Eyes wide shut?

Taiko DrumThis weekend, we got to see a taiko drum performance. Despite some difficulty making it out the door in time, a required stop for gas, and driving in freezing rain turning to snow, we made it more or less on time. Unfortunately, we ended up with seats that left something to be desired. Entering when we did, we ended up sitting behind the sound board in the theater. Normally, this wouldn’t have been so bad, except that the person operating the sound board was also filming the performance, and spent most of it standing in front of us in order to operate the camera. Perhaps the reason she was able to spend all of her time filming was because it was a drum performance, and the sound equipment was completely unnecessary. It looked like it was turned on, but it wasn’t actually in use.

Even when they were playing quietly, the drummers were entirely audible even from the back of the theater. When they really put their weight into it, I could feel the sound rumbling through my chest and vibrating up through the floor into my feet. It was exactly the effect that people with very expensive sound systems in their cars try to duplicate at stoplights, without any of the distortion that usually makes a mockery of such attempts. As I sat, looking at the back of the camera operator and feeling the sound roll through me, I spent some time thinking about how I tend to experience these kinds of events.

In general, my natural inclination when I am focused on listening to music is to shut my eyes. I can certainly listen to music while I do other things, but when I’m really trying to focus on the sound, I find that I prefer the gentle darkness inside my eyelids. Drumming of this sort is very intense to listen to, and it provoked that inclination in me.

The trouble is that taiko is also a visual performance. The movements of the performers is part of the experience, to be understood as a form of dance, combined with the sound of the drumming. I was made more aware of the conflict I experienced when trying to decide between closing my eyes and focusing on the sound and leaving them open to watch the show by the fact that there was a person blocking my view of the entire center section of the stage. With, say, an orchestra, this is less of a problem for me. Most members of a symphony sit comparatively still and play their instruments. The point of the experience is based much more on the sounds than on the sights. This experience, however, seemed to me to be very much an auditory one, which made the obvious visuals very conflicting.

Is this just me? Do other people find that themselves with a similar problem in related situations? I fear that this issue is a side effect of my tendency to want to focus and filter out distractions when I’m confronted with something interesting, and that I’ve taken it too far. Has there been any noteworthy research done on the subject of how people interact with multi-channel input like this? How do you prefer to experience taiko drumming, or any other event of a similar type?

-posted by Mark

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2 Responses to Eyes wide shut?

  1. Dana says:

    I actually think this is a fairly common reaction. I was looking for the news story I heard about this recently, about a neurological study they did comparing untrained people and trained musical conductors, where they found that the conductors had better multi-channel (vision and sound) multitasking ability. Generally, the more you want to concentrate on hearing something, the harder it is to use your vision well, and vice versa. The best recap I’ve found of it is from this NYTimes science blog:

    Figaro! Figaro! Training the Multitasking Brain

    Unfortunately, it only leads to a not-very-usefully-descriptive abstract, but that’s the gist.

  2. […] and I went to see a performance by Fugaku Taiko, a taiko drum group from the area around Mt. Fuji. Mark already blogged a bit about the performance, mostly about the way taiko combines both visual and auditory elements, unlike, say, a Western […]

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