How Do You Curate Sound?

Kate Romano on the rich and varied ways of listening to music in our times.

Acoustic aircraft detection apparatus at Bolling Field, Washington D. C., in 1921. Source here.
Screen Shot 2016-07-12 at 12.16.14       By Kate Romano

I can’t listen to Delibes’ Coppelia without my mind leaping back to my five-year old self, dancing around the living room to an Ernest Ansermet Decca recording. The next LP on the shelf was The Rite of Spring – the only other classical record in the house as it happened. Once I’d pirouetted and pranced through to the end of the Coppelia Suite, I’d stomp my way through The Rite. The two works have remained inseparable to me ever since, musically linked by an accident of proximity.

How many examples of unintentional curation are there? How many compilations piled onto TDK audio cassettes in the 1980s cemented unique and unlikely connections between musical works of different styles and periods? These deeply personal soundscapes form the backdrop to our lives. We flick from radio channel to radio channel, from TV station to TV station creating extraordinary and accidental juxtapositions. We are shaped by – and give shape to – our sonic environment which affects our lives and the way that we listen to and perceive music. Mass manufacture and multiplicity of music have made us all curators of sorts.

As someone who programmes music on a regular basis, I’m intrigued by the question of how we ‘consume’ all this music. I’m interested in usage: not so much data on what we programme, not audience numbers, but what people actually ‘do with’ or ‘make of’ music and the experience of listening to it. Are musical events today a reflection of contemporary listening habits, needs or ideals? Or are they remnants of the past, rituals that have their roots in historical listening times? Can concert programming still satisfy a need that we cannot find elsewhere? And who are we programming for?

When people try and explain how they ‘consume’ music  – or any art –  there is often an underlying current of wonderment, a thrill at attempting to pin down, in words, this elusive slippery thing that we feel. Written accounts are fragmentary, repetitious, earnest, full of pauses, as the writer tries again and again to grasp the language that can capture those feelings. The responses are almost as compelling as the art itself. Here, in a famous passage, is Roland Barthes discussing the abstract ‘impossible thrill’ he experiences when listening to the singing of a Russian church bass: 

Something is there, manifest and stubborn… something which is directly the cantor’s body, brought to your ears in one and the same movement from deep down in the cavities, the muscles, the membranes, the cartilages, and from deep down in the Slavonic language, as though a single skin lined the inner flesh of the performer and the music he sings.

Here is actor and writer Simon Callow responding to a painting by Clive Hicks Jenkins and then summarising the significance of the same artist in his life:

My thoughts were not of art…there was something …trapped, screaming for life, a terrible turbulence, an eruption, a commotion, a straining for air, panic, pain, horror. I gaze on…feeling like a witness to something desperate[The artist] is the amanuensis of my dreams. He transcribes the contents of my unconscious, allows me to contemplate what is otherwise consigned to the half-light. 

‘Deposition III’ by Clive Hicks Jenkins (shared with the artist’s permission).

And here is an extract from an interview. The words are those of writer and psychoanalyst Adam Phillips who is seeking to comprehend the ‘impossible thrill’ not of a specific work, but of reading in general:

Reading can have a very powerful effect on you, an evocative effect….I know the books that grip me but their effect is indiscernible… I don’t quite know what it is. What is clear is that there are powerful unconscious evocative effects in reading books that one loves. They’re not fetishes that we use to fill gaps. They are like recurring dreams we can’t help thinking about.

Far from passive, these comments might suggest that ‘use’ or ‘consumption’ of art is, in itself, a creative process. Michael De Certeau in The Practice of Everyday Living calls it a ‘silent production’ because each person hears music, reads a text or sees an image differently based on his or her own experiences and needs and draws different meanings from it. ‘An art of renters’ says Certeau; people who move into a space and make it their own ‘furnishing it with their acts and memories’. This deeply personal usage, this ‘secondary production’ is a quiet, clandestine affair. Certeau talks of a ‘secluded knowledge’, unconscious, with no language or subject of its own. We know that a piece of art is moving us deeply, yet in our conscience are ‘only fragments and effects of this knowledge’.

