Aural Flashbacks

In his recent “ASCII-ing for Virtual Cake,” my esteemed colleague Randy Nordschow ponders the impact on new music of thought-models whose origins lie in computer technology. However, the “conception of digital space” Randy invokes affects everyone, not just composers. In addition to the possibilities Randy raises with regard to writing music, it’s worth considering the new ways of hearing it that the information age may cultivate in us. Most of the concert-music repertoire was written when innovations like the internet and transcontinental air travel were inconceivable. The torrent (pun intended) of images, sounds, and facts that we netizens weather every day would have utterly confounded J.S. Bach—or even Béla Bartók, for that matter.

I’ve been thinking about this recently in the context of “listening strategies”—ways I might be able to understand music better on first hearing by possessing a multitude of “listening gears” and being able to change between them quickly or engage several at a time. A first step, obviously, is knowing enough about the literature in question (whether it’s 17th-century Italian monody or 20th-century Italian mesoplexity) to understand how we’re “supposed” to hear it, as well as the ways in which the on-stage action conforms to and departs from contemporary convention. From our vantage point in the current day, however, we can also listen in a way that admits developments—both generally historical and specifically musical—from the intervening years. In a cherry-picked case, for instance, we might hear a performance of Guillaume Dufay and try to understand it both as groundbreaking, unimaginably intricate polyphony coupled artfully with sublime poetry and as the distant source material for a more recent piece by Mathias Spahlinger. In other words, both with and without the frame (or, better yet, several distinct frames) of historical context. The internet, for example, is not only a resource to be mined for pertinent factoids but also an environment in which we can train ourselves to process diverse information in a “polyphonic” manner, making connections both between and within strata of material, even if we’re just watching Iron Chef episodes on YouTube (which, by the way, I often am).

The upshot, I suppose, is that with each passing year we’re responsible for being able to listen in more and more ways. It would behoove us to be able to hear Schoenberg’s Ode to Napoleon Buonaparte the 1942 way (or a cross-section of “1942 ways”), the 1950 way (as Nono might’ve when he composed the Variazioni Canoniche), and, of course, the 2007 way (or, again, a rolodex thereof).

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4 thoughts on “Aural Flashbacks

  1. pgblu

    Listening as…
    Dear Colin,

    I don’t disagree with anything you have posted here, but I am puzzled by some of the emphasis and the choice of words.

    I like the image that we compile ways of listening to things the way we might collect little figurines, and I agree that musical sophistication is definitely a good thing and correlates directly with how many different ‘ways of listening’ we can bring to a piece of music.

    At this point I am reminded of examples of inadequate criticism that stem from the refusal to be a flexible listener, all of which I heard in the last three years:

    “Frescobaldi takes too long to get to a cadence, and it’s always the wrong one” (OK, that had been facetious!)
    “Xenakis’ Metastaseis just sounds like a plane taking off.”
    “I don’t like Brahms’ Clarinet Quintet. The clarinet doesn’t blend.”

    At the same time, your philippic carries a hint of positivism and I am compelled to sort of push the whole gist of what you say into a much more skeptical direction, especially since you mention Spahlinger.

    The point of his ‘adieu m’amour’ (not that there’s only one point, I suppose) is not that the composer’s way of listening is different from that of G. Dufay and that both are valid; but rather that the composer’s way of listening is the only way of listening that he can muster, and we cannot ever know how Dufay really listened, let alone what he expected his listener to hear. Thus Spahlinger’s piece is an homage of skepticism, which shows its respect for the Flemish master by incorporating gestures and techniques of estrangement and fragility that are intended to create an analogy to the unbridgeable gap of history. Spahlinger’s instructions are to normal string playing technique as modern listening is to medieval art objects.

    Actually, let’s just set aside the dimension of multi-generational gaps: I can’t even really know how my closest friends listen, let alone how old Guillaume did. I can’t appropriate other people’s listening habits; at best, I can gain a fairly nuanced appreciation for how different they may be from my own.

    Reply
  2. Colin Holter

    I don’t disagree with you (which is fitting, because you agree with what I wrote to begin with).

    The only thing I’d add is that even though we can’t know how Dufay heard music, speculating (and informing our speculation through research, etc.) about how he might’ve can enrich our experience of his work. Adieu m’amour is maybe a better example than I’d expected it to be, because (if your reading is correct, and I imagine it is) it addresses this very speculation.

    It just goes to show: The act of listening can be analytical and creative at once. I like it best when that’s the case.

    Reply
  3. davidcoll

    “Sixty-eight percent of these
    ratios fall on intervals of the chromatic scale (red bars), and all 12 chromatic intervals are represented over a span of 4 octaves. ”

    the problems w/this to me is it just has more to do w/the harmonic series rather than in inate 12-tone way of listening, which i’m assuming is what you suggest.

    but the main thing is that language lies in another part of our brain than music, so listening can be different brain activities depending on what it is.

    Reply

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