Saturday 27 June 2020

Some thoughts about music

This is the first post in what will be a series reflecting on the ways in which my autism has affected the way I listen and hear, and the consequences of that for my subsequent involvement in music as a composer, performer, musicologist and ultimately Professor of Music. My involvement with music has reduced considerably over the past decade thanks to serious hearing problems brought about by Ménière’s Disease. I can’t really listen to or make music comfortably any more. But it remains very important to me, even though I am nowadays more involved in computing.

I can remember having piano lessons as a child and being fascinated by the sound of the instrument. I now realise that I was hearing the interiorities of the notes in a way that others did not. Today this would be called ‘spectral listening’ and is a staple of electroacoustic music, but I know I heard in this way instinctively all along. Sound is made up of harmonics that vary over time. A musical ‘note’ is in fact not a single pitch but a complex chord made of these shifting relationships. The perception of a single pitch comes from the fact that one harmonic is louder than the rest. I have always heard many of the harmonics and the way they change.

In addition, my listening was complicated by the fact that I also heard environmental sounds that blended with the instrument. It was hard to separate these out. For example, fluorescent lighting and electricity generally emits a sound which combines with musical sounds to create confusion. I assumed everybody could hear this, but I now know they could not. For me, it conditioned what I enjoyed in music a great deal.

Most of the standard piano repertoire I was given to learn I found tedious, because to my ears the sounds lacked granularity. I now understand that this was due to the ways in which the piano is engineered. The wire strings, sound board and above all tuning of the instrument combine to create an evened-out series of pitches called equal temperament, a complicated tuning system which divides the octave into 12 equal steps on a logarithmic scale with a ratio equal to the 12th root of 2 (12√2 ≈ 1.05946). Unaware of this, I had a more straightforward, visceral response to the “well-tempered” piano, and only really got interested when I was given more discordant music to play, by composers such as Bartók and Hindemith. These seemed more in tune with the instrument than Mozart etc.

My school had an extensive record library, so I sat down and listened to the entire collection from A-Z in alphabetical order, something that I now understand was quite an autistic thing to do. I was rigorous about it, and I loved the cardboard sleeves that housed the LPs (I can still see them now in my mind’s eye) and the organisational system of the library. Fortunately for me, one of the early records I encountered was a box-set entitled ‘avant-garde’. I adored the works by Stockhausen, Ligeti, Kagel and Berio on these records. I remember being so excited by Stockhausen’s ‘Gruppen’ for three orchestras because it seemed to depict the way I normally heard. 

There may be something here that is more generalisable about autistic people’s preferences in sounds. It would be fascinating to test this as a hypothesis. All I know is that I was drawn to atonal music at that time (I was 13/14). A few years later I had the opportunity to attend the premiere of Peter Maxwell Davies’s ‘Ave Maris Stella’ at the Bath festival. The piece (which I greatly enjoyed) contained a marimba solo. The low notes on the marimba took me into a world of sound that I never really left, and many of my compositions subsequently included marimba. It was the resonance, which I learned was effectively in just intonation, rather than the engineered equal temperament of a piano note. I was hearing, possibly for the first time, what genuine consonance meant and, lo and behold, it wasn’t boring at all! As it happened, I sat next to the local music critic, who absolutely hated the piece. He was following the score and afterwards, seeing my enthusiasm, very kindly gave it to me. He was pleased to see the back of it. I spent much time replaying the sounds in my head using the score as a guide.

The result of all this was that I left school with what would be considered rather advanced tastes and a comprehensive knowledge of music, which I carried forwards at degree level. I had very acute pitch perception including an ability to listen to every separate instrument in an orchestra as they played simultaneously, strong audiation skills (hearing in my head while reading a score), and excellent abilities to discern and analyse structures and patterns. There was also a synaesthetic component in which certain notes and chords became associated with colours and tastes in my mind. “Synaesthesia” means, literally, confusion of the senses and I have always had it to some degree. So, colours become tastes or sounds, certain smells become colours, and so on. I became fascinated by other synaesthetic composers such as Scriabin and Messiaen. 

Another example of what I now consider to have been an autistic trait, was my ‘party trick’ of identifying pieces of music by ‘reading’ the grooves on an LP. I would look at the fine grained patterns on the surface of the disc and read them as a kind of score. It was not completely infallible and only worked with music that I already knew, of course, but it used to impress people quite a lot, as I recall.

But all these abilities could be easily thrown off-kilter by what I now recognise as hyperacusis (an increased sensitivity to certain frequencies and types of sounds). Elements of the soundscape could intrude and distort my musical perception. Everyday sounds like the clatter of cutlery would cause me immediate distress, which I would then have to overcome. Too many of them could lead to overload and would interfere not just with my hearing but also with rational thought. As my hearing has declined, it has become harder and harder to listen ‘past’ these sounds. Loud noises like these can lead me to shut down.

Aspects of listening to soundscape which others would regard as strange were commonplace to me, so listening to motorways, to fridges, to engines, and being able to separate them into their acoustic components was something I did constantly. I would frequently sing along to them! So when I encountered John Cage’s music, and his mantra “let sounds be themselves”, it felt like a homecoming. This inclusion of what would otherwise be regarded as either non-musical or, worse, noise, was what attracted me to electroacoustic music. I have frequently used non-musical sounds in my own compositions, weaving them with musical sounds to which I respond.