Hearing and Recognizing: Prepared Flute

Most of the time, when we say that we are hearing something, we are more engaged in the act of recognition than we are in the act of hearing.  We can listen to Beethoven’s fifth Symphony and know that we are recognizing the sounds of an orchestra, classical music, and (for most) that particular piece.  I can look at a flute and recognize the sounds in my head as flute sounds.

But my good friend and colleague, Stacey Russell’s, recent recital turned all of that upside down.  She presented a recital of works for prepared flute.

Preparation of the flute began, perhaps, after John Cage wrote extensively for the prepared piano.  Perhaps out of a desire to create percussive effects without percussion, Cage placed nuts, bolts, screws, and various sundry things into the piano, on and around the strings. In this, the piano ceased to sound like a piano should.  In some pieces, playing the keys from left to right, which would usually result in an upward-moving scale, would create downward motion.  Some keys created sounds that were closer to cymbals or drums than to piano notes.

Cage had cleaved our recognition-perception from our immanent perception.  Audiences listening to those pieces saw a piano and would recognize its normal sound.  But when some unrecognizable sound came from the piano, they were allowed, in that moment, to engage in the act of hearing.

We all had that same experience on Friday night at Stacey’s recital.  Items had been added to the flute including corks blocking the tubing, paper stuck under the keys, beads, buzzers, plastic toys, and even a balloon.  In some cases, the instrument sounded more like a “world” instrument like Chinese membrane flutes.  In other cases, as was the case with the buzzers, it sounded nothing like anything we had heard before.

Additionally, these works rendered the contingency of the instrument particularly palpable. The preparations created a situation in which even the most skilled player could not predict how the instrument would behave.  The air might hit any of the objects in unexpected ways which would produce unintended sounds.  But none of these unintended sounds were out of place.

This illuminated, perhaps, a condition of the unprepared flute and indeed the world.  Even the most skilled flutist playing a Mozart concerto for the thousandth time might become victim to a sudden gust of wind disrupting the airstream, for example.  The pieces played last Friday simply opened up to this condition as a fact of the matter rather than trying in vain to avoid perceived “errors”.

One thing was for sure, everyone in the audience at this particular performance was actively engaged in the act of hearing.  Free from the bounds of recognition, we all experienced a wholly immanent perception of an unexpected and, in some ways, unintended event.

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