This article is part of the series ‘Practices of Musicking‘, (re)thinking musical experience beyond limited understandings of ‘listening’. The series accompanies the theme of our new, first issue of Soapbox: ‘Practices of Listening‘. Read here.
The short texts below were written by MA students for the course ‘Musicology of the Everyday’, led by Oliver Seibt. Following theorists on everyday life from Freud and the Surrealists to Michel de Certeau, participants were encouraged there to dwell on the hidden, potentially radical significance of seemingly mundane experiences listening to music, by writing brief and informal accounts of their day-to-day musical encounters.
Despite music’s ubiquity in everyday life, musicology began to reflect on all these music-related social practices only recently. For long, they have been silently relegated to the realm of the profane – despite assertions since Freud that everyday life feeds and triggers the unconscious, manifesting invisibly across culture. Therefore, through these hyper-personal ‘idiographies’, it was suggested, moments of insight both individual and social might be gleaned that would otherwise fleet from close listening. In other words, only from semi-unconscious, intimate states of passive listening – and the ephemeral interactions produced there – could certain ‘traces’ of the everyday be found, where otherwise they might be buried by discourse, ideology or history. Accordingly, the texts below are not essentially about pieces of music, but rather hint at acts of musicking whose true meaning is already lost in the moment of documentation, but through which, together, a glimpse of the grammar of everyday life can be heard.
The theme of these first selected idiographies comes from Roland Barthes’ term, coined in an attempt to distinguish the peculiar, sudden and deeply personal effect of certain photographs. “A photograph’s punctum is that accident which pricks me (but also bruises me, is poignant to me).” 1 Punctum “shoots … like an arrow”,2 toward an individual viewer, or listener, who adds something from their own biography. Similarly, these idiographers sought to remember and unpick moments of musicking that punctuated them; focuses here are on startling details and textural qualities, with inexplicably profound effects on the listener: nostalgia for unremembered or imagined pasts, compulsive attachments and the sounds of failure.
“I couldn’t take my eyes off this detail on someone else’s body”
A few years ago, I remember when someone’s beauty spot, a freckle, captured my eyes for a really long time. It was round, brown and tiny. It aroused some form of affection in me. When my eyes captured this bodily detail on a boy’s waist, we were on a beach, and just about to swim. And I remember vividly how I couldn’t take my eyes off this detail on someone else’s body. That night I saw the same freckle in my dreams. It filled my entire vision in my sleep. I remember waking up in the middle of the night and listening to this song by Charlotte Gainsbourg, called ‘Beauty Mark‘, repeatedly. Her voice saying: “This old battle scar, this secret part, my beauty mark” were the only words that could have helped me that night to fall asleep. After that night I saw the same boy and his same freckle every summer. But instead of relying on my eyes to enjoy this banal punctum, I relied on my ears. I kept remembering this beautiful song about a specific beauty mark, spot or a scar, just like a punctum that is often hidden, sometimes private and always precious.
“The audience sang together, and I was pierced to my core”
What really strikes, or punctuates me, is the memory of something I imagine I have had, but never truly did. Close to nostalgia – or maybe its Scottish/Hebridean cousin ‘cianalas’ – but as if from an imaginary past. Perhaps an echo of a lost opportunity? An echo of the future from the past; a future lost; a choice not taken.
Just before I left Edinburgh I was working in Edinburgh International Book Festival. One of the events I saw was on a book about the life of Michael Marra, a Dundonian musician and artist, who had loved and contributed greatly to the artistic and social life of his hometown. In its very spirit, the book was published as a community project. In fact, I came to know about Michael Marra through my cousin, who studied in Dundee, fell in love with its local bohemian scene, and whose illustration is featured in the book.
At the end of the event, the musicians performed one of Marra’s songs, ‘Hermless’, which was humorously proposed to be a Scottish national anthem. The audience sang together, and I was pierced to my core. Not only because I was about to leave, or perhaps exactly because of that; not because the anti-pretence attitude is something I deeply admire in Scots, or perhaps exactly because of that; not because I deeply sympathise with an anthem that has a line such as “Ah go tae the library an’ tak’ oot a book” instead of nationalistic hatred to its neighbours, or perhaps exactly because of all of these reasons and many more. This is a song that moves me – it appeals to a simple, kinder, more communal, better life that I want for the society I live in. And it is not the lyrics – for one, I hardly understood the Dundonian when I first heard the tune – it was something else, something I cannot quite pin down, yet definitely pinned something in me: back then, on a rainy August afternoon in Charlotte Square Gardens; evenings after in my kitchen, prematurely saying goodbye; and to this day, whenever I feel a bit sentimental, a bit nostalgic, a bit of ‘cianalas’.
