Exploring and Creatively Expanding Our Auditory Horizons

A Q&A with vocalist, musician, and Resonance Box founder Aida Shahghasemi.

Posted Aug 29, 2018

 Dnoahg via Wikimedia Commons
The many places and spaces of sound...
Source: Left: Victor Talking Machine Company; Right: Dnoahg via Wikimedia Commons

Given our (often) tremendous visual capacities, it's easy to just let vision habitually take the reins, and assign other senses to lower rungs in our sensory hierarchy. For example, sounds and hearing often play "second fiddle." What would it mean to place a higher priority on other senses, especially the roles of sound, in our sensory repertoire?  

Our senses actually compete with one another in the brain – in a multi-sensory competition for preferential access to our awareness. If we are presented, at the same time, with something that is intriguing to both our vision and hearing, one sense may capture our brain and mind first, and usually vision wins the contest. This may be why, sometimes closing our eyes during a concert, can help us hear more intently. There is an ongoing dynamic in our brain so that sometimes hearing, instead, can take center stage.  

Sometimes, too, creatively, sound can come to the fore, and assume an equal place at the table. Take Frank Lloyd Wright's magnificent "Fallingwater." We all probably can readily call to mind an image of the house suspended over the river and waterfalls. But Wright had more in mind. He wondered, what would it mean to live with the sounds of the waterfall, and not just see it? To have the sounds of the waterfall as an ever-close and companionable part of the experience of living at Fallingwater?  

In speaking with his client, before designing the iconic home, Wright reportedly said, 

‘‘I want you to live with the waterfall, not just to look at it, but for it to become an integral part of your lives...’’ (quoted in Weisberg, 2011, p. 302)

For Wright, even as architect, vision was "a more distant and passive sense than audition ... so placing the house over the constant falls would provide a much more active and intimate experience." (Weisberg, 2011, p. 302

Bringing our experiences of hearing and listening fully to the foreground is a central passion of Aida Shahghasemi, founder and director of The Resonance Box, a creative space devoted to furthering our knowledge of, and our attuned appreciation of, the roles that hearing could play in our creative and experiential lives.  

Q&A with vocalist, musician, and Resonance Box founder Aida Shahghasemi

How do you move between big-picture thinking and the necessary details during your creative process? Do you sometimes get stuck at too high a level, or mired in the specifics? Do you have examples from your work?

I tend to think of life in general in a project-oriented way. Things seem to be categorized as chapters with certain things as appendices. This form of thinking leads me to think of things as over-arching, big picture goals, and then trying to find the paths to reach those goals. 

For instance, I know that as a musician, I have to practice every day. This is an appendix. I do it, it molds my techniques, and I can always refer to it as a source of analytical objective process. I also know that I must create new work as an emerging artist in order to show progress and growth. A new song or a new album becomes a new chapter. Each song can start from a very open-ended, big-picture thinking process with all the instruments, all the chords, all the rhythms or lack thereof, as possibilities. 

Once one or two things are solidified, which for me it typically has to do with melody and words, then the basic scaffolding is in place. At this point I start more of a process of elimination. I will try different things (increasing/decreasing speed, adding instruments, adding harmonies) and taking away the unnecessary. I deliberately have to stop at a certain point (and it is usually a pretty clear point) and accept something as completed because otherwise I will always want to change little things here and there. 

An example of this is a song in my debut album. We spent hours in the studio mixing the guitar lines, shifting, chopping, copy-pasting, only to come to the realization that the song really didn’t need the guitar lines at all. We were attached to the idea of having it and had become invested in the time we had put into recording the guitar. This caused serious attachment to the possibility of the guitar working hence hours of trying with the technicalities available to us to make it work without stepping away to see if it was necessary at all.

Do you sometimes find that you are “trying too hard” or “too directly” or for too long?  When does some indirection help you move forward in your creative problem space?  How do you mix up some of your routines with new variations and divergences?

Certainly. This happens a lot with practice hours for instance. There might be a technique I think I have been working on for days and sometimes months and I cannot understand why I do not seem to be getting it correctly. I have come to realize most of these times it is as if I have habituated myself into doing it wrong and with repetitions I have actually aided in solidifying it the wrong way. 

I usually deal with these by trying to shift my focus through changing my location of practice regularly, shifting speed of practice during the singular practice session, and trying to record myself (both audio and video). These have certainly been helpful but I cannot say these “wrong habituations” do not happen anymore.

Are you patient through both the bursts and lulls in your own thinking and that of others? How do you do this?

If I’m being honest, no. Despite still being in the arts, I frequently find myself asking the question of “what was I thinking?” I know, for a fact, that in my heart I have never wanted a life defined by conventions, however, during times of less professional activity, I become quite impatient mentally constantly considering other career options and wondering why I didn’t pick something more conventional to do. This is mostly a product of fear, fear of inadequacy, fear of inefficacy, thinking I am not contributing to society, or wondering where my next pay check will come from. 

Also, this often leads to taking up numerous projects that come my way when the page turns and often feeling stretched too thin.  I must say, I don’t think I have found exact solutions to these issues, other than simply thinking that everything has worked out just fine so far, and that I should simply trust the process. 

Are your tools collaborating well with you? Should you give your tools more of a voice, or a different voice, in your creative search?

