Listen in a Different Way

One of the surprising things about criticisms of new aesthetic experiences—whether these be new artistic movements or simply an artist/genre unfamiliar to the critic—is just how similar most rejections of the new really are. Nicolas Slominsky’s excellent Lexicon of Musical Invective collects a now-hilarious (and still instructive) assortment of savage print reviews, mostly digs on the premiere of works now widely held up as masterpieces. While any composer might be forgiven for taking a certain perverse pleasure in perusing such a volume, the real meat of the book is in Slominsky’s piercing analysis of the language and criticisms of the detractors. For example, Slominsky notes that accusations of a given composition sounding “like a sermon delivered in Chinese”, or comparisons of said work to a convoluted “calculus”, “algebra”, or other seemingly-inhuman mathematical monstrosity are ubiquitous in the criticism of new music. Readers may find it less humorous that many of these arguing points continue to be parroted, essentially unchanged, in much music criticism of the present day.

When I consider how the above might relate to ways that people in general react to unfamiliar sounds, I’m struck by the fact that here as well there appear to be certain widespread similarities despite varying levels of musical erudition. The new music—whether it is avant-classical, west coast hip hop, or Mozart—is felt to be grating, directionless, and inexpressive, almost as if it were a language foreign to the listener. Of course, if the listener is feeling particularly vehement or analytical the music may be further described as unmelodic, or alternately as either lacking rhythmic impulse entirely or else exhibiting too much rhythmic constancy; when venturing into these more technical areas many non-specialists may not actually be accurate in labeling the work of Bartok, say, as highly unmelodic, but in all cases what they mean is the same: This new experience feels foreign and other to me; I was expecting (and would prefer) something more along the lines of the music I already know.

This is a feeling that I assume most of us have experienced at some time or another, and this oft-articulated sigh of exasperation may shed some light on why our typical method of trying to “turn others on” to unfamiliar music—by making them a CD or mixtape and pressing it into their hands—is rarely a successful endeavor, unless the individual is particularly adventurous or already disposed to enjoy similar music. Just listening to more of the unfamiliar material is rarely enough; what’s required is to listen to the unfamiliar material in a different way.

To take one example, I cited the accusation “unmelodic!” earlier and I have heard this term applied both by a grandmother decrying some techy death metal band and also by and pop/rock-loving teen explaining to me why the Barber Adagio was boring. And I have witnessed someone who just swoons over Vivaldi claim that Jimi Hendrix was too “rhythmically repetitive” for her tastes. While a well-meaning initiate of these various kinds of music might argue that these criticisms are inaccurate, or that more exposure to the new material might eventually breed acceptance and interest, it strikes me that both approaches have a good chance of missing their mark unless one party can succeed in conveying to the other what they themselves find so compelling about the music at hand.

In practice this may mean pointing out differences as well as similarities. For instance, the different pace at which Top 40 hits and most symphonic compositions unfold is a key toward appreciating each; oftentimes melody, rhythmic interest, and compelling musical choices in general are difficult to perceive when we are looking for something that’s not there, or something that is there but not in the manner we’ve come to expect.

In a sense, when you help show someone else how to listen in a different way you’re giving them something a lot more valuable than another mix CD: the key to previously unimagined new experiences and possibilities, the chance to understand something that may not have been arrived at in the course of normal habit. Vivaldi to death metal may be a bridge too far for some, or merely a bridge too wide to traverse at once. However, I’m certain that were it not for similar efforts made by others and my behalf, I would not have become a composer.

16 thoughts on “Listen in a Different Way

  1. holbrooke

    Dan, I agree with everything you wrote. I just think that it is each of our responsibility to make the first efforts towards listening in a different way, long before we expect it from others. You mention metal but I think we would agree that the AMC and NMBx for the most part simply do not take this vital American new music seriously. Do you?

    That said, check out this exception.

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  2. smooke

    well, yes, we do
    Holbrooke-

    Speaking as a contributor to these pages, as a kid I was more a punker/goth than a metalhead, but I certainly enjoy my metal these days and bands like Meshuggah and Periphery are a clear influence on my recent music. So, yes, I certainly take metal very seriously. And I listen to it in a very different way than how I listen to Schubert (but in a very similar way to how I listen to Xenakis).

    -David

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  3. Frank J. Oteri

    We were actually in the planning stages of doing a Cover with Sunn O))) a couple of years ago, but there were scheduling conflicts. I haven’t given up hope that we will be able to make this happen at some point in the future. Many things we’ve featured here have had an even longer gestation process from conception to realization. Stay tuned…

    —FJO

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  4. colin holter

    You mention metal but I think we would agree that the AMC and NMBx for the most part simply do not take this vital American new music seriously.