These examples show that there is clearly great delight embedded in a ‘half-knowing’ state. Ambiguity has aesthetic value. Perhaps it is precisely the hidden and inherent ambiguity of music’s powerful effect that keeps us coming back to the same pieces time and time again, seeking to find reasons to understand why we love them so much. And perhaps it is a love affair, of the one-sided sort that Barthes (again) details in A Lover’s Discourse; ‘The language of love is not a language we speak, for it is addressed to ourselves and to our imaginary beloved. It is, for that reason, a language of solitude’. Furthermore, we don’t appear to need live music to experience this joyful half-knowing. A favourite recording will suffice and in many cases, the ‘fixed’ state of the music might even have positive advantages of allowing us to focus purely on the waves of mutable feelings it creates. ‘Every experience is unrepeatable’ said Italo Calvino: ‘What makes lovemaking and reading resemble each other most is that within both of them times and spaces open, different from measurable time and space.’

Studies show that we are attracted to ambiguity not only in the process of listening to music but also within music itself. Ambiguity only arises when we are trying to ‘make sense’ of the information we are given and this sophisticated process of making sense of sounds is known as Auditory Scene Analysis (ASA). It’s the ability we have to unravel what we might otherwise dismiss as meaningless noise, to identify and focus on one voice in a room full of talking people. It’s the ability we have to pick out the melodic line in a symphony when the whole orchestra is playing at once. Classical music is one of the most complex acoustic scenes we ever encounter.

ASA is built on our fundamental tendency to form groups from similar things. In music this might mean melodic lines with small step-wise intervals or few pitches, stand-out textures or timbres. ASA has been studied in a musical context and it is believed that many established rules of Western polyphonic writing are underpinned by these perceptual principles.  Some composers play with the rules of ASA to create an individual language through illusions. Spectral composers challenged the idea of sound being a single source (a ‘dead object’ said Gérard Grisey) and treated each sound as a resonant acoustic complex. Ligeti used perceptual illusions as musical devices in their own right in shifting clouds of sound where individual timbres are difficult to isolate. He said ‘polyphony is written, but one hears harmony. It is true, I often work with acoustical illusions, very analogous to optical illusions, false perspectives. We are not very familiar with acoustical illusions. But they are very analogous and one can make very interesting things in this domain.’

Understanding how we listen presents interesting hypotheses as to why we may be drawn to some composers more than others and why the music industry relies so heavily on repeat programme choices leading to repeat purchases. But all this so far assumes two things: 1) that we are in the habit of giving our undivided attention to music and art and 2) that it is reasonable to draw conclusions about the effect art has on us based largely on the experience of highly specialized writers.

However, most us are not specialized writers. And for many of us, an everyday listening experience might be more like this:

John Williams is blaring from the television, shamelessly competing against the sound of my daughter practicing Tchaikovsky on her violin, returning again and again to the same phrase. The washing machine is rattling in another room. Adverts on the television now: each with their own defining soundtrack. The phone rings with little motif of a synthesized marimba. Somewhere in my head is an earworm picked up from some of the music I was exploring on SoundCloud early this morning: its still there as I drive my kids to a sports match, wriggling away, despite the efforts of the car radio to drown it out.

That was, in fact, last Sunday. Looking back, what strikes me initially is the sheer quantity and variety of music I was exposed to on what was a pretty ordinary day. Then, the number of ways in which I ‘consumed’ it: incidental, filtered through extraneous noise, incomplete and fragmented, intentional and focused. I did other things whilst much of this music was going on around me – I talked, drove, worked, cooked dinner. I am further struck by how accepting and unquestioning I was of this overlapping musical jumble, even how much I enjoyed it. Perhaps it’s not so much the music I was listening to but the sonic landscape of 21st century life. The music on this day seemed very connected to the world I live in. It was not hallowed. It was no precious artifact.

Yet flights of fancy still came into my head; daydreams, memories, desires triggered by music. Sometimes by a shapely phrase, a curious timbre, a complex rhythm. But my thoughts also sprang from the junctions, the intersections of all these musics, like sheets of translucent paper laid over and over each other. A fascinating sonic palimpsest for me to consume and make sense of. This type of activity is not reserved for the literary critic – it can be extended to all consumers.

