In the office, Randy is always taking me to task for spending too much time analyzing music: “Just let it wash over you,” he says with a mischievous grin. To which, depending on how caffeinated I am or how many deadlines I’m behind on, I’ll either smirk, grimace, or say something like, “I hate getting wet unless I’m in the shower.”
Fact is, whether or not I want to, I really can’t help but hear things analytically to some degree. Even when car horns go off randomly in the street, if the simultaneity of their honking results in a major seventh chord or some wonderfully off-kilter microtonal aggregate, I pay attention to it. But indeed, just as I derive great joy from hearing a random neutral third while crossing Broadway, I am totally thrilled when I am startled by something in music, and it is really difficult to be startled by something that you know too much about.
Last week, Richard Guérin wrote about the perceptual implications of hearing Elliott Carter’s Asko Concerto twice in one evening at Juilliard’s Focus! Festival. I was there, too, but while I was pleased to have multiple encounters with that work, I found the increased awareness of knowing when certain things would happen—from the benefit of focused short term memory—a bit disconcerting. Second time around, obviously, there were way fewer surprises. Of course, folks who attend concerts predominantly of standard repertoire or listen to pop oldies radio stations are getting surprised even less.
That said, few events at concerts I’ve attended recently were more inspiring than seeing a woman sitting a row in front of me nearly convulse upon the blast of a certain chord in a performance of Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite I heard Marin Alsop conduct in Baltimore last Thursday night. I know the piece, but hadn’t listened to it in quite some time, and was jolted by the chord also. Experiences like this are proof that music can be as engaging as movies or sports events, though a reaction like that is much harder to come by if you know what’s going to happen. I doubt the millions of people who watch major league sports would do so with the same engagement if they knew the scores in advance.
But to my thinking, there still needs to be a significant level of connectivity between you and what you’re experiencing in order for it to have an impact on you. No one would watch football if the rules got changed for every game. Many years ago I was dragged along to a radical staging of Shakespeare’s Hamlet directed by Ingmar Bergman and presented in Swedish. It looked like it might be interesting, and probably would have been, had I understood Swedish, but I was so bored out of my mind that I left at intermission.
The best way to approach something you’re attempting to appreciate must be some sort of middle ground between not knowing enough and knowing too much, since neither extreme is particularly satisfying. But how do you find that middle ground? In new music, it changes with every piece of music you encounter.