The ear “calls the tune”

Imagine that we had to talk about paintings without saying the names of the colours. Yet we do talk about music without putting a name to the sounds we hear. Lasse Thoresen wants to give us words for talking about sounds.

“Traditionally, the ear has been a fairly unimportant informant in musicology. What is heard is perceived as more subjective than what is seen, as private and unreliable.”

So says the music researcher, composer and educator Lasse Thoresen. This is where he starts, at any rate. He has based his whole life’s work on the assumption that music is something which is gauged by and through the ear. And because we are poorly equipped with words able to describe what we hear, he has developed terminology to enable us to talk about sounds. The aim is to hone and develop the auditory consciousness, make us into virtuoso listeners who can perceive, analyse and recall music in a better, more insightful way.

It started in 1972, when, as a 23-year-old music student, Lasse Thoresen wanted to try to work out the conundrum that some music is perceived as orderly and some not, he relates, and then to try to understand why some music is perceived as meaningful. It turned into a self-motivating process that might well have ended there and then, had it not been for the researcher in him, who felt that this had to be documented, systematised and related to other research work done in the field.

“So it was no foregone conclusion that this fascination with listening and this problem would finally crystallise into a method that would be possible to pass on to others,” he says, about the method that has been named aural sonology and is described in a 600-page book, Emergent Musical Forms, published last year by the University of Western Ontario in Canada.

Communicating about sound

Lasse Thoresen has been professor of composition at the Norwegian Academy of Music since 1988. As a composer, he has been making his presence felt since the 1970s, and has arrived at an astonishingly powerful mixture of influences from various countries’ folk music and modernism. Captivating, alluring, innovative and challenging music. Yet with a constant desire to communicate with his public.

“The music can be as cleverly constructed as you like, but as long as the intelligence that has gone into that construction is not made accessible in any way by what is being conveyed to the ear, we’re dealing with music which, quite simply, is bound to fail in its communication,” he says.

The project for developing sonology as a listening and analysis method has largely been motivated by the communication problem a lot of new music has, as Lasse Thoresen has experienced, and which he assumes to be connected with the fact that it is “extensively constructed on musical note paper but poorly heard and not interestingly conceptualised”. This in turn – as he sees it – has to do with the ear not having been allowed to be determinative enough, including during the educational process.

“Honing one’s ability to listen and reflect on what is heard turns out to be a great void in all musical education. You can say that aural training does something, but this is an even more fundamental attempt to focus on the aural dimension.”

Tough resistance

The sonology project started to take shape during the 1970s, with the collaboration of the composer Olav Anton Thommessen. This was a period marked by great ideological and aesthetic tensions, and for a number of years aural exploration was viewed as both reactionary and critical of aspects of contemporary music.

“Yes, there was tough resistance to this in the 80s. The Norwegian contemporary music magazine Ballade featured articles by Arnfinn Bø-Rygg and Ståle Wikshåland, who criticised it for being an anti-modernist, rhetorically orientated method that diverted people’s attention from real modernism.”

Some criticism seems to have been justified during the early years of the project, however, because neither Lasse Thoresen nor the community he was part of, as he himself recalls today, had the academic grounding needed to present a new mindset with any conviction.

“I received a certain amount of criticism because I had not adequately explained what we were up to and had not factored it into a theory, which is necessary in order to win institutional acceptance for it.”

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Lasse Thoresen ser i kameraet

International perspective

Lasse Thoresen displays evidence of perseverance, with his 40-plus years of practical and theoretical work, given the meagre appreciation he has enjoyed here in Norway along the way. The musicology community of Norway in the 70s and 80s was poorly informed about semiotics, structuralism and phenomenology, he thinks—disciplines which are highly significant for his work. Nevertheless, a number of people have contributed to the elaboration of sonology. Among others he mentions Andreas Hedman and Peter Tornquist, the latter currently principal of the Norwegian Academy of Music. But his most important support has been received from communities abroad.

