About That Zen-Like Appreciation for Everything

About That Zen-Like Appreciation for Everything

When I listen to music, I’m constantly grappling with what I’m listening to, both with things that I know a priori that I am inclined to like, as well as things I might not like.

Written By

Frank J. Oteri

Frank J. Oteri is an ASCAP-award winning composer and music journalist. Among his compositions are Already Yesterday or Still Tomorrow for orchestra, the "performance oratorio" MACHUNAS, the 1/4-tone sax quartet Fair and Balanced?, and the 1/6-tone rock band suite Imagined Overtures. His compositions are represented by Black Tea Music. Oteri is the Vice President of the International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM) and is Composer Advocate at New Music USA where he has been the Editor of its web magazine, NewMusicBox.org, since its founding in 1999.

“Everything Is Best”

When Banzan was walking through a market he overheard a conversation between a butcher and his customer.

“Give me the best piece of meat you have,” said the customer.

“Everything in my shop is the best,” replied the butcher. “You cannot find here any piece of meat that is not the best.”

At these words Banzan became enlightened.

I was flattered, though somewhat amused, to read Kyle Gann’s claim the other day that I “pride myself on a Zenlike appreciation for every piece that’s ever come into existence, simply for existing.” If only listening could be so easy!

The truth is that when I listen to music, I’m constantly grappling with what I’m listening to, both with things that I know a priori that I am inclined to like, as well as things I might not like. For me personally, to approach it any other way seems like it would not be fair treatment toward the music and its makers (both the composers and the interpreters), and ultimately would also not be fair to anyone reading what I have to say about it. I also feel it would be unfair to myself as a listener, because I perceive the process of listening as a constant opportunity for learning and growth which eventually gets internalized in my own music-making. Admittedly, the potential of being influenced by so many different, and often contradictory, stylistic trajectories can be somewhat intimidating and sometimes paralyzing, but it also seems in keeping with the zeitgeist and hopefully might ultimately lead to a totalism which is, in fact, total.

I’ve said many times on these pages that if I don’t like something I hear, I do my best to resist the temptation of imposing my value judgment on it since my own personal likes and dislikes tell me more about myself than whatever it is I’m reacting to. I’ve yet to have an aesthetic epiphany with the music of Elton John. Does that make it bad music? Not for millions of people. Is my opinion more valid than theirs? Thinking so would be hubris, I feel.

There are many things I used to not like which now I deeply love. When I was a teenager, I hated the sound of rock vocals. Now I wouldn’t want to live in a world where I was not able to hear the inimitable timbres of Johnny Rotten, Kim Gordon, or Prince. Believe it or not, once upon a time I disliked Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time. But I kept listening, and it is a work I now treasure.

Experiencing music, or anything else for that matter, with an open mind can result in a constantly changing perceptual landscape. Before last year I couldn’t stand olives. Every now and then I’d try one and couldn’t get past the unpleasant taste it left in my mouth. Now I avidly seek them out. Although I’m still not sure I’d settle for any piece of meat a butcher might want to sell me.

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