John Wiggins’s piece String II uses the “oddest” parts of real sounds, to create a piece open to interpretation:

“STRING II was made with “real” sounds – sounds that I recorded both in my studio and in the field. I used only the oddest bits of these recordings to go ahead and represent something else. Something that EVERYONE hears differently – its interpretation is up for grabs. I feel that’s important.”

Take a listen here:

Here are some questions that I think the listener can benefit from asking when listening.  Since this piece is very open to interpretation, I do not want to espouse a right, wrong, or even specific interpretation, as any one I have is both personal and at the same time irrelevant.

  1. What role does the human voice play in this work?  Is it a commentary?  Is the sound used as a “sound object” or does it serve a linguistic purpose?  Are there parts that indicate a story, a plot line?  Is everything that is human disjunct, or is it contiguous in some way?
  2. What does the re-use of sonorities in different parts of the piece do?  Does this repetition unify the piece, or are the re-uses so far apart that it appears scattered and pointillist?
  3. This piece switches between so many sound objects in a fast, rotating, and relentless manner.  What does the activity of this piece say about its process of composition, inherent construction, and end result?

This piece, with its vast array of deep, shrill, quick, repetitive, undulating, straight, unmodified, and highly processed sounds, seems to me to be what Mahler might describe as a world in a symphony.  Yet, this piece is unified.  I do not think it puts as many sonorities as possible inside it; it rather chooses a set of recordings and modifies them to give a wide array of colors, while reusing material as one might do in a highly motivic piece for acoustic instruments.

Paying attention to this rapid-fire onslaught of sounds is daunting, but I think the listener can form an apt interpretation of it through active listening.  One may ask, “what is active listening?”  It is the process in which one questions, investigates, seeks for meaning, considers the compositional process, analyzes in real-time, deconstructs and reconstructs, and otherwise examines a work as one listens to it.

For a Brahms symphony, one might analyze the harmonic and tonal shifts.  For a Cage percussion piece, one might think about the timing of events, the sound-quality of each note, and the structure of the piece.  However, do not stop at each of these suggestions.  Every “good” piece of music can be considered from many angles.  In addition, since we are each individuals, we bring certain perspectives, specializations, biases, and histories to the listening experience.  Our specific way of thinking about music can drive us to listen even more actively.

Metaphors of “active listening” might be the following:

  1. Driving through an urban environment requires one to be constantly aware of each car, pedestrian, signal, sign, weather element, construction area, parking space, and destination.  One’s brain must be totally aware to not cause an accident, but equally important, to avoid accidents by those not so aware.
  2. When hiking, finding the specific tree from which a bird is singing, and identifying the bird making the particular call.  The bird will likely be camouflaged, and may leave its perch quickly–so one has to think, hear, and see quickly!  To complicate things even further, there may be other birds singing and chirping in nearby trees.
  3. Reading.  When one reads, whether fiction or nonfiction, poetry or prose, legal/useful or abstract/purposeless, one must read actively, questioning motives, word choice, literary devices, imagery, points made, spelling and grammar, and syntax choice (for examples).  Doing this active reading allows one to gain deeper understanding of the text and its implications.

In all, Wiggins has certainly accomplished his goal: the piece is heard differently by each person.  Yet, it is not a splattering of every color of paint on a wall, and is rather a concerted, unified product that begs us to listen actively, and develop our own perspective on it.  As is evident by this piece, here is John’s biography  (one sentence):

“John Wiggins is an award winning sound designer living in New York.”

Happy composing and listening,

Dan