“The music theory scene in Norway had no interest in or knowledge of the methodological references I had when carrying out this work. That’s the reality, the environment I had here; whereas the encouragement I have been given was in the international semiotics community, where Eero Tarasti, who initiated a large international semiotics project, was one of the first people to spot the importance of the project. The electro-acoustic scene, especially in Sweden, including the Royal College of Music in Stockholm, has been encouraging. Aural sonology has been and will continue to be taught at the Royal Swedish Academy of Music in Stockholm. Above all, it was the community in France, mainly the composer Pierre Schaeffer and later François Delalande, head of research at the institution started by Schaeffer (GRM, the research department attached to French radio), who both worked to systematise concepts and ways of listening. Marc Battier from the Sorbonne and Lawrence Ferrara from New York University have written a preface to the book.

Listening teacher

During his more than 40-year-long musical career, many people have come to know Lasse Thoresen as a good listener and a kind man, with a humorous subtlety that can suddenly serve up a touch of irony, a smidgen of professorial pomposity or even tenderness. “Now I’ve written a book in English, and no great cheers have been audible in Norway!” he says, laughing in his characteristic, mildly resigned way.

The subject of aural sonology was added to the Academy of Music’s teaching curriculum in 1976 and is still available as an option. Thoresen characterises the beginning as a dynamic development project.

“And as a workshop. We didn’t know what it was, but we tried to work out what we were up to, and we carried on doing it well into the 80s. In educational terms, it’s brilliant that the teacher is just a little way ahead of the students, and together they try to work something out with exchanges of dialogue.”

But when it comes to the subject’s position at the Academy today, Thoresen is not very optimistic.

“It keeps shrinking, because they expect me to leave, and as yet I still haven’t found a royal patron, so I predict that the moment I’m gone, it will probably vanish from the Academy. Then I think: Well, OK, that’s the downside to writing a book that wasn’t completed until I was on the verge of retiring. But my boss, Mats Claesson, has taken the initiative of recording a series of videos in which I lecture about the method.”

The whole aural world has more or less been a half-forgotten dimension of consciousness in the West, I’d go so far as to say.

Music as sound

The starting point and inspiration for Lasse Thoresen’s methodical listening work stems from the French composer Pierre Schaeffer and what he called the primacy of the ear, the ear being what assesses music. Lasse Thoresen has developed Schaeffer’s conceptual apparatus further into a comprehensive lexicon for talking about sounds. Something we have not had, he says. To show how, linguistically, we are trailing behind in the aural field, he compares it with the visual field:

“It’s as if we didn’t have names for the colours, but had to say that colour there is kind of blood-like and that one is ash-like. We couldn’t say red or grey because we had no name for the quality, just for what we normally associate with the quality. So the one thing I am doing is devising systematic terminology for talking about sound qua sound.”

Vocabulary for sound

The aim is to create a system of concepts superimposed onto reality in order to be able to talk about it, and to classify the concepts according to certain coordinates, so that we’re not just dealing with a list, he explains. Thoresen has developed a spectromorphological vocabulary of about 70 terms which, when combined, can describe either the quality or the movement of the sound.

“Grain is one dimension of sound. The sound can be coarse-grained or fine-grained. Then we can talk about the speed of the grain. A third dimension is the gait of the sound, how it sways. Vibrato is one form of gait, dynamic gait and spectral gait are others. Then we have the accumulations type, or technically: unpredictably diversified iterations—the peas pouring out of a bag type. And we have vacillating sounds [he talks while inhaling, ingressively], like creaky doors and so on. Sounds that wobble or vacillate.”

Different ways of listening

Consequently, the object being worked with in spectromorphology is not music but the sounds on which the music is based. A slightly artificial way of listening, he admits.

“Hearing a sound as a note in a tonal system, or as an indication that this is a piano or an oboe, are things you have to ignore if you’re going to hear sound as sound. You have to practise what we call reductive listening, which means relinquishing these comfortably familiar practices.”

The next level in the method is to talk about listening intentions, intentions d’écoute, a concept taken straight from Pierre Schaeffer, the great source of inspiration for the project. The point is to be conscious of the way in which one senses things, to observe one’s own listening as one listens. “Establishing these inner levels of reflection is a pivotal part of the project,” Thoresen says.

Form and memory

Reductive listening relates to the sound only, but aural sonology has also developed methods for analysing the progression and form of sonorous music. We are then much closer to the actual musical experience, and the musical memory makes a powerful entrance into the picture.