“These disruptive yet contrasting sounds connect to me on an emotional level”
It is hard to boil music down to some specific qualities that function as a ‘punctum’, by which a deep, personal engagement is formed in a process of listening. In my experience though, and after some reflection, I can point towards some qualities that generally might deliver such an effect on me. I’ve always had an emotional connection to various sonic textures in the form of an aesthetics of failure. I find that music which has a punctuating force on me often contains some this kind of essence of subversion. This comes about from possible disturbances I might hear in a piece, for example, distortions or glitches.
I heard Arca’s music for the first time four years ago and I felt very touched by it. The track ‘Xen‘ specifically generated a strong response from me because of its punctuating force. Dislocated rhythmic patterns with moments of noisy interruptions run hectically throughout, while a beautiful melody appears occasionally through the cracks of the harsher sounds. These disruptive yet contrasting sounds connect to me on an emotional level, and though I might identify their function, it will always remain inexplicable and irreducible to words what is truly being said between the music and its listener.
“A bigger nostalgia, for a past that is not mine”
Punctum / like an arrow / wounds / marks
Some kind of nostalgia. My parents used to listen to this song on Sunday mornings. It is a Sunday morning but also a Monday night.
The moon. At night, I see the moon and then I feel small, and I breath with a half smile. “The moon is looking at me, and I don’t know what is looking in me.”
Untamed wilderness. Threatening.
A different kind of nostalgia. A bigger nostalgia, for a past that is not mine.
Desire. Calling for something. Howling. The permanent anxiety of not knowing if you will ever get what you desire.
I cannot put an order or a narrative to these feelings. This is what I recognise as punctum in this song. I cannot remember a particular day in which I listen to this song, what also makes it so important for me are all the moments I’ve heard it and how I felt every time.
Similarly making sense of listening acts that stand out uncannily, this theme addresses and questions understood distinctions between the ‘sacred’ and the profane. Following surrealist writer Michel Leiris and his Collège de Sociologie, the emphasis during this week’s idiographies was also on their combination of autobiography and ethnology, as well as later musicologists such as Christopher Partridge’s account of the sacred “in terms of the ways people relate to and experience certain things which are considered to be ‘set apart’ from everyday life in some absolute sense.” 3 Accordingly, the writers below manifest a certain ambiguous attitude caused by the approach of something simultaneously attractive and dangerous, prestigious and outcast – the bizarre combination of respect, desire, and terror.
“Such was our enrapture in the ritual that we rarely even told her to shush, and instead kept listening”
Taking the word ‘sacred’ as understood by Partridge – as something separated from its social life, as something engaged through ritual, as something to be protected – I am immediately transported back to the passenger’s seat of my dad’s car. During my early teenage years, my dad and I would go on regular hiking trips to Dartmoor in the Southwest of England. The trip down was a long drive and to get from hike to hike also required long drives through sweeping landscapes, across the ‘tors’.
Both of us being ardent ‘conscious listeners’ of music, my dad and I quickly developed an unspoken ritual. As he collected me in the car, we’d both produce an album or two each. He would often pick something from that he listened to growing up: Pink Floyd, Deep Purple, Kraftwerk; while I would often contribute more contemporary albums that I had bought that month: Muse, Them Crooked Vultures, MGMT etc. Often some albums came up again and a sort of canon began to develop: Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon and Wish You Were Here, The Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers, Bob Dylan’s Desire. Although we never spoke about the ritual, strict rules were in place. No skipping tracks. No talking while the album was playing. If we needed to stop the car, we could only do so at the end of a song. I would often read the liner notes of each album eagerly as I listened and tried to remember as many facts as I could. The ritual element became suddenly apparent on those rare trips that my sister would join us. Without knowing the rules of the ritual she would often foolishly try to engage us in conversation. Such was our enrapture in the ritual that we rarely even told her to shush, and instead kept listening.
