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Hearing Something New

"Asking the right questions in the first place takes as much work as any other process."

- Jonathan Burrows, A Choreographer's Handbook

The body as an instrument of REceiving

According to the percussionist, Evelyn Glennie, "Hearing is basically a form of touch." Sound is vibration that travels through molecules. Bodies, being made up of molecules, are excellent carriers of sound vibrations. Sound vibrations channeled through our ears are translated into the experience of hearing by our brains. Those of us who have "normal" hearing tend to fixate on that heard experience, leaving our awareness of the physical vibration of our body's molecules in the mostly unnnoticed regions of our awareness.

The body as an instrument of PERceiving sound

If we train our awareness on the feeling of vibrations in our body, we receive different information from the same stimulus than if we train our awareness on what those vibrations cause us to hear.

While listening to a recording of Eliane Radigue's feedback on magnetic tape recently, I entered into a deeply receptive state in order to take in the subtle nuances of her music. Every sound in my environment hit both my ears/hearing and my body/feeling like full-blown wallops. I didn't notice my body shift its weight, but I heard the couch creek occasionally beneath me, causing an attending shudder through my shoulders, neck, and upper arms. The neighbor's dog, apparently upset by Radigue's feedback, barked throughout most of the piece, and each time she let out out a fresh yelp, I felt my rib cage rattle and my heart constrict like a lemon-induced wince. When the refrigerator kicked on, I felt it in my femurs.

This is how sound hits us all the time. It's too much stimulation, so we tune it out in order to carry on "normal" 21st century lives. These are things I've thought about for years. It's the foundation for my thinking on sound, music, and perception, but new questions are emerging as I explore other facets of the body as an instrument of music, art and perception.

The STRUCTURE of the body as a LENS of perception

I have been wondering, lately, how one's body - beyond the structure of the ear and the neurology specifically related to hearing - affects one's hearing.

For instance, our relatively symmetrical and often paired (two eyes, two ears, two legs, etc) physical form inspires much of the dualistic nature of our thinking (black/white, male/female, open/closed, etc), as well as the vast amount of duple-metered music throughout the world. How does this affect our hearing? When we hear sounds, do we immediately link it to other sounds in our environment or memory to give it another half, and therefore a completion? In order to answer this question, would I need to wear one eye patch and one ear plug, hop on one leg without crutches, and tie back one of my arms for a week?

The USE of the body as a LENS of perception

That last question led me to give a fresh listen to recordings of the pianist, Paul Wittgenstein, who lost his right arm in the first world war. He developed a repertoire of piano music for the left hand by commissioning new works from composers and transcribing existing pieces. You can see and hear him play in this brief first video...

Or hear him both soar and struggle through a transcribed version of Bach's Chaconne in D minor for violin in this next video.

"Physical skills set up patterns in your brain that will pull your body in those directions. Freedom to escape those patterns is only relative."

- Jonathan Burrows, A Choreographer's Handbook

I have been imagining how Wittgenstein heard music after losing his arm. Did every piece of music he heard get translated into a question of if and how he might be able to express that piece of music with his left hand and his masterful use of the piano's foot pedals? And how did this physical and attending mental shift alter the way he heard and experienced sound? According to Glennie, who developed a high degree of tactile awareness of sound in order to compensate for hearing loss, and confirmed in my own experience, lower external sounds are felt in the lower portions of the body, while higher sounds tend to vibrate in the higher portions of the body. How and what does one think, when the vibrations of a creak in an old, rusty spring moves only through one arm?

INVERTing the HEARing apparatus

All of these questions stimulated so much mental noise that I needed to do a head stand to quiet my mind. In addition to inverting the directional flow throughout the body, head stands induce focus. Inhalations rise, exhalations descend, squished organs get some breathing room, the spread-out top-organs get a little healthy squish from what are usually their downstairs neighbors, and the mind needs to put all of its attention on keeping the body balanced on a single spot on the head, about an inch in diameter. It's a great equalizing exercise.

Head stands also change how things sound. Some essential parts of the hearing apparatus get compressed in ways that, for me, block out a lot of low and mid-range sounds. The world suddenly seems quieter and hissier as the upper range of sounds floods my perception. Eliane Radigue's recordings of feedback of magnetic tape become more whistly and less pulsing. My breath sounds somehow breathier. I can hear my blood louder than ever. After a couple of minutes, breath and blood outweigh Radigue. As the body adjusts to a state of inversion, perception shifts inwards.

"The paradox is that when I accept that all I can do is the old ideas, the habits, then I relax, and when I relax then without thinking I do something new." - Jonathan Burrows, A Choreographer's Handbook

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