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Listen

by Pippa Kelmenson

Investigating the Human Body as an Instrument and Listening Device Inspired by Attention, Hearing, and Alvin Lucier. Senior Project II, Bard College Electronic Music Department. May, 2017. 

All photographs by Sam Audino.

Hearing has generally been conceptualized as a percussive affair: the sounds of the outside world beating on eardrums. It is once the sounds of the ear are amplified, however, that listeners may realize that the eardrum is an active instrument—creating polyrhythms by responding to acoustic information from the inside, out. Concentration is dependent on which sound is listened to, and why. Throughout my work, I ask that my audience not simply hear, but listen to and internalize the human body’s innate response to the sonic information I create. Inspired by my own difficulties with attention and hearing, my work strives to emphasize the necessity of focus rhythm requires. Utilizing sound as both a form of art and media, my immersive performance benefits from sonic distraction to investigate the body as an instrument and listening device.

In my second semester senior concert, I produced specific intervals of ear-borne tone melodies, accompanied by other musical instruments and sound spectra to create superpositions and distortion products as well as to emphasize the subtly shifting phase of rhythmic patterns. Not only did the effects of high frequency acoustic information on the ear and brain bring attention to the sonic intervals of the sounds and their polyrhythms, but it also invoked an internal bodily response that the listener was forced to confront. The phasing patterns of my concert acted as psychoacoustic byproducts of repetitive melodies: once interlaced, a rhythmic entrainment was generated throughout the body that resonated with their produced polyrhythms. Rather than act as submissive receivers, the ears of the listener emitted sounds in response to the otoacoustic emission and tinnitus tones presented. Not only was my audience able to hear how I internalize sound information in addition to how their own ears responded to acoustic stimuli, but they could also hear themselves hearing how their response tones assisted in the direction of the piece. These high-pitched melodies induced auditory distortion products and binaural beating that caused the ears of my listeners to act as listening devices. What were left were psychoacoustic illusions, tricking us into perceiving fantastic width and space. Thus, the emphasis of the performance was on the listener’s active role, using the ear as an instrument to contribute to the creative process.