If You Listen With Care

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Home Sweet Home (Photo by FJO)

Despite the extremely exciting time I had in France last week and the significantly worse weather here in New York City, it’s still very nice to be back at home. No matter how wonderful a new experience is—even though I’ve lived my life always in search of new experiences—there’s great comfort in the assurance that comes with familiarity, however mundane. E.g. It feels so good to know how to control the temperature and water pressure in the shower, and easily finding your home beats getting lost trying to find your hotel room.

As I ponder this joy of feeling safe as a result of totally being at ease in one’s usual surroundings, it makes me realize what an incredible leap it is to hear a new piece of music even though it’s a leap I’ve been committed to taking all the time. For most people, however, music is just one of many different things out in the world that occasionally captures their attention and so a new experience is frequently not optimal.

I was initially completely befuddled to hear someone who was sitting at the table next to mine at LPR during the amazing Gyan and Terry Riley concert on Saturday night exclaim to her friends only minutes before the end of the gig, “I can’t stand this anymore; I’m waiting outside.” How could anyone not have enjoyed that performance? Yet thinking about it with some hindsight a couple of days later it is understandable that if she had never heard any music like this ever before, her lack of context for it made it difficult to comprehend, let alone enjoy.

The numerous fond remembrances of Milton Babbitt posted this past weekend inevitably referenced the essay he wrote for High Fidelity which the editors, against his wishes, re-titled “Who Cares If You Listen?” There is an ocean of difference in the meaning of that title and Babbitt’s original moniker for it, “The Composer as Specialist.” With enough exposure, any music however erudite can become familiar, but if you are not exposed to its vocabulary at all and are thrown into it hearing it for the first time, it can be a very unpleasant experience. Music usually offers untold rewards the more you listen to it and the more carefully you pay attention to it. And familiarity eventually leads to comfort, though hopefully never complacency, but that’s a topic for another day.

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Basically you put your nose against this object that looks like a microphone and then press a button in order to “listen” olfactorily. (Photo by FJO)

After MIDEM ended, I took a short train ride from Cannes to Grasse to briefly visit the International Perfume Museum which I’ve been obsessed with ever since reading Luca Turin’s The Secret of Scent a couple of years back. It was amazing to once again experience scents through what I can best describe as a nose phone, the same device that was attached to the audience seats at the Guggenheim Museum for their presentation of the Scent Opera in 2009. A short film interview with the celebrated perfume composer Edmond Roudnitska (so cool that they use the same word as we do) really made the case for perfumers being artistic creators on par with visual artists and music composers: “Just like a composer does not create music with his ears but with his mind, I use my nose but I create with my mind.” Yet, pace Roudnitska, seeing the Orgue à parfums of the mid-20th-century master Jean Carles (1892-1966) might have been more mind boggling to me than seeing Liszt’s piano when I was in Budapest eleven years ago.

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The Orgue à parfums at which Jean Carles created his perfumes. (Photo by FJO)

Trying to comprehend and appreciate details about the composition and aesthetics of perfumery has given me a fresh perspective on what it means to come to music without context. Scents that I was repelled by before I began immersing myself in this subject—truth be told, once upon a time I was nauseated by just about every perfume—have proven their aesthetic rewards through exposure. Yet, admittedly, it might still take years before I can fully appreciate Dior’s extremely pungent 1980 Jules, a fragrance currently unavailable in the United States which I felt compelled to purchase in Nice after reading Turin’s raves about it. It seems to me that being comfortable smelling, let alone wearing, Jules is much harder than sitting and listening to a piece of music by Terry Riley—or Milton Babbitt, for that matter—but maybe that’s only because of the disparity in my exposures to music and perfume.

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5 thoughts on “If You Listen With Care

  1. Chris Becker

    “How could anyone not have enjoyed that performance? Yet thinking about it with some hindsight a couple of days later it is understandable that if she had never heard any music like this ever before, her lack of context for it made it difficult to comprehend, let alone enjoy.”

    Isn’t that a bit presumptuous? She couldn’t “comprehend” the music due to lack of context? She was sitting there in the audience listening. What additional context was required?

    That said, my experience with club or gallery performances of “new music” in NYC rarely included a preconcert talk or any dialogue with the audience. The shows that did include a sort of preamble were for me often the most enjoyable and enlightening. Was there anything like this offered before the performance you attended?

    I do enjoy uncompromising art and personalities. But shaking our heads at the poor ignorant audience for not having “context” for understanding how wonderful we are is a great way to paint ourselves into a corner.

    Reply
  2. Frank J. Oteri

    [M]y experience with club or gallery performances of “new music” in NYC rarely included a preconcert talk or any dialogue with the audience. The shows that did include a sort of preamble were for me often the most enjoyable and enlightening. Was there anything like this offered before the performance you attended?

