Tag: listening

And Away I Go (Again)

Winnipeg Airport

Before heading to an airport in an extremely hot city (St. Louis), I took a moment to ponder arriving at an airport in an extremely cold city (Winnipeg) a few months ago. My year of planes, trains and automobiles continues.

By the end of June, which marks the half point of 2013, I will have been in a total of 12 cities in 4 different countries. (I’m including my home base of New York City as one of those twelve.) Although it’s all been a bit of a whirlwind, I believe I have gained many valuable experiences. But as with everything else in life, I will need to balance time to process those experiences with the time I’ll be taking acquiring new ones. It’s an even more elaborate mental dance than what I go through every time I make a decision to listen to either a brand new piece of music or one that I’ve heard before, or to do neither and attempt to create a new piece of my own. Admittedly this last option is the one that is least viable when on the road, although those experiences away from home can serve as great catalysts for inspiration on the creative front whenever there’s time to sit back and process them.

In Paris, I discovered a whole block of sheet music shops which simultaneously increased the weight of my luggage and significantly reduced the amount of money in my bank account. But I still have not had any free time to study the scores of some of Jacques Charpentier’s Études karnatiques I acquired there. (I couldn’t afford all 72 of them.) In Nice, I wandered through a remarkable musical instrument museum that made me think of some really bizarre timbre combinations, but I have not yet had time to test any of those ideas. Being back in Cannes for the third time made it seem almost familiar to me, but I met so many new people during my third time at MIDEM that it sometimes also felt like a completely different place. I still haven’t listened to all the recordings I was given while I was there.

In Winnipeg, I witnessed a miraculous performance of Steve Reich’s Tehillim that almost didn’t happen due to one of the singers becoming ill right after the dress rehearsal. This unexpected element—as well as the distinct possibility for a complete failure—kept everyone riveted and made this extraordinarily difficult piece (which to my ears was a real challenge for everyone involved during the rehearsal) come off almost perfectly as well as with more heightened emotions than any other performance of it I had ever experienced. This lesson will probably make me more relaxed in rehearsals of my own music from here on out. Or perhaps the reverse, since undoubtedly it was the adrenaline rush of this thing almost getting cancelled that pushed everyone involved over the edge and into the sublime.

In Albany, I finally got to experience a live performance by one of the orchestras most dedicated to music by living American composers, despite the fact that they perform in a hall (albeit an incredible gorgeous one with terrific acoustics) that only enshrines the engraved names of dead European composers. (Admittedly, none of the composers whose names I’d wish were also there had been born when this concert hall was first built.) There was a valuable lesson here about how difficult it is to reconcile my love of new experiences with my attachment to things and my obsession with preserving them. If you want to keep something the way it has always been, it is by definition impermeable to something new. Or maybe not. The Albany Symphony makes that old hall new every time they play a piece of new music in it, and the hall retains its authentic, unchanged 19th-century interior nevertheless!

Is it possible to both honor the old and do something new in one’s own compositions? As I explained when I spoke to a composition class at Yale back in February, this is something I ask myself all the time when I am working on a piece, as I’m sure many others do. Though inevitably to some the resultant music will sound hopelessly anachronistic, others will hear that same music as a slap in the face to tradition and everything we should hold dear and sacred—you can’t please everybody. It’s a precarious balancing act. I got my feathers somewhat ruffled in Buffalo when I heard orchestra musicians tell visiting jazz composers that they should avoid using odd meters in symphonic scores, especially since I had witnessed orchestras doing all kinds of oddball stuff only a few weeks before that.

Then again, that new oddball thing is probably rarely what the audience attending most orchestra concerts wants to hear. And aside from not being able to please anybody (if that oddball thing is what you decide to do), you also might discover that many people are pleased by things other than what you yourself are pleased by. I suppose that particular lesson hit home most clearly when I ventured across the Hudson River to Newark to visit NJPAC for the very first time. I went there and heard the New Jersey Symphony give a stellar performance of a new piece (albeit one that was not particularly oddball, at least not in the way it sounded). As is the case with most orchestra programs, they also played a frequently performed piece. And they gave a solid, but by no means life-changing, performance of it. But unlike me, the audience seemed to appreciate the more familiar music more; they went totally gaga. Then again, in Cleveland, I experienced enthusiasm and in some cases euphoria among both audience members and members of the orchestra during two nights of being exposed to music that was completely unfamiliar to them.
Therefore, no matter what I’ve encountered that might suggest the contrary, I don’t think we should try to change the music we write to conform to some kind of standard that an audience will relate to. This is fool’s gold. The audience is not a monolith. And besides, you can never completely predict how someone else will react to something. And if you try to do so and it’s not sincere, listeners will see and hear through it. But that doesn’t imply that you should be completely oblivious if no one comprehends what you’re trying to do. As I wrote here last week following up on my trip to Washington, D.C., I think that any music—no matter how arcane—can attract an audience that is larger than the audience it currently has. The onus is on all of us to spread the word about what we do and what others do that we believe needs to be heard.

