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).