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Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Perfect Day

The month of December was filled with snow and ice. January was rather soft and now, early February, spring is in the air.

Don’t worry, this blog will not continue describing singing blackbirds and budding crocuses. But when I biked through the city center the other day, I cannot deny that the sun and the mild temperature made me feel “springy”.  Adding to this feeling was the fact that the chimes from the Martini tower, the town’s main church tower, were playing Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day”.

I was a bit startled. I actually love the carillon as an instrument, and I noticed that over the years carillonists have broadened their repertoire immensely, now ranging from Bach’s Bourrée to the Beatles’ Because. But I did not imagine that Lou Reed was already “belfry-fähig”, given the importance drugs played in his career and knowing that “Perfect Day”, at first glance an innocent song, plays a major role in the movie Trainspotting.

I wondered what this song, sounding from the Martini tower, did with all those people walking in town. How many people would simply accept the tones of the bells as background sounds, how many would hear it as music? And of those listening to it as music, how many would be delighted by the tune played – like me -, how many would be indifferent, how many would be annoyed? And of those being annoyed, how many would be so because they don’t like the tune, how many because they don’t like Lou Reed, how many because they don’t like the song’s lyrics, how many because they don’t like the combination of Lou Reed with a church tower?

It made me think of the concept of “acoustic community”. The concept figures in Murray Schafer’s seminal 1977-book “The Soundscape”. He explains that you can define a community not only politically, geographically or socially, but also acoustically: a community consists of those listening to the same sounds. A parish, he writes, was an acoustic community, its borders defined by the range of the bells. And a house can be seen as a means of constructing the family as an acoustic community: the walls of the house keep the family sounds inside and the sounds of the world outside, thus making a difference in “our” sounds and “their” sounds.

So there I was: a member of an acoustic community of Lou Reed-listeners. Or was I not? The whole idea of the acoustic community seems to hinge around the idea that sounds – or in our case music – unite people. But hearing the same sounds – or listening to the same music - does not necessarily connect people. Sounds – and music – are neutral; community only comes about when meanings are exchanged. The potential community, based on the music coming from the belfry, has to be actualized in meaningful behaviour on the basis of that music.

This makes music in public places such an interesting phenomenon. It is made for an audience, certainly – but the audience has to constitute itself. Using a specific variant of what Christopher Small calls “musicking”, I think that, in order to realise the potential of music to shape acoustic communities in this case, people have to start “audiencing”.

Without an audience (even if the audience consists of one: the musician) music doesn’t exist - it has to be called, again and again and again, into existence by its audience.

R. Murray Schafer. The Soundscape. Our Sonic Enviroment and the Tuning of Our World. Rochester: Destiny Books, 1977.

Christopher Small. Musicking. The Meanings of Performing and Listening. Middletwon: Wesleyan, 1996.

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