In less than two hours, I’ll be making my first-ever trip to St. Louis where I will moderate a session at the League of American Orchestras Conference which is essentially about, at least as I see it, how orchestras can more effectively engage their communities by programming new music. Then immediately following that talk, I take a series of flights to hopefully arrive the following morning in Dublin, at the behest of Ireland’s Contemporary Music Centre, to publicly ponder how the digital realm will continue to change the way we experience music. Too bad we don’t yet all use the same currency or the same electrical outlets. (The latter would have shaved off an hour I spent frantically searching for the right adaptors amidst my pile of wires at home.) Anyway, stay tuned!

How to Respect Music

In response to my contention last week that “there is much to be gained by giving [any] music the same respect we accord classical music by listening to it with the same level of attentiveness,” Joe Ornstein, an old friend and one-time bandmate in a bluegrass-inspired band, posited several comments on Facebook:

Just curious: Should one listen to dance music or dance to it? If you’re going to be respectful of the music, shouldn’t you participate? … To paraphrase Francis Bacon: Some forms of music are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested.

Bar Sur

When I visited Buenos Aires’s famous Bar Sur, I somewhat reluctantly agreed to get onto the dance floor to learn a few tango steps. But that wasn’t the reason I went there.

This raises tons of additional issues, which need to be addressed. On Facebook, I immediately responded to his initial observation, perhaps all too briefly: “In the case of ‘dance music,’ why can’t you do either (dance or just listen to it), and still be respectful to the music?” But with the hindsight that comes from deeper processing (something difficult to do when communicating via social media), perhaps my remark was somewhat disingenuous.

Before I began pursuing graduate studies in ethnomusicology at Columbia University in the late 1980s, I was hoping that in so doing I would gain a deeper knowledge of the musical traditions of various world cultures. I was eager to broaden the melodic, harmonic, rhythmic, and timbral vocabulary in my own music, going beyond superficial borrowings toward something that I thought would be more syncretic. As an undergrad I had already taken courses in the music of India, Indonesia, and the Middle East, and in the years I was away from academia, I collected tons of recordings from all over Africa and East Asia. I also immersed myself in salsa and other Latin American music. One of the reasons I was thrilled to enter the graduate program was that I’d be studying with Dieter Christensen. I knew that he had done field work in Kurdistan as well as in Bosnia-Hercegovina; I had not yet been able to find any recordings from these places and I wanted to hear that music.

But at the welcoming reception, upon asking Professor Christensen about these recordings, my bubble was quickly burst. Nearly 25 years later, I still remember the gist of his comments although the passage of time and the fact that I wasn’t carrying a tape recorder probably make this more of a paraphrase than a direct quote.

You don’t yet understand what ethnomusicology is. Ethnomusicology is the study of music in its cultural context. Why would you possibly want those recordings? What could you possibly get from them? This is music that you will never understand. I don’t listen to these recordings. When I’m at home I listen to Schubert.

I was crestfallen, and the first semester hadn’t even begun. I didn’t have a Schubert to go home to listen to. For me growing up in New York City in the 1970s, there was no music that I felt belonged to me more than any other. There was mainstream pop radio which I couldn’t avoid despite trying to, LPs of various latter-day crooners that my mother would occasionally listen to, and Broadway musicals which I discovered largely on my own through scouring sheet music bins back when there were such things (and eventually getting to see some of the shows since they were still affordable at that time). The standard repertoire of Western classical music was as much an alien “other” tradition as were those traditions of raga, maqam, and gamelan that soon became equally important to me once I had learned more about them.

My return to academia went mostly downhill after my initial encounter. Professor Christensen bragged that for several years he had not played any music during his Proseminar in Ethnomusicology, one of the required courses. I found it somewhat tedious. There was a class I really did enjoy, however, which was Transcription and Analysis, the only one that explored actual music in any depth. But I was soon warned that I liked that class a little bit too much, again with the mantra, “You don’t yet understand what ethnomusicology is. Ethnomusicology is the study of music in its cultural context.” Although I was enrolled for a Ph.D. with a full tuition fellowship, I quit the program after only completing one year of coursework. (Luckily I had taken enough courses to obtain a master’s and, thanks to the advice of another one of the faculty members, I wrote up a thesis the following year and so was able to walk away from the experience with a degree.)

This was a formative experience for me, perhaps as much as the story I related last week about how I came to focused listening. It was the first time I ever quit anything I had set out to do, and it still hits a nerve whenever I think about it. But I started thinking about it again in relation to Joe’s comments about purposes for music other than focused listening. Indeed, there are many: dance, worship, military formations, political campaigns, etc.

