I was amused to learn several years ago that a famous record producer believed that there was no greater way for him to experience music than in the confines of a concert hall—no clamoring of his teenage children, no phone calls, no other sensory distractions from the so-called real world.
My own personal listening encounters are a combination of live and recorded experiences, the latter mostly in the quiet confines of my own home. But for me, sometimes listening to music in a venue poses too many distractions—in a concert hall this includes someone talking or rustling a program, or worse, yawning; in a club, worse still, the clinking of drinks and/or someone talking at a very high volume. (Charles Mingus once famously paused in the middle of a performance at a jazz club until “two women chatting incessantly at a table toward the front of the stage were finished with their ‘solos.’”)
As a listener, I continually find the greatest aesthetic rewards when my assumptions are challenged. So I was initially fascinated with Trevor Hunter’s conjecture here last week that possible paradigm shifts in the process of recording and listening to music could create scenarios where listening is no longer passive if composers and performers learned “to relax the dictatorial control [they] have over an audience.” Yet the more I’ve thought about the implications of such a perceptual sea change the more I’m troubled by it both as a creator of music and as a listener to it.
By a combination of personal choice and economic imperative, I spend much more time listening to other people’s music than I spend creating my own. As a creator, I am very interested in sharing what I have to say with potential listeners; otherwise why bother? But as a listener I am very content with having a passive role. I think that the experience of passively listening to music attentively is a great mental exercise, one that as a teen I fought very hard against my upbringing to accomplish on an ongoing basis. Indeed, I have been able to apply the lessons learned through listening to music to every other aspect of my life—being able to think critically, being able to reflect on something over a period of time and have a well-thought out response rather than a knee-jerk reaction.
I’m sure I have said this in the past on these pages, but it is worth reiterating here: The passive listening paradigm is a really important metaphor for being able to allow other viewpoints into your thought process, and as such is fundamental to the survival of democracy. Much as I’m troubled by a society in which everyone walks around with their own personal soundtracks rather than listening to one another, I’m even more troubled by a society in which those personal soundtracks can be personally manipulated and reformed according to personal taste.
Mind you, I’m not saying that there can’t be multiple listening paradigms (denying such would contradict the desire to challenge my assumptions) or that everyone who listens couldn’t and shouldn’t also create things. (As a humanist, I have to believe that we all have and should exert the ability to create something others would and should want to hear.) Still, someone creating something that is something only he or she would ever hear doesn’t sit well with me. If the creation of music could ultimately be construed as an egotistical act, listening is arguably one of the most selfless of activities. And human interaction has always been a magical combination of the two.