Jack White writes an exclusive blog for The Sampler, looking at the intersection between visual and audio in modern composition.


The greatest changes in terms of electronic-music production within the last seventy years has been its size and accessibility. Its pioneers were often pictured sitting behind monolithic tonegenerators in their laboratories, dwarfed by the sheer mass of equipment. Recent exposition of the work of Daphne Oram and Delia Derbyshire serve as a reminder of this changing relationship between composer and interface. By comparison contemporary DAWs (digital audio workstations) use, what Nick Collins and Julio D’Escriván describe as, ‘predominantly visual software paradigms’. I suggest it is the responsibility of the composer to understand how visual representations of sound effect their relationship with listening.
A few years ago I decided to learn Welsh (you may have heard of it: it’s in Google translate, three up from Yiddish). I enrolled in an intermediate class having taken time to teach myself the basics. I got over the potential embarrassment of sitting in a library reading children’s books pretty quickly. When I arrived at my first class, I discovered that the classes were taught totally in Welsh: the teacher didn’t use a word of English for whole of the three-hour lesson. After the first lesson I remember feeling tired in a way that I had never felt before. At that point, I realised that for most of my day, I wasn’t actively listening to anything. Remembering the resulting exhaustion from this fairly straightforward task made me reconsider my relationship with how I listened to the world.
In terms of the music producer, the increased accessibility of programmes through visual representation is often, I would suggest, detrimental to the process as a whole – composition with your eyes rather than your ears to some extent. To make any attempt at elucidating a compositional methodology requires a basic model of how all our senses work together when we write music. This issue has probably crossed the mind of many composers working with computers. As musicians our ability to listen is consistently tested; many musicians may define it as their fundamental sense. But what about our audiences, how is this relationship tested within
their own lives? Some suggest that visual dominance was fundamental to our evolution as a species. It is certainly inherent to our society. The predominance of smart phones and portable devices in our culture is something of a modern obsession. The programmes which these devices exploit are primarily visual in engagement: social media and documentation have become part of everyday life. My question about the uptake of these devices is whether or not visually-dominant media comes at the expense of our other senses? Are our efforts to promote (contemporary) classical music sometimes hampered by a lack of ‘visual’ alongside the audio? If from a young age we repeatedly enforce visually-dominant media, do we blur the edges of our other senses?

In recent years initiatives such as the BBC’s ‘Ten Pieces’, London Music Masters, and Opera North’s project ‘In Harmony’ have made it possible for school children to benefit from learning music in school. These projects have promoted the benefits of music education and have aimed to widen access and participation in music and music education. I feel that initiatives such as these have become increasingly important in recent years, with cuts to music services across the country and the increasing sidelining of music (and often languages) as a subject in schools. The fact that these projects are necessary underline the lack of time we are investing in our young people when it comes to music. Therefore, how can we expect to grow audiences and foster enthusiasm for music when listening skills are viewed as unnecessary in an increasingly visually-dominant era? The addictiveness of social technologies is documented. Its affect on our senses is harder to define. Within primary schools I have talked to teachers who are advocating basic meditation techniques to calm children and assist with their behaviour and development. As technologies become more ubiquitous, the role they play within society becomes more defined. There may be time for us to rebalance the world in terms of the sensations and learning experiences we offer our young people. As people who advocate music, I believe it is our job to invest time trying to understand our next generation’s relationship with sound.