I cried when I got home that night.
When I saw Tim Hecker live, it was the first time I felt like I had lived a performance, rather than admired it. I had never imagined that my soul could possibly escape my body — but I swear, it did. I was willed into the darkness by the music, and, ecstatically, I followed.
I couldn’t entirely discern what I felt, what I saw, and, more importantly, how Hecker had managed to create an out-of-body experience in a tiny room filled with festival-goers looking up the location of the next NXNE after-party.
The creation of a soundscape involves a complex relationship between music and its environment — a science known as acoustic ecology.
The concept of acoustic ecology emerged from Simon Fraser University in the 1960s in what was known as the World Soundscape Project. The study was, essentially, a bunch of guys with glorious beards recording around Canadian geographic landmarks.
Though it may seem ludicrous, what they were doing is known today as the discipline of acoustic ecology — the study of the relationship between living things and their environment through sound.
Acoustic ecology asks how sounds impact the environment. The science investigates how the way you hear music is impacted by whether you are at a concert, in a recording studio, or running between classes.
There are some artists that, without question, you have to see live.
From Flying Lotus, who is well known for his integration of 3D graphics on his current You’re Dead tour, to artists like SBTRKT and Bonobo who accompany their show with lasers and images on the screen, many musicians incorporate different elements to create a vibe.
Many audience members relish in the atmosphere of a concert, never objecting to an artist’s request that they dress up for a show, like during Arcade Fire’s Reflektor tour, or to St. Vincent’s insistence that audience members turn off their phones. The reasoning is intuitive — abiding by these requests allows you to be more immersed in the performance and to see the music in action.
The way the artist works with the venue and vice versa also impact the vibe of a live show. Venues come with their own host of characteristics and idiosyncrasies, and sometimes these dynamics are enough to prompt you to skip a show or, alternatively, frantically buy tickets.
The size of the venue, the design, and the location all play a part — for some, it would take a certain kind of artist to entice them to visit the Air Canada Centre or Sound Academy, whereas an artist playing at The Great Hall or anywhere with a capacity smaller than 400 is almost always appealing.
The experience of soundscapes is, however, very individual. Helen Geng, Grace Liu, and Danielle Sum, all musicians and students at the University of Toronto, agree unanimously on one thing: sound should be the priority and, if it sound’s good, nothing else matters as much.
Speaking from her experiences with classical music, Geng highlighted various venues specially designed for classical orchestras including Roy Thomson Hall, Koerner Hall, and Massey Hall. “If the venue looks good, sounds good, it will make you happy,” she said.
Sometimes the venue doesn’t make up for a bad audience, though. Geng described a talent show she participated in that was rowdy because the audience was predominantly drunk — ultimately, she was not compelled to play at all.
Some musicians go as far as to highlight when the audience vibe just isn’t right, like Sun Kil Moon’s Mark Kozelek did at his 2011 Lee’s Palace show. Someone decided to call out a prediction for what song would be played next and Kozelek retorted, “How the fuck do you know what I’m going to play? I don’t even know what I’m going to play.”
Of course, musical performances aren’t limited to live environments; you also have screen time. Liu has her own YouTube channel where she performs covers. She finds that the ability to edit her performances for web viewing gives her a lot of freedom.
“I feel like everyone wants to express themselves. It’s not a matter of holding back or not, it’s a matter of doing what you want. You’re on there because you want to perform and be found. There’s a lot less judgment, too, unless it’s [from] people you know, but even then there isn’t really a reason to be judged,” she says.
The recording studio is a different matter. There is enormous pressure to get it right and to do so on the first try, since the cost of recording is astronomical for young artists.
On her experience recording, Sum recalls, “I found that it dampened my creativity and execution of the piece. Practicing alone has so much less pressure, whereas my mistakes are immortalized on a recording.”
Music has a way of not only capturing your state of mind, but also emphasizing aspects of your environment — such as listening to music that seems tailor-made for the weather.
“When I was a kid, I used to make playlists for when I was sad or happy. Nowadays, most of my music is angry and I find that now I just listen to that consistently,” says Sum.
Liu found that emotions affected her musical choices more as she got older. “If I was really sad for the day I would play [a sad or dramatic playlist] and cry myself to sleep,” she says, continuing, “but if I was happy, I would play very summery music. For me, I feel like emotion affects my music choices more than the environment does. It’s definitely different for everyone.”
For many music lovers, curating music to your state of mind and surroundings is a natural choice. I create playlists to fit the weather and sometimes fit my mood — whether it’s listening to The National or jazz when it rains, or calling on Sharon Van Etten during a typhoon, I carefully curate the soundtrack to my life.
Whether your personal soundtrack is based on emotions, environment, or both, music has a way of meshing to experience — the right song often seems to serendipitously find its way into your ears in the right place. I don’t know what the hell Hecker was feeling that night, but I know it was dark. That he could create, with sound, a piercing, tangible environment that I could lose myself in is the undisputed beauty of the soundscape.