I Hear What You’re Singing (I Just Don’t Know What It Means)
Frank Oteri’s column on text in music caused me to reflect on how I listen to those things. For me, narration is probably the only time that I will naturally absorb text in music. When listening to song, in English or any other language, whether aria, lied, ballad, or rap, I simply don’t process the text for meaning but merely for sound.
I suspect that perhaps this is an ingrained habit coming from my earliest musical experiences. One of the first gifts I received was, I am told, a record player, and from a very young age, my parents regaled me with music in response to my apparent enthusiasms—first world music and folks songs from Japan, Turkey, Spain, and other distant locales, all sung in the native languages; symphonic music from the likes of Beethoven and Brahms (I was positively addicted to the Hungarian Dances, especially number 5, listening for hours), Bach oratoria, and later, at the age of six or so, Puccini operas such as Tosca and Turandot. In short, I listened to a lot of vocal music, but virtually none of it in a language I could understand. Now, my own cracker-barrel neuro-psychological analysis—Oliver Sacks has yet to ring in on my case—has me believe that this has led to a kind of musical aphasia, where I hear the sounds of text and even hear and understand individual words or phrases of text (assuming they are in one of the few languages I speak), but I simply don’t give any priority to meaning in the overall experience. The words are figuratively but truly lost on me. Even today, the “Ode to Joy” might as well be the “Ode to Pastrami.”
I can reverse the process and concentrate on the words when I choose—otherwise I could never enjoy a Cole Porter song, or Rzewski’s seminal text pieces, or “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands,” all of which I do—but it does, regrettably, come at some expense to taking in the music.
But don’t get me wrong. I love vocal music. I love song. I love pieces for multiple voices, choral music, opera, oratorio, work songs, gospel, chant, qawalli et al. And people who know my music know that I often use voice as a primary musical element.
In the past, younger and a bit arrogant, I smugly rationalized that I was hearing more of the music than those people who could recite the lyrics to a song we both were listening to. Now older (but leaving any assessment of my arrogance for another day), I do feel some regret, as I clearly am missing part of the overall artistic experience when listening to pieces that use text. I wonder if I am alone in this, or if other people might listen the same way as I. Hello. Are you a friend of Bill W.’s? I’d be most keen to hear from any of you about how you listen.