One of the great anecdotes in classical music lore is the story of Felix Mendelssohn finding the score of J.S. Bach’s St. Matthew Passion in a waste bin and reviving it. It’s a story that has particular resonance this week as it will be performed countless times all over the world during the Christian Holy Week. It’s a piece of music that I came to love even though I am not a religious person. Am I being disrespectful to Bach and his music by not practicing the faith that his music was written to uphold? In the Middle East, some strict interpretations of Islam forbid the performance of music. Yet in all of the places that forbid music, muezzins still chant the Call to Prayer. It is culturally not considered music even though it follows the same basic parameters (melodic shapes, rhythms, etc.) as other things that would be considered music in that part of the world. I have several recordings of these chants and I find them extremely beautiful even though, once again, I don’t listen to them the way they were intended. When we get into the realm of music used for military formations and political campaigns, it becomes clear that purposes to which music can be put are not always purposes we might endorse—depending on where our allegiances lie. And as some of the commenters in response to my claims about listening suggest, Hitler and Stalin were both great music lovers and untold atrocities occurred under their reigns with the seaming seal of approval of the “classics” they used as part of their propaganda machines.
But these other purposes for music, to my ears at least, have nothing to do with the focused listening to music, any music—whether string quartets or death metal. Although Christopher Small—in the final pages of his book Musicking—seems to clearly implicate all of classical music as being an inseparable byproduct of the culture from which it emanated (a chauvinistic, colonialist society filled with class disparity), I believe it is possible to listen to it and not be adversely tainted. I believe that the same holds true for any other musical tradition. In fact, I would argue that listening to anything on its own terms, divorced from whatever additional context might be placed on it either by the society that has engendered it or some megalomaniac who attempts to repurpose it for nefarious ends, is one of the best ways to train oneself against groupthink. I’ve found focused listening to someone else to be the most effective way to learn another viewpoint. That doesn’t mean that you have to agree with that viewpoint, but it’s hard to know that you don’t agree with it unless you’ve paid enough attention to know what that viewpoint is.

At the end of the day I will never be an “ethnomusicologist,” at least by the definitions I was given once upon a time. I probably will also never dance, even though there’s a ton of dance music that is extremely dear to me. But, by all means, if you want to dance, pray, or cheerlead, let the music sweep you away—although when it comes to some of the less laudatory usages that regimes have attached to music, realize that the music itself is ultimately abstract and follows its own logic which, no matter what role you might assign to it, can have a completely different one for someone else that is no less valid. And therein is perhaps a way to respect music.

Listening Does Much More Than Make You Smarter

Mozart and Vivaldi

Some scientists claim that listening to them makes you smarter. But whether or not they’re right, listening does much more.

“[D]uring passive listening to Mozart music, firing patterns within the brain are similar to those related to higher-order cognitive functions. Indeed, functional magnetic imaging studies concur and have demonstrated that exposure to the Mozart Sonata or other musical pieces with similar qualities … can give rise to activation in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, occipital cortex, and cerebellum. Similarly, parietal areas (e.g., bilateral superior parietal lobules) are activated during music exposure with these putatively being involved in selective attention processes … [M]usic has the ability to influence, prime, facilitate, or transfer to nonmusic domains and brain functioning. This is hardly surprising given that music (including passive listening to music) involves the engagement of numerous cognitive functions.”

—Leigh M. Riby, “The Joys of Spring: Changes in Mental Alertness and Brain Function.” Experimental Psychology: Volume 60, Number 2 / 2013.
Was even Mozart wrong? Is there something in the nature of the works of the classical concert repertory that makes the acts of performing and listening to them under any circumstances go counter to the way I believe human relationships should be? … I think I have to answer yes.”
—Christopher Small, Musicking, p.220

Since I finished reading Christopher Small’s book Musicking last week, I’ve still been trying to come to terms with the author’s extremely damning conclusions about classical music and how we are expected to listen to it. While much of what Small wrote resonated with me in a very profound way, I believe that his assumption about so-called passive listening being an unhealthy socialization model is completely misguided. This is why…

I was raised by a family that wasn’t particularly good at listening to one another. My mother and her sisters would constantly get into petty disagreements with one another that turned into all-out wars in which they refused to speak to one another. Sometimes this went on for weeks. Thinking about this in hindsight, it seemed quite often that they would talk over each other throughout their arguments, making it clearly impossible for them to fully comprehend what the other was saying, and as a result they misinterpreted the level of the disagreement and things would then escalate based on their mutually incorrect assumptions.
It was often a difficult environment in which to grow up, and luckily there were upright pianos in their homes, albeit ones that were usually terribly out of tune. I think I started playing the piano not so much in order to be listened to, something I intuited would be next to impossible, but as a way to drown out the other sounds. I was a rather harsh key banger—I popped a couple of strings every year as a result of the brutal force with which I attacked the instrument. To this day, I have a hard time playing gently.

The idea that music was something that people could listen to without any other sonic intrusion was completely alien to me. My family would put on records from time to time but always talked over them. The first concerts of so-called classical music I attended were the free outdoor concerts in Central Park where musicians would play to picnickers who chatted throughout and sometimes even added to the sonic environment by turning on a radio they had brought along with them—the ‘70s were not called the “Me Generation” for naught.

A few years later I started going to Broadway shows. Balcony seats were only $12, twice the cost of a movie at the time, but Broadway audiences were much better behaved. They actually sat and didn’t talk throughout the show. (The audience was rarely silent when I went to the movies.) At some point, shortly after that, I was given a free ticket to a concert at Carnegie Hall. I remember sitting there by myself totally bored yet somehow utterly fascinated to see people sitting quietly to listen to music without words. What were these sounds communicating to them?

