Friday, May 18, 2012

What has human geography got to do with music?

The following article was published in NUS Geography Department Annual "Geosphere" magazine issue.

Music Geographies
I don’t know about you, but ever since I’ve arrived at NUS FASS, my eyes have been opened to a whole new world of ideas. I’ve read things that changed how I think such that I can never go back to the way I was before. There are many things which we didn’t know could be known and instead of filling up our brains, our best professors made us realise that we had one, constantly opening up new channels of inquiry.
So much of what we read is based on what is seen, and out of all our well-padded organs (exams just makes me put on so much weight), we are most aware our eyes. It’s true, is it not, since eyes are windows to the soul? Much of geographical studies are produced through observations and reproduced through texts and maps - the quintessential geographical tools. We are less aware of what we hear, smell or touch, unless it chafes what we “normally” experience.
Often we intuitively know what music is, without the need for anyone to define it. However when we actually start to define it, we find that it is difficult to do so. For instance, would you call the karaoke attempt by your neighbour at 9am on a Sunday music or noise? We then realise how music is defined is at once subjective because of where and when it is heard and the context of which it is considered acceptable performing space.
Even within spaces, music play an important part in shaping how we feel and in turn how we react to certain things. Clubs hardly play slow music without a bass, and lounge bars often do not play pop music. It seems that music can treat a place, and our socialised reactions against certain genres then in turn dictate how we react with each other in the space. Spaces also shape musical performances. From rock concerts to classical symphonies - each venue is shaped and marketed differently due to their needs and social function. We all know the raw energy that comes from pop/rock concerts where rules of propriety are suspended - it’s almost expected that loud sounds (or some would argue noises) are allowed or even encouraged. Yet the pindrop silences in classical concert halls amplifies the fool that applauds during the wrong time (between movements for instance)  which can draw accusatory glares towards your direction, if the fool happens to be you. It singles someone out as being not informed, making one feel not belonged and out of place.
Some composers have even used spatial elements to create music. Iannis Xenakis for instance, took the architectural-mathematical principles that shape spaces and used them to create works like Metastasis. While his avant garde ‘music’ to the layperson might be ‘noise’, it is without a doubt that spatial influences on music is profound - both literally and figuratively. To bring things back on simpler terms, we often associate the high strings with horror show bathroom scenes (in fact, I’ve tried watching a horror show with the speakers mute before, and the effect was hilarious) and soundtrack composers have more than once tried to evoke emotions ranging from epic (think Spartacus) to the quiet (Pride and Prejudice). Some movies are completely devoid of music and rely on the very absence of it, to create tension throughout (I am Legend). Whether it be fantasy or reality, sounds paint spaces as much as light colours our world.
Yet, can we describe music as much as how we have experienced it? Unlike sight, we cannot draw ocular imaginations based on what we are listening to, although many songs and lyrics point to specific locations in which the listeners can evoke feelings from. What about instrumentals? I find myself drawing different auditory images and emotions depending on where I am currently at. The same song or piece can become differently, based on what I am doing, how I am feeling at that moment as well as where I am. Music, despite it’s permanent quality due to improvements in technology (digital recordings etc), will always have a transient quality and is momentary, because of its audience. Therefore, like spaces, people react differently towards music depending on the time of day, and the peculiar emotional connections we develop historically. We may hear the same way, but we always listen differently.
Geographers have called for a beyond-visual understanding of spaces. Therefore, as much as our education opens our eyes, it is our ears that also need opening. Adding sound is like adding colour to a black and white television. It makes things pop - so to speak. While eyes are windows to the soul, our ears make our souls act.

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