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The truth within the illusion: on the interplay of music, perception, and ethics

This paper was originally given at the Music Cognition Colloquium at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, NY. My thanks to Oliver Schneller and David Temperley for the invitation and to their many colleagues and students who contributed thought-provoking questions and discussion. This version of the paper has been substantially revised for the THEME colloquium series at the University of Washington.

In a well-known scene from The Matrix, Laurence Fishburne as Morpheus offers Neo, played by Keanu Reeves, a choice between two pills. If Neo takes the blue pill he will stay in the comforting delusion that the Matrix provides. If he takes the red pill he will awaken from his hallucinatory slumber and glimpse the material reality the Matrix is constructed upon. Commenting on this scene in The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema, Slovenian philosopher and clown prince of Media Studies, Slavoj Žižek says:

"I want a third pill…that would enable me to perceive not the reality behind the illusion, but the reality in illusion itself.” He adds, "The choice between the blue pill and the red pill is not really a choice between illusion and reality. If you take away from reality the symbolic fictions that regulate it, you lose reality itself...Our fundamental delusion today is not to take fictions too seriously. It's on the contrary not to take fictions seriously enough."[1]

This is not to deny the reality of matters of fact, or to suggest that matters of fact are somehow false, subjective, or illusory, but only to recognize that they are incomplete. That is, to point up a nuanced distinction between the factual and the meaningful. Within the domain of art, this can be drawn in terms of the distinction between technique, understood as the material basis through which a work of art is constructed, and something much harder to define. Namely, that which technique seems to be aimed at, the originary impulse of the creative act. In other words, the why of artistic expression that calls the how of technique into action.

More precisely, we might consider this in terms of the enormous practical value that psychoacoustic research has in its application to musical composition. Research in psychoacoustics can help to identify possibilities and constraints that might suggest innovative material as a starting point for a new work. Knowledge of the effect of perceptual and cognitive constraints on such aspects as harmony, acoustics, timbral perception and the relative clarity of musical material is an indispensable tool for any composer.

And yet, as a composer, I still feel as though there is something missing here. This sort of technical knowledge is incomplete. How do we move from observations of and about sense perception to actual pieces of music? How do we, in the words of Bruno Latour, add reality to matters of fact[2] — that is, to move from the mere fact of interesting phenomena and techniques toward something more meaningful, from the how to the why of art?

And beyond this, how can we connect our musical practice and the resulting artifacts, i.e., musical works, to larger considerations of life, human interaction, or ethics? Perhaps the most difficult thing about situating these concerns in a piece of music can be summed up in the question: how do you create both the code and the message at the same time?

How do you get these ideas across while the audience is still learning the language that the ideas are being expressed in? Rather than relying on an external source — a text setting, a program note — to convey these ideas, how can they be communicated in and through the music itself?

Auditory illusion can serve as a starting point. Illusion makes us question what we perceive to be real, what we might otherwise uncritically accept in the world as given to us. Music has the power to express this questioning in a non-discursive way. It can give pleasurable aesthetic shape to something we might normally experience as unpleasurable, as a rupture, namely, the shock of having believed in a given reality and finding it to be an illusion. This questioning can function in the negative, as a rejection of the categories we use to navigate the world, but it can also lead us to an awareness of the interconnectedness of seemingly disparate, or even contradictory states of affairs by creating situations in which contradictions may be presented in combinations that we grasp as unified Gestalten - or by dispersing apparently unified Gestalten into fluid and disorienting streams of events. It is within this fluid relationship to a perceived reality that a space for the ethical dimension of music opens up. To show how this is so I would like to turn to a few of my compositions that explore the potential of auditory illusion.

We might begin by considering the phenomenon of the missing (or ‘phantom’) fundamental. The missing fundamental is an illusion that involves perception of a fundamental frequency of a complex harmonic spectrum that is not physically produced in sound waves. This phenomenon arises in sounds with spectra that correspond to the natural overtone series (spectra with consecutive partials in superparticular integer ratios). The illusion arises because pitch perception is not based entirely on the perception of individual frequencies, but also on the periodicity implied by the relationship between the higher harmonics. If we take a complete harmonic spectrum and successively remove lower-order partials, the listener will continue to hear the fundamental frequency, although this may be combined with a noticeable change in the perceived timbre. Interestingly, this illusion is now widely believed to arise not through physical nonlinearities in the ear, but through information-processing functions in the brain — most notably, the autocorrelation function.

