The national tour of cellist Matt Haimovitz and pianist Christopher O’Riley is now under way. As I wrote in my piece on the tour schedule, these performances will draw upon Shuffle.Play.Listen, a double-album CD set released yesterday by Oxingale Records. My earlier article described this as “an experiment in the exploration of 21st-century approaches to the acts of listening to music;” and those experimental motives are reinforced by the accompanying booklet, which is an extended conversation that these soloists have with Daniel Levitin. While Levitin is currently James McGill Professor of Psychology and Behavioral Neuroscience at McGill University in Montreal, he used to be a producer and sound designer for pop albums, working with performers such as the Blue Öyster Cult, Chris Isaak, and the Grateful Dead.
Ultimately, however, the experimental domain of Shuffle.Play.Listen has more to do with the broader domain of cognitive science than with any of the more specialized areas of psychology (including cognitive psychology itself) or “wet brain” theory. This is the domain of what I have previously called “approaches to sensemaking taken by the ear-mind coupling.” “Sensemaking” is a concept that emerged from a speculative treatise by Friedrich Hayek, which advanced an elaborate system of hypotheses to explain how the mind brings “sensory order” to the stimuli of sense data (the “blooming, buzzing confusion” of William James). Hayek’s most important point was that the primary function of mind consisted of the formation of categories and the recognition of those “objects” that are instances of those categories.
In listening to music, we use the language of categories all the time. Our category labels range from the highly general (“classical music”) to the very specific (“the late string quartets of Ludwig van Beethoven”). Many of those categories are handed to us (the old Schwann record catalogs had sections for classical, popular, and jazz, as well as others); and, while we may agree on the terms themselves, we often differ in how we assign criteria for membership. The point behind Shuffle.Play.Listen, however, is that these old categories no longer amount to very much; and, as a result, the very act of sensemaking may be going through a major revision in its “rules of operation.”
This is not necessarily a new phenomenon. In my own listening experience the first attempt to dissolve category boundaries that I encountered came in the mid-eighties when, at a recital at the State University of New York in Purchase, the Kronos Quartet performed as an encore an arrangement by Steve Riffkin of Jimi Hendrix’ “Purple Haze.” This concluded a two-concert set, whose focus had been Alban Berg’s two compositions for string quartet; and it certainly came as a shock to most of the audience. These days that sort of thing no longer shocks, and Shuffle.Play.Listen makes the case that such programming is both expected and worthy of being escalated above encore status.
How well does it make that case? Listeners to the first track on the second CD are likely to think they are listening to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart during the opening parts and will therefore be surprised to discover that the selection is actually Arcade Fire’s “Empty Room.” My guess is that this “classification error” would not arise while listening to the original Arcade Fire track; but there is no reason why arrangement (in this case by O’Riley) has to be a matter of reproduction. (Consider the arrangements by Franz Liszt.) More important is that, at least in the concert repertoire, music of the present has always (with only a few exceptions) been informed by music of the past. If O’Riley and Haimovitz wish to draw that information from Arcade Fire (as well as Radiohead, Cocteau Twins, and others), rather than Mozart, then that just broadens the field in which we, as listeners, can engage our capacity for sensemaking.
As a result listening to these two CDs can be a highly satisfying experience, whether they are dealing with influences from the pop scene or (as is the case with Suite Italienne) Igor Stravinsky being influenced by music that he thought was by Giovanni Battista Pergolesi. Less satisfying, however, is that conversation in the booklet that talks around the nature of such musical experiences; and I think there is a lesson here about a conversational disconnect that often arises in such situations. As a credentialed scientist, Levitin conducts his research from what I like to call a “noun-based” perspective, identifying objects of relevance, determining the attributes that characterize them, and explaining how they came to be what they are. For that matter Levitin’s previous work in the recording industry was also “noun-based,” focused entirely in the production of artifacts. In contrast, because performance is the most important part of what Haimovitz and O’Riley do, their part of the conversation was primarily “verb-based.” They realize that the very category of “music” has less to do with such “objects” as score pages and recordings and almost everything to do with what they are doing with their instruments. Furthermore, that category is understood through a social dimension that goes beyond the usual scientific boundaries of both psychology and neuroscience. That social dimension incorporates not only the ways in which Haimovitz and O’Riley engage with each other but also the ways in which they engage with their audiences, even if that latter engagement is, for the most part, indirect.
Ultimately, then, Shuffle.Play.Listen is as much an invitation to sensemaking as any musical performance is; but it takes the game up to a meta-level by obliging us to reconsider the rules we used to follow. However, one of the interesting things about the Kronos experience is that I can still discover new twists and turns in that “Purple Haze” transcription each time I play my recording of it. (Note that I can say the same about listening to Hendrix’ guitar technique!) None of us have any idea whether or not Shuffle.Play.Listen will have such a lasting impact, because none of us know how our capacity for sensemaking is likely to evolve over the next several decades. For now, however, it is one of the most engaging listening experiences available as a recording.