Friday, June 05, 2020

What you see can change how you hear music


Valentin Silvestrov's entrancing Fifth Symphony has achieved some currency, but the Ukrainian composer's other music remains almost unknown; this despite two persuasive advocacies on disc of the equally compelling Sixth Symphony. Seen above is Silvestrov's Sixth from Roman Kofman and the Beethoven Orchester Bonn on the MD&G audiophile label - the other recording is on ECM from the SWR Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra. Roman Kofman conducted the world premier of Silvestrov's Sixth Symphony in 2002. In a preview for that premiere the German critic Volker Tarnow described the Symphony as "a gigantic farewell symphony, written at the end of the millenium, retrospective, summing up and at the same time directing a visionary look into the future..." Two decades later this dark hued work remains a symphony for our time as one epoch ends and we move into an uncertain future. Although it inhabits the same forbidding sound world as Sir Malcolm Arnold's equally overlooked Ninth Symphony Silvestrov's Sixth is not an exercise in nihilism; instead it is life affirming, but affirms life warts and all.

When Silvestrov moved away from the avant-garde school in the mid-1970s he developed his 'metaphorical style' which he later called 'meta-music'. He describes this as a composing style underpinned by the use of symbols and allegories, not by direct thoughts. He talks of reclaiming outdated phonemes - distinct units of sound - and reclaiming them as his own. An example of this in the Sixth Symphony are the subliminal quotations from the composer's Requiem for Larissa, which in turn repurposes material from his Silent Songs (Stille Lieder) for baritone and piano.

Valentin Silvestrov's 'meta-music' amalgamates different sensory inputs - audible phonemes - which usually function quite independently. This amalgamation of usually discrete sensory inputs means it is a form of creative synaesthesia, a condition well-known but little-understood in the music world. Synaesthesia is usually understood to be the phenomena of 'seeing' sounds as colours, with Olivier Messiaen famously explaining "I see colours when I hear sounds, but I don’t see colours with my eyes. I see colours intellectually, in my head". But this crosstalk between the sensory channels can extend beyond the hearing and seeing channels.

Our eyes do far more than just seeing, and evidence that Coronavirus can be contracted through the eyes is startling evidence of crosstalk between sensory channels. Research published in The International Tinnitus Journal has identified that our eyes are sound as well as vision transducers, and that the eyes play an important role in passing ultrasound - sound above the upper frequency limit of the ear - to the brain. In these ultrasonic regions the eye is not producing conventional sounds but is feeding sensory information to the brain which becomes a key part of the cognitive process. While the upper limit of human hearing through the ear ranges from 15 to 18 khz depending on age, the frequency response of the eye extends beyond 50 kHz. In the graph below taken from the article the effective frequency response of the eye is shown by the double-headed arrow.



Unpicking the complex links between hearing and seeing may provide important insights for post-COVID music, both in socially distanced concert halls and via streaming when the music is stripped of all visual cues. Research published in Frontiers in Psychology has identified that music with rich emotional content - i.e. most classical music - is perceived as being more positive when listened to with eyes open; while a study by neuroscientists at Duke University which identified that when the eyes move, the eardrums move too, provide an important insight into how the brain coordinates what we see and what we hear.

Elsewhere experiments by social psychologist Chia-Jung Tsay of University College London reported in the periodical Nature suggest that visual content is as important, if not more important, than auditory content when judging music performances. This Nature article quotes Robert Schumann as saying that “a great deal of poetry would be lost” had Liszt played behind a screen. That International Tinnitus Journal article quoted above also contains important research on the conductivity of the skull. This tactile sensory channel - sound energy being transmitted from skull to brain without involving ears and eyes - has a frequency range of 0 to 50kHz. Skull conductivity explains why deaf musicians can 'hear' sounds, and enhanced conductivity of bass frequencies through the skull is why headphones and earbuds have become the transducer of choice for younger listeners.

A Psychology Today article sums up the little-understood complexities of how our discrete sensory channels interact when listening to music when it explains that "We don’t experience our senses individually. Rather, our brain meshes with our vision and hearing to create our conscious experience of the world. What you see can influence what you hear, and likewise hearing can affect vision". Could multi-sensory appeal explain the otherwise largely inexplicable sales resurgence of vinyl LPs, which as well as delivering music (sound) also offer large striking artwork (visual) and tactile packaging (touch) sensory inputs? Doubtless the classical alt-right, which have commercial partnerships with streaming services will dismiss this discussion of sensory channel convergence as just more Overgrown Path woo-woo. However the alt-right and the woo-wooers agree on one thing: classical music must adapt as its audience changes. But while the alt-right has the answers - vanity concert halls, the Mirga effect, click bait culture, virtual music making etc etc, I can only offer questions.

Even when life returns to 'normal' concert halls will never be the same. Social distancing will - hopefully - be a thing of the past. But virtual concert going will have been given a permanent boost. Do the peak experiences of listening to classical music occur when sound is augmented by cross-over from other sensory channels? Is this why the frisson of concert hall performances with an audience can never be recreated in a recording studio? Is classical music in denial that the younger demographic is hungry for multi-sensory music experiences such as those delivered by Tomorrowland and other dance music festivals? Do we really understand what happens to classical music when it is progressively stripped of the rich sensory inputs generated by live performance? When streamed classical music is deprived of all sensory clues except sound does it simply become just another entertainment commodity? Yes, more questions than answers. But as I queried back in 2013, is classical music asking the right questions?



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2 comments:

Unknown said...

I've always wondered why classical music organizations don't pay more attention to the visual elements of performance: lighting, costume, set design, etc. Some very modest efforts in this direction could easily produce a more intense concert experience without distracting from the music.

Pliable said...

Totally agree with that comment. See my post 'Adding a visual element makes music more memorable' - https://www.overgrownpath.com/2019/08/adding-visual-element-makes-music-more.html