Inner Sound | Interview with Jonathan Weinel

MF:

I’d like to start this interview, if you don’t mind, in maybe a tangential or anecdotal way, by referencing a couple popular culture references that I think may connect to your book, Inner Sound: Altered States of Consciousness in Electronic Music and Audio-Visual Media. The first is the 1980 sci-fi film Altered States. Have you seen it? Similar to your book, it opens with ancient rituals, psychedelics in the context of indigenous traditions, the search for inner worlds etc. If you know the film, for people who may have seen it, how might you connect your book to this or other similar films which often provide a kind of general audiovisual cultural backdrop for the kinds of ideas in your book?

To add an anecdote to this one — the first university sound design course I taught was at Northwestern University, and the guy who hired me had ‘shaman’ listed on his online academic CV, and I remember thinking, ‘Wow, they let shamans teach in universities? How do shamans get hired in academia?’ I never really pursued an answer to that question, but since I’m starting with anecdotes I thought I’d include this one. Over many decades in the humanities, for example, the Freudians expelled the Jungians, so I thought shamanic tendencies were formally disallowed in the university! Not to mention the gradual disappearance of folklore units, or divinity schools etc.

The second is much more recent, and comes out of Yuval Noah Harari’s well-known books and videos, and that’s this concept of the ‘WEIRD,’ i.e. — Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich, Democratic. Just to give a grounding reference on this idea, for readers and this discussion:

Neuroscience and psychology mostly (and embarrassingly) draw their test results from students, a category of what Harari calls the “WEIRD” — Western, educated, industrialised, rich, democratic. Much mental variety exists beyond this, not least within cultures that value visionary and exalted states. We also have a growing sense of how the experiencing faculties of other organisms — bat echolocation, or whale song — might indicate qualitatively different and fascinating internal worlds. (source)

Anyway, hopefully starting in this anecdotal and tangential way serves as a good intro to your book! Your thoughts?

JW:

Well firstly on the topic of the 1980 Ken Russell movie Altered States, this is mentioned in Inner Sound, in the section dealing with representations of altered states of consciousness (ASCs) in films. One of the main topics of interest in my book is the ways in which sound and audio-visual works can represent ASCs such as hallucinations. Sound design allows us to create illusory impressions — these can be of past events or real-word locations, but it can also be used to suggest unreal or imaginary spaces. It’s in the latter area that we can conceive of work that reflect experiences of dreams or hallucinations, thereby giving us a way to describe experiences that may otherwise be rather ineffable or ephemeral. Across electronic music, audio-visual media, games and virtual reality (VR) there are many works that explore this idea.

The film Altered States is an example of one of these works. The movie was strongly based on John C. Lilly’s research, which was certainly weird in every sense of the word, involving lots of experimentation with psychedelic substances, sensory isolation tanks and dolphins! He almost seems to have become an archetypal figure for strange research involving ASCs — more recently the character Dr. Martin Brenner in the TV show Stranger Things was also loosely based on him, and the sensory isolation tank scenes in that show reflect the type of research he was exploring in the 1960s. Examples like these tend to use visual effects, music and sound design in various interesting ways to portray experiences of hallucination. It’s something I’ve also explored in my own creative practices too, so for example in my electroacoustic composition Entoptic Phenomena I explored some of these ideas through sounds, composing the music in such a way that it creates a sonic experience based on the idea of a hallucinatory journey that occurs in a sensory isolation tank. More recently i’ve been exploring related ideas through VR work such as my Cyberdream project for Oculus Quest.

On the second point, a lot of the research and thinking regarding ASCs probably reflects the cultural biases you mention, in so far as these are present in most forms of research, but of course in a broader sense the topic can engage with very different ways of thinking and being in the world when we look at indigeneous practices involving ASCs such as shamanic or trance cultures. What I think we can say is that academic research and thinking on this area as with others benefits immensely from diversity. There is much more work to do to increase diversity, and I think especially in the academic study of music, which I have found can be quite closed at times to the discussion of psychedelia, dub, rave music and electronic dance music, which are among the areas I’m interested in with Inner Sound. While I’m sure the book inevitably reflects some of my own cultural biases, I hope that in some small way it helps to support more diversity in research by establishing new discourses and making space for further work in these areas specifically, which have not always been that well served in academic literature on sound and music. With Inner Sound I also tried to write a book that would be widely accessible to a general readership.

