Monday, October 31, 2011

A Performer's Perspective: Ways of Listening

When I imported a recording of Elliott Carter's Triple Duo into my iTunes, the program categorized it as “Easy Listening.” I think I laughed out loud when I saw that. Carter's music is many things – rigorous, inventive, beautiful, complex, fascinating – but “easy” is not an adjective that springs to mind, either for playing or listening. It made me start thinking, though: what do we mean by saying that music is difficult or easy to listen to? Why is some more “difficult” than others? I associate the term “easy listening” with a bland, saccharine wash of sounds that makes no demand on the ear or the intellect. (Think smooth jazz, soft rock, and cheesy massage CDs with fake fountains splashing.) Yes, sometimes we want to listen to music that is relaxing, that can soothe or entertain. But music can be beautiful, graceful and pleasing without being soporific. And it can create many kinds of experiences, not all of them relaxing. Sometimes it can be more like a fast train, or a steep climb, or a bracing sea breeze. It might be a demented puzzle, or a cathartic wail, or a deep meditation, or a moment of flying.

As a musician, and as a listener, I want music to be all these things and more. The festival's directors invited me to do some blog posts from a performer's perspective, and I want to share a few thoughts here on various ways of listening as related to the process of practicing and rehearsing for the festival concerts.

Carter's music is notated in very clear and specific detail, and requires much individual attention by the players before and throughout the rehearsal process. Working on a piece alone in the practice room might be likened to a laboratory. Is it calm, sterile, a controlled environment: just you, the music, and the metronome. Bringing it into rehearsal, the first step out into the real world, you hear it all differently. It's not the same as studying the score and listening to the recording. Suddenly, other people are involved, and like most human endeavors, this makes the musical experience both richer and more complicated. Several members of the ensemble mentioned this in rehearsal: the way it sounds and feels so different to put it all together, the way that hearing the other parts changes your perception of your own.

I spent most of Saturday rehearsing the Carter, and the evening at a Bach Festival concert in which a friend was playing. Listening to Bach, I thought again about this idea of easy versus difficult listening. I don't think many people would describe Bach as “easy listening.” His harmonies and counterpoint are extremely complex. In fact, I was also struck by the way that both Bach and Carter, though working with different materials, have a similarity in their deeply structured music and use of overlapping layers. However, Bach is more familiar to many listeners (and many performers as well), and therefore is often perceived as easier to listen to.

Music that is less familiar challenges us to release our conditioned responses and expectations. Carter's Triple Duo consists, as the title suggests, of three pairs of instruments (winds, strings, and piano/percussion). Each pair is closely connected, often interlocking, and uses the same primary rhythmic subdivision (the winds have groups of three and six, the strings two and four, the percussion five). These rhythmic layers form an intricate counterpoint, sometimes dense and frenetic, at others suddenly calm and floating.

Do you need to know these things in order to listen to the piece? No. Does knowing them change the way you listen? Probably. Is one way “better” than the other? I don't think so. As with any piece of music, the experience of listening for the first time will be different from repeated hearings. But I think there is a magic to that first time: a sense of the whole, of a new discovery, of the “beginner's mind.” And listening to something unfamiliar, while it may not be “easy,” doesn't have to be viewed as difficult. You don't necessarily have to follow anything in particular or “figure it out.” I think a lot of people have this fear about new music – that they won't “get it,” that there's some secret they're missing. I don't think that's true. I firmly believe that no specialized training – no training at all! - is necessary in order to appreciate this music. All that is required is curiosity. The way you listen, the way I listen, the way the pianist or the clarinetist or the conductor or your grandmother listens – these are all equally valid experiences.

So why not try this? Open your ears to the sounds. Let them wash over you. See what catches your attention. Let your mind follow whatever it wants to. Maybe patterns emerge, maybe they don't. Maybe you notice relationships growing and changing. Maybe thoughts or emotions arise. Maybe the music meets your expectations, maybe it contradicts them; maybe it leads you to form new expectations and fulfills them and then contradicts those, too. Whatever you hear, trust your own way of listening.

We look forward to sharing the experience with you this week. There's nothing quite like being in the middle of music while it's being made, that sense of connection, of shared endeavor and energy. When the audience arrives, they add the final piece. This is the last step into the real world, out of the lab. The music is alive, in this moment, and people are listening.

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