Each of these sound pieces is designed to be listened to in stereo, as a loop of variable length by a listener who is free to deal with the experience directly, setting the duration as their attention allows.
We are curious about how music carries information, how it surprises us. Psychologist Diana Deutsch, whose work explores perception of music and speech, crystallizes the cognitive pathways of attention, short-term memory, and pattern recognition in an array of auditory illusions. Among the many that she has identified, her “Phantom Words”1 illusion offers insight into our tendency to extract multiple meanings from a single message, and to discriminate between musical and linguistic information.
Here, as in Deutsch’s experimental presentation of the illusion, brief words or syllables are repeated alternately between left and right speakers. As the focus of each listener’s attention drifts in a search for familiar or meaningful content, unique strings of words, melodies, and rhythms appear to emerge from what is heard. As in optical illusions, where “we ‘see’ visual objects that correspond to those that are familiar to us, even if our perceptions are quite incorrect,” in listening to these vocal fragments “the words and phrases that we ‘hear’ are strongly influenced, not only by the sounds that reach us, but also by our knowledge, beliefs, and expectations.” (Deutsch1)
Taking Deutsch’s experiment as a starting point, we move through variations—applying processes developed for use in telephonic applications (such as Skype) to preserve the flow of information: extracting voices from a noisy background, suppressing feedback, encoding dialogue by preventing simultaneity. Deutsch’s illusions, however, are not merely encoded messages to be unlocked. They are prompts pointing to a feedback loop between senses, attention, and memory. As visual illusions expose the viewer’s awareness of multiple kinds of space, auditory illusions make use of the listener’s ability to hold multiple kinds of time in focus.
Marcia Tucker, in her introductory text to the exhibition “Anti-Illusion: Materials / Procedures,”2 writes: “It has been thought that music creates its own suspended temporality, dependent upon the elements of rhythm and silence. Musical time has thus been considered different from ‘real’ time.” Minimalist composers pursued the presentation of “real” time through compositions in which there is “no beginning, middle or end—only the sense of an isolated present. This constant present exists because of a deliberate and unrelenting use of repetition which destroys the illusion of musical time and focuses attention instead on the material of the sounds and on their performance.” Rudy Wurlitzer, quoted in the same text, describes how “this refusal to remember what has or has not happened before, holds the attention, becomes the continuity itself, a focus. It is possible to present the piece with one’s own random inventory of interpretations or events. […] Our past, our future. The music doesn’t take notice or present explanations of itself. The piece goes on. We are not joined in strategies of going anywhere together. Duration becomes a function of attention, a focus, a physical act, a catalyst towards contemplating the present.”
These sounds can be thought of as meditative devices—illusions, in the sense that they are unstable images—generating the appearance of multiplicity, eating at the boundary between music and speech, self-contained but freely interpreted, in search of information.