I made it a point to figure it out and in so doing, worlds opened up to me. I started reading books, which was something I was never able to stay focused on enough to be able to do before I started attentively listening to music. I went on to be the first person in my family ever to attend college. The so-called passive mode of experiencing information—music, books, theatre, film (eventually), visual art, lectures—enabled me to pay attention to others and offered me world views that can span any place or any time. All of this would have been completely out of reach to me otherwise. For this reason, one of Small’s observations is particularly irritating to me…

“[T]hose constructor toys we call musical scores can provide a wide range of models … [n]evertheless, the kind of story we can make up from them is constrained by the limits of the style. … The densely packed and highly purposeful sequence of events with which they present us cannot allow us to use them to model the conceptual universe of a poor black woman in the United States or that of a Zen Buddhist or that of a Tibetan peasant or that of a Spanish Gypsy.” —Small, ibid, p. 217

While it took decades for the music of Beethoven to actually speak to me (which is why I think that new music should be the focal point of all concerts and not just an occasional add-on to otherwise standard repertory programming), learning how to listen enabled just about anyone’s music to speak to me (from Memphis Minnie to the Gyuto Monks to Manitas de Plata, to cite representatives from communities that Small feels classical music excludes). I firmly believe that learning how to listen can do the same for almost anyone else. Small argues that music is a more healthy experience when it is integrated alongside other activities as it is in many of the world’s cultures. But I would argue that there is much to be gained by giving the music of these other cultures the same respect we accord classical music by listening to it with the same level of attentiveness.

A recent psychological study explored the consequences of exposure to Vivaldi’s Four Seasons on the subsequent cognitive behaviors of seventeen participants. The data revealed that the most familiar and uplifting musical material enhanced participants’ mental alertness. This is something of a refutation of the recent studies that have been challenging the claims that Mozart makes you smarter. So now tons of NPR-listening parents will probably go out and get Vivaldi recordings for their children to listen to. However, this seems almost as wrong-headed as Christopher Small’s conclusions. It’s really not about whether a certain piece of music has the “it” ingredient that will improve someone’s mental faculties. Rather, listening in and of itself improves those faculties, and it also does a whole lot much more—it makes us better people.

Advocacy and Communication

I had something of an epiphany about how the various parts of my life relate to each other last week when I gave a presentation both about my own music and my writings and talks concerning the music of others for the composition seminar at Yale University. The more I’ve thought about that epiphany, the more I’ve wondered if it has larger implications for how artistic experiences are created and communicated to others.

As a writer and speaker about music, I have pretty firmly established my working methods as being advocatorial rather than critical. I’ve long believed that my own opinion about a piece of music (or anyone else’s opinion for that matter) is far less important than the piece of music itself and the person/people who created it. I tend to distrust the received wisdom culled from arbiters of taste (self-appointed or otherwise) only slightly less than my own personal taste which can all too often get in the way of experiencing the ideas of another creator on his or her own terms. So I’ve endeavored whenever I write or talk about something, or whenever I talk to someone about his or her work, to try to describe the work rather than to evaluate it and, in conversations, give the creator the opportunity to speak on the work’s behalf.

This kind of openness might perhaps seem antithetical to the process of composing music which is, after all, a sharing of one’s own personal musical aesthetics with the world. Undeniably there are specific musical ingredients that I feel pretty passionate about and which I therefore explore quite a bit in my own music—microtonal intervals, repetition (whether actual or perceived), vocal melodies that are based specifically on the pronunciation and meanings of the words sung, permutational patterning (whether based on themes, scales, or tone rows), oddball rhythms (particularly quintuple and septimal time), metric modulation, and even occasional indeterminacy. At the same time, though there’s a lot of theory behind much of what I compose, I try my best to always make whatever technique or process I explore clearly audible.
At Yale last week, a student asked why it was so important to me that my music communicate so directly even though it sometimes incorporates somewhat esoteric techniques and processes. And then it dawned on me: when I write about other people’s music, my goal is to advocate for their music; when I write my own music, my goal is to advocate for whatever techniques I’m exploring. When I set texts, my goal is to advocate for those words. For me, it’s actually all the same thing. The more music I hear by others, the more ideas I’m inspired to pursue on my own and the more I pursue certain of those ideas the more I want to ask others about them. Isn’t this what we all do, either as creators of or respondents to artistic experiences? Everything emanates from listening.

Then on the train ride back from New Haven, I started reading New Zealand musicologist Christopher Small’s seminal 1998 book Musicking, which is a scathing attack on how orchestral music is performed and listened to. Though Musicking had been on my reading list long before Small’s death in September 2011, I was not quite prepared for the book’s intensity, especially after a wonderful day at Yale that helped me clarify my approach to music. Here’s a sample of Small’s argument:

“What for members of the audience may at its best be a transcendental experience of communication with a great musical mind, for the orchestra members may be just another evening’s work and even, for some, a time of boredom and frustration. Whatever the event may be celebrating, it does not seem to be unity, unanimity or intimacy but rather the separation of those who produce from those who consume…”

Earlier in the book he decries concert hall construction that ensures a separation between performers and audience and a seating arrangement that makes it difficult for attendees to do anything else besides merely listen to the music. Though I was somewhat baffled by the first concerts I attended back in my early teens, I very soon grew to love how the format allowed for a really deep absorption of sonic information that was not constantly interrupted—either by someone asking you to buy a drink or other attendees loudly having a conversation which makes it extraordinarily difficult and at times impossible to fully process the music being performed.

