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Music for earbuds
STEPHEN CORNFORD

(3Leaves 2013)

Review by David Vélez

From Stephen Cornford’s website

‘A series of works composed entirely from acoustic recordings of the feedback between a walkman tape-head and a pair of earbud headphones.’

I

Is not really easy to recognize the sources of the recordings captured for ‘Music for earbuds’ with the exception of the piece ’03’ where the listener can hear the distorted sounds of a natural environment inhabited by birds, insects and other animals. This difficulty leads to an exercise where one can imagine the causality of the sonorities projected in the noisy feedback sounds. For example ’01’ resembles a group of bees; on ’02’ the high pitched sonorities evoke the harsh buzz produced by cicadas. On ’04’ I picture sounds produced by either electric or mechanical means. Something similar happens with ’05’.

Excluding ’03’ and ’05’ the release presents a very repetitive and minimalistic narrative structure that works very well with its harsh sonorities.

II

What I find more interesting about ‘Music for earbuds’ is the method and process behind it, the exploration and instrumentation of the notion of feedback which sparks a poetic and metaphoric horizon of lecture in regard of the perceptual listening process. 

We often figure out a model where the world is outside us and the perception through which we perceive this world is inside us, but this model becomes ambiguous and complex when we consider the potential feedback between input and output. Maybe the sounds that we listen don’t occur where we think they occur; our notion of the outside world is mediated by an interpretation that our brain does of ‘external’ inputs.

III

Heraclitus said ‘You could not step twice into the same river’ so with this in mind it can be inferred that a sound will never repeat itself.

The conditions on which we listen to a certain sound will never repeat themselves, and I am not only talking about the conditions of a constantly changing physical wold but I am also talking about the developing semantic monologue of our thoughts that inexorably feedbacks with the environmental sources of sound. I also think about the ever-fluctuating mood of the listener that draws a mirroring process with the external resonances.

The usually soothing and relaxing sound of a quiet creek can become sinister and dreadful approached from a dramatic or anxious perspective; in the same way a haunting scream acquire a complete different emotional meaning given the chance and context.

The subjective and contextual aspects in the beholder’s perspective are essential in the construction of a sound.

For instance when I listen to ’03’ I hear this natural environment inhabited by animals, but I hear it in a distorted way; the artificial and eerie textures point to a sense of mediation. This is not just a natural environment but a natural environment interpreted and mirrored.

IV

I have no idea if there is a relation between all the things that I wrote on this review and what Cornford might had in mind when he composed ‘Music for earbuds’. I also don’t know how much of what I wrote would have been written if I didn’t learned about the process behind the work. Still this is a release that very likely echoes in its formality the beautiful poetry of its process.

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[Stephen Cornford, photo courtesy of Luca Ghedini for Eventi]

Stephen Cornford website
3Leaves website