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Quiet is beautiful: the aesthetics of softness in new music today

  • Senate House, Room 261 Malet Street London, WC1E United Kingdom (map)

Mieko Kanno (Royal Conservatoire of Scotland)

In this talk-and-play presentation, I will share my observations about soft sound and soft playing in contemporary music. Softness offers a particular poetics and politics of listening today. What kinds of softness are there, and how do we articulate and perceive them? Who produces and controls musical softness? Which options would we have in creating it in the near future? What role would the performer have on stage then?

There are at least two strands of historical development that have led to the present practice of musical softness. The first strand is creative in an imaginative sense: in the 1970s and 1980s, a number of composers (such as Feldman, Nono and Sciarrino) proposed new aesthetics of soft sound, against the prevalent style of sound projection developed in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The second strand is also creative but in a more practical sense: the last couple of decades have seen musical communities develop the use of amplification and electronic processing on sound. The impact of this strand is less visible but more pervasive in our experience. For example: (1) an amplified (otherwise inaudible) whispering sound can offer a distinct musical effect, very different from the softness of unamplified (yet audible) whispering sound; (2) incidental sounds – such as finger-tapping and bowing noises – that would be eliminated in 'normal' listening can be brought forward by electronic processing to produce a new palette of sound; and (3) a distant sound produced by a sound-diffusion system is very different from the same sound produced softly right in front of you, although both are 'pianissimo' in terms of musical notation. 

The aesthetics of softness also puts the listener at the heart of perception. This presentation will conclude with thoughts on communication of musical softness.

Mieko Kanno specialises in the combined disciplines of performance and musicology in contemporary music. Since winning the Kranichsteiner Musikpreis at the Darmstadt New Music Institute in 1994 for the interpretation of contemporary music, she has collaborated with many composers Europe-wide, commissioned and premiered new works, and established herself as one of the leading exponents of contemporary music. Mieko Kanno is interested in how musical works change their identity with time, and this research is much informed by her practice. In addition to her solo work, she is widely experienced as an ensemble violinist and has been a leading participant in groups such as the New Music Players, Exposé, Apartment House, the Utrecht-based ensemble insomnio, and others.

Part of the CMPS/IMR Performance/Research Series.

Later Event: February 22
CTFM Reading Group