I have not yet finished Musicking and will probably have more to say about it. I’m now up to the chapter titled “Summoning Up the Dead Composer” which I’m sure will be a doozy. As a composer and an advocate for the music of other composers, primarily those who are still alive, I have quite a few issues with the culture of orchestral music concerts which are all too rarely concern themselves with the music of the here and now. That said, I wouldn’t want orchestras and large concert halls to go away—quite the opposite. I want them to let more of us in!

Small was hardly the first writer to make this analogy, yet I find it particularly troubling that someone so attuned to the importance of music in human society (as he proved himself to be in his first chapter) would come to the conclusion that unimpeded listening is a form of submission that is ultimately bad for people. A similar argument could be made for us not looking at paintings or reading books (including his). Ultimately, taken to its logical conclusion, such an argument would have us never pay full attention to anyone else. I fear all too many people are encouraged not to pay sufficient attention to others these days which has resulted in a world where political discourse is often reduced to binary echo chambers.

On Saturday afternoon, however, I found a pleasant refutation of experiential immersion as subjugation during an exhibition at New York City’s Museum of Art and Design (MAD), a place I had never before visited. What got me to finally attend was an exhibit devoted to perfume. (Readers might recall how my attending a performance of the Scent-Opera—a collaboration between composers Nico Muhly and Valgeir Sigurdsson, “librettist” Stewart Matthew, and perfumer Christophe Laudamiel—triggered a summer-long exploration of perfume that led me to think about music somewhat differently.) MAD’s presentation, which unfortunately closed on Sunday, might offer the next step toward refining that line of thinking.

MAD Perfume Exhibition

Is sticking your head inside one of these indentations to experience a perfume an act of discovery or submission?

The exhibition consisted primarily of an empty wall with twelve indentations for visitors to stick their heads in to smell twelve specific perfumes created between the years 1889 and 2010. A brief text about each of the perfumes was projected onto the empty wall but only for short periods of time. I found it impossible to read each of the blurbs in only one go and had to wait for them to re-appear. Similarly, an introductory text appeared and then disappeared on the floor. (A side room offered a monitor displaying video interviews with the perfumers, as well as vats of each of the twelve perfumes on display in the main exhibition; visitors were allowed to dunk paper into the vats in order to smell the perfumes for a more extended duration, though even when smeared on paper the perfume will fade.) By turning the process of reading the texts about the perfumes into an experience as fleeting as smelling them, MAD created a remarkably apt way of describing the ephemerality and elusiveness of olfactory perception. Of course, music is as ephemeral and elusive, perhaps even more so in a live performance which you can’t even stick your head into again to rehear.

MAD Perfume Exhibition 2

Even if you save the paper on which you were allowed to blot drops of perfume, they will eventually lose their scent.

During the hour I was at the exhibition, I witnessed people of all ages willingly sticking their heads into those indentations with curiosity and delight, though it was an even more submissive act than sitting in a concert hall. Then again, it was very instructive to watch and listen to the videos and hear perfumer Ralf Schweiger enthuse about the aroma of sloths, reveling in how they smell like hair and dirt, only then to confess that much as he likes their fragrance, including it in a perfume is problematic. As he opined, “You can’t push the envelope too much because people won’t like it.”

Again I was reminded of all the sounds we love as composers and how we attempt to include them in our music either fully conscious of or completely oblivious to how they will be perceived by others, depending on our aesthetic inclinations.

Signal to Noise

I promised myself I wouldn’t take the bait dangled by Dan Asia’s screed against John Cage, but it’s turning out to be hard to resist. So instead I’ll try to write about it in the most oblique way I can without being too obtuse.
When a work is interpreted, it experiences a death, a closing off of possibilities. I am not saying that this death is a good or bad thing–more like an inevitable, necessary part of observation and interpretation.

When you say that a work of art must simultaneously nourish the mind, body, and emotions, you are imposing a very strict definition that excludes a great deal of value. What if music could express things other than what we already know it to express? If we allow this possibility, we must also accept the value of experimentation, even in the face of failure.

And even if you refuse to question the holy trinity of mind/body/emotion, it is completely nonsensical to consider it a basis for objective evaluation. To do so requires believing that the mind is situated outside the mind and the body is situated outside the body. As if emotions were free-floating abstracts, little clouds of vapor that drift from person to person.

As attractively fanciful as this notion is, it isn’t particularly rigorous.

I think I know what is at the root of these recurring rants, these rashes of irascibility against Cage et al. We have a massive signal-to-noise ratio problem. Cage prefigured this problem to an extent, though I suspect he underestimated the extent of its repercussions.