For the most part. I certainly wish I had more tools from time to time. Knowing more instruments for instance, or being a comfortable composer, or being a much faster sight reader as a vocalist… these are some tools I wish I had better versions of. I also realize though that I already have quite a bit to work with and the tools are there to help me express the message. For me, the tools themselves should not become the focus unless they are essential in carrying the message through. Having good tools though is absolutely essential, and as a musician, that’s where practice comes in for me. The voice can always be bettered, so can the ear. Listening more and more while trying new vocal techniques are essential for me.

How do you know, or identify, the key guiding constraints in your creative endeavors?  At what point might you change these up? Do some (or all) projects have one or more “core” characteristics that are simply not up for negotiation, or can’t be changed without the project morphing into something else?

Once I start putting together the idea for a new project I can typically see the constraints fairly quickly. I must say though that is much more of a recent thing. It is better to say that through doing projects and collaborating, I have come to learn how to look for the constraints. For instance, I had mostly worked with improvisation-based musicians or ear-trained ones. We would have specific modes to work with but we never had charts or notes for our performances. Once I started working with musicians from varying backgrounds, especially ones that were more comfortable with some written content, I realized that is something I must be able to provide if needed. I also know it would take me much longer to write out the notes for some of my songs, so I have found a collaborator who is very quick with transcribing. I think something that may be difficult for me to change or put up for negotiation is working with musicians who have well trained ears or have a good sense of “the musicality” of a piece. I would never give up working with someone who has that in order to work with someone who might be able to play the same piece four times as fast with exceptional technique but is very cold towards it or sees it only as “a job”. The musicality of it is quite important. 

What are your “open goals”? Are you on the lookout for happy serendipitous finds that could edge or guide your creative endeavors forward?

Certainly. I think an ideal band is always an open goal for me. I’m always interested in playing with new people and seeing if they would be a good fit to play my music. This also translates into running into potential producers for upcoming albums, labels that may be interested in distributing the album, and festivals/venues/hosts in general that would be interested in hearing my music.

Consider this observation about the role of the environment in one type of making: “In flower arranging it is customary to leave around discarded by-products, such as twigs and ferns, on the off-chance that they will prove useful in striking on a felicitous design. Pieces that seem most likely to be helpful are kept closer. Spatial lay-out partitions by-products into categories of possible use.” (Kirsh, 1995, p. 49). Do you selectively “seed” your environment with “scraps and remnants,” idea fragments, phrases, or images that may later happen to be just right for your creative purpose?  As you think through a creative problem, how do you let your external environment (physical, symbolic) do some of the ongoing “representational work” for you?

Oh absolutely. This especially happens with words for lyrics. I might see or hear a word or the idea behind a phrase that I really like but have absolutely no idea I would do with. I typically write these words and stick them around my computer or piano. This is also true for small melodic phrases. There may sometimes be an amalgamation of notes I really like but the duration is only 10 seconds. Again, I may not know what I wish to do with it immediately, so I simply make an audio note of it and keep it in a miscellaneous folder and sometimes on my phone. This lets me refer to them later, and this later can be anything between the next day to 5 years. 

As far as external environment goes, I have realized more and more that I actually need minimal surroundings for my creative thoughts to flow naturally. The more crowded of a space I have around me, the less I’m able to think at all. Typically, I won't even sit at my desk to write if I have other unrelated things on the table. The most important symbolic objects I have that do the “representational work” for me are the images of my mentors, other artists, and individuals I look up to. Their problem-solving methods and general ways of looking at the world inspire me while also ensuring me I want to continue.

Many good ideas emerge for us during routine activities such as showering, tidying, or walking. Some important features of “shower times” are that they tend to be uninterrupted, with an approximately expected duration. There is a clear sense of progress or completion as the task at hand is well understood and not highly demanding. Such times also are typically pleasant and mildly relaxing; they involve multiple senses with accompanying sounds, movements, touch, and so on. How do you use your shower times? Can you generate or discover “mini-shower times” in your creative process: moments that permit background idea re-configurings to fully emerge and form? 

My walks with the dog are more generative than my showers. So is tidying up our home or cleaning in general. The walking allows me to process ideas and some of my most clarifying moments have been on these walks. The way I tend to use them is to basically make myself go on a walk or to just shift tasks (from creative work to either a walk or some form of tidying up, washing dishes, etc.) when I’m getting stuck or getting too mentally involved in a creative endeavor. It’s a form of “break taking” that typically gives some breathing room to my mind.  Just as much as I know about this solution, however, I easily forget about utilizing it more often. It is extremely easy for me to get stuck in the attempt towards mental configuration of something that might really need to be left alone to reveal itself. 

_____________________

So perhaps – taking some cues from Aida – we should explore new innovative ways of giving sound a more prominent place at our sensory table, for both our creative moments and the times in between...  

References

Huang, S., Li, Y., Zhang, W., Zhang, B., Liu, X, Mo, L., & Chen, Q. (2015). Multisensory competition is modulated by sensory pathway interactions with fronto-sensorimotor and default-mode network regions. Journal of Neuroscience, 35, 9064–9077.

Kirsh, D. (1995). The intelligent use of space. Artificial Intelligence, 73, 31–68.

Spence, C., Parise, C., & Chen, Y. C. (2012). The Colavita visual dominance effect. In M. M. Murray & M. T. Wallace, Editors, Chapter 27, The neural bases of multisensory processes.Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press/Taylor & Francis.

Weisberg, R. W. (2011). Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater: A case study in inside-the-box creativity. Creativity Research Journal, 23, 296–312.