Unaware Music

“I like everything that has no style: dictionaries, photographs, nature, myself and my paintings. (Because style is violence, and I am not violent)”

                                                                                                                                                                                                       Gerhard Richter

Last summer, I had two experiences which struck me deeply, both of them due to the contact and the observation of nature. The first one happened when I was travelling across Cantabria, Spain - from the village of Fontibre to Bárcena Mayor – and stopped my car alongside the road in the Puerto de Palombera. The reason of my stop had initially been the awesome views with lots of horses and cows that were grazing. But as I left my car, I began listening to a really incredible music which came from the cowbells hung around those cows and horses’ necks. On account of this, the sound textures I was hearing there were really unintended and aleatory. Furthermore, I believe that the acoustics originated in that place whould be difficult to achieve or copy. What is more, I soon thought that chairs should be placed there so that people could seat and enjoy not only that marvellous music but also that impressive natural concert hall.

The second experience which amazed me terrifically was hearing the cicadas’ “song” in the woods and forests of the town of Torrevieja, in Alicante, Spain. The music created by these insects is absolutely fantastic. It is basically originated from their instinct of both procreation and preservation. Owing to this, and according to the French entomologist Jérôme Sueur, males produce four main “songs”: the “calling song” that attracts conspecific males and females at long range, the “courtship song” which attracts females at short range, the “rivalry song” that is produced when two males compete for a calling perch, and the “distress song” which is produced when males are seized by a predator. This such music is featured by several elements, such as slight changes of pitch and rhythm within an apparently static continuum, unbelievable sound masses of broad-band noise, lengthy gradual processes that we usually note their effects but do not when the change is originated, among others. Sometimes, many of these variables depend on the ambient temperature.

However, my opinion is that we rarely perceive many of these sort of happenings. In fact, they constantly happen everywhere in our quotidian life although we often expel them from our focus of attention unconsciously. To put it in another way, these aspects of the everyday exist everywhere and nowhere at the same time despite the fact that they usually take place below the threshold of our perception. In addition, they are the site of both a fundamental ambiguity and an essential indeterminacy. What is more, they elude forms and structures as well as introducing to us with an indefinite style.

In reference to the happenings with cicadas as well as horses and cows, they made me meditate and compare their ways of producing music with another kind of animal’s. The animal that I am speaking normally forgets not only he is an animal but he also lives in the same environment than the others. Naturally, he mostly believes that he can control the environment where he lives which is commonly ignored by him. Obviously, I am speaking of the human animal. We human beings usually either compose or play an instrument in order to make music. But these two aware actions of generating music carry with them all our musical training and background, which lead to a certain stylization of the sound result we obtain. Time ago, having an own style was considered a goal to achieve by me;  however, it actually poses a question rather than an aim for me. 

From my point of view, style is connected with ideologies, rules and concepts that have been acquired. It is the manifestation of human being’s theories as well as his culture and history. It is also meaning, which is related to a pre-existing scale of values that seldom allows us to see both the nature of things themselves and the reality that surrounds us. Furthermore, I am convinced that style is something rather static and rigid which does not let the natural flux of things be. By observing nature, I clearly see lack of style, constant change and mutation of its components, and a highly random design. Personally, I strongly feel we should seek ways that elude this sort of stylization and pre-existing scale of values in art; means which allow us to go beyond our history, theories, culture, memory and imagination.

On the other hand, in nature, male cicadas produce music through what is called “tymbalisation”, the movement of a thin irregular cuticle called tymbal which is set in motion by an abdominal muscle; whereas cows and horses do through the movement of their necks where the cowbells are hung. In contrast to human being’s, this music is originated by means of an activity they do that is different from the music itself and on which they focus their attention. It means acting accordingly with species’ instinct of procreation and preservation through their several “songs”, for cicadas, and grazing so as to feed, for cows and horses. Thus, the musical product they generate is external or alien to their attention, focus or “awareness” and therefore it is also accomplished both by chance and with no control.

But human beings sometimes show this sort of behaviours as well. Likewise the animals mentioned before, the problem is that the result we obtain in those cases is hardly ever considered as music. What is more, we seldom notice it, but if we do, we soon send it to the background and stop perceiving it inmediately, like with any background noise.

Some situations of this kind, in which we human beings are now and then immersed in our everyday life, are coming into my mind now. For example, interesting aleatory sound masses are created when people who are fan of football go to the stadiums in order to cheer their teams through the songs they sing. This act of singing to cheer their teams becomes their focus of attention. As a result, the sound consequence provoked by this activity is removed from their perceptual field since it turns perfectly unaware due to the lack of focus on it. In fact, the aim is other, to cheer their teams so that they could win.

Another case in which we produce music on account of this sort of unconscious processes might be any family or friend meal. What is more, the more people are in the meeting, the more interesting the musical effect will be. In this kind of situation, the meaning of the words of diners’ speeches as well as the food itself commonly attract our attention. Consequently, several background sounds, such as the cutlery hitting on the plates, the sounds generated by means of eating, and the murmur or noise coming from diners’ superimposed speeches, are hardly ever perceive by us consciously.

Something similar also often happens in cafes and restaurants that are crowded, especially in Latin countries where people usually speak rather loudly. In those kind of places, interesting indeterminate changing textures emerge due to people’s superimposed speeches too. In this case, everyone is more focused on the meaning of his own words rhater than the global music originated from them.

Another example of this type might be when the musicians from an orchestra habitually rehearse together their individual parts on stage, immediately before the beginning of a concert. In my view, attractive sound masses result from the aleatory combination of every player’s individual part rehearsed. Although each of those parts is full of style, coming from both composer’s and performer’s background, the musical outcome the instrumentalists generate is not. Personally, I think this is due to the fact that their group production is absolutely unaware and therefore completely uncontrolled. Indeed, they do not worry about the global sound result they manage but they focus their attention on the individual parts they are rehearsing, independently what happens at the collective level.  

In conclusion, these two experiencies I mentioned throughout this writing made me think about the ways we humans chiefly produce music. I feel that these means of creating music carry all our musical background and training, which are linked with a pre-existing scale of values that provoke a stylization of the sound result achieved. In order to counteract this, I believe that an option could be to try to produce an unaware music emerged from an aware activity or action which was external or alien to the musical product generated. Thus, we would obtain not only random sound events but also unintended results that would either blur or elude the action as well as the existence of an author, and hence his style. In other words, the German visual artist Gerhard Richter also said, And when you don’t know what you are making, you don’t know, either, what to alter or distort.”

Sergio Bové
December 2014


Gerhard Richter, “Text” (Thames & Hudson, 2009).

Jérome Sueur, “Audiospectographical analysis of cicada sound production: a catalogue” (http://sueur.jerome.perso.neuf.fr/)

Jérome Sueur, “Ambient temperature and sound power of cicada calling songs” (http://sueur.jerome.perso.neuf.fr/)

John Cage, “Silence” (Wesleyan University Press, 50th Anniversary Edition, 2011).

Margaret Iversen, “Chance”, Documents of Contemporary Art (Whitechapel Gallery and The MIT Press, 2010).

Robert Irwin, “Seeing is forgeting the name of the thing one sees” (University of California Press, 2008).

Stephen Johnstone, “The everyday”, Documents of Contemporary Art (Whitechapel Gallery and The MIT Press, 2008).