Music vs. Other Types of Sound
FRANK J. OTERI: You went to the opera last night. We had this long conversation before we began filming about going to the Met to hear La Juive. That’s a very different listening experience than sitting here in this gazebo alongside the Hudson River where you recorded the Hudson River, and your recording of the Hudson River was issued on CD the same way La Juive would be issued on a CD.
ANNEA LOCKWOOD: Right.
FRANK J. OTERI: How are they different? Or are they different?
ANNEA LOCKWOOD: Well, the difference is the content.
FRANK J. OTERI: But you listen the same way?
ANNEA LOCKWOOD: If I’m willing to put out the energy to just listen, right… If I’m willing to give that energy then I can listen to them the same way. Sometimes I find myself getting very caught up listening that way to singers, for example. I find myself listening to tiny, little details in the voice, the physicality of the voice as an entity. Then I’m listening very much the way I listen to the Hudson and hear that little motor on the other side of the river, which we just heard [laughs]. For me it’s a matter of energy, and I lost energy last night at the Met. I knew they’d drain my energy eventually [laughs]!
FRANK J. OTERI: Whereas the Hudson River never does.
ANNEA LOCKWOOD: It doesn’t. It really never does because it can surprise me at anytime. It often does, you know.
FRANK J. OTERI: Yesterday I put the Hudson River CD on in the office and it was quite a listening experience!
ANNEA LOCKWOOD: So you listened to this spot, but of course it sounded different that day. [laughs]
FRANK J. OTERI: Yes, of course. It was an amazing thing because it totally transformed the room. You put on a recording of a piece of symphonic music and, yes, it can transform the room, but there is an inherent separation it has just by being readily perceivable as music, it’s something playing in the background detached from reality. In large measure music has become an ambience people use to accompany their lives. What was so interesting is that these sounds that are around us, that are our ambience were anything but ambient. It took over the room. We couldn’t work. We were listening. It totally took over.
ANNEA LOCKWOOD: Now that is interesting. And why do you think that was?
FRANK J. OTERI: It was really powerful. It was interesting when you were saying that you’ll hear a singer and hear different patterns in the voice and start paying attention to those physical properties that are beyond the notes, that are really timbral differences from human to human, which would be analogous to hearing the river. You’ll hear the motor going by that we just heard, and that’s a time-based event. So in a sense, that’s like an instrument coming in and then going out. I was starting to hear rhythms in the river. I was starting to hear syncopations. Maybe it’s because I’m trained in listening to music as opposed to listening to sound, but maybe it isn’t?
ANNEA LOCKWOOD: It’s those things about water that first got me working with it. Yes, the complex layers of rhythms and the complex layers of pitch and frequency and so no—it’s really complicated! I think water is one of the most complicated sounds I’ve ever come across and it still fascinates me. I started working with it many years ago…
[train whistle blows]
FRANK J. OTERI: And that was a wonderful chord. Oh, it’s on the other side.
ANNEA LOCKWOOD: It’s probably a freight train. Freight trains run on the other side of the river. [train whistle blows again] Isn’t it a great sound?
FRANK J. OTERI: It’s a 9th chord of some type isn’t it.
ANNEA LOCKWOOD: Umm hmm. [train whistle blows again] Perfect! A lovely resonance with it…
FRANK J. OTERI: I don’t think that sound is sonic pollution. But there are definitely sounds in New York City that are sonic pollution.
ANNEA LOCKWOOD: Oh, I have a very hard time with Muzak. Similarly, I have a hard time with the car radio. I catch myself turning it on when I’m tired while driving. I drive in and out of New York City frequently and it’s in the background of my consciousness and suddenly realize that I’ve been listening to Mozart, and Brahms, and Hummel [laughs] and so on, as background for the last 25 minutes, which is not really where I think they ought to be. But Muzak in restaurants is a real irritant.
FRANK J. OTERI: Yeah, I think we had some smooth jazz at lunch. When we first walked in I thought, oh, this is annoying. But then when we sat down, I suddenly didn’t notice it. But it didn’t go away.
ANNEA LOCKWOOD: Do you know that phasing in and out of concentrated attention which we give phenomena is protective of us anyway? It’s habituation, right? We habituated to that soundtrack very fast and we were interested in other things. It went into our bodies and we weren’t consciously hearing it. That allowed us to refocus our attention. If we had been trying to concentrate on our conversation with each other, the taste of the food, the background music, whether or not it was raining again outside—all of that simultaneously would have diffused our attention beyond the point of interest in a way.
FRANK J. OTERI: Except zoning out sound can become a problem. You were just saying that you were listening to Brahms as background music. I think we as a society have gotten to this point where just about everything is background music. And to put on a piece of music in the office, it inevitably will be background music. And that’s why putting the Hudson River on yesterday was so powerful. Here is this thing, which on an old-fashioned 19th century level isn’t music at all. But it did what a giant orchestral piece was supposed to do, and maybe can no longer do for our ears because we’ve become numb to it. Has something gone wrong with the way that we listen as a society?
ANNEA LOCKWOOD: I think that we’re basically devaluing music. We’ve been doing it for so long we are no longer aware of the association between music and trance states for example, at least in the West. Most of us, unless we are practicing Sufis, are very rarely in a situation in which trance is associated with music. Most of us don’t even know that it ever has been. I think we’ve devalued music’s intimacy and connection to the body. What Pauline is doing is invaluable. She and others are pulling the body back into our awareness of sound. You can’t say that we’ve detached music from religion because may of us have not. People like myself have, though. I don’t practice any religion. I make no direct association between music and religion. I make every association in the world between what I hear and the way I experience the world, but not in terms of formal religion. But there is a process of increasing narrowness of concept, I think, as to what music is to us and what it can do for us. It’s a real paradox because simultaneously music is constantly playing in people’s lives.