How Can You Hear It When You Don’t Know What You Are Listening For? - The Need For A Critical Context Of Listening by Salomé Voegelin
Behind the work of any creative artist there are three principal wishes: the wish to make something; the wish to perceive something, [...]; and the wish to communicate these perceptions to others [...]. Those who have no interest in communication do not become artists; they become mystics or madmen. (W.H. Auden, 1977, p363)
When training as a classical musician you are asked to identify minor thirds, perfect fifths, major sevenths... sounds are given names and are organised in relation to each other, and it becomes a matter of recognising what is being played and attributing the right term to the corresponding tonal relationship. You cannot possibly give the right answer to your music teacher unless you know what you are listening for. On the basis of this knowledge you begin to recognise the structure of a musical piece and start to listen to it with a new attention. From this moment on you are listening to the language of music. You appreciate its sonic material in relation to a systemic understanding of its composition.
This is one kind of listening, the listening of the trained musician who hears what he/she expects within the rules of a (harmonic) system. Sounds in this sense become pure knowledge; relevant and justified in relation to the context they are played within. Such a systemic listening establishes the idea of a ‘right’ sound and proposes notions of beauty and meaning in relation to a pre-existing vocabulary of sound production. A musical aesthetic depends on these conventions to propose its valuations. In this sense musical listening is a pragmatic listening that evokes familiarity and authenticity, producing a kind of objecthood in a timebased medium. The composition as object inspires trust and produces canons of ‘great works of art’.
Consequently, even without a particular training, living embedded in the conventions of these canons will have made you ‘musically literate’ enough to approach the work confidently as a piece of music. Once you know that what you are hearing is music, you know how to listen to it. You employ your knowledge of musical systems, historical developments and conventions of performance, you compare and relate; you bring prior experiences and personal recollections to bear on the sounds. Your identification of a sound piece as a piece of music gives you the context and points of reference that render the sounds intelligible. You might make sophisticated and detailed use of this context in the case of a trained listening, or you might be a rather amateurish and intuitive listener. In any case, this musical listening activity takes place in a clearly defined context, and produces an understanding within the terms of this context.
It is the assurance of a clear identity of the sonic work as music, which entices the listener to engage and explore what is being heard. In the safe context of historical canons and musical vocabularies pragmatic listening becomes innovative listening. The listener, trusting the intelligibility of the sounds heard, invests time and gets engaged in a listening which invents the work. Once I am assured that what I am hearing is in fact music I can relax into its familiarity. My listening on the other side of recognition expands the work in an imaginative interpretation. Here I can be emotive and inventive, manipulating the sensate aural material in my own perception, furnishing places, animating objects, and stretching systemic orthodoxies.
Ilse: Would you ask the piano player to come over here please?
Waiter: Very well mademoiselle.
Ilse: Hello Sam,
Sam: Hello Miss Ilse. I never expected to see you again.
Ilse: It’s been a long time.
Sam: Yes Mam, a lot of water under the bridge.
Ilse: Some of the old songs Sam.
Sam: Yes Mam,
Ilse: Where is Rick?
Sam: I don’t know, I ain’t seen him all night.
Ilse: When will he be back?
Sam: Not tonight no more. He ain’t coming, er, he went home.
Ilse: Does he always leave so early?
Sam: Oh he never, well, he’s got a girl up at the Blue Parrot, he goes up there all the time.
Ilse: You used to be a much better liar Sam.
Sam: Leave him alone Miss Ilse. You’re bad luck to him.
Ilse: Play it once Sam, for all times’ sake.
Sam: I don’t know what you mean Miss Ilse
Ilse: Play it Sam, - play ‘As Time Goes By’.
Sam: Oh I can’t remember it Miss Ilse. I’m a little rusty on it.
Ilse: I’ll hum it for you, dadei dadei dadum…. Play it Sam.
