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By Joanne Nesbit
Think of art composed of sounds and you're almost sure to think of music. But Stephanie Rowden is interested in audible art that includes music but goes beyond it. "I'm fascinated by the aural experience Walt Whitman evoked in Leaves of Grass," says Rowden, a visiting assistant professor in the School of Art and Design. She cites Whitman's evocation of the pleasures of listening:
Now I will do nothing but listen...
The sounds include the kazoo-like song of the humpback whale, what a deaf person hears through auditory nerve implants, a scientific discussion of bel canto ("beautiful singing"), U-M poets and short story writers reading their works to musical accompaniment, sounds of wildernesses, recorded stories and chants of tribal peoples, and commentary from U-M faculty experts and other contributors.
In the section on artificial hearing, Bryan Pfingst, professor of otorhinolaryngology, and Li Xu, a Medical School research fellow, explain that when they stimulate the auditory nerve electrically via an implant, deaf patients hear on four to eight sound channels what normal listeners hear via 3,000 hair cells and 30,000 nerve fibers. About 80 percent of implant wearers can understand speech, Xu says, "but their music perception is not as good." To demonstrate, they play a recording of a mellow jazz piece and then replay it as it's heard through an implant. It sounds like furniture crashing and tingling out of Fibber McGee's closet on the old radio show.
The piece on singing features Gregory Wakefield, associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science, who explains why "great musical instruments are easier to play than the human voice." He has developed a technology called Singerscape, which characterizes the human voice electronically. Using Singerscape, he shows how his analysis of vocal samples provided by soprano Juliet Petrus '01 helps him better understand the effects of training on vocal production.
Wakefield says that a musical instrument "responds to intent" more readily than do muscle and other tissues of the jaw, tongue, chest and lower back of human singers. "Great singers are masters of motor skills," he says.
He hopes his research will help us appreciate the aesthetics and athletics of great singers who must be "both the Stradivarius and the Heifetz" of their art.
Rowden's Web site is at: www.art-design.umich.edu/exhibits/closelistening.html.