There are far too many things to listen to, so our listening must be curated. We can choose to take a role in this curation, but our range of action is limited by our attention span, our reserves of vigilance. So many things are constantly demanding, cajoling, pleading for our attention–many of them with questionable ulterior motives. The Western canon and its implied values, for example.

The haters see Cage as exacerbating this problem, as cluttering the already cacophonous landscape. For me, he brings that problem into sharp relief, making it more manageable. When I am listening to a good performance of a Cage piece I feel that I have agency, that I have control over my body, mind, and emotions. Or at least, that the possibility exists.
I am pretty sure that Cage would not have approved of this sentiment, or this phrasing.

Whom Should You Listen To?

One of the interesting aspects of writing these columns every week is that I find myself continually looking for issues to think and write about, and sometimes it doesn’t take much to set me off in one direction or another. Last week, as I was writing about Jennifer Jolley’s blog, I found an interesting post of hers describing a lesson she had taken with famed composer Augusta Read Thomas. While others might have simply written up a basic synopses of the lesson, Jennifer decided to give a play-by-play description of her entire time with Thomas–replete with pictures! One of those pictures was of a list of ten composers written on a sheet of paper–I’ll let Jennifer describe the context:

She also told me I needed to listen to more music; I completely agree. Some of my friends wanted that listening list, so here it is.

Whom Should You Listen To?

This jumped out at me for several reasons. First, I loved the fact that Thomas was telling Jennifer to listen to 20 works by each composer, thus ensuring that she become immersed in the sound world and creative concepts of each of those composers. Second, I was inspired to go listen to more music by many of her suggested composers myself because of this assignment. Finally, one could look at this list and get a very clear idea about the person who created it–it creates a window into their background, their priorities, pedagogical concepts, and stylistic tastes.

Thomas’s list got me thinking: What would other composers’ listening lists look like? Was Augusta Read Thomas unique in the method she used to create such a combination of composers to listen to for her students? How much overlap would there be across a wide selection of composers making the lists? What could one deduce from the names that were most often mentioned?

Being the inquisitive type that I am, I contacted a limited number of professional composers both here and in Europe over the weekend and asked them if they could give me a list of ten composers from the 20th and 21st centuries that they would want to give to an undergraduate or graduate student composer to listen to in depth. I’ve already received a good number of responses and the results are such that I’ve already decided to ask a lot more of my composer colleagues for their input on this topic before I make any findings public. I’m very cognizant that one could easily mutate this into a quest for a “best of” mega-list and I’m not interested in that at all. I’m already seeing some interesting patterns as far as which names come up the most and why, as well as the relationship between the overall list and the individual lists each composer is submitting. I will continue working on this and hopefully in the near future I’ll be able to write about what I’ve discovered in a future column–I’ve already decided that I won’t let anyone know who wrote which list, but I can see making both the aggregate list and the individual lists public down the road. If you are interested in taking part, please contact me directly via e-mail and please refrain from writing your list in the comments section below.

A few weeks ago my good friend Daniel Felsenfeld wrote a brilliant article on the “tyranny of lists” and as someone who tends to be a listmaker myself (as I’m sure at least a few of you remember), I want to be clear that I’m not jumping into this little side project in order to just make more lists or to push one viewpoint over another. I do, however, feel strongly that awareness in and of itself is ultimately a positive thing and if this project can shine some light on who we as a community listen to and subsequently pass down to future generations, then some good may come from it.

Time to Listen

When I was a student, I challenged myself to listen to as many works by as many different composers as possible. Since I worked in the recordings section of my school’s music library, I enjoyed the advantage of free access to our vast collection of CDs and LPs, and I used to browse through these physical objects, seeking out all the collections of contemporary pieces that I could find. In this way, I discovered the music of Lachenmann, Shatin, Birtwistle, Wolfe, and many other composers whose works I continue to enjoy to this day. In addition, I used to participate in monthly listening parties with a group of similar-minded composers. We would have dinner and then one of us would play new recordings that might be of interest to everyone. These evenings were filled with fascinating discussions—through which I possibly learned more than in my course studies—and they also introduced me to Scelsi, Xenakis, and other creators of beautiful music.

Looking back on those days, the greatest predictor of future success among my contemporaries was the amount of time and energy individuals spent listening to music. Those students who remained open to the ideas they could glean from new artistic experiences invariably grew into the colleagues from whom I continue to learn.

Each new musical experience built upon all the previous ones, gradually and inexorably altering my aesthetic predilections. As my taste evolved, composers whose music I found to be too abstract in my first encounters often morphed into the center of my preferred palate. Conversely, I now eschew much of the music that initially grabbed me decades ago, believing it to be cloying and obvious.

My current problem is that my musical explorations haven’t kept pace with the changes in my personal taste, nor with the wealth of interesting music that contemporary composers continue to produce. I rarely encounter the sort of unstructured stretches of time that would allow me the freedom to explore music from among the dozens of new composers whose works friends and colleagues recommend as being aesthetically up my alley. Further complicating matters are the giants of the 20th century whose works I’ve found to be incredibly moving and yet have only experienced in small doses. Even as the internet has greatly increased my access to an incredible variety of music that’s available nearly everywhere and at a moment’s notice, my ability to take advantage of this abundance has diminished nearly as profoundly.

