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Halfway into my college career, I was asked if my attention and hearing impairments had ever benefitted me in any way. Although I refused to see it at the time, it is this exact dichotomy between hearing as passive reception and listening as active concentration that informs my musical work. From otoacoustic emissions to tinnitus frequencies, the ear is an active amplifier of its own sounds, acting as an instrument responding to sound information. To distinguish acoustic elements generated outside of the ear from those taking shape within it, we are required to internally perceive all acoustic information. But is concentration enough to determine the origin of each element? Inspired by my own difficulties with attention and hearing, my work strives to accentuate the ear as a musical instrument and emphasize the necessity of focus rhythm requires.
My sound art and electronic music explore the physical phenomena of sound and human auditory perception. In the first semester of my senior project, I built a large-scale ear canal that emitted an aural architecture of ear-borne tones in a sound installation. The parallel division of the Old Gym allowed each architectural space to become a speaker that produced overlapping sounds that swept between the two, intricately joining them to be heard and felt in a rhythmic resonance throughout the body. On one side, tinnitus tones of varied frequency coalesced to form their own, highly pitched and dynamic music. On the other, the acoustic impression of low frequency binaural beats was used to invoke our particularization of rhythm. Sound waves coincided to make beats that occurred at speeds enhanced by the passing waves of sympathetically resonating snare drums. My audience was invited to wander from room to room, the room as a trope of attention and hearing, both lost and retrieved—as if the listener must reassemble a strayed train of thought.
In my second semester senior concert, I produced specific intervals of ear-borne tone melodies, accompanied by other musical instruments and sound spectra to create superpositions and distortion products as well as to emphasize the subtly shifting phase of rhythmic patterns. Not only did the effects of high frequency acoustic information on the ear and brain bring attention to the sonic intervals of the sounds and their polyrhythms, but it also invoked an internal bodily response that the listener was forced to confront. The phasing patterns of my concert acted as psychoacoustic byproducts of repetitive melodies: once interlaced, a rhythmic entrainment was generated throughout the body that resonated with their produced polyrhythms. Rather than act as submissive receivers, the ears of the listener emitted sounds in response to the otoacoustic emission and tinnitus tones presented. Not only was my audience able to hear how I internalize sound information in addition to how their own ears responded to acoustic stimuli, but they could also hear themselves hearing how their response tones assisted in the direction of the piece. These high-pitched melodies induced auditory distortion products and binaural beating that caused the ears of my listeners to act as listening devices. What were left were psychoacoustic illusions, tricking us into perceiving fantastic width and space. Thus, the emphasis of the performance was on the listener’s active role, using the ear as an instrument to contribute to the creative process.
Hearing has generally been imagined as a percussive affair: the sounds of the outside world beating on eardrums. It is once the sounds of the ear are amplified, however, that listeners may realize that the eardrum is an active instrument, creating polyrhythms by responding to acoustic information from the inside, out. The concentration is dependent on which sound is listened to, and why. Throughout my work, I ask that my audience not simply hear, but listen to and internalize the human body’s innate response to the sonic information I create. Utilizing sound as both a form of art and media, my immersive installations and performances benefit from sonic distraction to investigate the body as an instrument and listening device.
Photos and videos can be found at: www.pippakelmenson.com
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Kelmenson, Philippa Ruthe, "The Polyrhythms of the Ear Canal: Investigating the Human Body as an Instrument and Listening Machine Inspired by Hearing, Attention, and Alvin Lucier" (2017). Senior Projects Spring 2017. 194.
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