Looking for a Third Way to Listen

Un Italien se vivre franchement à la joissance d’admirer un bel air qu’il entend pour la première fois; un Français n’applaudit qu’avec une sort d’inquiétude, il craint d’approuver une chose médiocre.

(Trans.: An Italian surrenders unreservedly to the sheer pleasure of admiring a beautiful aria that he hears for the first time; a Frenchman will applaud only with a sort of anxiety, for he is afraid to approve something mediocre.)

Stendhal, Vies de Haydn, de Mozart et de Métastase

The French novelist Stendhal (1783-1842)—whose books I sometimes imagine glaring guiltily down at me from my shelves—is an author I have yet to read, but I stumbled upon the above quote in Martha Feldman’s massive musicological tome Opera and Sovereignty. While Stendhal’s ethnic generalities—which were very much in keeping with the mores of his era—are distasteful to me, I find his dichotomy a fascinating departure point for yet another discussion about listening paradigms and musical aesthetics.

I’d like to posit that there’s a third listening path that lies somewhere beyond the hedonistic and the judgmental. I generally eschew casual “lifestyle” listening (so-called) which frequently devolves into not paying attention at all. And everyone who has read these pages has experienced me opining that critical listening (so-called) can all-too-often get in the way of experiencing music. It is possible to listen to music—and I would argue that such listening might ultimately be more fruitful—without being distracted by anything, including preconceptions about what you like and what you don’t like (personal taste) as well as what you think is right and wrong (received opinion).

Preconceptions can take many forms. You can fail to truly be able to listen past something because you’re philosophically opposed to its creation methods. There are people I’ve known over the years who a priori reject something if it is such different things as: based on a twelve-tone row; totally improvised; or created exclusively with pre-recorded sound samples. Similarly, there are folks who let chronological precedence factor in their determination of whether or not something is worthy of being listened to, e.g. rejecting so-called neo-romantic music wholesale since everything in such music, on a macro level, has “already been done.” (It was rather refreshing to recently listen to the symphonies of Niels Gade—which I thought were wonderful except that they sounded too much like Brahms—and subsequently discover that his symphonies predate Brahms.)

At the same time, there are some preconceptions that are impossible to erase. For example, I truly believe that if I were able to hear Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony without all the baggage attached to it—which ultimately has nothing to do with Beethoven and everything to do with how its principal motif has become an iconic sound cliché—I’d find it more exciting. I love Ravel’s Bolero, but I wish I could listen to it and not eventually think about the Blake Edwards movie 10.

This is probably why I spend virtually all of my concert-going time going to hear premieres. You can never have a legitimate negative—or even a positive—pre-association with a brand new piece of music for the obvious reason that you haven’t heard it before.

4 thoughts on “Looking for a Third Way to Listen

  1. philmusic

    “..I’ve known over the years who a priori reject something if it is such different things as: based on a twelve-tone row; totally improvised; or created exclusively with pre-recorded sound samples..”

    Dear me, I work in first two of three of the above! Ouch!

    What was I thinking?

    Well Frank I wish most people had a open mind like you do.

    Phil Fried

    Reply
  2. William Osborne

    Perception and judgment are so deeply interconnected in the human mind that we have no scientific proof that they can even be separated. In fact, forms of perception that move us beyond “judgment” cannot be revealed through language, since language itself is a morass of implicit values. In short, we more or less have to think of perception itself as inherently filtered. Perception IS judgment.

    There is even a danger that the values placed on viewing the world (including music) without judgment or preconceptions are themselves an ideology, and thus a judgment. Can one become attached to being “detached”?

    I remember reading once that the Buddha was enlightened after speaking to a musician who had come floating down the river on a raft. The musician looked at the extreme asceticism Buddha was living in and said, “If you pluck the string too hard, it doesn’t resonate.” This led to Buddha’s discovery of the Middle Way. He began plucking his strings with more discernment.

    A few judgments now and then only make us human, and help us from falling into an inflexible and judgmental ideology of being non-judgmental.

    William Osborne

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  3. cbustard

    What you’re getting at here is trying to to make yourself a blank slate for the unbiased, or at least uncluttered, reception of a piece of music. That’s impossible, of course. All your experiences of music, and many other kinds and levels of experience, affect each act of listening. It is possible, with discipline and experience, to become a blank slate regarding a single performance – especially a live performance; and it doesn’t matter whether it’s a performance of new music or of something you’ve heard hundreds of times.

    Blanking the slate is more complicated for composers and performers. They are torn between absorbing the performance and trying to assess how the composition or performance works (or doesn’t). Second-guessing of that variety – and its analog among nonmusicians: comparing this interpretation to others – are the chief clutterers of the listening experience.

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  4. nuhorn

    i used to say to students that i envied them the first time they heard a piece like the Strauss four last songs because i had a great experience with this piece early in my life that i’ll never be able to recapture. i don’t think it’s possible as humans to dissociate the listening experience with what we know about what we’re hearing. i can’t pull into my dad’s driveway without him telling me what’s wrong with the car. i often think that’s a burden for him. maybe knowing too much about composition can be a burden for the listening experience too.

    Reply

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