What Shall We Play Our Babies?

Uploaded to the festival blog site, 
on the eve of the Liquid Architecture festival of sound arts, July 2005

Last thursday on p 8 of mXNews (the free inner-city daily newspaper in Melbourne) there appeared this picture and caption:

Babies are lulled to sleep wearing headphones piping out the classical masterpieces of Mozart and Vivaldi in a maternity ward in a private hospital in Kosice, eastern Slovakia... The musical therapy is to help the newborns adapt better to life outside the womb.

While it stands to reason that we should play sounds to babies -- the womb after all is a VERY noisy place (I refer you here to festival director Nat Bates' award-wininng article "Sonic Womb" from 2003) -- what makes Mozart and his type the preferred sonic choice? Why not play Hendrix, or Kylie, or noise, or free jazz, or field recordings, or hard-core techno, or office sounds or The Wiggles or other baby sounds or whatever?... 

There is a bet, a faith even, that Mozart is 'good for you'. But on what basis do we reach such a conclusion? In other words, what are the grounds for deciding which sounds to play to our babies, and indeed to ourselves?

This is not just an academic speculation. I have a baby girl, almost five months old now, and I am forced to make that choice of sonic environment everyday. (Even the choice not to play recorded sounds is a choice to let the ambient surburban sounds and the chatter of her parents become her soundscape.)

And this is also the choice that sound artists must make. What sounds do I listen to, do I work with, do I present? What makes the particular sounds we live with rise to the top of the heap of the abundant choices that are available to anyone with an internet connection, radio, shopping mall, and network of listening friends.

This conundrum was at the core of the first discussion I had with festival director Nat Bates when I arrived last week in Melbourne. And out of this I developed a schema that tries to address the varied approaches to sonic decision-making that sound artists, and indeed all of us, are making today.

Because it used to be much simpler -- though not necessarily better or worse... 

Prior to the twentieth-century, music was pretty-much orientated towards a pitch-time grid associated with the development of tonal music. We had melody, harmony, accompaniment, rhythm. It was highly predictive. Instruments were designed to follow at well-tempered scale. Rhythms followed simple meters within regular bar lines. Performers moved, and sounds mapped in a one-to-one fashion from these movements (hit a string, hear a note). 

But now we are in a period after the breakdown of tonality - of an expansion into non-pitched sounds (via percussion and noise), into non-metered time (via the drone and hyper-poly-rythms), into extra-musical activities and non-staged performance (via music theatre, film and intermedia), into the juxtaposition of multiple styles (via the sampler). So if the tonal grid that held it all together has broken, what exactly holds a sonic work together today? In the age of 'anything goes', what structures our listening?

In the age of 'all-sounds', there are nevertheless filters that structure our sonic choices. In fact, there are various 'gravitational pulls' that orientate the sonic choices people make today. These are :-

    1. A pull towards instruments/machines (the 'idiosyncratic' choice)
    2. A pull toward styles (the 'idiomatic' choice)
    3. A pull toward affectations (the 'idiotic' choice)
    4. A pull toward strategies (the 'ideological' choice)

    5. A pull toward personal intuitions (the 'i' choice)

Actually, any sonic choice inevitably involves machines, styles, affectations, strategies and intuition. It is a question, therefore, of which of these things is which has the strongest gravity.

I will briefly outline what I mean by each of these types of pulls below. And then, throughout the course of the festival, I want to test this schema against the various gigs and installations that are part of Liquid Architecture.

I call the pull towards an instrument an idiosyncratic choice, since it is the idiosyncracies of an piece of technology that focuses the sonic practice, whether it be a piano or software tool or voice or network of guitar pedal. The classic example of this sort of artist is the person committed to an instrument, even if what they do on that instrument is highly varied. "I am a pianist." "I am a guitarist." "I am a singer."

I call the pull towards styles the idiomatic choice, since it is the idiom that focuses the sonic practice. So the commitment is to a style, such as free jazz, or techno, or Indian raga. Think of a pop band that may use any instrument or sample of any instrument. For them them the instruments are the means, what is the end of the stylistic idiom. "We are a jazz band." "I do dark noise."

I call the pull toward affectation the idiotic choice, since this is a pull to non-rational emotional meaning. The focus here is to enter into a particular emotive state, regardless of what style or instruments are used. The intentions of film scoring is a classic example here. "I make relaxation music." "I want to make people feel soulful."

I call the pull toward strategies the ideological choice, since being concerned with how we make things, the mechanisms through which we decide things, is to engage in the ideological foundations of a practice. Conceptual Art in the 1960s is the classic strategy art, so to Chance Music. "I play reversed wave files." "I am an improvisor."

I call the pulls towards personal intuitions the 'I' choice because this the focus of the self. What sounds should I work and play with? Just follow your intuition. Do whatever. Follow your nose, or ears. But the 'I' is fictional. There is no way of 'just being me', since the 'me' is really a coordination of the limits of style, affectation, technologies, strategies. "I don't think about what I do." "I just go with the flow."

As a case -in-point, I was discussing with Nat Bates that his collaborative act Machina Aux Rock have two gravitational pulls, towards instruments, and towards style, in his case the pull towards letting the instruments (drums, feedback system via mixer) be explored for what is possible on the instruments regardless of feeling or style, and then the pull towards wanting his music to be an extension, or commentary, or critique of Rock Music. Some days he is tugged towards the idiosyncratic, other times towards the idiomatic.

Being pulled in different directions provides a tension or creative space in which to play. My guess is that for each sound artist, there is a different particular set of pulls, and it would be interesting to identify these. Anything does go, but my proposal is that it only really goes between these four pulls of instrument, style, affect and strategy (and the fifth pseudo-pull of the intuition).

Maybe my schema will prove to be inadequate or inaccurate. We'll see...