If You Listen With Care

If You Listen With Care

By Frank J. Oteri
As I ponder this joy of feeling safe as a result of totally being at ease in one’s usual surroundings, it makes me realize what an incredible leap it is to hear a new piece of music even though it’s a leap I’ve been committed to taking all the time.

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.

Home Sweet Home (Photo by FJO)

Despite the extremely exciting time I had in France last week and the significantly worse weather here in New York City, it’s still very nice to be back at home. No matter how wonderful a new experience is—even though I’ve lived my life always in search of new experiences—there’s great comfort in the assurance that comes with familiarity, however mundane. E.g. It feels so good to know how to control the temperature and water pressure in the shower, and easily finding your home beats getting lost trying to find your hotel room.

As I ponder this joy of feeling safe as a result of totally being at ease in one’s usual surroundings, it makes me realize what an incredible leap it is to hear a new piece of music even though it’s a leap I’ve been committed to taking all the time. For most people, however, music is just one of many different things out in the world that occasionally captures their attention and so a new experience is frequently not optimal.

I was initially completely befuddled to hear someone who was sitting at the table next to mine at LPR during the amazing Gyan and Terry Riley concert on Saturday night exclaim to her friends only minutes before the end of the gig, “I can’t stand this anymore; I’m waiting outside.” How could anyone not have enjoyed that performance? Yet thinking about it with some hindsight a couple of days later it is understandable that if she had never heard any music like this ever before, her lack of context for it made it difficult to comprehend, let alone enjoy.

The numerous fond remembrances of Milton Babbitt posted this past weekend inevitably referenced the essay he wrote for High Fidelity which the editors, against his wishes, re-titled “Who Cares If You Listen?” There is an ocean of difference in the meaning of that title and Babbitt’s original moniker for it, “The Composer as Specialist.” With enough exposure, any music however erudite can become familiar, but if you are not exposed to its vocabulary at all and are thrown into it hearing it for the first time, it can be a very unpleasant experience. Music usually offers untold rewards the more you listen to it and the more carefully you pay attention to it. And familiarity eventually leads to comfort, though hopefully never complacency, but that’s a topic for another day.

Basically you put your nose against this object that looks like a microphone and then press a button in order to “listen” olfactorily. (Photo by FJO)

After MIDEM ended, I took a short train ride from Cannes to Grasse to briefly visit the International Perfume Museum which I’ve been obsessed with ever since reading Luca Turin’s The Secret of Scent a couple of years back. It was amazing to once again experience scents through what I can best describe as a nose phone, the same device that was attached to the audience seats at the Guggenheim Museum for their presentation of the Scent Opera in 2009. A short film interview with the celebrated perfume composer Edmond Roudnitska (so cool that they use the same word as we do) really made the case for perfumers being artistic creators on par with visual artists and music composers: “Just like a composer does not create music with his ears but with his mind, I use my nose but I create with my mind.” Yet, pace Roudnitska, seeing the Orgue à parfums of the mid-20th-century master Jean Carles (1892-1966) might have been more mind boggling to me than seeing Liszt’s piano when I was in Budapest eleven years ago.

The Orgue à parfums at which Jean Carles created his perfumes. (Photo by FJO)

Trying to comprehend and appreciate details about the composition and aesthetics of perfumery has given me a fresh perspective on what it means to come to music without context. Scents that I was repelled by before I began immersing myself in this subject—truth be told, once upon a time I was nauseated by just about every perfume—have proven their aesthetic rewards through exposure. Yet, admittedly, it might still take years before I can fully appreciate Dior’s extremely pungent 1980 Jules, a fragrance currently unavailable in the United States which I felt compelled to purchase in Nice after reading Turin’s raves about it. It seems to me that being comfortable smelling, let alone wearing, Jules is much harder than sitting and listening to a piece of music by Terry Riley—or Milton Babbitt, for that matter—but maybe that’s only because of the disparity in my exposures to music and perfume.