Listening intentions, sound-pollution and singing tapestries

The SoundscapeIn an earlier post on this blog I mentioned the book “The Soundscape” by Canadian composer and writer R. Murray Schafer. The word “soundscape”, one of Schafer’s designs, is used to describe our sonic environment, all of the everyday sounds which surrounds us in our lives. Schafer talks about how these soundscapes have changed as a result of our ever-changing society. The sonic onslaught of the Industrial Revolution, and the ever-spreading urbanisation of the world forever altered our natural sonic surroundings, filling them up with ever more sounds, both pleasurable and otherwise.

Schafer looks at how these soundscapes have become ever more denser, no longer linked to the natural rhythms of day and night but stretching our borders of consciousness along with our waking hours. Last but not least the author investigates how these our soundscapes affect us and how we adapt to them by different means. It should come as no surprise that Schafer bears no love for our current sonic environment, in fact, the term he uses is “ sound-pollution”.

I dare say many will agree with him. People of today, at least those living in an urban environment, have come to depend on different kinds of filters. From the simple earplugs which we use in order to get a good night sleep dispite the screaming todler next door øreproppto the kind we use to lock ourselves into our own private bubble of sound:earphones

(often used on the subways and buses in order to shield ourselves from other people’s attempt to shield themselves from other people´s attempt to….)

Musical tapestries
Music has gradually changed from being an object of focus to being a screen which allows us to focus on something else. In the year 1917 the composer Erik Satie coined the term furniture music (a slightly more literal translation would be furnishing music ) which at the time were background music meant to be played by live performers. Satie only used this term on four smal pieces of Music, as in: 1. Tapisserie en fer forgé (“Tapestry in forged iron” – for the arrival of the guests (grand reception) – to be played in a vestibule – Movement: Very rich) but the term has since stayed, evolving into our present-day “beloved” shopping mall- phenomenon: Muzak

Eric Satie Yuri Khanon Vospominania zadnim cislom
I’m not sure that Satie really knew what he was unleashing with these humorous notions. But what is certainly true is that music has gradually become one of our most readily available filters shielding us from the steadily increasing chaos of our present sonic environments.

Earplugs – for better or for worse?

“For the listener who wears earplugs are very LOUD performance is the best” – J. Levinson

The American philosopher J. Levinson gives here his rather humorous contribution to the topic of filters. Levinson addresses the notion of “inner” earplugs, the sort of conscious and unconscious filtering which we all make use of during our day. Chatting with a good friend in a cafe on a Saturday afternoon would be a completely hopeless task unless we were able to effectively sift out and ignore parts of the surrounding mayhem of hissing coffee machines, loud chattering, background music, screaming babies, revving cars and blaring cellphones.

Our ability to pick out the voice of our friend from all of these surrounding sounds is part of the same ability our brain uses when it filters away the parts of our reality which it deems not strictly necessary for us at the moment. Without this ability we would all quickly die of mental overload. This is more or less an unconscious act on our brains part. However, interesting things might happen when we try to challenge this natural inclination in ourselves.

The reason for doing this is simple: most of the time this filtering ability protects us from a very real danger of mental overload but just as many times a filter might have been created for a specific reason: as protection against a situation long gone. It might have been a reaction to a situation which we once found threatening or invasive but even if the situation now has changed the filter might still be in place.

The standard word for this mechanism is prejudice.

Today we are however following a different trail: that of Listening. There is a very important difference between hearing something and listening to something. Hearing is a purely physical process which happens automatically provided that we have the necessary physiological components. Listening, on the other hand, demands a change of attitude from passive receptor to active observer.

Hearing versus Listening

“To listen is an effort, and just to hear is no merit. A duck hears also”         – Igor Stravinsky

The most important ingredient when turning from hearing to listening is intent. Intent is the tool with which we are made masters of ourselves. With it we reach into the world around us with a clear purpose.

At this point it is tempting to diverging into a long philosophical discussion but to keep (at least a little bit) in line with the topic of this blog I will instead turn to Listening Intentions, a term used to denote the kind of intent or different attitudes with which we might approach a piece of music.

L1020411The ever-changing experience
The famous proverb about not being able to step into the same river twice could apply just as easily to music: it is never possible to listen to the same piece of music twice. Of course a work of music can never be performed identically twice but the point here is that even listening to a recorded piece of music will yield two different experiences as we as listeners will be at different mental stages or in different places when we hear them.

Our attitude towards what we hear changes what we hear. Therefore by changing our listening attitude or our listening intent we can change our experience of the Music.

Still with me? In the next post I will take you by the ear and we will enter the wonderous land of listening intensions. It is well worth a visit..

The inner and outer experiences of music

kamfestHaving  just returned from the annual Trondheim chamber music festival KAMFEST I had some thoughts in my head, spurred by the many musical experiences there. KAMFEST has always been one of my favourite festivals in Norway as it always seems to somehow be able to think outside of the Box when it comes to chamber music and concert programming in general. A great mix of Expressions, genres, venues and, most often, superb musicians. This year’s composer in residence was the multi-faceted composer /pianist/poet and artist Lera Auerbach who were participating in all of her artistic roles. The program varied from the music-theatre-opera The Blind, chamber music works where the composer performed herself, poetry recital and a silent auction of some of her pictures.

This combined presentation was a rare experience and I wondered in advance how Auerbach would succeed in filling all of these roles. Through history there have been many examples of great composers who also have ventured into the field of performer; a double role which was much more common in older times, from the improvisation-competitions of Mozart´s time to the semi rock star-hysteria surrounding virtuosi composer-performers like Chopin and Liszt. But that said there are considerable differences between the demands to performers of today as to that of earlier times, both in instrumental changes and technical demands.

