Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Listening in the dark

I’ve been meaning to write this post since a moment at a concert early this year made me think about how I listen to music, particularly in a live situation. As I wrote here a few months back I attended a gig in London at the Chisenhale Dance Space that opened with a set by the trombonist Matthias Forge, playing acoustically in a very large room. The music was very good indeed, but what struck me about the set was how much easier it was for me to concentrate on the music when my eyes were closed.

Now I’ve often been known to close my eyes at concerts, partly because I have very sensitive eyes and the glare of certain stage lighting or even the strain of trying to see in the dark can be a pain, and partly because I find it easier to concentrate that way. (It used to be the case that the smoke from people’s cigarettes in the hall would irritate my eyes a lot as well but thankfully the one decent law this government has ever passed corrected that problem) Many a time people I have sat beside have nudged me, thinking I may have drifted off to sleep when in truth I have merely remained very still, eyes closed. But let’s go back a few lines there, I have often closed my eyes at gigs “because I find it easier to concentrate.” I wonder why this is? Does shutting down one of the senses make it easier to respond to one of the others? I’m no biologist, but I suspect not.

At that gig back in March, I found myself sat in the front row of the audience when Matthias placed his chair right in front of me, literally a few feet away, and sat down to play. He came so close to the assembled crowd because his music was played quietly without amplification in a big room. If he was further back some of the audience may not have heard much at all. Forge set about extracting all kinds of beautiful yet alien sounds from his instrument, using a series of plastic and cardboard tubes pushed into the bell, and blowing and scraping just about every inch of the trombone. The effect this had on me was basically to create a series of “that’s a nice sound, ahhh that’s how he makes it” moments. I found myself as much interested in the visual spectacle as the aural.

Now such attention to what was happening and how it happened might make good material for the live music reviewer, but there was a point about ten minutes into Forge’s set when I suddenly realised I had paid very little attention to the overall structure and progression of the music. I knew how the sounds were individually made and the skill required to generate them, but I didn’t really know what the sum of the parts totalled up to. At this point I closed my eyes, sat back and let the shape and form of the music come together in my mind and the impact on me was something of a mini revelation.

I kept my eyes closed for the rest of that night’s performances and have done so for the majority of concerts I have attended since. Therefore when later that same evening Mark Wastell surprised the audience by introducing a blast of digitally produced chatter into an otherwise quite austere saxophone / tam tam duo with John Butcher I was as shocked as anyone. I didn’t see him reach down to turn a dial on a mixer or press a button on a CD player, I just heard this new characteristic enter into the soundworld in my head. I can’t help but think this was a better way to experience the music.

At first this seems a bit strange to me. I am very much a visual person. I trained in school as a visual artist and a day doe snot pass without something catching my eye or the camera lens on my iPhone. I have a love of the packaging CDs come in and really dislike imageless Mp3 downloads. When I think about though it I am very comfortable listening to music on CD, and perhaps my listening methods are best suited to situations where all there is is sound to distract me. Its not that I don't like what I see on stage, its just that it distracts me from the art of listening. I have always struggled to connect with concerts that include visuals projected onto a screen, or dancers moving about the room. Equally the influx over recent years of DVDs featuring collaborations between musicians and visual artists hasn’t really been that welcome with me, as I just struggle to be able to focus on the audio and imagery in tandem. (I say this guardedly as a DVD by Olivia Block with Luis Recorder and Sandra Gibson sits by the side of my computer awaiting its first play, who knows this could be the first I really enjoy…) Perhaps I just don’t have the mental capacity to concentrate on the inputs to two senses at once, or perhaps my ability to listen has evolved to such a state that it requires supreme concentration. I don’t know.

Again, thinking as I type here I have always felt a little uneasy with musicians that present a big visual spectacle on stage. This dates back years, and I remember feeling so much at home with the late eighties Shoegazer indie pop movement that involved miserable looking guitarists standing motionless staring at their feet as they played. When I first took an interest in acid house music around the same time it was from listening to the music on the radio rather than from leaping about in a club. My few brushes with raves back then were soulless experiences, but when John Peel played the music on his late night show as I listened laying on my bed it worked so much better.

Even recently a lot of on-stage theatre merely distracts me from listening properly to the music at hand. Jason Lescalleet is one musician I find enthralling to watch, but inevitably leave the concert hall feeling like I missed the music completely. Joe Colley is another. My written responses to the occasions I have seen Colley perform live have always been more about what I’ve seen than heard. Perhaps this is all just a weakness of mine that others cannot share, perhaps it’s a common thing and I just haven’t noticed. One thing is for sure I’m either watching the stage or my eyes are closed and I’m watching nothing. I never pay any attention to the rest of the audience around me. Very often I’m asked how many people were at a show and find myself unable to answer. So maybe the rest of the room are sat there eyes with closed as well and I just haven’t noticed…

Anyway for now I’ll be sat in my own personal darkness for the majority of the live shows I attend. I’ll be able to report back on the music in detail, just don’t ask me to tell you what haircut Mark Wastell is sporting this week ;)


t said...

interesting post. I've had this experience of being unable to listen structurally whilst paying visual attention to musicians also. It perhaps has something to do with eai as a genre - that it requires the breaking (or at least loosening) of the link between sound & its physical origin (in particular its origin in human movement or gesture). It does also make it harder to define what you get, aesthetically, from a live performance that you don't from a recording.

Richard Pinnell said...

Thanks t (Tom? Terry? Theresa? Tarquin?!)

You are probably right about the separation between the sound and its origin in eai having an impact here. Tha Matthias Forge set in particular was full of extreme extended technique, and without watching closely I would never have known precisely how the sounds were being made. Listening to the same set with eyes closed allowed me to only focus on the abstract sound, and thus I was less interested in single events and more interested in the structure of the piece overall.

I'm not concerned that I might miss some element of a live performance that I wouldn't get with a recording. What interests me is getting the most enjoyable and interesting listening experience from music whatever the scenario, and it does seem that switching myself "off" from the visual quite often works well for me.

Brian Olewnick said...

I tend toward the eyes closed experience myself, though there is the non-minimal danger of actually nodding off; depending who's performing, the resultant snores may or may not enhance the evening.

Of course, when someone like Lescalleet is playing, there's more of an impetus to watch, though at his shows with Lambkin, I still spent much of the time eyes closed and, as you with Mark's electronics, found myself (pleasantly) surprised and confused a few times when unexpected sounds would pop up emanating some yards away from where I thought Jason was.

Doug Holbrook said...

I usually have to keep my eyes open at least half the time..

I guess I have an ongoing fascination with exactly how artists actually do what they do....

David Papapostolou said...

Interesting one. I find it easier to listen and immerse myself into eai and related music with closed eyes, but i realised that i need to look at the performer(s) to follow a more strictly written piece, with a set tempo for example. In other words, i find it easier to move along with the piece if i get this better sense of the tempo by watching the performer. This is not always true, depending how much importance is given to the tempo in the piece. I first realized this at a solo piano concert this winter, someone playing Christian Wolfe's music in London. The music was sometimes quite complex and following the performers hands helped me getting a better grasp on the music.

Richard Pinnell said...

Doug, I understand your fascination with how artists work completely, but thats just my problem. I get so tied up with what I can see that I just don't relax and listen the same as I do at home with a CD. I'd love to be able to do both, but I can't.