Biorhythm – Music and Interactivity

Society changes. Habits change. Art changes. Perceptions change. Insight changes. Yet many of the codified traditions that inform our definitions of music do not, and in some cases have not for a few hundred years. However, it is through these changes of perceptions and insight that allows us to break free from rigid concepts and unyielding traditions. Art, and music in particular, is currently undergoing such a revolution. As subjects such as psychoacoustics, cognition and technology become as great a part of the musician’s and composer’s training as traditional ones, a greater freedom is being granted. No longer held by the restraints of tradition composer/performer/audience relationships, art and music are evolving and becoming interactive.

It is a mistake we often make, whether we are composers, performers, musicologists or just music fans, that the meaning of music is inherent, as are its tensions, its moods, its complexities, its simplicities, its evocations and its emotions. Indeed we assume that music is inherently music. We assume as listeners that we are passive receptors to something that already exists, and already has form and meaning. However, music is not music merely by virtue of its existence as sound. It is only through the very active, engaged process of listening that we imbue music with, not derive from music, meanings and emotions: we sense patterns, we recognise intentions and we grasp textures. Sound becomes music when we hear it as such. Music is music because its audience makes it so.

No artistic involvement is a passive one – music possibly least of all – it is experiential, for the listener as much as for the participants. At all times we are interpreting what we hear and see and formulating a structured understanding of it. Sound is music because we, at a basic cognitive level, interpret it according to what we believe music to be. We bring our own experiences, our own knowledge and our own ideas to it and at an unconscious level, order the sounds we hear accordingly, looking for patterns and complexity in sounds. Even beyond this basic cognitive level, music demands an active, even reciprocal relationship with its audience, an investment in the experience, a form of participation in the event unfolding before it. It requires as much of its audience as its audience does of it.  Without its listeners, music is just sounds floating through the air, without reason or meaning. How many times have you, as a listener, tapped your foot, nodded your head, danced, jumped around like a madman? Or gotten so entirely caught up in the experience that everything else ceases to exist? We are each interpreters of music, and we are what makes it matter.

Of course, the question of interpretation of music is not a simple one. While we on one level are feeling music, and making connections, at another interpretive level, the performer(s) themselves are interpreting a text, an already-formed work which they are turning into sound through their physical interaction with their instruments. It is not within the scope of this article to discuss the minutiae of performer interpretation of scores, however, but the mention serves to remind us that all musical sounds are borne from physical movements. Visual and physical cues have as much influence over our understanding of a musical experience as aural. We flock to concerts, classical or rock or pop or any music, for the ‘immediacy’, the actuality of the performance. History is full of examples of concert halls where optimal acoustics was sacrificed for being able to see the performers, the Royal Albert Hall being an example.  We want to watch an orchestra as they produce music: we grasp excitement, tension and relaxation in its macro-scale energetic movements. We feel the unease when we see the erratic jerking movements of string players in the famous syncopated passages of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. We see the flow and movement in a pianist’s whole body as they play a Chopin Nocturne. We see the sweat and wild gestures of a lead guitarist, the effort on the face of a singer and the enormous physical exertion of a drummer, the band as a whole whipping their audience into a frenzy. The performer’s body is almost as great a vehicle for expression as the instrument.

We are aware of music’s physical source and we respond to it. It raises us to a new level of participation in the musical experience, perhaps a different one to that of the performer themselves, but a no less vital one to the creation of the experience. There is a long-established traditional three-tier hierarchy in the creation of a musical experience: the composer-performer-audience triumvirate which has remained an almost sacrosanct relationship since it became the norm early in the development of Western music. Yet is this hierarchy that has been possibly the most challenged of all our musical conventions over the last century, with our growing understanding – and artistic exploitation – of the role of the audience in the creation of music. While we are at this stage long-adjusted to the altered role of the composer affected by electronic music, the idea that audience can be performer, or even composer, is a new but fascinating one, with new ideas taking shape almost as the ability to carry them out becomes available. Audience participation is being elevated to a state well beyond that of mere interpreter, while our very notions of what makes a musical composition or experience is changing and developing as rapidly as the technology that makes it possible.

