listener as operator

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‘I do not write experimental music…my experimenting is done before I make my music. Afterwards it is the listener who must experiment’.
Edgar Varese

In any discussions on the reception of music there are two common and inter-related assumptions: music is seen as an art form that is responded to physically and if it is granted any ‘intelligence’ it is as a spiritual or mystical consciousness. The difficulty of talking about music leads to an apprehension of the listening experience manifested by the media’s promotion of music makers as personalities. This advances a cultural mechanism whereby the producers of, say, a record are held in higher esteem than its consumers. But beyond the production/consumption dichotomy and the cultural inaction this creates there lies a social arena that enables the interpretation of apparent division. The listener as operator. The dancer as engineer.

Meaning is generated socially. Without dialogue there can be no meaning. Without interaction there can be no communication. The production/consumption dichotomy intends to regard listening to a record as an activity devoid of creative interaction, as passive. But this negates the experience of listening as a social activity. Leaving aside notions of consciousness itself being formed in a process of social interaction and concentrating on the record maker, even on this side of the dichotomy we see not the work of individual genius but someone in creative interaction with music technology (a process of fusion, development and adaptation), with the whole history of a given gere, with an assumed audience and context for the record. Factors such as experiencing a record, through anticipation and expectation, and hence of gathering meaning from the record, let alone dancing to it, are hardly even talked about by the producer/consumer dichotomy.

Look at another form of audible communication, language. Rather than perceiving language as a stable edifice that speakers inhabit as a ready-made system, language is more accurately apprehended as a continuous generative process implemented in the social-verbal interaction of speakers. Rather than dealing with ‘signs’ that are abstracted out from the process of their generation, language operates between speaker and addressee with both parties informed by the other: the speaker can only speak with an addressee in mind, the addressee too, can respond and be the speaker – both sides are impregnated with each other. Language is perceived as social-interaction, and there is still to take into account the context of the exchange, the notion of ‘inner voice’ etc.

Following on from this it is possible to speak of a ‘space between’ when we talk of communication as dialogue. Being intangible this ‘space between’ gives little concrete evidence of its existence and so theories of communication can fall back on one of two poles: the individual communicating (psyche) or the system of language (signs) – the first yields ‘stars’ and ‘personalities’, the second, musical notation. Furthermore, with music it is possible for this ‘space between’ to be materialised as the record. So the record becomes a conceptual space, a machine that the listener operates. The record is not simply a communication that must be interpreted and fixed down but a place of interaction where meaning is generated by both the music maker and the listener.

The listener is involved in a silent production that never ends and becomes engaged in a creativity that flourishes at the very point where practice ceases to have its own language (a know-how without discourse). This practice of the listener, this operating the record, can relate to its manifold uses: mixing, scratching, sampling, slowing up, speeding down, burning, smashing, lock-grooving; using it to dance to, as a psycho-physical energiser. Whatever its use the record cannot exist without the response of its audience, without the active perception and inner responsiveness of the listener that is just as able to take something different from the record, to invent and experiment anew, to make connections. The record does not say it all, its sounds generate a different movement in the paths of the conceptual operation of the listener than they had in those of the producer.

This is a wider sensorium than the delineation of producer and consumer suggests. For listening simultaneously demands openness to a surrounding world. Even at its most private, listening is about being socially connected, about making meanings. Listening is an activity that anticipates and expects. Being far from passive, it actively follows the desires it unleashes, opening itself up to communication and allowing subjectivity to mutate and merge. By being opened and joined, by desiring the sounds, by being engulfed by them, means that listening, once it occupies the ‘space between’, can no longer be satisfied with reproducing models but can change minds. Listening is social-inspiration.

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