In Praise of the Discerning Ear

After mentally wandering around for what felt like way too long, I am finally in the depths of composing a piano trio for its scheduled premiere in the spring. For me composing has always felt like sonic sculpting, but from the inside out—rather than taking a chunk of marble and shaping it, I have to make the marble first. Finding the sonorities that will become the underlying foundation of the piece, that will provide enough coherence and flexibility to be shaped into an engaging sonic object, feels like a physical act once I am ultimately satisfied, though it is a result of mental processes.

I listened this morning to an interview with Jonah Lehrer, the author of Proust Was a Neuroscientist. He pointed out that the latest science regarding the perception of music points to the human mind’s penchant for patterns, and that music satisfies that basic desire by establishing patterns and then moving away from them, setting up a desire to return. His reference in the interview was obviously traditional music, but I am aware of this neural activity when I am sitting looking at my compositional sketches—patterns and connections begin to emerge, and this is when my sketching begins to feel like music. Of course, given the level of abstraction I often work in, I do not know whether people listening would actually discern these—but it does feel as though a successful performance would key into this aspect of the music.

Frank Oteri’s post on the differences between judgment and discernment relates to the compositional process itself. Though we all desire good judgment, sitting in judgment over our own music or the music of others often creates walls and disrupts flow. On the other hand, sometimes what I compose is not strong enough to warrant revision, and in this case I appreciate the judgment that had me turn in a different direction. Discernment listens for what is there, from the inside out; a deep study of the object without judging. Listening with discernment to one’s own music shows the way forward. Add a healthy dose of human kindness and the whole process stays in balance.

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