We of the 21st century have become so accustomed to recorded music that we no longer even consider its implications, and the subtle influences it has had on our musical development and perception. What the ubiquitous embrace of recorded music has done to us as participants of musical experience is accustomed us to the abstraction of sound from its physical source, the complete removal of the visual from our aural perceptions. And yet, even those of us who have never known a world without readily available recorded music, and are as familiar with works created entirely in studio as live works, are still very much aware of this abstraction. We assume, and in many cases imagine, the source of the music we hear. Recorded music creates a phantom image of the physical that is as important as the actual. For many, even synthetic sounds in popular and art music are given a real-world analogue – “that sounds like… “that reminds me of…”. For those of us familiar with them, the physical sound processes now rendered digitally colour our image of the sound: splicing, cutting, fading, echoes, phasing.

It was the creative adoption and exploitation of recording and related techniques by musicians and composers, and the wholesale acceptance of this abstraction from sound sources, that led to the first significant change in our musical hierarchy, and a shift in our perception of the musical work. With the explosion of electro-acoustic music, particularly musique concrète and tape music such as the work of Stockhausen or Pierre Schaeffer, in the 1950s, musical text and musical experience were for the first time made one and the same. A ‘purer’ music was created in which composition took precedence, and by removing the performer from the experience altogether, allowed the composer’s text to be presented to the audience without any intermediate interpretation. The composer became performer, the audience became the sole interpreter, mere witness to process without stimulus and auditory effect without physical cause. Left without the visual cues that provide us with reference points for our own interpretation, looking at immobile speakers or staring at our feet, audiences lost the investment they once made in music, and lost the connection they made. Electro-acoustic music is still a vibrant and important part of the music world, yet audiences felt the lack of participation in the experience of it. Our discomfort was so strong it led to an almost universal panning of the most famous attempt to bring musique concrete to a wider audience, The Beatles’ Revolution 9.

Despite this, or maybe because of it, the last few decades have seen an increasing attempt by artists and composers together to understand the processes that make music and art what it is: the processes that allow us, the audience, to understand and feel it. Multimedia works, collaborations between the entire artistic community, give the audience everything they need. Video art, visual art, performance art, dance, all work with music to communicate with the audience to guide our own interpretations of the experience and to better communicate through all the senses at once. This is the cusp of a revival of an old aesthetic, and not that of the Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerke with all art subject to the dominant text (exemplified in the theatre), but of the Dadaist ideals of the early twentieth century. Now stripped of its anarchist associations and less concerned with the subversion of artistic practices, Dada’s child, the multimedia artwork, has led to the a multidimensional web of exchange between all artistic spheres: now united by a revival of the physical in music and art, by an understanding of the human body.

Just like the Dada artists of the ‘20s, contemporary artists are striving to subvert the established hierarchy, but doing so through the creation of works which allow full audience interactivity. The fourth wall has been truly broken in contemporary art and music, elevating the audience to a whole new level of participation: physical rather than cognitive. The tradition role of the composer has been relegated to one of an engineer, but with this new aesthetic, technology has become just another sphere of art. Artistic vision drives technological innovation, while technological vision enables artistic innovation. The audience can now be spectator, composer and performer at once through immersive works in which art is fully interactive, and even generated by its audience, enabled and inspired by technology. Dublin artists Alex Dowling and Sinead Meaney’s recent work Bodysnatcher allows the participant to use their own body and voice to record sound and turns these sounds into an integrated audiovisual piece, allowing anybody, regardless of training, ability or experience, to become an electronic composer. That this composition requires the participant to use their body to make the sound equally allows anybody to be a performer. In French technologists/artists Scenocosme’s Contacts installation, participants generate their own personal sound world through physical contacts with their environment and with each other, turning their own bodies into musical instruments: participants are instrument, performer, composer and spectator!

So what is left for the future, now that art is already fully interactive, and the traditional roles of musical experience fully dissolved? We have been brought to both the highest possible levels of interactivity and a possible perfect synergy of all the arts. We have built a perfect artistic unity to facilitate the creative exploration of the individual. The answer most likely lies in wait for its technology. Art and technology are by now so inextricably linked to one another that it is difficult to see one develop further along this path without the other. Still, exploration of interactivity and the physical gesture is not exhausted. New interactive performance environments, virtual and physical, are still being developed, and may soon become popularised thanks through the move towards motion and gesture in the gaming industry, which has brought motion control, gesture sensors and immersion into our homes more effectively than artists could have done.

Art now allows us to simultaneously explore our own awareness of our human body and its expressive capabilities and to connect with others on whole new levels of collaboration. Music though, has always embodied this on some level. Created and performed by the few for the many, it is a collective experience initiated by the actions of individuals. We connect with it individually and with others. But we, as spectators, need the different levels of participation and investment in the musical experience allowed by this interactive, physical and cross-media art to fully understand our own creative capabilities.

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