In his final definition of music—”sounds heard”—John Cage put the responsibility for the existence of a musical experience not on composers or interpreters, but on the audience. But Cage’s elevation of the listener to a primary position of musical power above and beyond the people on stage or in the studio has taken on perhaps many unintentional ironies, particularly now that we live in a world with buzzwords like “audience friendly” and where musicians have even been castigated for discouraging the use of mobile recorders at concerts. However, if indeed music results more from the audience than the folks supplying what the audience is listening to, what should the role of the audience be and what rights does an audience have?
Last week I finally caught up with audiophile Steve Guttenberg’s provocative essay, “Why can’t you listen to music?” for the CNET Blog Network. Guttenberg laments that we’ve become so attached to multitasking, as well as using music as a personal soundtrack to block out other information as we go about our lives, that focused listening (an activity that can only occur while doing nothing else) is becoming a lost skill. I got so worked up reading this that I tweeted about it—yeah, I got sucked in, too—which soon prompted a retort from pianist Bruce Brubaker: “What? You mean music can be useful in differing ways to various people?” But I needed a lot more than 140 characters to respond to that, so here goes.
To this day I can’t bring myself to walk around with earbuds in my head. Either the music is too much of a distraction from paying attention to traffic lights, etc. or the quotidian chores that occur going about one’s day are too much of a distraction for a fulfilling listening experience. And there are things I could never do while listening to music, such as reading a book, an activity which should be equally engrossing. But I confess that I do listen to music at home while engaged in certain other less intellectually taxing activities—e.g. frequently while dressing or doing household chores, often during meals, and sometimes while washing dishes. There’s just too much stuff I want to hear and otherwise I wouldn’t have enough time to listen to all of it.
Yet listening has remained just about the most important thing I can think of doing. In fact, I spend way more time listening to music than composing or performing it. And while I frequently feel enormously frustrated that I have so little time these days for fleshing out my own compositional ideas, I would not want to skew the equation in the other direction. I would probably never perform or create anything of my own at all if not spurred on by engaged listening to what other people have done. Not that I’m looking for models to emulate, but rather the actual process of listening is powerful creative fuel. I’ve long believed that if we could harness that fuel more effectively in our society, the world would be a better place. A world where people are unable to listen to each other is a dangerous world indeed. Sadly, it is a world we all too frequently inhabit.
So back to those questions: what should the role of the audience be and what rights does an audience have? As a composer, I am usually quite flexible with how interpreters perform what I’ve written and I am so happy that people show up to performances when they occur. As a listener, however, I strive to totally submit to what I’m hearing—without intrusion and without personal judgment. I don’t always succeed, but I try.
While Cage gave audiences the deciding role in what constitutes music by declaring it to be “sounds heard,” he also created unprecedented challenges for listeners. Cage perhaps most famously asked people to listen to whatever sound occurs during a 4’33” timespan in which no sound is intentionally made by interpreters. But he also subjected listeners on multiple occasions to the full audio spectrum, from the most ravishingly beautiful sonorities to the most horrific shrieks, as well as long stretches of seeming stasis that some people continue to find relentlessly tedious. In response, he famously quipped, “If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, then eight. Then sixteen. Then thirty-two. Eventually one discovers that it is not boring at all.”
I would argue that paying attention to others rather than yourself, which focused listening makes possible, is music’s ultimate use. And if music exists in your life solely as an accompaniment for other activities, then you are not really listening to it. Indeed, if these sounds are not really heard, they are not really music. The role of the audience must be to make the experience of listening to sound into music, and the audience has the right to be able to listen unencumbered by experiences that distract from doing that and only that.