Although we never spoke about the ritual, strict rules were in place
I have a very sharp memory of one of these moments. We had planned to drive to Belstone Tor for our hike that day. This was an early trip and so the ritual had not yet set so rigidly. We put on Dark Side of the Moon and began driving. However, the drive was only a short one and by the time we arrived, ‘Money’ had only just started playing! So, without a word, my dad just kept driving slowly. I distinctly remember absorbing that album as we drove slowly through the Dartmoor wilderness, the sound of ‘Brain Damage’ blasting as we crested the peak of one hill and saw the moors laid out before us. The albums were our sacred texts, the small car our sacred temple, and we the gatekeepers and curators of our musical explorations.
“Listening to her feels like coming back to the core of myself, as if everything surrounding me disappears”
There is always something about listening to Concha Buika that makes me shiver. I don’t know if it is her coarse voice, the dramatic lyrics, or the ripped sound of the guitar, but I know that whenever I start listening to any of her songs my stomach feels empty and full at the same time. Listening to her feels like coming back to the core of myself, as if everything surrounding me disappears. I’m not sure if it is precisely a sacred experience, but it does feel like that sometimes.
I can remember clearly a particular moment in which listening to her felt particularly overwhelming. I was in Boston in the summer, visiting my brother and some friends, but I was also supposed to meet my girlfriend. As soon as I arrived she broke up with me, and it was my first real breakup. I was sad, and also confused. One of those nights I stayed at a friend’s house. My friend was trying to be as supportive as she could so she bought a bottle of Jack Daniels and we sat on the porch of her house to talk and laugh at our misfortunes. I felt happy for the first time in days, but not completely calm. She suggested to go for a walk in her neighborhood, and I thought it was the best idea to at least do something productive with my restlessness. We went outside and she gave me her phone so I could put on some music. It was an easy choice – Concha Buika of course, the one who always knows how to speak directly to my heart.
For a moment, I knew that everything was going to be alright
We were walking while listening to ‘Jodida Pero Contenta’ (which could be translated as ‘screwed but glad’) and both of us wanted to say something about how perfect the song was, about how nice the weather was, and about how nice it was to share sadness. But we stayed quiet. We shared a couple of looks, half a smile, and kept walking through the quiet neighborhood. For a moment, I knew that everything was going to be alright, and that my sadness made the music even more beautiful. I felt bigger, I felt deeper, I felt as if my existence was beyond my temporary circumstances. I felt, at the end of the song, a profound tranquility.
“The sound of the word in my mind carries some connotations that are at the same time strange and familiar”
When I let my mind wander, being very intrigued by the way language can sound, sometimes the word ‘Gand’ pops up out of nowhere. It has been around for quite some time. I have no exact idea about where that word came from other than a spontaneous linguistic mutation as some sort of phonetic intrusion.
While I cannot remember ever having heard that word or ever having pronounced it out loud, the sound of the word in my mind carries some connotations that are at the same time strange and familiar. It resonates with my idea of a persona or behavior that avoids being seen or being confronted. It is a type of movement, smooth and non-violent, but sneaky. Sometimes more a scheme, sometimes impersonated by a stereotypical person that carries these characteristics. That person or behavior is decidedly opposite to one that maintains male power and status traits.
Now, somehow when I ‘listen’ to the inner representation of the phonetics of gand, it mixes with the word ‘djent’ in a completely unintended and funny way. Djent describes a type of death metal music, the naming of which I have recently learned about (derived from an onomatopoeia for a guitar sound pioneered by extreme metal band Meshuggah). It is curious to me how the word djent now brings in the roughness and sonic power of that band’s sound, which has a certain degree of aggression in it, and also quite different associations.
What formerly seemed to have clashed seems reconciled
Now when I pronounce the words out loud next to each other, they sound quite different. But when I think of the passage in one of Meshuggah’s songs (‘Marrow’) – specifically the guitar part – it fascinates me and seems to have been the sound that amongst others have made people refer to this music as djent. The overlap is there – the passage might be the less-violent, yet mysterious and subtly threatening section of that song, and thereby has a little bit of the phonetic connotations of the word Gand in it. What formerly seemed to have clashed seems reconciled in this way. It just makes more sense to me like this.
This idiography is stimulated by reading Leiris’ 1938 text. The passage about the words carrying meaning that somehow are bridged between seemed like a quite familiar experience in this way. It also is encouraged by Freud’s tracing of the mechanism of forgetting proper names, for the internal investigative style. I am not sure if this is so much of a sacred within the sound. But it is definitely an uncanny experience, since this comes straight from the unconscious. It is a bit scary to write about this, because by giving it a name, I’m giving it a place. I feel like I am creating a Frankenstein monster. :O