MF:

What do you see as the main technological frontiers for gaining better access to inner spaces or altered states? And, are these the same of different technologies from those that would be used for creating vs. experiencing them?

JW:

So one of the key themes I’m interested in with Inner Sound is the ways in which sound and audio-visual technologies may allow us to provide increasingly accurate representations of the types of subjective visual and auditory experiences that one might have during a hallucination. When we start to look at technologies like VR, we now have incredibly powerful sensoriums that are capable of constructing illusory audio-visual experiences. This allows us to start to think of ways in which we might start to be able to simulate ASCs with regards to the visual and auditory components of these experiences.

Of course, these experiences will not be the same as those produced by, say — psychedelic drugs — but may provide fascinating technological analogues that have their own intrinsic interest and value. Experiences of sound, music and audio-visual media can be very powerful in their own right as imaginative and emotional forces that act on the individual, and harnessing these with an awareness of this could open some very interesting doors. I have noticed that some people have a tendency to think a drug would affect them and induce an experience, whereas media experiences don’t have a pharmacological action so they are somehow passive, can only represent, and cannot affect you.

However, the sensory stimulation of music, film, or VR representations really can affect you, and ASCs such as trance states have been induced through forms such as music for thousands of years. This is a subject that is being explored by those interested in the concept of ‘cyberdelics’ (a portmanteau of cyberculture and psychedelics), where people are looking at ways in which technologies like VR might be utilised for various forms of consciousness expansion. This is an idea that could be beneficial for society if we can design experiences that support forms of meditation, or it might be that we just get really cool psychedelic, synaesthetic cyberpunk art experiences out of it — which would also be fine by me, because I think cool art and music has intrinsic value.

MF:

Synaesthesia is an important concept in this ‘multimedia’ terrain but the term ‘multimedia’ itself can sometimes feel outdated and much more limited in scope compared to, say, the kinds of ecstatic experience pursuits of composers like Scriabin where visual music was closely connected to his Theosophy spirituality etc. I sometimes use the concept of Visual Music but that can also be conceptually reversed into Musical Visuals and so on. There are other concepts like Chion’s audiovisual contract, added value etc. What kinds of new media theoretic concepts in the wider discourse do you find most applicable to the kinds of ideas you are pursuing in the book? Or, do you feel we need to develop all new conceptual frameworks due to limitations in the current theoretic set?

JW:

Synaesthesia is a very central theme in my work. I’m particularly interested in the idea of visual hallucinations that are elicited in response to sound and music. For me this synaesthetic action is intrinsically psychedelic, because psychedelics promote these types of experience. My thinking around this area tends to relate to ideas from cognitive psychology. My background is originally in music technology and visual art, but I later studied psychology, mathematics and computer science, so these are the main areas I draw connections between.

In essence, I see sound and music as being capable of stimulating multimodal responses which can tap into memories, emotions and may elicit imaginative visual imagery. I tend to think that this is an inherent potentiality of music but one that may be heightened during psychedelic experiences. My ideas around this have been shaped by various theorists and the first chapter is specifically dedicated to unpacking these ideas, via discussion of various work on consciousness, cognition, and emotion.

I draw on concepts of consciousness such as Baars’s global workspace theory, and make connections between work such as Rouget’s investigations into music and trance, and concepts such as Russell’s dimensional model of emotion which is often used in the field of affective computing. I do also refer to ideas from theorists such as Chion later on in the book as well as concepts of presence and immersion. Ultimately Inner Sound builds on these areas and proposes a new conceptual framework that allows us to think about ways in which electronic music and audio-visual media can be designed in relation to ASCs.

