Embodied Listening

“…An alternative model of a subject’s encounter with reverberation might draw upon the account of music and subjectivity advanced by Naomi Cumming in her study of Erbarme Dich from Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. […] Cumming’s analysis focuses upon the subjective identification that listeners feel with works. The “musical subject,” as she terms it, is the thing that listeners become while they are engaged with a piece of music. Cumming argues that the sense of this musical subject emerges from the interaction of three parameters: first, timbre, which involves the listener in a kind of vicarious vocality -an empathic understanding of the emotive quality of the sound in terms of our own voices; second, gesture, through which a listener gains access to a vicarious kinesthesia: physical gestures of the body serve as interpretants for motivic shapes, rhythms and contours; and finally syntax, those elements in music which create implicative expectancies and draw us through a linear trajectory, which can serve as the locus of causality and intentionality.


“Following David Lidov’s account of ’embodied listening,’ Cumming links the “bodily” subject primarily with the domains of timbre and gesture, while the domain of syntax is more closely connected with “the will” or the volitional agency of the musical subject. Taken together, timbre, gesture, and syntax produce the sense of musical subjectivity. Cumming’s model highlights the importance of vicarious sound production. This notion shifts the emphasis away from the receptive subject […] onto an active, productive participant.

“According to Cumming, what engages our subjectivity, what makes “the musical subject” come to life, is the act of imagining what it might feel like to be the source of the sound. To account more specifically for the listener’s response to reverberation, we might add a fourth parameter to Cumming’s list: spatialization. If the listening subject is, at some level, always engaged in a vicarious production of the sounds that confront her, then it is the subject herself who vicariously generates the sonorous envelope. [The] model of the passive subject, enveloped within an ephemeral, diaphanous softness, is counterposed in Cumming’s model of vicarious sound production by an active subject producing a vibrant halo of expanding sound energy.

“Certainly the experience of sound-making suggested by reverb is distinct: it is the experience of producing echoes and resonance, familiar from tasks like playing the piano with the pedal down, shouting in a large empty room, or even singing in the shower. What is common to these experiences is that, with a minimal input of sound energy, one gets a powerful sound in return. One can play a pianissimo chord on the piano with the pedal down and still produce a richness and breadth out of proportion with the effort expended. The magical experience of producing an echo is an experience of effortless excess. The vicarious omnipotence that reverberant sound induces in listening subjects is easily mapped onto fantasies of plenitude, abundance, and fecundity.

Rebecca Leydon, “The Soft-Focus Sound: Reverb as a Gendered Attribute in Mid-Century Mood Music”, Perspectives of New Music, Vol. 39, No. 2 (Summer, 2001), pp. 103-104.

Image: Colors for a Large Wall, by Ellsworth Kelly, 1951 The New York Times


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