    I had a real struggle with metal while teaching History of Rock 1970-Present last year. Specifically, I have a hard time getting around what seems to be the ideology common to all metal subgenres – power-worship. It seems weird and Nietzschean and fetishistic of various kinds of figurative and literal brutality. The subject-position of metal is one that I can’t really sympathize with. I hope to someday find a more accommodating perspective, though; I realize I’m missing out.

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  5. danvisconti

    Hi Holbrooke, I wouldn’t consider myself a big metal fan but it is a genre that I appreciate and enjoy especially in respect to timbre and rhythm. I share Colin’s revulsion at the often-times adolescent viewpoint and geek show shock-tactics in a lot of hardcore/death metal, but then again my viewpoint is very far from J.S. Bach as well and it’s not something I feel inhibits my appreciation of his work.

    I just think that it is each of our responsibility to make the first efforts towards listening in a different way, long before we expect it from others.

    I see your point, but I am a lot less concerned with the question of whose responsibility it should be to evince this kind of transformative thinking than with who might be best equipped to make the effort.

    You’re absolutely right that people can’t be made to come along on a journey they’re unwilling to take, and I think this is sometimes a result of what you’re warning against: the kind of “evangelical” approach that attempts to turn a listener on to a new genre without the evangelist having taken the time to understand the kind of music that their counterpart already enjoys. It needs to be a symmetrical effort.

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  6. TJOG

    Considering the fact that at least a few people have in these discussions disparaged composers as diverse as Wagner and Ives for their offensive political and social perspectives on some matters, it’s hard for me to imagine that Colin would be the only one to notice that classic Heavy Metal projects a number of subtexts (sexual and political) that are highly negative, if not positively brutal in nature. There is a physical impact and power to much of this music that is impossible to deny, but for me this is one of those areas where it is equally impossible not to be disturbed by the targets chosen for all that aggression. I don’t think that the rightwing views represented by people such as Ted Nugent represent an anomaly in the world of traditional Heavy Metal.

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  7. Mischa Salkind-Pearl

    Sorry to kind of dodge the metal question (I, like Colin, and pretty unequipped to talk about metal, even given a basic familiarity with it).

    First, this is a really important issue, so thanks for bringing it up, Dan. I recently had a very trying experience getting students to attend the Boston Conservatory New Music Festival, where I teach. I required that they attend any one of the four concerts, all of which were dedicated to- and primarily featured- Boulez. Some were gracious, but most grumbled and bit and simply resigned themselves to doing my pain-in-the-butt assignment. I tried talking to them about why Boulez is such an important figure, and why I love the worlds of sound created in Le Marteau… (performed the first night) and Repons. This worked for a few, but not many. I had to think of another way to make them open their minds to this music.

    I thought back to high school, where I had a teacher who had a whole classroom of rapt students going off and devising our own physics experiments. He did this by making us feel accountable to ourselves for our education. It was an ethical responsibility toward self-improvement that we were fulfilling by doing the work. I tried this on my students, saying that ignoring the past 90 years is naive and irresponsible, and is the cause of one of the many problems facing classical music today. This got a few more students interested.

    Lastly, I pointed out after the first concert- about which students complained “there wasn’t any melody!”- that to expect melody from Boulez is like ordering pizza at a sushi restaurant, and throwing a fit when they don’t serve it. I was nice but very demanding of them with this assignment. I made a point of not falling back on the “give this a try, because it’s important music and I came to like it…” routine.

    The final concert was the unofficial American premiere of the revised (45-minute) Derive II. Many students went, and guess what- they loved it, because they knew how to challenge themselves. Could this be the right approach, or did I just get lucky?

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  8. jeidson

    I am very passionate about popular music of all styles, and find metal to be one genre with very interesting harmonic and rhythmic schema. The discussion here seems to be problems with the lyrical content, and rightly so – metal does not convey a utopian sense of peace and love through its lyrics. Take one look at the Wikipedia list of metal subgenres and you find consistent themes of violence, profanity, and chaos. Parents have been clamoring about this since the rise of rock and roll, and it is interesting to see the same discussions in our high-brow art music community.

    Artists such as Kiss, Marilyn Manson, Slipknot, and non-metal acts like David Bowie or Lady Gaga are very self-conscious of their image. Fans often react negatively when that image changes (see: every Metallica album released after “And Justice For All”). They may write songs about love or peace but they are carefully worded in a way that lines up with their image, which often results in offending anyone who is not a fan of the artist. Tom Araya from Slayer is a traditionally-religious man, while his music and image portray alleged satanism and Nazi/white power overtones. When asked if they believed in the racial imagery, he responded: “No. People thought we were serious!…back then you had that PMRC, who literally took everything to heart, when in actuality you’re trying to create an image. You’re trying to scare people on purpose.” (source)

    Personally I am able to separate enjoyment of a song from its lyrical content or image of the performer. If you don’t like metal – great! You are free to listen to the music of your own choosing. However, listeners can steer clear of the occult and still enjoy Tool, not practice satanism and still enjoy Marilyn Manson, and you do not need mind-altering drugs to enjoy Black Sabbath.* Sometimes a song is just a song.

