Do You Hear What I See?
Music, unlike every other art form we’ve got, is about hearing rather than seeing. And yet seeing is such a dominant sense that it still plays a very conspicuous role in music-making, whether it be the created-through-and-for-the-eyes scores we disseminate to musicians who then turn it into music by looking at them, the silent visual cues of a conductor that keep an ensemble together, or even the less formal visual nods that members of jazz and rock bands signal each other with.
Reading Mark N. Grant’s provocative comments about music history phobia yesterday, I was reminded of my own more rebellious—and perhaps a tad extreme—days. Back in 1983, I stopped writing down the music I was composing for nearly two years, transmitting it only through aural means. My slogan at the time was: “Divorce sight from sound, now!” In crazier moments, I even contemplated boycotts of organizations that I felt were too reliant on visual means to create sonic realities, e.g. orchestras, etc. I only half-jokingly attempted to get some friends to construct and carry picket signs to venerable performance institutions, but to no avail. They thought, alternately, that I was either completely joking or totally out of my mind. I was, perhaps, too zealous and possibly even more naïve.
For better or worse, we are living in a visually-dominant culture and for music to have meaning within our culture, it needs to be seen to some degree. And in that regard, music is not unique. While food is something that is supposedly experienced predominantly by the sense of taste, an amusing blindfold test in last week’s issue of Time Out New York actually proved how impossible it is to identify ingredients in a meal without seeing them, even for the most seasoned culinary savants (among them a prominent chef and a food critic who has worked for Gourmet magazine).
That said, to this day, I continue to eschew visual references when they refer to musical matters. For example, I’d never say: “What concert did you see last night?” And when people say they’re going to send me a recording, I always say that I’m “listening forward” to it. I’m also still somewhat suspect of musical matters which only make sense when you can see what they are. And actually, truth be told, this is probably why, though I voraciously attend concerts, my ideal mode of listening to music is on a recording with my eyes closed. Yet at the same time I confess that I love looking at record covers.
How reliant are you on your sense of sight when you create or experience music? How much do you feel you are losing from the experience of music when you are only able to listen to it, e.g. on the radio or a recording? And what exactly is it that you are losing?