“In order to hear musical form without the aid of notes, you have to go through a kind of work on consciousness, because the form of the music is only accessible through memory of music. In order to study the form of the music by ear, you actually have to recollect the music really well, and you have to practise treating the recollection of the sonorous music as an object for your inner consciousness. It’s a great mental exercise.

“It is also the case that the music itself can support the memory through reiterations and consistent features, and the experience of form hinges on the conscious mind’s managing to place what you remember into the background in relation to what you are actually hearing at the moment. The memory has to form a background layer in relation to the music you are hearing at the moment, exactly like the words I am saying now, which are taking place against the backdrop of the start of this sentence, which is no longer sounding.”

Notions of sound

Intensive practising of the aural analysis method trains the ability to listen more observantly and also teaches us to imagine the music as having been heard, Thoresen continues. Those who particularly benefit from being able to picture music as heard are composers and conductors, as well as performers who are not supposed to just follow orders from a conductor but create an interpretation of their own. In that case it’s not just a question of studying the method, but of practising it, he points out.

“For those who have accomplished it, it’s an effort that has led to expanding their aural awareness.”

Lasse Thoresen himself has an ability and a propensity to be inspired by music, philosophy and religion from different cultures. Comparing and contrasting is core to his work, and a swift trip back in time, to remind himself of the ear’s and the memory’s capacity, is typical of this view.

“Throughout history there have been great changes in humankind’s sense of balance, triggered by changes in technology. After all, before the book was created, all important information had to be memorised, and there were specialists whose job it was to learn the laws of the land by heart and recite them at the Ting or parliament so that everyone could be reminded of what the law said. To this day that still exists in some religious traditions, like reciting the Quran, or Vedic recitation in India. The entire aural world has more or less been a half-forgotten dimension of consciousness in the West, I would venture to say. So rediscovering this world in which the ear is the primary thing, not what is read and coded, has also been an important exploration. We also have an oral folk music tradition in Norway, which it has been fascinating to get to grips with, with reference to those laws that make aural intelligence and consciousness possible when performers are able to retain hundreds of slåtter (folk tunes) as part of their tradition, from memory alone.

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Lasse Thoresen LP-er

Visible soundscape

Lasse Thoresen’s research into sonology started when he wanted to enter the listening world and get away from the visual in the form of musical note-based analyses. Further developments seem to have played a little trick on him now. Everything arrived at by listening in the course of the music can now be plotted with electronic graphics in the so-called Acousmographe, a computer program developed by GRM in Paris, in which sound and analysis go hand in hand. A bit beyond the pale, according to Thoresen, in response to a direct question. But the benefits are obvious.

“The rhetorical function of having a catchy visual presentation should not be underestimated. As long as I presented my colleagues with my hand-scrawled drawings, they thought it seemed extremely amateurish, but as soon as it appears in an attractive digital design, it begins to become something. The form helps to gain acceptance for it.”

For this presentation of sonology Thoresen has devised a defined terminology with 300-400 terms, if you combine all words and characters. Because the Acousmographe provides a synchronised presentation of music and what is heard, it can be shared more precisely and more interactively by multiple observers. “But the analysis emerges from having listened one’s way to it. That’s the whole basic premise. It’s not the computer program that does the analysis,” Thoresen stresses.

Enriching listening

The analysis method used by aural sonology depends on being able to listen to the same sounds or the same music over and over again. It is the sound recording, the phonogram, therefore, which is the object of this analytical approach, not the concert performance. If such repetitive listening can seem remote from the musical experience, Lasse Thoresen quickly reminds us that it is only a method for achieving something else: communication, insight, appreciation.

“To listen is to explore a whole dimension of the consciousness. Schaeffer’s motto is travaille ton oreille comme ton instrument, practise your ear like you practise your instrument. And that is enriching.”

So has his work over all these years brought Lasse Thoresen any closer to an answer as to what music is?

“That’s one question I’ve never asked. I don’t think it’s anything to concern oneself with. What I will say is that music is the conveyance of largely non-verbal meaning through sound, sound and time. I’m a bit of a fan of the music philosopher Peder Christian Kjerschow, who says that music is thought before it gels into concepts. That’s a picture of the movements of thought before it has crystallised into concepts. The concepts we have created cannot say everything about the music: in the final analysis they are meant to be forgotten in order to open the way for an enriched musical experience.”

Last updated: 18. March 2016