In order to stop this gradual erosion of my knowledge of the contemporary repertoire, I’ve embarked on a new listening project. Each week, I try to carve out blocks within my schedule during which I concentrate on experiencing a piece that is either new to me or that I’ve only heard in less than ideal circumstances. I’m trying to force myself to move beyond the paralysis that can set in as I face the infinite variety of sounds available to me at all times in order to choose one or two works on which I will focus during each session. I’m hoping that this venture might work over time to stem the deterioration of my listening skills, and that it will allow me to remain more current in my awareness of the wealth of music available to listeners today.

Weird Ears

In a recent New Yorker magazine profile of Bruce Springsteen, David Remnick quotes Springsteen’s longtime friend and guitarist Steve Van Zandt as he describes their early attempts to cover the pop songs they were hearing on the radio:

“Bruce was never good at it. He had a weird ear. He would hear different chords, but he could never hear the right chords. When you have that ability or inability, you immediately become more original. Well, in the long run, guess what: in the long run, original wins.”

As someone who grew up with a pair of weird ears, I found this description to be heartening.

Ear Anatomy

When I began exploring music, I experienced difficulty in playing the music of others. My inability to remember exactly what I had heard caused me to warp the tunes that I tried to copy. As I consistently failed in my attempts to replicate a style or a specific song, I began to realize that I actually preferred the new sounds that resulted from these missteps. I was unable to clone the pre-existing styles and this lack of skill became the basis for everything that followed. My music sounded original because I was constitutionally incapable of creating anything else.

Throughout my student years, I attempted to embrace my special background while simultaneously working to gain the skill-set shared by most other musicians. Although I didn’t need to worry that my compositions would mirror my favorite pieces from the repertoire, I also felt that there was a great gulf between the sounds I wanted to create and those that emanated from my earnest attempts at notation. Performers found that my compositions presented them with odd challenges and that they tended to be difficult to learn in inexplicable and unpredictable ways. Originality was never a problem for me, basic facility was.

Decades of training allowed me eventually to gain aptitude in typical musicianship; however, as my weird ears matured, they continued to resist strolling along the primrose paths prepared by others. Once I finally was able to clone music of the past, I began to see new possibilities for exploration that had been closed to me before. Having become somewhat competent at fully processing equal temperament chords and metronomic pulses, I realized that my musical ideals existed outside these systems. When I began, I was equivocating between the sounds I knew existed and the ones I wanted to hear; the training allowed me to understand that I had always sought something distinct from the music surrounding me. I had always assumed that my weird ears were a handicap; they turned out to be an advantage.

As a teacher, I try to keep this lesson in mind. Some students operate on a different level from the others, hearing music in unique ways. I believe that it’s important for them to fully grasp the typical theories, if only so that they may understand the enemy against which they someday will rebel. But at the same time, I try to learn from the way that they approach the repertoire, to hear the connections that seem obvious to them but evade the rest of us. These exceptional people can provide insights that have eluded the millions of normal ears that have previously assessed these compositions. The performers with weird ears can create innovative interpretations, and the similarly endowed scholars can refresh our analytic viewpoint.

It’s easy to award accolades to students who walk the straight and narrow path, who excel within the parameters established by their professors. It can be difficult to determine whether a new idea represents a brilliant re-thinking of centuries of precedents or a simple misunderstanding of the foundations of the field. People with weird ears generally try to function normally within society, but are unable to be anything other than original. Hopefully, Steve Van Zandt is right and in the long run original wins.

If There Are To Be Lines

“It’s a beautiful thing, […] a beautiful little scientific concoction, but it doesn’t move me. It doesn’t speak to me. It’s not art. […] Science cannot be art. It’s a contradiction in terms.”
—Amanda Filipacchi, Vapor (New York: Carroll & Graf, 1999), p. 71

“I would rather spend the rest of my life trying without success than succeed at anything else.”
—Ibid, p. 15.

I still believe that, as a listener, it is my duty to be open to any and all possible sonic encounters, and by extension I have tried to be as open to other sensory experiences as well (visual, olfactory, culinary, etc.). Nevertheless, I am very much aware that no matter what, there will still be barriers despite my most valiant attempt at aesthetic neutrality. Some would argue that it is neurologically impossible to tune yourself out in order to truly perceive someone else’s thoughts—I won’t go there because I’m not a scientist and I think that examining art from a scientific point of view just produces statistics and doesn’t really help with aesthetic appreciation. But I will concede that there are insurmountable limitations which have to do with our own temporal existence.

I spent most of last week recovering from an illness which left me unable to perform any of my normal activities. The first few days were so bad that I was not even able to listen to music. Even quasi-ambient listening without paying close attention was too much for me. I actually couldn’t bear it. It was like every one of my appetites was on hiatus; I couldn’t read and mostly was uninterested in eating, nor was I able to think about my own music or anything else of consequence. But halfway through the week, the ability to listen was the first thing that came back, and I made up for lost time with a vengeance, listening practically non-stop for several days.