With regards to your comments about terms such as ‘visual music’, I take a very broad view and try not to get too hung up on specific terminology. I personally think that term ‘visual music’ reflects a specific area of work which tends to be quite historically focused, and so while interesting it can sometimes be a bit limiting. Which is to say I think that Jordan Belson, John Whitney etc. created some amazing work, but we should also now be valuing the wider sphere of work related to visualisations of sound, in which I would include practices like VJing, or stuff like Jeff Minter’s light synths, which often seem to be overlooked in these discussions.

I now prefer to describe this whole area as ‘visualisations of sound and music’, in order to cast the net widely and avoid the specific associations of visual music, VJing or music visualisations, since all these fields are interesting to me. This is just one of the areas I explore in Inner Sound, but also one that is of particular interest to me. I am currently also finishing off another book called Explosions in the Mind: Composing Psychedelic Sounds and Visualisations (forthcoming: Palgrave Macmillan), which will also explore this area via an in-depth discussion of my own creative practices.

MF:

What would be examples of specific works or artists, movements etc. that really embody your arguments around altered states and inner worlds?

JW:

In Inner Sound the approach I take is one that seeks to draw connections across many different historical periods and areas of electronic music and audio-visual culture. The main areas I look at are shamanic art and music, via an exploration of indigeneous visual arts and sound recordings of ritual music; rock n’ roll, surf music, and psychedelic rock (e.g. 1960s–1970s); dub reggae, acid house, detroit techno, breakbeat hardcore, drum and bass, ambient techno, psy-trance; electroacoustic music and soundscape composition; psychedelic feature films, experimental films, visual music, VJing; video games and virtual reality applications.

I cover a lot of different territories rather than focusing on one particular area. I think 21st century studies of sound and music demand such multi-faceted approaches, because all these forms are inevitably now more accessible to listeners and composers via the Internet, and are in a constant state of flux and interaction with each other. It therefore makes sense to me to consider the thematic of ASCs across many areas, and we would do well to take a similar approach with other concepts too. With that said, even though I look at lots of areas with Inner Sound, what I would say is that it is still selective, and I think my approach to the topic probably does also reflect a very UK-centric approach, which will probably resonate with anyone who grew up with jungle/drum & bass, Atari STs, and is partial to the odd lava lamp or stone circle!

MF:

Final thoughts?

JW:

Given the state of the world, I think a brief comment on these topics in relation to the covid-19 pandemic is worth making. Since social distancing measures have been introduced, we’ve seen an increased need for experiences of music that are mediated by computers and networked technologies. Recent events seem to have shifted gears slightly on the need for visualisations of music through technologies such as VR and live streaming, since opportunities to go to live concerts have become more difficult.

In 2020 we’ve seen a lot of artists and organisers respond to these difficult circumstances by devising virtual concerts and festivals. For instance, the EDM festival Tomorrowland created intricate virtual stages with full light shows, which were rendered with 3D graphics and crowds of virtual avatars, with real DJs superimposed over it all. This was quite interesting but also quite weird to me — to be watching DJs perform to crowds of CGI automatons is quite uncanny. The lightshows and virtual projections on this were really sophisticated, but I think there are also untapped opportunities for visualising sound and music in more diverse and interesting ways, as we do not merely need to replicate what a live concert or festival looks like, but can create imaginative synaesthetic worlds of sound and image.

There may also be exciting ways in which these forms can be interactive, allowing networked performers to participate and co-create the experiences. Using games technologies to explore these ideas is something my students at the University of Greenwich have been doing, and they’ve been coming up with some interesting projects using the Unity game engine. Thinking about ideas related to ASCs, psychedelia and synaesthesia may help us to think of interesting ways to design these immersive experiences, and I hope that Inner Sound may provide food for thought for anyone working in this area. Though hopefully under better circumstances, I think we can expect to see a lot of very interesting developments in this field in the near future.

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