    -Joseph Eidson

    *Caveat: you may, however, have to be a tween female to enjoy Justin Bieber.

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  9. holbrooke

    I often hear two ideas confused when discussing new listening experiences. The first idea is the inherent value of engaging seriously with unfamiliar territory. The second idea is that some group or person would benefit from engaging seriously with what you or I am passionate about. I suspect that we could easily agree on the first idea. The second idea is very difficult to prove and would require a complex reasonable argument, personal trust, or good marketing. I frequently hear the two ideas conflated into one, or worse, the first idea used as evidence for the second.

    There is no reason to expect that open ears will equal more ears.

    Reply
  10. Mischa Salkind-Pearl

    Holbrooke-

    Good point. I am wary of my own position as a teacher (I have the power to make my students listen to just about anything I want), so I try to make sure I am constantly reminding the students that the function of the work we do is not about taste. That said, I think first we musicians have an obligation to confront and engage with all musics we encounter (still not sure about the obligation of non-musicians). We have an obligation not just because we will presumably improve as musicians, but because we owe it to the rest of the musical community to which belong to be educated. Taste follows the obligation. Dismiss as I may much top 40 hits, I cannot deny that they are a powerful social force- I should get to know them a bit better.

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  11. chazums1898

    I found metal to be my personal niche when I was in high school. However, I am not in this older generation that listens to Kiss, Slayer, and Metallica; honestly that sound bores me. I have always been more interested in “newer” (newer when I was in high school-I have no idea what is new now days), different kinds of metal like The Number 12 Looks Like You, HORSE! the Band, See You Next Tuesday-all groups that are very different but experiment with form, color, and “melody.” This is more interesting to me than minimalist inspired chuggachugga metal or most other pop music.

    Anyway, the topic of this article is great. It is a very important article for us new music people. How do we “spread the gospel” of music that we know isn’t that bad? Also, how can we dispel the association people have with new music and serialism. Whether or not you like serialism, it generally has little-to-nothing to do with most music written today.

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  12. philmusic

    I am on record as having no sonic prejudice.

    That said I can certainly understand folks search for the familiar in sound.

    What I don’t care for is a corporate music scienced by demographics and packaged by the numbers to sell. Sonic prejudice is not challenged but bilked for profit.

    Of course this lack of authenticity is not just restricted to “Metal.”

    Phil Fried and yes I did perform metal at CBGB’S

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  13. pgblu

    I have trouble imagining how playing the “ethical responsibility toward self-improvement” card actually makes students more engaged. Can anyone corroborate this finding? Sounds like it would do the opposite, like saying brussels sprouts are good for you.

    Guess I’ll have to try it sometime.

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  14. grabloid

    Great post and conversation here. I was reminded of, and compelled to share, a small bit on “negative capability” from the letters of John Keats, which I think corresponds significantly to this conversation. This is a pretty well known and deeply discussed concept in literature/art, and I feel that it really applies to music and this discussion in particular.

    John Keats describes the state of Negative Capability and its significance in a letter to his brother:

    “(…) at once it struck me what quality went to form a Man of Achievement, especially in Literature & which Shakespeare possessed so enormously – I mean Negative Capability, that is when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason (…)”

    This speaks to the idea from this conversation about experiencing music as something beyond personal taste, and more as a matter of personal/social development and growth. Ever since I came across this idea it resonated with me on a deep level and I feel that it has contributed greatly to my own self discovery and growth. It is about being able to accept one’s own comforts and tastes (which are valid) as a kind of limitation that can be transcended.

    Keats himself was a tragic victim of all the prominent critics of the time slinging mud at him…saying that his poetry was nonsensical (mostly because it was often prominently based around sound and tone rather than syntax and meaning)…calling his language “Cockney” speak (a harsh pejorative at the time). Now, obviously, Keats is widely recognized as being a child genius and a major influence on the whole of modern poetics. Anybody that investigates his work now will find that he is still fresh and revolutionary.

    Anyway, in my own discovery of music, particularly new music and the types of music that I am not already comfortable with, I always try to keep this as a practical approach.

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  15. danvisconti

    Wow, grabloid, thanks for contributing this. It’s a great phrase and I’m hoping to write you a proper response in my next post later this week.

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  16. grabloid

    Dan-

    Great…thank you, I’ve really enjoyed this post and conversation. It is an idea/concept/problem that I’m very much interested in. I’m looking forward to your next post.

    If anyone is interested, here is the link to the full letter from John Keats that I referenced above. (The stuff in bold being most pertinent to this conversation.)

    http://www.mrbauld.com/negcap.html

    Reply

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