1,000 Kinds of Listening (pt. 1)

Photo credit: Cem Ersozlu on Unsplash

By Stella Joseph-Jarecki (Enquiries: stellamusicwriter.wordpress.com)

There is a famous quote on the importance of music, commonly attributed to Ancient Greek philosopher Plato:

“Music is a moral law. It gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, a charm to sadness, and life to everything. It is the essence of order, and leads to all that is good, just and beautiful, of which it is the invisible, but nevertheless dazzling, passionate, and eternal form.”

Whether or not Plato actually said this, I think it’s right on the money. The quote describes music as an invisible, dazzling eternal form; I think of it as being like ‘the force’ from Star Wars.

Music is essential to our wellbeing as a species and as individuals- but unlike other essential elements such as water and oxygen, music is not consumed in one way by all people.

It’s limiting, and inaccurate, to see musical consumption as a one-way street or a process that happens in a straight line.

If you buy a ticket to a live concert, you are paying to experience transient, non-replicable soundwaves bouncing around a precise location at a particular point in time.

If you buy a ticket to a musical theatre production, you are paying to be transported aurally and visually to another place- a world where the inhabitants are dressed in costumes and interact with props, against the backdrop of a set. You are paying for an experience, but also a product, brought into existence through the collective effort of hundreds of people.

If you download or stream an album, you are paying for a produced recording, patchworked together from multiple takes, which you could listen to on repeat forever if you wanted to.

And these are just three common examples!

After mulling this over, I’ve begun to visualise musical consumption as a layered, shifting, landscape- one where there is a constant overlap between the roles of ‘performer’ and ‘listener’.

At one of the first concerts I attended this year, the headline performer addressed the audience. She reflected that the events of 2020 reminded her that a certain level of musical meaning is only unlocked when music is shared. Audience members are a huge part of the equation- not just because of the obvious financial reason, but so performers can feel there are people receiving the work they poured so much energy, thought and time into.

Does this mean that what takes place in a practice room is an entirely insular process? If we wanted to get philosophical, we could repurpose the famous question of a tree falling in an empty forest. If someone plays a piece of music in practice room and no one else is around, is there still a two-way exchange taking place? I think the answer is yes.

Let’s say there was a classically-trained pianist inside the practice room, playing through a composition by Johann Sebastian Bach. While this sounds like a simple solo exercise, there is still a push and pull between two forces occurring.

In playing through the piece, the pianist is actively engaging with a composer who lived over 300 years ago- both in a tactile sense, with their hands, and in an intellectual sense. J. S. Bach is a particularly good example, as in his lifetime he perfected a number of structural forms which went on to influence the ‘Western’ or ‘European’ musical tradition for hundreds of years. Learning Bach’s music without trying to understand the structures within it, would be like studying physics without reading the works of Albert Einstein.

Let’s say there was jazz pianist in the practice room instead, looking at the chords of a famous jazz standard. From the 1920s to the 1950s, the landscape of jazz was molded by virtuosic composer/ performers: Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Ella Fitzgerald…

In playing through the standard, the pianist is interacting with the framework left behind by the composer, while using their own musical mind to improvise on top of that structure. Improvised phrases come from within a performer’s brain- they are the product of both conscious and subconscious impressions. I’m sure you’ve had a song ‘stuck in your head’ before, even if it wasn’t one you particularly liked. In the same way, a musician’s mind will contain fragments of every piece of music that has ever left an impression on them. They may be alone in the practice room, but the pianist is still taking part in a dialogue as they play. When they leave the room and join other performers on stage, the energy and stimuli shaping their improvisations will be different.

The final scenario I will offer is a classical singer learning an aria from an opera. If they are taking a sophisticated approach to memorising the piece, they will have a long list of considerations. These could include: the phrasing and dynamic markings made by the composer, renditions by other singers, the relationship between the text and the musical character of the piece, and their own personal interpretation of what the character is trying to achieve in the scene.

Like the jazz pianist, their interpretation will become more detailed when their surroundings change. Phrasing, inflection, and tone colour can all be affected by the physical act of portraying a character on stage.

So the next time you attend a live musical performance, whether it’s in a crowded bar or a concert hall, I encourage you to think beyond the ideas of ‘active performer’ and ‘passive listener’. I believe it’s rarely that simple.

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