Aural atoms and structures in electroacoustics : From ear training to analysis and back again

Assistant Professor
Electroacoustic Studies, Music Department
Concordia University, Montreal
1455 De Maisonneuve Blvd. West
Montreal, Quebec, Canada
H3G 1M8

Analysis in electroacoustics (Ea) is an aural necessity. We analyze to understand what we hear, but we also need trained ears in order to analyze, because analysis requires detailed content, which in Ea is available mostly in sonic forms. This interdependence of analysis and ear training has been the basis of Ea aural training courses at Concordia University in Montreal, which I have been developing for the past decade. These courses begin with an atomistic approach, which trains students in breaking aural stimuli into the smallest possible parts (aural atoms) and thus extracting more evidence for analysis from them. Once the students' ears become focused and detailed, the courses proceed with a synergistic analytical approach, aimed at training students to assemble and integrate aural atoms into synergetic structures-perceivable higher-level units that have properties that are different from those of their parts. This structuring process provides additional evidence from higher hierarchical levels of organization. Precision, detail, and organization thus come from a spiraling rigorous practice of ear training and analysis back and forth.

In my experience, students understand the atomistic concept and witness a radical change in their micro-aural skills fairly quickly, but take longer and need more guidance in making the leap to perceiving and constructing higher-level structures. Thankfully, many scholars (e.g. Schaeffer, Chion, Smalley, Roy, Delalande, Normandeau, Thoresen, Schafer, Oliveros, and others) have offered hearing approaches, analytical methods, and systems of thought that can be taught and practiced in order to build experience in structural sound organization. While none of these approaches has become standardized as ``Ea music theory'', in the manner that tonal music theory has had with Rameau's treaty, this fact does not reflect negatively on the merits of these studies. On the contrary, it illuminates the needlessness of standardization in Ea at large, due to the field's breadth and its innovative nature. I posit that the lack of standards is a positive attribute that supports the field's meteoric evolution. The greater the number of cohesive approaches and angles of exploration of Ea listening and analytical thought, the more aural evidence listeners can gather and integrate. Each approach is a perceptual filter that explores certain kinds of parameters and structures (not the whole picture). By definition, what makes an approach cohesive is the internal logic that holds it together. But other cohesive points of view can provide additional evidence to integrate towards making new connections and generating a more detailed picture and additional layers of organization. Every definable aural parameter—from an existing or new system—can be perceptually filtered and studied atomistically and structurally to provide new data.

Bent (1987) proposed that music analysis is ``the means of answering directly the question `how does it [the music] work?''' I posit that analysis can be used to answer, ``what is one way in which the music works? What is another? And another?...And what is one way in which all or some of the previous answers work together? And what is another way? And so forth...''-all of this while maintaining a strong attachment to perception (i.e. hearing, not just theorizing), with precision, detail, and atomistic/synergistic structural coherence.

In addition to evidence gathering, atomistic and synergistic training strengthen attentional regulation (the overarching ability to direct attention selectively between perceptual objects) and vigilance (the ability to resist distraction and to hold attention on a single task). Consequently, navigating aurally across parameters and structural levels trains and improves the navigation's intentionality and speed and can accelerate the process of evidence gathering and synergistic structuring. At advanced intentional and attentional levels, students are invited to listen ``outside the box'' and collect evidence that emerge from setting up aural hypotheses, for instance to perceptually parse a continuous signal even when its acoustic features do not suggest it. Hypothesized atoms and synergies open up the way to new aural data and potentialities, which enrich the aural map made from multiple aural perspectives. It may be questioned whether data based on aural hypotheses are valid, because the hypotheses themselves may at times seem baseless. I propose that they are never baseless if listeners can organize their perceptions to hear them; the hypotheses' audibility is their basis. Above all, creative aural hypotheses are justifiable because Ea is an art form and because it evolves. We innovate by using new technologies, which lead to creating new sounds, which necessitate new ways of listening. In other times we listen in new ways, which leads to new sonic ambitions, which require new technologies. In both examples, aural innovation is central because aural perception is the interface with our consciousness—it determines our experience. The latter configuration, however, may be more oriented around the centrality of perception and therefore purposed more efficiently.

adrian 2015-06-03