Why Should You Listen?

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.

11 thoughts on “Why Should You Listen?

  1. Chris Becker

    I didn’t read any earth shattering paradigms in Trevor’s column. It read to me like someone who had just bought a new stereo, iPod or whatever and was enjoying the experience of EQing the music they were listening to, as well as walking around the neighborhood with headphones on. And my own comments had more to do with my own exasperation at seeing yet another column about iPods on NMBx.

    Weren’t we all having fun with portable cassette players back in the day? (I had one and wrecked my bicycle more than once while listening to music while riding…very literal paradigm shattering…although I thankfully never broke any bones…). They all had that “bass boost” switch, mixtape culture was (and still is) very strong, we decorated the cassette cases with our own collaged artwork…I just don’t think the iPod really all that different from a portable cassette player or a boom box.

    How exactly is buying and playing with a new sound system shattering the paradigm of a composer listener relationship? It may be I’m missing the profundity of Trevor’s column and/or the question you are posing your readers?

    I also think in our observations of composers and audiences we’re mixing up the live performance experience with the prerecorded experience. Maybe sorting that out would be helpful.

    Reply
  2. Frank J. Oteri

    What I was responding to in Trevor’s column—which you say I described as “earth shattering” (my words were “initially fascinated”)—was the following:

    Technology has allowed more and more control to be exerted by everyone involved with the creation and production of music, but the more far reaching implications are those that affect the audience. Listener interaction certainly possesses a problem for a Western style of music that can be the least participatory of any, but could also be an advantage for a field that is as nebulous as “new music.” Learning to relax the dictatorial control that composers and performers have over an audience might be a creative liberation.

    As I already wrote above, this kind of an audience creative liberation, while perhaps a good way to get more people to create, defeats the whole purpose of creativity in my view if it shatters the paradigm of that listener listening to something someone else created as well as a potential future listener listening to what that inspired aforementioned creatively-liberated listener has created. If that creatively-liberated listener is only recreating what he/she is hearing for him/herself and that is the ultimate end to that endeavor, then I think there’s a social problem there that we need to address.

    An important BTW: all of this has nothing to do with iPods or Walkmans (the proper pluralization for that particular proprietary eponym). Frankly I’m also sick of all the sycophancy surrounding particular commercial products that we frequently get ourselves linguistically trapped into from time to time. It’s a societal language usage problem that goes well beyond the pages of this particular site.

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  3. Trevor

    iPfft
    Apologies for the ubiquity of the word iPod then… I stopped using it after my first graph, because I was only really concerned with the portability and malleability of the material, not its brand name. In the future I’ll try to make my lead-ins more socially conscious and consumer friendly.

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  4. Chris Becker

    I think I understand. And I apologize for misrepresenting anything you wrote in my own post!

    First, is the technology as Trevor describes it all the different from what we had at our disposal with portable cassette players? And if no, then hasn’t the issue you are raising (if I understand it accuratley) been with us for some time?

    And this quote:

    “if it shatters the paradigm of that listener listening to something someone else created as well as a potential future listener listening to what that inspired aforementioned creatively-liberated listener has created. If that creatively-liberated listener is only recreating what he/she is hearing for him/herself and that is the ultimate end to that endeavor, then I think there’s a social problem there that we need to address…”

    …reminds me of how much of the music I draw inspiration from comes from aural tradition (the music of New Orleans, so-called “rural” blues, rock and roll, etc). Shouldn’t we acknowledge the fact that the vast majority of music in the U.S. has for a long time and continues to be passed along in the very manner you describe? And hasn’t this participatory communal method of cultural preservation vital to our survival on the planet?

    Whoa…maybe Trevor’s column is deeper than I thought…

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  5. Chris Becker

    Please add “oral” next to “aural” in my post…
    …meaning music that isn’t transmitted via a notated score. Hope that’s clear…

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  6. Frank J. Oteri

    I have no problems with reconfigurations and recontextualizations of earlier material; indeed that method of creation has been a hallmark of great music from Machaut to Louis Armstrong to Public Enemy and beyond. And, of course, I know that not all music is listened to silently nor should music always be listened to this way.

    But I do have problems with the idea that someone using a digital music transmitting device (and no, I don’t think this is quite so easy for anyone to do with analog gadgets) can listen to music non-passively in seclusion from all others and be de-facto creating a new listening experience that might have little do with the content or intent of the material being listened to for him or herself only.

    As a composer, such a paradigm bugs me because I think what I created (and by extension what any creator has created) is worthy of being listened to sans tampering. As a listener, I’m troubled because I feel it injects self into a paradigm that has always been about paying attention to others and such a modality makes it much more difficult to stay focused on what that other is. But, most importantly, it is as a member of a society that I am most deeply troubled since I believe that all of this has much larger societal implications. In a world of soundbytes and niche marketing, it gives us all a chance never to have to listen to each other ever again. Personally I prefer living in a city to living in a cave but if a city turns into an amalgam of virtual cave-dwellers, it ceases to be viable as a city. That’s where I’m going with this.

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  7. rtanaka

    Just wanted to say nice column, Frank.

    But I do have problems with the idea that someone using a digital music transmitting device (and no, I don’t think this is quite so easy for anyone to do with analog gadgets) can listen to music non-passively in seclusion from all others and be de-facto creating a new listening experience that might have little do with the content or intent of the material being listened to for him or herself only.

    This is called a “private language”, a type of system that makes sense to the individual but to nobody else. I dislike this too, because it undermines the purpose of communication to begin with (connecting people together), and personally I don’t think it’s really adding anything “new”. All it does is obscure information that’s already there with a layer of encryption to try to mask the intentions of both the listener and the artist.

