Introduction to the Theory of auditory Atmosphere

Jan Sonntag

Abstract Atmosphere is a central topic in recent aesthetics elaborated (amongst others) by the German phenomenologist Gernot Böhme. His conceptualization is based on sensual experience. Atmospheres link environmental qualities with human mental and mood states. They can be observed as e.g. heavy, misty, uplifting or threatening – thus they always refer to bodily experiences. Atmospheres act subtly on everyone and exert a strong but amorphous influence on feelings. By elaborating central aspects of the theory of atmospheres and on the basis of my research in music therapy with persons with dementia I will show the importance of the concept for the project Healing Soundscape. By talking about auditory atmospheres I will refer to the following dimensions: a) the relevance of atmospheres on well-being b) the subliminal aspects of atmospheres with special respect to sound c) the relevance of sound as a prototypal atmospheric phenomenon
Keywords: Atmosphere, Aesthetics, Soundscape, Music Therapy

1. Intro

In 1920 Erik Satie experimented with the idea of a Musique d’Ameublement on the occasion of a theater evening. During the breaks between the performances, compositions were performed with the explicit instruction of the composer “not to attach any importance to them and to behave during the break as if no music was being played” (Satie quoted according to Wehmeyer 1997, 223). The title of this experiment was program: Satie thought of his music as “part of the sounds of the environment (…). I imagine it melodious, it should mitigate the noise of the knives and forks, without drowning it, without imposing. It is supposed to furnish the often so heavy silence between the guests. It will spare them the usual banalities. At the same time, it neutralizes some of the road noise that comes in unabashedly into the game “(ibid., Herv. JS).

Long after Satie’s experiments with furniture music, but still before commercial background music had begun its worldwide acoustic crusade, rock musician, music producer and composer Brian Eno experimented with the idea of ambient music in the 1970s. The starting point of his work was an initially painful incident: Tied to the bed after a serious traffic accident, a friend brought him a record during a visit, which she put on before she left. To his misfortune, however, his stereo was broken and the music came out of the speakers so quietly that it was occasionally drowned out by the ambient noise (including rain). Unable to liberate himself from this situation, he began to listen to all the sounds that surrounded him, of which the occasional music was just one: “I started to think that it sounded all right – it was really nice to listen to – and I wondered why no music like this existed. Why couldn’t we buy records that made this beautiful random mixture of things…? I realized that this was what I wanted music to be – a place, a feeling, an all-around tint to my sonic environment” (Eno 1996, 294f, Herv. JS).

As a result of this experience, Brian Eno “invented” a completely new musical genre: ambient music. In the liner notes to his album Music for Airports he wrote: “Ambient Music must be able to accomodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular; it must be as ignorable as it is interesting” (Eno 1978, Herv. JS). Eno in some way is also a godfather of the Healing Soundscape project, providing a hospital in England with a sound-light installation to aid healing.
The Healing Soundscapes in waiting areas of the UKE could be a further development of this model, using
1. generative compositional resources and
2. sonifying rooms, which are frequented by patients anyway. The Healing Soundscape project can tie in with these historical and current milestones in the development of atmosphere-related concepts in music.

2. Intention and Background
In this article, I will present a theoretical concept that is well suited to framing the interdisciplinary Healing Soundscape project: the aesthetic concept of atmospheres, which explores the relationship between environmental qualities (such as auditory environments) and subjective experience. Because this is exactly what we are dealing with in our project: With the design of auditory environments, soundscapes, with regard to the well-being of subjects, namely the patients in the waiting rooms of the Hamburg University Hospital.
My field of learning, teaching and research was and still is music therapy with people with dementia, where I was able to learn immensely about the atmospheric effects, the roles of sound and music as well as possibilities of influencing atmospheres. These findings are carried out extensively in my dissertation (Sontnag 2013/16), of which especially the passages about the understanding of music (Chapter 5.2) and the design of auditory environments (Chapter 6.2) as well as atmospheric theory considerations (Chapter 4.2) should be interesting for the project Healing Soundspace.

My background:
• Music Therapy in the dementia field leading to an atmosphere oriented therapeutic concept with special respect to auditory environments.
• Research leading to a dissertation at HfMT, published as „Demenz und Atmosphäre. Musiktherapie als ästhetische Arbeit“ at Mabuse Verlag, 2013/16.
• Theory of atmosphere as elaborated in recent philosophy of aesthetics and phenomenology (Hermann Schmitz, Gernot Böhme and others).