Ilse (Ingrid Bergman) in pleading with Sam (Dooley Wilson) to play the familiar tune again does not just want to listen to the harmonies and lyrics that make up the song. It is not the song as a musical work that she wants to hear. Rather, she longs for the associations the melody conjures up in her mind: Paris, her love affair with Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart), the war, their missed rendezvous at the train station, her ‘dead’ husband, the Czech Resistance leader Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid), so unexpectedly coming back... All these memories and sentiments that she associates with the song flood out of its chords just for her to hear. The song encapsulates the drama of her situation: trapped with her heroic husband in Casablanca she is dependent on help from outsider Rick, whose heart she broke in Paris, to arrange their escape. From this scenario, working through expectations and recognition, her listening generates a tableau of images, sentiments and memories that extend the song’s actual sounds in her personal innovations.
We, the viewers, participate in her innovative listening assured by the context of the film. The conventions of film, the narrative structure, the story line, the mis-en-scène, the characters, etc., form the particular context, which enables us to listen to the song beyond its musical structure and the content of its lyrics. The filmic context gives the song its reference points and it is within the terms of this reference that we engage in the song and make sense of it. Within this context the song does not invite a strictly musical appreciation. Rather, it is the distinct circumstance of listening to a film, which enables my imaginative engagement. The film as film gives me the framework of intelligibility from where to innovate my own responses.
Since the particular sound work considered is a musical piece, we can understand it even outside the film in relation to its generic identification as music. However, sound art is not necessarily connected to a musical history or harmonic system. The sound work that has either never had or that which has lost its connection to musical tropes needs a different contextualisation. The listener in the Gallery space is left without a clear framework from where to understand the sonic material heard. In front of audio-visual pieces the audience lingers and manages to engage in the sound through its relationship with a visual counterpart. In the absence of such a visual ‘aid’, however, many visitors abandon the process of engagement.
Sound, which exists outside the musical system, needs a different context of appreciation. Such a context is developed in discourse as well as in curatorial and performance practices. Over time it develops its own histories and canons, which are built on and challenged continually. These contextualisations stage the work, and in this staging give it the reference points needed to be able to trigger the generative engagement of an innovative listening.
It is the job of the artist to work in relation to existing (sonic) contexts to challenge them and thereby to challenge perception, listening, continually. And it is the role of the listener to be jarred, confused and challenged to find a new relationship with what he/she hears. If the artist’s work exists too far away from a recognisable expression this chasm between recognition and unfamiliarity is too wide to be overcome by the listening activity. The listener feels alienated and abandons his/her engagement. The sonic artwork disintegrates into the obscure productions of Auden’s isolated madman, mentioned in the opening quote, and discourse, which ensures it its context of intelligibility, breaks down. When the listener stops engaging innovation is arrested and the sonic piece loses its potency to challenge and fascinate.
The sonic artist who rejects or ignores the need for and impact of a critical context onto his/her work resembles quickly a self-righteous maverick and his/her work will lack the ability to entice a generative listening. His/her sounds will stop at deaf ears unable to recognise any rules of engagement which might aid understanding and thus unable to provoke innovative perceptions. To celebrate this alienation as the successful outcome of an avant-garde mistakes the term avant-garde as a mystical and impenetrable expression outside communication; insanity. It denies the need for art to communicate, if only to put across the pitfalls of communication and the ambiguity of meaning.
This does not mean that sound work needs to stagnate and hold on to remnants of musical vocabularies in order to produce a critical listening. Neither does it suggest that it should be pressed into the service of a visual expression. Rather, the search for context takes place outside the musical genre and beyond visuality, in the articulation of sound art as a distinct and autonomous field of artistic production. Also, this need for a context to lend the work its framework of intelligibility does not appeal for the production of a popular sonic arts. Innovative listening is not a listening of the masses, an instantaneous intelligibility of the material heard according to commercial references. Rather, it describes the process of intimately engaging one self with the material heard in relation to its artistic context. Such a listening will, in the first instance, always be distinct and exclusive rather than popular and universal. However, there is a clear difference between working on the premise of a distinct and exclusive listening and isolating oneself in the insanity of non-communication.
What is needed for such a distinct and engaged listening is the awareness and development of a critical infrastructure of sound production, which gives the work the objectivity and the framework to be understood beyond a musical interpretation, and without recourse to a visual vocabulary.
