Attended an off-beat music appreciation workshop this last Saturday, at the very grassrootsey Montreal Freeschool (if you’re in Montreal, you might want to check out the current workshop offering).

The workshop? Listening to Experimental Music, presented by Anna-Luisa Daigneault. Here’s the write-up:

What does listening to music do to the brain? Why does certain music sound “pretty” and other music doesn’t?

We will be listening to many kinds of contemporary experimental music from all over the world, and discussing how this music makes us feel and think of.

Experimental music. Art music. Ancient folkways. Freeform music. I’ve often heard people ask: “why bother listening to music like this”?

That is: why listen to music that seems to be “unpleasant” and “unintelligible” by design? Isn’t the role of music to uplift the human spirit, to express emotions, to provide solace in a world of stress and uncertainty. In brief: to be beautiful and… recognizable? Kinda like the human face, in all its varieties of aesthetic (un)appeal?

Turns out there’s a rotten old cliché to sum up this controversy: beauty is in the eye of the beholder. And as the workshop theme proposes: beyond the merely beautiful, can music also be a way of probing the lesser-charted areas of the human psyche, as a “spiritual” language unto its own?

Perhaps in this sense the label “experimental” is actually useful and descriptive: the “use of” music for psychological exploration. I say this because the term “experimental” in the art world has always seemed a wide open definition to me. For example, you’ll hear “experimental” as a way of invoking:

  • “non-conventional” music, or music that “plays with musical conventions”
  • “non-mainstream”music
  • experiments in artistic form
  • freeform/free improvisation
  • technical experimentations

All these ideas typically point to revolutions and experiments in form. To me this position ultimately leads to an infinite regress, as form is constantly evolving in any musical tradition. So in the end I’ve come to see most stances of “formal experimentation” as being academic in value.

And that’s my preamble. Indeed, I came to the workshop curious about what musical selections would be on the “experimental” play list. And esp. what issues would be open for discussion.

your workshop is your passion

As is often the case in ad-hoc educational formats, workshop offerings depend on the available expertise of a given community. Quirky workshops topics exist by virtue of an individual’s passion for a given subject, so attending a workshop means… getting to know someone’s passion.

Turns out Anna-Luisa’s passion for “experimental music” was both genuine and lots of fun. Anna-Luisa’s academic background is in linguistics (with a side serving of neuropsychology). Her artistic ambitions though seem pretty wide ranging, and she’s given strong consideration to her speculative questions on the nature and meaning of musical experience over the course of years of studying, performing, and especially listening to music.

Anna-Luisa Daigneault workshop discussion

Workshop highlights:

  • how to research music, off the beaten path
  • what are the most compelling questions one can ask of music
  • music, language and the brain
  • the human breathing and vocal apparatus, and pitch overtones. great Tibetan throat chant demo by workshop participant Marc Matatya!
  • the philosophy of music
  • listening to crazy stuff!

listening eclectically…

Here’s the workshop playlist (with a few mp3 samples).

Mansthurek – Oorjak Hunashtaar-Ool
(sample)

[audio:mansthurek_sample.mp3]

Na Letnye Pastbishtsha – Kara-Kys Munzuk

Stage Fright – Carl Stalling
(sample)

[audio:stage_fright_sample.mp3]

(2 selections) – Moondog

(2 selections) – Sun Ra and his Archestra

Diana – Comus

Parable of the Mustard Seed – The Trees
(sample)

[audio:parable_sample.mp3]

beauty, for the mind unhinged

Reviewing the eclectic selections, the shared trait seems to be, from the point of view of conventional listener expectations: music that “unhinges the mind”, inducing altered states of consciousness.

In closing, for all your brain and soul spelunkers, I’d like to list Anna-Luisa’s research muses for further consideration:

  • religious mode of language, or the poetics of ritual speech
  • chanting, song, ritual, using a comparative cultural approach
  • trance-inducing music and speech
  • what is musical inspiration? where does it “come from”?
  • poetry and sound
  • voice and “possession”
  • experiments in musical pitch: extreme musical intervals

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