Example 1

This phenomenon persists even after extraction of the first six lower-order partials. Partials 8-14 of the overtone series constitute the pitches of the so-called acoustic scale in natural tuning.

Example 2

This scale contains subsets (e.g., partials 11, 12, 14 / 11, 13, 14) that are microtonal variants of set class 3-3/3-3B, the [014/034] collections, which is "common to most of Schoenberg's atonal and serial music"[3] such as Op. 25, Op. 33, and Nacht from Pierrot Lunaire. We also find microtonally inflected instances of set class 3-5, the [016/056] collection (partials 6, 8, 11 / 7, 10, 13) which is used so extensively in atonal works that Richard Taruskin has termed it the “atonal triad.”[4] Beyond this, there is also a special semiotic value to set 3-3 due to its pervasive use as a musical monogram for Schoenberg [Eb - C - B / (e)S - C - H, in German].

If we reduce the spectrum to just those partials that approximate the [014/034] collections [e.g., above F1: B4(-.49), C5, Eb5(-.31) / Eb5(-.31), B4(-.49), D6(+.40), etc.] and produce those combined frequencies with sine waves will we still hear the missing fundamental? Examples 3c and 3d demonstrate that this is indeed the case. Overtones approximated in equal temperament (i.e., [0134]) can even create a sense of pitch centrality when combined with an implied fundamental pitch (Example 3b).

Example 3 (links open in a new tab)

Ex. 3a: Harmonic collections in natural (harmonic) tuning.


Ex. 3b: [0134] collection on piano (equal temperament) / with implied fundamental


Ex. 3c: [0134] collection in sine waves. A low pitch corresponding to F1 (43.65 Hz) can be distinctly heard.


Ex. 3d: The effect intensifies if we use adjacent partials in a single octave.


What is particularly intriguing here is that this illusion mediates elements of two harmonic vocabularies that are usually taken to be quite distinct, even contradictory — the dissonant and paradigmatically atonal [014/034] collections and the harmonic overtone spectrum.

The musical potential for this protean shift between harmonic vocabularies was of considerable interest to me during the composition of re[(f)use] for live processed melodica, amplified string quartet and electronics. The dissonance of the microtonal pitch collections in the piece is stabilized at various points as it becomes subsumed into the overtone series above a series of three fundamental pitches (F1, m. 12 / B1, m. 24, D2, m. 40).

Example 4 (pitch material in opening section of re[(f)use])

(click links to open audio in a new tab)

m. 1 | m. 12 ('atonal' collection to harmonic series) | mm. 17-24 | mm.29-40

In this way, the piece reveals that two seemingly incongruous practices, two opposing musical vocabularies, are in fact so close that one can be transmogrified into the other through a slight shift in perception. Even before the arrival of the fundamental pitch of the first collection (F1, m. 12) there are presentiments of this transformation in the harmonic glissando that sets the piece in motion and the jittery and unstable flickering between stopped notes in the strings and trills to their artificial harmonics two octaves higher. Timbre also comes to bear on this as the instruments tease out various harmonics of their pitches by moving the bow between ordinary position and molto sul ponticello.

But it is not just the fluid motion between musical vocabularies that invites a questioning of our perceptions in this piece. Moreover, the sounds themselves, as well as the values and associations they call forth, intensify the effect of auditory illusion. The electronic sounds in the piece represent a veritable list of the noises that are conventionally banned from the concert hall; speaker hum, feedback, cell phone interference. A standard element of every dress rehearsal for this piece involves the stage manager going into paroxysms trying to ferret out the source of these electroacoustic calamities, only to discover reluctantly and with some malice that, no, they are supposed to be there, that they in fact supply the driving pitch material in the piece.

And there is some humor, even sarcasm intended here. But beyond this, it is my contention that by taking noises that are normally held to be problems, mistakes, and allowing them to unfold in their own strange sonic richness and complexity, the piece illuminates a possible way out of the default valuation of problem-solving, efficiency and utility that characterizes our commonplace, goal-oriented relating to the world. It is through this rupture in our quotidian experience that we might gain some insight into our concepts of self and other that can suggest modes of ethical engagement in and with our shared world.

