An Unideal Listener

What we hear when we listen

There has been a lot of discussion in musical circles about what we listen to – how we listen – when we hear music. Put another way, we want to know what we hear when we listen.

In the still-remembered past a lot was taken for granted on the the assumptions of what was sometimes called ‘The Ideal Listener’. This Listener was someone to whom we could all aspire, knowing we must always fall short of his aural tenacity. He was always a man.

It was a convenient – sometimes useful – framework that crumbled under any kind of scrutiny, a scrutiny that – thankfully for its own sake – it never received. The Ideal Listener, depending on the needs of the person raising his spectre, hears what a Performer sees, simultaneously in real time and in no time at all. He sits in a concert (or perhaps need only imagine sitting in a concert), and while listening to a given piece hears the sight of the score in perfect clarity as it unfolds in time.

At the same time, however, he also sees it as it exists outside of the flow of time, its gestalt, its logic, its architecture. Ideally he also has an analytic bent. Sight, like logic, make music respectable where the sensuality of sound is forbidden, irrational.

In contrast to this idea and, to a certain degree in reaction to it, there is an interest in the way(s) in which we actually listen, what we can hear when we listen and what we do hear. It acknowledges and embraces the necessary condition of individuation: incomplete knowledge. It acknowledges human fallibility, individual experience, bias, personal preference and even the reality of distraction to the act of listening.

All these thoughts occur to me as I am sitting, listening to a piece of music. They follow one after the next, but also seem to exist outside of time, like music used to. I am at sitting in the Milton Court Concert Hall. The Barbican’s Total Immersion series plays out before my ears. Today we hear Finnish composer Esa-Pekka Salonen and I am an Unideal Listener.

It is the last piece of the first concert that has struck me most, Salonen’s impressive wind quintet Memoria. Full disclosure: with rare exception I tend find Salonen (as composer) more impressive than enjoyable. This is just personal taste. His music is extremely good.

I am listening to the way each note connects to the next. Though there are five individual instruments, much of the perceived movement feels like a single, rapidly moving instrument – a single voice forged from the melding together of the five different tone colours in different combination, register and harmony. The composer told us as much before the piece began. He wanted to treat the ensemble like a single meta-instrument. Perhaps I am hearing his suggestion, or his suggestion delimits our possibilities, his suggestion mediates the act of listening by guiding what it is possible to hear here.

I am listening to how the phrases join one to the next and I am listening for bigger structural signposts, shifts in gesture, or texture, that might regulate the larger form of the piece. I am at once imagining a sculpture and making my hands dirty with its clay.

I am also listening to the Entire History of Music, as it immediately presents itself to my aural memory. This potted and partial understanding of classical music from the past, music I’ve heard and music about which I’ve read is forever the background, the foundation of my listening, as well as the well from which I draw when listening, construing and misconstruing what I hear. I hear that in this moment, too.

I hear, or perhaps see, the bassoon player’s distress as she tries to get enough oxygen to her lungs, then switches from bassoon to contrabasson, an instrument that dwarfs her as she sits, that is felt as much as heard when it is played. Here, sight is bodily, it is deep, not logical. I hear – and see – her frantically counting beats as she swaps instruments and prepares for her next entry on this rough, tactile instrument. Sight and sound intermingle to create this present.

I hear myself constructing my deconstruction. I hear myself deconstructing my deconstruction of listening, which – rather than rebuilding itself – seems destined to collapse beneath its own recursive weight, even as I attempt to draw out fleeting thoughts into words.

The edge of experience

And there is something else, of which I am vaguely aware, at the edge of this experience. It is a kind of calm, a kind of relief in being here, in ‘hearing here’. I am distractedly focussed on this music and it is liberating. It’s been a difficult few weeks, and unlike a number of concerts I’ve been to recently, I am thoroughly revitalised by this music, in this moment. It is more, though. This music seems to me to be making this moment.

