Sunday, September 16, 2012

Echolocation and Music in its Natural State

I just learned that echolocation can be developed in humans (i.e. people) to such a great extent that blind people can learn to "see" objects from the way that they reflect sound.

Here's an article that describes the matter in scientific detail, and here's an interview with Brian Bushway that describes how it works for him.

After listening to the Bushway interview on my walk today (through an electronic device, of course), I went out into the natural world of my back yard to pull some weeds (my latest way of being useful). I noticed that once you remove the headphones, hearing sound in the real world is truly multidimensional. It is possible to hear how far one bird is from another (generally speaking), and to hear how directionally we really are able to hear. (You can't hear weeds though: separating them from the grass takes a sharp eye and a ruthless spirit.)

I began to understand why the fact that most people experience music only through electronically-generated media bothers me so much. Very expensive recording equipment that is operated by very experienced engineers can come close to simulating the experience of a multidimensional world of surround sound, but the difference between close and real is huge when it involves listening with your whole being. Also, the difference between close and real can involve some serious manipulations on the part of the engineer that render the sonic "image" in ways that "improve" the sound of the original raw material. It's kind of like what you can do in the darkroom of you are adept at photography, or kind of what you can do with photoshop if you are adept at using computers.

Too many performance venues (new concert halls and churches in particular) are constructed with the idea of projecting amplified sound, which is, after all, simulated sound. I have played in some of these halls. The sound that bounces off the walls (if there is anything reflecting the sound at all) tends to be brittle and unfriendly. I have played in churches are "wired" so that all the amplified sound goes through a board that is manipulated and balanced by a board operator. I much prefer the experience of walls (particular old ones made of plaster), and balances that are manipulated by the people playing the music.

Of course I listen to recordings, and I have learned to love a lot of the music I hear on them. I also really appreciate being able to hear things I otherwise wouldn't be able to hear (because the people playing are no longer living, among other obvious reasons). But I do not believe that a musician develops the ability to hear him or herself play (and therefore improve) without developing the ability to listen in 360 natural surround sound. You can hear what is wrong when you use a recording device to play something back, but figuring out how to make the music have real meaning in the larger world of sound bouncing off stuff has to be developed by bouncing your sound off stuff (and stuff, of course, includes the sounds of other musicians playing in the same physical and acoustic space).

My concluding thought? Musicians need to play with one another in order to get better at what they do. They also need to play for people (as in audiences) in order to understand that what they do has meaning that goes beyond their own enjoyment. Eliminating or reducing either of these is a recipe for serious musical decline.

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