    I do enjoy uncompromising art and personalities. But shaking our heads at the poor ignorant audience for not having “context” for understanding how wonderful we are is a great way to paint ourselves into a corner.

    Chris, there was no pre-concert talk, alas. Although funnily enough, sometimes I find such things (if the speaks are not completely compelling, not to say that Gyan and Terry wouldn’t have been) even more patronizing than “shaking our heads at the poor ignorant audience”.

    Please do not misinterpret what I’m trying to get at here. I too listen to plenty of “uncompromising” stuff, but to my ears the Rileys’ gig, utterly amazing though it was, was hardly that; it seemed like a not too difficult pill to swallow. So I was pretty surprised when I heard that woman exclaim that she was going to wait outside for her friends because she couldn’t stand it any longer. I couldn’t help thinking, since Milton Babbitt had died only hours earlier (and he was on my mind), that if that was tough going, what about the majority of new music I treasure from Babbitt and other integral serialists to Ben Johnston to Riley and La Monte Young (who was in the audience) and beyond to all kinds of music making in a variety of genres from Albert Ayler to Lydia Lunch.

    The only way I have come to love a lot of music over the years was by initially suspending pre-conceived rushes to judgment about whether something fit a particular box and by really immersing myself in it. I would contend that the stuff that is most popular is not so because it is necessarily “easier” to listen to (that seems like a bit of a canard to me), but rather it is “easier” because we hear it (or things like it) all the time and therefore we have a context for it. The first time I ever attended a concert at Carnegie Hall (as an teenager) I was bored out of my mind because I did not know how to focus on what I was listening to, even though it was a Prokofiev piano concerto, all five of which now sound pretty exciting to me. A re-concert talk would only have made it worse, but getting some deeper understanding of that music later on certainly made it better. Also, the first time I listened to a rock album it too made no sense to me. Even though I’m in my 40s, I did not grow up in a household that listened to much rock (or classical music, for the most part, for that matter).

    But for the record, my comment has NOTHING to do with thinking anyone else is “poor” or “ignorant”, even though I always try to initially listen to something new with a spirit of ignorance. I then try to deepen my knowledge by immersing myself further. It works most of the time and this regimen doesn’t only work for music as I’ve been discovering with wine, perfume, etc.

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  3. Chris Becker

    “I find such things (if the speaks are not completely compelling, not to say that Gyan and Terry wouldn’t have been) even more patronizing than “shaking our heads at the poor ignorant audience”.

    Really? But aren’t you just talking about yourself, Frank? You’re not putting yourself in the shoes of the audience member or that woman who split early.

    I heard several brand new or almost brand new works for viola and violin (with soprano voice guesting on one piece) last Saturday night here in Houston. All of the pieces were incredible. And before each piece, the violinist or the composer got up in front of the audience to talk about the work that everyone was about to hear. No one at least as far as I could tell from speaking with people afterwards, felt patronized. It’s not always comfortable for composers to talk to an audience, but this didn’t feel unnatural.

    And consider the requirements for most grants the AMC and MTC offers to composers. Some sort of audience outreach event is usually required or if included will certainly help one get an award (I can speak from experience). Composers grumble about it, but I have to say that over the years I have seen the benefits of the kind of pre or post concert talks I’m describing.

    Such a talk may have placated this mysterious woman who – for all we know – just had a stomach ache?

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  4. Frank J. Oteri

    Well, as someone who is frequently called upon to moderate pre- and post concert talks, I always try to be entertaining and quick-paced. If no one in the audience laughs at least once during the whole time, I start to get really worried.

    But I’ve witnessed plodding talks before events (whose culprits shall remain nameless) that would have had me out the door convinced that what I was about to hear would be totally boring, had I not known what I was getting myself into. And the worst of all are the folks who before playing a “challenging” piece of new music, try to apologize for it before hand by saying “I know this is difficult to listen to, but…” Why plant the seeds of negativity?

    Gyan and Terry certainly did a little bit of talking: pithy conversational banter with the audience as is typical in a club setting and which was more than sufficient in this case. I highly doubt that having one of them explain what chord progression they were riffing on or why they would repeat certain phrases many times would have made that woman stay any longer, but who knows?

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  5. Chris Becker

    “Why plant the seeds of negativity?”

    I agree with this and have had audience members at concerts express the same thing. There’s a way to talk about music without being apologetic.

    But if music isn’t speaking to someone, I doubt “context” means much at all. I understand what you’re thesis, but I have “context” for a lot of music I can’t stand listening to, you know? Music I respect but that I just don’t want to hear.

    Reply

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