Perception

Some of the most interesting observations made in this project are about perception – about different modes of perceiving speech and music, different perceptions of time, and how different sound sources influence perception.

Semantic and poetic modes of perception

The most fundamental difference seems to be between perceiving speech as semantic content, and music as poetic utterance.

In a famous essay, Art as Technique from 1917, the Russian writer and formalist literary critic Viktor Shklovsky describes how perception of everyday phenomena is highly automated through familiarisation, to the point where they are not actually seen any more but only recognised as symbols. Through the technique of defamiliarisation, art can turn attention back to the sensation of their features and forms as they are experienced for the first time (Shklovsky, 1965).

Similarly from a cognitive perspective, Per Aage Brandt proposes that the mode of perception is determined by the context – if the experience is strongly framed or not (Brandt, 2006). In the trivial and unbounded stream of everyday experience, perception is pragmatic and oriented towards content and action. In a strongly framed aesthetic context, the mode of perception is extraordinary, an intense mode of form-oriented hyper-perception. For Brandt, the concept of form in art is key to this framing of reality that enables aesthetic perception.

This means that everyday speech, by its very everydayness, by default is perceived through this pragmatic, content oriented mode of perception. Even when formal operations like abstraction and fragmentation introduce an aesthetic framing, there still seems to be a split between recognizing the everyday speech sources through this pragmatic mode and perceiving them as abstract poetic forms, and in my experience it is very hard to focus on both the semantic and musical aspects of ordinary speech at the same time. Instead, perception seems to flip between the two modes, with one always being in the foreground, depending on how intelligible the words are or if there is a narrative or story that draws attention.

Perhaps this also can be illuminated by the way music and language seems to be processed in different parts of the brain. The fascinating split brain research by Roger Sperry and Michael Gazzaniga, carried out on severe epilepsy patients that had the connections between their brain halves cut, has provided some interesting insights into how processing in the brain is divided (Gazzaniga, 1967). The left hemisphere is apparently in charge of intellectual processes like storytelling and creating narratives and meaning, while the right brain hemisphere deals with sensations and spatial, emotional and musical cognition. One way to look at this, is that we are equipped with two parallel perceptual systems in effect creating two parallel experiences, and that might explain the difficulty of retaining focus on the musical features of speech when the spoken narrative grabs our attention.

Sound source and perception

This tendency for semantic content to capture the main focus is the background for my whole methodology of abstraction. In addition to the methods used for signal processing, this also includes the setup of different sound sources. The use of a whole range of different sounding loudspeakers creates a formal layer of differentiation that shifts the attention to their sonic characteristics and the sources as entities in the room. As described in the overview of musical results, the use of hybrid acoustic instrument-loudspeakers can render speech perfectly intelligible while at the same time colouring the sound so that an aesthetic framing is created. This framing also enhances the perception of the qualities and connotations of the other more conventional sound sources as well. The sound of an acoustic instrument somehow means music, and creates a frame of reference that invites musical listening, while speech mediated through a low-fidelity radio have connotations of broadcast and public address. In contrast to these physical objects, the invisible sound wall produced by stereo high-fidelity loudspeakers creates imagined, virtual sonic spaces. New perspectives for listening appear when these sonic realms start to blend in an orchestration of different sound qualities and physicalities

Time perception

Another interesting aspect of perception encountered in this project, is different experiences of time. One kind of time perception relates to the narrative, creating an expectation of a linear story to be told, unfolded from start to end in a forward motion through time. This is very different from the kind of time experienced in the moment of unplanned, responsive interplay, like in a spoken conversation or in improvised music. Even with a shared experience of what has happened so far (and what might happen next), the present is somehow accentuated by the very fact that any response is unknowable before it happens. The dynamics and the risks and rewards of that moment can result in a feeling of an expanded present, a continual now. Indeed, according to merited improviser Derek Baily, improvisation can even be considered a celebration of the moment (Bailey, 2004). This is an experience of time that is qualitatively different from the linear narrative, and one that I cherish in improvised music.

In addition to these ideas of time perceptions, some additional concepts have been useful for thinking about time in this project: the frozen standstill of a static soundscape or a sparse background, and the circular time experienced with cyclic repetitions.

These four perspectives on time perception, from the forward motion of narratives, the expanded moment of improvised interaction, to the stillness of open spaces or the circular time caused by fragmentation and repetition, have emerged in this project as a result of – and played a part in – the exploration of differences and similarities in speech and music:

Narratives are natural in both speech and music, as a story with an implicit dramaturgical development. That can be a monologue, the presentation of documented dialogues (where the act of presenting this dialogue becomes a narrative) or any kind of public address like the very performance situation where conventions create an expectation that performers will produce sound intentionally for an appropriate duration of time before the performance will end and the audience will applaud.

The alertness of the moment is also a feature of speech and music alike, appearing in every unexpected response and unforeseen twist in everyday conversation and improvised music.

Repetition on the other hand, is a phenomenon that is more related to the experience of body movements, of dance or manual labour, or the repetitive or cyclical structure of movement in the physical world in general (raindrops, heartbeats, respiration, walking, machinery, weather, seasons, planets). Repetition for its own sake is not often encountered in everyday speech, but can be found in the aesthetic domains of music, poetry and ritual. The use of cyclic structures with speech will quickly draw attention to the formal structure, framing it as something poetic and shift the focus away from the semantic content.

Static time complements these modes of time perceptions as the opposite of intentional communicative gestures, as the indifferent background without the presence of any acting agents. It offers other perspectives on sound as a phenomenon in space, which was one of the reasons for making a sound installation version of my performance concept – a sound installation without performers and storytelling agents, but with the possibility to walk around and structure the experience spatially.


References

Bailey, D. (2004). Free Improvisation. In D. Warner & C. Cox (Eds.), Audio Culture: Readings in Modern Music (pp. 255–265). New York: Continuum.

Brandt, P. A. (2006). Form and Meaning in Art. In M. Turner (Ed.), The Artful Mind (pp. 171–186). Oxford: Oxford University Press. http://doi.org/10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195306361.003.0009

Gazzaniga, M. S. (1967). The Split Brain in Man. Scientific American, 217(2), 24–29. http://doi.org/10.1038/scientificamerican0867-24

Shklovsky, V. (1965). Art as Technique. In L. T. Lemon & M. J. Reis (Trans.), Russian Formalist Criticism: Four Essays (pp. 3–24). Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.


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