A Thing is a Hole in a Thing it is Not

Listening to music is difficult for me.  Many aphasiacs find music soothing, even helpful in increasing fluency.  I find attending to music at least agitating, and it can easily lead to serious sensory overload.

My understanding is that music and speech processing use both unique and shared brain areas.  So my experience of music as an intense version of  listening to another person talk makes sense. I might compare it perhaps to the pain of moving with a significant musko-skeletal impairment.

At any rate, I ran across a video of a string quartets performance of Andrew Greenwald’s A Thing is a Hole in a Thing it is Not.  Back in the day, we listened to a pretty wide array of music, so I had some context for this.  What I found interesting was that it is pretty easy to imagine that many/most people will hear this piece kinda as I do now – irritating noise.

Making my way though it, I can hear that there’s much more to it than that.  In pre-injury days I probably would have found it quite interesting musically.

Now, experiencing it as irritating noise, makes it easier for me to listen to than a more conventional piece.  In fact, I can appreciate it spatially quite nicely.  The title certainly suggests that Greenwald intends the piece to evoke conceptual and  spatial experiences as well as a musical one.

In an interview, Greenwald does discuss this along with a wide range of issues including the relationship of the score to the performance, intention to execution, and the aesthetics of composition to those of listening.  Some short excerpts are as follows.

I started out interested in noise vs pitch.

there’s no rhythmic in a literal sense.  (Interviewer: It’s a weird spatial thing you’ve got going on). Right.

(talking about the gap between his intentions, whats on the page, and actual performances) I have control over the general temporal landscape and also the verticalities.

invariably both (aesthetics and practicality of the score) have a level of presence no matter [how] my aesthetics tell me to align myself.

people who are even non-musicains,people want to see what’s going on (and want to see the score) 1:001

Is it acceptable for things to be inscrutable, or do we want clarity?

You create some kind of wrapper or container that allows people to see something unfold…that there might be some kind of truth behind this overwhelming aural experience..

audibly perceived form containers that are put around things that embrace the larger polemic.

You’re the only one that will know it’s the simpler thing

the simpler the better!

creating forms and creating algorithms that are easier to hear and not harder to hear.

I found video of 2 separate performances of the piece.  One shows the quartet performing it.  The musicians wring the sounds from their instruments as much as play them or sit, looking at the score, not playing.

The other provides the score pages that correspond to the portion of the piece being played.  Here the silences that are part of the piece are presented as (relatively) empty score pages.

Together, the two present many of the issues Greenwald discusses.  In turn they are relevant to thinking about and describing my relationship to stimulus in general and music in particular.

6 thoughts on “A Thing is a Hole in a Thing it is Not

  1. I wonder whether slow or “pastoral” pieces are much more easily tolerable – or even enjoyable – for you – like this one, for example: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0U6sWqfrnTs Another alternative might be classical Japanese music – almost anything for the shakuhachi or other single instrument.

    Since I know you used to be something of a music aficionado, I wonder what runs through your mind when you recall past experiences of enjoyment, or whether you are able to recall old songs and represent them to yourself internally in a way that, if you were listening to them being performed, you would find intolerable.

    I like the version with the score much better than the one showing the musicians. I take it that visual and verbal complexity doesn’t tax you in the same way that auditory complexity does.

    1. For me, music that is “soothing” can have a particular irritating quality all its own, I think one of the problems for me with music is how relentlessly temporal it is. Any complexity is difficult, but if I can convert temporal elements to spatial, things are better. At least that’s how I think about it – not sure what a fMRI might show.

      But such a conversion process takes a lot of energy. Also concerning verbal complexity, I learned quite quickly after my injury that most of what people say is not important, there’s a lot of repetition. So I learned that I don’t have to take in a lot of the complexity as it occurs. This filter however, really diminishes the musical experience.

      1. The typical shakuhachi piece seems to me not to be very temporal in the sense of marking time rhythmically, though there is necessarily a kind of calculus going on with the long sustains against the subtly complex releases, which create a kind of double spatiality, the hollow of the flute converted by breath into the a virtual description of the space described by the sound, and also produce a sense of stopped time. So I wonder if when you say “temporal” are you thinking more about rhythm, counterpoint, and simultaneity, or more about taking place in time in such a way as to require constant recycling of or sustained attention to short-term memory?

        I’ve always had a tendency toward synaesthesia, and actually as I get older it has produced less not greater tolerance, or patience, for music. Just a little is enough now. A bit more is way too much. When I was younger, I liked to drench myself in sound and enter the movie of it. Now I hardly ever do that.

        1. Listened to a bit of shakuhachi. Falls into the “should be soothing but is irritating” category, although I could also hear the subtlety you describe. Somewhere I actually have a small collection of transverse bamboo flutes from pre-injury days that I played improvisationally.

          Yeah, temporal in the sense you capture nicely with “require constant recycling of or sustained attention to short-term memory”.

          1. So that raises the question of what happens if you “listen without listening.” In other words, simply play the music, but don’t try to “attend to it.” You might even play it loudly, and allow yourself to hear it, but refuse to follow it. It could be that you would “follow it” unconsciously, and that it might be just fine that way. Not saying it would be “soothing” or “pleasurable,” but one could imagine a discovery that it had had that effect – like a massage administered while you were asleep or anaesthetized.

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