    Although I guess you could say that’s the type of society we live in today — the politicized “polite” society, where nobody ever says what they mean. Maybe we’re all better off not knowing what the other person is really thinking.

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  8. Kotch

    I see the concert hall as one of classical music’s primary assaults on its listeners, and its potential listeners. Serving to reinforce the self-affirmation of the few who truly feel comfortable in it, the concert hall turns away many more others who might be interested in the music, but not the gray hair, program notes, pristine seats, and static applause. If I never heard a muffled cough or the tense silence between the performers’ stage entrance and the start of a piece again, I’d be thrilled.

    Sonny Rollins decided long ago never to play a club again, and instead, perform only in large concert halls. Encouraged by jazz preservation devotees like Wynton Marsalis, he felt he needed to elevate the status of jazz. In trying to do so, he alienated countless numbers of his own fans. As a result, I’ve heard him in two disappointing shows, one at an orchestral hall in Chicago and one at the Berklee Performance Center. A jazz quintet can’t possibly sound good in a giant auditorium. And I wanted a drink.

    I can’t help but think that it’s this same concert-going elitism that fuels an argument for the coveted, “passive” listening experience. Both rest on a concept of glorified, unmediated listening and the universal. Who are we to tell our listeners what they can and can’t do while listening to our music, what they can’t think about it, how they can’t compromise the audio quality of our recordings, or even how they can’t sample it or use it in a mashup? For many people, listening to music is not a mental exercise, and if it was, they wouldn’t listen. We have to understand that, and accept that. When I listen to Donatoni, I yell, strike anything in my vicinity, jump higher than I can when I attempt to play basketball–I can’t get enough of it. And when I work out, I blast heavy metal in my headphones, and I’m in better shape because of it. But if someone else wants to listen to Arpege during track practice, I’m not going to accuse her of bastardizing the music. The second we release our music into the open, or when a journalist publishes a story, or a politician gives a speech, we’re all submitting our own intentions to any number of distortions or misinterpretations they will inevitably experience. Whether someone hears your piece in the background during a phone conversation or listens to it attentively 100 times, he still might not have a clue as to your intent. But isn’t that the beauty of expression (and theoretical democracy): the infinite number of different interpretations and effects one’s voice can possess? I can’t believe in a universality in the arts, and to think there is, in my opinion, is nostalgic for a Romantic and modernist idealism.

    I’m curious, Frank, how you can idealize democracy yet bemoan “personalized soundtracks.” Isn’t the idea of democracy founded on individual liberties? Democracy means the right to filter out other viewpoints if we chose, not to be forced to listen to them. The vast degree of personalization offered today is the product of the postmodern product turnover acceleration, specialization, target advertising, general digital technology, the internet, the global flexible economy, vastly increased visual and auditory stimuli—essentially, “ephemerality,” as David Harvey puts it. In every pocket of our lives lies this same giant array of minutely different options. To deny it is to deny the past, the present, and the future. I think if we want to retain any listeners, much less gain new ones, we have to open ourselves to the inevitability of recontextualization and even commodification and reification.

    Trevor is right on in acknowledging the digital revolution and the fact that we need to relax about our audience. What he’s wrong about, though, is that we have any control at all. It’s long gone, so we need to just stop wishing it wasn’t.

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  9. rtanaka

    I’m curious, Frank, how you can idealize democracy yet bemoan “personalized soundtracks.” Isn’t the idea of democracy founded on individual liberties?

    Democracy is not anarchy or libertarianism — it’s a political process where, at least in its ideal state, every voice has an opportunity to become heard. It was never intended to give people an excuse to shut themselves up into their own bunker and severe themselves from social ties. In fact, the demand for social cohesion is even greater precisely because it gives people the freedom to ignore a lot of things if they so choose to do so.

    American society in particular is founded on the principals of Classical Liberalism on its emphasis on individuality and autonomy. Regardless of whether you might call yourself a conservative or a liberal, almost everybody in the States is a classical liberal in one form or another. A lot of this is fueled by the myth of the American pioneering front, where detachment from mainstream society has become a form of an ideal engrained within our society. This is something that seems to transcend the usual left-right political spectrum.

    However, unless you are insanely rich, this lifestyle has effectively been dead for some time now — the world has already been explored a few times over, and the insane growth in housing prices over the last few decades make the dream much more of a fantasy than a reality as time goes on. (No more freebies by stealing land from the natives, sorry!) So as the world becomes closer and much more crowded the necessity for communication, I would argue, becomes greater.

    People tend to suppress their thoughts, shut themselves up into their own corner, but when they inevitably have to end up dealing with the world where it often doesn’t conform to their expectations, they react very negatively. In large cities where everything is so close together, sometimes these sentiments turn into acts of violence and crime, or if not, depression. The ironic thing is that the extreme version of classical liberalism, sometimes called laissez-faire liberalism, is usually associated with what is now known as “conservatism” in the United States, what has become responsible for the huge income gap that has surfaced in the last few decades. Even though they might disapprove of the problems themselves, some self-proclaimed “progressives” do nothing to remedy the situation because they are essentially making the same arguments as the conservatives. Morton Feldman did warn that those who you think are radical may actually be conservative, and visa versa…he was very perceptive in regards to these kind of things, interesting enough.

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  10. philmusic

    “…To deny it is to deny the past, the present, and the future…”

    Well I suppose this covers it.

    One thing though. It seems obvious that you have not had the experience of working in a factory, or in an office or store, where they play canned music all day long. You can’t tune it out and you can’t turn it off and you don’t get to chose it. Those sound canceling headphones are not allowed either. Oh, of course you can quit the job–unless you need the money.

    Phil Fried

    Reply

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