Listening Here and There

Inspired by the scientific adventure of Mars rover Curiosity playing out 140 million miles from earth, I’ve begun a project called EAR1 (Earth Aural Rover). As I think about Earth and Mars I think of it in terms of “here and there”. Although in the larger picture of the universe they are both “here”, it is difficult to really perceive this vast space/time environment and really where I am standing in it. I can read, do the math and look at the models of this environment, yet unless I experience it, I don’t think I’ll get it truly.

This sublime scientific expedition is a fascinating quest as our human civilization probes the Mars surface, collecting information for our better understanding of the Mars environment. The 10 plus testing instruments on board the Curiosity Rover are amazing technological achievements, but apparently we are not curious as to what Mars sounds like, because there are no devises listening. We didn’t put an ear on board. We sent back music i.e. “Reach for the Stars” by but this came from here not there.

So “there” remains silent, but “here” is another story. This planet is overflowing with sound. So “Here” seems like a good place to explore sound. I started thinking about how and why we explore sound on this planet. We listen with our ears. We record it and amplify it with technological devises. We also make sound to explore it. As a musician the latter seems like a logical way to me, as the experience is loaded from the inside out. The idea of exploring sound expression through music is a human way to perceive the time/space of ourselves. The distance between ourselves and the perceived potential of ourselves is infinitely farther than from Earth to Mars.

So the testing of listening devices that will be on board EAR1 begins. here is the first test.

String Mechanoreceptor Field (SMF)

Action Potentials

“There is no such thing as an empty space or an empty time. There is always something to see, something to hear. In fact, try as we may to make a silence, we cannot”

John Cage

It may seem a bit counter intuitive to approach a project in sound without any audio. I would say most of the time we experience sound without a corresponding visual reference. Additionally it is not often that we experience visual stimuli without at least some kind of sound happening somewhere.  Simply, sound is everywhere.  It is no wonder that our brains are more active when we hear sound or music, than with any other activity we do, as our brains have evolved to experience a world of sound. Our audible experience is nothing short of layer upon layer of sounds, framing the visual world we walk through in a disconnected way.

When we actively listen, I think connections are formed, and disconnections become much more apparent. When we actively listen we listen with the highly evolved human listening brain that allows us to detect the subtleties of timbre, pitch, tonal qualities, that help us orient sounds and thus better place them in relationship to ourselves.

What is the nature of active listening? After the physical pressure of a sound reaches the ear and affects the inner ear, the principles of psychoacoustics and action potentials is employed in our listening process. It is here through the composition of our brain functions that there is active listening, and seeing, It has nothing to do with our eyes and ears. Human perception is of course a highly evolved function of the brain as well. We most likely never really see or hear what we actually see or hear, as our brains interpret through the filters of memory and emotion.

Perception allows us to see without seeing, and to hear without hearing. It allows us to orient ourselves with the audio visual world in a way that we can explore it if we employ this active listening and seeing.

The Contrapuntal: Art and Science

Art and Science go way back. Certainly further than Bach and Newton, however these two have profoundly influenced the audio-visual experience we have today.

Christoph Wolff wrote in his essay, Bach’s Music and Newtonian Science: A Composer in Search of the Foundations of His Art, that “…our understanding of his musical philosophy benefits directly from placing it in the intellectual milieu of the Newtonian spirit of discovery. But Bach’s art of penetrating, exhausting, expanding, and transcending all conceivable possibilities of harmony – that is, of musical composition – is by no means only to be understood as a theoretical exercise. It is a spirit of musical discovery that reaches beyond pure intellect by speaking directly to the heart.”

Read the whole thing here:

When trying to make sense of the audio and visual languages and how they are interpreted from one to the other, and the relationships of experience one must think of how emotion is key. Science can offer the “How” – Art can offer the “Why” and this happens in contrapuntal.

Who better to convey some contrapuntal emotion than Glenn Gould? Below is Bach’s The Art Of Fugue 

Extracting the Beat

So it seems that when we have an audio visual experience that the audio information our brains process basically overrides the visual information and can even alter what we perceive.

Laurel J. Trainor and Andrea Unrau of McMaster University wrote in the Empirical Musicology Review Vol. 4, No. 1, 2009 : Extracting the beat: An experience-dependent complex integration of multisensory information involving multiple levels of the nervous system.

You can check out their paper here:

So not only is perception altered with audio visual experiences – our memory plays a major role. The timing of the audio and visual beats are not the same at any point in the videos.

Does experience (memory) bring them together?