Writing about Music – Chance Sonic Mediations

Adalya Nash Hussein  

Each Sonic Meditation is a special procedure for the following:

  1. Actually making sounds
  2. Actively imagining sounds
  3. Listening to present sounds
  4. Remembering sounds

— Pauline Oliveros

1. Actually making sounds

I am often surprised by the sounds I make in my unguarded moments – more surprised when I realise others have heard them too. The tight, high-pitched voice I use to thank tram drivers. The deeper pitch and accent when I speak to men I don’t like. I first notice the different voices in my teens, the thin childish lilt when I’m tired or sick. My uncle tells me to stop putting on a voice; I am indignant, then realise I have been.

I occasionally co-host a student radio show and catch myself mimicking the programs of my teens. Yyyou’re listening to Art Smitten ON SYN Nation ….. I’m Adalya (pause for other host to introduce themselves) and we’re joined in studio now,, by the director of a new — production — of Shakespeare’s — Hamlet.       John Helloh!

One co-host tells me You have a great voice for radio and I cringe. I have spent the last two hours finding him ridiculous – his affectations, the difference between his real voice and his radio voice, his excitement at having interviewed Michelle Bridges.

2. Actively imagining sounds

Sometimes in the morning when I am still waking up, I think I am talking to my boyfriend, only to realise it has been in my head. At some stage I have started actually speaking, but I can’t always pinpoint when.

I first learn to intentionally imagine sounds as I learn to read music. I slowly begin to hear the tones in my head, the dynamics, the tempo. Watching young children learn violin, you can see how their imagination overtakes their ear. They become so focused on following the notes on the page that they don’t realise their bow has slid over the bridge, that they’re just producing a soft high pitched scratching.

3. Listening to present sounds

I get migraines often, they’re not too bad and I can usually sleep them off. As my vision loses focus and my head begins to throb, I become acutely aware of, overwhelmed by, smells and sound and movement. On the tram, the bodies around me, the jolting stop and start, the long high squeak of the doors.

At some stage in my teens, I start to wear over-ear headphones everywhere. Sometimes I listen to music or podcasts, but often I listen to nothing, listen to a slightly muffled everything.

4. Remembering sounds

My boyfriend gets songs stuck in his head badly, is maddened by it. I am careful not to sing before bed, to even mention a song that’s catchy.

I get songs stuck in my head too – usually in a strange loop, a section that connects to itself, that doesn’t resolve. When I finally listen to the song in full there’s an exhilaration, a relief, as the piece expands out of its circuit.

Watching young children learn violin, you can see how their imagination overtakes their ear.

Writing about music should render sounds into sensation into words. Sometimes, I am tempted to disavow the theory-based analysis I learned at my conservatory, and sometimes I am enthralled by it. The first essay I wrote at university was about performing the trills in a single Mozart violin concerto. I don’t actually remember what I wrote, but when I play the piece and perform the trills ‘correctly’, I feel something lock into place like déjà vu.

Writing about music should transfer that feeling into somebody else, should register in their body as a memory.

Adalya Nash Hussein will be appearing in Ways of Listening – A night of poetry, discussion and performance celebrating music and literature – on Thu 20 June, 7pm at State Library Victoria.