In our everyday experience of the world we do not typically have the sense of being a mind trapped in a body that is irrevocably barred from some “external” world of objects, a strong break between self and other. Rather, we tend to have a sense of being immersed in the world and of having an intuitive and continuous connection between our intentions and the objects we use to carry them out. When I write down a message on a piece of paper, for instance, the pencil is transparent to me; I'm lost in the act of transmitting my thought into language and manifesting it on the paper. Consider, for instance, your experience of a bicycle while riding it, a fork while eating with it, or perhaps even the feeling (or absence of feeling) in the integration of your bodily motion and your desire to move in a particular direction. This state of transparency, through which we engage with objects in a relationship of “in-order-to” is characteristic of what Martin Heidegger calls readiness-to-hand.[5]

In an important sense our tools remain hidden from us by their closeness, becoming an extension of our somatic and psychic reaching into the world. It is only when difficulties arise, when the pencil’s lead breaks, when we are too drunk to walk, when we encounter an artwork that defies comprehension or otherwise ruptures our unreflective perception of reality, that we really notice and reflect on these objects. At moments like these, we may experience an opening into the ‘inner life’ of these objects, or put more precisely, an opening into the nature of our relationship to them and to the world.

Given over to the usual purpose of audio fidelity, the ideal role of a loudspeaker is to be a transparent carrier for the sounds it reproduces. In effect, to speak with another’s voice. But if we put aside for a moment the reproduction ideal, we might raise the question: what can be gained by using loudspeakers, not as a tool of reproduction, but as a musical object in their own right; in effect, to let them speak with their own voice? And what form might this autochthonous voice take?

My view is that it takes a form that dispels the utilitarian transparency within which we relate to tools such as loudspeakers or, for that matter, compositional technique or psychoacoustic research. Namely, that which is experienced as an unreadiness-to-hand, a problem, a rift, a roughening of the easy sort of practical engagement with the world in which tools like loudspeakers serve as a psychosomatic prosthesis for us. In the case of audio equipment, this may take the form of speaker hum, feedback, interference, in short, noise, the other of music. Noise, the other of information; noise, that which resists the categories by which we name, tame and ultimately maim the manifest diversity of experience.

But what does this have to do with ethics? After all, we are only talking about loudspeakers and noise, not about silenced human voices. And that’s true, but I would cautiously like to advance the claim that there is an underlying homology that connects the ways we experience noise and otherness as a problem more generally and how we experience otherness in human form.

There is abundant experimental literature in social psychology that points to the effect that human perception about in-groups and out-groups has on moral behavior, and on the way that people treat members of their own groups compared to people outside these groups.[6] A general finding is that people tend to feel a greater sense of moral responsibility toward members of their own groups. Moreover, strong distinction between groups can serve as a precondition, as well as a rationalization, for the denigration of and cruelty toward individuals who are deemed to be members of an inferior out-group.[7]

Developing an ethic that is based on an openness and hospitality toward otherness, rather than on universally binding moral principles, Jacques Derrida argues that our moral responsibility is not only to the other who is like us, who “speaks our language” but to all others, regardless of the extent of their alterity from us. He contrasts the stranger “with a name”, whose motives are intelligible, who is one of us, to what he terms the “absolute stranger”, whose motives and discourse remain concealed. Derrida advocates an ethic that is not conditional on assimilation into accepted customs and principles, but that makes room for otherness to exist on its own terms within them. Ethics, for Derrida, arises in this tension between universal acceptance and the irreducible particularity of absolute otherness.[8]

Such an encounter with unmitigated otherness is not easy to handle. Our spontaneous reactions to it complicate the matter enormously. Edmund Husserl offers us an intriguing thought experiment: imagine you are sitting at a table immersed in your work when you reach for a drink of water.[9] Except, it’s not water; it's milk. In this instant, we are momentarily confronted by the pure “that it is”, the sense datum, prior to the categories by which we are able to make sense of “what it is.”

In this encounter with sheer thatness, this otherness that defeats our expectations and resists easy assimilation into determinate categories and identity conditions, we recoil in disgust. It is not that otherness is disgusting in and of itself in this scenario, rather it is the unexpected intrusion of otherness into a space of intimate proximity that arouses disgust; it is a transgression of boundaries, both physical and imaginary.

Here, the element of exteriority is key, as is the potential for unwanted contact, that is, for contamination. Consider Paul Rozin's rather appalling invitation to spit into a cup and then to immediately drink the contents of that cup. Notwithstanding the minimal difference between this action and our constant consumption of the saliva that is in our mouths at any given time, there is something undeniably repulsive about this proposition. The externalization at work here is decisive – what had been part of a healthy, normally functioning body (in fact, my own) is made to seem foreign, a foreignness that signals an objectification of the body. That substance in the cup is no longer mine, it is a mere object, an unfamiliar, alien factum.

