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Ways of Listening

Wednesday, October 28, 2009; 03:04 am Leave a comment Go to comments

Clarke, Eric. Ways of Listening: An Ecological Approach to the Perception of Musical Meaning. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005. Print.

Eric Clarke’s Ways of Listening: An Ecological Approach to the Perception of Musical Meaning represents the first positive step towards my better understanding music and song in Ulysses as a function of the senses.  Since Bloom’s presentation of the illuminating concept of “Musemathemetics” in episode 11 (Sirens), I’ve been working with that idea, trying to define and draw the line between music as merely vibration (wavelengths, physics, etc.), and music as telling of nationality, identity, and emotion.

While some considerably long parts of the book, including those dealing with specific songs (when not illustrating a specific principal) such as Hendrix’s “Star Spangled Banner” and Beethoven’s “String Quartet in A Minor,” much of the book was useful.

Clarke defines his ecological approach to the subject in terms which are extremely relevant to the references of music in Ulysses, where the reader is obviously not hearing the music first-hand: “Ecology is the study of organisms in relation to their environment, and the approach to perception presented in this book is characterized as ecological because it takes as its central principle the relationship between a perceiver and its environment” (5).  As the function of song in the text has thus far almost exclusively been an internal (and thus mental) experience, it makes sense that an ecological approach would be an effective lens with which to view the text.

Another key concept was the relationship between the senses and environment, in which it is described that: “Actions lead to, enhance, and direct perception, and are in turn the result of, and response to, perception.  Resonance is not passive: it is a perceiving organism’s active, exploratory engagement with its environment” (19).  This concept has a clear relationship with sense and Bloom in two related ways.  First of all, his reaction to characters such as the blind stripling and the bat, and secondly in his general exploratory thought process.

As a last idea, language also figures into the nature of perception and understanding, where in the face of seemingly large differences, there exists a universality: “Speech also demonstrates another very general characteristic of perception: the environment is usually perceived as comparatively stable despite widespread and continual physical variations.  A native speaker/listener perceives the speech of others as being identifiable and comprehensible despite dramatic differences in the physical signals (vocal range, speed, accent, loudness, etc)” (34).  Although this may be true in practice, the end of Oxen in the Sun (albeit different than audible speech) certainly challenges this notion.

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