Some of the things I experienced with Auerbach concerns the theme of listening in a very profound way, more specifically: it concerns something we might call outer and inner listening.

Outer and inner listening

Inner listening

When a musician performs, he or she is experiencing the music emotionally and bodily as well as intellectually and technically. It is easy to get swallowed by the emotions welling up from within when confronted with music by Rachmaninov or Scriabin. We often choose the music we play precisely because it talks so strongly to us. A musician, however, is faced with the responsibility of making not only himself but the audience as well experience these same emotions. That is quite a different thing.

There is a myth going around that says that if you only experience something very strongly yourself, then your experience will somehow automatically spill over onto the people listening to you. Maybe the reason for this idea is the convincing nature of these strong emotional reactions. Often they might get us so involved in our own experience of the music we are playing that we quite forget about the audience.

We might call this process inward listening as the performer is completely absorbed in his or her own emotional reactions to the music. It is a very personal kind of listening which can have a tremendous impact on our lives, creating sometimes a lifelong relationship between the performer and the composer of the music.

L1020891However, just like a spiritual or religious experience, experiences like these are often highly personal. A performer who aims to communicate with an audience needs to take on a different role. The purpose is not to experience for ourselves but to make the audience experience, and in order to do so we need outer listening.

This type of listening is strongly linked with the ability to tear ourselves loose from our own emotions and to be able to observe the sounds we are making from the outside. Just like a pointillist picture needs distance in order to be perceived properly a musical composition needs the all-encompassing perspective of a musician who knows its totality and is able to portion out every last detail according to its place in the sum-total of the work.

When a particular place or harmonic turn in a composition yanks our emotional cords we are naturally turned inwards, listening deeply to our own emotions reacting to the call of the music. In a natural response our emotions are crying for the release of a fortissimo blow-out to match our inner experience but our mind and musicality knows there is more to come and that this part must be balanced against both what has gone before and what is to follow.

The great Rumenian conductor Sergiu Celibidache adresses this in the following way:Sergiu+Celibidache+celibidache8

“A sequence of tones follows a structure which finally connects the beginning with the end. When do I know that a piece has come to its end? I know it when the end is in the beginning. When the end keeps what the beginning promised. Continuity doesn’t mean: to go from one moment to the next, but: after going through many moments to experience timelessness. That is where beginning and end live together: in the now. What is required to experience any structure as a whole? The absolute interrelation between the individual parts.” ( from the film “You don t do anything. You let it evolve”. Produced by Pars Media)

If we choose to simply wallow in our inner bliss while playing we have left the audience behind and are no longer listening to the actual music we are making but only to the one we are experiencing internally. We have also paradoxically lost the sense of “now” in the music which Celibidace talks about.

In the case of Auerbach the word “overwhelmed” seemed essential. In the works where she performed herself this was the essence that she projected as a performer, and I was left with the impression of a performer struggling (but quite ecstatically) with too strong emotions, emotions that were literally choking the music she was performing. Emotions in music shouldn´t be a problem except if the emotions exist solely in the performer and doesn´t extend to the audience.

At one point when struggling with the balance between outer and inner listening we might actually feel as if we are committing some sort of betrayal, consciously leaving our emotions behind to get about the work of communicating. We fear losing those emotions which the music initially stirred in us. But what is the result if we fail to make this switch between outer and inner listening?

When Auerbach played her own music I saw only her. She filled every pore of the music with her own experience of it and there was no question about how it made her feel. At the same time it was a lonely experience listening to her playing because I was witnessing a reaction to a music of which I was deprived; the music was happening inside of Auerbach, not on the stage. As a consequence I was presented with a music that lacked in depth and detail, where there was no holding back in anticipation of later pleasures, no lines stretching over more than three bars at a time, no delicate differentiating between subtle nuances of tone colour. The elements were all there in the music but they passed by un-noted like an unlit tramcar.

I´m sure it was a great experience, I´m just sorry I didn´t get to hear it.

(This blog-post might seem overly anti-Auerbach which was not my intent, it was just that she provided a chance to adress this topic and illustrated my point to perfection. However, I quite enjoy some of her more symphonic music very much and would encourage everyone to check out her Works here:  http://www.leraauerbach.com/ )

The lost art of listening

This blog centers around the lost art of listening.
I am a musician, therefore listening is a main topic of my life. So what do I mean by “listening”? Well, for starters there is a big difference between hearing and listening. Hearing might be said to be an automatic response when encountering soundwaves whereas listening on the other hand involves directing one’s attention towards a specific part of something we perceive.
However, today this act of directing our attention has become an endangered ability which are being increasingly threatened by the very world we live in.

Have you ever felt overwhelmed by an overload of sense-stimulation? The background music of the malls and the shops, the intertwining tunes of the cell phones, flimmering commercial banners, neon signs, flickering screens, the half muffled sounds emanating out of earplugs.

This is the world we live in today, a world where distractions are labeled as enriching experiences. A world where we spend huge sums on learning to practice mindfulness and internal silence while at the same time stuffing our environment with an ever-increasing amount of noise and distractions. In this world of distractions I am concerned with the comprehension of music.

In order to comprehend music we need to be able to listen to it. To be able to listen is to be able to focus. The ability to focus is not something which we are born with, it is an acquired skill.

In this blog I write about attention, focus, musical comprehension and the lost art of listening.

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