A conversation with Wolfgang “Marco” Amundsen (descended from Mozart/Polo/Amundsen (or so he claims) author of “How to Sing Your Way Out of the Shower”.
Interview by DR Shuteski (mediocre lifelong student of music)
DR: So I’m fascinated by the parallels you draw between how we get our bearings in music and all the innate skills animals and humans use to navigate the world.
WMA: Yes, what’s really remarkable is that almost always it is not just one thing. Always multiple skills are being used simultaneously.
DR: Can you give us an example?
WMA: Well birds are the most obvious example with their formidable migrations. Among the “tools” they use are sun clocks, internal compasses, very low infrasound waves, weather forecasting!, olfactory senses, landmark memory, and even imprinting--memories passed on from generation to generation.
DR: Incredible and how would you equate that to what a singer does when singing?
WMA: So there are really two levels here right? Humans being humans, we have to put a musical score in our hand first--a map if you will--which attempts to put down all the parameters, the compass headings, the landmarks, the topographic features and what not. But that is the boring part right? The interesting part, the part that brings the music to life, are all the other “navigational” skills we bring to the written notes.
DR: And these skills, you believe they may be biological and they are similar to actual navigation?
WMA: Sure, take homing pigeons for example. They find their way using visual landmarks (like notes on staves) and very low frequency infrasound (which is kind of like the background harmonic hum that the key in which a piece of music is written vibrates in the singers, like a deep cellular tuning fork). And they use olfactory clues (sort of like the mood or emotion of a particular musical section). And what is really cool and least understood, they use the magnetism in their very pigeon bodies to help them always and subconsciously align with magnetic north! This could be equated to how singers find and stay in tune in whatever key a piece is written in, sort of like magnetic inclination.
DR: Wow, I love this, so the written note is just a framework on which we singers….
WMA: Right, the notes have no more or no less meaning than a point of longitude and latitude has. What makes the music is what we, the singer, the musician, add to that point--it’s relationship to other points that allow the music to chart a course, which is a whole series of points strung together will all kinds of input along the way.
DR: Human musical navigational input? Can you give me...
WMA: Right, here’s an example. Take Tone Clusters (which Dale Warland is somewhat skeptical of and Eric Whitacre loves (and Mr. Whitacre submitted one of his very first compositions to Warland which was rejected--kind of a neat confluence of harmonics in and of itself)).
Anyway, tone clusters are like when part of the sound seems to go off course, like some migrating birds that get separated by a storm. In order to rejoin the main migrating group the separate group needs to refix their compass heading (which they actually do using their internal magnetic compass systems to re-merge with the main group). And while this happens they are like two notes rubbing up against each other. Both groups needs to be forceful and confident in their respective “headings” so that they stay on course (in tune) and eventually merge and continue on in the greater harmonic structure of the piece!
DR: Wowza! So the score, the written stuff, is just a vehicle, a….
WMA: A jumping off point for making music! Right, exactly! It is all the other tools or skills beyond sight reading that makes the music. For example imprinting. Juvenile birds of some species fly their first migrations with mature birds to “learn” the route. Well, lucky western children are imprinted with musical maps practically from the moment of conception.
DR: Right, parents-to-be playing Mozart for the little embryo..
WMA: So when we hear Mozart or Bach, we can actually sense where it is going to go. It is on a certain level very predictable because we have learned the map reading skills to get from point A to point B in a Bach Cantata.
DR: Sounds like while this helps us in familiar musical situations it might actually….
WMA: Yes--limit our ability to navigate music that comes from a different map or a different part of the globe.Think about jazz improvisation and the Puffin.
DR: You mean those silly looking…
WMA: Exactly, they are born with many of the same navigational skills as other birds--the ability to memorize visual landmarks, internal compasses, olfactory senses, etc. but their migratory routes are not imprinted. Juvenile puffins leave before the parents on solo migrations which they make up themselves.They travel thousands of miles on an improvised migratory path and eventually return to where they started!
DR: That’s remarkable!
WMA: You know there is an old expression: “blinded by our vision” which is a beautiful way of saying, all too often humans live as though we only really need one of our five senses. In music, our fixation on finding the music in the notes on the page, on our obsession with the “map” can y “blind” us to actually making music.
DR: Like we have to use all our “navigational” skills to give the notes life!
WMA: Yes, precisely, or not precisely perhaps because music is a process of adjustment.
WMA: Our brains, our entire neuro system in fact, is designed to process sensory information--the world as it is or the music as it is written--and make sensory adjustments using all our tools, from our internal “infrasound” harmonics to our auditory stereo processes (I haven’t even talked about how most peoples’ ears are not exactly symmetrical), to make the world--the music--as we want it.
DR: There is almost a spiritual level to all this.
WMA: Yes, maybe what we call “spirit” or spirituality is simply the sum of all humanity’s behavioural experience up to now being processed by us in this moment with the goal of making adjustments that will hopefully make the world--or the piece we are singing--more like we believe it should be in the future.
DR: Music and spirituality as navigation towards “heaven” or Utopia. Incredible!
WMA: Perhaps. To paraphrase Timothy Leary, “turn on and tune in”. Turn on and allow yourself to touch all your innate internal biological navigational skills to let you truly tune into to the music you are singing!
DR: Thank you so much for your time and your insights!
WMA: Time is a navigational tool as well you know, let me tell you about our internal sun clocks…....
Source Material: Supernavigators: Exploring the Wonders of How Animals Find Their Way, (The Experiment Press LLC, 2019)