‘Sound is a capricious force,’ David Hendy reminds us in his wonderful book Noise, a human history of sound and listening; ‘[Sound] moves freely through the air and has never been fully owned or manipulated by one institution or group of people more than another as if it was their exclusive property.’ We only have to think here of the history of protest songs, or of slaves finding creative ways to perform their own musical traditions in the face of oppression. Perhaps it’s easy to forget about this fundamental aspect of sound – that it travels freely through the air – differentiating it from the visual and literary arts which offer more fixed landscapes. It is impossible for us to truly seal and segregate the airwaves and in this way sounds floating through them have ‘something of an intrinsically revolutionary quality’. Soundscapes are fundamentally fluid. They overlap, they filter into one another in unpredictable ways.

What’s more, there is a lot of this multi-sonic activity going on. The vast majority of people do not regularly enter concert halls. Like me, they are mostly caught and captured in the nets of the media – by television, radio, recordings. I don’t have statistics for classical music daily consumption habits, but here is some data taken from an influential 2014 study of American adults’ all-music listening habits called ‘Share of Music’. The analysis was based on music journals submitted by nearly 3,000 respondents. American adults dedicate an average of 3 hours and 16 minutes a day to listening to music. Most (70%) listen in their car, 68% listen at home and 18% listen at work. Half of this listening is via the radio with the rest from own music collections and online sources. The study concluded that ‘America is in a golden age of audio consumption.’

If this is 21st century listening, a practice adopted by the large majority of the population, then it is surely a significant and important way of consuming music.  Not an inferior one, not a second-rate type of usage, but a valid one that repeatedly connects the music we hear with the world we live in. It’s a living, vibrant, fluid process that enables us to develop tastes and preferences and feed those changing tastes back into the mix. For those of us who make musical events, it would be remiss to forget that people are responding creatively to these unique and complex soundscapes, forming their own ‘secondary productions’.  The point is not whether modern listening habits are ‘good’ or ‘bad’. The point is whether, as curators of sound, we accept that this is the way that the majority of people consume and enjoy music and consider how we might respond to that.  If people have the open mindset and the skills to consume and enjoy music in extraordinary, bold and complex ways, we should not feel afraid to make extraordinary, bold and complex curatorial decisions.

The environment is a ‘blooming buzzing confusion’ said William James in 1882. And he might as well have been talking about music. Structure is not inherent in the environment, James summarized; it is imposed on an unordered and highly complex world by those who perceive it. The desire to understand and control sound is tens of thousands of years old. From prehistoric man who favoured ‘listening spots’ in caves, from the Neolithic monuments on Orkney designed to capture and control the natural soundscape, to the bell-drenched medieval monasteries and the restraints of the Victorian concert halls, history tells a story of our constant fascination with sound and the changing ways in which we consume it.

I’m an advocate of pioneering a ‘bottom up’ approach to music programming. This is not about asking people what they want to hear and then sticking it in a concert. It’s about allowing listeners to shape music, as well as allowing music to shape those who listen to it. Its about a change of attitude: less talk of pedagogy, ‘informing’ and enlightenment filtering down from the arts to the audience and more talk about looking upwards to explore how all this consumption impacts on the type of events we make. I’m interested in how musical events can flow into the environment and how we can build different types of bridges between the music we put out there and the people who consume it. Events that are co-producing, co-evolving, always on the move. Not fixed, not bounded and inherently mobile. Michael Foucault famously said that he would like his books to be ‘a kind of tool-box which others can rummage through to find a tool which they can use however they wish in their own area…I don’t write for an audience, I write for users.’ By challenging the idea of music consumption as ‘passive’ we may be able to discover fascinating and rich creative activity where we least expect to find it.

‘One of the most versatile musicians of her generation’, Kate Romano is a clarinetist, producer, fundraiser, artistic director and writer. Previously a senior member of staff at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama for 12 years, she now works as a freelancer. She tweets as @KateRomano2 and her website can be found at