I find something liberating in the now-ness of this music. It is immediate, brutal, sudden but ever present, music that captures time and forces us – though without force – to be in it, to be it. This is also a release from the burden of time. It does not reside in music that lets you escape its clutches.

I believe there is a fear in western classical music that listening to music ‘because you like it’ (as opposed to ‘because it’s good’) leaves music open to the critique of it being frivolous and that it cannot financially or culturally survive such critique. There is, however, a nasty irony in that it is this very reluctance to justify listening to this music because you like it that might strangle its life from it, that might spell financial as well as cultural ruin. The two ideas – finance and culture – are more intermingled than economists and artists tend to be comfortable admitting. The idea that music needs money, ironically, doesn’t ‘sell well’ for musicians so we try not to admit it even to ourselves.

I am often confronted by people telling me they don’t ‘understand’ classical music, or embarrassed that they don’t have the requisite knowledge to listen to it – an entirely absurd stance that is accepted completely, culturally, as plausible. They view the music as possessing some quality of its own, which can only be divined by the initiated. This orientation is enforced whenever you fail to recognise – fail to articulate – that you listen to music because you like it, because it rests on your experience of listening, to preferences that are cultivated in part by exposure, in part by personal preference. If we cannot wrestle the power of music away from music it will always be impossible for others to hear what we hear. We will aways drive people away rather than inviting them in. Music that puts up borders is like any Wall people choose to build, an attack on our humanity, on our better selves.

Music and Magic

At the birth of opera in Italy in the 17th century there was a self-conscious attempt to ‘regain’ what had been lost from the ancient art of music. The argument ran that music used to have magical powers, described by ancient philosophers, and that ‘modern’ music seemed utterly ineffectual at performing acts of magic, utterly unable to heal the wounded or raise the dead. On the one hand, it’s good marketing, but on the other we seem to replicate their folly when we locate the magic of music as external to ourselves. Of course, with a wealthy 17th Century patron you can spout any old nonsense. We’re just lucky that in claiming to seek an art form that was super-human, we now accept the creation of an incredibly human art-form. It is always personal. It always speak to us because it speaks of us.

So there is a long history of ‘searching for better reasons’ to listen to classical music, wether the argument is for physical, mental or moral good, the harmony of the spheres or some evolutionary explanation. There is a fear that simple emotional solace isn’t a good enough explanation, that it is somehow cheap, embarrassing or just inadequate. In another irony, this has to be because we feel so strongly about it, because of its emotional strength.

I listen to the music I like because I like it, wether it is popular or the inevitable counterpart to popular: not popular.

Because I was raised, musically, on the assumptions of the ideal listener, however, it has been harder to think about it in these terms, much less find their expression. I find an extraordinary relief and solace in concert music that has enough in it to engage my attention, even if, and perhaps especially when, it allows my attention to wonder without ever losing that engagement, without losing the thread of all these thoughts. The term ‘meditative’ is perhaps a poor word, loaded with connotations, but if we can consider meditative practice as an active undertaking, that requires both attention and presence then we can begin to imagine what I feel, what I hear when I listen.

Attention and presence – that’s why I listen to this music.

I hear each note, each phrase. I hear ‘the music’, but only ever through my unideal ear. I hear the History of Music, replete with personal bias. In hearing I am called to be present in a way that is unique to my daily experience. It is a relief and a joy when it happens.

The series today is called ‘total immersion’ and while that marketing is entirely to do with the idea of immersing yourself in the work of a single compositional voice, it is apt for how I feel about listening to this music. It is an almost out-of-body experience. It is uplifting, relaxing, like floating on a gentle wave, like being totally immersed in ocean, but the ocean is sound. This music holds together like water. There is a weightlessness combined with a complete physicality in listening.

So this is in part what I hear, or rather the Unideal Listener hears, when they listen to this music.

And in Memoria, the final chord vibrates, its waves seeming to emanate from the contrabassoon’s weighty presence as a single rich sound, perfectly blended, with the other instruments simply floating along across the concert hall.

An Unideal Listener

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