3. The theory of Atmosphere
Atmosphere has been developed theoretically as a philosophical term in more recent phenomenological writing, such as that of Hermann Schmitz, and particularly in the work of the philosopher Gernot Böhme. He identified atmosphere as a key concept in new aesthetics based on sensual experience. The theory is easily accessible for those whose work involves awareness and creation of atmospheres, such as architects, composers, designers and artists. Thus it functions great for interdisziplinary projects like Healing Soundscape. Böhme described activities that deal with atmosphere as “aesthetic work” (Böhme, 1995, 24ff). In this sense we can understand our endeavor as aesthetic theory and practice.
In the project Healing Soundscape, we are particularly interested in the relationship between the condition of the waiting patients and their spatial environment, which we want to sonify. The in-between – atmospheres are an intermediate phenomenon. They deal according to Böhme “(…) with the relationship of environmental qualities and human condition. This And, this between the two, these, by which environmental qualities and health are related to each other, these are the atmospheres “(Gernot Böhme 1995, 22f). They are “(…) the common reality of the perceiver and the perceived. It is the reality of what is perceived as the sphere of its presence and the reality of the perceiver insofar as he, feeling the atmosphere, is physically present in a certain way “(Gernot Böhme 1985, 194).

Environments influence how we feel where we are in the context of our own inner mental and mood states. The relation of environments and our inner states is called atmosphere. Thus atmosphere relates the physical and social environment to our internal experience. If this means primarily a subjective quality of the experience, there can be a portion of intersubjectivity because atmosphere is always transmitted by sensual perceived external environment such as soundscapes. In creating soundscapes to evoke specific “healing” responses in the patients we have to explore those sound qualities that build a common ground for auditory experience.
Atmospheres are perceived as a pre-reflective overall feeling in which input from all the senses is combined. They are created by the presence of things, people and environments and exert a strong but amorphous influence on human mental and mood states. Here we can start to consider influencing atmospheric effects in order to reduce stress and culturally enrich waiting situations in hospitals. I will later explain why sound and music can play a central role in this context.

3.1. Pre-reflectivity
Atmosphere deals with pre-reflective feeling.

„Das Atmosphärische führt“, so hat es der Musiktherapeut Eckhard Weymann einmal ausdrückt, „in vor-gestaltliche und präverbale Erlebensformen hinein“ (Weymann 2005, 237). Ihr Wirkungsbereich liegt also unterhalb unseres rationalen Denkens. Wo unsere Kognitivität entweder noch nicht (z.B. beim kleinen Kind), nicht mehr (z.B. unter dem Einfluss von Demenz) oder temporär nicht (z.B. bei großer Müdigkeit) voll intakt ist, wird die Bedeutung von Atmosphä- ren besonders evident. Viele Menschen mit Demenz beispielsweise werden besonderes vulnerabel für maligne Atmosphären, dabei geleichzeitig besonders empfänglich für benigne Atmosphären (vgl. Sonntag 2013/16, 155ff), Die merkwürdige Situation des nervösen oder dumpfen Wartens im Krankenhaus könnte ebenfalls in innere Verfassungen führen, in denen die rationalen Fähigkeiten diminuiert werden und sich die – ohnehin zu jeder Zeit subtil wirksamen – Qualitäten des Atmosphärischen besonders stark entfalten.

3.2 Sound and music
Sound and music are atmospheric prototypes.

Musik hat etwas zutiefst Atmosphärisches. So schreibt der Musiktherapeut Martin Deuter: „Das Umhülltsein, das Drinnen-Sein im umgebenden Raum der Wahrnehmung kennzeichnet das Erleben von Atmosphären, und es bestimmt auf vergleichbare Weise auch das musikalische Erleben“ (Martin Deuter 2005, 223).
Bestimmte musikalische Formen und Konzepte thematisieren Atmosphären in besonderem Maße. Besonders wenn dort Musik nicht so sehr als Zeitkunst, sondern als Raumkunst (vgl. Böhme 2005, 310) erscheint, weniger Geschichten erzählt als durch Soundscapes leiblich-sinnlich erlebbare Zustände evoziert (vgl. Sonntag 2013/16, Kap. 5.2.1). Satis Musique d’Ameublement, Ligetis Orchesterstück Atmosphères, Enos Ambient Music und viele zeitgenössische Klang-Raum-Installationen behandeln die basalen sinnlich-emotionalen Qualitäten von Sound, ihre Dynamik und ihre Vitalitätsformen jenseits bewusster Rezeptionspraxis.
Dabei ist Musik nur eine Spezialform auditiver Phänomene. Aus Sicht der Atmosphäretheorie muss jedes Schallereignis als prototypisch atmosphärisch gelten. Schall löst sich von seiner Quelle, wandert oder geistert durch den Raum, erscheint gewissermaßen ortlos – wie Atmosphäre. Hier kommt der Begriff Soundscape ins Spiel.