When it seemed like I was definitely on the mend, I used the opportunity of long, uninterrupted time to again listen to La Monte Young’s The Well-Tuned Piano, this time the 6 ½-hour performance from 1987 that was released on DVD. I wish I had my full energy at the time, since I could definitely perceive some important differences between this performance and the 1981 5-hour performance of WTP that was released on LP by Gramavision in the 1980s, with which I am far more familiar. Of course, if I had my full energy back I would have had tons of other things to do and would not have taken the time to probe the details of performances of such extreme duration. So it might be a very long time before I ever figure this out.

This realization definitely makes a case for musical compositions of somewhat shorter duration. It definitely bursts the bubble of my fantasy about 24-hour pieces. After being at home for six days straight, I can’t imagine wanting to do any single activity—even listening to music—for that long a stretch. But it also leads to a realization that the joy of listening is ultimately far more rewarding than any post-listening analytical frame I would want to put on it. Even if I never figure out the precise details of what made the 1987 performance of WTP different from the 1981 performance, it doesn’t really matter. The pieces of music I have recently been treasuring more than most other things on this planet—whether it’s the solo clavichord music of C.P.E. Bach, chamber music of Brahms and Debussy, the art songs of Dora Pejačević, the small group improvisations of Charles Mingus, or the Number Pieces of John Cage—are amazing whether I totally understand how they are put together or not.

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter because art is not science. While I will continue to fight against aesthetic lines of any kind, I’ll acknowledge the line between science and art. If there must be lines, as so many people seem to believe, that is the one line I can’t and won’t try to knock down.

That Which Cannot Be Avoided

“[B]y playing loud, fast music, patrons talked less, consumed more and left quickly […] When the bar’s music was 72 decibels, people ordered an average of 2.6 drinks and took 14.5 minutes to finish one. But when the volume was turned up to 88 decibels, customers ordered an average of 3.4 drinks and took 11.5 minutes to finish each one.”

—Cara Buckley, “Working or Playing Indoors, New Yorkers Face an Unabated RoarNew York Times, July 19, 2012.

Everyone knows that there are few things that I enjoy more than subjecting myself to a new experience, particularly a music-related one. I use the word “subjecting” with intent here, but also somewhat carefully since I know that for some people it will seem like a strange word choice.

As I’ve stated before, for me, listening is an act of submission; it’s about tuning myself out in order to experience something else on its own terms to the best of my ability. So that means turning off my own conversation. (As a blabbermouth child, this was a painfully difficult lesson for me to learn, but I eventually did and I’m troubled that some people nowadays seem to think this is not a skill everyone necessarily needs to acquire. I think not being able to stop talking bodes ill for a democratic society.) Perhaps as importantly, it means turning off my own inner thoughts. (This is still a struggle for the very reasons that one commenter opined about last week; I’ve constantly got my own music running through my head, especially when I’m in the middle of a composition.) More important than either, I think, is turning off your preconceptions and the inevitable judgments they induce. So often I find I’m not really listening to something if I carry any preconceived baggage about what it is, could be, or should be. Rather, I’m listening to myself. I still don’t think I’m always able to effectively channel out these preconceptions as much as I want to; it’s a lifelong project.

All that said, I want to make it clear that this “act of submission” cannot be a selfless one; it requires a desire to do so. Listening is ultimately an act of willful submission. It’s voluntary; if it’s involuntary, it doesn’t really work. I also realize that music surrounds us in so many contexts that it is impossible to pay undivided attention to all of it.

Case in point, the other night my wife Trudy and I were eating in one of the restaurants in our neighborhood. There was a live musician there. This is something I’m extremely in favor of as a matter of principle—any opportunity for people to be able to express themselves in a creative way and, one would, hope be remunerated for their efforts, is an inherently good thing. And I was happy to listen to him, to a point (not my ideal focused listening, since I wanted to engage in some dinner conversation and of course needed to communicate with waiters, etc., during the performer’s set). We sat as far away from him as we possibly could so as not to disturb him. As luck had it, however, I couldn’t possibly have disturbed him because he was so heavily amplified that I was barely able to hear myself speak, so I know he couldn’t possibly have heard me. When he was done with his set, the pre-recorded background music was cranked up even louder than he was. Not only was I unable to hear myself talk; I really couldn’t hear myself think, either. Yet, surprisingly, despite my total immersion (albeit unwillingly) in the music emanating from that restaurant, I can’t remember anything I heard that night. This is ambient music with a vengeance—foregrounded ambience. Its goal is not to get you to pay attention to it, but for you not to be able to pay attention to anything else. Much as I love the food at this place, I’m not eager to return.

According to the New York Times report I cited at the onset of these paragraphs, many bars, restaurants, and clothing stores maintain speaker volumes that are louder than power mowers or oncoming trains. It is potentially causing irreversible hearing loss to the people who work in these environments and can cause collateral damage to patrons. I’m also concerned that it is also reducing our ability to actually listen in a meaningful way.