Listening to the Unknown

A couple months ago I wrote about the first meeting of the Society of Experimental Musicians organized by James Klopfleisch. I thoroughly enjoyed that event, so I was thrilled when James invited me to present my music at last Sunday’s meeting. It gave me the chance to try an experiment of my own that I’ve been meaning to do for some time.

If you’ve read a few of my posts you may have noticed a common refrain of “context matters.” That is, the environment in which you hear a piece of music, and the background you bring going into it, can have as much or more impact on your listening experience than the music itself. I’ve been harping on this for a while, to the point where I wonder if it’s getting tiresome, but it’s been a big part of how I think about music and how I make music. So I decided I would test out this hypothesis in a live setting and see if my cherished beliefs would hold true.

So without telling anyone why, I split the audience into two groups and sent one group off to another room with Daniel Corral (composer, multi-instrumentalist, friend). Daniel gave a short lecture on a topic of his choosing while I talked about one of my compositions, a Steve Reich/Tay Zonday homage for accordion and electronics called Chocolate Phase. When we were finished with our lectures the groups reconvened to listen to the piece. Essentially, one half of the audience had inside information, while the other half went in cold. I was curious to find out if and how this would affect their appreciation and understanding of the piece (or lack thereof).

The results were surprising to me in a very interesting way. While many in the group that heard Daniel’s lecture didn’t know the reference points that the piece was based on, this didn’t seem to prevent them from enjoying it. In fact, it almost seemed like too much understanding might have been a limiting factor for people’s enjoyment. Those who didn’t hear me explain my piece talked about experiencing it in a visceral, physical way, while those who did hear my explanation were a little more circumspect and used more intellectual language in their descriptions.

In other words, context matters, but not necessarily in the way that I expected. I tend to assume that more knowledge allows you to get more out of a work of art, and it didn’t occur to me that this knowledge could actually be a barrier. In retrospect this should have been obvious–I think we’re all familiar with the experience of getting bored with a piece of music, perhaps because we know it too well. Mystery can be an important ingredient in conjuring up music’s more magical properties.

Granted, my experiment was very informal and the evidence extremely anecdotal. Many other factors could have affected the way the audience perceived the piece, like the content of Daniel’s lecture (which I’m told involved a recitation of a found text dealing with nuclear war and monkeys). Something else I didn’t account for is movement–for the half that left the room, the kinesthetic aspect of walking somewhere and back again may have influenced them physiologically in a way that changed their listening. Nonetheless, I’m excited by the content of these results, and eager to try an experiment like this again!

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