The aesthetics of accidentally listening wrong, on purpose
Let me tell you a story about the last eight years of my life, when I developed a special relationship with the last twelve seconds of Shania Twain’s “You’re Still The One”:
Back when I started programming more seriously, I put together a collection of short audio samples to test in the software I was developing. The fragment above was but one of these samples. It contains a lot of the elements that I would use to test DSP processes against–It has drums, it has voice, it has harmony instruments, and it has silence at the very end. Each of the elements serves to highlight different aspects of the various processes I was coding, and did so using instrumentation that was present in the music I was making at the time. It was very useful to have all of this in a short audio clip.
Over the years, however, the other audio samples in my test pool (fragments of Coltrane’s My Favorite Things, Cage’s In A Landscape, and the stalwart jongly.aif from the Max example sounds) fell by the wayside, and I shifted about 90% of my testing over to Shania. It was so convenient to load up one sample and test everything with just that.
It has even gotten to the point that any soundchecks I do with my laptop default to Shania, with that now so familiar dong of the piano at the start of the sample symbolizing that shit was working as it should, and I am ready to proceed.
I mention this backstory because in listening to countless hours of that twelve second sample, it has become embedded in my subconscious. Every strum of the acoustic guitar, every oscillation in her vibrato, the gradual ritardando towards the end all engraved into my permanent memory. Through all of this intimately ritualistic listening I had unwittingly been preparing myself for something. I did not intend to do this; this was an accident.
Fast forward several years, and in an email exchange with John Oswald about using his album Plexure in an upcoming piece of software, he commented on the Shania song by name. (I used it as an audio example when sending him a demo video of the software, because of course I did). I hadn’t heard the name of the song in years, and had honestly forgotten what it was. “Shania Twain’s You’re Still The One“, John mentioned in passing.
I was struck. And with my curiosity piqued I went on to YouTube and listened to the song. The whole song.
What followed was a profound aesthetic experience which is difficult to put in to words.
From the moment the piano enters with that now-familiar progression, I was transported. I was confronted with powerful emotions and an overwhelming sense of familiarity. Since the ending of the song was so etched in to my mind, hearing what lead up to it stirred up a near-perpetual state of musical déjà-vu. Each new lyrical fragment drawing neon laser synapses connecting what I was hearing to what was previously burned into my memory.
The song itself progressed as most pop songs do, hypnotically moving from verse to chorus and back again. The lyrics are self-similar, with no line being more than a few words removed from my familiar mantra:
Beyond the sensation of entrancement, the experience of listening in this way was moving. It was as if I had been preparing myself for this moment over the last near-decade of listening to the twelve seconds of audio, and that moment was finally upon me.
Even now as I write this and have the video queued in the background, I hesitate to play it. To listen to it again would be to trivialize the near-religious experience. The profound fusion of time and memory.
Part of what made this so moving was that it was an aesthetic experience that happened to me. I had no (deliberate) hand in making it. I did not compose it, I did not improvise it, it was a confluence of arbitrary factors that led to that special moment. This is something I think about a lot–specifically how agency and ego relate to the creative act itself. It is a tricky thing to unpack, and something that I plan on exploring further in a separate blog post currently called Overcoming Composition, but since finishing my PhD I have consciously tried to focus on aesthetic experiences, and not the containers for them.
So here’s to you Shania. You are still the one…