The discomfort stemming from this othering of the body opens a fissure of doubt in the salvific narratives that afford the subject a privileged position in the cosmos. This is what so disturbs Julia Kristeva in Approaching Abjection when she writes, “the corpse, seen without God and outside of science, is the utmost of abjection. It is death infecting life.”[10] Objects of disgust appear as a threat to the unity and stability of subjective identity.

Infection, abjection, and contamination, then, may be understood as a challenge to notions of purity and unity, be they racial, political, religious, moral, aesthetic, or sonic. From here we can see a shift away from merely biological determinations of disgust; disgust enters into metaphor and ideology. Martha Nussbaum, in commenting on the language of disgust and its relationship to political oppression notes that, “throughout history, certain disgust properties...have repeatedly and monotonously been associated with groups, by reference to whom, privileged groups seek to define their superior human status...Thus for Hitler (and not only for him), the Jew is a maggot in a festering abscess, hidden away inside the apparently clean and healthy body of the nation.”[11] With this in mind, we might follow Marcel Cobussen in his suggestion that if we are to approach the ethical dimension of music a first step could be to identify a means of rethinking noise, strangeness and impurity away from the spontaneously negative reaction we often have to them.[12] That is, to effectively dissolve the specter of contagion and contamination associated with these phenomena and to recast them in the light of what might be termed the heterogenous sublime — a multifarious and profoundly irreducible beauty that defies easy categorization, manipulation, and control.

Art has the capacity to make strangeness acceptable, even beautiful. Again turning to Heidegger, we see that within artistic practice our relationship to the objects of experience can become wholly transformed. In The Origin of the Artwork, he writes that within art “fundamentally, the ordinary is not ordinary; it is extra-ordinary, [ungeheuer (or, out of our comfort zone, my translation)].”[13] Art forges a rift, an opening into our unreflective, use-oriented relationship to the world in such a way, “that now, for the first time, in the midst of beings, it brings them to shine and sound.”[14]

He writes: “In the manufacture of equipment — for example, an ax — the stone is used and used up. It disappears into usefulness.”[15] Within the world-making potential of art, however, “metal comes to glitter and shimmer, colors to shine, sounds to ring, the word to speak."[16] These quasi-magical attributes are born of our response to the materiality of the artwork, provided we adopt an open and attentive attitude to it. This sort of openness allows an artist to recognize the aesthetic potential within the objects of experience and allow it to emerge through creative and masterful shaping of the material underlying the work. Heidegger continues, "All this comes forth as the work sets itself back into the massiveness and heaviness of the stone, into the firmness and flexibility of the wood, into the hardness and gleam of the ore, into the lightening and darkening of color, into the ringing of sound, and the naming power of the word.”[17]

For Heidegger, the truth of art resides in its ability to illuminate our intricate and fragile relationship to the world, in all its manifest strangeness and uncertainty. This illumination “sets its shining into the work. The shining that is set into the work is the beautiful. Beauty is one way in which truth as unconcealment comes to presence."[18]

Art creates a space in which our often negative reaction to otherness can be laid aside and a new relationship to it can be disclosed to us. An artwork can present us with an alternative to the practical or technique-oriented attitude we have to the world, an alternative to the paradigm of manipulation and control through which we exert ourselves in the world, an alternative to that “in-order-to” through which we often instrumentalize our engagement with others and otherness. Art creates an opening for us to rethink our relationship to chaos, difference and noise not in terms of problems to be solved, but in terms of wonder.

Coming back to our discussion of auditory illusion and harmonic vocabularies, I would like to make the case that there is a direct link between these psychoacoustically derived compositional techniques and the phenomenological reflections on ethics expressed above. Both approaches have the power to reveal that putatively oppositional binaries such as dissonance and consonance, music and noise, alterity and familiarity may, through just a slight shift in perception, be understood to be mutually constitutive of and emergent from one another.

In this light, re[(f)use] estranges the familiar and familiarizes the strange. It re-situates noise through the sense of order that is brought about by the momentary recasting of dissonant and paradigmatically atonal pitch collections as harmonic spectra, thus granting us a glimpse that there is form, logic, structure in the noise. But it also puts the stability, validity and distinction of these very categories into question. The piece represents an attempt to provide a spa