By critical infrastructure I mean the critical consideration of all aspects of the context within which a particular work is embedded: historical precedents, the aesthetic field, the discourse describing this field, the ideological investment, the architectural and curatorial circumstance, etc. This infrastructure does not dictate the terms of internal relations; it does not justify and stage the work from the point of view of its material composition. Rather, it sketches the external (relational) framework of its production. This clarifies the status of the sound work as a work of art, and in doing so provides the audience with the terms of reference for their listening practice. It enables the audience to engage in the blind space of sound without doubt in the validity of what is being heard and without feeling alienated by an expression without a vocabulary.
Such an infrastructure enables the artist to use aspects of its context to manipulate the perception of his/her work. And it enables the audience to understand the work in reference to these aspects. Of course, no listening will include all aspects in its practice. They only articulate a field of possible engagements from where the listener will formulate his/her own meanings. The infrastructure is the pragmatic basis from which an innovative listening leaves the work to generate an individual and temporary understanding. In other words, even if paradoxically, the specificity of a critical contextualisation and its identification within a distinct artistic field opens the sound work to a multiplicity of meaning making processes. The listener gains access to the work via this contextual framework, he/she engages with the sounds and generates his/her own understanding in an innovative listening.
The appreciation of a piece of sound work in relation to a particular context does not imply that sensation is abandoned in favour of a cerebral understanding. By contrast, the articulation of a critical context renders sensation part of perception rather than declaring it an esoteric and dumb apprehension and banishing it from ‘valid’ processes of engagement. A contextual approach enables the critique to include sensation into discourse. At the same time, the ‘safety’ of this context allows the listener to be seduced by the discrete pleasures of the work’s sensate material rather than feel alienated by a barrage of impenetrable sound.
This need for context is probably never more apparent than in the case of silence. There is no way we can hear silence unless we distinguish it from the idea of sound. In the concert hall Cage’s 4’33’’ Silence is not just any silence, it is musical silence, and as such it is identified in relation to the expectations and conventions of musical performance. However, when discussed in the context of a textbook, the 4’33’’ becomes a conceptual artwork and Cage’s silence comes to be understood in relation to Conceptual Art.1 A silence in the Gallery space is a totally different silence, and a silence on a CD is yet again another silence altogether. Silence finds its sound in the context of its perception. It is dependent on the time and place of its production, the identity of its producer and distributor, the artist and the curator; the artwork of its cover, the title, the text of its sleeve notes, the press release, etc. All of these aspects frame the silence and make it audible as a distinct silence. And only from this audibility can I enjoy the discrete quality of its sensate material and practice an innovative listening.
The critical infrastructure of Music and Visual Art have led us to become very literate, visually as well as musically. Most of us feel confident in our understanding of these expressions, we know how to listen to a musical work and understand how to engage in visual works. There is a prolific discourse engaged in the continual contextualisation and interpretation of both the musical and the visual arts. And even if we are not experts we still have an understanding and hence can engage in the work before us. What we need to produce is a discourse of sound art distinct from either expression, but not in a vacuum either, which produces a sonic literacy and encourages an innovative listening.
1. This relationship is evident in a comparison between Cage’s 4’33’’ Silence (1951) with Conceptual Artist Mel Bochner’s 8’’ Measurement (1969): a black ink arrow on empty graph paper indicating its length of 8’’. Whereas Cage’s 4’33’’ outlines a silent space in music, Bochner’s 8’’ draws an empty space on paper. Both work depend on the discoursive context of their respective practices to frame this emptiness; to render it visible and audible.
Auden, W.H, ‘Light Prose’, in The English Auden, Poems, Essays & Dramatic Writings, 1927-1939, (Faber: London, 1977), edited by Edward Mendelson
Morgan, Robert C., Art into Ideas, essays on conceptual art, (Cambridge University Press: New York, 1996)
Richardson, Brenda, Mel Bochner, Number and Shape, (The Baltimore Museum of Art: Maryland, 1976)
Salomé Voegelin is London based Swiss artist and writer. Her work includes sonic and audio-visual articulations. She has completed a practice based PhD in Visual Arts at Goldsmiths College, University of London and currently works as an associate lecturer on the Sonic Arts programme at Middlesex University.