3.3 Soundscape

Soundscapes are auditory Atmospheres.
Soundscape is a word that the Canadian composer and sound ecologist Richard Murray Schafer created from the English word landscape back in the 1970s (Schafer 1977). Soundscape describes our acoustic surroundings in relation to the perceiving subject. By sound Schafer means the sum of all noises, musical tones, and speech sounds. Viewed from a phenomenological perspective, soundscape encompasses the whole of the sounding environment from a sensory perspective; the extended definition ranges from one’s own bodily sounds to sounds in a room to the most distant hearable occurrence. As such sound is
an in-between-phenomenon just as atmosphere but with the specification to the auditory.
Schafers aim was to contribute to the preservation of acoustic ecosystems – environmental protection as it were. His group of sound ecologists represented a certain idea of what a “healthy” sound environment with a strong tendency to idealise pre-industrial rural soundscapes. They pointed out the immense difference between standardized urban and differentiated rural soundscapes and the effects of industrialization. Considering Schafers ecologic impetus, the moral stance of the sound ecology movement during the 1970s becomes clear. For the considerations in our project Healing Soundscape it is important to keep artistic freedoms free from moral norms and quasi mechanistic functionality. The reference to artistic concepts therefore is crucial. That’s why we refer to Soundscape not only in its original meaning but also as a special non-narrative type of sonic compositions such as incorporated for example in movie soundtracks.

3.4 Perceiving and creating Soundscapes

Atmospheres have a passive and an active side.
Atmosphären werden gebildet durch alles und jeden im Raum sowie durch den Raum selbst. Gleichzeitig sind wir ihnen gleichsam passiv ausgesetzt – indem sie beständig und gesamtsinnlich auf uns einwirken (Sonntag 2013/16, 113ff). Das gilt für Atmosphäre insgesamt und besonders für auditive Atmosphären (Musik und Soundscapes). Voraussetzung für die Wirkung auditiver Atmosphären ist ein archaisches Klangerleben im Gegensatz zu analytischem Hören. In diesem Klangerleben fühlen wir uns von Sound umhüllt sowie leiblich berührt und betroffen. Es besteht als subtile, früh entwickelte Dimension unseres Erlebens jederzeit, kann aber als Wahrnehmungseinstellung auch eingeübt werden und verstärkt auftreten, wenn wir (z.B. unter dem Einfluss starker Mü- digkeit) unvermögend sind, uns kognitiv von Atmosphärenwirkungen zu distanzieren. Dann werden auditive Atmsophären zur „Modifikation des Gefühls, im Raum zu sein“ (Böhme 2005, 307). Sie „formieren das Sich-Befinden des Hörers im Raum und greifen unmittelbar in dessen leibliche Ökonomie ein“ (Böhme 2006, 78). Dreh- und Angelpunkt einer atmosphärischen Auffassung musikalischer Einwirkungen ist somit die leibliche Anwesenheit im Raum. Beide Erlebnisformen, das analytische Hören und das archaische Klangerleben, können durch bestimmte Klangqualitäten gewissermaßen provoziert werden. Die Akustik der Hamburger Elbphilharmonie z.B. scheint das Analytische zu betonen. Sie wird als transparent, detailbetont, differenziert beschrieben, bisweilen auch als kühl und technisch. Welche Klangqualitäten Wartebereiche im Krankenhaus künstlerisch-kulturell bereichern, nicht in Emotionale Manipulationsräume verwandeln und dennoch intentional das Befinden der Patientinnen und Patienten adressieren, wird unter anderem Gegenstand des Projekts Healing Soundscape sein. Aus der weiten Perspektive der Atmosphärentheorie werden wir uns darin den intersubjektiv teilbaren Wirkungen der verwendeten Klänge (musikalischen Universalien) mit besonderem Blick auf atmosphärisches Erleben zuwenden müssen, das immer ein leiblich-sinnliches Erleben ist:
Faucht der Klang mich an oder streichelt er mich? Streichelt er mich so lange,
bis ich ihn gar nicht mehr spüre? Wie meldet er sich zurück in meine Wahrnehmung? – Stechend, kitzelnd, mich freundlich drückend?…


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