work, whether we do that through blogs or tweets or dancing or sculpture or music.

The actual content of the writing on the Rosetta Stone couldn’t be more mundane: an announcement of the specifics of a tax amnesty. That’s right: it’s an Egyptian IRS memo that just happens to be in three languages we find interesting more than 2000 years later.

We learn its significance not from our own direct experience of reality and truth, but by assembling ideas from teachers, historians, archaeologists, and writers.

Abstraction and Truth

I don’t mean any of this to be a criticism of Arthur Japin. Despite my initial reaction, I suspected there wasn’t all that much distance between my own thinking and his.

When I enter a museum or gallery, I usually walk straight past all the figurative work towards the abstract and conceptual, the absurd and surreal.  While my verbal brain defends capital-R Reality and capital-T Truth, my feet follow orders from my deeper aesthetic instincts.

Japin has an explanation for what makes the mysterious so compelling:

“The further characters are from me personally, the more I want to know about them. The less clear they are, the more I strive to fathom them.”

He then imagines stopping a man on a street, showing him a “vague, smudged, coffee-stained daub” and asking: “Is this you?”

Japin describes the effect on the man:

“Before he can seek a likeness, he has to think about himself. And if he eventually decides that he can’t recognize any of his features in the portrait you have shown him, he will still walk on with a different image of himself than the one he had when you stopped him.”

But doesn’t a realistic portrayal of Iranian women’s lives, or a documentary about a devastating hurricane, or even a series of films about growing up do the same thing? Or more?

When we encounter an artist whose exploration of Truth and Reality implicitly asks us the same question — “Is this you?” — and our reaction is similar to what Japin describes,  we haven’t just changed our image of ourselves. We’ve changed our image of the world.

An idea or piece of art that prompts us to perceive our own likeness in unfamiliar pockets of reality and human experience can have a much more important outcome than self-reflection: empathy.

So when Japin demands: “What kind of challenge is truth?”

I respond: The most important kind.

And, from my perspective, it’s far more elusive and illuminating than the unreal.

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